Image: Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, who ran as a reformer in the 2018 election, got booed when he claimed “this is the best and most honest Commissioners Court we’ve ever had” at the Texas Eagle Forum’s Candidate Forum on Thursday, January 6, 2022. In 2018, Keough had said “Montgomery County is the most corrupt county government in Texas.” Sadly, Keough has not implemented any of the reforms he promised when he first ran for election.
The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Shenandoah, January 7 – Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, who ran as a reformer in the 2018 election but has repeatedly disappointed his conservative base, got booed during the Texas Eagle Forum’s Candidate Forum on Thursday, January 6, 2022. Keough, who has failed as a reformer and actually made the County government far more secretive and dictatorial than during his predecessor Craig Doyal’s term as County Judge, told the capacity crowd in the Shenandoah City Council Chamber, “This is the best and most honest Commissioners Court we’ve ever had.”
The crowd responded to Keough’s factually false statement with loud boos.
Keough’s challengers, Montgomery Mayor Sara Countryman and conservative leader Dr. Billy Graff, both criticized Keough on two major issues: (1) his imposing illegal business closures, church closures, and a curfew on March 27, 2020, without any legal authority, and (2) his forcing the taxpayers to pay for a personal driver $73,000 per year and for a County government vehicle, after Keough lost his driver’s license after his Driving While Intoxicated conviction in early 2021.
Countryman noted the “poor financial shape” of the County government during Keough’s tenure, because he oversaw “robbing the fund balance,” spent $500,000 on a medical tent the County government only used once, and forced taxpayers to fund his “personal driver after he was criminally convicted and a security guard, because he’s afraid of the taxpayers.” She also criticized Keough for the absence of government transparency Keough has imposed on the County government.
Countryman said, “If you elect me, you’ll elect someone who won’t hide behind his Chief of Staff,” referring to the fact that Keough has largely allowed his Chief of Staff, Jason Millsaps, to fulfill almost all of the functions and duties of the County Judge position.
Countryman spoke of her 18 years in the high tech industry, her experience as a 2-term Mayor, and her upbringing as a “conservative Christian.”
The Montgomery Mayor openly criticized Keough for his mismanagement of federal dollars Montgomery County received under the CARES Act. She specifically noted that Keough failed to distribute the funds in accordance with the $55 per capita distribution method to local governments and The Woodlands, but instead opted to keep most of the funds for the County government to spend.
Keough argued that he established a system under which municipalities and The Woodlands Township would only receive reimbursement for actual expenses, so the County government could spend the funds in accordance with federal law. Countryman noted, however, that “the County government is now subject to a potential callback of $40 million for the federal government” for misusing the funds.
Graff criticized Keough for financial mismanagement of County government spending. He explained that the County already suffers from too much debt, consisting of $41 million per year in interest payments and $500 million of principal debt.
Graff said that he would work to reduce County government spending, so that the County would have more available resources for its core function of providing roads to support the community’s growth.
Where Countryman and Graff criticized Keough most pointedly was in the incumbent County Judge’s handling of the coronavirus situation.
Graff accused Keough of implementing “an unconstitutional shutdown, which hurt this County. Unemployment went from 4.6% to 12.9% overnight.” Graff explained that Keough couldn’t possibly call himself a constitutionalist, because he acted far outside of his legal authority in imposing the church closures, business closures, and curfew.
Keough tried to claim that government “can’t choose winners and losers to determine which businesses are ‘essential,'” although he did precisely that, by his unilateral written order, on March 27, 2020, before even Texas Governor Greg Abbott imposed any business shutdowns.
Countryman agreed with Graff that “we should not have shut down the County,” and, turning to Keough, said, “You did shut the County down. We’re all adults here and you had no right to impose a curfew. You should never have forced restaurants to decide how far apart people must sit…That’s not government’s place.”
Keough tried to sidestep a question from Calvin Russell about why the County government, during Keough’s term, give $1.4 million to charities using taxpayer dollars. Instead, Keough went back to the issue of his coronavirus shutdown and explained:
“I did a curfew. None of the 17 counties around us imposed a curfew…My church got robbed out of a warehouse, and that’s why I put the curfew in place. Leadership is making a change of course when you see it’s not working.”
Keough admitted that the Montgomery County Public Health District, of which Keough is the Chairman of the Board of Directors, gave him bad information on the morning of March 27, 2020, when it told him that there would be one hundred thousand COVID-19 cases and over one thousand deaths in Montgomery County within 30 days. He didn’t mention to the crowd, however, that Keough himself is the highest officer in that Public Health District.
Graff said, “Leadership doesn’t give us the authority to suspend the Constitution, just because of fears and concerns. If we’re going to do that, then let’s not live in America…The shutdown was not legal…County Judges don’t have the right to tell people they are not essential workers.”
Republican Precinct Chairman Kenneth Earnest asked the candidates whether there’s enough transparency on the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on the spending of tax dollars. Countryman criticized the County government’s transparency. Keough claimed – falsely – that he includes backup information for all Commissioners Court agenda items. Graff also criticized Keough for his use of a “consent agenda” which allows the Commissioners Court to approve spending items without any public discussion.
At the conclusion of the Candidate Forum, Graff said, “Part of the problem we have is that we don’t have leaders who take the moral high ground.”
Keough responded by attacking Graff, “You don’t have the moral high ground, because you make platitudes.” He then excoriated Graff and Countryman for not calling him and speaking to him about their plans to run for County Judge.
Graff then answered and looked straight at Keough, “I have to say that’s the first time I got chewed out for being a man of God. I’m not perfect, but it seems pretty disrespectful to accuse and holler…If you’re not worried about unconstitutional edicts, then make your choices…I find it very disrespectful to sit in a room and be chastised because I am moral. Shame on you, Judge. That’s the most ungodly thing I’ve experienced this year.
Countryman concluded by explaining that she would handle the County Judge job with integrity and that “I don’t need to pay someone $73,000 per year to drive me around.”