Saturday, February 25, 2017

The new county judge goes to Austin--and I'm a little bit nervous.


The new county judge goes to Austin

I've heard nothing but good things so far about Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran.  Since he took the helm, things have at least stabilized after more than a year of disarray in county government.  At least the 2017 county budget was a start when it came to addressing infrastructure needs.  And we are not building more on to the Smith County Kremlin this year!  Most of all, he actually shows up to work instead of spending his time playing around on social media and attending every conference, committee meeting, and awards ceremony that catches his fancy.  So hey, I understand that being an effective local leader includes representing our interests in the legislature.  Nonetheless, I'm a little creeped out, because Moran's predecessor, Joel Baker, seemed to enjoy going to Austin just a little too much...and it got him into trouble!

It's about local tax increases

Well, not directly, but hopefully that got your attention.  Apparently one of the main issues our local delegation is addressing is the proposed Senate Bill 2, which would prevent a local government from increasing its tax rate by more than 4 percent over the previous year's rate without direct voter approval.  (The current law sets the cap at 8 percent, and a voter referendum has to be initiated by a petition.)  Judge Moran opposes SB-2, saying it is all about "local control."

“Ultimately, as the county judge and also as a conservative, Senate Bill 2 concerns me because of the direction the Legislature is going to - forgetting that local control is a primary pillar of conservative principles,” 

I like you, Judge Moran, but we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.  For one thing, wouldn't direct voter participation in major fiscal decisions made by local governments be the ultimate form of "local control"?  And although it has nothing to do with Moran, I remember former County Judge Joel Baker whining about the same thing a couple of years ago and oh, God, please don't let us go back to how things were back then!

Here's the mugshot, in case some of you are thinking things weren't so bad back then.

Moran and other local politicians make a seemingly valid argument that, since property tax rates in Tyler and Smith County are among the lowest in the state, taxpayers here would be much less affected by a 4 percent tax increase, than, say, those living in Austin and Travis County, where local tax burdens are among the highest in the state.  Point well-taken.  But again, SB-2 would not prevent a local government from raising tax rates over the threshold, but would simply require them to get voter approval.

And don't let that "we have a low tax rate" chant by county politicians hypnotize you, sheeple.  Our county tax rate is indeed low, but not so much because of efficiency in government and sound fiscal policies.  Our tax rate is low, in part, because our leaders have simply refused to spend enough on basic government functions (such as taking care of county roads) and have kicked the can down the road, year after year. In doing so, our county commissioners have borrowed against the future, and they or their successors will eventually be faced with some difficult decisions.  And yes, it may be necessary to raise taxes to keep things running.
I don't always agree with District 6 Representative Matt Schaefer.  But I think he is on the right side of this one.  For one thing, we need to stop using the term "revenue" as a euphemism for taxes:
“I don’t accept the term ‘revenue caps,’” says state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, who supports SB 2. “It’s tax money, not revenue."
And, like I already said...
"And they’re not talking about a cap, they’re talking about a trigger that would require voter involvement....It simply means that those officials raising their tax rate would have to have the permission of the people paying the tax.”


So, why is SB-2 good for Smith County?

Hopefully, Judge Moran has noticed that he's presiding over a commissioners court in which the Buffoon Party still holds a majority.
The Three Stooges:  Commissioners Cary Nix, JoAnn Hampton, and Jeff Warr

Look, these people might be in office for some time, as voters in their precincts are apparently perfectly happy with them.  Suppose Judge Moran serves a term or two and moves on.  What if we end up with a county judge who doesn't have good sense?  (It's happened before, right?)  The last thing we want is to give these people--or others like them--carte blanche to increase taxes by more than a few percent without having to answer directly to the voters! 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Profiles in failed leadership: Smith County Commissioner Cary Nix

Meet Smith County Commissioner Cary Nix


On my old blog, I used to refer to Commissioner Nix as "Sidekick Nix" because he seemed to always march lock-step with former Smith County Judge Joel Baker.  To Nix' credit, he was known to oppose Baker on some issues.  But overall, Nix has proven he cannot be trusted as a leader in local government.  Let's take a look at a few examples of Nix' failed leadership.

