From Weatherford Democrat, by Judy Sheridan CNHI, January 25, 2012 -
PARKER COUNTY — Some called it politics, a personal issue between Judge Mark Riley and Precinct 3 Commissioner John Roth — who frequently lock horns — but whatever the motive, Parker County Commissioners voted Monday to clip the wings of outgoing elected officials who seek reimbursement for out-of-county travel.
Separately, they also voted to reimburse officials for total fuel costs, instead of on a per mile basis. The new policy applies to those who receive a monthly vehicle allowance and for those provided with a county-owned vehicle.
Both motions were made by Riley and seconded by Precinct 1 Commissioner George Conley.
According to the 4-0-1 vote cast by commissioners, outgoing elected officials must now get permission from the court to receive reimbursement for any out-of-county travel once they declare they will not seek re-election.
Roth abstained from the vote because the new policy affects him. Last October, he announced on his blog, commish3, that he would not seek re-election to a third term. He has 11 months remaining in his current term, which expires Dec. 31, 2012.
In his announcement, Roth did not rule out a future bid for county judge.
Recently, he said, he submitted a purchase order to attend a TxDOT conference in San Antonio in February, to be paid for with funds in his Precinct 3 budget.
Riley opened the discussion on travel for outgoing officials by saying he recalled a motion made by the court in 2008 concerning former commissioner Danny Choate, but couldn’t find it.
“We need to discuss this again,” he said, “because Commissioner Roth is going out of office … ”
“I do believe, unless it’s absolutely required, that outgoing elected officials shouldn’t be traveling beyond a definitive responsibility to represent the court.”
Roth, who said he now has a conflict with the TxDOT conference, also recalled the 2008 motion, saying that Riley and commissioners Joe Brinkley and Jim Webster approved travel and reimbursement expenses for Choate — for an erosion control seminar and a TAC conference — after Choate decided not to seek re-election.
The reason was so Choate could complete continuing education requirements required by law, according to the minutes posted on Roth’s website. Choate was already attending the conference when the vote was taken.
Roth voted against the motion, according to the minutes.
“The whole reason you meet continuing education requirements,” he told the court, “is so you meet the requirements to stay in office.
“If you’re not going to stay in office, the jeopardy you face for not completing your education requirements is that you get kicked out of office. Well, how can you get kicked out of office if you’re already out of office?”
County Attorney John Forrest interjected that Roth should attend the conference if he is short on his required hours. If he doesn’t complete them, he said, he will not be in compliance with the law.
There are reasons for attending the TxDOT conference that go beyond the law’s requirements, Roth said.
He argued that, as an elected official with an approved budget, he should be able to decide how to spend his precinct’s funds.
He emphasized the value of maintaining relationships with the feds and TxDOT in light of recent transportation projects, especially for his precinct.
“We have the biggest project in the history of Parker County going on,” he said, referencing the Ric Williamson Memorial Highway, “and Precinct 3 has the biggest part.
“What is the difference, Mark, between Danny’s situation and this? Are you regretting your vote previously?”
“In looking back, it should not be unless there’s a specific reason,” Riley responded. “In my last year as a commissioner, I didn’t go anywhere. There’s no value to that $1,000 cost. The relationships are going to end. Someone else is going to come in.”
“That depends,” Roth replied.
Riley said he would attend the conference and, per usual, do 99 percent of the conversing with TxDOT.
Roth said he would send his foreman to the conference if commissioners approved the motion.
In skirmish No. 2, commissioners voted 3-2 to reimburse county officials for travel expenses by paying for fuel costs instead of mileage. The policy applies to those who receive a monthly vehicle allowance and those provided with a county-owned vehicle.
Riley, Conley and Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Peacock voted in favor of the motion. Commissioners Roth and Precinct 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro voted against.
“I have a county-owned vehicle,” Riley said, “and if I choose to take my personal vehicle on county business just because the weather’s nice, and I want to ride with the top down, I don’t seek reimbursement of mileage. I seek actual fuel costs.
And I think that’s appropriate because I’m covered; everything else is paid for if I’m using a county vehicle. And I think if we provide an auto allowance, and it was based on the fact that that $1,000 covered all expenses, then I think that it ought to be the same way, that if I was getting a $1,000 a month allowance, that at most I should be reimbursed actual fuel costs, not the additional mileage.
I’m not opposed to reimbursing that fuel cost, but I do think the mileage reimbursement over and above the $1,000 is excessive. I think it’s double-dealing.”
As fuel costs go up, that may cost the county more, Renfro commented, then later said, “If I were driving a Hummer, it wouldn’t work out so well for the county. If we pay for the actual fuel costs, you see what I’m saying, it’s going to be higher than the mileage.
“There’s a lot of big pickup trucks driving around ,,, ”
When Roth said the discussion didn’t need to be about petty politics, Riley fired back, “You charged 600 miles to go to Possum Kingdom and check on your crew at fires. That’s outrageous, John.
“And going to Austin, I’ve looked and seen what it costs to go to Austin, and we’re just paying everybody too much, but that doesn’t come into play.”
“That’s misleading,” Roth countered, “because all I’m doing is following a policy that was adopted by a court. For you to say that is petty politics.”
“We give you a thousand dollars,” the judge replied, “and that should cover it, in my opinion.”
“Have you read the policy,” Roth asked. “It says that elected officials for out of county travel can get reimbursed for mileage.”
“Exactly,” the judge replied.
“That’s what I’ve done,” Roth said.
“I think you’ve looked for a loophole,” Riley replied.