"Jim Yarbrough is my hero!" is a comment that Lynda Guidry has uttered on numerous occasions since Hurricane Ike threatened, and then devastated, much of Galveston County.
I first met Yarbrough in the mid 1980s when he was a banker. I visited his office to interview him about some civic project with which he was involved. At the time, as a relative newcomer to Galveston and not particularly a sports fan, I was unaware that he was already established as a hero in Galveston, first as a high school athlete and then at the University of Texas. At Texas, he captained the Longhorn Southwest Conference Football Championship team. He blocked for Earl Campbell, who gave Yarbrough credit for helping him win the Heisman Trophy.
As a reporter, I covered Yarbrough when he was elected to the Galveston Independent School District Board of Trustees, where he chaired the Finance Committee. During my tenure at the Galveston Economic Development Corporation, I worked with Yarbrough to gain approval of a tax abatement from GISD for a new business at the Port of Galveston.
After Yarbrough was elected county judge and moved into the Courthouse, I worked for him as a freelance writer; before Lynda and I started Guidry News Service. He had just begun his administration and I was privileged to observe his management style up close.
Thus, my comments on his performance are derived from several vantage points.
One of his first projects was to build consensus on the commissioners court. He had each of the commissioners develop a short list of priorities. From those lists, a single list of projects was developed and they were prioritized. Successful bond elections were held to finance the infrastructure improvements.
He has continued to maintain a good working relationship with members of the commissioners court, from both political parties, throughout the years of his administration.
Yarbrough took charge of an impotent emergency management operation that he inherited; and developed a modern Office of Emergency Management, with a team of trained, professional employees. He successfully created alliances with the 13 municipal governments in the county and holds regular meetings of decision makers from the entities.
Yarbrough and his team maintained the practice of staffing the emergency operations center when any tropical system threatened the Gulf Coast. City of Galveston officials slept through many such storms, including Hurricane Humberto. That particular storm was born in the warm Gulf waters one morning and grew to hurricane strength before it slammed into Galveston County shortly after midnight.
Although the City of Galveston refused to allow its citizens back on the island after Hurricane Ike, with roadblocks that also hampered the return of residents to Jamaica Beach and Tiki Island, Yarbrough and Commissioner Patrick Doyle moved quickly to allow Bolivar Peninsula residents to return, if only for a "look and leave" visit as soon as the Rollover Pass Bridge was restored to accommodate one-way traffic safely.
Early on in his administration, Yarbrough launched a campaign to end disputes between the entities about their overlapping extra-territorial jurisdictions which caused problems with annexations and code enforcement. That project was just completed recently with the final agreements between League City and Dickinson.
"That's been about a 12 or 13 year project," Yarbrough said in an interview last year. "I can't tell you how many city managers and mayors we've gone though; and each time we just about get the spaghetti bowl unraveled, it falls apart."
Major monuments to Yarbrough's administration are the buildings he erected.
Closest to my heart is the Emergency Operations Center in Dickinson, where Guidry News Service weathered Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike. The building, which also houses the National Weather Service and the Emergency Communications District, is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Following Hurricane Ike, when Guidry News Service was contracted to provide public information services for the county, the building also housed representatives of FEMA, the American Red Cross and other agencies that provided immediate relief to the public.
There was barely a flicker when outside power was interrupted and emergency generators kicked in. There was no interruption of broadband service. Those who were housed in the building got three hot meals a day. Lynda was impressed that housekeeping services continued as well.
The previous emergency operations center was in the basement of a building that was subject to flooding. That structure is being demolished to make way for new public safety facilities.
Another significant construction project is the Galveston County Justice Center, north of Broadway Boulevard in Galveston, which also houses the City of Galveston Police Department and Municipal Court. This complex was built at an elevation to avoid flood damage.
The Justice Center project also was a good investment for the county. Because the property was languishing, the county was able to acquire it at a good price; and because of the development, property between the buildings and Broadway have increased in value. And the county is currently negotiating to sell that property for more money than the original purchase price.
Yarbrough's successful construction program can be compared with the Ford Park entertainment complex that former Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith championed. While economic development officials say the complex is good for the county, it has been a drain on the Jefferson County Budget and likely was responsible for Griffith's failure to win reelection.
Yarbrough's management skills are to be lauded. To have put together a team of professionals from diverse backgrounds who are able to work together through very trying times is remarkable. Although I have been aware that some members of his team have caused him consternation from time to time, I don't recall him ever straying from his persona as a reasoned, professional administrator.
He makes it look like he is having a good time; and I think that he is.
I do know that Galveston County is a safer place because he is the leader of county government.
Although Guidry News Service is moving our headquarters to Midtown Houston, we will maintain our strong alliance with Galveston County. If another major storm threatens the Gulf Coast we plan to hang our hat at the Galveston County EOC until it passes.