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Citizens hammer Hays judge after two commissioners cleared

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 by Jacob Cottingham

Several citizens at Tuesday’s Hays County Commissioners meeting delivered blistering remarks to Judge Liz Sumter for investigations she launched into two colleagues.


Last week, Sumter sent a letter to District Attorney Sherri Tibbe calling for an investigation of Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley and Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe for their authorization of county work crews to pave roads in their respective precincts. Given that the letter was immediately leaked to news outlets, it was perceived by some as intended to affect the upcoming re-election bids of both Conley and Ingalsbe.


On Monday, Tibbe exonerated the two commissioners, saying they had a legal right to do the road repairs.


Sumter’s letter accused Conley of illegally using county road crews and some $5,000 to grade what the DA referred to as “Old Bumpy,” a section of Little Ranches Road. It accused Ingalsbe of using Hays County road crews to pave the road leading to Cementario Del Rio, a historic Hispanic-American cemetery that sees heavy traffic on the Day of the Dead.


Tibbe noted that the county had taken on maintenance of Old Bumpy in 1984.


Charlie Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who is a frequent presence in Commissioners Court and outspoken critic of local government, used his three minutes in public hearing to lodge a complaint of his own. After praising Commissioners Conley, Ingalsbe and Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, Johnson proceeded to quote Sumter in Saturday’s Austin American-Statesman, “When there is a complaint against an elected official, there isn’t anything I can do,” Sumter had said. “I’m bound to take it to (District Attorney) Sherri Tibbe.”


Johnson then cited Texas Government Code 26.006 and said that Sumter would receive a state salary supplement of $15,000 for Constitutional County Judge Service. Johnson read the code, which states, “A county judge is entitled to an annual salary supplement from the state of $15,000 if at least 40 percent of the functions that the judge performs are judicial functions.”


He said last year she had completed 63 probate hearings and five alcoholic beverage permit hearings but no misdemeanor criminal cases, mental health hearings, protective order hearings, or magistrations at the jail, and “zero other types of cases and hearings.” He concluded, “Judge Sumter, please, if you are bound to take citizens complaints to the Hays County District Attorney, then take this complaint that you have taken money from the State of Texas and not complied with section 26.006 of the government code… I trust you will do the right thing.”


Former State Democratic Party Chair Charles E. Soechting, commented that although he did not know Johnson, “if there was ever anything that sounded like a complaint… I think that is something that ought to be looked into.” He went on to berate the judge, saying she had “squandered a lot of good opportunities to bring unity to this court and this county. I think to bring an investigation to two of your colleagues… even if (Conley) is a Republican, I’m the former state Democratic chair, I would like to see five Democrats on this court, but this commissioner has done a pretty good job.” He then dismissed the judge’s letter, saying, “That is a low-tech version of Swift-Boating right here in Hays County…”


Although Conley is a Republican, Ingalsbe is a Democrat. In the past year, Sumter’s appointment of Democratic candidate for Pct. 3 Commissioner Steve Klepfer to the Citizen’s Transportation Board led to divisive wrangling in the Court concerning which consultants would brief the citizen’s group. Sumter has publicly denied she supports Klepfer.


Noting the quick timeframe for Tibbe’s decision exonerating the two commissioners, Soechting said, “Gosh, it must have been one tough legal question if it took the DA less than one working day to reach a conclusion.” Perhaps hinting at the possibility of citizens removing the judge from her office prematurely, Soechting ended his tirade saying, “The people of Hays County will have to make some decision about your performance and I don’t think we can wait two years to do it.”


Jim Green, of Wimberley, commented to the court, “It appears now that it’s legal system 2, Judge Sumter zero,” and cited the contentious lawsuit that Pct. 1 Republican candidate Nick Ramus won against the county. Sumter, Ingalsbe and Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford had voted against allowing Ramus’ septic system to be grandfathered under the 1997 subdivision rules. Green concluded his brief remarks telling the judge, “Trying to use the legal system to blacken people’s reputation in the middle of an election is very dishonorable.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton directed any questions to a lengthy blog entry on his website, where he wrote on Monday, “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.”


Sumter said she didn’t believe there would be any problems in the coming weeks. “If the investigation had gone the other way, I’m sure it would have. Being as it has not gone the other way, I think it should only bolster confidence in this court’s ability to handle funding for roads and getting them appropriately done in the appropriate manner.”


Sumter read In Fact Daily a prepared statement, “I’m very pleased DA Sherri Tibbe quickly investigated the citizen’s concerns and brought these matters to a quick, decisive conclusion. I’m also equally pleased that Hays County is following proper procedures and maintaining our roads and access to a historical cemetery site.” In regard to Johnson’s complaint she said, “we absolutely welcome all citizens to come forward… we have a letter going out to Charlie telling him where he can file that complaint so he can get his concerns addressed.”


The letter states that Johnson can lodge his complaint with the Office of Court Administration, a state agency in the Judicial Branch. As per his charges of how the judge spends her time she said, “it’s not time, it’s 40 percent of your function. I have two functions now as a county judge since I took on judicial. So it’s not a matter of time.” Presumably, this is not up to the DA to decide.


Barton seemed to summarize the situation in his blog, “one man’s zealous crusader is another man’s bully. One man’s political gamesmanship is another man’s waste of time.”

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