Editorial: Smith County officials aren't above the law

Published on Tuesday, 25 April 2017 16:11 - Written by

Monday was a very revealing day - we learned much about how our county government functions.

First, videos of improper executive session meetings held by Smith County commissioners were released at the order of a state district judge, along with the investigator’s report that led to the indictment of then-County Judge Joel Baker.

The videos and the report look bad. Members of the court appear very cavalier in their dialogue about a variety of topics, many of which weren’t appropriate for an executive session.

The videos make it clear that despite some reservations on the part of two members of the court - Commissioners Terry Phillips and Cary Nix - the discussions of a deal with American Traffic Solutions for unmanned speed cameras continued to take place behind closed doors, out of the sight of the public.

Commissioners knew those cameras would be unpopular, but the revenue was just too tempting.

Commissioners spoke about having a public presentation at some future date, but that never happened. The public didn’t learn of the ill-conceived plan until Baker sent out a press release - when it was a done deal.

The videos and the investigator’s report answered a lot of questions, but they posed a few more. Commissioners routinely wandered off topic and onto matters that weren’t acceptable for an executive session and/or weren’t posted properly. For example, at one point Baker suggested creating a whole new county division, to serve as a law enforcement branch answerable to him (unlike the sheriff and constables, who answer to voters).

No one felt it necessary to correct Baker in that instance, or steer the court back onto the appropriate topics on countless other instances. Behind closed doors, no one was holding anyone else accountable. That’s unacceptable.

District Attorney Matt Bingham’s response to the release of the tapes on Monday - “I don’t care. I don’t care about it. The litigation is concluded” - is also unacceptable, because his office is responsible for upholding the law, whether it’s for a capital murder case or an open meetings violation. His assigned representative sat in on those meetings, and failed to ensure they were conducted properly. That buck stops with Bingham.

We can’t sit in on executive sessions ourselves, so we must be able to rely on Bingham’s office to ensure that executive session meetings comply with the law. His office clearly failed on that account.

The second instance on Monday was the arrest and booking of Commissioner JoAnn Hampton on a charge of injury to an elderly person. It stemmed from a confrontation she reportedly had with another woman at church on April 2.

We have nothing to say about the charge itself - the justice system will resolve that - but we are disturbed by Sheriff Larry Smith’s report that when he took the arrest affidavit to a judge in Smith County, that judge refused to sign the warrant. It wasn’t a matter of evidence - that judge, still unnamed, told Smith to take the warrant to someone out-of-county for a signature.

Again, we see the pattern - no one is holding anyone else accountable. That even applies to Smith; he should name the judge, instead of protecting that judge’s desire to remain anonymous. Will it take another judge to force the identity of the one the sheriff is hiding? Surely revealing who the unnamed judge is isn’t against the law. Or will the information have to be obtained through a Freedom of Information request?

One last note: On Tuesday, County Judge Nathaniel Moran said the county will make an effort to get the videos quashed. He says it’s because he believes they were disclosed improperly (although it was done by a state district judge, who certainly has that authority).

That’s a bad idea. The videos are already out. We’re just throwing good money after bad in an attempt to bring closure to an issue that just won’t go away.