By Dave Rogers
For the Record

The party line topped judicial experience Tuesday in Orange County, when commissioners court selected a longtime local funeral director over four practicing attorneys to take over for retiring Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 David Peck.
Hershel Stagner, Jr., an employee of Claybar Funeral Home for 36 years and the company’s Operations Manager for the last 15, will take the $63,118-per-year office in January and serve through 2018, when he’ll be up for re-election, if he chooses.
Three people came to the podium during the citizen’s comment period at the end of the meeting and disagreed with Stagner’s pick, supporting instead attorney Gail Barnett. A Democrat, Barnett ran unsuccessfully against Peck in November 2014.
“It is so unfair, very unfair, not to have elected Ms. Barnett,” said Essie Bellfield, an Orange city council member who said she lives in Precinct 1.
Members of the court voted 4-0 for the appointment. Commissioners John Banken and Jody Crump and County Judge Stephen Carlton followed the lead of Precinct 1 Commissioner David Dubose, who recommended the Stagner pick.
Barry Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, was absent.
According to Carlton, six people applied for the job and met the residency requirement. They were attorneys Barnett, Cimron Campbell, Michael Abbott and Christine Brown-Zeto, and Lannie Claybar, a City of Orange police officer.
Barnett and Campbell both said they had experience as a justice of the peace when expressing to the court their interest in the Precinct 1 job a week earlier.
All members of the commissioners court were elected for their current terms as Republicans. Stagner’s application letter prominently listed his membership in the Republican party.
“That had nothing to do with my vote,” Dubose said when asked if his decision was based on party membership.
“All of the six candidates were good candidates,” he said. It was kind of a hard decision to make. In Hershel’s case, my phone lit up starting Sunday with people calling in in support of Hershel. My email went crazy. I had to kind of take that into consideration, too.”
Bellfield, Henry Lowe, and Franklin Gans expressed disappointment that the court hadn’t appointed Barnett.
Lowe pointed out that Barnett “garnered several thousands of votes from the citizens of Precinct 1” in her election run against Peck and said she should have been picked.
“I think it would have been fair,” he said.
Bellfield pointed to Barnett’s credentials.
“She’s been a judge. She’s a lawyer. And she lives in the community where most goes on in Precinct 1,” Bellfield said.
Gans, who identified himself as outgoing president of the Orange chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was next.
“The NAACP would really like to see things done equitably,” he said. “We would like to have a real explanation as to why Mrs. Barnett might not have been the candidate selected, with her qualifications, with her being in Precinct 1.
“So NAACP is very concerned about that.”
A bit of levity found its way into the proceedings when Bellfield asked the court members exactly who was the man they had appointed.
“He’s sitting in back,” Carlton said.
Bellfield turned and looked as Stagner rose up a bit from the back bench and the councilwoman did a double take.
“That’s Hershel. I know him. A very nice person,” Bellfield said.
“But this lady has the credentials. I think she should have been your first choice.”
In an interview after court, Stagner said he his eye on a justice of the peace job for a while.
“It is something I have considered doing for a long time as I was coming down to the twilight of my career working in the funeral home,” he said. “I wanted to stay active in serving the public and serving the community and this is just a different way to continue my service.”
Stagner operated Claybar’s Vidor funeral home in the 1980s and during that time he served as President of the Vidor Chamber of Commerce and was named Vidor’s Citizen of the Year in 1985.
He is a member of the Orange Rotary Club and a past member of the Orange Noon Lions.
Stagner believes his experience helping families at the funeral home prepares him to work in what he called “the People’s Court.”
“Being a funeral director, he gets people in all kinds of conditions that he has to patch up,” Dubose said while explaining his choice of Stagner. “So going out to a crime scene or to a wreck to pronounce somebody dead, I think he’d be a good one to do it.”
Highlighting other court action Tuesday was a decision to return Sheriff’s Office dispatchers to their old status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Orange County and Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employees Union.
The county had created a separate pay matrix for the dispatchers last summer after Carlton said they didn’t meet the definition of certified peace officers. Tuesday, he said he’d found a statute causing him to change his mind.