By Kathi Bliss
Tempers flared and gavels sounded during a marathon meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners Court this week.
County Judge Tom Bonn’s frustration was palpable during the five-hour session, when he found himself sparring with other officials and losing votes before ejecting a member of the gallery he believed to be talking out of turn.
During a public hearing regarding his proposed budget, Bonn fell under fire for several departments present in the budget that are not funded, and one department that still is, the County Administrator Department, which still reflects a budget upwards of $129,000, despite a vote by the Commissioners earlier this year to eliminate the position.
Bonn noted that the departments had been added to the budgets in previous years, in the event they needed to be “activated,” and questioned the concern about having the line items present with no money in them.
As to the County Administrator, Bonn provided no answer as to why the department was not removed, except to say the Court would be discussing the matter in executive session.
After convening in a lengthy executive session, the Commissioners reconvened just before noon, and discussed several other items. Among them, they discussed the use of county vehicles. Though the agenda item called for an inventory of vehicles by department, the discussion focused mostly on the Sheriff’s Department, making evident the tensions between Bonn and Sheriff Daniel Law.
Last week, the Court reviewed a list of vehicles thought to be under the control of the Sheriff’s Office, some of which Law had suggested he would transport to a local auction service for disposal. Bonn jumped on that promise immediately, wondering why the cars hadn’t been moved.
Law responded he had needed time to update the list, and that some of the cars listed were either not Sheriff’s Department cars, or no longer on the premises.
The discussion strayed into the number of vehicles deployed by the Sheriff’s Department and the uses of those vehicles, and Bonn noted Law had not “made your case to me” as to why certain members of Law’s staff are allowed to drive take-home vehicles When attorney Mack Harrison suggested the conversation about the take-home policy had strayed from the item listed on the official agenda, Bonn backed him down, stating the take-home cars are, in fact, germane to the discussion.
After several terse exchanges, Bonn said he believe the Sheriff’s Department has “too many cars.”
Renewing old business from last week, the Court once again discussed a budget amendment that would effectively create a Fleet Maintenance Department, separate from the Unit Road System, a step the Court has proven hesitant to take.
Bonn refused requests from Roland and Commissioner Alfredo Munoz to take the agenda out of order and address the fate of the Fleet Maintenance Department before discussing the budget amendment, and told his colleagues that it was “irresponsible” not to pay the bills.
Roberson said the budget amendment was a matter of accounting, and has previously reminded the court that he will pay the bills. However, he said, the action to create a Fleet Maintenance Department for accounting purposes was a step that should have been taken prior to the department’s actually being created and said the division amongst the Court as to how the department is run is a separate issue than how the accounting for the department is performed.
Bonn said he was hesitant to put more responsibility on Unit Road Administrator Dwight Jeffrey than he already holds, and that the Unit Road’s prime function should be maintaining the county roads. He asked if anyone had heard complaints about the way fleet maintenance was performed, and though no one answered, a captain from the Sheriff’s Office has, in the past, expressed concern about fleet maintenance.
The court voted 3-2 not to approve the amendment, with Bonn and Commissioner Fred Buchholtz against the motion, and then moved into conversation about the management of fleet maintenance.
That discussion led Bonn to question whether the fleet maintenance department would be supervised by County Engineer Bill Gardner, who he understood to be in charge of the Unit Road System.
In a last-ditch effort to kill the measure, Bonn noted it had been listed incorrectly on the agenda as the “maintenance department,” rather than the fleet maintenance department, suggesting a vote on the measure would put the building maintenance department at the WalMart facility under the supervision of the Unit Road. Harrison said his legal opinion is that because the discussion and backup had all been about fleet maintenance, the agenda listing was a matter of semantics.
The Court voted 3-2, once again, to leave fleet maintenance under the supervision of the Unit Road System.
“I remember the days when y’all complained about it going the other way,” Bonn quipped after the vote.
The final straw came when the Commissioners renewed discussion about the keys and master keys for County buildings and offices being stored in the County Judge’s office.
Madrigal said he brought the measure back because of security concerns and convenience. He said he believed it would be better to store master keys in a lock box at the Sheriff’s Office, as Law had previously suggested, because the building is monitored and staffed 24 hours a day.
“We just talked about this last week,” Bonn said. “Did you not get the vote you want?”
Madrigal had voted originally in favor of storing the keys in the Sheriff’s Office, and accused Bonn of “taking it personally.”
Bonn asked if Madrigal does not trust the County Judge to have keys, to which Madrigal insisted his concerns were merely a matter of security and accessibility.
After a 4-1 vote in favor of storing the keys at the Sheriff’s Office rather than the Judge’s Office, Bonn ejected a member of the gallery who he believed had made a comment out of turn. She insisted she had said nothing, and threatened to contact an attorney.
In brief news:
The Court convened in executive session for nearly two hours to discuss several issues, including financial incentives offered to a business prospect, a federal lawsuit for wrongful termination, and a grievance filed by the former County Administrator. They did not take action on the lawsuit or grievance, but voted to move forward with work with the Greater San Marcos Partnership and attorney Mack Harrison in discussions with the business prospect.
The Caldwell Couny Commissioners Court meets on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. at 1403 Blackjack St. in Lockhart.