Admitting that its current system for procuring food for jail prisoners does not fully comply with state law, Upshur County Commissioners Court nonetheless voted 4-0 Thursday in a heated emergency meeting to ask Sheriff Anthony Betterton to continue using the system until the county can comply with state bidding law on such purchases.
“We’re going to comply with it, but we can’t do it overnight,” Betterton told The Mirror following the 71-minute meeting, adding that his only alternative would have been moving his prisoners to another county.
County Judge Dean Fowler and Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner said they agreed the county could not immediately obey the bidding law, and Fowler said the court had to take action Thursday because “the jail was about to run out of food.”
Fowler told commissioners the State Jail Commission had threatened to close the jail if the county went more than a certain length of time without feeding inmates.
Betterton told the court it was brought to his attention that the county had been handling the bid process on food illegally. He said County Auditor Janice Tucker stated she would not issue purchase orders for jail food until the county got bids from vendors on file, but Betterton said the bid process would take 60 to 90 days as someone must be trained “to buy from the right vendor.”
Fowler told The Mirror the jail lacked enough food to feed prisoners until the county could obtain an appropriate number of bids. He said the county had been taking bids, but not the right number, and that the Commissioners Court had not approved such bids, as law requires.
Fowler pledged the county “will come into full compliance with the statute.” During Thursday’s meeting, he said that in his 10 years as county judge, which he said included working with three county auditors, nobody informed him the county was handling the matter improperly.
He also told the court the county must obtain bids by phone and in writing from at least three grocers.
The Commissioners Court last week approved a resolution aimed at bringing the county into compliance with the Texas Local Government Code on the issue, but Fowler told The Mirror “the action we had taken still wasn’t in complete compliance with the bidding statute.”
He and Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer said the court needed to change the interval at which it would approve bids on the food from once yearly to more often.
However, Fowler told commissioners Ms. Tucker had said she would issue the purchase orders.
Fowler also said District Attorney Billy Byrd was on record with a Longview newspaper as saying nobody was being investigated or indicted over the way the bids have been handled.
Replied Betterton, who has long had an adversarial relationship with Byrd, “His word on the record with me, after the stunts he’s pulled—” The sheriff did not finish the sentence.
Byrd, in Austin for a conference Thursday, said by telephone he had no intention of indicting anyone over the way the purchases have been handled, but declined comment on the court’s vote Thursday until later.
Byrd said Ms. Tucker had consulted him about food purchases. He acknowledged the county has been violating law in “many areas,” and said it is moving forward to compliance.
Ms. Tucker did not attend the commissioners’ emergency meeting, during which Betterton repeatedly expressed frustration with her. The Mirror tried unsuccessfully to reach her for comment at her office twice Thursday, and once Friday morning.
The sheriff told commissioners “we’re trying to get this court and this auditor on the same page” so the county could continue buying the food.
“I can’t get her on board to feed them (prisoners)” for the time being, Betterton said. At one point, he told the court she had come to the courthouse while the meeting was occurring, and had “asked for the bills” before leaving the building.
“She met with me on Tuesday, and now she refuses to meet with me,” Betterton told the court.
Fowler said Ms. Tucker was instructed not to attend Thursday’s meeting. When Betterton asked who gave that order, Fowler said he didn’t ask her.
The sheriff said he met with Ms. Tucker Tuesday “to get past this little bitty hurdle,” and “I can’t wait till the last minute and run out of food, and she say she’s not going to pay the bill.”
He said he had only a 4- to 5- day supply of food left.
“The problem is, we’re in violation of the law, and we’re trying to get it in compliance,” Betterton said.
Fowler said his concern was that Ms. Tucker would issue a purchase order, then refuse to pay the bill.
At one point during the meeting, Fowler snapped at Pct. 3 Comm. Lloyd Crabtree, who will be leaving the court Dec. 31, “We’re going to talk one at a time. I have been dealing with this since last Friday, and I’ve about had it. . . ”
When Crabtree responded, “I’ll leave if you want me to, Judge,” Fowler replied, “You can leave if you want to. I’m sick of everyone interrupting” each other.
Crabtree soon left the meeting without returning. Afterward, he said, “There is no use in having a meeting to resolve an issue between the auditor and the sheriff when the auditor won’t show up.”
Fowler, who normally votes only to break ties, joined Commissioners Hefner, Spencer and James Crittenden in approving the motion to ask Betterton to buy food under the current system.
In the same motion, the court voted to change the interval at which food would be purchased from annually to bi-monthly.