County who officials gathered at the North & East Texas annual conference in Nacogdoches were intermittently reminded by people, places and pictures of the solemnity of their oath, the context of their freedom, and the challenges of their office.
The North & East Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association 2005 Annual Education Conference opened June 5, the anniversary of D-Day. During the welcoming address, Nacogdoches Mayor Bob Dunn and County Judge Sue Kennedy referred to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who landed on the beaches of Normandy. Later in the conference, attended by some 180 officials, Limestone County Commissioner Billy Waldrop, a past president of the North & East Association, tearfully referred to his recent reunion with soldiers he served alongside in World War II.
Kennedy described the conference setting the oldest city in Texas as a place that provides the seeds of our states freedom. She encouraged officials to visit the nearby burial sites of several signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The duty we take on is a solemn one, just like those who have come before us, Kennedy said.
Finally, challenges of the office were captured in frames lining the hallway leading to the main conference room, displaying newspaper headlines, photos and articles detailing the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 and the debris scattered along East Texas, particularly Nacogdoches. Kennedy spent weeks immersed in the search and recovery of shuttle and human remains, fielding questions from worldwide media, and helping lead her county and other agencies in a previously unimaginable emergency response effort.
While most of the officials have yet to experience challenges of such magnitude, everyone at the conference acknowledged an ongoing battle characterized by the recent 79th Legislative Session. Association leaders and other county government experts cited the Session as one of the worst in decades, where counties were portrayed as big spenders in need of restraints such as appraisal and revenue caps, which would strip counties of already-limited resources needed to provide basic services, not to mention discretionary services citizens have come to expect.
Several conference speakers had just returned from the Capitol, where they spent time testifying for or against county-related legislation.
Ive never seen such a coming together of county family, said Borden County Judge Van York, president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas (CJCAT), referring to the way officials from across the state united to oppose appraisal caps, represented in 20 bills, and revenue caps, put forth in about 10 bills. None of these bills passed. However, CJCAT general counsel Jim Allison was quick to point out that if a special session is called, these issues will likely be on the table once again.
One thing we cannot afford to do is put forth a split front, said Oldham County Judge Don Allred, president of the West Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, at the Opening General Session. It is imperative that we remain united, as that is the only way we can be a factor in Austin.
The Opening Session kicked off the educational conference, led by 2004-2005 North & East President Richard Cortese, Bell County commissioner. While much discussion centered on legislation, officials were schooled in other vital topics key to county government:
Indigent Health Care: Rita Kelley, director of Bell County Human Services, shared information on the Texas Indigent Health Care Association, which will provide technical assistance and peer review to county indigent health care programs. The Association also will provide for pooled purchasing opportunities covering areas such as pharmacology, durable medical equipment, and laboratory services. Allison followed Kelley in the panel discussion, telling officials that were the only state that pays for indigent health care solely with local dollars. He encouraged commissioners courts to continue to unite in an effort to access federal monies for indigent health care.
Purchasing: Beth Fleming, director of purchasing for Denton County, fielded a slew of questions from the audience on bidding requirements. Purchases of one or more items over $25,000 must be bid, she said. If all four precincts will be purchasing more than $25,000 for a like item throughout the year even for separate precincts then you need to go out for a bid. Fleming also reminded officials that, according to the attorney general, counties must keep bidding until a bid is received, even if no one responds at the outset. She also cautioned officials to be careful that one vendor is not writing your specs for you.
Preservation: John Lasserre, state coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission, showed a variety of slides demonstrating preservation efforts that can eventually be linked to economic development. Preservation is not about telling people what color to paint their house, he said. Its about helping people protect the things we value. These older structures offer high quality infrastructure already in place. Im asking you to turn your head and take a good look at some of the things you already have, Lasserre said.
Open Meetings: John Fuller, assistant attorney general, County Affairs Section of the Office of the Attorney General, discussed statutes enacted by the 79th Texas Legislature. SB1113 dictates that counties with Web sites post notice of commissioners court meetings on their Web site, in addition to the courthouse posting. Counties over 65,000 must also post the agenda. If a county makes a good faith effort, but the posting fails due to a technical problem, the meeting is not rendered invalid. Fuller also cited SB690 regarding recesses in the commissioners court sessions and SB286 requiring open government training for all officials.
Other educational classes covered topics such as transportation, ethical governing, personnel policies, investment policies and issuing debt.
The daytime sessions were complemented by social events in the evening, including Vendor Appreciation Night, Host Court Night, and the Installation Banquet, where the 78-member Association inducted its 2005-2006 slate of officers: President Wayne Gent, Kaufman County Judge; Secretary/Treasurer Charles Simmons, Nacogdoches County Commissioner; Second Vice President Jim Carter, Denton County Commissioner; and Immediate Past President Richard Cortese. The Association thanked Cortese for his year of leadership, presenting him with a plaque and honoring him with a standing ovation.