Image: As corruption openly danced before them in the form of hiring, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court nodded their heads in agreement during their unethical sleep on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. Left to right: Precinct 4 County Commissioner James Metts, Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, County Judge Mark Keough, Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley, and Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador.
Conroe, February 3 – As they always do, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court unanimously approved corrupt Precinct 4 County Commissioner James Metts’ use of $296,000 of funds dedicated to asphalt and road maintenance to hiring his cronies instead at the Tuesday, January 29, 2019, meeting of the Montgomeruy County Commissioners Court. In the same meeting, the Commissioners Court secretly terminated Information Technology Director Marshall Shirley, but on the same day, Montgomery County Clerk Mark Turnbull began discussions secretly with Shirley to hire him as an employee of the Montgomery County Clerk’s Office.
Guess what? The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, feels entirely comfortable guaranteeing that the Commissioners Court will approve Turnbull’s hire at the next Commissioners Court meeting on February 12, 2019.
How can this newspaper be so certain? There are two reasons.
First, there is the empirical data of endless condoning of corrupt hires. Look at the track record. At the January 29, 2019, meeting alone, the Commissioners Court approved:
– Metts’ hiring of terminated County Auditor Phyllis Martin as his “Chief of Staff” and giving her a $4,736.94 per year raise in salary. The Board of District Judges had terminated Martin in September, 2018, after an independent accounting firm had performed an “External Evaluation” which found Martin had failed to meet auditing standards and had failed to perform her job duties.
– Metts’ hiring of Jamie Nash as a Public Relations Consultant whom the taxpayers must pay $46,349.94 in salary, plus $18,679.03 in County benefits, totalling $65,028.97. Nash spends the vast majority of her time as a County government employee writing “Montgomery County Police Reporter,” which exists to make Metts and his political ally Constable Rowdy Hayden look good. Nash runs the “Reporter” as a for-profit business, but the overhead comes from the taxpayers.
– Metts demoted Michael Guyton within the Commissioner Precinct 4 Office for the sole reason that Guyton is a friend and ally of former Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark.
In previous Commissioners Court meetings, the following is a very small sampling of actions the Commissioners Court approved with unanimous votes on every occasion and without discussion every single time:
– Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley created a position for his wife Deanne in the Montgomery County government and then hired her for the position in November, 2016. Deanne Riley began in her husband-created job at a salary of $58,000 as a receptionist.
– Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack hired Courier blog editor Andy Dubois as a road operator, even though Dubois had no background whatsoever in road and bridge operations or construction.
– Riley hired and promoted his nephew.
– Meador paid a secretary, who is his wife’s best friend from grade school, more than $130,000 per year of taxpayer money in the Precinct 1 Commissioner Office.
– Metts hired Greg Long, a convicted felon and drug abuser, as a Construction Foreman in the Precinct 4 Commissioner’s Office.
– Former County Judge Craig Doyal repeatedly voted promotions and raises for his daughter.
There is absolutely nothing in the track record of the members of the Commissioners Court – all five of them – which would indicate they’ll do anything other than look the other way and allow other elected servants to get away with anything and everything they do and want to do. That’s a way of describing corruption (sadly).
The “sphere of authority” fallacy
One of the common excuses members of the Commissioners Court attempt to justify their consenting to corrupt hiring practices of other elected servants emanates from the so-called “sphere of authority.” It’s actually a fallacy and a misuse of law.
In other words, the excuse is that “I can’t vote ‘no’ on Metts hiring a convicted felon, because I can’t invade his ‘sphere of authority’ according to the County Attorney.” That’s a false excuse.
Here’s the background.
When he was the Attorney General of Texas, Greg Abbott wrote an opinion in 2003 under the number GA-0037 in which he wrote:
”An elected county officer, despite the Commissioners Court’s control over the officer’s budget, is free to select assistants of his or her ‘own choice’…An elected county officer ‘occupies a sphere of authority,…within which another officer may not interfere or usurp.’…This ‘sphere of authority’ consists of those duties the Texas Constitution and statutes delegate to the officer.”
It’s important to note the critical limitation even in the foregoing opinion by Abbott: the Commissioners Court does retain control over the officer’s budget!
Nevertheless, Section 151.004 of the Texas Local Governmetn Code provides “The Commissioners Court or a member of the court may not attempt to influence the appointment of any person to an employee position authorized by the court under this subchapter.”
Once again, the critical limitation on the “sphere of authority” excuse comes from Texas Local Government Code Section 152.011:
The Commissioners Court as the governing body of the county has the authority “to set the amount of compensation, office and travel expenses, and all other allowances for county and precinct officers and employees who are paid wholly from county funds.”
And there’s what the Montgomery County Commissioner Court regularly ignores every single time.
In most of these hiring circumstances, the elected official is having to change the previously-enacted Fiscal Year Budget in order to make the hires of his cronies or family members. For example, when Metts hired the terminated Auditor Martin, demoted his untrusted employee, and hired three new political cronies, he actually had to ask his colleagues on the Commissioners Court to change the budget!
In other words, Metts knew he was hiring cronies outside of core functions for which the Commissioners Court had already budgeted for his Commissioner Precinct. It’s critical to notice that Metts didn’t bring most of his cronies into office with him by replacing Precinct employees who actually fulfill essential functions of the road and bridge operations of that office. Rather, Metts had to go to Commissioners Court to move money away from other budgeted functions (1) by tricking County Judge Mark Keough to give up his salary reduction to subsidize those hirings rather than returning the money to the taxpayers (whose need for a break was far greater than Metts’ cronies’), and (2) by taking money away from much-needed road materials in the Precinct 4 budget.
When Noack hired Dubois, the Courier blog editor, as a road operator, unfortunately, the Commissioners Court was, in fact, powerless, because Noack merely filled a vacant position for which the Commissioners Court had already budgeted. Nevertheless, the next budget season is where the Commissioners Court could take action, where a Commissioner hires an employee for a road position but instead is adding to the taxpayer-funded public relations function of his office.
County Clerk Turnbull told The Golden Hammer that he hasn’t made a decision yet on Shirley. Nevertheless, several sources inside the Montgomery County government have confirmed – at a high level – that the Shirley hire is a “fait accompli.” Hopefully, Turnbull is having second thoughts.
When or if Turnbull’s hire of Shirley occurs, citizens must watch closely to ensure that Turnbull stays within his “fiscal lane” under the law’s “sphere of authority.” If Turnbull merely gives Shirley a job position which already exists, then the Commissioners Court can’t stop the hire from occurring. If Turnbull, however, has to come to the Commissioners Court for a budget amendment or a change in any amount of funds altering any already-approved salary or expense, that’s where the Court can step in and stop it.
That’s where citizen activism must get involved. Citizens must work with the Commissioners Court, especially the good guys, such as Noack, who ARE willing to listen and communicate, and citizens must educate the entire Commissioners Court both as to what the law in Texas really is and what we expect them to do.
It is, however, in the budget process where citizen activism must raise serious questions about these particular issues, in detail, and department by department. It’s in the budget process where citizens must fight to be heard, especially after former County Judge Craig Doyal implemented the policy of forcing citizens to stand mute as the budget process proceeded.