Conroe, April 3 – With the Montgomery County Commissioners Court about to enter the budget process, mired with a lame duck, aggressively anti-citizen County Judge, Craig Doyal, and a brand new Budget Office Director, Amanda Carter, who has already succumbed to anti-citizen, pro-bureaucracy ways, citizens must be particularly vigilant. Last night at the bi-weekly meeting of the Montgomery County Tea Party, State Representative Mark Keough’s Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps spoke to packed room of conservative political activists who engaged him on several different topics of questions after Millsaps gave an inspiring speech on parliamentary procedure at Republican conventions.
After Millsaps spoke, an audience member asked, “Since it’s likely that soon-to-be Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough will have to live through three quarters of the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget that the Commissioners Court will soon consider during the upcoming budget process, what efforts have County Judge Craig Doyal, Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, and other members of the Commissioners Court made to reach out to Keough for his input?”
Millsaps’ answer to the question said a lot about the current members of the Commissioners Court as well as Keough: “The only member of the Commissioners Court who has reached out to Keough is Commissioner Noack. Mark doesn’t want to involve himself in the budget process right now, because he considers himself a private citizen. Therefore, he won’t be involved, unless they allow members of the public, such as members of the Citizens Budget Committee, to be involved in the process as well.”
Millsaps’ answer revealed Keough’s compassion for the chronic disenfranchisement citizens have felt during the tenure of Doyal as County Judge. Last year’s budget process was a glaring example of Doyal’s intentional actions to ensure that the public had as little input into the budget process as possible.
2017-18 budget process: purposeful exclusion of citizen input in violation of Texas law
Chapter 111 of the Texas Local Government Code governs precisely how the Commissioners Court and the County Auditor must conduct themselves during the budget process, including very exact deadlines when they must act.
The Commissioners Court dodged and weaved all over themselves and the place in order to avoid any citizen review or input of the budget at all cost beginning around the end of March, 2017.
Initially, the members of the Citizens Budget Committee sought to obtain copies of each department’s requested budgets from County Auditor Phyllis Martin. Martin flatly refused to provide the requested information, because, she claimed (falsely), that the proposed budgets in her office had her personal notes and marginalia all over them. Eventually, after County Attorney J.D. Lambright strongly advised Martin to provide the requested budgets to the Citizens Budget Committee, Martin provided copies, which were very clean of marginalia. In the meantime, however, thanks to the assistance of County Attorney Lambright, the Citizens Budget Committee was able to obtain each requested departmental budget by making the request to each and every department. With a very small number of exceptions, every County Department complied with the Citizens Budget Committee request for their proposed budgets long before Martin complied.
In an obvious effort to exclude public participation in the statutorily-required “public hearing” on the proposed Montgomery County Budget, Doyal failed to post a proper notice for the budget meetings that were to occur during the week of July 24, 2017. Amazingly, nowhere on the proposed agenda was there any mention of a “public hearing,” as the Texas Local Government Code mandates nor was there any mention that the Commissioners Court will take action on the proposed budget as the Texas Local Government Code also mandates!
In other words, Doyal failed to post an agenda for Tuesday, July 25, 2017, that would permit the Commissioners Court to comply with the requirements of the Texas Local Government Code without violating the Texas Open Meetings Act! Through the whole week of budget hearings, Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador attempted to secure votes on budget matters, as he seemed to know how budget hearings were to proceed.
Background of confusion
On July 14, 2017, County Auditor Phyllis Martin posted the proposed budget in accordance with Section 111.037 of the Texas Local Government Code.
Section 111.038 of the Texas Local Government Code provides:
“Sec. 111.038. PUBLIC HEARING ON PROPOSED BUDGET. (a) The commissioners court shall hold a public hearing on the proposed budget. Any person may attend and may participate in the hearing.
(b) The commissioners court shall hold the hearing on a day within 10 calendar days after the date the proposed budget is filed but before the last day of the first month of the fiscal year.
(c) The commissioners court shall publish notice that it will consider the proposed budget on the date of the budget hearing. The notice must be published once in a newspaper of general circulation in the county and must state the date, time, and location of the hearing.
(d) Notice under this section must include, in type of a size at least equal to the type used for other items in the notice, any statement required to be included in the proposed budget under Section 111.033(b).”
Subsection 111.038(b) requires that the Commissioners Court hold its public hearing on the proposed budget within 10 calendar days of July 14. It’s 11, but who’s counting…
There were then two major problems with the notice for the July 25 budget meeting.
