An agenda was posted last week for a meeting of Karnes County Commissioners Court showing the site of the meeting as the Karnes County Offices on the Square, but whether or not moving the court’s regular meetings to a new location is a question that no local official has yet been willing to answer.
According to state law, changing the location where Commissioners Court meets requires a vote by the court to do so, but minutes from previous meetings show that Karnes County’s Commissioners Court has not yet voted to move the court, probate court, county court and juvenile court from their current locations at the juvenile probation building to the Karnes County Offices on the Square.
The Karnes Countywide reached out to County Judge Barbara Shaw on March 1, asking if she believed the courts could legally be moved without action by Commissioners Court.
“I will be sharing a legal opinion to address any concerns on March 12,” Shaw responded. “Commissioners Court will be at Offices on the Square on March 12.”
In response to an email sent several days later referencing state law regarding moving local courts, Shaw still was still unwilling to answer the question of whether or not the move was legal.
“As usual, you are obsessed with anything I say or do,” Shaw said. “Sometimes to the point I am leery of you and the odd things you choose to obsess over. I have told you and have explained to you that I have a legal opinion to read in Commissioners Court. If you choose to continue to feel that the court has done something wrong or illegally, I strongly suggest you file a complaint with the 81st Judicial District DA’s office.”
The Karnes Countywide reached out last week to County Attorney Herb Hancock, District Attorney Rene Pena and Ross Fischer, a San Antonio attorney who works as a consultant for Commissioners Court, for comment regarding whether the move was in compliance with state law, but email and phone messages left have not yet been returned by any of the three attorneys.
David Brooks, an Austin attorney who specializes in administrative law, was willing to comment.
“The long and short of it is that whatever the county does with regard to where they are going to meet, that action has to be taken by the entire court,” Brooks said.
Brooks is the author of Texas Practice Series, Volume 35, County and Special District Law, a book considered by many practicing attorneys to be the definitive reference on the area of law that regulates the practices of local courts.
“They have to be at a meeting that is properly called and noticed,” Brooks explained. “There has to be a meeting and it has to be approved by a majority of those at a meeting where there is a quorum. The county judge does not have any authority on his or her own to meet someplace else.”
The Karnes Countywide reached out to the other four members of the court and County Commissioners Shelby Dupnik and Tracey Schendel said they are not opposed to moving the meetings of Commissioners Court to the Karnes County Offices on the Square.
Commissioner Schendel said he wasn’t notified that the court would be moving.
“They haven’t told me anything,” Schendel said. “I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m not going to be able to make it to that meeting. I thought we were meeting at the same building where we always go. If I go and there is no one there, then I’ll know where to go.”
Phone messages left for Commissioner James Rosales have not yet been returned.
Commissioner Pete Jauer said he was choosing not to comment on whether or not the move was legal or whether or not he would have supported the move if such a motion had been made.
There was an agenda item for discussion or action regarding moving the county judge’s office and the four local courts to the Karnes County Offices on the Square, but the discussion in the Jan. 31 meeting focused on moving the county judge’s office and resulting displacement of the extension service office.
Commissioner Jauer made a motion related to the item, stating, “I make a motion to move the county judge and staff from this building over to the annex building on West Calvert Avenue.” Jauer’s motion passed on a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Rosales casting the only vote against the motion.
A similar situation came about in May of 2011 when Shaw requested moving the court due to what she described as unacceptable bat guano odors in the county courtroom.
The move at that time was narrowly approved by the court on a 3-2 vote. Commissioner Jauer, who initially expressed opposition to moving the court, changed his mind when it came down to a vote. The vote passed with County Judge Barbara Shaw, Commissioners Tracey Schendel and Pete Jauer voting in favor while Commissioners James Rosales and Carl Hummel voting against moving the court.