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Commissioners consider who will choose law firm

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Emotions were running high between members of the Hays County Commissioners Court during its recent regular meeting Tuesday.

The consent item issue on the agenda that generated a lengthy discussion between Hays County Commissioners Court Judge Ruben Becerra and Commissioner-Pct. 4 Walt Smith concerned various aspects of the county’s need to choose a well-qualified law firm with experience dealing with a history of delinquent tax collections programs in Texas, as well as identifying key individuals to help choose the firm.

Hays County Tax Assessor Jennifer O’Kane identified the following people for the evaluation committee responsible for choosing the firm: O’Kane, Hays County Budget Officer Vickie Dorsett, Hays County General Counsel Mark Kennedy, city of San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson and city of Kyle Mayor Travis Mitchell.

After some discussion, the court added Commissioner Pct-2 Michelle Cohen.

The proposed grading criteria for selection of the law firm as required by the court, are as follows: experience of the company, proposed commission rate and capacity to perform.

At this point during the meeting, Becerra said he did not agree with the list of names for the committee.

“I want to reject your list of people to represent that commission,” Becerra said. “I don’t want to start getting municipalities involved in county contracts. I just strongly disagree with that idea, and I think at a bare minimum, we should have department head, elected officials.

'If we can’t come to an agreement on that front then we should just pick a person, but definitely not including municipalities.”

Smith responded by offering the suggestion of giving O’Kane the opportunity to speak.

“A couple things happened, so the instruction from the court a few weeks ago was for the Auditor’s Office to get with my office to come up with a request for a proposal for these services,” O’Kane said. “Other offices were apparently involved in this. There were emails sent that I wasn’t copied on. Opinions were given about what should be on the RFP [Request for Proposal].”

An RFP is a business document that announces a project, describes it, and solicits bids from qualified contractors to complete it. For the court, this is an important decision that affects revenue and reflects back on credibility with respect to the entire process.

“At first I entertained them, but then I thought ‘No, we need to do this in a public forum,’ and if there are any changes that need to be made they can certainly be made here. I am certainly open to suggestions, but this is the original document that I worked on with Stephanie in the Auditor’s Office, so this is what was presented. Insofar as the committee, obviously I want to be on the committee because I’m the subject matter expert. Then I looked at the minutes from the last time we went out for a proposal for this service, and Luanne Caraway, the former elected official, had some of the taxing units on the committee.

'Obviously, because I collect for them as well. That’s why I selected two of our largest cities who have the largest levy to also sit on this commission so that they have a seat at the table,” O’Kane said.

Becerra said he did not think that Kennedy should be on the committee either.

“On that list is also our general counsel which I think the timing is wrong,” Becerra said. “I think it’s not customary and not useful. I’m not trying to give our treasurer extra work, but I think she should be on it.'

Smith then spoke to defend the choice to put Kennedy on the committee.

“The reason I think the general counsel has to be on this is what we’re considering is an RFP for services that are provided by a law firm,” Smith said.

Smith said he felt engaging in legal services would require the input of general counsel.

“Whenever we do tax collection services, we’re actually engaging in those firms for legal services, and to not have our general counsel have at least some indication on the provision of legal services, I think would be a nonstarter,” Smith said.

Smith said he thought that the commissioners court should look to the individual departments that directly interact with these contracts for input.

Becerra said that he thought that they needed a more detailed understanding of the situation.

For example, in one version of the evaluation criteria, the capacity to perform was broken down into two distinct parts: methodology and technical approach, as well as the demonstrated results of performance.

“A further breakdown of performances is purely useful to us, and I just think, why would we not want to have a finer, granulated assessment of who we’re going to hire to do these things. I don’t see why we wouldn’t want it,” Becerra said.

Becerra said he had a recommendation for which commissioner he would like on the committee. “I don’t care to be on it. I would volunteer Commissioner Cohen from this court. I just don’t like the idea of having municipal people on our county process even if it was done so 20 years ago, and I do support a finer granulated assessment,” Becerra said.

Becerra clarified that by finer assessment he meant the more detailed rating system for selection of the delinquent tax law firm in which capacity to perform was broken down into two parts.

O’Kane then spoke about the frustrations she was having.

“There was no communication between you [Becerra] and my office when this initially happened, and I would ask in the future if you have an item if you’ll please reach out to me just so I’m aware and can give you any feedback that you need.

'Secondly, I was not aware that Alex Villalobos was going to be involved in this process. I looked at some of the changes. I don’t necessarily have any issue with them, but then there was someone from the university on one of our emails, and I just thought ‘Nope, this needs to happen in open court.’ I’m doing what the court said to a tee, and you are the governing body. If you want to change it that’s fine, but I am going to follow instructions and that’s what I did,” O’Kane said.

Hays County Commissioner- Pct. 3 Lon Shell said he was concerned that there was favoritism at play.

“I just want to make sure that we didn’t have a county employee trying to create something that was going to result in one person getting favor over another. I’m afraid that may have been what was trying to happen from what I’m listening to right now,” Shell said.

Becerra restated Smith’s motion which had previously been seconded by Shell. “Adding Commissioner Cohen to the committee, and leaving the more course, the less finer assessment,” Becerra said.

Smith said, “Judge, let me restate my motion. You’re completely gutting what I said.”

“The underlying item with the addition of Commissioner Cohen is my motion, and it was seconded as stated, without narrative.” Smith said.

It was voted for unanimously.

After the vote, Becerra said, “And the narrative is never going to stop. I hope you understand that.”

San Marcos Record

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