Transportation Reinvestment Zone (TRZ)

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Loop 49 Transportation Reinvestment Zone was to earmark some of the tax revenue from land near Toll Loop 49 and "reinvest" it into local "transportation" projects.  In reality, the TRZ was a SCAM by Joel Baker and the county commissioners to divert funding away from much-needed county infrastructure improvements to support pet projects such as a toll bypass route around Lindale, and possibly to add a multi-million dollar facility to their own little Kremlin in downtown Tyler.

When Nix and Baker were running for reelection in the 2014 campaign, they set up "town-hall" style meetings to get "public input" about the TRZ.  But opposition to the plan was so fierce that they set aside their plan until after the election.  Despite public opposition, Commissioners Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, and JoAnn Hampton hastily voted to create the TRZ in December 2014 with little opportunity for additional public input.  (Link to article)  Fortunately for taxpayers, however, the TRZ died on the vine later that winter--Not because commissioners listened to constituents, but because the attorney general issued an opinion that counties do not have the authority to set up special taxations zones.  In other words, this scheme was ILLEGAL from the get-go.

And speaking of illegal:  Cameragate

In January of 2015, Smith County Judge Joel Baker signed a 10-year contract with a company in Arizona called "American Traffic Solutions," or ATS.  In the agreement, ATS would supply 10-20 automated camera units that would catch speeders in school zones and issue "fines" that would be assessed by the company.  When the program was finally announced to the public in April, 2015, there was outrage, especially among other elected officials, including the sheriff.  First off, the program was unconstitutional in that it violated defendants' Sixth Amendment right to face their accusers in court.  Second, Texas' counties to not have the legal authority to set up such programs.  And finally, the plan was hammered out and approved in three commissioners court meetings that violated the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA).  As a result, this scheme erupted into a major local scandal that some of us called "Cameragate."

Commissioners Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, and JoAnn Hampton were present at all three of the illegal meetings.  And all three of them voted for the plan and supported it until it became a scandal.  The attorney general of Texas and the FBI launched investigations into the matter, and the AG's case resulted in Joel Bakers' conviction for TOMA violations.  However, probably for political reasons, the county commissioners were never prosecuted, even though they participated in the illegal meetings, which is a crime.  Nix would later claim ignorance of the TOMA violations.  But county commissioners are required to take 16 hours of continuing education annually and are each given a $5,000 yearly allowance for travel and education.  And TOMA is like one of the "basics" of local government.  But Nix claimed ignorance?

After the AG's criminal investigation was initiated, county commissioners ended up approving the expenditure of approximately $46,000 in taxpayer funds to defend themselves.  And to add insult to injury, Nix and the other commissioners would later consider using taxpayer funds to reimburse themselves for additional legal fees they incurred for individual representation!

Cary Nix comes up for reelection in 2018, which will be here sooner than you think.  Hopefully he will have an opponent, and he and Commissioner Hampton will be the first two to go down in our push to "vote the bums out."

Read more about Smith County government here:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

April Sikes for District Attorney? Jacob Putman?

Yeah, I know--three posts in one day.  I must be on some sort of manic high or something.  But I have a little time on my hands and wanted to get caught up on some issues.  After all, the 2018 election campaign season will be upon us soon.  And if I learned anything from 2014, it's that the opposition has to get started early.

So let's talk about the upcoming campaign for District Attorney.

So far we have two declared candidates:  First Assistant April Sikes, Matt Bingham's second-in-command, and another one of his minions, Assistant DA Jacob Putman.  Matt Bingham has said he will not run again.  The question is, will he step aside early, before his term is over and give his second-in-command the opportunity to get appointed to the post, getting a leg-up on the competition?  Oh, and in case you are wondering--I'm aware of some rumors about some, um, alleged improper behavior within the DA's office.  I will not publish rumors here, only verifiable facts and opinions about such facts.  But that said...It's interesting how often rumors about Smith County government end up being true.  And, sheesh!  If there is an element of truth to what I've heard...and it comes out during the campaign...things are going to get VERY interesting around here in a few months!

I don't have a dog in this race yet, but here is just a "stream of consciousness" kind of discussion.  Feel free to comment.

