Did Bowie County’s Financial Advisory Committee Have a Hidden Agenda?

Bowie County TexasNote: It has become increasingly obvious that the Financial Advisory Committee has not been working to improve the County’s financial position, but has instead been pursuing a completely different goal. While I intend to present the following as factually as possible, I realize that this is my opinion, so I’m labelling this as an editorial. 

In late May, Bowie County Commissioner Tom Whitten asked Commissioners Court to form a Financial Advisory Committee to “turn this ship around.” He said, in part:

I am therefore requesting we form an advisory  committee made up of successful business men and/or women who would be willing to serve their County in such a worthy endeavor. I would request each Commissioner and our Judge select an appointee. This committee should provide us with a single or possibly a few options to consider achieving the five-year plan as requested.

It didn’t take long however, for the FAC to develop it’s own agenda. Let’s look at a couple of different ways we know this.

Emails

It seems that for a month or so FAC chairman Mike Sandefur thought he was emailing former Judge James Carlow by using Judge Carlow’s (former) official email address. However, that address was for official business, and had been forwarded to Judge Lacy’s email account since Lacy’s inauguration.

Under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I had asked for FAC correspondence, and the very first email in the list was this one:

From: Mike Sandefur
Sent: Friday, June 27, 2014 5:17:20 PM (UTC-06:00) Central Time (US & Canada)
To: Gabe Tarr; NBCH-Lacy, Sterling
Subject: I saw this today.

Church Sign sent from Mike Sandefur to Gabe Tarr and Judge Lacy

I spoke with the associate pastor of the church, and was told that this was in reference to things like homosexual marriage, abortion, etc. As far as he knew, it had nothing to do with local politics.

If you think, as I did at first, that Mr. Sandefur sent this to Gabe Tarr and Judge Lacy, it seems like disrespect or a taunt.

Remember, though, Mr. Sandefur thought he was sending this to Judge Carlow, and it was probably meant as a joke.

The next email in the list was relatively normal:

From: Mike Sandefur
Sent: Saturday, June 28, 2014 3:33:37 PM (UTC-06:00) Central Time (US & Canada)
To: NBCH-Lacy, Sterling
Subject: Fwd: Rules for Meetings; Committees

Judge,

Thanks for the referral regarding Marshall Wood helping our committee with legal questions.  I did not have his email; will you please forward this to him and let me know the email.

No action on his part is necessary at this time–it is obviously for Carol to answer.  I did want him to know about my thinking and planning.  I am also waiting to see if the District Attorney’s office and Carol Dalby is fully engaged on helping the county at this time of crisis, and want him to evaluate their response as well.

Thank you.
Mike Sandefur

Begin forwarded message:

From: Mike Sandefur
Subject: Rules for Meetings; Committees
Date: June 28, 2014 2:31:12 PM CDT
To: Tom Whitten
Cc: Carol Dalby  Paige Alexande, James Henry Russell, William Tye, Michael Sandefur

Tom,

Tom, as a commissioner you may need the ability to confidently recommend one or more of the below options to help educate the public and describe the tax increase.  I believe Carol can quickly and concisely answer the 5 questions I have asked below.  I also hope she can suggest some better or easier methods.  — we need all good ideas.  (I have copied James Henry on this as well, as we know he has good ideas.)

Any option being seriously considered must pass the “smell test” — we don’t want to read about any unlawful meetings in the Gazette.  If our committee makes any recommendations, we will welcome discussion of our underlying thinking.

In my opinion, public meetings and hearings that are educational and useful will be important in the next few months.  Meetings must also follow the law, but to be useful some future meetings may need a relaxation of some of the artificial limitations and rules of order that I have seen imposed upon the regular Commissioners Court meetings.

Although nothing has been recommended at this time, I suggest that you go ahead and get answers quickly, in writing, so that you know how to proceed with any option without wasting any time.  Please provide me and our committee a copy as well so that we are all on the same page.

1)  In addition to the two regularly-scheduled Commissioners Court meetings, how does a commissioner (or more) call a special meeting?  What notice?  What reasons?  Any limit on agenda items?  Who presides?

2)  Is there such a thing as an emergency meeting?  What are the circumstances?  What notice?  What reasons?  Any limit on agenda items?  Who presides?

3)  May the Commissioners Court appoint one or more committees of its members?  How is a committee chairman selected?  In what cases, if any, is delegation of authority provided to a committee (Although I don’t foresee the need for such delegation, is it possible)?

4)  If a court-member-only committee has three court members, I believe it must comply with all open meetings requirements.  Is this always true if a committee has only two members?

