At today’s session of the Bowie County Commissioners Court, debate over budget cuts — and how they should be handled — quickly became heated.
On September 17, 2013, the Commissioners voted to enact a hiring freeze in anticipation of severe cash flow shortfalls. County supervisors who sought to hire for a new position, or to fill an existing vacancy, were directed to bring all such for the consideration of the Court. On October 28, when the shortfalls didn’t materialize, the Commissioners voted to rescind the hiring freeze on elected officials only. (Outsiders noted after the freeze was enacted that it seems state law prevents the Court from directing elected officials regarding the operations of their respective departments, but I don’t believe this was ever mentioned in Court.)
However, today’s agenda contained requests for the Court to decide whether they would allow Judge Leon Pesek to replace a bailiff in the 202nd District Judge’s office, and whether they would allow Jerry Rochelle to replace an investigator in the Bowie County District Attorney’s Office. Judge Lacy attempted to dismiss both agenda items, quoting the rescinding of the hiring freeze mentioned above, and stating that the Court had no business in the affairs of either office. Commissioner Pat McCoy insisted that Lacy could not do so, and Judge Pesek asked to be heard. Citing the many years of cooperation between his office and the Court, he gave the reason for his request. The Court voted 4 to 1 to allow him to hire the new bailiff; Judge Lacy voted against the motion, apparently in accordance with his earlier statement that the Court should not have been involved in the decision.
Next, a statement from District Attorney Jerry Rochelle was read regarding his request, and discussion followed as to whether he had actually planned to ask for the Court’s permission to hire the new investigator, or whether his email was in response to learning that the matter had been placed on the agenda. The motion was made and carried to allow the new investigator, again 4 to 1, with Judge Lacy voting against the motion.
The last item of the day was in response to an agenda item from two weeks ago in which each county department was required to submit a plan to cut at least 10% from their budget for the rest of the fiscal year (through September 30, 2014). Commissioner McCoy presented a detailed list of the items he planned to cut from each department, for a total of $989,552. Included in the cuts was the elimination of two jobs, Kathy Hicks, the switchboard operator, and Paula Williams, Judge Lacy’s financial assistant, although McCoy didn’t mention either position in his discussion of the cuts.
McCoy made the motion that his cuts be enacted, and the motion died for lack of second. Commissioner Blackburn made the motion that the cuts be enacted with the exception of eliminating any jobs, prompting several outbursts from the citizens in attendance demanding to know whose jobs were to be cut. There was a long pause, and finally Commissioner McCoy seconded the motion.
The Commissioners had attempted to eliminate Paula Williams job several months ago, claiming that Judge Lacy had exceeded his authority in hiring Williams without asking the Court’s permission. This proved to be true, but an examination of records going back at least thirty years showed that every single position created during that time had been done without the Court’s permission. No one knew of the law until, apparently, someone looked for a reason to deny Williams, a career county employee, the position with Lacy’s office. That Williams, who is black, would be the first employee in at least three decades to undergo the Court’s scrutiny opened the members of the court to charges of racial motivation in targeting her. Although it proved unnecessary, Williams sought counsel from local attorney from www.rhalaw.com/drug-offences.
Today, Crocket said, “I’m just happy that Commissioner McCoy’s consistent, unwarranted, and calculated attacks on Paula William’s livelihood have failed. The county needs budget cuts because that’s what any fiscally responsible body has to do when the obligations outweigh the income, but I’m of the opinion that firing Paula Williams was not going to resolve the problem. Additionally, considering that neither Paula Williams nor Kathy Hicks reports directly to the Commissioners, this would have been an overreaching move to make. They have the power to approve budgets, but I’m not personally aware of their power to micromanage all county departments. I applaud the Commissioners and Judge Lacy for failing to second the motion of Commissioner McCoy.”
Finally, it seems the last two Courts have been marked by a distinct lack of civility, especially today as several people in attendance shouted derisive comments, laughed, or clapped at remarks from the Court. Most of the outbursts followed barbs from Commissioner McCoy directed at Judge Lacy, although it seemed in some instances that the catcalls were in response to McCoy’s tone of voice rather than anything that was actually said. For instance, when Lacy asked if McCoy would consider cutting his salary as Lacy had, McCoy responded that the Judge had cut the part of his salary that came from the state, prompting jeers from the audience, when in fact Lacy had voluntarily cut the county’s portion of his salary by the same amount as a raise from the state.
I’ve been attending the Bowie County Commissioners Court for at least two years, and although the discussion among the members of the court has at times grown caustic, I don’t recall a single instance of an outburst from the citizens in attendance. Hopefully, this is an isolated occurence.