Conroe, February 7 – As Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough begins his sixth week in office, there are major questions he should ask on behalf of the citizens and for which he should disclose the answers as quickly as possible. Before discussing those questions, however, it’s important to remember the context in which Mark Keough came to office.
Texas public policy versus Doyal-Riley secrecy
Section 552.001(a) of the Texas Government Code expostulates one of the most wonderful statements written in Texas law books:
“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Under the reign of former County Judge Craig Doyal and his henchman Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley, the Montgomery County government went into lock down mode. Doyal locked his office so the outside world could only enter by ringing a doorbell. Doyal and Riley encouraged County Department heads to lock their offices to keep the citizens out. Doyal and Riley encouraged County offices to install thick glass windows to separate County employees from the most frightening group of all known as “Montgomery County citizens.” Doyal and Riley put in place a strong policy to slow down responses to citizens’ public information requests. In fact, Doyal instituted a strong policy that County employees should not provide information to citizens unless the citizen went through the formal process of making a public information request, even though Section 552.007(a) provides:
“This chapter does not prohibit a governmental body or its officer for public information from voluntarily making part or all of its information available to the public, unless the disclosure is expressly prohibited by law or the information is confidential under law.”
Despite that provision of Texas law, even some of the most citizen-friendly County government employees fear providing public information without a formal public information request. Doyal and Riley established a culture within the County government in which County employees view themselves as elites who are not to mingle with the lowly citizenry whom they treat as supplicants for favor from those enthroned with County employee identification badges. (Fortunately, many County employees find such cultural behavior beneath the dignity of “the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government” as stated at the top of this article.)
Where Keough fits into the situation
Then came Mark Keough, the former State Representative, who ran against Doyal as a conservative “reform” candidate. Keough won the Republican Primary Election through the toil, sweat, and treasure of grassroots conservative activists, conservative Republicans, and the Tea Party groups.
In both the Republican Primary and in the General Election, Keough ran on a “Contract with Montgomery County” which included three important ethics reforms that are essential first steps towards rooting out corruption and wasteful spending inside of the Montgomery County government, which Keough made clear was one of the “most corrupt” and wastefully spending County governments in Texas.
Among Keough’s great contractual promises in his “Contract” were three of particular importance:
“a. I will work to create an environment of transparency that will eliminate the possibility of actual or perceived conflicts of interest.
“b. I will end the practice of granting preferential treatment to elected officials and their employees that does not apply to the citizens of this county.
“c. I will ensure current County ethics policies have a mechanism of enforcement that deters current and future ethics violations.”
Paragraph c – involving an enforceable ethics mechanism – requires an initial step from the Texas Legislature. Clearly Judge Keough has committed to “ensuring” that legislative changes will occur so that current County ethics policies have a mechanism of enforcement. El Paso County is the only county in Texas with such an ethics code, because its legislators passed enabling legislation to permit the El Paso County Commissioners Court to enact precisely such a code.
Two nights ago, in a public speech in Conroe, Keough expressed a concern about the effectiveness of the ethics policy in the face of two individuals – Doyal and Riley – who have spent $300,000 defending themselves against criminal indictments the conviction for which would. So what? Their case isn’t even over yet. The fact that they did spend $300,000 shows how important even Doyal and Riley treat efforts to question their public integrity. They are the precise examples why Keough and the Commissioners Court should “reach for the stars” in the implementation of a strong ethics code with serious enforcement mechanisms that will deter “current and future ethics violations.”
Some fundamental questions Keough should ask, as the citizens’ conservative “reformer,” and for which he should then provide the answers
#1 Are the members of the County Commissioners Court so busy that they couldn’t spend a full day once every two weeks in the Commissioners Court and actually deliberate every item on the agenda rather than cloaking huge swaths of County operations under the secrecy of the so-called “consent” agenda?
#2 When will the locks come off the doors of County departments so that elected officials and their employees won’t receive preferential treatment that doesn’t apply to the citizens of this County?
#3 When will the County payroll move into line with practices of private businesses where payrolls are rarely above 35% of the total budget rather than in Montgomery County where the payroll is a whopping 57.4% of expenditures?
#4 When will the Commissioners Court end the massive conflicts of interests created with the system where County vendors give between 85 to 95% of Commissioners Court members’ political contributions and then watch as those same beneficiaries vote to give them lucrative government contracts?
#5 When will the Commissioners Court shut down LJA Associates’ “fishing trip” to Hackberry Rod & Gun Club, an obvious example of “actual or perceived conflicts of interest”?
