WilCo 'Snit' Writ Large

Constable's lawsuit heads to appeals court

Attorney Bill Aleshire and his client, Williamson County Constable Gary Griffin
Attorney Bill Aleshire and his client, Williamson County Constable Gary Griffin (Photo By Patricia J. Ruland)

The fight over whether Williamson County commissioners violated the law when they slashed Precinct 1 Constable Gary Griffin's budget last October – two months after the annual budget had been adopted – has moved to the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Following the Commissioners Court decision, Griffin filed a lawsuit alleging that county Judge John Doerfler and commissioners Lisa Birkman, Greg Boatright, Thomas McDaniel (deceased), and Frankie Limmer had abused their power with the punitive action. "This case arises out of a power struggle, Texas county style," writes Bill Aleshire, Griffin's attorney and former Travis Co. judge, in Griffin's appeal brief. (Aleshire's co-counsel is former Attorney General Jim Mattox.) The central argument of the lawsuit is that gutting a constable's budget after adoption is prohibited under the Texas Constitution.

Judge James Clawson ruled for the county in two injunction hearings brought by Griffin to prevent the funds transfer in late 2005. And on July 14, 2006, he granted the county's motion for summary judgment to dismiss Griffin's lawsuit outright, without citing a specific legal justification, and then punted the case to the Court of Appeals. "I want the Court of Appeals to have to work," Clawson said.

Griffin appealed, and Aleshire's brief on the constable's behalf warns that the ruling could set a dangerous statewide precedent, allowing budgets to be used in retaliation against independently elected officials. "The Commissioners apparently believe that the annual budget … is nothing more than a yo-yo with budget strings that can be jerked back by the Commissioners at any time for any reason," Aleshire argues, later adding to the Chronicle, "Strings are unconstitutional."

The dispute was triggered by Griffin's October 2005 decision to surrender to the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office the job of responding to mental-health calls, even though Birkman had previously chastised Griffin's office for focusing too much on mental health and neglecting "constitutional duties." On Oct. 20, less than 24 hours after Griffin announced his decision to redeploy his officers, commissioners called an "emergency" meeting to radically slash the constable's budget. As Aleshire recounts it in his brief, "Williamson County Commissioners Court, in a snit, disregarded the limits on their authority and rashly took away 7 of the 10 deputies (along with other funds) budgeted to [Griffin's office]. They did so because they disagreed with [Griffin's] instructions to his deputies to focus on serving criminal warrants and civil papers – ironically, the Constable's core official duties – and to take mental health calls – the unofficial duties – on a call-by-call basis if the Sheriff could not handle the calls." The brief also argues that the law allows "emergency expenditures" but not "emergency cuts."

According to Aleshire, commissioners "manufactured" the reputed crisis, justifying their budget order by claiming that three calls were missed because of Griffin's redeployment, although Griffin immediately returned to the previous deployment and continued to respond to mental-health calls until the WCSO took over in mid-November. The WCSO had at least 30 certified mental-health deputies on board and had already been handling mental-health calls. Explaining his decision to redeploy, Griffin says, "I really believed Birkman and [District Attorney John] Bradley were about to file a removal suit if I didn't focus entirely on core duties." Yet when he did as Birkman asked, the court responded by declaring an emergency and slashing his budget. (Not surprisingly, the dispute also involves opposing factions in the recent Williamson Co. sheriff's election.)

The commissioners now argue the lawsuit is moot and the Court of Appeals no longer has jurisdiction. "On Oct. 1, 2006, the controversy between the parties ended when Williamson County began its new fiscal year," reads a motion filed by Assistant Co. Attorney Steve Ackley. Aleshire argued that if the case is indeed declared moot, "It will solidify this ongoing residual effect that this and other commissioners' courts can take such action without risking appellate review."

On Nov. 3, the county filed a more vigorous response, arguing that Griffin's staff redeployment was an "immature and reckless stunt," undertaken to keep a "gunny sack" of county money "to spend on anything other than the Williamson County Mental Health Unit." Aleshire's interpretation of the law, Ackley wrote, would "tie the hands of county government statewide," and would require "each county government … to possess a magical crystal ball to forecast line items for irrational and immature behavior of an elected official." Griffin responded, "To say I wanted a 'gunny sack' of money is preposterous. It's a hillbilly approach to a constitutional point of law."

Griffin's current budget is now indisputably the lightest gunny sack of all, even though his is the most urban of the four county precincts. For FY 2006-07, Griffin's office is allotted just four deputy slots, compared to four for Precinct 1, eight for Precinct 2, 10 for Precinct 3, and seven for Precinct 4. In the 2005 transfer, the county cut Griffin's adopted $931,094 budget to just under $500,000. This year, his budget is just $517,857, and the three other precincts are budgeted for substantially more money. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Commissioners Court is punishing Precinct 1 residents because of their disagreement with Griffin.

On Oct. 30, the Central Texas Justices of the Peace and Constables Association passed a resolution supporting Griffin's position in the lawsuit. "For over the last 130-year history of county government in Texas, and reaffirmed by the 1978 decision in Renfro v. Shropshire [a Travis County case], it … is the law of the land that Commissioners Courts shall not interfere in the operation of independent elected officials by altering their budgets during a fiscal year," the resolution stated. And on Oct. 31, the state attorney general issued an opinion that commissioners courts cannot interfere in the "sphere of authority" of independently elected officials. Griffin says he intends to pursue the case as long as is necessary. "This is not about me," he said. "If Clawson's ruling is allowed to stand, independently elected officials in Texas will have lost their independence. I'm fighting to get it back."

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Williamson County, Gary Griffin, Bill Aleshire, James Clawson, Steve Ackley

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