First let's talk about April Sikes

Well she's the most interesting one, because she is the highest-paid county employee and answers only to Bingham.  I don't know much about her, and I can't really find any directly derogatory information about her online.  So I'll try to stay relatively neutral here.  But I think several questions are going to have to be answered early in the campaign:

First, does Sikes live in Smith County?  I'm not making a statement here, but it's a legitimate question for any candidate.  The last address I could find for her in any online source was not in Smith County.  Then again, for obvious reasons judges and prosecutors are very cagey about their actual home addresses, so the point of the question is probably moot.

Second, how will Sikes explain spending by the D.A.'s office?  After all, since 2007, the DA's budget has gone up by about 49 percent.  Yet, neither the population of Smith County nor the crime rate have increased by that much.  Yeah, that's all on Matt Bingham, because he is ultimately in charge.  But I think Sikes--and for that matter her opponents--better demonstrate some understanding of what has driven the spending increases, whether they are justified, and whether measures can or should be taken to control spending.

And third, as second-in-command, does Sikes bear some of the responsibility for some of the prosecutorial disasters we've seen in the last few years?  One example I'd bring up if I were her opponent would be the famed "Mineola Swingers' Club" debacle that disgraced prosecutor Joe Murphy and led to one defendant's case being overturned, with a scathing rebuke for the judge and the prosecutor.

Next, we have Jacob Putman

I don't have as much on this guy.  As with Sikes, I can't find much info, good or bad, on him online.  He's saying all the right stuff, anyway, about wanting to be fair and looking after our safety and respecting law enforcement:
“I believe in the rule of law and our Constitution. Our justice system should apply to everyone equally, regardless of age, race, or social status," Putman said in a statement to the media. “To me, it makes no difference whether someone is a construction worker, doctor or an elected official. Our citizens expect and demand that we are tough on crime to make Smith County a safer place to live a rewarding life, raise a family and grow a business. If elected, I will support our brave law enforcement officers and stand up for consistent application of the rule of law.”
Yeah, yeah--truth and justice and the American way.  But he's still a minion of Matt Bingham.  I'd want to know what he is going to change, if anything.


Profiles in failed leadership: Commissioner Jeff Warr

Meet Smith County Commissioner Jeff Warr:

Commissioner Jeff Warr took office in 2009, replacing Grassroots-WTP chairperson JoAnn Fleming.  Under former Smith County Judge Joel Baker, the ten years from 2007 to 2016 made up a decade of failed leadership, and Warr was right at Baker's side most of that time.  Unfortunately, Warr ran unopposed in 2012 and again in 2016.  Warr is maybe the brightest of the four dim bulbs who serve as commissioners, including JoAnn Hampton, Cary Nix, and Terry Phillips.  However, Warr has demonstrated time and time again that he cannot be trusted in a leadership position.

No plan--for anything

Warr was the mastermind behind the $35 MILLION jail expansion plan that was approved by voters in 2011 after four previous bond elections for jail expansion failed.  The $35 MILLION plan was the least expensive of the five proposals.  But during this process of trying to get voters to approve more spending for jail space, no one in county government ever seriously pondered these difficult questions:  Why does Smith County, Texas incarcerate its citizens at about twice the average rate for counties in Texas?  And, were there any reasonable, safe alternatives to pre-trial incarceration for defendants accused of non-violent crimes such as low-level drug possession?
But get this:  As the project neared completion in 2014, Warr and his fellow clownishioners had NO IDEA how they were going to pay to staff the new facility.  Sheriff Larry Smith had to go straight to the public and beg for the funds it would take to hire enough jailers to operate the facility in compliance with state jail standards!
And what about county roads?  Smith County's roads and bridges have been crumbling from over a decade of neglect and inadequate funding.  Sure Jeff Warr has gone around and given talks about a "master plan" for the roads.  Have we seen the plan?  Were any appreciable steps taken to figure out how to repair Smith County's crumbling infrastructure?  Nope.  Instead, year after year, as our county roads crumbled and washed away, Warr has put his stamp of approval on Joel Baker's budgets that diverted millions of dollars for renovations and purchases to add on to the Smith County Kremlin in downtown Tyler!

