Image: State Representative Will Metcalf (left), Republican of Conroe, with Texas Governor Greg Abbott at the State Capitol in Austin in February, 2019.
The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Conroe, New Caney, and Austin, March 1 – On February 9, 2021, during a regular Commissioners Court meeting, Precinct 4 Montgomery County Commissioner James Metts said, “We’re not in the business of regulating commerce. That’s not our job. It’s all about public safety.” Three days later, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court adopted a towing ordinance, which picked 15 favored politically-connected towing companies in each of the Commissioner Precincts for placement on a towing rotation for non-consensual tows, i.e., those tows arising from vehicle collisions.
Basically, the argument Metts and his towing company cronies seemed to make, is that the current system of “chipping” at the scene of each accident, where tow truck drivers draw a chip to determine who actually gets the tow job, threatens public safety by allowing too many tow truck drivers to line up at each accident scene. The big winners in the Commissioners Court’s action were not the public, however, but the select group of 15 towing companies in each Commissioners Precinct who received the favorable nod to be on the towing rotation.
Metts clearly responded to orders barked at him during the February 12 special Commissioners Court meeting by towing magnate T.J. Knox, the owner of EMC Towing in New Caney, who has lobbied vociferously for a County government-protected towing monopoly – or oligopoly – for almost ten years under the pretense that a rotation would protect the public from tow trucks lined up at accident scenes to seek business by the unheard-of method of offering the lowest price or by random selection through “chipping.” The last thing Knox or Metts wanted in Montgomery County was free-market competition. Rather, they sought government favoritism, or crony capitalism, to give politically-connected towing companies an advantage over the competition.
While sputtering the phrase “public safety” repeatedly, neither Metts, Knox, nor any members of the Commissioners Court could point to one single traffic accident, fatality, injury from free-market competition among towing companies.
Last week, this newspaper asked each member of the Commissioners Court and several law enforcement officials what is the public safety issue. None of the Commissioners Court members – County Judge Mark Keough and the four Precinct Commissioners (including Metts) – responded. Two Constables, Ryan Gable of Precinct 3 and Rowdy Hayden of Precinct 4 – also failed to respond. Precinct 2 Commissioner Gene DeForest admitted he knew of no data supporting the claim that there is a public safety hazard from tow trucks lining up at accident scenes.
Sheriff Rand Henderson, however, didn’t provide any data to support the “public safety” argument, but also answered in part, “As you are aware, Representative Will Metcalf authored and passed House Bill 2213 in 2015, which enabled Montgomery County to create a tow rotation list for unincorporated areas of Montgomery County. This was done as a result of numerous complaints Representative Metcalf and members of the Commissioners Court received from citizens.”
Therefore, this newspaper sought to identify the complainers to Representative Metcalf and members of the Commissioners Court. The only citizens, who appeared in the Commissioners Court to complain about the lack of a towing policy designed to protect the larger companies, such as EMC Towing or Milstead Towing, were the owners and operators of those very same towing companies. Thus, it seemed important to examine what Representative Metcalf heard and learned during the legislative process in which his House Bill 2213 passed and Governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law.
House Bill 2213, of which State Representative Will Metcalf of Conroe was the author, provided a county government with the ordinance making power to regulate towing. Without such power, the county government would have no authority whatsoever to issue towing ordinances, which is the reason most such ordinances emanate from city governments. Knox and his would-be towing oligopolists wanted Montgomery County’s government to have the authority to protect them from competition, so they had to go to the Texas Legislature to receive the authority for such favorable treatment.
Metcalf’s legislation provides that it only applies to “the unincorporated area of a county (1) with a population of 450,000 or more that is adjacent to a county with a population of 3.3 million or more, (2) with a population of less than 10,000 that is located in a national forest; or (3) adjacent to a county described by Subdivision (2) that has a population of less than 75,000.” Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe was the sponsor in the Texas Senate.
After Metcalf introduced the local bill, which only applied to a small number of counties – one, Montgomery County – the House referred the bill to the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee. That Committee conducted a brief hearing on Metcalf’s bill on April 6, 2015. It was brief, because only one person showed up to speak about the legislation: Amy Milstead, one of the owners of Milstead Towing in south Montgomery County. Two other individuals, a lobbyist for the Southwest Tow Operators Association and another for the Texas Tow & Storage Association, both groups representing large towing companies, registered their support for Metcalf’s bill, but didn’t speak.
Milstead spoke briefly to the Committee and only stated her support. Neither Milstead, Metcalf, nor anyone else offered any support for the proposition that towing regulation was necessary for “public safety.” The Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee heard from no witnesses but reported the bill favorably.
In both the House and Senate approvals of the legislation, there was no discussion whatsoever of “public safety.” Two members of the Texas House voted against the bill, however: Jonathan Stickland, Republican of Bedford, and Tony Tinderholt, Republican of Arlington, the two most conservative and free-market-oriented members of the Texas House voted “no” in a 137 to 2 vote. Similarly, in the Texas Senate, the two most conservative and free-market-oriented members of the Texas Senate, Don Huffines of Arlington and Konni Burton, Republican of Kerrville, voted “no” in a 29 to 2 vote.
Nothing in the bill analysis for House Bill 2213, the discussion, the committee deliberations, or even any comments by either Representative Metcalf or Senator Creighton throughout the legislative process would suggest that the legislation was anything but “crony capitalism” at its worst.
Other than many plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys who scare the public with claims of many vehicle accidents arising from tow truck companies in their lawyer advertising, there simply is no data whatsoever, whether statistical or anecdotal, to support Metts’ or any member of the Commissioners Court’s contention that Montgomery County’s towing ordinance had anything to do with “public safety.”
It’s not surprising that Montgomery County, well known as “the most corrupt county government in Texas,” would be the sole county in Texas to have a towing ordinance giving crony tow truck operators exclusive business operation rights to the exclusion of free market competition.