The issue: Local elected officials are weighing whether to renew the contract of former state legislator Bob Turner to continue acting as a consultant in state government.
The impact: Opponents hope to persuade officials to vote against renewing the contract of what opponents believe is a taxpayer funded lobbyist.
The Brownwood Municipal Development district became the fourth entity Tuesday to vote to renew former state Rep. Bob Turner’s contract to represent a Brown County partnership as a rural issues consultant in Austin.
Critics, though, have recently charged that Turner — a registered lobbyist who owns Rural Issues Consulting — is working for the Brown County partnership as a a taxpayer-funded lobbyist. And it is unclear whether the Early City Council and Brown County Commissioners Court — two entities which have participated with four others since 2011 — will agree to renew Turner’s contract for another two years.
“We have used Mr. Turner for a number of years, as you well know,” Brownwood Municipal Development District (BMDD) Executive Director Guy Andrews told BMDD directors before they voted. “From the perspective of the BMDD, I think we get more than our money’s worth as a consultant.”
Robert Porter, chairman of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Affairs Committee and chairman of the Brown County Republican Party, has said Turner is the “eyes and ears” of the Brown County partnership as he follows the legislature and state agencies.
Motion dies in Early; county tables
Last week, a motion to renew the contract died before the Early City Council when no council member would second the motion to bring it to a vote. Monday morning, the Brown County Commissioners Court tabled the matter because two commissioners were absent.
County Judge Ray West suggested that commissioners table the item until the court’s first meeting in January, when all of the commissioners can be present. Reached by phone Tuesday, commissioners Joel Kelton and Wayne Shaw said they don’t favor renewing the contract because they aren’t convinced the county is getting any services to justify the expense.
Commissioner Larry Traweek declined to comment on how he will vote. West could not be reached for comment.
Porter has said he will ask to have the matter placed on the next Early City Council agenda.
Since 2011, six entities have split Turner’s fee of $44,000 over two years. Those entities have been the City of Brownwood, City of Early, Brown County, Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce, the Brown County Water Improvement District and the Brownwood Economic Development Corp. — now the BMDD. The cost to each entity has been $3,666.67 per year, and each entity’s decision to renew the contract had been made quickly, with little discussion — until now.
The matter went before the Brownwood City Council on Dec. 12, and social media posts indicated there would be some opposition expressed at the council meeting. Council members unanimously approved renewing the contract after hearing Porter and Brownwood CPA Julia Taylor express opposing viewpoints.
Porter made a presentation to the Early City Council later that night, and no one was present to express any opposition. After council member B.J. Mccullough moved to renew the contract, no one spoke until Mayor Bob Mangrum said the motion was dead.
Commissioners court debate
Monday morning, Porter addressed the commissioners court, restating his views on the Turner contract. Brownwood resident Daniel Graham also addressed commissioners and asked them to reconsider hiring Turner, saying he believes local government officials should be the ones who monitor the legislature.
Porter said a man named Joe Morris, a former senate staffer, works closely with Turner. “I’ve had the questions raised: if (Turner) were not available, are we dead in the water? The answer is ‘no,’” Porter said.
“We do have elected officials. We have a state representative. We have a senator. They have limited abilities to be every place. Much of their time gets spent on the house or senate floor or in committee.”
Porter said Turner and Morris are “looking out for the things that may be positive that we need to get behind and support. Or maybe they’re negative, and we need to express our concern about these issues and nip them in the bud at committee rather than waiting until they’re written into a bill and it’s on the floor. It’s kind of too late at that point.”
Porter repeated example’s of Turner’s work, including stopping a redistricting plan in 2011 that would have split Brown County into two congressional districts.
Graham then addressed commissioners. “From what I’ve understood so far, the two words that come to my mind as issues here are ‘redundancy’ and ‘efficiency,’” Graham told commissioners. “Now, I like partnerships … that makes sense to pool our resources and act together in a unified way. But on the other hand, taxpayers are tired of paying for things that they don’t see the value in.
“The idea of a partnership — that can go both ways. What I see is that we already have a lot of people — not just the (legislators), but really, I’m looking at you all on the commissioners court.”
Graham asked if commissioners “might be able to take over some of the responsibility of the legislative oversight. It’s not like, in the age of the Internet, you have to go down to Austin and you have to be there to meet everyone.”
Kelton: TAC keeps county informed
Graham also asked how the remaining five entities would be affected cost-wise if the City of Early does not continue to participate. “As soon as one partner starts leaving, then everyone else is paying more,” Graham said.
Commissioner Joel Kelton said Porter had told him that “they would absorb (the extra cost) elsewhere.”
“That is correct,” Porter said.
Kelton noted that the county is part of the Texas Association of Counties, which has “a very active lobby-type person who does send us a lot of reports and keeps us informed through the year.”
“That is correct,” Porter said once again. “We’ve got the Texas Association of counties. The city has the Texas Municipal League. The water board has an advocacy group. Each of these are charged with looking at issues that are particularly germane to their respective membership.”
In hiring Turner, Porter said, “we have one person who’s looking out for Brown County business, Brown County issues. It’s another set of eyes and ears. I don’t think it’s redundant.”
Porter, answering a question from commissioners, said Turner has “many other contracts” beyond Brown County.
“So he is not exclusively looking out for Brown County or Brownwood,” Kelton said.
Porter replied, “As his business card says, it’s rural issues, so it’s issues that are affecting rural Texas. And frankly, we fight a battle with a really short stick against all of the metropolitan issues that might be good for (big cities) but they might not be good for rural Texas.”
West offered an observation: “From our standpoint, we’re looking for somebody that is focusing on county issues, and that’s not always synonymous with rural issues.”
BMDD anticipated losing Early
At Tuesday’s meeting of the BMDD, Andrews addressed the issue of how the the loss of Early from the partnership would impact the cost of the remaining partners. “We anticipated the City of Early might not participate in this,” Andrews said.
He said Ray Tipton, executive director of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce, has asked if the BMDD and the chamber “might be able to split the additional cost.” That would add an additional $1,833 to the costs to the chamber and BMDD for hiring Turner, Andrews said.
And if partnership loses both Early and Brown County, Andrews said, the cost “could increase again. We might have to go back and re-address it.”
Andrews said while the BMDD has access to the Texas Economic Development Council, that organization “typically is more focused on urban-type of issues.”
‘A philosophical perspective’
BMDD board president Ryan Reagan asked City Manager Emily Crawford if she wanted to make any statements. “We did have a citizen speak in opposition of it,” Crawford said, referring to Taylor’s comments at last week’s Brownwood City Council meeting.
“It was basically the philosophy that they did not think that a municipal or any government entity should pay for a lobbyist or legislative consultant because we have elected officials to represent us. I think it’s a philosophical perspective.
“However, just from my interaction with Mr. Turner — we exchange phone calls weekendlz, if not more than multiple times a week, and various emails.
Turner, Crawford said, tries to build a bridge “especially with urban staffers who may have never even lived in a rural area before, or understand how these bills written for urban areas impact a rural community.”