Stand by your man

In early 2016, Smith County Judge Joel Baker disgraced his office and the commissioners court by exchanging over a thousand obscene messages--including pictures of his genitalia--with a woman while he was supposed to be attending judicial hearings and educational activities.  Two other county commissioners--Terry Phillips and Cary Nix--called for Baker's resignation.  Commissioner JoAnn Hampton, being one to "go along to get along" didn't say a peep.  But Warr actually DEFENDED Baker and muttered some Biblical platitude about judging others, blah, blah, blah.

Transportation Reinvestment Zone

We mustn't forget that Commissioner Jeff Warr supported Joel Baker's beloved "Transportation Reinvestment Zone," or TRZ.  The TRZ would have earmarked tax revenue from the Toll Loop 49 corridor ostensibly to fund an extension of Loop 49 and other "transportation" projects.  In actuality the TRZ was a SCAM by Joel Baker and the commissioners to siphon off money desperately needed for county roads and bridges to build yet another unneeded facility in downtown Tyler.  Despite widespread public opposition to the plan, the commissioners hastily voted to form the TRZ in December 2014, with little opportunity for public discussion.  Fortunately, later that winter, the attorney general issued an opinion that counties did not have the authority to form such special taxation zones.  So the TRZ died on the vine, not because commissioners gave in to the taxpayers' wishes, but because it was ILLEGAL!

Cameragate:  No accountability, no transparency

In 2014, Warr and his buddy-ol'-pal Joel Baker were introduced to an outfit in Arizona called American Traffic Solutions (ATS) by former Tyler mayor Joey Seeber.  They then set in motion a plan to introduce an illegal, unconstitutional program that would set up automated camera devices to catch speeders in school zones.  The plan was secretly hammered out and approved in three commissioners court meetings that violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, or TOMA.  Jeff Warr was present and all three of those meetings.  It is a crime for an elected official to even participate in such illegal meetings.  Warr and the other commissioners would later claim ignorance of the TOMA violations.  Ignorance?  Warr had been given a $5,000 allowance annually since he took office for travel and education.  And, as a county commissioner he had been required by the state to take 16 hours of continuing education annually.  But he didn't know that concealing such a scam from the public might be illegal?
"Cameragate" erupted into a major local scandal, and resulted in Joel Baker's conviction for violating TOMA.  Alas, probably for political reasons, Warr and the other commissioners were never prosecuted.   After the attorney general opened a criminal investigation into the matter, Warr and the other commissioners voted to spend around $46,000 for three private law firms to defend themselves.  And to add insult to injury, Warr later requested that the taxpayers foot the bill for another $3,900 he spent out of his own pocket for his defense!
Unfortunately Warr does not come up for reelection until 2020.  So we are probably stuck with him for a while.  But he at least needs to know we are watching.  Do me a favor and send Commissioner Warr an e-mail.  Cut and past the URL of this article and put it in your message to let him know who sent you!


Profiles in failed leadership: Smith County Commissioner JoAnn Hampton

Meet Smith County Commissioner JoAnn Hampton:


Failed leadership

Mrs. Hampton has been in office since 2003.  Voters had an opportunity to get rid of her in the 2014 primary.  But voter turnout in her Democrat-infested precinct was pitiful.  So this dim bulb has continued to flicker at the County Annex Building for over fourteen years.  That's about fourteen years too long, folks!
You'd think that as the lone Democrat on the commissioners court, she would have been a little more outspoken about the egregiously failed leadership of former Republican Smith County Judge Joel Baker.  Not so.  She was often seen at his side, attending various out-of-town meetings to receive bogus awards for--ironically--things like "transparency" in county government.  Did Hampton speak out and demand Baker's resignation after he embarrassed the county by sending pictures of his genitalia to a woman while he was supposed to be participating in hearings?  Did she say anything when Baker was indicted on three counts of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act?  Did she speak for her taxpaying constituents and demand accountability, respectability, and honesty?  Nope.  She muttered some stuff about her church praying for him.  Otherwise, not a peep.
In fact, I haven't heard JoAnn Hampton speak out much about anything.  When she is confronted by local journalists, she usually just gets that deer-in-the headlights look and gives them the 'no comment' treatment.  And when she does open her mouth in public, usually something so inane comes out that she would have been better off just saving her breath.
And you'd think that as a so-called "leader" in the African-American community, she would try to lift a finger every now and then in an effort to get the needs of her constituents addressed.  You know, like decent county infrastructure and adequate law enforcement presence for those living in rural parts of her precinct?  No.  Year after year she put her stamps of approval on Joel Baker's budgets that diverted spending to the Smith County Kremlin in downtown Tyler instead of addressing the county's crumbling roads and staffing shortages in the sheriff's department.

