When Robert Hebert first ran for Fort Bend County Judge 16 years ago, he didn’t come in with a set political agenda.
“I’m a problem solver. I’m a businessman. I came in with a charge to work with my commissioners to modernize the flow of work in the county and we’ve done that over a period of years,” he said.
Ironically, it was a political agenda that removed him from office, but Hebert doesn’t mind. Going into the Nov. 6 election, Democrats across the county and state predicted a Blue Wave that would wash the Republican stronghold out and return control back to the Democrats. That’s exactly what happened.
“I didn’t expect it to end as abruptly as it did, but that’s politics,” he said. “Nobody voted against me or for KP (George), they voted for or against the party based on issues that neither KP or I had any control over and he won.”
His words echoed softly off the barren walls of his office in the historic county courthouse. By mid-December Hebert had cleared most of his belongings out, leaving the desk, chair, computer and other county furnishings for George to inherit on Jan. 1.
“I’ll move out of this office on the 26th. The day after Christmas I’ll be gone. That allows him to set his office up in that off week,” Hebert said.
Even though he didn’t win another term, Hebert is pleased with what has been accomplished under his watch.
“We’ve set up an executive management structure that put our departments over very competent, qualified executive managers. We’ve set up an annual performance review for those managers to formalize the reporting process and we’ve ended up with some very good people working in this county heading up all of our departments,” Hebert said. That’s not going to change. Those folks are not political hires. They were hired by the county after a great amount of due diligence and broad advertising of the work that’s in accordance with all state and federal laws. They’re good people. They’re not Republicans or Democrats, they’re managers. I think they’ll stay in place and basically they run the county day-to-day.”
Not only is Hebert the longest-tenured judge in county history, his 16 years is also the longest he has stayed with any one job.
“We’ve accomplished a lot of things,” he said. “As far as icons, obviously the justice center, the consolidation of the courts in one location. I don’t know why it hadn’t been done before I came into office but we got it done as quickly as we could put the program together to get the bonds through and the building built. It still took six to seven years to get it done but it’s been a tremendous improvement for the citizens.”
Providing services and access to services were also important to Hebert.
“The other thing is we’ve put precinct offices in all four precincts now and staffed those offices with a tax assessor and a county clerk, in addition to the JP’s (Justice of the Peace)and the commissioners so the people can take care of the services the county offers without having to come to Richmond. Richmond is hard to get to from places like Sienna.”
Hebert guided Fort Bend County through one of its fastest periods of growth.
“We’ve watched the population of the county double while I’ve been in office. I think we’ve handled that growth efficiently,” he said. “We’ve been able to reduce our tax rate while we’ve met the mobility challenges, the facility challenges and the staffing challenges that come with an ever increasing population. I think the court will carry on along those lines.
“In a few years we’ll be over a million people. This is a big urban county, the 10th largest county in Texas. The challenges of serving the urban needs, an urban population under the county government structure are immense. They call for a lot of innovation, they call for a lot of partnering with other entities. They call for seeking a lot of leverage on your capital investment, because if you can’t find other sources of money you have to rely on property tax to support all of your infrastructure improvements; then you’ll never be able to control your tax rate. We’ve been very successful with that.
“We take partners at the state and local level and both the private and public sector and we’ve got them to help us get things done. For instance, Jones Creek Ranch Park, 115-acre park up just north of Rosenberg on FM 359. It was a community center for years and it was put up for sale by the owners and we didn’t have money but we were able to go to the private sector and raise $3.1 million in about a week to acquire that property and that allowed the county to put the money into it over a period of two to three years to modernize and upgrade the facilities and make it a true county park,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges Hebert faced in his time in office was Hurricane Harvey. The storm flooded many areas and upset a lot of people. Recovering from the storm and improving drainage were high on Hebert’s agenda should he have won another term as judge.
“I think the primary thing I’d like to follow through on is getting the federal government to fix Barker Reservoir. Making sure that our levy districts improve their internal drainage so we don’t have a repeat of Harvey and the localized flooding we had in Riverstone, Sienna, and in First Colony,” he said.
“The drainage system inside the levy by federal rule is designed to handle a 100-year rain event. Everybody tells me that Harvey was at least a 1,000-year rain event in Fort Bend County. So it wasn’t that the drainage systems were poorly designed, it’s that Harvey overwhelmed them. Once you get overwhelmed you’ve got to figure out how to strengthen the system. In my opinion the 100-year rain is not a good standard,” he said.
Hebert said that although the elections are partisan, the job of running the county isn’t.
“As my good friend (Commissioner) Grady Prestige says, there’s no such thing as a Republican or Democratic pothole. A pothole is a pothole. A street is a street. They’re not partisan. They handle traffic and serve people. That’s what the county does. We don’t legislate, we don’t talk about foreign policy or economics. We don’t write bills. In fact, we’re controlled by the state legislature as an arm of state government. We’re in the business of providing state services to the local population. That’s what the county does.”
He said the county was well-run before he took office and he feels confident it will continue to operate well after he leaves.
“As for my plans, I’m not going anywhere. I’m taking a little vacation here at the end of the year into next year. First time I’ll be gone over five days in 16 years,” he said.
He said being judge requires one to be available all of the time.
“I’m looking forward to having a significant period of time to not have to worry about anything but a little orange drink with an umbrella in it or something like that. Then I’ll get back to being productive in some way. How, I don’t know. I’m not worried about that. I’ve got a lot of opportunities out there in the area. I will avail myself to one or two of them so I stay busy.”
Prior to entering politics, the Navy veteran was an accomplished businessman.
“I spent I guess my whole business life working with Rosenberg, Arcola, the chambers, the river authorities; it sort of well prepared me for the responsibility of being county judge. But there’s not litmus test for qualifications. A county judge can be successful if they don’t know anything about the job if they come in with the right attitude,” he said.
He feels George is coming in with the right attitude.
“So again, I want KP George to succeed because the county suffers if the county judge doesn’t succeed. Even if for some reason he doesn’t the county will continue, to go on,” he said. “There are a lot of people with a vested interest to see this county grow and grow well.”
Sitting at his desk for nearly the last time, Hebert is preparing to leave with feelings of accomplishment and confidence in the future of the county.
“I had 16 great years and I’m looking forward to my future too,” he said.