San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 4th, 2009
Hays County hires public information officer

Austin Police Department Sergeant Scott Cary addresses the Hays County Commissioners Court. The court approved Cary as the new Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace for the Buda area. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

Believing that county government could do a better job informing the public of its achievements and challenges – that is, communicating – Hays County brought on its first-ever public information officer this week.

Laureen Chernow started on Monday, bringing to the county extensive experience from the private sector, including CSC, AMD and more recently at Spansion Inc., where she worked in media relations and employee communications.

Chernow’s public sector experience includes a position as emergency information officer for the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, assistant chief of media relations for the Texas Department of Public Safety and director of public information for the State Bar of Texas.

Said Chernow, “Here or at any public sector job, the emphasis will be on reporting information to the media and to the general public about services that are available and how people can access those services, and in general, keep them informed about what Hays County is doing to further develop the programs they already have in place.”

Chernow said she works for the county’s human resources department and not for the commissioners court, which would involve her in transmitting political messages from a body on which members have conflicting political goals.

Nor was Chernow appointed by the court. However, Chernow said a commissioner was present at her interview with Hays County Human Resources Director Dee Dee Baen, and she later fielded questions at a meeting with the entire commissioners court.

“It’s definitely understood that I’m not in the political arena with any or all of the commissioners,” Chernow said. “…There is a separation between the political activities of the commissioners and the programs that people who are employed by the county work on. So, my focus will be on making sure that program and service information is available, that we make sure that all citizens in the county know what (programs are) available and how they access them. The political statements and activities that go on are separated from the county itself…There’s definite line there.”

As commissioners gave Baen approval to hire a public information officer late last year, they said it should be understood that the officer would not answer to the court.

Unlike city governments and school districts, the county government does not have a central administrator, such as a city manager or school superintendent. The county’s closest position to central executive, the county judge, is more analogous to a mayor or school board president.

Thus, Chernow emphasized, her role is simply convey information. Commissioners said while approving the position that the successful candidate would take on functions such as developing the county’s website and, perhaps, even creating a county publication.

“Any professional in the public information or public relations arena strives to be ethical and to make sure that they report accurate information to the media and the public,” Chernow said.

Chernow lives in southwest Travis County, close to the Hays County line, with her husband, an information technology professional at UT, and several rescue dogs.

In another county development, commissioners approved Scott Cary as the new Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace to serve the Buda area. Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton recommended Cary based a decision by a citizens committee he assembled for that purpose.

“I tried to listen to them, and what they told me was that we have the right candidate, a great candidate in Scott Cary,” Barton said. “I didn’t really know Scott until this process began … Having gotten to know him, I think the committee has made an excellent recommendation. I embrace it as my recommendation to the commissioners court.”

Said Cary, “I believe in treating everyone the same way I’d want my own family to be treated. I believe I’ve always been fair with my subordinates and the public. As I’ve gone through 32 years of police service, I’ve appeared before many courts, and I know how the courts are supposed to be run.”

Cary said his two brothers and one sister lived in a one-bedroom house in Nebraska with their grandparents while his father was in prison. His mother, who remarried, lost her second husband in a car accident, and married again. Her third husband died in an accident. After Cary’s biological father was released from prison, his family moved to Texas, where he has spent his whole adult life.

“Everything I have I’ve gotten on my own,” Cary said. “There was never any money in the family. I did abuse alcohol at a young age. I haven’t had a drink in 28 years.”

Cary, a sergeant with the Austin Police Department, said he councils police officers addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs in his capacity as a peer support/wellness sergeant. Cary holds a Master Peace Officer Certificate and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He has been married 32 years to Merry Cary, who teaches at Buda Elementary. The couple has two daughters, both of whom graduated from Texas A&M University.

Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) said she hopes Cary’s achievements would serve as a model for children and adults struggling with hardships similar to those he has faced. Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) noted that though she had expected the court might interview “two or three” individuals for the Precinct 5 JP position, Cary clearly outshined the rest.

“It was a difficult decision,” Hays County Judge Liz Sumter said to Cary. “I had really good experiences with every single one of (the applicants) and I hope to see every single one of them involved one way or another with the county. But I do have to agree that I believe that you rose to the top.”

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