Simpson introduced House Joint Resolution 103, which would let County Commissioners Courts in counties of 18,000 to 49,999 population decrease their number of such precincts if Texas voters approve a state constitutional amendment giving them that authority.
Counties of that population (including Upshur) must now have at least four such precincts if they had four on Nov. 2, 1999, he said. Simpson’s bill calls for voting on an amendment to let them set the number at 2 to 8, but all JPs and constables already in office must be allowed to serve out their full terms.
The Upshur County Commissioners Court recently voted 3-1 to support HJR 103, which must receive two-thirds approval from both the Texas House and Texas Senate to reach the November ballot on proposed amendments.
Simpson told about 35 persons who turned out for Saturday’s meeting on a rainy day that his proposal would allow “organizational freedom” for about 60 counties of between 18,000 and 49,999 population.
In a handout sheet given to the audience, he said some counties either have remained about the same in population since 1999, or “have lost population and may not need as many precincts” as law now requires they have. In addition, “some counties may not have the current demand for four precincts,” Simpson’s document added.
He also added that many counties are now electing two JPs at most, “and they’re not supposed to do that.”
Two people attending the meeting at the Upshur-Rural Electric Cooperative auditorium expressed objections to Simpson’s proposal after he said “several” Upshur residents requested it. There was no indication as to what a majority of the audience thought of the bill since only a handful addressed the issue.
Sherry Jewkes-Larsen, a secretary in the county’s Pct. 4 JP office, said she had a “problem” because the bill wasn’t put out to taxpayers, nor brought up to the County Commissioners Court earlier. She charged that Simpson’s introduction of it “sure looks like good ol’ boy politics” due to his “friendships” (County Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner, a Simpson supporter who has expressed interest in possibly cutting Upshur’s JP/constable precincts in order to save money, asked Simpson to introduce the legislation.)
Simpson told Mrs. Jewkes-Larsen the local Commmissioners Court will “have plenty of time” to hear her before approving any reduction. And one citizen, insurance agent Joe Dodd, said “I know a lot of people that don’t have a problem with” Simpson’s proposal.
But another, businessman Gene Langkop, objected to the idea of any official being able to “fire” another official without a vote of the public.
“We don’t have enough law enforcement in this county as it is. I got hit (burglarized) twice in December,” Langkop said. “We don’t need less law enforcement and less JP courts.”
Langkop also said that Simpson’s proposal was “never put out for public comment.”
Although Simpson’s proposed amendment would also let Upshur County add constable/JP precincts, Pct. 2 Constable Jason Weeks protested that local commissioners are “not planning to add. They’re planning to eliminate two positions.”
Simpson responded his proposal doesn’t “force them to reduce.” He also said he had no opinion on how many such precincts Upshur County should have.
After Ronnica Ridgeway, a Gilmer-area attorney, said “people aren’t feeling like this (proposal) is freedom and local control,” although it was “packaged” as such, Simpson said the public should vote out officials who won’t listen. He then said he would consider the possibility of allowing the public in a county to vote on reducing its JP/Constable precincts. (Upshur has one JP and one constable for each of its four precincts.).
Simpson told The Mirror Sunday that amending his bill would probably require another bill, which he would have to get permission to introduce because the filing deadline for the current legislative session has passed.
Hefner has said that reducing the number of Upshur’s JP precincts from four to two could save taxpayers $175,000 to 220,000 yearly, and that he has found public support for Simpson’s bill. But the proposal has drawn fire from Constables Weeks, Gene Dolle, and Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch.
Prior to Saturday, Weeks said he is taking calls for a short-handed Sheriff’s Office, while Ms. Welch said Upshur is a large county and that the increased workload for JPs in the event of a cutback could cause job burnout.
In a handout given to the audience Saturday, Simpson said the section of the Texas Constitution dealing with counties’ number of JP/constable precincts “gives a range of organizational freedom so that each of our diverse counties can change ‘from time to time, for the convenience of the people.’”
It said counties with populations of 18,000 to 49,999 can have 2 to 8 precincts, while counties with 18,000 or less can have 1 to 4. “However, any county that was divided into four or more precincts on Nov. 2, 1999 cannot decrease the number. . .to less than four because of a 1999 amendment,” the sheet said.
Simpson’s document complained that “flexibility and freedom was diminished” by that “these counties can still increase the number of their precincts, but they cannot decrease the number. . . to less than four,” it said.
All three county commissioners who voted to support Simpson’s HJR 103—Hefner, Mike Spencer, and Frank Berka—attended Saturday’s hearing, but didn’t speak except to introduce themselves at the legislator’s request near the end of the meeting. County Judge Dean Fowler, the Commissioners Court’s presiding officer who did not vote on the issue, led a prayer at Simpson’s request.
Hefner said later that since a quorum of the Commissioners Court was present, the commissioners did not speak in order to avoid a possible violation of the state Open Meetings Law.
The court member who opposed the court’s resolution supporting HJR 103, Paula Gentry, was the only one of the 5-member Commissioners Court not attending Saturday’s gathering. However, she attended a county Republican Executive Committee meeting at which Simpson spoke later in the day.
During the town hall, Simpson addressed several other issues which have come, or are coming, before the legislature in its current session. As an alternative to term limits, he has introduced a bill that would abolish pensions for members of the Texas House and Senate who serve at least 12 years, although current members would be exempted from that.
However, Simpson said he didn’t plan to collect a pension (if he served long enough to qualify for one).
Updates on legislation are available by going to www.DavidSimpson.com on the Internet and subscribing.
One audience member Saturday, Cindy Steger, complained about lack of advance publicity that the town hall was being held, and Simpson said, “It was intended to go to The (Gilmer) Mirror. . . . I apologize we didn’t get it in The Gilmer Mirror.”