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September 18th, 2008
Hays County channel: ‘Be careful of the stones that you throw’

EDITOR’s NOTE: District Attorney Sherri Tibbe took less than three working days to clear Commissioners Will Conley and Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe of accusations leveled by County Judge Elizabeth Sumter concerning the paving of two county roads. Read the letters here and here [pdf].


Now one man’s hawk is another man’s dove.
One man’s hug is another man’s shove….
One man’s tool is another man’s toy,
And one man’s grief is another man’s joy….
Hank Williams said it best.
He said it a long time ago.
Unless you have made no mistakes in your life,
Be careful of the stones that you throw.

That’s from one of the best songwriters in Texas history, Guy Clark. As far as I know, he wasn’t thinking of Hays County politics when he wrote the words, but he could have been.

They’re appropriate for this week, anyhow.

Two of my colleagues on the five-member Commissioners Court are under investigation. The question is whether these two actually did something evil, or whether someone is just trying to make it look that way – which would mean, I suppose, that wrong is being done to them, not by them.

County Judge Liz Sumter escalated this story into a regional news event when she sent two formal letters the same day to the district attorney, officially requesting these investigations. She told the reporters – and me – she felt morally and legally compelled to demand an inquiry because she had received a citizen complaint.

“When there is a complaint against an elected official, there isn’t anything I can do,” Sumter was in quoted the Austin American-Statesman. “I’m bound to take it to (District Attorney) Sherri Tibbe. Once I get a complaint I have to act.”

She told the Wimberley View, “What I’ve done is write a letter to Sherri Tibbe to investigate those two roads and the paving of them and the legality.” She said she hadn’t investigated herself.

I don’t know about Judge Sumter, but I know if I referred every rumor I heard against another politician to the district attorney’s office I would have time for little else, and neither would the DA.

Here’s another stanza from Guy Clark’s song, “Hank Williams Said It Best”:

One man’s word is another man’s lie.
One man’s dirt is another man’s sky.

So I choose NOT to take action on every accusation that comes across my desk. I weigh evidence, consider sources, make judgments based on the thousands of data points that bombard each of us in this information age.

I don’t have time enough time to address all the important issues as it is.

Before involving the DA and the public I would ask myself, does this appear to be true? Is it worth the turmoil sure to follow? Is it fair, and does it further the public good? Does somebody have an ulterior motive? Could I clear things up with a couple of phone calls?

Judge Sumter had to know that registering a formal complaint, a request for investigation put in writing on the letterhead of the County Judge’s office, would guarantee an investigation – and substantial press coverage.

So here we are. Titanic health care issues are pending, with an urgent deadline. We’re in the middle of a road bond election. We’re trying desperately to wrap up a set of complex new development regulations, and to initiate a water-and-habitat protection plan.

A thousand details await attention on road projects and parks. Our civic center loses money and needs attention. Population growth has put us behind on transit, on a new jail, on a new courts and government center. The economy is struggling. Commissioners and staff are working long hours.

And this week a massive hurricane struck the Texas coast, with fears – until just a few days ago – that it would blow inland directly across our county.

But what we’re spending time, money and precious focus on is this.

County road crews in Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe’s precinct spread a little gravel and filled potholes on a mostly dirt and gravel private road leading through a brushy, uninhabited ranch to an historic cemetery on the San Marcos River near Staples. Commissioner Will Conley reportedly instructed road department workers to repair a few hundred feet of a road leading to a subdivision in his precinct, a road which someone has complained to the judge may not be an official county road because the area has become a part of the town of Wimberley.

Ingalsbe’s case is the easiest to address. I’ve been to the cemetery at the end of the road. Everyone seems to agree the “road” is a private drive and not a county street. But what is equally clear – widely known and often publicly discussed in our Commissioners Court – is that state law allows county commissioners to work on private drives leading to historic cemeteries in order to keep them open to the public. This one has been maintained by the county for years. From what I hear from staff, this particular work order didn’t even come from the commissioner’s office; the work was being done because an alert county employee recognized that Dia Del Muerto is coming soon, when many Latinos will be visiting family graves.

This is in fact a cemetery of mostly Mexican-American families dating back to the 1800s, the oldest Latino cemetery in the county. In it are the graves of American veterans from World War I. Judge Sumter suggested in her letter and to the Wimberley View that this road may have been paved by the county; it has not been, something anyone can see by driving it, though I don’t see how paving it would have been illegal. Another fact that might have been useful to know before writing the DA is that this is an official county cemetery.

Conley’s situation is a little tougher, because I am unfamiliar with the road and subdivision involved, much less all the details of the work, but it’s hard to see what makes this worthy of a formal investigation. Emergency service providers in the area and local subdivision residents asked for help; plus, there are old Commissioners Court minutes from the 1980s indicating this is in fact a county road.

