Dave Rogers

For The News

 

For drama and mid-afternoon entertainment, TV soap operas had nothing on Tuesday’s meeting of the Orange County Commissioners’ Court.

In the end, which was sort of the beginning, Dean Crooks, the man who defeated incumbent Stephen Brint Carlton in the March 6 Republican Party Primary, was named to fill out the remaining eight months on Carlton’s term.

Carlton announced his resignation April 13 and departed the county for his new job after last week’s meeting. Crooks will begin the term he was elected for on Jan. 1, 2019.

Ironically, Carlton’s pay raise from $85,000 to $105,040, which the judge refused to take but against which Crooks ran, will be Crooks’ pay. At least until he can get sworn in, which is expected to be sometime before next week’s commissioners’ meeting.

No one seemed quite sure how to approach Carlton’s departure, since the previous judge – Carl Thibodeaux – had stayed on for 20 years and then retired. So he served out his term until the end.

Monday’s action opened with Commissioner Jody Crump, the County Judge pro-tem, suggesting they move the part of the meeting involving a temporary replacement for Carlton from the bottom of the agenda to the top.

Then the four commissioners and court attorney Denise Gremillion held a closed meeting on the item that lasted about 40 minutes.

They reopened court and took a vote for a new judge.

Commissioner John Gothia nominated Crooks for the spot and Commissioner Johnny Trahan seconded that.

They voted for Crooks, while Commissioners Barry Burton and Crump did not. The 2-2 verdict meant Gothia’s motion for Crooks to take over failed.

Burton explained he wanted to nominate Thibodeaux. But nobody seconded Burton’s motion, so that failed.

Lacking any other nominations, commissioners went back into closed session, this time for 20 minutes.

During the second closed meeting, as employees, public and media members waited in the administration building hallway, former County Judge Pete Runnels declared “This is the dog-gone-est stuff I’ve ever seen.”

Crooks predicted that his chance of getting named was gone.

But when they came out, Gothia again made a motion to appoint Crooks.

This time, it was a 4-0 vote in favor of Crooks.

Burton and Crump were quick to say their initial lack of support for Crooks wasn’t personal but out of concern that the county needed someone who was not a stranger to county business to work through the upcoming 2019 budget process.

“This is a crucial time in the county. We’ve got a budget coming up and we’re in the middle of recovery from a hurricane. I felt there was someone better suited with less of a learning curve,” Burton had said before his first-vote nomination of Thibodeaux.

After voting for Crooks after the second closed meeting, Burton predicted “this is probably the worst budget we’re going to have in 50 years,” and Crump said Crooks was “getting baptized by going in the deep end.”

Crooks, however, was happy to have it ended.

“Yes, there’s a learning curve, a large learning curve,” he said. “But it’s going to get started early. Hopefully, with this opportunity I can learn what I need to and I’ll be ahead of the game.

“I will say I was surprised by the second vote, pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless.”

Crump quickly followed up:

“You’ll learn to expect those,” he said.

Other than picking a judge, commissioners zipped through a 25-item agenda. They paid $753,492 in bills, including a $659,000 check to hurricane debris hauler Ashbritt, and accepted the donation of a $36,000 skid steer loader and a $3,000 grapple bucket from the Kubota Corporation.

A $100,000 bookkeeping error was corrected to enable overtime pay for the Sheriff’s Office. Auditor Pennee Schmitt said she made the mistake when calculating the results of the county’s settlement with its deputies at the end of September.