GUEST COMMENTARY by ELIZABETH SUMTER
First, I want to wish everyone a happy holiday season. I hope that this finds you well and looking forward to a new year.
As all of you probably know by now, your Commissioners Court selected Tommy Ratliff to serve as the Hays County Sheriff until the next general election. He was sworn into office this morning. Sherriff Ratliff has 33 years experience in law enforcement, including 21 years as a Texas Ranger.
It is only natural that people have an interest in what process guided the Court in its decision and how the final decision was made. Given the strong interest in the matter of process and so you can have some insight as to what took place, I want to walk you through what I personally experienced during this challenging time.
On Dec. 6, at 1:00 AM, I received a call informing me of Sheriff Alan Bridges death. I called elected officials and department heads, asking them to activate their calling tree to inform employees of the news. By 10:00 AM, I got the first knock on my door at home. Someone was there to ask I support a particular individual as our next Sheriff. It was as though someone had fired a starter’s pistol. I was met with a mountain of calls, emails, and letters. Other members of the Court experienced the same thing.
In dealing with the immediate task (that of making certain that the Sheriff’s Department was functioning under some identified point of leadership), I spoke with Chief Deputy Sherman Brodbeck to offer my support as he assumed a very difficult interim assignment. By law, Brodbeck automatically became the interim Sheriff. My next step was to research the legal aspects of the situation. My reading of the relevant statutes suggested that the Court had no option, except that of appointing someone to fill the vacancy. There was no provision for a special election.
The following day (December 8th), I consulted with our legal staff, the Sheriff’s Association, and the Texas Association of Counties. All confirmed what I had found. All also advised that an appointment should happen sooner rather than later. I understood that, but I also believed that it was important to wait until after Sheriff Bridges funeral. I thought that it was the respectful thing to do, and I knew that the Sheriffs’ Office was fully capable of performing its duties under the direction of interim Sheriff Sherman Brodbeck.
I had hoped to call an emergency meeting Thursday morning (December 11th), after the funeral but didn’t. Instead, I put the matter of a replacement appointment on the agenda for the regular Court session on December 16th. I believe that was a sound decision, if for no other reason that other members of the Court expressed their desire to have more time to consider the matter. Ultimately, the meeting was called for December 22nd. It was at that meeting that the decision was made to appoint Tommy Ratliff.
The pressures from outside and inside were, at times, overwhelming. The calls, emails, letters, and personal visits that started on December 6th continued. Even so, most members of the Court were fully engaged in reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates. Only one member of the Court had apparently made his decision, and he was openly and actively endorsing a specific candidate for the position.
It is important to understand that there are certain legal criteria that we, as a Court, must meet in making the appointment. One of those is a requirement that we notify any candidate that we might be discussing him/her in executive session and that he/she also has the right to ask that the discussion take place in open session. We are not required to go into executive session, but we have that option under law. A second requirement is that any individual who is discussed in open session must first have his/her name placed into nomination by a member of the Court.
Accordingly, I asked the Court’s Legal Counsel to draft an appropriate notice that could be sent to potential candidates. At the Tuesday meeting (December 16th), and in anticipation of the meeting that had been set for the 22nd, I asked members of the Court to send me names of those potential candidates for appointment so I could send them the proper notice. I followed up with a letter on that subject, urging members of the Court to let me know if they had any additional candidates whom I should notify. As to the notice that was sent to the potential candidates, I am including some of the specific language that was included in the letter. I think it will give you more insight into the appointment processes (see below):
Under Section 551.074 of the Texas Government Code, the Commissioners Court may
“deliberate…the appointment of officials and employees” in executive session. Executive Sessions are private discussions of Commissioners Court, which are not open to the public. To respect the privacy of any individual being considered by the Commissioners Court, your name will not be announced in Open Court unless it is done within the context of a motion to consider your appointment and the open-court discussion that may follow. However, you have a legal right to request that all deliberations associated with you be held in Open Court. You should carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of having this discussion held in a public forum. After consideration, if you would like to have the portion of the executive session associated with you pulled into Open Court, please notify me by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or facsimile (512-393-2282). If you do not respond, I will assume you prefer to leave the discussion in executive session.
As to my call for any additional names, the only additional names I received came from Commissioner Conley. While Commissioner Conley put forth an additional five names for consideration, he provided no contact information or resumes for four of those. In response, I sent another e-mail to Commissioner Conley (copying the other members of the Court), asking if he could supply me with the missing resumes and contact information. I eventually received the contact information, but I was never provided resumes on four of his candidates.
At the Monday meeting (December 22nd), we listened to public comment. I then explained what the process had been over the past few weeks and what the process would be for the meeting. The Court opted not to go into Executive Session, determining that discussion would take place in open session. There was a nomination by Commissioner Ingalsbe to consider Tommy Ratliff. There was a second by Commissioner Ford. After considerable discussion, a vote was taken. It was a four to one vote, with Commissioner Conley as the lone No vote.
It was an experience that tested the Court in many ways. We could have easily been drawn off course. It would have been easy to fall into the postponement or process trap. For example, we could have formed a subcommittee of the Court to draft criteria for consideration. We could have asked the subcommittee to establish a mathematical scoring system as a basis for evaluation. We could have done all of that and more. But the residents of Hays County expect us to move quickly in critical situations. They want us to be dutiful and careful, but they don’t want us bogged down in bureaucracy. And the Court, in my opinion, did the right thing. Members of the Court read the resumes and they conducted interviews. Moreover, they did that in a timely fashion. I believe that the right decision was made.
As I am finishing this, I think about the fact that I was supposed to be on a plane to Chicago to spend Christmas with my family. However, my plane was cancelled, so now I will stay here in the place I call home, Hays County.
Hays County Judge ELIZABETH SUMTER was elected in 2006.