Power Struggle In Williamson County?

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commissioners Court, Landfill, Williamson County at 11:24 am by wcnews

A few weeks back it became known that Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty had filed a brief with the Attorney General. Essentially Duty is asking the AG’s opinion on whether the commissioners court can hire “outside counsel” without the permission of the county attorney. Seems simple enough, but like most things in Williamson County government these days, nothing is simple. It also revolves around one of the most contentious issues facing the county right now, the negotiation of the new landfill contract.

It’s hard to tell what exactly caused this rift between our county’s elected officials but from today’s AAS article, Fight over power in Williamson County heats up, there may be some clues.

The problem started with the county landfill, already a contentious issue as the county renegotiates a 2003 contract with the landfill operator that officials now say was a bad deal.

Officials sought a new contract to increase the amount of money the county made from the landfill and to restrict trash volume, among other things.

Residents loudly nudged commissioners to get a different legal opinion from Duty’s as the county wrangled with Waste Management of Texas. Duty would not give the details of her legal opinion.

So the commissioners hired outside counsel, twice. Both firms have experience working on landfill contracts.

“We thought we needed a little more expertise, particularly in environmental-type stuff as we went through this,” said County Judge Dan A. Gattis, chairman of the Commissioners Court. “I just come from a business background where you always get another opinion, and you make sure you have your T’s crossed.”

Duty thought that wasn’t necessary because her office had already done the work. She filed a brief with the Texas attorney general asking for a ruling on whether county commissioners must get her permission before such a hiring.

Duty, who was elected in 2004, said she wants to keep the Commissioners Court from seeking another opinion from another attorney just because they don’t agree with her advice.

“Because there are so many new members of the court, a few members of the court have a difficult time understanding other offices’ roles and their authority and respecting their authority,” she said.

The court has five members. Four of them began their terms in January.

Gattis said he believes the Commissioners Court has the authority to hire outside counsel. The county paid about $12,000 to a Maryland law firm; the second counsel, Austin firm Potts & Reilly, has not sent its bill, Gattis said.

A public information request from the American-Statesman seeking the amount is pending.

Commissioner Lisa Birkman deferred comment to county spokeswoman Connie Watson, who declined to speak on the matter. Other commissioners couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

There are many different possibilities as to why this is going on. But it would seem that it could be one or a combination of a few things: (1) the court wanted to go in a different direction than Duty (2) she clashed with the new court members (3) the court wanted a lawyer that was more competent, had expertise in environmental law. More than likely when the court went against her wishes Duty’s pride kicked-in, warranted or not, and led to her filing the brief. Duty’s brief makes a very compelling argument but who knows how the AG will rule.

Whatever the case Duty didn’t like it and that’s how this has ended up in the AG’s lap with her threatening to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. A quote later in the article is probably the real reason this is happening.

Travis County found its way in the 1980s during a disagreement over the construction of a county jail that became public — and bitter, said Ken Oden, who came in as county attorney after the feud and served for almost 20 years.

Out of that conflict came an understanding that Oden said required the commissioners and county attorney to agree on hiring outside counsel.

Generally speaking, Oden said, on certain issues, it’s clear which body has authority. For example, the county attorney has the final say in matters such as prosecuting criminals. For generic civil issues, Oden said, the Commissioners Court decides.

But, he said, “when you’re in a gray area, … absent a cooperative relationship — it would have to be determined in court.”

That might be the course for Williamson County.

I know nobody in Williamson County wants to look to Travis for any advice or help but that’s probably not a bad compromise. Also a less dysfunctional, more cooperative, group of county officials would help much more in this situation. This appears to have gotten all tied up in personalities. It also appears that, like the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, the commissioners court knew how they wanted the new landfill contract to be written first, and are now trying to make what they’ve done legal. And in the process they’ve offended the the county attorney by bringing in more knowledgeable, as well as business and politically connected, environmental lawyers, against her will.

Duty may have a strong case legally, but those lawyers and groups linked above are much more powerful and well connected. There’s the law and then there’s business and over the last 30 years or so, business has been writing the laws.


  1. tweety said,

    August 25, 2007 at 10:11 am

    Well, well well….look who’s panties are in a wad! This just crackes me up. Take a look at what she and the Royal Court did to Gary Griffin. This only proves Gary’s point in his suit. Can anyone say “CheckMate”?

    Keep it up people, your days are numbered! You can be sure of that.

  2. Eye on Williamson » Landfill Vote Tomorrow - New HCG Newsletter said,

    August 27, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    […] ability to use outside counsel without the approval of the county attorney. Contrary to EOW’s earlier speculation on this issue, it appears that Ms. Duty may be taking issue with the use of outside counsel to keep […]

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