Dave Rogers

For The Record

The Orange County Commissioners’ Court accepted the resignation of County Judge Dean Crooks Tuesday, and then delayed in naming a replacement.

After the four commissioners met for 50 minutes in closed session with legal counsel Denise Gremillion and human relations chief Lori Alter to deliberate the appointment of a new county judge, they reconvened and announced they would take no action until at least next week.

They may need to hire a contortionist to get through all the twists and turns of the laws involved.

Commissioner John Gothia has been acting as judge pro-tem since Crooks resigned five minutes into last week’s meeting of Commissioners’ Court, Wednesday, March 13.

In a three-minute prepared speech, Crooks said he resigned “in order to stop this internal fighting.”

Crooks had served only two and a half months of his four-year term before stepping down. He had defeated sitting judge Brint Carlton in the GOP primary in March 2018 and was appointed by commissioners to serve the final seven months of Carlton’s term, after Carlton took another job.

In the first two weeks of March, Crooks stirred up the opposition of all four commissioners and dozens of community leaders with his complaints about economic development efforts that succeeded in the county being named a finalist for a $5.8 billion ethylene plant.

The successor to Crooks will serve only until the end of 2020. A special election will be held earlier that year for a two-year term beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

It has been widely speculated that Gothia, a former chairman of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce who helped bring to Orange lucrative national fishing tournaments, would succeed Crooks as judge.

But any commissioner wishing to be the next judge must first resign his commissioner’s seat, according to Texas law.

And commissioners’ court is not allowed to select a new judge without a full court of four. If any of the four – Gothia, Johnny Trahan, Theresa Beauchamp or Robert Viator – were to resign, then it would be up to the last serving judge to appoint the replacement commissioner.

“It takes a full court to replace the judge,” Gothia said, “and there’s some concern if one of us resigned about who he [Crooks] would put in that spot.”

Until a replacement is named for Crooks, Gothia said, Crooks is still technically “the sitting judge” and remains on the county payroll.

“We don’t want to be paying somebody who’s not going to be working,” Gothia said, meaning he hoped for a quick resolution.

Gothia, a commissioner since 2017, admitted he was interested in becoming county judge.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It wasn’t something I was planning on this early in the game, but my first goal is to do what’s best for the county. And if that means me sitting in that county judge’s seat, then I’m all in for doing that.”

Among those at Tuesday’s meeting were Pinehurst city manager Robbie Hood, Bridge City city manager Jerry Jones, Bridge City council members Terri Gauthier and Kirk Roccaforte, and West Orange city manager Michael Stelly.

“I don’t know what happened,” Hood said, “but it didn’t go like I thought.”

All except Roccaforte are board members of the Orange County Economic Development Commission.

Roccaforte, a former BC mayor who led his town through recovery of Hurricanes Rita and Ike, told the Record Newspapers he had no interest in being a replacement county judge.

“Naw. Naw,” he said.

He didn’t rule out being a county commissioner from Precinct 3, Gothia’s current position.

“I can’t really say what’s going to happen in the future and where I’ll be,” he said.

“I do want to stay involved in city and county offices and helping to move that forward. I always have.”

Gothia could see Roccaforte as a replacement if he resigned his current job.

“Kirk would definitely have an interest in it,” he said.

In other action Tuesday, commissioners approved paying $336,000 in bills and happily accepted a report from Karen Fisher, tax assessor-collector, showing the receipt of $2,864,000 in February property tax collections for the county.

Earlier this month, at the same time the Orange County Economic Development Corporation was celebrating the announcement by Chevron Phillips Chemical that Orange County was a finalist for a new $5.8 million plant, Crooks  very noisily questioned the leadership of the OCEDC and the wisdom of its abatement policy.

He posted a lengthy March 3 statement on his social media account, copied it to Orange County media and then gave follow-up TV and radio interviews in which he declared that Orange County had been making bad deals for 20 years.

At the March 5 commissioners’ court, two citizens and all four County Commissioners supported the OCEDC and its dealings with Chevron Phillips. Only Crooks opposed them.

Civic leaders had pointed out since March 3 that the Chevron Phillips plant, if the company decides to build it in Orange, would be the biggest investment in Orange County since DuPont in 1946.

After Crooks’ resignation at the March 13 meeting, 17 people lined up at the podium to talk about the OCEDC and its dealings with Chevron Phillips and others. All but one praised the OCEDC and its work. Several specifically praised Jessica Hill, the executive director of the OCEDC.

Clyde McKee III, president of the Stark Foundation, was the first to speak and, after stating the Stark Foundation “was totally in favor letting Jessica Hill negotiate,” he reminded the Stark Foundation and its founder, H.J. Lutcher Stark, had always been “in favor of offering incentives for companies to move here.

“If he and Edgar Brown Jr. had not offered land and enticed DuPont and other chemical companies to come here, Orange County would be a vastly different place.”

Next week’s meeting has been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday March 27.

Commissioner John Gothia said he and fellow commissioners will be out of town Tuesday to attend a Galveston meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the “coastal spine.”

That’s the proposed multi-billion dollar levee system to protect the upper Texas coast from hurricane storm surge.