By Kathi Bliss
An ongoing point of contention within the community has finally come to a head, and the community has plenty to say about it.
Before a standing-room-only crowd on Monday morning, the Caldwell County Commissioners heard from more than a dozen concerned residents, each with an opinion as to whether or not the County Administrator and Human Resources Departments should be eliminated from the County’s budgets, and litany of reasons to support each side of the argument.
Both departments, which have been created during the administration of County Judge Tom Bonn, are flagstone complaints against Bonn’s leadership, which his detractors believe were created to expand the government and reduce Bonn’s responsibilities. Supporters of the positions expressed pride that Caldwell County is moving forward, and said the positions are instrumental in protecting both the County’s finances and its employees.
A total of 16 interested parties spoke to the Court for more than an hour, pointing out a variety of issues involved with either keeping the positions or eliminating them. Most focused on the ideas of expanded government versus the idea that the Court is pandering to a small portion of the population which has been very vocal against not only those positions, but Bonn’s administration on the whole.
In general, the public support for abolishing the positions came from the same contingent that has stood against their creation from the word “go.” Those individuals, vocal and accusatory about Bonn’s leadership for months, continued their assault by reminding the Court about the way things used to be, and accusing them of making false comparisons of Caldwell County to other counties in the region.
Susan Stewart reminded Bonn that, in a 2011 column published in local newspapers, he said, “I was elected to run this county.” Stewart said that because he had been elected to that purpose, that Bonn should be running the County, and a County Administrator should not. She said that, because Bonn could rely on a County Administrator, he now had “time to take a second job,” and hear cases of law. She also mentioned that his time spent hearing legal cases entitles him to an additional financial stipend from the State.
“In 2010, the voters hired someone to run the county,” she said. “It was NOT a County Administrator.”
Tracy Forrester bolstered that argument, reminding the Court that the Democratic Party swept the last County election, suggesting that the citizens were not satisfied with the way Caldwell County is being run.
Forrester also noted that County Treasurer Lori Rangel had volunteered, prior to the creation of the Human Resources Department, to become certified in Human Resources so she could perform those duties, in addition to her responsibilities as County Treasurer.
She also said that she, and others, have talked to many residents of the County who are in support of eliminating the positions.
Steven Zunker encouraged the Court to focus on growth of the community, rather than growth of the government, and said that the funds currently being spent on the County Administrator and Human Resources departments would be better spent on additional patrol cars for the Sheriff’s Department, and on road maintenance and improvement.
Kathy Sellers cited rampant spending in the administration, suggesting that the Court did not call the citizens in to discuss the purchase of the old WalMart building for a judicial center, and suggesting that many residents may lose their home or their land due to an inability to pay higher taxes that might be levied to pay for the Court’s spending on that project, as well as on the added departments.
While neither said outright whether they thought the positions should be done away with, Kathy Haigler and Robert Wilson simply asked who would be responsible for the duties currently being performed by the departments, should they be abolished. Haigler suggested that the Commissioners should take on the duties.
Dee Rodgers, on the other hand, told the Commissioners that creating the two departments is the best thing the Court has done in a long time, and said she was ashamed that anyone was using the positions as a “political game.”
“We’re tired of having a small number of people that come here and offer their unsolicited opinions being treated as though they are the ‘voice of the county,’” she said. “They are not.”
Howard Berg echoed those concerns, suggesting that several members of the community “grandstand on several agenda and non-agenda items, saying that they represent the community. They do not.”
Berg asked the Court to put an end to the negativity and the micromanagement, and to remember that they represent the whole of the County, not just a small group of vocal citizens.
“I often see Commissioners looking to the guests in seating for guidance,” he said. “That has to stop. The Commissioners should do their own research and make their own decisions for what is best for the County.”
Former candidate for Sheriff, Ray Chandler, urged the Court to step away from the decision and consider whether it was being considered for personal, political or financial reasons.
“Let’s remove the individuals from it,” he said. “Let’s look at the positions.”
Lockhart resident Kathy McCormick agreed, reminding the Commissioners that if the question was a matter of the individuals holding the positions, then that should be considered, but said she supported the decision to create the departments.
“We’re going in the right direction now,” she said, “with our eyes forward and our back covered.”
Chandler said a Human Resources department is necessary, not only to give employees an outlet for their complaints and concerns, but to give supervisors advice as to how to handle tricky employee situations.
“If they have no outlet,” he said, “how are you going to protect their rights.”
He also reminded the Commissioners that tax dollars are collected with the purpose of being spent, and questioned the County’s consistently-growing General Fund balance. He told the Court he does not want his tax dollars put into a savings account, and that if the money is not going to be spent, that taxes should be decreased.
Hays County Judge Bert Cobb, M.D., came forward and spoke for several minutes as an ally to the Commissioners, citing that he represents “Caldwell County, Precinct 5, also known as Hays County.”
Cobb said that Caldwell and Hays Counties are “in this together,” and urged the Commissioners to consider the liability the County might be open to if they opted to eliminate the Human Resources department.
“It would be like lowering your britches and standing in the middle of I-35,” he said. “Every lawyer in Texas would have their eyes on Caldwell County.”
He also used his own experiences as the elected County Judge in Hays County to remind the Commissioners that the County Judge is not an “uber-Commissioner,” and a litany of responsibilities come with the job.
In the end, he urged the Court to remember that the citizens want to trust their leaders, and that the more open the government is, the better it will be.
“The people want to know, ‘can we trust you?’” he said. “And that should be how you make your decisions. Ask yourself, is it legal; is it moral; is it ethical; and does it make good sense. If you can say ‘yes’ to those questions, then the people will trust you.”
Troy Swift, former Commissioner John Cyrier, Stuart Carter and Robert Steinbomer (via a letter addressed to the Court) recounted past experiences with both the County Administrator and the Human Resources department which they said showed the value of those departments.
Each cited examples of ways in which the Human Resources department has allowed the County to sidestep liability in employment issues, and how the County Administrator has saved the County both money and time in negotiations with contractors, developers and through other means.
After allowing each member of the gallery who chose to take the time to speak his or her piece on the matter, the Commissioners convened into a 45-minute executive session with their legal counsel to discuss the ramifications of eliminating the positions.
At the end of that session, the Court reconvened in open session and voted to put the decisions off for two weeks, during a special-called meeting on April 29.
Commissioner Joe Roland, who originally asked for the measure to be placed on the agenda, said more research needed to be done.
“I want to thank each and every one of you,” Roland said. “I think that you all have Caldwell County’s best interest in your heart. But because of the discussion we had in executive session, I would like to table both of these items, and talk to the attorney from TAC (the Texas Association of Counties).”
Asked what he hoped to accomplish in those two weeks’ time, Roland said he just wanted to be sure about all aspects of the decision. He and Commissioner Alfredo Munoz will meet with TAC attorneys, and the measure will return to the agenda during the special-called meeting on April 29.
In brief business, the Commissioners heard discussion from Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce representative George Sanchez, who last week had asked for fencing around the Caldwell County Courthouse Square to be moved to accommodate the upcoming Cinco de Mayo festival.
Sanchez reported that he had learned moving the fence would cost $1,000, and said his organization cannot afford that. Instead, he said, the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has opted to revamp the layout for their event, and utilize space on South Main Street, rather than on East Market.