At worst, Conley’s case seems a technical violation – maybe he should have reviewed more current maps or gotten an interlocal agreement from the City of Wimberley before working. On the other hand it is not at all clear that he did anything wrong or was not fully within his rights. It doesn’t appear to be a fat-cat neighborhood full of contributors; it wasn’t some political boss who got his driveway paved. No, the county spent $5,000 to $10,000 in gravel and materials to make a feeder road passable for fire trucks.

Maybe Conley should have followed different procedures or maybe he did fine. I dunno. But as an isolated incident in the grand scheme of a $115 million budget, to me it has the feel of something that could have been resolved with a little fact-checking and a few phone calls, something short of a Media Event diverting the DA’s staff from investigations of robbery, murder and mayhem.

Of course we want to make sure the law is followed and tax dollars are well spent. But even if you accept the allegations at face value there’s a question of proportionality and priorities – of urgency.

All of which brings us back to why the big deal, why now? I can think of a dozen different ways to handle this without the drama.

Meanwhile, the complaints are anonymous, at least for the time being. When asked by the media, Judge Sumter declined to reveal who complained to her office.

Others report that the judge ascribed the complaints to a couple of folks well known in the Courthouse – well known for grinding axes, making questionable allegations, and pushing their own, aggressive political agenda, an agenda that includes open support for the people running against Ingalsbe and Conley.

Anonymous sources, over-zealous political opponents – it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have a point, but shouldn’t it give you pause? It would sure make me look hard before jumping on the bandwagon and publicly jeopardizing the reputations of two colleagues.

The investigation will surely cost more than the road work at issue. But that won’t be the real price. Imagine what it will be like working together on Commissioners Court over the next few weeks. Imagine the distraction for the hundreds of people who work for the county.

Politics is no sport for sissies. We argue hard with one another. I expect to disagree with Conley, who’s from a different political party, from time to time; I’m sure we’ll cancel each other’s presidential vote. I’ve certainly disagreed with Ingalsbe in the past.

But if politics is full-contact public service, there still are – or ought to be – rules to the game: personal codes of honor. Working together in government should be about building bridges between differences, not bending facts or playing gotcha.

Then again, as my songwriter Guy Clark wrote, “One man’s rock is another man’s sand. One man’s fist is another man’s hand.”

The great thing about individual perception is that we all get to call our own balls and strikes. Somehow Judge Sumter keeps getting involved in this sort of thing. Maybe she sees more in these kinds of complaints than I do. Maybe she’s just trying to do right, as she sees it, no matter the consequence.

I mean, it may be that she sincerely intended her letters to the district attorney to be thoroughly investigated – without fanfare, without passion, without damaging reputations in advance of a verdict. Seems short-sighted, considering how these two commissioners are tarnished now by the charges and the headlines, even if the DA exonerates them.

In fact, the implication of wrong-doing probably bleeds over into their elections, and into the upcoming county bond proposal that they both just happen to support.

It may be that Judge Sumter was just trying in her own way to protect the Commissioners Court from even the slightest perception of conflict of interests. If so, it would have helped had she thought through how her own conflicts might be perceived – she has been feuding bitterly with Conley and openly frustrated with Ingalsbe over several key votes; she has been widely perceived as negative toward road bonds; and her letters to the district attorney were leaked almost immediately to a web site with close ties to her political allies.

Sure, sometimes these things happen as amazing coincidence. I’ve seen it. But this many coincidences right before an election are sure to set folks wondering.

I trust our district attorney, a tough woman with a well-honed sense of justice in its broadest sense. I’ll honor her findings about whether the commissioners broke any technical aspects of the law.

Meanwhile, Judge Sumter calls her own balls and strikes, and maybe her vantage point is better than mine. Still, from my view in the cheap seats I can’t help but give in to a sliver of doubt, wondering if maybe all the pitches here aren’t quite what they seem. I hate to think a colleague would toy with another colleague’s reputation, but maybe someone was taking advantage of the judge and this opportunity for “coincidence.”

Hank Williams didn’t say it, and neither did Guy Clark, but I will: one man’s zealous crusader is another man’s bully. One man’s political gamesmanship is another man’s waste of time.

JEFF BARTON, a Democrat, is the Hays County Pct. 2 commissioner.

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2 thoughts on “Hays County channel: ‘Be careful of the stones that you throw’

  1. Many of the citizens of Hays County agree with you! It is unfortunate that a Judge cannot be impeached!

  2. We can’t impeach her, but we can vote her out of office in a couple of years. She’s not the only Democrat in Hays County. We can obviously do better….

    And what a shame. I had such high hopes for the first woman county judge in Hays County. But she has been a bitter disappointment. Perhaps it is because she has taken most of her marching orders from men. She should think for herself. Women ARE capable of doing that. Lucy Johnson, a newly elected Kyle City Councilwoman, is proof of that.

    Let’s just hope the damage she tries to inflict on the County is not too severe over the course of the next couple of years. At least we have some good Commissioners to help minimize the damage, although they take a lot on the chin for doing so.

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