By Tommy Mann Jr. – For The Record

With open carry now in full effect, Orange County is falling in line with other county governments across the state on restricting where these firearms can carried.

Orange County Commissioners Court met in a special session on Tuesday and dealt with an extremely lengthy, time-consuming agenda, which included an agenda item to regulate where licensed handgun owners may or may not carry firearms as it pertains to Orange County government facilities. It also included authorizing the placement of signs regulating the carrying of a licensed handgun into the Orange County Courthouse and essential facilities.

“I have received opinions from other counties and even two from the (Texas) Attorney General,” said Douglas E. Manning, Assistant County Attorney. “The opinions leave a lot of room for interpretation.”

Since the law is so new, many governmental entities are being cautious with decisions and which locations are potentially qualified as a restricted area.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, a person who is licensed by the state of Texas or another with reciprocity, may legally carry any handgun openly or concealed, as long as it is in a legal shoulder or belt holster.

Open carry of firearms is prohibited at businesses and locations which display legal restrictions signs, such as those for Section 30.06 and Section 30.07 of the penal code.

The Section 30.06 sign applies to those with a concealed handgun and prohibits the carrying of a weapon even with a concealed handgun license. The sign for Section 30.07 will ban open carry. Both are prohibited by businesses or locations displaying both signs, which are listed in English and Spanish.

Despite going into effect on Jan. 1, licensed gun owners are not be able to openly carry a firearm in locations such as schools, hospitals and medical complexes, nursing homes and other locations which remain gun-free zones.

On Dec. 21, 2015, Ken Paxton, Texas Attorney General, released an opinion which stated “the responsible authority that would notify license holder of their inability to carry on the respective premises must make the determination of which government courtrooms and offices are essential to the operation of the government court, in consultation with the government court.”

“It’s up to you to determine what offices are ‘essential,'” Manning said to commissioners. “But I have signed letters from the three District Judges and from Judge (Derry) Dunn which have declared their courts and offices off limits.”

After deliberation for several minutes, commissioners agreed the Orange County Courthouse will be restricted from open carry, as will all district courts, all Orange County Justice of the Peace offices, and Adult Probation and Juvenile Probation services.

Also, when in session, the Orange County Commissioners Court will be a restricted area for open carry. Open carry is already prohibited at the Orange County Jail by statute.

David Dubose, commissioner of Precinct 1, asked if this would include county parks and received a surprising answer.

“County parks were previously restricted but not anymore,” Manning said. “County parks and non-judicial offices, like the tax office, will now allow open carry for licensed gun owners.”

Commissioners approved the above mentioned locations and placement of signs at these locations by a unanimous vote.

One item on the agenda which generated a lot of discussion pertained to the potential change in employee vacation policy. One topic involved when employees could take vacation and the other was related to limiting the amount of vacation time earned for new employees only in a cost savings effort.

“I don’t want to take away peoples vacation time,” Carlton explained. “I just want to space it out more.”

For example, Carlton stated employees who work for Orange County receive a certain amount of vacation depending upon their time of service with the county. For example, after one year an employee receives two weeks of vacation. The amount of time earned increases by one week after every fifth year with a maximum of six weeks being possible. for those with 20 years or more of employment.

Carlton proposed splitting the amount of vacation where an employee could take one-half of available time between January and June, and the remaining one-half between July to December.

“I don’t see why we are messing with peoples vacations, when they’ve earned it,” said John Banken, Precinct 3 commissioner. “It should be up to the department heads, not this court.”

Another purpose for the proposed change was to potentially reduce the number of employees who retire at the start of each new year, which is when vacation time becomes available again and retiring employees are paid for their remaining time.

In January 2015, a large number of employees reportedly retired but only five employees have submitted retirement paperwork as of Tuesday.

Carlton also suggested the cost saving option of reducing the amount of vacation which can be paid out to a retiring employee, such as only paying out half of the vacation time available for example.

“My concern with this is having a non-productive employee from January to June,” Banken said. “Some people will be willing to wait six-months to retire, take half of their vacation during that period, and then be paid for the rest anyway. One way or another, you will still have to pay this money.”

Former Orange County employee JoAnn Foster said she left the county in 1985 to go work for the State of Texas because of concerns she had about the county then. She felt moves like this would deter people from seeking employment with Orange County or remaining with the county for a lengthy employment.

“You are going to have people who will come here and be trained, and then those same people will take that training with them for a better job,” she said. “I’m a tax-payer, and I don’t want to pay to train these people and have them leave.”

The department with the largest number of employees is the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which is under the direction of Sheriff Keith Merritt. Merritt expressed his concerns on changes to possible vacation policies to commissioners.

“It’s getting hard to attract new people to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office,” Merritt said. “It makes it very hard because I have to operate under two sets of rules with those under collective bargaining (for sheriff’s office employees) and the regular employees. I just want you to consider everything before you start making changes.”

While commissioners agreed to postpone any decision on changes to payout vacation time to retiring employees, Carlton proposed a change to the vacation earning policy for future employees of the county.

“I believe six weeks is too long,” Carlton said of the current vacation earning policy. “I think three to four weeks is a more reasonable amount of time for new employees.”

When Carlton was asked why he believed a change was necessary to the current policy, he said it was a savings measure and that he has had discussions with tax-payers on this same subject. Commissioner Jody Crump of Precinct 4 added he has also had such discussions with county residents.

“If we keep cutting benefits, then we are just going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said David Dubose, Precinct 1 commissioner. “Our pay matrix is already lower than other counties.”

After a bit more discussion, Carlton made the motion that all new hires, effective Feb. 1, 2016, be placed under a new vacation policy where they earn two weeks after one year of employment, three weeks after 10 years and a maximum of four weeks upon reaching 20 years of employment.

The motion failed to gain approval by a 3-2 vote with Dubose, Banken and Barry Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, casting the dissenting votes. This leaves the current vacation policy intact for any new hires to the county at this time.

No action was taken on the agenda item pertaining to a possible change in health employment benefits for new employees until more information could be gathered on whether changes were allowed once a policy is in effect for the calendar year.