Image: Montgomery County Permitting Director Phil Jones, standing in the doorway of the Permitting Department in the Sadler Administration Building, just as he grabbed a camera which a young man held in the lobby area on April 2, 2019.
Conroe, April 4 – The Montgomery County government suspended Permitting Director Phil Jones, with pay, during the pendency of an investigation over an incident, which occurred at approximately 4:54 p.m., Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in which Jones grabbed a camera which a young man held in his face in the lobby area of the Sadler Administration Building, the central administration building of the County in downtown Conroe. The young man, unbeknownst to Jones at the time, has a reputation for goading individuals to react to his actions and then filing suit to claim a violation of his civil rights.
In reality, Jones’ suspension results from the failure of the Montgomery County government to train all Department Directors and employees that open government is Texas public policy and a priority in the operation of the Montgomery County government.
The young man’s video surfaced on social media on Tuesday evening and shows the young man, age 21, and his girlfriend approaching the Sadler building and then walking through the front door to the Permitting Department window and door, which the Department had locked at the 4:30 p.m. closing time. The video showed Jones asking what was happening through the window and then opening the door to talk with the camera-holder.
At first, Jones gently asked, “What’s this about, sir?” Unfortunately, the video shows Jones rapidly moving towards putting his hands on the camera taking the video. It was apparent that the gentleman holding the camera moved the camera into Jones face and personal space.
The cameraman and his girlfriend almost immediately began to accuse Jones of assault, even though it was very apparent Jones had merely nudged the camera and had not actually caused any harm to the camera or to the cameraman.
Within a few minutes, Kimberly Sutton, an Administrative Assistant from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough’s office came to the first floor from her office on the fourth floor. Sutton seemed to find the circumstances humorous but didn’t really interact with the participants.
Judge Keough’s Chief of Staff, Jason Millsaps, then arrived from the fourth floor. Millsaps worked hard to defuse the situation and ultimately told the cameraman on video “I apologize for him putting his hands on you…He admitted he was in the wrong.” By that point, Jones was back inside the locked door of the Permitting Department Office.
It turns out the cameraman is a 21-year-old from Buffalo, Oklahoma, who goes around the southern and central United States regularly to spark such incidents. He has spent quite a bit of time in jail, including in north Texas and in other states. While in custody, the cameraman regularly causes officials to lose their cool in response to which he has filed a number of different civil rights lawsuits.
While he refers to himself as an “auditor for the First Amendment,” the cameraman seems to elicit responses such as Jones’ intentionally.
Clearly, Jones should not have touched the camera or the cameraman. The Permitting Office closes at 4:30 p.m. daily, so that the employees may close their files and safeguard funds the office took in during the day. Jones’ concern about someone filming those activities from outside of the door does not seem unreasonable, although his course of conduct simply should have been to notify law enforcement authorities of the suspicious behavior rather than taking matters into his own hands.
Fortunately, Millsaps did an excellent job defusing the situation as much as possible.
There remains a serious problem within the Montgomery County government, however. Since the administration of disgraced former County Judge Craig Doyal, there is a “lockdown mentality” in County offices which have sought and implemented methods of locking the public out of government operations.
While reasonable security precautions are acceptable to protect cash intakes or to protect County government personnel records, the locked doors of the Montgomery County government, the protective windows between the public and Department offices, and the physical secrecy of hiding inside opaque rooms clearly defies the policy of “open government” which the State of Texas has adopted as public policy.
Individuals, such as Jones, should receive training in “open government” policy as well as the handling of interactions with the public. All County government employees, even elected servants, should receive such training. At the same time, the incident involving Jones was quite minor and one which the cameraman seemed to want to provoke.