5)  In addition to legally required meetings, how would one or more educational or informal ” town hall” meetings be scheduled to discuss the budget?  Must a town hall meeting be “hosted”  by the commissioners court, or could it instead be hosted by a committee of commissioners, or even by our Advisory Committee?  Would the presiding officer of the “host” organization preside over the town hall meeting, or would a County Judge or a Chief Budget Officer have some superior rights?

I believe the financial crisis and budgeting deserve urgent measures and open discussion, with the public almost always invited to attend, or at least knowing when its not invited.  Understanding the options may help us structure the most appropriate venue.

Thank you.
Mike Sandefur

However, it sounds like Mr. Sandefur wanted to hold some kind of “official” county meeting, possibly with someone other than Judge Lacy presiding. Given that the FAC asked to post their updates on the county website, it isn’t an unreasonable assumption that they sought at least the semblance of official status.

The next email in the list was almost certainly not meant for Judge Lacy, as it seems to be a suggestion for a campaign commercial for Judge Carlow’s re-election:

From: Mike Sandefur
Sent: Monday, July 07, 2014 8:41:10 PM (UTC-06:00) Central Time (US & Canada)
To: Andrea Williams; NBCH-Lacy, Sterling
Subject: Another storyline

A daydream:

Chart of tax revenues of Bowie County going up year after year (from Bill Cork chart, improved).  New spike for next year.

Voiceover:
Judge Sterling Lacy, Bowie County citizens were unhappy with you SPENDING SPENDING SPENDING, with deficit operating budgets three years in a row.  (another chart.)

Now you are TAXING AND SPENDING, TAXING AND SPENDING, TAXING AND SPENDING!  That makes us really unhappy.

Judge TAX AND SPEND, stop it.  We can’t afford you.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t meant for Judge Lacy, either, as it refers to him in third person:

From: Mike Sandefur
Sent: Thursday, July 10, 2014 7:39:54 AM (UTC-06:00) Central Time (US & Canada)
To: Gabe Tarr; NBCH-Lacy, Sterling
Subject: Cartoon

Google the followings:

cartoon jesus speck in eye

and then click on images.

Being a good Christian man, Judge Lacy sure likes to point out the shortcomings of others.

These emails line up with Mr. Sandefur’s public disrespect for Judge Lacy, repeatedly addressing him as “Sterling” in Commissioners Court.

(I have removed any email addresses that were included.)

It appears that at this point, Mr. Sandefur realized that Judge Carlow wasn’t getting these emails, and stopped using Judge Carlow’s old courthouse email address.

These emails are indications of behind-the-scenes coordination with Judge Carlow regarding the FAC’s activities. More telling however, are the FAC’s actions in Commissioners Court, specifically FAC chairman Mike Sandefur and committee member Joe Dike.

Only Criticism of Judge Lacy Allowed

Here’s an example. During Commissioners Court on July 14, Judge Lacy’s son Steve, an auditor with over 20 years experience in non-profit organizations, provided detailed evidence that County Auditor William Tye had not been providing ‘accurate, factual financial information’ to the Court. He noted that Mr. Tye’s estimates of cash position at the beginning of the fiscal year had varied by $5.6 million dollars, ranging from $2.2 million to negative $3,400,762, depending upon when he was asked.

Mr. Tye said that he couldn’t supply exact numbers until all the accounts were accrued, months after the end of the fiscal year. Steve Lacy then replied, “Then I’ll make a comment to the Court: There’s no way you can make an accurate decision, for every month of the year, when you’re making decisions, because you don’t know what’s out there. That should be done monthly. In any other corporation in the world that is done probably more than monthly, but it’s done at least monthly so you have meaningful information.” He also stated, “The beauty of an accountant using modified accrual accounting, is, if it’s done properly, you punch a button, you get a report.”

FAC committee member Joe Dike, a CPA, attempted to deflect Steve Lacy’s evidence by saying, ““We can argue about whether we can spend these funds, whether they’re restricted or not. But the most important thing is we’re still spending more than we’re bringing in. I didn’t want to lose sight of that.”

Actually, that was FAC chairman Mike Sandefur’s topic and the next agenda item. Mr. Dike apparently got off-track while staying on-task.

Mr. Sandefur’s presentation following Steve Lacy’s was over 40 minutes long, and used multiple examples to show that Bowie County had, indeed, spent money from restricted/designated funds that “…kind of belong to other people.” His tone was very off-hand, and seemed meant to lend legitimacy to the practice. You can watch the video here, and decide for yourself.

A Lot of Heat, Not Much Light’

Two weeks later, Mr. Sandefur and Mr. Dike spent quite a bit of time in Commissioners Court addressing two non-issues. The first was the projected budget deficit for the fiscal year ending September 30, with Mr. Dike suggesting that Judge Lacy needed to account for that deficit in the budget which began October 1, completely ignoring the $5 million tax-anticipation loan which was intended specifically to address that situation.

