Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, left, and Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, right, don’t always see eye to eye. They are running against each other for the Democratic Party’s nomination for Hays County Judge in the March 2 primary. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
With the first shots fired by Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), the civil war has begun to decide which faction within the Hays County Democrats will secure the party’s support for the highest elected position in county government.
Sumter fired the first salvo on Jan. 4, when Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) beat the deadline to file for a run against her in the March 2 Democratic primary. But Barton’s candidacy was no surprise, and Sumter was ready for the contest. Asked hours after the filing deadline to describe the relevant differences between her and Barton, Sumter indicated that Barton has neither the time nor the muscle to succeed as county judge.
On roads, for example, Sumter said of Barton, “He’s had a number of roads on the books. He has yet to lay any pavement, while other commissioners are laying pavement already.”
Asked to respond last week, Barton said, “I understand that Liz Sumter didn’t support our (road) bond program, and hasn’t supported roads and hasn’t supported traffic relief, and hasn’t been very involved in managing those road projects. But I did support them, I have been involved in managing them, and the project I’m directly managing is coming in 35 percent under budget. It’s going to improve traffic safety throughout the I-35 corridor, and get people home from work faster.”
Of road projects in Barton’s precinct, which basically includes the Buda and Kyle areas, Hays County Road Division Director Jerry Borcherding said, “There’s no projects that are behind. There’s nothing negative to say about any of them.”
Borcherding said the county is rebuilding the roads in Precinct 2’s Rolling Hills subdivision, and the project is about two-thirds complete. Borcherding said work is proceeding on Belinda Lane, and the county just completed road work in Hillside Terrace Subdivision, both of which are in Precinct 2. Borcherding said another road in Precinct 2 was completed in September. Borcherding said construction has begun on only one road bond project out of the four precincts — and it’s in Precinct 2. It’s the Kyle Crossing road bond project at Exit 217.
Borcherding said the county has not been able to pave any roads since late October/early November 2009 due to rain and cold temperatures. He said the county will begin paving needful roads in mid-March.
Hays County voters approved a $207 million road bond in November 2008 after turning down a $172 million road bond project in May 2007.
“Let me assure you that there’s certainly nothing in my FY2010 Capital Improvement Program that’s been delayed or is behind in any way,” Borcherding said. “And most of the bond projects are in design, and there’s no indication that there’s problems on any of these projects.”
Sumter also criticized Barton’s handling of a large conservation easement acquisition by the county, saying, “His follow through is just not there … We haven’t closed on Dahlstrom yet.”
The Dahlstrom Ranch conservation easement is a project being overseen on the county’s side by Barton, in whose precinct lies the 2,275 acres of aquifer recharge land to be preserved near the intersection of FM 967 and FM 1626 west of Buda. A federal agency from whom the prospective holders of the Dahlstrom easement expect a $4 million grant requested what Barton said were “non-substantive” changes to the contract, preventing the various parties from closing by the expected date of Dec. 31.
“I just wish (Sumter) would have been supportive of the project, and would support it now instead of taking potshots at it,” Barton said. “This is the largest single donation in the history of Hays County. It would preserve water quality for generations to come. And I think it’s worth doing, and doing right, even though it’s hard, time-consuming work.”
Sumter further accused Barton of not being able to devote enough time to the job of county judge should he win the election.
“I’m a full time judge,” Sumter said. “He holds three jobs right now. I think the county deserves a full time judge who does nothing but give it her full attention … This county, especially at this time, with the growth that we are experiencing, deserves a full-time judge, and, quite frankly, it needs one to lead, and he can’t provide that — or hasn’t been willing to provide it as commissioner.”
Asked to respond to Sumter’s comments, Barton said he does consulting work for Doucette & Associates, which he said occupies zero to five hours per week and pays him less than Sumter’s $15,000 annual state supplement for hearing legal cases as a “black robe” judge. Barton said he devotes “50 hours-plus most weeks” to county commissioner work.
