By Kathi Bliss
For the better part of the last decade, I have listened while the Caldwell County Commissioners Court passes the buck to the State of Texas. Time and time again, they tell the public that they would love to be able to do this thing or that, but they’re constrained by the laws set forth by the State; the Commissioners are only empowered to do those things which the State expressly says they can.
In most cases, at least, that’s what they say.
It appears, however, that if the Commissioners – or the County Judge – really, REALLY wants something, then it is perfectly okay to skirt the law… especially when that law does not spell out a clear-cut penalty for ignoring it.
Two weeks ago, the Commissioners’ civil attorney advised them that they had to set the term for their meetings during their next fiscal year – and they had to do it that day, even though some would have rather tabled the discussion until Judge Bonn could be present. The Local Government Code, you see, is very clear on the issue. Section 81.005, “Terms of Court Meetings,” clearly states: (a) At the last regular term of each fiscal year of the county, the commissioners court by order shall designate a day of the week on which the court shall convene in a regular term each month during the next fiscal year.”
Caldwell County’s fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
Now, I’ll grant you that it’s possible I’ve been misinterpreting the meaning of the word “shall” for the last 38 years. Or maybe I’ve just been giving the Commissioners too much credit, and believing that when they say, “the State won’t let us,” they really mean it.
Of course, in this case, the Judge has decided that it’s prudent to buck the State, re-evaluate a legal vote, and ask the Attorney General for authorization to break the law.
Why did we blame the State for the incredibly restrictive “Caldwell County Development Ordinance?” We needed that, after all, so the State couldn’t come in and tell us how to manage our property, didn’t we? All the provisions of that ordinance that the citizenry found objectionable, those were State mandates, weren’t they? And we can’t disobey the State, right?
If bucking the State was an option, then why didn’t we ask the Attorney General for his permission to pass a development ordinance that our property owners can live with? Or, why don’t we maybe ask for permission to set safer speed limits on our roads, or to enforce a more peaceful environment in our river?
Let’s buck the State so we can meet on Tuesday, instead of Monday.
The excuse, of course, is that moving the meetings to Tuesdays will allow the staff and the Commissioners ample time to research the issues on the coming agenda, and will make things easier for staff.
I call “foul.”
In general, the agenda for the Commissioners Court meetings are posted on Thursdays, with the full “packet” being available either Thursday or Friday. Commissioner Buchholtz has claimed that he wants the meetings moved to Tuesday so he won’t have to contact county staff over the weekend to discuss issues on the agenda. Judge Bonn backed that statement, suggesting it would be easier for Commissioners and county staff to be prepared if they had the Monday working day.
Now, bear in mind that the Commissioners receive their agendas and packets at the same time as the media, if not before. And in nine years, I’ve had to contact a member of county staff to research an agenda item on the weekend exactly… never. I review my agenda when I receive it, and still have a full business day (Friday) to make those calls. The 72-hour rule, which requires that a meeting be duly posted no fewer than 72 hours before it is to be held, is meant to give the public the time to research. If the public has plenty of time in 72 hours, why do the men charged with making decisions for us need more time than that?
I have sieves and tea strainers that hold water better than that excuse does.
If they move the meetings to Tuesdays, are they going to continue to post their agendas on Thursdays, since the 72-hour rule will then allow it to be done on Fridays? I’ll bet you a dollar if they move back the meeting, they move back the posting – which invalidates their point entirely.
I will confess, part of my reason for being disgusted by this display is the fact that moving Commissioners Court to Tuesday mornings, rather than Mondays, will complicate my life, and the lives of my colleagues both in Lockhart and in Luling. And for that, I’ll admit to being selfish. It’s a concern I was asked about when the Court initially considered the option of moving the meetings, and it’s a position which I’ve made very, very clear. It’s a position which is shared by the managing editor of the Luling Newsboy – which she, too, has made abundantly clear.
But attached to that selfish concern is a concern for our readers, many of whom cannot attend Commissioners Court meetings, and rely on the Post-Register’s or the Newsboy’s reports to know what the Court is up to. It makes me wonder why the County Judge and members of the Court would be so eager to move the meetings, knowing they are making it difficult for the local press to report on those meetings – particularly when they would have to not only overturn a legal vote, but circumvent State law to do it.
That brings me back to my most important point, though, the circumventing of State law. It’s a staple excuse of the Commissioners Court that their “hands are tied by the State.”
Maybe not. Maybe their hands are only tied when they want them to be.
Because here again, the State statute is clear. The attorney advised the Commissioners on the statute, and they took a legal vote to continue holding meetings on Mondays.
I know for a fact that the Court has been just fine for the last decade, meeting on the second, third and fourth Monday morning of each month. I know this because, with very limited exception I’ve been there with them, the second, third and fourth Monday of each month.
What, I wonder, is so critical that now some Court members are asking to buck the State, and seek an Attorney General’s opinion allowing them to change the meetings to Tuesday. They have not tried to buck the State when it came to raw sewage being dumped in our creekbeds. They have not been willing to buck the State when it comes to alcohol abuse and litter on our river.
But they are willing to buck the State to keep their Monday mornings free.