In early 2020, before most Texans had ever heard of COVID-19, Kaufman County Judge Hal Richards introduced a cooperative approach to local communications that soon proved farsighted. Several weeks later, with the pandemic front and center and the state shutting down in response, Kaufman County Clerk Laura Hughes' office adapted existing technology to continue to issue marriage licenses.
One initiative promoted the sharing of accurate and timely information. The other ensured the continuity of an essential service while keeping county staff and the public safe from COVID-19.
In recognition, the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) named Kaufman County the recipient of two 2020 County Best Practices Awards.
Realizing the need for more effective communications in one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S., Richards assembled a cross section of representatives from law enforcement, emergency management, local school districts, county and city governments, and other entities to develop a coalition dedicated to sharing prompt and relevant information with one another, the public and the media.
The group gathered in January 2020 to set the coalition in motion.
No one at the project's initial meeting could have anticipated the crisis to come. But two months later, as the state began shutting down in response to COVID-19, the coalition quickly proved itself to be the central source for information regarding the coronavirus in Kaufman County.
"We were so pleased and honored to receive the Texas Association of Counties' Best Practices Award for our communications coalition," Richards said.
The key word in this effort is 'coalition.' We had about 40 members participating, representing school districts, cities, chambers of commerce, economic development corporations and others," he said. "Our common goal was to improve how we communicate with the public and to quickly and accurately share information."
Video Marriage Licenses
When the pandemic closed the county courthouse to visitors, the Kaufman County clerk's office was no longer able to verify a couple's application for a marriage license in person or administer a sworn oath, as required by state law. So Hughes and her staff developed a simple, cost-effective solution using tools they already had available. They adapted videoconferencing and electronic-signature software to continue to issue marriage licenses and collect payment for them while remaining compliant with state law and observing COVID-19 safety protocols.
"The clerk’s office was absolutely thrilled to be selected as one of TAC's County Best Practices Award winners," Hughes said, adding that she was proud of how quickly her team "set about using the existing technologies to digitally transform ‘business as usual’ at the start of the pandemic."
"By changing the dynamics, we were able to provide marriage licenses electronically to our residents, which reduced face-to-face interactions and safeguarded both the customers and the employee’s well-being," she said. "While the crisis has made it challenging, at times, to serve our customers, it has also provided us so many new opportunities to fundamentally change how we operate and deliver value to our community."
"Dedication to excellence and serving the public are the common threads that run through these two award recipients from Kaufman County," TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford said. "We hope these awards inspire counties to continue discovering new solutions to better serve Texans."
Every other year, TAC's County Best Practices Awards Program recognizes noteworthy innovations and solutions that increase efficiency, improve operations or overcome obstacles facing county governments. These innovations and solutions help Texas counties better serve their residents. The best of them also serve as models that other counties can shape to fit their needs.
Kaufman County is one of six Texas counties selected to receive a TAC 2020 County Best Practices Award. Look for more spotlights in future issues of County magazine. Learn more about the County Best Practices Awards Program at www.county.org/bestpractices.