Going forward in Goliad was a struggle on several fronts during the year 2020.
A pestering COVID-19 pandemic stressed hospitals and forced rapid change throughout the world. Schools were transitioned into remote learning, meetings were changed to teleconferences, and social distancing became the new norm.
The distance between the Goliad County commissioners, however, was apparent pre-pandemic.
A divide between two groups on the commissioners court was more than six feet, to be sure, with commissioners hurling accusations at one another all year long. The tension instituted delays and back-and-forth discussion that turned tense at times. On one side of the aisle, County Judge Mike Bennett and Commissioner Mickey White fought for their goals. Commissioner trio David Bruns, Kenneth Edwards and Alonzo Morales took opposition with the other two on most subjects.
The beginning of the tension between the two factions came from an interlocal agreement between the county and the city of Goliad related to a grant to fund repairs to the Goliad Memorial Auditorium. An amendment in the agreement, proposed by Bruns, suggested that Bennett be removed and that both county voting members be from the commissioners court. The amendment was suggested due to the city’s claims of inability to work with Bennett on the matter, and Bruns was told that the grant would not be given because of this impasse.
“Yet the people that apply for the grant, who are in almost daily contact with these people, know nothing about it,” Bennett said in a February meeting.
City Administrator Candy Hubert stepped in to note that disagreements between Bennett and the city council on the contract caused the change in the agreement. Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of the agreement, with Bennett and White as dissenting votes.
The divide would only get more serious from there, with an April 27 meeting stoking fire around additional compensatory time for employees during the week after Hurricane Harvey.
“You cannot give them (compensatory) time because that is what you want to do,” White said following the meeting. “You cannot give comp time to people who didn’t earn it. You cannot gift them time. It is not legal.”
The courthouse was closed the week following Hurricane Harvey due to lost building power. Those employees who worked inside, including those in the annex, were given the week off, with pay, because of it.
White did not know the other commissioners had given their employees who worked that week comp time after the hurricane, in addition to the regular pay, until it was mentioned during an April 13 meeting.
Commissioner Bruns attempted to downplay the situation during the April 27 meeting.
“Those employees who worked at those (closed) offices all got paid for that week,” he said. “Since all the precinct workers worked that week after the hurricane and the other employees didn’t, we gave them comp time just like the other employees got paid.”
Bruns stated that contact was made with the Texas Association of Counties for advice, with TAC saying that the county could not give employees a bonus for working, which is why the comp time was given.
“They said the only way to do this way to give them comp time,” he said.
White disagreed on the notion, putting forth that “you don’t give people bonuses to come to work,” and that comp time was equivalent to a bonus. White intended to go through legal motions on the issue.
The Attorney General’s Office reviewed the matter, with a grand jury eventually declining to issue indictments against Bruns, Edwards or Morales on May 29.
During the summer months and heading into fall, the contingent of Edwards, Morales and Bruns attempted to make their voice heard in the county’s budgetary process. During a special called meeting by the trio on Sept. 2, the three voiced their concerns over the 2020-21 country budget, particularly in road and bridge funds. Edwards stated that $200,000 had been removed from his road and bridge budget without his knowledge.
“I save money for the bigger projects, and I try not to spend it all,” Edwards said. “I would like for the (county) auditor to explain to me (what happened to the money in his fund).”
County Auditor Rusty Friedrichs showed that the $200,000 had been contingent on the county receiving grant money from the Texas General Land Office, and that the county had not received the money yet. The issue for Edwards was a $55,000 bill for road work that he said could no longer be paid out of his budget, with Bruns suggesting moving $100,000 from the county’s uncommitted funds into Edwards’ road materials fund. Edwards, Bruns and Morales all voted in favor, with White and Bennett once again dissenting.
While the budget was balanced, Edwards later stated that “it has cost a lot of our savings to get it done,” and he hopes the commissioners court and other county employees are able to better handle the situation in the future.
The constant divide between the two factions has not gone unnoticed throughout the area, with several Goliad Advance-Guard readers chiming in during a tumultuous 2020.
On the budget process, specifically the $100,000 transfer into Edwards’ account, Goliad resident Jeff Sellers wrote in to the editor:
“It appears to me we have a serious problem in Goliad County, and if we don’t do something to correct the issues of our county commissioners, Goliad County will be well on the road to bankruptcy. If this is the road we take, our taxes will go through the roof. This will create a climate that will be detrimental to new business growth.”
Another Goliad resident, Ernest Alaniz, wrote in recently his take on the divide:
“All I see from our commissioners court is petty bickering and arguing over insignificant issues. Unless they start to address the real issue of the county, I predict a slow decline of the county.”
A change in the calendar to 2021 will bring a change on the court, as Sheriff Kirby Brumby will be taking White’s seat as Precinct 3 Commissioner. A witness to the discord, Brumby stated in October that he will try and work with everyone for the betterment of the community.
“I’m not easily angered,” he said in October. “I’m not one who screams and hollers, and it takes a lot to get me upset. My goal is to work with everybody. I want what is best for our citizens. Although we represent precincts, we need to serve the whole county. It’s the taxpayers’ money, not ours, and they deserve for us to do the best job we can for them. I’m not going to argue with people. I’ll listen to them. I know there are a lot of priorities. It’s important that we do all we can for all the residents of this county.”
The sentiment to resolve the court’s long-standing issues was echoed by two other members.
“I know there has been a lot of mudslinging, but I think it’s important that we put that behind us and just do what’s best for the people we serve,” Edwards said.
Bruns inclined to agree with his constituent.
“If we’re gonna go forward, everybody’s gotta get along,” he said. “Not everyone gets their way. If you don’t get your way, you move forward with the next project.”
Moving forward with positive energy is the goal, as the tide of 2020 was tough for many involved. There is no denial on the newsworthiness of the contention.