This morning at Bowie County Commissioners Court, Precinct 2 Commissioner Tom Whitten decried the “lack of communication” between the commissioners and County Judge Sterling Lacy regarding the lighting of the courthouse for the holidays. The implication was that if Judge Lacy had simply called the commissioners, they would have found the money necessary for both the community celebration, and the decorations.
However, a series of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request shows that the commissioners decided early in October not to light the courthouse.
On Wednesday, Oct 2, Bowie County purchasing agent Chris Goodsell sent this email to Commissioners Sammy Stone, Tom Whitten, Kelly Blackburn, and Pat McCoy, and CC’d to courthouse maintenance supervisor Vickie Cox:
In the last several years Telford Unit has assisted us in setting up and taking down the Christmas lights on the Courthouse Building for the Christmas Season. The County has also provided the public with a Christmas lighting ceremony, refreshments, and pictures with Santa.
Due to the current cash flow situation, we would like to request your input on whether to proceed with the Christmas Lighting as in the past years.
Last year the total approximate costs were $3,200 – $3,500, which includes electric bill, meals for the inmates, rental lift, lights, etc. refreshments and photo supplies.
Please respond ASAP as we need to give Telford Unit notice in writing.
If you have any questions, please contact Vickie or Chris.
On Friday, October 4, Goodsell contacted the commissioners again, with Cox CC’d:
I have only heard back from Tom Whitten so far regarding the above referenced subject. His response “I would not support a total lighting however, maybe just the letters out front “BOWIE COUNTY” would be ok. Tks, Tom”
Vickie needs to know pretty quickly to make arrangements with Telford Unit if we are going to move forward with the project. Please advise one way or the other.
Later that day, Commissioner McCoy replied to Goodsell:
I do not see how we can expend any funds on this project. It is unfortunate but in light of our current financial position necessary.
These emails seem to contradict Commissioner McCoy’s statement to KTBS Channel 3 last week: “The expense for the ceremony every year in the past has been under general miscellaneous in the budget. There was money in there last year and there is this year.”
Also notable is that Judge Lacy was not included in the conversation of whether to light the court house and/or host the community Christmas party, nor the eventual decision to do neither.
When the situation became known, several citizens tried to donate money (and food for the Telford inmates, who usually do most of the work) to the county to pay for the lights, which prompted this letter from Judge Lacy to Vickie Cox on Monday, November 18:
Per our conversation on Friday, November 15, I am authorizing you to schedule the inmates from the Telford Unit to hang Christmas Lights. The inmates will be fed by Chicken Express at no expense to the county. Additionally, I authorize you to make necessary repairs to the electrical outlets per our discussion. Expenses are not to exceed the amount donated by the public.
Sterling E. Lacy
However, it was discovered that Texas state law prohibits counties from receiving donations for any reason without the permission of the Commissioners Court, or from holding donations pending the court’s approval. Judge Lacy sent this letter to Cox Tuesday, November 19:
I am rescinding the instructions I gave you yesterday regarding expenditures for the Christmas lights being allowed up to the amount contributed [by] the citizens. The procedures for accepting those contributions would have delayed the project until after thanksgiving. Since we must not incur expenses for the project before going through those procedures, we are back to not having the Christmas lights on the court house this year. However, the Christmas party for the community will go on as scheduled on December 10th.
Judge Sterling E. Lacy
On Wednesday, November 20, Judge Lacy informed the general public via this press release:
Much controversy surrounds the installation and expense of the annual Christmas lights on and around the Bowie County Courthouse. Also involved are the plans for the annual Christmas party for the community.
First, there will be a Christmas party for the community if I have to foot the bill myself. It will be held on December 10th at 5:00pm.
Second, the expenses for installing and operating the Christmas lights were opposed by the four commissioners. Donations by the public were declined by the county treasurer. The deadline for the use of the necessary laborers has passed.
At this time there are no workable plans to install and fund the Christmas lights on and around the courthouse.
Sterling E. Lacy
There was considerable discussion at Commissioners Court this morning, but as of this evening, there are still no workable plans to light the courthouse.