Thibodeaux named Person of the Year
As the longest serving county judge in Orange County history, Carl Thibodeaux has seen the county through many challenges, including two major hurricanes and a downturned economy in just the last eight years. Through Thibodeaux’s guidance and that of the Orange County Commissioners, Orange has fared better than many municipalities and county governments. While others falter, Orange County is debt-free and on solid footing.
For this and many other reasons, The Record Newspapers is proud to name Judge Carl Thibodeaux as its 2013 Person of the Year.
Thibodeaux has lived in West Orange since 1984 with his wife of almost 48 years, Micaela. They have two daughters, Tanya and Erin; a son, Tyler; five grandsons and three granddaughters ranging in age from 10 months to creeping up on 30. A great-great-granddaughter is expected in May.
He won his bid for county judge in 1994 and has been the head of Orange County ever since.
Before Thibodeaux, Sid Caillavet was the longest serving judge in the county–16 years that were split into two eight year stints, 1950-1958 and1967-1970. In 1959-1966 Charlie Grooms served as county judge, winning and subsequently losing to Caillavet.
“What has happened is, I’m the longest consecutive county judge in the history of Orange County and I’m also the longest serving judge in the history of the county,” said Thibodeaux. “I’m in my 19th year.”
“It’s been interesting. Every day is different. Every challenge is different,” he said.
As he looked on the wall in the commissioners’ courtroom at the portraits of all the county judges, including himself, he joked about doing a before and after picture when he leaves. His appearance has changed greatly from the dark hair and beard he had when he first took office.
There is not a building owned by Orange County that has not either been built or renovated during his administration. He said construction of the jail was started under a former judge, but was completed under his watch.
The county was able to take advantage of many opportunities for rebuilding the area after the hurricanes, many times with no or little cost to the county. Two prime examples are the Orange County Convention and Expo Center and the soon to be underway rehabilitation of the East Roundbunch swing bridge.
The Convention and Expo Center is a multipurpose building that will house the AgriLIFE extension office, code and compliance, road and bridge, and the emergency management departments. During crisis situations such as another hurricane, it will be the command center and house first responders. It also has a ballroom and commercial kitchen that can be rented by the public, replacing the Old Timers Pavilion that was destroyed by Hurricane Rita.
Thibodeaux on politics
“In the political arena, there is an old cliché, ‘You can’t please all the people all the time. You can only please some of the people some of the time.’ My goal as county judge is to please at least everyone in Orange County one time. You learn in the political arena real fast that today’s friend is tomorrow’s advisory and today’s advisory is tomorrow’s friend. That’s just the way it is. They support you today, they are against you tomorrow.” He said you just have to work through it and deal with it.
Thibodeaux said when people get mad at the federal or state government it trickles down to commissioners’ court and the county government because they are on the last rung of the ladder.
According to Thibodeaux, the recent dislike of the Democratic leadership in Washington has filtered down into local politics.
“It should not be that way at the county level. I know some wonderful Republicans. I know some wonderful Democrats. At the county level, it should not be a two-party system whatsoever. We do not represent the party platforms. We represent the people of Orange County rather they’re Republican or Democrat or Independent.
“When they come into my office I do not ask for their ID and party affiliation to help them. Regardless of who you are, you get the help of my office, the best that I can be.”
Thibodeaux said it has been that way since the day he got elected and will not change till the day he is no longer in office.
He does not cater to special interest groups and does what he feels is best for Orange County as a whole.
“That’s just the Carl Thibodeaux philosophy. That’s just the way I am. Whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s good or bad, that’s the way I feel about government.”
“My door is always open. I’ve never worked by appointments. I work by appointment for the convenience of the person, not for the convenience of Carl Thibodeaux. If I’m here and they want to talk to me, they talk to me. If they need a specific appointment for their convenience, I’ll make them an appointment. That’s just the way I’ve done my job.
Most important issue
“In political leadership the most important issue at any given moment is that particular citizen’s issue.”
“You have to treat it that way. You have to listen and you have to do the best that you can to remedy that situation. Even if everybody knows it’s an impossible task, that there’s not anyone walking the face of the Earth that can help them, you’ve got to make the attempt, because to them, that’s the most important thing in their life at that moment and you have to treat it that way.”
Thibodeaux said if you can’t help them, be honest with them. “I don’t think there is anything that can be done, but we’re gonna try.”
“You can’t just pick and choose who you want to help. You can’t just take the easy ones and ignore the hard ones. You’ve got to take them all and try. Whoever is in a leadership position has to keep those types of things in mind. It’s going to make their job easier, more rewarding and more productive.”
Thibodeaux said the most frustrating thing about his job is always the same thing, not being able to help an Orange County citizen with an issue they need help on.
The changing face of commissioners’ court
Recently, Thibodeaux realized he has served with three different commissioners in each precinct for a total of 12. How does he deal with a court that is in a continual state of flux through the years?
“My job as county judge is to get them focused and working as one unit and moving forward for the county. Yes, there have been some heated debates in the court. There have been some major disagreements. Some of the disagreements have been with me. That’s just part of the democratic process. Sometimes there where personal issues that really frustrated me. You feel like you’re being targeted as an individual, but overall, all my commissioners have been a pleasure to work with.”
Thibodeaux said every one of them has a different style of what they bring to the job, but overall their goal is to make Orange County better at the minimum cost to the citizens.
“They want the best there is for the county for the least amount of taxation to the citizens. That’s good, there’s not a single thing wrong with that.”
“On the other side, you can’t cut expenses just to say ‘I cut expenses,’ to brag on yourself.” Thibodeaux said you need to cut expenses in a controlled manor that moves the county forward and is not detrimental to its employees, but helps the citizens of Orange County. You have to work real hard to get that balance.”
State of the County
Thibodeaux foresees modest growth in Orange County as it continues to recover from recent events.
He said he doesn’t see a big boom, but modest movement in an upward direction. Currently they are rebuilding the reserves they maintain to continue operating on a cash basis. They normally require a $4 million buffer because of the inconsistent cash flow from taxes, but because of recent events of the last eight years, that buffer dropped to $1 million.
They did have to take a short term loan at the start of the fiscal year to cover expenses until yearly tax revenues came in, but it was paid off in three months saving thousands of dollars in interest fees.
“It’s just my own philosophy but, you cannot be an effective leader with negativity. You’ve got to be positive.” Thibodeaux said that is what helped the county recover from two hurricanes and recent economics. “On every adverse situation, I don’t care how bad it is, you try to find that one positive thing that’s going to come out of that, and that’s what you feed on. That’s what you focus on.”
Thibodeaux loves his job. “I could talk about Orange County all day.” He plans to continue as judge as long as he is able and the citizens of Orange County want him.