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Houston County commissioners oppose being silenced

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IMG 7952ALTON PORTER | HCC Houston County Judge Jim Lovell and county commissioners court members met in person and remotely via Zoom Tuesday, March 23. Above, from left to right, are Gary Lovell, Willie Kitchen, Judge Lovell, Gene Stokes and Jimmy Henderson.

By Alton Porter

Houston County’s commissioners, like other local government officials across the state, have taken a stand opposing being silenced by state officials.

The county officials adopted a resolution in opposition to Texas Senate Bills 10 and 234 and Texas House Bill 749, which they say introduce efforts to silence county officials. They took the action at a Houston County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning, March 23.

“SB 10 is a bill that’s being introduced (in the Texas Senate),” said County Judge Jim Lovell in presenting the resolution to the commissioners—as are SB 234 and HB 749. “They (state lawmakers) word it as taxpayer-funded lobbying.

“But what it really is is we can’t join an association, such as Texas Association of Counties or County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, if they hire on their staff a lobbyist.”

Judge Lovell added, “Not only that. We can’t go to Austin as commissioners court or sheriff or any other elected official to (voice our positions) if a bill comes up that concerns county government and we want to go and testify before a committee or talk to our legislator and the county pay for it.

“So, this resolution is just a resolution saying that we oppose that bill.”

County Auditor Melissa Jeter pointed out that SB 234 and HB 749 are Senate and House bills related to SB 10.

The bills would “take your voice away from any unfunded mandates…,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Gene Stokes said.

“They forgot about the First Amendment, didn’t they,” added Sheriff Randy Hargrove.

Jeter noted, the Senate’s Local Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, is to hold a hearing on SB 10 Thursday morning, March 25. Persons who want to comment on the bill should contact the committee before the hearing.

It is “a community censorship bill that would prohibit a city or county from spending public funds to influence the outcome of legislation,” according to an interpretation released by the Texas Municipal League (TML).

“At the most basic level, S.B. 10 would prevent a city from hiring staff, contracting with lobbyists or other professional advocates, or joining associations like TML that engage in advocacy at the state capitol.

“Specifically, the bill would provide: ‘The governing body of a county or municipality may not spend public money or provide compensation in any manner to directly or indirectly influence or attempt to influence the outcome of any legislation pending before the legislature.’”

HB 749, also dubbed community censorship legislation by TML, “would: (1) prohibit a political subdivision from spending public funds to: (a) hire an individual required to register as a lobbyist for the purpose of lobbying a member of the Texas legislature; or (b) pay a nonprofit state association or organization that: (i) primarily represents political subdivisions; and (ii) hires or contracts with an individual required to register as a lobbyist.”

In addition, TML representatives note, HB 749 would: “(2) provide that if a political subdivision engages in activity prohibited by (1), above, a taxpayer or resident of the political subdivision is entitled to injunctive relief to prevent any further prohibited activity or any further payments of public funds; and (3) provide that a taxpayer or resident who prevails in an action under (2), above, is entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees and costs from the political subdivision.”

SB 234 is a companion bill to HB 749.

In other business, the commissioners voted to accept as information the resignation of Bobby Hutcherson from the Houston County Emergency Services District No. 2 Board of Commissioners and to appoint Greg Brooks, of Belott, to replace Hutcherson on the ESD2 board. Hutcherson had served as vice president on the board.

In another action, the commissioners approved the holding of a county event and display permit for a Houston County Welfare Board and Kalin’s Center program and the adoption of a proclamation designating April as Child Abuse Prevention Month in Houston County.

The program, promoting awareness of child abuse, will be held on the county courthouse steps April 9, beginning at 11 a.m., and the annual display of pinwheels and related items, intended to focus attention on such abuse, will remain on the courthouse grounds throughout the month.

The commissioners approved participation in a right-of-way/utility project on State Highway 7 at the Trinity River with the Texas department of highways, by passing a motion authorizing the signing of an affidavit, an agreement to contribute right-of-way funds and a resolution authorizing Judge Lovell to execute an agreement to contribute funds to the state for proper development and construction of the state highway system.

They voted to pass a motion on a request to approve a $1,000 donation from an anonymous donor to the Sheriff’s Office for Drug Awareness Resistance Education (DARE) expenses.

The commissioners approved acceptance of a donation of $9,284 in road materials from an anonymous donor for Precinct 2.

In another action related to the Sheriff’s Office, the commissioners approved a budget amendment request from the office for a vehicle replacement not to exceed $17,000.

They voted to approve selecting which vehicles or departments are to be included to determine costs for a possible lease program with Enterprise Fleet Management.

A motion to grant Piney Woods Fine Arts Association $1,000 from the county’s Hotel Occupancy Tax fund to help cover expenses for a Texas Tenors Concert scheduled Saturday, April 16, at the Crockett Civic Center carried on a vote taken by the commissioners.

A proclamation, designating April as County Government Month in Houston County and setting April 29 as the date for a county employees picnic was adopted by the commissioners.

Similarly, the commissioners adopted a proclamation designating April as Fair Housing Month.

A motion declaring a 2005 Precinct 2 pickup truck as surplus and authorizing advertising for the sale of the vehicle passed on a vote by the commissioners.

They approved District Clerk Carolyn Rains’ request for $100 for a change fund.

The county’s former office of courthouse security was designated by the commissioners as additional space for Precinct 2 Constable Kenneth “Red” Smith, and they authorized the making of necessary budget amendments related to the matter.

A motion to approve a contract with a company to haul and deliver road materials for Precincts 1 and 3 carried on a vote of the commissioners.

They discussed a completed renovation project at the Precinct 2 road and bridge office building, located at 601 Cedar St., half of it which is being offered by Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen to be used for other county purposes. The commissioners voted to reimburse the Precinct 2 road and bridge budget with $24,210 from the county’s general fund for expenses incurred by the renovation project so that they can be used to fund road and bridge projects. The commissioners approved making necessary budget amendments for this matter.

They received as information a preservation/environmental testing report on the county courthouse presented by County Clerk Terri Meadows from G&H Environmental Consulting, LLC, and approved authorizing Judge Lovell to act on presented recommendations to make repairs to the courthouse.

The commissioners voted to authorize Judge Lovell to negotiate a possible real estate purchase.

And renewal of an insurance policy with Texas Association of Counties for property and mobile equipment was approved by the commissioners.

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