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Panel suggests county cellphone cuts

Profile image for By Megan Gray-Hatfield
By Megan Gray-Hatfield

Constables speak out against idea to end allowances for phones

Three Denton County constables appealed a county committee’s recommendation Tuesday to cut cellphone allowances from the upcoming fiscal budget.

Several appeals by various department heads were heard at the county commissioners’ regular meeting, but the idea of possibly cutting cellphones from the budget for elected county officials didn’t fare well in the minds of three constables.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Ron Marchant told the court that officials were concerned about having to use personal cellphones should the funds get cut. He went on to mention the Texas Rangers’ investigation involving Sheriff William Travis in which Constable Jesse Flores’ cellphone records were subject to a search when the alleged bribery incident occurred before they even took office.

“I understand that was a criminal investigation, but I am just giving a heads-up on why the appeals are coming,” Marchant said.

Officials said the telecommunications committee — consisting of various county department heads — met last month to review the money spent on elected officials’ cellphones. No formal request has been brought to the commissioners.

County Judge Mary Horn told the Commissioners Court she didn’t know of a department head who didn’t already own a personal cellphone, although she said she could be mistaken.

“There were cellphones at people’s desks that weren’t ever being used,” Horn said as to why it might be best to cut the expense. “On the other side, some phones had exorbitant minutes on it.”

County Budget Director Donna Stewart said Travis, Precinct 5 Constable Doug Boydston and Precinct 6 Constable Ron Smith do not currently have county cellphones budgeted.

Precinct 3 Constable Jerry Raburn said it’s not only a sensitivity issue should officials have to subject their personal phones to open records requests — it’s a safety issue.

“From my perspective, we deal with a lot of sensitive information,” Raburn told the commissioners. “I don’t have a laptop and I could have one, but to me it’s a waste of money. ... I’d much rather have a cellphone. Our county phones are only tracked to a county address, but our personal phones would be tracked to where we live.”

Precinct 4 Constable Tim Burch and Precinct 2 Constable Michael Truitt also spoke against the cut.

County Attorney John Feldt told the commissioners that any open records request regarding a law enforcement investigation can be submitted to the attorney general for an opinion. Any sensitive information that might hinder an investigation can still be placed on hold. County business conducted on any electronic device, he said, is subject to an open records request.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell said Tuesday that whether the vote was taken then or later, she would still ask that all elected law enforcement officials — including constables — get cellphone service paid for by the county.

“There’s no changing my mind,” she said.

Constables will make their appeals to the committee and the issue will come back to the commissioners for final approval. Officials said the last time the issue of cellphones came up for discussion was in 2002.

In other business, Travis, along with Chief Deputies Rex George and Randy Plemons, appealed for five additional hires for the sheriff’s office — two for transports and three for patrol. Stewart said when the budgeting process began, the sheriff had asked for 10 employees for patrol and she recommended three.

Travis told the court the additional personnel would ensure better safety and better response times.

By the end of the long day, Horn applauded the efforts of all county personnel making their appeals before the court.

“I am very interested to see the numbers and where we are at,” Horn said of the budget office’s tax report, which will be provided at next week’s meeting. “They will help answer a lot of questions, I believe.”

MEGAN GRAY-HATFIELD can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.