WilCo Court Fight
Who Rules the Constable?
Is Williamson Co. Constable Gary Griffin a "liability," and should the county limit his powers? That's what County Attorney Jana Duty called him, in an e-mail entered into evidence in Griffin's current lawsuit against the Williamson Co. Commissioners Court. The suit claims that the court gutted Griffin's budget after it had already been adopted, in order to transfer mental-health duties from Griffin's Precinct 1 to the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office. According to Griffin's high-profile counsel a team that includes former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire and former state Attorney General Jim Mattox in taking that action, the commissioners violated "bedrock county government law." In a hearing scheduled for Friday, July 14, the county will seek a summary dismissal of the lawsuit; should the motion fail, the trial date is August 25.
Although from a distance the controversy might appear to be only a bureaucratic turf war, it's already raised troubling questions of potential human consequences and public liability. In late June, a drug overdose patient, Lee Truan, strapped down under 72-hour suicide watch, was not provided transport to a mental hospital by the sheriff's office because he did not meet WCSO criteria. He walked out of intensive care and died from an overdose his third within weeks the next day. "I'm pissed," said his sister, Sonia Truan. "Why was he allowed to leave?" She said the family plans to sue. The death suggests the potential risk of new mental health policies, under which doctors reportedly defer to sheriff's deputies on mental-health calls, a reverse of the policy under Griffin.
In his lawsuit, Griffin says the county acted unlawfully in transferring eight deputy positions and more than $400,000 to the sheriff's budget. Six of Griffin's deputies took jobs with the sheriff's new Crisis Intervention Team. "The issue in this case," reads Griffin's pleading, "is whether, after the annual budget is adopted, a County Commissioners Court has authority to cut 70% of the staff out of the budget of an independent elected county official and create new positions and line items in the Sheriff's budget instead." Aleshire said he took the case at Mattox's request, adding, "This is an area of law that we have a certain passion about. If the commissioners win, any court could cut the budget of any independent elected official any day of the year. We will lose the independent power of elected officials." Mattox said he believes that whatever the outcome, it will set significant statewide precedent.
Thus far, in two preliminary hearings considering injunctions, a judge found for the county. In its latest petition for summary dismissal, the county charges, "On the night of October 19, 2005, Constable Gary Griffin abruptly and inexplicably refused to allow the officers on Williamson County's Mental Health Unit to respond to the County's mental health emergencies," thereby endangering every county resident. Griffin's attorneys say they will ask the county to "connect the dots," and that the county is misleading the court there was in fact no emergency, and no "inexplicable" mystery.
The current controversy apparently has a backstory, involving former county Sheriff John Maspero, who resigned in 2004 after several incidents of public intoxication. Personnel from Griffin's Precinct 1 office conducted the investigation that eventually led to Maspero's departure, and Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman, then a candidate, only reluctantly participated as a witness in the investigation. There has been speculation that her move in commissioners court against Griffin's office was in part retaliation, a charge Birkman denies. But the power struggle between the constables and the sheriff's office over mental-health jurisdiction had been going on for some time, and until the budget cut, Griffin had prevailed over attempts by the WCSO to assume mental-health calls directly.
Griffin says he withstood intense pressure leading up to a sudden commissioners court vote in August to divest his office of mental-health authority. That direct attempt failed, but the public and private argument continued, and in October the court voted 4-0 (with Commissioner Frankie Limmer absent) to do via a budget amendment what it had failed to do by fiat. Officials have since testified that they hadn't realized Griffin's deputies did much more than mental-health response.
In the wake of the transfer of authority, the official spin (duly picked up by local media) is that Griffin's office mismanaged its mental-health duties. Lieutenant Mike Gleason, a Crisis Intervention Team supervisor, admits WCSO refers to Griffin's former deputies as "Clowns in Training" (a play on the CIT acronym), and another source said some doctors refer to them as "yahoos." "They were considered highly trained officers under me," Griffin countered. Griffin insists he did not "abandon" mental health, as the county claims, but was forced to redeploy resources because, he testified, he feared a removal suit from the court. He says he instructed dispatch to route on-scene calls to the sheriff's office, which would then contact the constable as necessary. Previously, dispatch to Griffin and the sheriff's office had been simultaneous. "I was truly concerned about a true emergency. We would review that case-by-case," Griffin said. Moreover, the sheriff had informed commissioners that the WCSO had 30 certified mental-health officers on staff. Asks Griffin: What was the emergency, and why should the response be a reduction of resources?
But the issue of county liability may come to transcend the lawsuit, as well as the official backstabbing that has accompanied it. "Williamson County may regret the day Lisa Birkman got her way," Aleshire said.
Aleshire recalls that when he was a Travis Co. judge, he created a mental-health unit, which Sheriff Terry Keel subsequently dissolved. "In a sense, Gary did what Keel did," says Aleshire. "I had to eat it." To respond instead by transferring Keel's deputies to a constable's office the counterpart to the Williamson Co. action would have been out of the question, Aleshire said, and unlawful. That's the issue before visiting Judge James Clawson's 368th District Court on Friday.