Government sans – or without – sense on the San Gabriel? After a year of highly publicized and questionable actions, new revelations regarding the Williamson County Commissioners’ lobbying activities have some taxpayers viewing their elected officials seemingly without a sense of 1) accountability over use of public dollars; 2) transparency as “no comment” wears thin in response to legitimate questions; and 3) respect for those who put them in office. But how
many people are really paying attention?
The relevations referenced have been largely driven by postings from the Williamson County Employees Association blog. One of the latest issues kicked off July 5 with Commissioner Valerie Covey and the breaking “Lobbygate” scandal – Part I and shows no signs of letting up as this “red flag” situation continues generating new information and far more questions than answers.
After traditional media sources have so far refrained from addressing the arising questions with real depth or substance, Americans for Prosperity Texas, an organization of grassroots activists who advocate for public policies that champion the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint, highlighted “Lobbygate” as a victory for citizen journalists and online activists.
So while bloggers and attentive taxpayers are not only paying attention, but responding loudly in forums, what’s the pulse of everyone else? Do the Sun City folks look to their new hometown’s “friendly” local paper as the sole authority for area news or are they seeking alternate information sources? Is an appeal of “locally popular” officials offsetting interest in local ethics? And how might all of this play in next year’s elections?
From the standpoint of a non-resident Williamson County taxpayer who is paying attention, here’s a point of view and some observations. First, a close look at just the last year’s activities shows an ongoing pattern in which the Commissioners Court seems comfortable sidestepping rules and procedures designed to ensure government transparency and taxpayer accountability.
This questionable conduct is not appreciated nor is it anything many taxpayers would condone much less care to finance. The public is losing patience with governance that smacks of being irresponsible, illicit or potentially self-serving opposed to being in the interests of taxpayers.
As a Williamson County property owner who lives in Bell County and spends time working in Travis County, it’s not uncommon to hear folks in surrounding areas routinely characterize Williamson County as corrupt and full of cronyism. Sometimes remarks are punctuated with humor, other times plainly contemptuous or disrespectful. And not that problematic communities don’t exist in many areas, but this consistently strong perception is noteworthy.
In a 2008 column entitled Your town, USA – a great place to live, launch and loot?, the predatory attraction that growth-oriented communities can foster was discussed. Georgetown, especially with its Sun City-fueled retiree population, certainly presents such opportunity. When questionable actions on the part of elected officials consistently go unchecked, that ultimately reflects on entire communities. And what might embracing a culture of corruption attract? Predators and more corruption!
And don’t think such a reputation can’t become a detriment to one’s property values. Seriously. Do self-respecting people want to live in a locale seen as soft on ethics and honesty? Or, do people want to locate businesses or to work in such a place? Think it can’t happen?
In a month of a new city manager job search, the California town of Bell has no applicants. After the city administration’s highly public scandal, other top leadership positions also reportedly remain vacant indicating how if “a handful of public-minded citizens with reformist temperaments take the reins, they have the opportunity to prove that no city in the Golden State is beyond salvation.” The upcoming election will offer citizens here in Texas and across the country similar opportunity.
Too many issues coming out of Williamson County seem to indicate a county government with little if any regard for the taxpayers whose interests it is theoretically charged with serving. Stand-out issues include, but are not limited to, the County Commissioners:
- replacing their elected, taxpayer-accountable (county attorney) legal counsel with an unelected, reporting-strictly-to-the-Commissioners employee leaving taxpayers one less avenue of accountability with regard to their interests.
- handling of the federal lawsuit filed against the county over sexual harassment allegations on the part of former County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham. While Higginbotham’s inappropriate conduct appears to have been allowed openly and indefinitely prior to the suit’s filing, hiring attorneys off-book and potential witness intimidation appeared part of an emerging scenario whose further exposure was functionally shut down upon the Commissioners authorizing a $375,000 taxpayer-funded legal settlement that, among other things, negated potential surfacing of new misdeeds via discovery, depositions or any other part of the legal process.
- apparent sanctioning of the “forgiveness doctrine” as the basis for dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to remove County Judge Dan Gattis from office in part due to actions related to the Higginbotham suit. This dismissal, based on a technicality rather than any review of case merits, also precluded an open review of allegations that Gattis abused open meetings requirements and procedures for expending taxpayer funds.
- subsequent filing of a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against County Attorney Jana Duty yet requesting that hearings on the matter be kept private. Meanwhile, Duty has requested a public hearing to afford taxpayers access to this process – and the information which flows thereof – in which they have civic, political and financial stakes.
- use of taxpayer funds for apparently unbudgeted (and questionable) lobbying activities performed outside any public knowledge or purview and utilizing channels that provoke, among other things, questions regarding a potentially pre-emptive effort by the county to sidestep projected Endangered Species Act changes.
- silence by other court members upon Commissioner Lisa Birkman’s public derision of a county employee’s exercising the right to file Public Information Act requests.
Williamson County government emits a distinct air of impropriety. If the Commissioners Court feared taxpayer scrutiny or other consequences, why wouldn’t they do all in their power to avoid additional acts that further promote an appearance of disregard? Maybe they believe a distracted public and temperate media will carry vulnerable officials through the next election cycle and the “forgiveness doctrine” (“An officer may not be removed from office for an act the official committed before election to office.”) will take care of the rest.
Elected officials without a sense of accountability, transparency or taxpayer regard paint a troubling picture for many citizens who pay taxes and attention – and vote. Next spring’s primary will bring be the first step toward two current commissioners’ re-election. We’ll see then if Williamson County voters want representational upgrades or a continuation of sans sense on the San Gabriel government.