By Kathi Bliss
Another Caldwell County employee was ousted this week as tensions within the Commissioners Court continue to build.
After nearly two years of controversy and weeks of fruitless discussions, the Caldwell County Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to abolish the position of County Administrator amid harsh words and palpable anger from County Judge Tom Bonn.
Commissioner Joe Roland has of late been spearheading the drive to eliminate the position, adding the item to agenda repeatedly and doing legwork and research to ensure the legality of the move. Roland reminded both the Commissioners and the gallery that he has been against the position of County Administrator from the beginning, and that he has voted against both budgets which include the department.
Indeed, in the time since the position was introduced, Roland has been a vocal opponent of the position, often expressing the belief that the County Judge should, in fact, be in charge of administrative duties that have been assigned to the Administrator. He has consistently reminded the Court that many counties, larger and more wealthy than Caldwell County, do not have administrators and has said that the position is an unnecessary expense.
Still, Roland said, his opposition is not a reflection of his feelings for current County Administrator Ron Heggemeier, who Roland said has been an asset to the county since his employment as an assistant district attorney. He offered apologies to Heggemeier, and then made the motion that the County Administrator position be eliminated effective Friday, May 31, and that the county budget be amended to shift any remaining funds budgeted for that department to the Unit Road System to be used on county roads.
Commissioner Neto Madrigal said he agreed with everything Roland had said, and offered a second to the motion.
Commissioner Alfredo Munoz said that he, too, was impressed with Heggemeier’s work, but believed that the position is unnecessary for Caldwell County at this time. The three each expressed the sentiment that their decision was not personal or political, but based in fiscal responsibility.
Bonn and Commissioner Fred Buchholtz offered defense for Heggemeier and the position. Buchholtz said he did not believe Heggemeier had been approached about any deficiencies in his performance, and said that all corporations and organizations have and said that all corporations and organizations have chief executive officers to perform administrative duties.
His statement drew titters from the gallery, many of whom have been vocal about believing that Bonn, and not a County Administrator, should be performing those functions.
Bonn fired back at the three Commissioners supporting the elimination of the position and suggested that because the discussion dealt with an individual’s job and livelihood, that it was in fact personal, and that it was no laughing matter.
He warned taking the action could, and likely would, result in lawsuits, and reminded his colleagues of the work Heggemeier has done during his tenure to help the county save money and avoid lawsuits.
“If it’s about salary, then what should the salary be?” he asked. “Don’t just eliminate the position. What’s next? Are you going to eliminate HR or engineer because they make too much money, because they’re ‘above the standard’ of Caldwell County?”
In a roll call vote, Roland, Madrigal and Munoz voted in favor of eliminating the position, and Buchholtz and Bonn were against, with Bonn saying he would not vote in favor of an “illegal action” by the Court.
The tension continued to mount as the Court discussed the procedures surrounding the County Judge’s employment of staff.
Roland brought forward the discussion, which began as a request for a change to the personnel policy that would allow the Judge to choose his immediate staff, but required a vote from the Court, on a case-by-case basis on other hiring, as well as approval of budgets and salaries by the Court.
Bonn bristled at the request, telling his colleagues that it was not necessary to add the language to the personnel policy because “that’s already happening, anyway.”
When Madrigal asked Roland for clarification on a document, Bonn accused the two of coordinating their efforts prior to the meeting and suggesting that they “[worked this out] before you brought this.” Madrigal’s temper flared at the accusation, and he insisted he does not make decisions prior to hearing discussion from the Court.
Bonn asked civil attorney Mack Harrison if the change was already covered by the personnel policy, and Harrison confirmed there was similar language in the policy. Bonn promptly cut him off before he could finish his statement, until Madrigal asked to hear the whole answer.
“It’s redundant,” he said. “But it’s not going to hurt anything if you have it.”
Again, the measure passed 3-2, with Bonn stating he was voting against the change “because it’s not necessary.”
In what became yet another heated exchange between Madrigal and Bonn, the Court also discussed the Commissioners’ procedures for adding items to their meeting agendas.
For a few weeks, Madrigal has pushed for a change that would allow Commissioners to request adding items to the agenda over the telephone, rather than in writing, which has been the requirement for some time. Bonn, who clearly objects to the change, responded with sarcasm, suggesting if the Commissioners made the change, they should give up their cell phones and computers and “go back to the way it used to be.”
He expressed concern that submitting agenda items via the telephone could create problems for the Court’s administrative assistant, suggesting that problems would be created if she “hears it wrong, or doesn’t get it on the agenda right.”
Madrigal argued that, while the Commissioners could still submit items in writing, the change simply allowed another alternative to help the Commissioners serve their constituents.
The measure passed 3-2, with Buchholtz and Bonn standing against the change.
The rift within the Court remained evident as the Commissioners were asked to address the matter of their health insurance coverage.
An item placed by Bonn on the agenda asked for clarification on the policy, as the County does not pay insurance for part-time employees working fewer than 30 hours a week, but does pay for insurance for “part time Commissioners.”
While Roland and Madrigal contended that the Commissioner position is not part time, because Commissioners receive calls outside regular business hours, Bonn pushed for action on the issue – although it was unclear what action he felt should be taken.
He reminded the Commissioner that they do not “have a boss,” or “punch a clock,” and Madrigal made the impassioned statement that the voters, and the constituents, are the Commissioners’ and the Judge’s “boss.”
No action was taken or additional clarification given as to why the issue was brought forward.
In other business, a request from District Clerk Tina Morgan to change the locks in her office spurred a request to review security in all county offices.
Rather than calling for a vote to change the locks, Bonn requested that the item be tabled to allow the County to review the issue, stating he believes every office in the County might be experiencing similar issues with keys and security.
The Caldwell County Commissioners meet on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month in the Conference and Training Room at the LW Scott Annex, 1403 Blackjack St., in Lockhart. The meetings are open to the public and interested property owners and county residents are encouraged to attend.