After two years in office as Montgomery County Judge, Craig Doyal and his “chief of staff” Jim Fredricks have developed a system of preparing and hiding the agenda as much as possible from the public and their political opponents within the County government. Take the current agenda for the Tuesday, February 14, 2017, 9:30 a.m. meeting. It’s 16 pages long, with 10 pages on the “consent agenda” which means that the members of the Commissioners Court won’t review it, discuss it, or deliberate about it. In other words, some bureaucrats deep inside the bowels of our County bureaucracy intend to spend millions of tax dollars, make all sorts of changes to our County government, and prosecute all sorts of power plays without the light of day ever shining upon those actions.
It’s not open government. It’s secret government. Behind all of the freshly locked doors of the Sadler Building, the hidden employees, and purloined nepotism, you, the citizens who must foot the bill have no idea what they’re doing.
Section 551.041 of the Texas Government Code, part of the Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”), mandates “A governmental body shall give written notice of the date, hour, place, and subject of each meeting held by the governmental body.” The notice must be posted following a particular procedure of public posting 72 hours before the meeting. That means that Commissioners Court meetings beginning Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. must be the subject of a public posting at the Courthouse no later than the previous Saturday morning at 9:30 a.m. The notice must include the subject of the meeting.
The agendas which Doyal and Fredricks post, have many problems. First, since the public has begun to take a special interest in many topics – County payroll, ethics, spending – the agendas should include specific explanation of the items about those topics that will be under discussion. Listing an item “payroll change requests” under Human Resources is insufficient, as the Texas Supreme Court held in a case involving Cox Enterprises and the Austin ISD in 1986.
In the instance of the February 14 agenda, Doyal and Fredricks failed to include any description of the payroll matters under discussion, the affected employees, or any backup material for the “payroll changes.” In short, the public is in the dark. It’s really bad, because some County salaries are completely out of control.
It’s really bad, because certain Departments, such as Building Maintenance and the County Treasurer have major nepotism policies. Building Maintenance is the resting place for County Commissioners and others to hide family members. The County Treasurer is where Lindsey Doyal, the daughter of County Judge Craig Doyal, works. There have been discussions of giving Lindsey Doyal a raise in the middle of the Budget year, even though she just got a 3% raise on October 1. There have been discussions of reorganizing various departments, including the Treasurer’s and Building Maintenance. Those discussions should occur in open meetings, not in secret meetings between the Treasurer and various County Commissioners, not in secret meetings between the Building Maintenance Director and the County Judge, and not in secret meetings among other County bureaucrats. They should occur in the open, in public view, under the notice provisions mandated in the TOMA.
The failure of County Attorney J.D. Lambright to provide procedures in writing for implementing the Code of Ethics well before the Commissioners Court agenda posting is inexcusable. The public has a keen interest in ethics reform within the County government. While there is an agenda item for this topic, Lambright failed to append his proposed ethics implementation policy.
Oftentimes, County bureaucrats such as Lambright or Department heads, will draft policies for consideration at Commissioners Court meetings, circulate those policies to the five members of the Court long before the meeting, but then fail to append the policies to the Commissioners Court packet, so that the public may view the proposed policies under consideration.
Doyal and Fredricks play another game with openness as well. They fail to respond in any fashion whatsoever to citizen comments during Commissioners Court meetings. Rather, they sit like statues without ever responding. Doyal has enforced the “stone face” policy during those comments upon his colleagues on the Court. Lambright, the County Attorney, has gone along with the attempted secrecy and lack of responsiveness to citizen concerns. But the TOMA specifically addresses that issue:
“Sec. 551.042. INQUIRY MADE AT MEETING. (a) If, at a meeting of a governmental body, a member of the public or of the governmental body inquires about a subject for which notice has not been given as required by this subchapter, the notice provisions of this subchapter do not apply to:
(1) a statement of specific factual information given in response to the inquiry; or
(2) a recitation of existing policy in response to the inquiry.
(b) Any deliberation of or decision about the subject of the inquiry shall be limited to a proposal to place the subject on the agenda for a subsequent meeting.”
In summary, Doyal and the Commissioners may respond to citizen comments. They just can’t conduct full discussions or deliberations on them. If Steve Toth complains that the County has failed to enact a Code of Ethics, nothing would prevent Craig Doyal from responding to former State Representative Toth, while Toth stands at the podium, by saying words to the effect “We should place that item on the agenda” or by admitting “We don’t have an ethics policy right now because we’ve eliminated ethics rules from County operations.”
All of this obfuscation must stop.