Orange County judge, sheriff square off
By Dave Rogers
For The Record
A turbulent commissioners’ court session Tuesday was highlighted by a discussion of pay for sheriff deputies that sparked an angry faceoff between the county judge and sheriff and ended in a tie vote that left neither side happy.
But Tuesday’s meeting was one of ups and downs.
The weekly meeting of the county leaders that began with a standing-room-only audience bolstered by a dozen or so sheriff’s office employees wrapped up two hours later in an almost empty courtroom with commissioners taking pre-emptive measures to lessen liability in a February jail death — the fifth death in the county jail in less than six years.
And that action came not long after Sheriff Keith Merritt read a letter from the state praising his jail’s operation after passing a surprise inspection only a week after the latest death.
The day’s contentious issue revolved around the issue of paying deputies extra for proficiency certificates, essentially continuing education.
It was part of the deputies’ pay deal under a collective bargaining agreement that expired in 2013. The county has been voluntarily continuing the payments since, which would add up to about $320,000 this fiscal year.
Payments have already been made for six months of the current fiscal year.
But in light of an unbudgeted $3.2 million payoff after losing a lawsuit over a jail death, the county is taking a second look at expenditures.
John Gothia of Precinct 3 led commissioners Johnny Trahan and Barry Burton in expressing their support for the deputies.
“In my opinion, we’d be foolish not to continue that,” Gothia said. “The more informed and trained our law enforcement officers are, the less liability we have down the road.”
Carlton took exception.
Besides the $3.2 million loss of Montano v. Orange County, the judge referred to the February hanging death of a woman held in jail on a misdemeanor drug charge.
“Even with all this [certification payment] stuff in place, even with all this master peace officer, master jailer, master this and master that, there are things that happened, even beyond this latest one that should never have happened, regardless of having any kind of certificate or not,” the judge said.
Sgt. Jimmy LeBoeuf, representing the deputies, said by not paying for their extra certifications the county would be “punishing” deputies that were not responsible for the tragedies.
“To be fair,” Carlton said, “the only people in the county who have been punished for this have been the taxpayers that have lost $3.2 million of their money that they paid to us that aren’t going to services.”
Deputies applauded when Merritt told Carlton that some jail deaths were unavoidable, pointing out there had been 6,900 in the state of Texas in the past decade.
“If you think for a second that having all master corrections officers or all master peace officers is going to prevent anything tragic from happening, you’re sadly mistaken,” the sheriff said.
“If someone wants to do harm to themselves, there’s no piece of paper anywhere that’s going to prevent that.
“It’s going to happen. We don’t like it. We don’t want it to. We do everything we can to prevent it, but sometimes you can’t prevent it.”
Carlton fired back: “What happened in Montano was completely preventable.”
With Commissioner Jody Crump not in attendance, the vote to continue the payments ended up a 2-2 tie, meaning it will be revisited next week.
Gothia and Trahan voted for it, and Burton and the judge voted against. Burton said he preferred to wait for the return of Crump to allow a full five-person panel vote.
After an executive session held at the end of the day’s meeting, commissioners reconvened and voted to seek pre-trial assistance from the Texas Association of Counties on the case of Rose Bonilla, the woman who hanged herself in the jail last month.
Carlton said no lawsuit had been filed against the county but the move was preparing just in case.