“Judge Sumter doesn’t actually spend full time as a county judge,” Barton said. “She’s doing something that none of the previous judges in Hays County were doing — county judges — and that’s, she got herself a separate judicial gig that pays her $15,000 a year. It’s more than I make (at Doucette). She’s got a development business, and she’s got a judicial job, and the county judge’s job. I guess she does have three jobs. She has to certify under state law that she spends 40 percent of her time on judicial business in order to get that state supplement. So I think it is the pot calling the kettle black. Having said that … my problem with her is not that she’s distracted, but we just disagree on some things.”
Barton’s years as commissioner plus an election to county judge would yield him 14 years on the court, which Sumter called “an awful long time.” Barton was a county commissioner for almost seven years before losing a re-election bid to Susie Carter (R-Uhland) in 1998. Barton was re-elected to the court in 2006, when he defeated Carter.
“And he’s also been on commissioners court for 10 years,” Sumter said. “And I think, if you can’t get it done in 10 years, you just can’t get it done. I’m not big on career politicians. I don’t think, in terms of local politics and this kind of a county, that career politicians is what we need.”
Responding to Sumter’s comments, Barton said: “It’s pretty hard to say in one breath that I have all this private sector experience and in the same breath say that I’m a career politician. I don’t understand how I can be both … I’ve got a pretty long record that I’m proud of. Like starting the first parks committee in this county and laying the foundation for the parks bond that we have now back in the 1990s. And, back in the 1990s, starting the first set of modern development rules for Hays County, that gave us the most stringent environmental standards in the state. Far from apologizing for those, I’m proud of that. And we did, in fact, get it done.”
Barton said Sumter’s office is not as open as transparent as it ought to be. Barton said the county’s handling of the Tea Party protest near the courthouse in April 2009 and her refusal to support making public all 15 Regional Habitat Conservation Plan applications is evidence that she does not champion the value of open government as much as he does.
Sumter said her office “is always open” and responsive to requests for information. Sumter said the court under her leadership has undertaken initiatives to increase governmental transparency, such as an upcoming overhaul of the county’s website and using what she said were more citizens committees than any prior court.
During a budget discussion on Aug. 18, 2009, Sumter raised the issue of government transparency after Barton advocated more budgetary latitude on the part of county commissioners and department heads.
“If I was building a budget, in general, for the whole county, I’d have fewer line items and more accountability forced back onto department heads, let them decide,” Barton said at the August meeting. “We’ve got all kinds of people (saying) ‘We need fifty bucks for this and a hundred bucks for that,’ and there are people who are managing budgets that are worth hundreds of thousands, or, in some cases, tens of millions of dollars. And they’re coming to us and they’re sitting in court for four hours waiting to talk to us about whether they can have another fifty bucks to pay the rent on their copy machine. That ought to be — if they can’t make that decision, we should never have hired them.”
Sumter, whose job it is to put together the county budget, said it bothers her that the commissioners court has to approve the smallest of expenditures, but said she believes county government accounting is very detailed for good reason.
“I firmly believe that it is the public’s money and it bears greater scrutiny than any other form of accounting,” Sumter said recently.
In the days leading up to the finalization of the county’s FY2010 budget, Sumter asked each commissioner to eliminate the “special projects” line item from their budgets and disperse the funds to other line items that more clearly specified the uses of the money. The commissioners complied with Sumter’s request, which the judge said she made in the interest of government accountability.
All commissioners except Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) had requested $11,500 in special projects. Ford had requested $8,000. Sumter had originally budgeted $1,500 in special projects before prompting the policy change.
Said Sumter, “I think it’s a matter of not just picking a number out of the air, and saying, ‘Do with it as you wish,’ but being a little more receptive to, what are you going to do for it, is it a real number, do you have plans for the money, and then telling the citizens what you intend to do with that money.”Email | Print