San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 24th, 2008
Elizabeth Sumter’s Flying Circus

NEWS COMMENTARY by BRAD ROLLINS

Going to your county commissioners court these days is kind of like a free ticket to Monte Python’s Flying Circus: And now for something completely different.

Last week at the Big Top, things got so bad that County Judge Elizabeth Sumter and friend were confused about whether they were confused.

After Sumter rushed to spend $2,300 for a half-hour-long presentation by a consulting firm that had not been approved for the work by the full commissioners court, she tried to cover her tracks by sponsoring a resolution that would give the committee the authority to approve the kind of expenditure she had made without it. In trying to gloss over the questionable transaction, Sumter framed the subject in terms of “confusion” about the court-appoint transportation committee’s authority to spend money and, by extension, their ability to research transportation projects adequately.

This is the body chaired by Sumter-appointee Steve Klepfer, a former Wimberley mayor who is running against Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley. His leadership of the committee has been about as effective on advancing transportation projects as the judge he works for. That is to say, that he hasn’t done much of anything except to try and gum up the process, manufacture confusion and then use confusion as an alibi for inaction.

Towards the end of a three-hour fight among Sumter and the four commissioners, the judge finally acknowledged that her office “did not follow procedure” in approving the expenditure and then continued to position herself as the courageous defender of the people’s right to self-governance.

Apparently in the course of the confusion, the judge’s secretary managed to erase the tape of a crucial transportation committee meeting that gets at the heart of the committee’s jurisdiction over the road in question. And to say the same secretary’s written minutes of the committee’s proceedings are difficult to decipher is to be polite.

This is the judge that is shepherding a $40 million no-bid road construction contract through the commissioners court giving lectures about openness and good governance.

Then this week, things got even weirder with consideration of $1.6 million in parks money for the Christian Federation of Police Officers’ athletics fields and park complex off Hunter Road. Before the item came up, Sumter announced that she would not only be abstaining from the controversial vote but that she would recuse herself from the discussion.

The reason she gave as she got up to leave was that she sits on the board of directors of one of the nonprofit social service agencies that will be housed on an adjacent property. The reasoning seems mildly logical if you don’t know that every member of the commissioners court sits on some kind nonprofit and/or regional governmental board of directors — most of them sit on several — and vote regularly on, say, social service expenditures or paying dues to the organizations they help lead. The judge of course knows this because as a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization director she votes on any number of issues related to the transportation-planning body. And as a Capital Area Council of Governments board member she funded the organization in this year’s budget even if she has not seen fit to show up at many of the meetings.

Nevertheless, Sumter handed Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford the gavel as she headed toward the door.

Taking the polite tone he does when trying to gently admonish the judge that she does not know what she’s talking about, the court’s attorney, Mark Kennedy, read from an attorney general’s opinion that “makes clear it is not mandatory or necessary under the law or ethics rules to recuse yourself under these circumstances.”

This did not matter to Sumter, of course, because her real reason was most certainly that she didn’t want to take the heat of voting against a worthy project that does not further her Wealthy West vision of Hays County. Nor does it matter apparently that substantial real issues facing the county she is supposed to lead cannot be discussed openly and honestly because of amateurish shenanigans and games. As entertaining as the circus is for people like me, the county’s business is not getting done and it may well be a situation that no one notices until after Sumter’s term, if she lasts that long.

After the meeting, one of the other reporters — a fair-minded person who was not always a Sumter critic — offered that maybe the judge is more cut out to run a Parent-Teacher Association at a middle school.

His point is well taken but I’m beginning to question whether I’d trust her with a bake sale. Or a garage sale for that matter.

BRAD ROLLINS is managing editor of The San Marcos Mercury. He thinks Liz Sumter makes Jim Powers look good.

NOTE: The story was edited on Jan. 29 to reflect that the presentation in question was less than a half-hour long according to several people who were present.

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