Lack of accountability--TOMA violations

As of 2014, JoAnn Hampton had been in office over 11 years.  She had been given a $5,000 allowance annually for travel and education.  As a county officer she had been required to take 16 hours of continuing education courses every year.  She had ample opportunity to learn about state and federal laws that pertain to county governments.  But that summer Hampton participated in three illegal commissioners court meetings that violated the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA).  In those meetings they hammered out an illegal, unconstitutional program to allow a private company to use automated camera units to enforce speed limits in school zones.  That plan turned into a major scandal and eventually led to the conviction of the county judge for TOMA violations, and left the county's government in disarray for over a year.  Hampton and her fellow clownishioners would later claim ignorance.  And once a criminal investigation was opened by the attorney general's office, they would vote to spend around $46,000 of the taxpayer's money for their own criminal defense.  And, to add insult to injury, Hampton later requested reimbursement from the county for approximately $7,000 in additional legal expenses she incurred by hiring her own attorney!  It needs to be pointed out that it is illegal for an elected official to even participate in a meeting that violates TOMA.  But, alas, Hampton and the other commissioners were not prosecuted, probably for political reasons.
The bottom line is this--Hampton needs to go.  She will be up for reelection in 2018, which will be here sooner than you think.  Hopefully some brave soul will stand up and run against her.  Just say NO to JoAnn Hampton and her fellow commissioners Cary Nix and Jeff Warr.
Read more about Smith County government here:

Commissioner JoAnn Hampton gets appointed EDUCATION committee?

Yikes!  Talk about the "blind leading the blind."
So apparently this dim bulb has somehow been chosen to be a member a seven-member panel that will decide what kinds of continuing educational activities will be required for county commissioners and county judges.  Yeah, that JoAnn Hampton:  You know, the one who despite having been in office since 2003...and having been given an allowance of $5,000 per year for travel and of 2014 STILL didn't understand the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA)!  You see, in 2014, JoAnn Hampton participated in three illegal meetings that were TOMA violations.  And, by the way, even participating in such meetings is a crime.  So she's going to help decide what kinds of educational activities are appropriate for other county commissioners!
But a couple of other things bug me about this.  First, this "article" is not a real newspaper article, as in a piece written by a journalist.  It is a press release, issued by the county's public information officer, probably former Telegraph writer and general journalism flunky Casey Murphy.  It's written to make us feel good about our county commissioners--how they are being recognized on a statewide level for their accomplishments.  Well, Mrs. Murphy, they have been recognized, alright, but not for what you want them to be.  The 'Graph did the same thing a few weeks ago by printing a piece about some county employees who were retiring.  I mean it was nice, but really more "employee newsletter" material, not something that needs to take up space in the newspaper.  Hell, people retire from corporations all of the time around here, but you don't see them in the newspaper!
Furthermore, we are not paying JoAnn Hampton--or any of the other county commissioners--to wing off to various parts of the state to participate in whatever commissions, committees, or awards ceremonies that tickle their fancy.  JoAnn has already done enough of that kind of stuff, getting her picture in the paper along-side former County Judge Joel Baker, receiving (ironically) awards for "excellence" and "transparency" in county government.  In case some of you haven't noticed, Smith County's government has been in disarray for the better part of the past decade.  We need commissioners who focus on fixing some of the serious local problems we have here.  If JoAnn wants to do this kind of crap on her own time and spend her own money, fine.  Otherwise she needs to stay at home.
Or even better--we just need to vote JoAnn Hampton and the other bums out!