“I’m not shy about speaking up,” says Dallas County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield. That is not a bad trait for the man who, this month, becomes president of the National Association of Counties.
The son of an Air Force veteran, Mayfield was born in Okinawa, Japan, in 1950 and grew up in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Virginia before his family settled in Boyd, Texas. He attended high school in Boyd, and, except for a stint in the Pentagon, where he served as a member of the U.S. Army, Mayfield has remained in Texas.
He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington, followed by a Juris Doctor degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. From 1980 to 1988, he worked in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, eventually becoming chief of the Juvenile Division before resigning to join a private law practice.
Mayfield’s political career began as many local government careers do — on the school board. “I moved to Cedar Hill, which is in the southern part of Dallas County, and my oldest daughter was in first grade,” he says. “There was a problem that affected my daughter as well as every other child in the first grade there. (A teacher had resigned mid-year, and, rather than replace the teacher, the school board elected to promote some of the first-graders to second grade and to disperse others throughout the remaining first-grade classes.) So I went up and spoke before the school board. When I walked out of the room, about five or six people pulled me aside and asked me if I would run for the school board.”
He did, and he won. That was 1988, and, in the ensuing years, Mayfield has been approached again and again for representation at the local and national levels.
During his third term on the school board, local Republicans asked Mayfield to run for a seat on the Dallas County Commissioners Court. As he had when he ran for the school board, he consulted his wife Diane and weighed his options. “I looked to see if it was winnable; I looked to see if I had some issues I could run on; and I looked to see what support I could get,” he says. “I decided it was a manageable goal, so I ran, and I won.”
His agenda included establishing a “team management approach” to county government. “To get good, effective, efficient government, you have to have everybody working together and not backbiting or sniping at each other,” Mayfield says. “We didn’t have [cooperation] in Dallas County, so I ran on the issue of letting elected officials do their jobs — funding them, but not interfering, and working with them to see that their jobs are done as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Mayfield was elected commissioner in 1994 and began working with NACo the following year. In an interview with American City & County’s Beth Wade, he talks about Dallas County, his passion for early childhood development issues and his plans for the coming year.
What are the major issues Dallas County faces, and how do they compare to the issues faced by counties as a whole?
I think they’re pretty normal. The major issues we have are: delivering economic development to the entire county; transportation, clean air and trying to bring our county in compliance with the EPA so we continue to get transportation dollars; technology; and making access to government more technology friendly.
Do you think counties are achieving parity with cities in terms of technology?
I think we’re making great strides in that respect. In Dallas County, we’ve pushed that pretty heavily; now you can pay your taxes or register your vehicle online. It’s a priority at NACo because we want to see technology delivered not just to large urban counties but to rural counties as well. A lot of rural counties don’t have the funds to put in a Web page, and we’re trying to work national deals with companies to make it more affordable to do that.
What are some of the highlights of your work with NACo?
I became a member of the Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee, and [we worked on] juvenile justice and criminal justice issues. We were successful in getting SCAAP funded. (SCAAP, the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, reimburses local governments for housing illegal aliens in their jails). I lobbied Congress on behalf of NACo and counties across the United States to get that done. We’ve gotten that funding increased over the years, although it’s always a fight. And now we’ve got a lot of Homeland Security costs that might reduce reimbursement to counties on programs like that.
[We also worked to get] reimbursement for incarceration and prosecution costs under the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant (LLEBG). The formula for distributing money was weighted to cities because it was based on reporting violent crimes. While cities report more crimes than counties do, what do they do once they’ve arrested an individual? They bring them to the county jail. If the [prisoner] can’t afford a lawyer, who pays for the lawyer? Counties do. Sometimes we will have rehabilitative programs that we pay for; or, if the prisoner is prosecuted, counties pay for that.
So we got a provision that the attorney general for each state could certify [the counties’ costs for incarceration and prosecution]. If he certified that a county had paid at least 50 percent of the costs, then the LLEBG allocation to the cities would be put on hold, and the cities and county would have to sit down and agree to an amended allocation.
NACo got that put into the law. Otherwise, counties would have been virtually shut out.
What are the legislative issues you will face as president of NACo?
The Internet sales tax is still an issue. It’s been our top priority the last couple of years, and we’ve got several states and counties working on a pilot program that I think is going to sway Congress when they see how easily the tax can be calculated.
