By Kathi Bliss
An already embattled Commissioners’ Court continues to sink deeper in the muck as public frustration over budget and personnel decisions continues to degenerate into accusations of criminality, godlessness and even mental incompetence.
County Judge Tom Bonn and Commissioner John Cyrier continued to draw heavy fire this week during the regular meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners Court. One after another, citizens came forward to level criticisms upon the Court, culminating in flared tempers, infighting between the Commissioners, and finally Bonn looking to an outside source for information on how other political meetings are conducted.
The troubles began early in the meeting, when Bonn informed the gallery that public comments would be taken from gallery members at the beginning of the meeting, but that commentary on individual agenda items would be reserved only for those members of the public who would be directly impacted by those decisions.
The announcement drew heckling from the gallery, and accusations that Bonn was attempting to stifle the First Amendment rights of the citizens in attendance. In defense of the ruling, Bonn said that he was simply trying to conduct County business, and that constant interruption and sounding off from members of the public was interfering in the Court’s ability to conduct that business.
Things went downhill from there.
McMahan resident Rick Johnson came forward to criticize the Court for not starting their weekly meetings with a prayer, quoting both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as evidence of what he called “promises made and promises broken” by the Commissioners.
Johnson summed up by asking for Bonn to resign his position, claiming that Bonn was “mentally unfit” to hold the position, and saying he charged Bonn with “official misconduct.”
Silence fell over the Court for upwards of 30 seconds, as Bonn and Johnson stared one another down. Bonn then told Johnson that he may have to apologize for his comments, after checking the facts behind his strong accusations.
After several gallery members battered Bonn and the rest of the Court, in particular for “not listening” to the public, the Judge called on former Lockhart Mayor James “Jimmy” Bertram to explain to the gallery how he had run meetings as mayor.
Bertram advised Bonn that it is wise to listen to the public during meetings when they want to speak, reminding Bonn of an incident several years ago when Bertram prevented several individuals from speaking because they
were “all saying the same thing,” and faced a recall election as a result of that decision.
He also said it had been his preference to allow would-be speakers to choose, whether they would speak during the “public comments” portion of the meetings, or during discussion on a particular agenda item when it came up.
Bonn noted later that a part of his decision to limit public comment was based on the fact that discussion among the Court is often interrupted, heckled and otherwise disrupted by public comments.
Once again County Administrator Ron Heggemeier was brought into the crosshairs, as gallery members cited articles from the Denver Post, in Heggemeier’s home state of Colorado, which were used to call Heggemeier’s fitness, ethics and intentions for his new position. Others cited courthouse and community gossip as to who would be tapped to fill the new Human Resources position and the new clerk and court assistant positions, to accuse Bonn and Heggemeier of writing the County’s budget to provide jobs and pay increases to their family members and friends.
Neither man answered those accusations, except that Bonn hailed Heggemeier’s performance as the County’s legal advisor, and said he was more swayed by his personal work experience with Heggemeier than by articles found on the Internet.
It was not only gallery members who voiced concern about Heggemeier’s appointment to the controversial County Administrator position. Commissioner Fred Buchholtz had asked the appointment to be placed on the agenda for ratification by the Commissioners, but Commissioner Neto Madrigal asked instead to discuss the County Administrator job posting and job description.
Madrigal and Commissioner Joe Roland have both openly criticized Bonn for posting the position based on a job posting drafted by Heggemeier himself for Judge Ronnie Duesterheft, and for appointing Heggemeier without discussing it with the Court.
Bonn continues to assert that the posting and hiring were done in alignment with state law and with the County’s hiring policy, and that after posting the job internally, Heggemeier proved to be a right fit and a good choice for the position.
Still, the decision drew criticism because some believe that Heggemeier was too involved in the creation of the position, the setting of the salary, and in the drafting of the job description. Bonn said he alone was responsible for drafting the job description, and distributed to the Court on Monday.
Further action on the appointment was tabled until the next regular meeting.
The Court also engaged in heated discussion about the relocation of the Caldwell County Treasurer’s Office to the Caldwell County Tax Assessor-Collector’s building at 100 E. Market.
The Commissioners were, however, able to conduct some regular business.
They heard reports from several department heads regarding county business during the month of September.
They voted to waive the $225 fee for residential construction permits for homeowners impacted by the Delhi Fire.
The Commissioners chose to approve a resolution in support of the Texans Feeding Texans Home-Delivered Meal Program.
Upon a request from several residents in the area, the Court voted to lower the speed limit on County Road 215 (Westwood Road) to 30 miles per hour.
They voted to authorize Bonn to execute a Final Release and Settlement to Western Surety Company regarding the receipt of payment of $40,000 against a former appointed official’s bond. The payment is part of the restitution settlement for the embezzlement that occurred at the satellite tax office in Luling. Both Madrigal and Roland chose to abstain from that vote.
The County also chose to end their participation in the Emergency Notification System (ENS), or “reverse 9-1-1” provided by the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG). Madrigal said that he would speak to Lockhart City Manager Vance Rodgers regarding alternative providers of the ENS service.
The County paid bills in the amount of $54,883.86.
The Caldwell County Commissioners Court meets on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the conference and training room at the L.W. Scott Annex.