The second non-issue was whether the loan could even be spent once the budgeted revenue was exhausted, and with Mr.  Sandefur suggesting the county’s possible insolvency as of September 1, asking Judge Lacy, “Do you have a plan for that?” He then asked the Court, “Do county employees come back to work after Labor Day?” Commissioner Mike Carter accused Mr. Sandefur of “trying to scare the county employees, that they’re not going to get paid.” Mr. Dike responded, “No, he’s just stating facts.”

Three days later, in special session, the Court read a memorandum from Tom Pollan, the county’s bond advisor who helped procure the tax anticipation loan. The memo read, “I believe there has been a miscommunication regarding the Tax Note that the County recently issued for it’s budget shortfall…. These funds are treated as additional revenue to make up the budget shortfall, not a cash shortfall.” In short, there was never an issue of being able to spend the loan. One would think that members of a Financial “Advisory” Committee would have checked on something like that before wondering aloud in open Court about insolvency and payroll issues.

Later, Judge Lacy said, “It was more than irresponsibility – it was fear-mongering. It served no purpose except to excite emotions, adding a lot of heat to the discussion, but not much light. I would have expected the Financial Advisory Committee to be more level-headed.” Watch the video here, and decide for yourself.

Don’t Look Back

It would seem that if one wanted to “turn this ship around,” it would be advantageous to actually look behind you – if Judge Lacy ruined Judge Carlow’s good works, wouldn’t you want to find out how Judge Carlow was so successful? The FAC refused to look further back than the beginning of Judge Lacy’s term, however, and aggressively resisted the efforts of others to do so.

One of the primary talking points of Judge Carlow’s supporters is that there was a $6 million surplus when Judge Lacy took office, which Judge Lacy wasted through poor management. When Financial Advisory Committee member Robert Worthen (Judge Lacy’s appointee) asked County Treasurer Donna Burns for bank records for the last ten years, he understood Ms. Burns to say that she only had the past three years, and that her predecessor, Bryce Feasel, had shredded everything prior to that. Mr. Worthen sought legal advice from the Sheriff and DA’s office, for it seemed that he been informed of a crime perpetrated by Mr. Feasel.

However, FAC chairman Mike Sandefur told (via email) other committee members, county officials, some members of the media, and various public and private individuals  (apparently around the same time that he sent the church sign picture, above) that Mr. Worthen had accused Ms. Burns of a crime, and threatened her with a lawsuit. From that point on, Mr. Worthen was excluded from all meetings. You can read the details of that kerfuffle here.

Mr. Worthen didn’t stop his research, though, and one of his subsequent reports set the stage for the most egregious example of the FAC’s aggressive attempts to deflect criticism from anyone but Judge Lacy.

On September 8, Mr. Worthen reported that many county offices were not complying with state law regarding monthly and annual reports to the Court. When asked for an example, he read from Texas Local Government Code Section 114.022, regarding mandatory monthly reports from the County Auditor. I obtained a copy of Mr. Worthen’s 40-page document – you can read it here. Not just the auditor, but the district clerk, county clerk, county judge, county treasurer, sheriff, district attorney, county attorney, constable, or justice of the peace or anyone else who collects or handles any money for the use of the county shall make a full report at least once a month at a regular term to the commissioners court.

Mr. Dike insisted that the annual audit of the county’s financial statement fulfilled the requirements as far as the auditor was concerned, and stated, “This is just… this is ridiculous. This is all political. This is all [gesturing at Worthen] crap.” Later, Dike went so far as to question Worthen’s intelligence in an attempt to discredit him, and told the Court that the FAC disagreed with most of what Mr. Worthen said, and suggested that “the best thing you can do with what he said is just forget it, because a lot of it is wrong.”

At the time, I wondered why it was so important to the FAC (actually, just Mr. Sandefur and Mr. Dike) that fundamental (and legally required) accounting practices be ignored, and why the Financial Advisory Committee had never even brought it up – you’d think that accurate financial information would be important to improving the county’s financial position. From the point of view of this editorial, though, they were doing exactly what they planned to do – deflect criticism from anyone but Judge Lacy. The video and report from that day are here – decide for yourself.

Credit Where Credit is Due

One more thing – if you accept, from his inclusion in the emails above, that Gabe Tarr played an unofficial role in the FAC’s efforts, it explains why he has been so outspoken – sometimes disruptive – in Court. A good example is from the September 16 budget hearing. Mr. Tarr began harassing Ms. Smith when she said, “It does matter what happened twenty years ago.” You can watch it here – start at about the 38:00 mark. Mr. Tarr’s is the loud voice off-camera.

0 thoughts on “Did Bowie County’s Financial Advisory Committee Have a Hidden Agenda?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.