GILMER -- Despite protests from two constables, Upshur County Commissioners Court voted 3-1 Friday to approve a resolution supporting proposed state legislation which might eventually result in the county reducing its number of justices of the peace and constables.
The court is backing House Joint Resolution 103, which would allow voters statewide in November to decide whether to approve an amendment to the Texas Constitution allowing counties of 18,000-50,000 population some flexibility in their number of such officials.
State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), who introduced the bill, said it would let such counties set the number of JPs between two and eight, and the same range for constables.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner, who proposed the resolution approved Friday, said this week he was "exploring the pros and cons" of reducing the number. The county, which by state law must have four JP/constable precincts, could save $175,000-220,000 by lowering that to two, but he is also considering cutting back to three, he has said.
But the potential amendment came under fire at Friday's meeting from Pct. 1 Constable Gene Dolle and Pct. 2 Constable Jason Weeks, who charged that it could lead to fewer law enforcement officers on the streets.
Dolle complained the amendment would remove voters' "ability to choose who they really want," and that JPs and constables would be "more inclined to please the Commissioners Court" since the court could eliminate their precincts. He also said having only two JPs and two constables would overload the system when "the Sheriff's Department is stretched to the limit."
Weeks said "it's not gonna be the voters that have the say-so" on how many JPs/constables the county would have if the amendment is approved (since the Commissioners Court would set that). He also said he is taking calls for the "short-handed" Sheriff's Office, so lowering the number of JPs and constables won't "be a money-saver for the county."
But Precinct 3 Commissioner Frank Berka said that under current state law, even counties with only 10,000 population must have four JP/constable precincts and that the potential amendment "is not about Upshur County. This is about 60-plus counties that have had their rights (to set their number of JP/constable precincts) taken away from them" by past legislation.
Berka pointed out that two thirds of both houses of the Texas Legislature must approve Simpson's bill for the amendment to get on November's ballot. Berka said the measure was aimed at providing "local control."
Hefner said that before the law changed in 1999, Upshur County could have adjusted its number of precincts. He said Simpson's bill was aimed at restoring "organizational freedom" that counties of over 50,000 population already have, and that "the people will have a say" on changing the number of precincts by getting to vote on the proposed amendment this November.
Only Precinct 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry voted against Hefner's resolution, saying afterward she was reflecting the views of constituents who contacted her. Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer joined Berka and Hefner in voting for the resolution, while County Judge Dean Fowler, who usually votes only to break ties, did not vote.