Judge Gattis Goes After Free Speech Again

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commentary, Commissioners Court, Landfill, Precinct 4, Williamson County at 11:34 am by wcnews

Via the Hutto Citizen Group we find out from their latest newsletter [.pdf] that Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis, Sr., has issued some sort of “gag instruction” on the upcoming negotiations regarding a new landfill contract. The newsletter describes what happened this way:

In one of the more scintillating moments in recent memory involving the Williamson County commissioners court, following an executive session but before adjournment on August 12, County Judge Dan Gattis issued a gag request to commissioners and gag instruction to county staff involving the county’s renegotiation of the landfill contract with Waste Management (WMI).

Gattis made the statement to a near-empty courtroom after commissioners voted 4-0 (Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long was absent and did not attend the regularly-scheduled meeting) to pursue a renegotiated landfill contract with WMI. After Morrison made the motion, it was seconded by Gattis himself. The applicable text, transcribed from an audiodisc provided by the county clerk’s office, is as follows:

After referring to “Kerry Russell, who advises us on landfill,” Morrison then made a motion to
“instruct our attorneys to begin negotiations with Waste Management on a new landfill contract.”

After the unanimous vote, Gattis said, “Now, with that, I’m going to ask the commissioners, and I’m going to tell staff to refrain from any comments, open comments, on this while the contract is in negotiation, and in the spirit of fair negotiation we will not be making any comments on that until a later date.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Birkman then asked, “You mean comments on the contract itself?”

Gattis respsonded, “On the contract itself, and items that are in the contract.”

To the knowledge of the HCG, it is unprecedented for a county judge to ask other commissioners (elected officials) to refrain from openly discussing with their constituents a pressing issue important to the county. The precedent is a chilling message for the process of constituents’ involvement in issues particularly important to them—in this case the controversy over the county landfill which has been on the front burner for years.

Attempting to close down government to the public is, unfortunately, nothing new for Gattis, (See Free Speech Under Attack). The funny, in a sad way part of this, is that Gattis didn’t really seem to know what he was doing. More from the HCG:

The statement by Gattis is not clear-cut. The point at which he says, “I’m going to ask
commissioners … to refrain from any comments, open comments ….,” it appears he seeks to correct the statement from saying “any comments” to saying “open comments”, which means that he is making a distinction. Taken literally, it would mean that he is asking commissioners not to make “open” comments, such as would be made in a public meeting or to media, as a means of limiting the gag scenario in such a way so as not to prohibit private comments which might be made by a commissioner to a constituent in a private meeting.

In any event, any effort to impose a limitation on an elected commissioner’s ability to participate in free speech with constituents privately, in a public meeting, or in speaking with media, is out of bounds, especially with regard to the importance of upholding principles of open government and the rights of citizens to participate in that government.

The Mayberry Machiavelli’s are at it again. It’s highly recommended that all citizens of Williamson County read the entire letter because they expose other shenanigans that concern the whole county. Like this little tidbit, that helps us understand why certain court members introduce certain motions:

The reason why the motion was unnecessary (revealing that it only served to create a gateway for the announcement of the gag scenario) is because the county typically doesn’t take action to authorize initiating contract negotiations unless special circumstances exist. For example, members of commissioners court authorized Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey to negotiate a lease agreement so that Rep. Dan Gattis, Jr. could set up an official office within the Williamson County courthouse, but the authorization was deemed necessary in order to appear to avoid the conflict-of-interest issue that would have applied if the county judge were to have negotiated that contract with his own son, so action was needed to appoint someone else to negotiate the contract. That matter, however, is an exception to the circumstances involving the landfill contract. (Emphasis added).

In the end the HCG makes it perfectly clear “gag instruction” or not, they’re watching and the WCCC is on notice:

In the end, if a contract actually is produced for the public to review, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. At least the public and the Hutto citizens will be able to see the bottom-line result, and members of commissioners court certainly will be held accountable for it. Based on almost a year and eight months of this court’s experience with a huge volume of landfill details, commissioners court members have been sufficiently informed on the issues, so they know they will have to defend any contract they might produce and/or approve. Whether that contract is at all fair for the county and its citizens will end up being the litmus test by which this particular commissioners court—and its members individually—are judged on one of the most important issues they decide during their terms in office.

In other words, commissioners, have been given one more chance to show the citizens they hear and understand them. It’s up to them whether they show us they’ve finally started to listen or they continue to ignore us.

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