Lawyer shocks courtroom as he tells state’s top justices that county commissioners took almost four years to fire Bonnie Quiroga after determining her fate in 2010
By Ian White
TWO COUNTY commissioners moved swiftly do deny suspicions that they had broken the law after being asked about an extraordinary claim by one of the attorneys in Thursday’s supreme-court battle between senior county jurist Lonnie Cox, below, and county judge Mark Henry.
Terry Adams, representing Henry in the dispute, told the Austin court’s justices that his client and other commissioners had privately discussed dissatisfaction with the work of the county’s court administration department director Bonnie Quiroga in 2010.
Adams was answering a question by justice Don Willett, who was following up an assertion by the lawyer to justice Jeffrey Boyd that Henry had been aware of “dissatisfaction by the majority” of the commissioners before “asking [Quiroga] to take another job or resign” in July 2014, even though the issue had not been discussed during a regular commissioners’ court meeting.
His answer left astonished observers from both the judicial and executive branches of the county’s local government wondering whether the meetings had, indeed, taken place and, if so, why it had then taken Henry at least 43 months to fire Quiroga.
Stephen Holmes, one of the two still-serving commissioners who were elected before 2010 gave an unequivocal and stern denial that he had been involved in any such meeting.
And Ken Clark, the other, said he had met with Henry and Kevin O’Brien in November and December that year but that the meetings had not broken any law because neither Henry nor O’Brien had yet taken their oath of office.
No other commissioner had been involved in the trio’s meetings, the precinct-four commissioner told The Post.
Meanwhile, asked if he had met with Henry, below, and other commissioners in 2010 to discuss Quiroga’s work performance, Stephen Holmes of precinct three said: “No”.
The mystery was caused in the last few minutes of Adams’ closing presentation to the court when Willett asked if meetings between the county judge and other commissioners outside the confines of regular meetings were “proper” under the state’s open meetings law.
Adams replied: “Yes; they met in 2010 before the act applied to them”.
That was a reference to the fact that Henry was elected to his office on November 2, 2010, and was not sworn into office until January 2011. It’s the oath of office, not electoral victory, that renders an elected official subject to the act.
O’Brien was also elected that November and so was also not yet subject to the act after replacing Bryan Lamb as precinct-two commissioner.
Although Lamb remained subject to the act until his term ended on December 31 that year, along with Holmes, Clark and Patrick Doyle of precinct one, told The Post that none of his constrained commission colleagues had taken part in his discussions with Henry and O’Brien.
Asked how Henry could assume from those meetings so long before that the majority of commissioners were in favor of firing Quiroga in 2014, Clark referred to Ryan Dennard, who replaced Doyle at the 2012 election.
He said: “Everyone knew my opinion against keeping her, then commissioner Dennard told the county judge that he could no longer support her. It’s perfectly legal for two members of the commissioners’ court to discuss matters outside our open meetings, so no law was broken either in 2010 or 2014.”
Whether it was Dennard’s opinion about Quiroga’s continuing value as a county employee that produced a majority upon which Henry could act is unclear. Holmes has supported his fellow commissioners in their legal spat with Cox, her champion in the affair, but it is not known whether Henry consulted him on her employment before terminating her.
Nor is it clear why the county judge felt it necessary to have a majority of the commissioners backing him on the firing.
That did not appear to be a requisite for his unilateral action in December 2010 when, before taking office and while vacationing on a sea cruise, he instructed a county employee to issue termination notices to senior officers including community services director Curtiss Brown, budget director Ron Shelby, human resources director Rosa Franco and San Luis Pass bridge director Dennis Byrd.
The supreme court is expected not to take too long before issuing its ruling in the Cox-Henry case, especially as the subject it raises of correct county governance is the topic of a statewide continuing-education seminar being organized next month by the Texas office of court administration.