First, it was required to be a “public hearing” on the proposed budget where “Any person may attend and may participate in the hearing.” Tex. Local Gov’t Code Section 111.038(a). Doyal, however, did not post the meeting that way. Instead, he only posted a budget “workshop” without any mention of a public hearing. Doyal didn’t want citizen input into the budget. His ego was far too fragile for that.
Second, Sec. 111.039 of the Local Government Code mandates that:
ADOPTION OF BUDGET. (a) At the conclusion of the public hearing, the commissioners court shall take action on the proposed budget. A vote to adopt the budget must be a record vote.”
The second problem, however, was that there was no agenda item in the notice for the Commissioners Court to take action on the proposed budget. There was an agenda item to discuss rollback tax rates and effective tax rates. There was an agenda item to discuss tax rates to fund the budget, even though that would seem premature since they had to vote on the proposed budget first (as has always been done in the past for at least the last 25 years!). There was an agenda item to vote on a proposed tax rate. Nevertheless, there was not any agenda item for the proposed budget itself. It was all bizarre, because Doyal took those strange turns in the process in order to exclude the public.
On September 5, 2017, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a $328 million budget, on a 4 to 1 vote, in the middle of the Tropical Storm Harvey disaster, without meaningful review and without a fair chance for the public to participate in a public hearing with the proposed budget before them. Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark took the heroic step of voting against the County Budget for Fiscal Year 2018.
The September 5, 2017, Commissioners Court meeting exhibited a strenuous effort by four of the five Commissioners Court members to exclude the public from participation in the budget process. Worse yet, since County Auditor Phyllis Martin had only filed the “Proposed Budget” on August 31, 2017, less than two business days prior to the meeting, it was apparent that the Commissioners Court members had little understanding of the content of the 365-page document on which they voted.
The purpose of the Commissioners Court meeting on September 5, 2017, was to hold a public hearing where the members of the Commissioners Court could discuss the “Proposed Budget” with members of the public. The Commissioners Court never made the “Proposed Budget” available to the public until approximately 10 a.m., Thursday, August 31, 2017, even though County Judge Craig Doyal made clear that the budget was available to him and to County Auditor Phyllis Martin since early August.
The first citizen who attempted to speak on September 5 was Bob Holden of Willis whom Doyal and Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley treated with the utmost rudeness.
Holden commented that the “budget was not cut sufficiently…only 1 commissioner has been able to reduce his budget.” Holden further said, “there was actually a budget and tax increase, because property appraisals have gone up significantly.”
When Holden dared to speak about the massive amount of general revenue funds that the Commissioners Court has voted to spend Doyal’s and Riley’s pet $73 million 3.6 mile Tx-249 Tollway at the far southwest edge of Montgomery County planned to go into vacant pastureland which some of their favored political contributors happen to own, Doyal and Riley couldn’t sit still.
Doyal interrupted Holden, “This hearing is about the tax rate and budget, not roads.”
Riley then interrupted with the comment, “Jesus Christ, this is so sad.” Riley used the Lord’s name as though it were a swear word.
Holden kept his composure, even though Riley and Doyal did not, and continued, “You know who pays the revenue bonds, we do? By the way, I’d like to make an offer on your [Doyal’s] house at county appraised value.”
Riley then used the Lord’s name in vain again, “Jesus, this is so sad.” Doyal then agreed with Riley’s invocation of the Lord’s name in vain, “It is sad.” Apparently, Doyal and Riley believe that it is “sad” when citizens dare come to speak to them and challenge their elite decisions.
The loss of all sense of propriety among Doyal, Riley, and the Commissioners Court continued.
Doyal then said, “That appraisal on my house was just the lot value.” (Of course, Doyal didn’t mention that he had moved into the completed palace of a home prior to the beginning of the calendar year, so the full home value should have been in the appraisal.)
Riley agreed with himself, “So pitiful.”
The next speaker was Eric Yollick, the Publisher of The Golden Hammer, who merely asked some questions to the Commissioners Court. Even though it was a public hearing, none of the members of the Commissioners Court could answer any of the questions about the $328 million budget they were set to pass regardless of what was in it.
The Commissioners Court regained consciousness, after Yollick finished asking the questions about the budget, long enough to approve the largest operational expenditure budget in the history of Montgomery County by a 4 to 1 vote, with Commissioner Clark voting “No.”