Precinct 2 County Commissioner Lester Gibson has missed the past eight county meetings, a fact he denies, and an issue that has at least one fellow commissioner concerned that Gibson’s constituents may not be getting proper representation.
Though there is no attendance requirement for a court member, Gibson, who has more than a year left in his term, has not attended a commissioners court meeting since Sept. 19, according to meeting minutes, video and county documents. Gibson, the lone Democrat on the court, has attended two of the last 15 meetings, according to county documents.
Commissioners say the absence on the voting committee has not affected business, though the potential exists. County leaders also have said they have not received complaints from constituents in Precinct 2, which covers the eastern part of the county.
Each commissioner makes $96,284 a year.
According to a county report, Gibson has attended 23 of the 42 meetings so far this year.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell has not missed a meeting this year. Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones has missed two meetings. Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry has missed four. County Judge Scott Felton has missed three meetings, according to a county report.
Gibson said Monday that he is the longest-serving commissioner on the court and therefore has attended the most meetings. At the end of his term in January 2019, he will have represented Precinct 2 for 28 years.
When asked by the Tribune-Herald what led to his recent extended absences he said he’s never missed more than two meetings in a row.
“I haven’t missed no eight meetings, not in a row,” Gibson said. “If I missed eight meetings in a row, in my mind it’s time for me to get out of there.”
During the phone conversation, Gibson added to the call his daughter, Izegbe Lee, and his administrative assistant of more than two decades, Patricia “Pat” Chisolm-Miller, who is currently running for her boss’s seat.
Gibson’s son, Travis Gibson, had said earlier this year he would seek his father’s seat. Late Monday, he announced he would put his full support behind Chisolm-Miller instead of running for the Precinct 2 position himself.
During the phone conversation, Lee repeatedly referred all comments to her father’s lawyer, Bill Vannatta.
Reached later, Vannatta said he had no comment.
Jones said it’s inevitable that commissioners will occasionally miss meetings, but added that he worries the interests of Gibson’s constituents are not being represented because of the commissioner’s extended absence.
“It’s unfortunate he’s not been coming to any of the meetings at all lately,” Jones said. “It’s unfortunate the citizens of Precinct 2 are not being properly represented. Commissioners court is held twice a month. It’s the only chance we have to conduct our business. It’s important for commissioners to be there.”
A governmental entity must give written notice of the date, hour, place and subject of each meeting and post it in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times for at least 72 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, unless the meeting is declared an emergency, according to the Texas Government Code.
In a 3-2 vote in January last year, commissioners reduced the frequency of meetings from weekly to once every other week. Gibson and Snell voted against the change.
In an order adopted three months ago, commissioners scheduled all meetings for the upcoming fiscal year. They scheduled meetings for 9 a.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month and reserve the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month for periodically scheduled special meetings.
As a member of the commissioners court, Gibson is also a member of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District board. Snell said he reached out to Gibson in late November after noticing his fellow commissioner hadn’t attended the past four meetings, dating back to October 2016.
“I noticed in review of this documentation that you have not been attending the meetings, and I wanted to offer to help you by taking over this board appointment for you,” Snell wrote in an email to Gibson dated Nov. 27. “I believe that it is very important that as representatives we are present and able to vote on the issues and ask questions.”
Gibson responded via email the next day, noting he couldn’t reach Snell by phone, stating he did not wish to relinquish his position on the health district board.
According to the public health district board attendance report, Gibson did not attend the last four meetings, which were in October 2016, January 2017, April 2017 and July 2017.
Snell said Tuesday he wanted to ensure the county was being represented on the board. However, as far as Gibson’s absence at commissioners court meetings, Snell said he hasn’t seen an effect. Each commissioner represents their own precinct, so Snell said he’s still able to take care of Precinct 1.
Chisolm-Miller said she attends all the health district board meetings and submits the quarterly meeting packet to the commissioners court for review.
Felton said it appears Gibson’s staff is handling operations in Precinct 2 just fine.
“You see the agenda and we generally have fairly full agendas, but we’ve been able to come to agreement on the court on most issues. We miss his input, but we’re getting the job done,” Felton said.
Felton said Gibson generally calls when he’s not going to make a meeting.
“His reasons are personal,” Felton said. “Out of respect for him, I wouldn’t want to share those. But he does call.”
Felton added he was concerned about Gibson.
“I’m concerned that he’s not participating,” he said.
Travis Gibson said at a meeting Monday night where he announced he would no longer run for office, that if the Democratic Party were to lose the Precinct 2 seat it would set the area back 25 to 30 years.
He said his father had no health issues.
Lester Gibson’s health was called into question in May when Mart Mayor Pro Tem Henry Witt III sent a letter to commissioners raising concerns about Gibson’s memory. Mart is in Gibson’s precinct. The letter followed Gibson’s comments about not being aware of a large countywide Americans With Disabilities Act project that had been in the works since 2015. Other commissioners at the time expressed surprise at Gibson’s lack of recognition.
Witt sent a four-page letter in May to commissioners outlining examples of Gibson’s inability to recall projects that have been ongoing for more than a year. At the time, Felton said he had received feedback from constituents and county employees about Gibson’s memory. Felton also said at the time that Witt’s letter was concerning as it came from one of Gibson’s biggest supporters. Gibson denied the existence of memory issues and said the matter was a political game.
At the commissioners court meeting following news of the letter, Gibson supporters flooded the courtroom, alleging a conspiracy, a lack of human decency, a witch hunt and public character assassination. Some threatened to get petitions to have the other commissioners removed if they made any move to remove Gibson. However, general grounds for removal include incompetency, official misconduct, or intoxication, according to the local government code. It is otherwise not under the court’s purview to remove another elected official. A person would have to file a written petition for removal, which a district court would consider, that would then go to trial.
“He’s beloved in that precinct,” Perry said this week. “His constituents do appreciate him and they love him. My personal take on it at this point in time is: If it becomes a concern to them, I would assume that — just as they showed up that day to show their support — if it became a concern to them, they would show up and ask what options are there, what could be done.”
Facing a tie
Whatever is keeping Gibson away is worrisome, Perry said.
If the commissioners court were split on a decision, with only four members there, issues could often land in a tie, Perry said.
For instance, Perry said, commissioners have been presented with a request to help fund a portion of the $129 million Brazos Commons project along the river. A final vote has not been taken, but if that vote arose and members of the court voted 2-2, the request would fail due to lack of a majority. That situation would make moving certain projects forward more difficult, he said. The other issue is if Gibson were to return now after such a lengthy absence, he’d likely be so far behind on the wide variety of topics covered during the bi-weekly meetings that discussions would be further delayed as he was caught up during a meeting, Perry said.
Each commissioner is ultimately held accountable to their constituents, so if there is a concern about anything regarding their representation, they would need to come forward, Perry said.
Despite his recent absences from meetings, Gibson and his staff are doing the best job they can for the precinct, said McLennan County Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Duty this week.
“I know that the work of the commissioner in the rural areas of McLennan County has been getting done,” Duty said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road, the work getting done.”