Conroe, August 8 – Voters tend not to view judicial elections as important as the executive and legislative roles which the Montgomery County Judge and County Commissioners. Nevertheless, the Texas Constitution and Texas laws have placed District Judges as important overseers of County finances. For that reason, citizens who have a stake in County spending and taxation should pay close attention to the fiscal approaches of individuals who run for District Judge.
Why District Judges are vital to County finances?
Under the Texas Constitution and the Texas Local Government Code, District Judges are responsible for overseeing County finances, because they control the audit process. The Local Government Code makes District Judges directly responsible for auditing County books and records. The statutory scheme establishes the position of County Auditor whom the District Judges appoint and who works at the behest of the judges, not the County Commissioners Court.
When Montgomery County Auditor Phyllis Martin sought approval for her Fiscal Year 2018 Budget and sought a pay raise for herself, she didn’t go before the County Commissioners Court. Rather, Martin had to appear before the Board of District Judges on June 30, 2017, at a meeting during which the District Judges unanimously approved her budget and unanimously denied Martin any pay raise.
The County Auditor, Martin, is to act independently of the more political County Judge and Commissioners Court. Due to the size of Montgomery County, the County Auditor statutorily acts as the Chief Budget Officer. Martin’s work as an auditor and as a budget officer falls under the jurisdiction of the District Courts, however. The District Judges have every right to become deeply involved in the County’s audit function as well as establishing the basic procedure for setting the budget.
In the past three or so years, the Board of District Judges has become far more cognizant of the judge’s roles and responsibilities for County finances. They have slowly begun to exercise more oversight over Martin’s work.
Earlier this year, Judge Patty Maginnis followed a Grand Jury finding that called for appointment of a Committee on Finance to conduct an independent audit of all books and records of the County. One critical aspect of that audit, just as any audit conducted in accordance with the United States Government Accountability Office’s “Yellow Book,” the source of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, is that the Committee on Finance must carefully examine the County Auditor’s and the County government’s compliance with laws regarding nepotism, conflicts of interest, the exercise of independent judgement by elected officials, and statutory budget procedures.
During the recent budget process, the County government failed once again to follow statutory budget procedures. County Auditor Phyllis Martin filed her “Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2018” on July 14 with the Montgomery County Clerk, Mark Turnbull. The Texas Local Government Code then required the County Commissioners Court to hold a “public hearing” within 14 days of July 14, which the Court abjectly failed to do.
The Grand Jury found that there were several deficiencies which justified the appointment of a Committee on Finance. Unfortunately, the Committee is confronting great difficulty in their work. Once again, this process requires aggressive oversight on the part of the District Judges, including Judge Maginnis who so wisely appointed the Committee.
District Court races in 2018
The March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election will have three District Judge positions on the ballot, the 221st, 284th, and 359th District Courts.
221st. District Judge Lisa Michalk has a strong reputation for her pro-law enforcement stance. Prosecutors enjoy working with Michalk to punish criminals. Michalk tends to be a very accessible member of the community, although she does not attend Board of District Judges meetings as often as some of her colleagues.
284th. District Judge Cara Wood has shown a penchant for staunch fiscal conservatism and has become one of the District Judges on the Board of District Judges who has begun to take a more active interest in County finances. The likelihood, however, is that Wood will retire at the end of 2018. Conroe attorney Robert Rosenquist is running for this seat. Conroe attorney Kristin Bays is rumored to be considering a run for this position as is Assistant Grimes County District Attorney Jo Ann Linzer. Woodlands attorney Chuck Meyer is also considering a run for this position.
359th. District Judge Kathleen Hamilton holds the most seniority of the District Judges. It’s believed likely that Hamilton will run for re-election. Hamilton was an active participant in the Board of District Judges meeting at which the Judges unanimously voted to hold the line on County Auditor Phyllis Martin’s salary despite her request for a raise.
While judicial candidates who are subject to the Texas Judicial Conduct Code may legitimately deflect questions about their prospective judicial rulings, it would seem to be quite fair for citizens to focus on whether judicial candidates are willing to assist the taxpayers in imposing real and genuine audit rules within the County government. Citizens should “vet” judicial candidates at length on those issues.