Image: Montgomery County Auditor Phyllis Martin hides her face from the citizens and from The Golden Hammer‘s watchful eye, as the Board of District Judges chided her for failing to provide sufficient backup materials to support her request for a hefty salary increase for herself and for her bureaucratic staff.
Expecting to waltz out of the Board of District Judges meeting with a hefty salary increase for herself and her bureaucratic staff, based upon a “salary survey” she had and controlled, Montgomery County Auditor Phyllis Martin suffered embarrassment from her lack of preparation for the meeting as a result of her failure to provide backup materials and full documentation to the District Judges. As a result, the Commissioners Court will pass a Fiscal Year 2019 Budget that does not include salary increases for Martin or any of her staff, while the Commissioners Court members gave themselves and other County government employees 3% raises.
410th District Judge Jennifer Robin came off of a very difficult week after the loss of and funeral for her father, beloved trial attorney Grady James, but revealed spectacular preparation for the meeting to fulfill her duties as Chief Administrative District Judge. Robin worked late into Thursday night to prepare for the Board of District Judges meeting, even though James’ funeral was Thursday afternoon. Robin revealed a remarkable commitment to doing her job with excellence.
In reality, all of the District Judges – Robin, 418th District Judge Tracy Gilbert, 9th District Judge Phil Grant, 221st District Judge Lisa Michalk, 284th District Judge Cara Wood, 359th District Judge Kathleen Hamilton, and 435th District Judge Patty Maginnis – came to the meeting fully prepared and engaged in the process of providing oversight to the County Auditor.
Robin called the meeting to order and announced that she intended to “ultimately make an early motion to reset this hearing at the same time as when we review a new contract of the county auditor. We didn’t notice by the Open Meetings Act discussion of renewal of the Auditor’s contract, but that’s something I believe we should discuss before we look at the Auditor’s salary and the salaries of her assistants.” Judge Robin acknowledge that “usually by late June the district judges make salary decisions, but we have a different situation this year, because the external assessment has pinpointed some areas that could be improved upon.”
Robin referred to the external assessment of Martin’s work that renewed independent accounting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville issued on August 3, 2018, under a contract with the Board of District Judges. The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, obtained a copy of the external assessment and will provide in-depth coverage later this weekend.
The comment which caused Martin’s self-confident air to dissipate occurred when Robin said, “It doesn’t make sense to set salaries if we aren’t going to keep our Auditor. The preliminary question is whether we’ll keep her.” Robin further noted that she conducted an in-depth analysis of Martin’s budget request: “The more I looked at things, the more questions I have,” Robin explained.
The Chief Administrative Judge listed a number of items she believes Martin should have provided with her budget request, among other concerns:
- resumes of the employees in the County Auditor’s Office in order to assess their qualifications;
- detailed explanations concerning the many changes the County Auditor has made without seeking Board of District Judges approval since March, 2018, when Martin seemed to reorganize her office in order to preserve the jobs of her current employees and her entire budget, even though the entire budget function has transferred to the new Budget Office bureaucracy the Commissioners Court has created at a cost of $300,000 per year to the taxpayers;
- an analysis from the County Human Resources Department of the salary range for each position and where each employee fits within that range;
- why the organizational chart needed to change other than removing budget positions;
- why the Position Description Questionnaires changed for positions within Martin’s County Auditor’s Department; and
- why one employee has moved into a lead position even though she doesn’t have a college degree and only completed 11 hours of college.
Robin said, “The bottom line is I don’t know how we could approve the proposed budget, if we don’t know…[the] qualifications and I don’t think it’s appropriate to make these decisions and we would be doing so blindly. There’s just a lot of holes. After all of it, I request and move that we reset this hearing long enough in advance to accommodte Open Meetings Act notice requirements.
The District Judges discussed whether they should, statutorily, set the operating expenses in the County Auditor’s Budget, as opposed to salaries. Section 84.021 of the Texas Local Government Code mandates that the Board of District Judges set the County Auditor’s salary, her assistant’s salaries, and related compensation, such as travel allowances, employee benefits, and the like.
Martin claimed that it is the position of Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack and Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin that the County Auditor is “to set her own operating budget.” In actuality, Noack and Griffin said during the July 10, 2018, Commissioners Court meeting that the Board of District Judges had the exclusive authority to set Martin’s budget.
Tracy Gilbert, the Judge of the 418th District Court, noted that “the external assessment suggests that two people do nothing but budget work, but you [County Auditor Martin] want to keep both in new positions.”
221st District Judge Lisa Michalk added, “This is a very important decision we’re making. We can’t rush into it.”
Cara Wood, presiding District Judge of the 284th District Court, said, “We are remiss in our duty, if we don’t set the auditor compensation in as timely a manner as we can.” Wood was an assistant county attorney before her election to the bench.
As far as the salary survey the Board of District Judges had requested, Judge Gilbert asked Martin who had selected the company to do the survey. Martin admitted that she had hired Michelle McCarter to do the study, which, of course, seems like a disconcerting conflict of interest.
Ultimately, the Board of District Judges voted to postpone the decisions until approximately 45 days in the future to obtain more information. On Judge Gilbert’s motion, the Board of District Judges left open whether or not the next meeting would include the decision whether or not to reappoint Martin as County Auditor.
Kelli Cook, policy wonk and Gulf Coast Regional Coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, said in a citizen comment, “I appreciate you guys not making a decision without having a lot of detail.”