#6 Since the County government has begun to spend millions of tax dollars on so-called “homeland security,” when will the servants…of the people” define the threats which justify such extraordinary expenditures? The Publisher of this newspaper had a trial in the Montgomery County Courthouse about 20 years ago where one of the litigants called a bomb threat into the Courthouse in an attempt to prevent the trial from going forward. While the Courthouse shut down for a brief time period, the Sheriff’s Office successfully determined there was no threat very quickly and business proceeded with only the briefest and most minor delay. Have the Montgomery County Courthouse and other County government offices suffered more serious threats than that which would justify expenditures so far beyond what the County government imposed even five years ago?
#7 What sort of “homeland security” does the so-called “Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management” provide? What does that department do outside of holding press conferences during natural disasters? Does that department have a purpose which the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Division of Homeland Security, with its enormous communication and coordination resources, cannot handle?
#8 What is the government purpose served by the massive funds County Commissioners in Precincts 2 and 4 are spending on remodeling their offices? The Commissioners Court approved over $40,000 of expenditures in the Precinct 4 Commissioners Office to come out of road and bridge funds at the January 29, 2019, Court meeting. What public service purpose will those expenditures serve? Are they constructing a meeting room for constituents to meet with their County Commissioner?
#9 Of the four County Commissioners, only one of them is actually easy to reach. Believe it or not, that’s Precinct 1 County Commissioner Mike Meador who clearly is the most responsive to constituents of the four. Two Commissioners don’t return constituent calls at all or, on occasion, will have a member of their staff return calls. One County Commissioner won’t meet with constituents at all. One County Commissioner has no email address. One County Commissioner won’t meet with constituents without staff members present. How do those policies constitute “transparency” in government?
#10 What’s going on with the $16 million Enterprise Resource Planning project? Why do they work behind closed and locked doors all the time? What progress has the County government made on the ERP? Has the County government found any way to save tax funds, perhaps a million dollars or two?
#11 What really does the County Treasurer do? Why do the taxpayers need to pay for a County Treasurer, a County Auditor with a massive bookkeeping department, a Budget Office separate from them, and five members of the Commissioners Court who are responsible for overseeing the business and operations of the County government?
#12 Why does the Commissioners Court allow terminated employees to go to work – often in NEW POSITIONS WHICH THEY VOTE TO CREATE – for other County Departments? Examples such as terminated County Auditor Phyllis Martin and terminated IT Director Marshall Shirley?
#13 Why is the Montgomery County Animal Shelter on lockdown? Why do the Commissioners Court and the County Attorney tolerate a volunteers policy which imposes a prior restraint on the free speech of volunteers (in violation of the First Amendment) if those volunteers dare report to the outside world problems they observe inside of the Shelter?
#14 Why is the Commissioners Court permitting the Animal Shelter to resume euthanasia of healthy animals to make space? Why has the Commissioners Court not insisted upon aggressive marketing directly by the Animal Shelter Director? Why has the Director locked himself in his office and instituted so many locked doors throughout the Animal Shelter building? Why has the Director chased away the animal behavior volunteers who worked to make animals, especially dogs, more marketable to the adopting public?
#15 What precise financial benefit do the citizens of Montgomery County receive from the Montgomery County Airport which has lost money every year of its operations and never attracted businesses to its vicinity other than a few convenience stores?
#16 Will the Commissioners Court permit citizens to participate in the budget process, as Judge Alan Sadler previously permitted, or will they continue the Doyal-Meador policies of locking citizens out, so that the budget hearings are just a “visit to the Christmas tree” of government tax dollars for County departments and favored nonprofit organizations?
#17 When will the Commissioners Court address true nepotism in the sense of prohibiting the hiring, in non-law-enforcement departments, family members, loved ones, and political cronies?
#18 What actions have the County Auditor and the Board of District Judges to ensure true internal audit practices with full independence and compliance with auditing standards?
#19 Has Court specialization worked or not, and why? Are the Courts properly moving their dockets, why, or why not?
#20 Have the Courts achieved the optimal fiscal solution for indigent criminal defendant payments, and why, or why not?
#21 Why is the IT Department costing the taxpayers so much money?
#22 Why is the Commissioners Court permitting four of the five JP courts to foist suffering – and expensive – fees and fines collections, and why doesn’t the Commissioners Court take swift action to fix that problem which is costing taxpayers millions of dollars? Why don’t the Commissioners take heed of the constitutional and due process concerns which former Justice of the Peace Edie Connelly has raised with the use of the failed collection and court database system?
#23 Why does the County government continue to duplicate road engineering services?
#24 Why does the County government continue to pay such a hefty premium for professional services?
#25 Why does the County government pay full retail prices for building materials?
These questions are major. They’re questions which Judge Keough should ask and then make the public well aware of the answers he discovers. Presently, citizens may not enter the ERP Room in the Sadler Building. Nevertheless, one might guess that Keough can gain entry behind its locked and opaque doors. One might guess that Keough can get to the bottom of all of these questions and bring the answers into the light of day.