Fort Bend County Judge cries foul; accuses commissioners of horse-trading

SESHADRI KUMAR
Fort Bend County Judge KP George has charged the four county commissioners, two Democrats and two Republicans, of drawing a “haphazardly constructed plan behind closed doors.. the horse-trading has already taken place. The deals had already been made."

In an interview with Houston Public Radio, George said, “Everything was decided already, which is even in my opinion, a violation of (the) Open Meetings Act,” but he had “no proof.”

George went on the offensive on Tuesday, May 4, during the commissioners court meeting, while voting on the agenda item, which read: “Take all appropriate action to record the Preliminary Budget Recommendation for the Fort Bend County allocation of $157.42 million in American Rescue Plan Act State and Local Coronavirus Relief Funds.”

Commissioner Grady Prestage, a Democrat, who has been re-elected seven times since 1990 and has been on commissioners court for 30 years, made the motion, “to appoint the county budget and finance director as the budget manager and the county auditor to provide compliance oversight for the funds distribution process and also directed them to place all eligible emergency protective measure expenditures, if any, under the FEMA public assistance funding, when appropriate, with local match to be provided by the county.”

Commissioner Ken R. DeMerchant, also a Democrat, who was elected in 2018, seconded the motion.

The motion was adopted 4-1.

George spoke at length as to why he would vote against the motion.

Essentially, he objected to the lack of community involvement, arbitrary selection of beneficiaries and inclusion of items that are not likely to comport with the American Rescue Plan Act.

As soon as the motion was made, Commissioner Andy Meyers opened the discussion and he proactively sought to address George’s objections.

The plan is a preliminary draft and based on the Treasury’s guidance, to be received shortly, the plan may have to modified, Meyers said. There will be an opportunity for those are not in the list to receive funds in future. In short, the plan is not set in stone and is subject to change, he suggested.

But, George would have none of it. He did not say if he was consulted any time by any commissioner seeking his input.

It is not clear if George was totally kept in the dark about the plan, or did he ever attempt to have a transparent process.

George, on his Facebook page, posted the following:

“Transparency and fairness should ALWAYS be our priority. I voted against a haphazardly constructed plan put together behind closed doors and without any community involvement that mandates how over $150 MILLION of the American Rescue Plan will be used in Fort Bend County.

As I have promised the voters of Fort Bend, I will always do the right thing and speak out even I am the only one doing so. This opportunity requires us to include the community and hear their voice.

Today I voted against the first draft of a haphazardly constructed plan....Without an iota of community involvement, public meetings, or resident surveys, this plan mandates how millions and millions of taxpayers dollars will be spent in Fort Bend County. While many of the items are worthwhile and deserve to be funded, there needs to be an open process with taxpayers and county residents to weigh in, and we need guidance from the Treasury on how these funds may be spent.

The plan that the commissioners court voted for today includes random items like a multi-million dollar courtroom expansion, new government buildings, government vehicles, government audiovisuals, and it even handpicks various organizations for relief funding instead of an open application process.

Non profits like the Fort Bend Women’s Center, Fort Bend Child Advocates, Parks Youth Ranch (a children’s shelter) and so many were left out in the dark without out even an opportunity to request support.

Many in the community were surprised that the commissioners spent no time debating or discussing a proposal that conservatively totals more than $150 million in support. What today exhibited is the type of politics that too many of our citizens have long been disgusted with, the horse-trading has already taken place. The deals had already been made. As I have promised the voters of Fort Bend County, I will always do the right thing and speak out even if it means I am the only one doing so.

That is my commitment to you.

Without engaging the community from our residents, to nonprofits, faith organizations, and advocacy organizations, I cannot and will not support a plan constructed behind closed doors. This opportunity requires us to include the community and hear their voice.”

Commissioner Vincent Morales told this paper: “There was not any back room deal! All of Commissioners Court members put in their thoughts in the budget including Judge George. It is a working document in progress...”

“Where was his leadership in the process? If he did not like it why didn’t he collaborate with court to create a more open process prior to vote rather than throw stones after the fact. That is his job,” Morales said.

Commissioners Prestage and DeMerchant said, ”No comment.”The proposed preliminary allocates the funds, over the next five years, to different categories namely, Public Health Response, Pandemic Relief Effort, Economic Recovery, Nonprofit Partnerships, Citizens Assistance, Fort Bend County Reimbursement, Public Infrastructure and Special Purchases.

The Nonprofit category, for example, eight charities receiving about $12. 5 million and the county judge will have $3 million for his pet projects, which each commissioner will get $2 million.