Health care is a big issue. And, again, the burgeoning illegal alien population puts pressure on counties everywhere, but certainly on large urban county hospitals that treat the indigent.
Are there issues of personal interest that you will advocate during your presidency?
I’ve got two. I’ve set up programs in Dallas County so we can replicate them in counties all over the United States.
The first is early childhood development. I’ve had the early childhood development community in Dallas County working on a plan for the last 10 months. We’ve got a planning grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation in New York. I want to start a program whereby you start with a pregnant, at-risk female as early in the pregnancy as possible. You [assign a professional] to contact her and her family — whoever is in the household — to assess the situation and continue to visit, making sure she gets prenatal care. The professional continues to visit the family and [connect it with services].
We’re inventorying all the services available in Dallas County — federal, state, county, city and private services — whether it’s job training, parenting classes, housing, whatever. So [the individuals who are visiting these families] will know every agency that provides services; they will know what it takes to qualify for the services; they will assess the families to determine what they qualify for; and they will get them hooked up with those services. They would follow the family until the child reaches school age and [then transfer it] to other services after that.
From my experience as a juvenile prosecutor and on the school board, I think that’s the best thing we can do to decrease juvenile and adult crime. It will take about a generation to get through, but it will put people on the road to developing in as normal an environment as can be had, starting school with normally developed [abilities] and completing school.
The Juvenile Justice Block Grant prohibits you from spending more than 10 percent of the funds you get on early intervention and prevention programs. I want that taken out. If a community decides this is what they want to spend their money on, they ought to be able to do it. Obviously, performance measures and safeguards should be implemented so we know the outcomes.
I’m planning on partnering with the Education Commission of the States, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities on this. I want the four of us, and others that we can recruit, to bring this to Congress and the Administration.
The other of my two major issues is diverting the mentally ill and mentally retarded from county jails. These are minor offenders who are taken into custody because of how they act; there are usually no victims to crimes that they’re charged with.
I want to develop a sort of mental health triage center that is located by the jail or as close as possible to the jail. I want to get training to the police academies [to teach officers] how to recognize these individuals so that, when they take someone into custody, they can take that person directly to this location, where [he or she] can be assessed. The center will be staffed 24 hours a day, and [staff] can find out what services the person is getting.
Housing is going to be a big part of this [program] because, usually, these people are homeless. We’ll have transitional housing where we have supervised living for maybe four or five people. The supervisor will know whether [the tenants are] getting services, what medication they’re supposed to be taking and what their routine is.
What is the outlook for NACo’s involvement in Homeland Security?
I’m keeping the Homeland Security Task Force intact, and we will have meetings throughout the year. We’re working with the Administration now to craft national policy with the input of cities and counties.
[The terrorism] threat will remain out there probably for many, many years, so it obviously needs to be a top priority for NACo. We need to make sure our counties are prepared and that we take the steps necessary to minimize the dangers.
Are there certain jobs in the security spectrum that are best suited for county leadership?
Public health. Any bioterrorism activity. That’s something that could cross a lot of city boundaries, so leadership should come from a countywide perspective. In Dallas County, we’ve just created a position for County Homeland Security, and I think it will lead to coordination of countywide efforts to combat threats.
Do you have a philosophy that guides your leadership?
Be direct, and tell the truth. That’s what I try to do. I don’t try to play games with people; I try to tell them how I think things are and how I plan on representing them.
As a Texan, do you have an ear in the White House?
I supported President Bush when he ran for governor the first time. Matter of fact, he and I ran together; I endorsed him, and he endorsed me. I was a big fan before he became governor, and I’m still a big fan. I know (White House Senior Advisor) Karl Rove and others that are around him. Yeah, I think there’s an ear there.
Mayfield at a glance
Hometown: Cedar Hill, Texas
Married: 28 years to Diane Starrett
Children: daughters Ashley, who died in 1996; Lindsey, 19; and Kelsey, 16
Juris Doctor, St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, 1980
Bachelor of Arts, University of Texas, Arlington, 1976
Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, 1980-1988
Private practice, attorney, 1988-
Cedar Hill School Board, 1988-1995
Dallas County Commissioners Court, 1995-
Law Enforcement Subcommittee, chair
Liability & Insurance Subcommittee, vice chair
Large Urban County Caucus, member
Finance Committee, member
Membership Committee, member
Member Program & Services Committee, member