Orange County Commissioners Court Monday unanimously voted to terminate veterans service officer Gene Smith. He asked for a reason, but commissioners said state law does not require them to give one. Before the official vote for the termination, County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said "All in all Gene, I want to say it's very unfortunate that it's gotten to this point, but you've blasted this court on the web, on Facebook. You've called them a kangaroo court. You've totally disrespected them on the Facebook and that came back to me."
The termination came after a struggle between commissioners and Smith that grew particularly intense at the end of February. Smith asked to hire an employee to replace one who was retiring. The county has been facing a $3 million budget deficit and commissioners have tried to save money through different policies. One started in 2013 was to make every department head get court permission before filling a budgeted vacant position. The day Smith asked for the replacement, the court passed a policy to wait six weeks before filling a vacant position. Smith told different news outlets and others that the Commissioners Court was hurting veterans and making widows of veterans suffer by not getting benefits. The veterans service office helps military veterans and their families get government benefits. The office helps with the applications and gets medical care from veterans hospitals and clinics.
As early as Aug. 5 last year, Smith ran up against commissioners for getting a replacement for a vacant position. At that time, the court voted 3-2 to give him the hiring. Precinct 3 Commissioner asked if he could do without a person to save money and Smith replied that he would have to cut back on services for veterans. Thibodeaux that day told him "Do not threaten this court." Smith replied that he was not threatening but that it would have to be done.
On Monday, commissioners had scheduled a closed-door executive session to review Smith's job performance. The Texas Open Meetings Law allows closed-door discussions concerning employees. However, Smith asked that the session be open to the public. He accused Commissioners Court of breaking the Open Meetings Act when an appointed county committee met to review personnel requests. He also accused Banken, Precinct 2 Commissioner Owen Burton and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jody Crump of breaking the Open Meetings Law by standing and talking before meetings of the court. Smith asked that the Open Meetings violations be investigated by the Orange County District Attorney's Office and the Texas Attorney General. A lawyer with the county-district attorney's office attends every Commissioners Court meeting to give legal advice. “I will gladly sacrifice my employment to see integrity put back into our court,” Smith read to the court from a written statement.
Judge Thibodeaux said the committee meeting Smith referred to did not fall under the Texas Open Meetings Law. He also said the commissioners greet each other and chat before a meeting and that isn’t a violation of the law. The exchange is made with news media and others in the room, not in secret, he said. “If you have a formal complaint Gene, I suggest you file it through the proper channels,” Thibodeaux said.
Commissioners Court hired Smith in July 2011. His starting salary then was $36,688. The requirements for the position include that the person be a military veteran. Smith served in the Navy. He replaced a veterans service officer who had been terminated by the court. Commissioners at that termination mentioned poor record keeping and problems with compensatory time. Monday, Commissioner Crump said he checked with the veterans office and Smith had 51 hours of compensatory time. Smith said he doesn’t charge the county for the time and asked the secretary to keep it. He said he wanted people to know the extra time that he puts in. Judge Thibodeaux said Smith is aware that as a department head he is an exempt employee who can’t get compensatory time.
In a printed statement Smith handed out after the termination, he said he wanted to serve veterans. “I did not take this job to subsidize my retirement income, but rather to service my fellow veterans. I apologies (sic) to our veterans for having to leave like this; I will however remain in their service. I am not leaving the veterans, only the county employment.”
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-