Ronnica Ridgeway responds to Comm. Frank Berka's comments
Jan 01, 2014 | 5075 views | 11 11 comments | 245 245 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Saying it was the county's responsibility to pay a landman to determine what mineral rights it owns on its West Texas "school land," Upshur County Judge candidate Ronnica Ridgeway charged Thursday that the County Commissioners Court acted unethically by having school districts in the county pay him.

In a written statement released before she told The Mirror that, Ms. Ridgeway criticized her opponent in the Republican primary, County Judge Dean Fowler, and the other court members for their overall handling of the land. In making his recent announcement for reelection, Fowler had said all four county commissioners had asked him to run.

The court handles leasing out the West Texas property, and annually distributes certain revenue from the 17,712 acres in Baylor and Throckmorton Counties among the nine school districts lying partly or wholly in Upshur County.

While the county government technically owns the property (and pays taxes on it to Baylor and Throckmorton Counties), the county receives no revenue from it. Pct. 3 County Commissioner Frank Berka said Monday the fact the county receives nothing was why he had visited with some school officials about paying the landman.

Ms. Ridgeway's written statement in part responded to a Dec. 16 statement Fowler made to the New Diana School Board about the West Texas property.

"The Commissioners Court alone has the obligation to manage and protect the 'school lands' and its minerals," she wrote. She then quoted The Mirror's report on the Dec. 16 meeting, where Fowler indicated that a court battle in the late 1940s had left it unclear what percentage of the minerals the county owned.

"However, historically Mr. Fowler has claimed and stated on record that we don't own any mineral interests on lands involved in the 1940s case," Ms. Ridgeway asserted.

She then cited article VII, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution, saying it makes the Commissioners Court the authority for overseeing and managing school land.

"They (court members) are a fiduciary for our schools. A fiduciary relationship is when 'one person has an obligation to act for another's benefit,'" she added.

"Concerned citizens and ONE Commissioner have gone to the school boards across the county and asked them to pay for an investigation of mineral ownership interest on 'school lands.' Mr. Fowler's claim that the mineral interest is 'unclear' and has been since the 1940s causes me to question why this issue has not been addressed before this year," Ms. Ridgeway's statement continued.

The candidate, herself an attorney, added, "Mr. Fowler claims to be an experienced attorney and judge, but a first-year law student knows to investigate case law history and legal opinions before asking those we are to protect to act. There is legal basis to question whether or not the schools could choose to pay for an investigation on mineral interest, much less at a Commissioner's request," she contended.

She also addressed Fowler's statement that misinformation is circulating about the school land, but that those spreading it "refuse to come before me or the court. . .(They) try to make all kinds of allegations against us."

Wrote Ms. Ridgeway, "Mr. Fowler reports that no one has come to the Commissioners Court, either publically or privately in regard to this issue. This is simply not true." She said that in the past 10 years or so, "the citizens' concerns in regard to the school lands have been frequently brought before the Commissioners Court, contrary to Mr. Fowler's statement that 'they' refuse to come to the court."

She said that in 2011, a citizen brought several questions to the court, prompting a then-sitting commissioner to travel to West Texas at his own expense to investigate. (Although Ms. Ridgeway did not identify them, the citizen was Glenn Leach and the then-Commissioner was James Crittenden.)

"Through that commissioner's insistence in 2012, a survey was done to clear up the boundary lines of the school lands. The survey initially returned to the Court was not complete and only because of the contribution of a private citizen, was there ever a completed survey on record in the County," Ms. Ridgeway added.

"Mr. Fowler is on record in a Commissioners Court meeting as saying that the survey was a waste of the taxpayer's money. Apparently, because of our county's depleted budget, we cannot afford to fulfill our duty" under state law to "provide for the protection, preservation, and disposition of lands granted to the county for educational purposes," she continued.

"I commend the current Commissioners Court for recognizing that investigation is needed; however, this Court (the 'fiduciary') placed the expense of investigation on our already overburdened schools, instead of fulfilling their obligation to act," she charged. "The Court collectively did not do anything to determine the schools' minerals interest and Mr. Fowler has been going along to get along for over 10 years."

(Fowler has been in office 11 years as of today, Jan. 1, with the exception of a 9-month period during which he was suspended due to misdemeanor charges of which he was later cleared.)

Wrote Ms. Ridgeway, "The failure of the court to act prompted private citizens and ONE commissioner to bring the question of mineral ownership to the school boards across the county. . .Without knowledge of what our schools own. . .in minerals, we are potentially short changing our schools untold amounts of money to which they are entitled and which the Court is responsible to manage and ensure."

She noted that New Diana School Board member Don Gross (who is running for Pct. 2 County Commissioner against incumbent Cole Hefner) had cited a Texas Attorney General's opinion at the Dec. 16 meeting, "but his concerns were dismissed instead of investigated."

(Gross had asked Fowler if the court's action of having the schools pay the landman was constitutional under the State Constitution. Fowler said yes; that the court believed the schools should pay the landman; and that he believed the AG opinion cited by Gross pertained to another type of matter.)

In that opinion rendered by current Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, a copy of which Ms. Ridgeway provided The Mirror, Abbott said the Texas Constitution doesn't "allow a county to cede or share its authority and responsibilities as sole trustee of county school land and the county permanent school fund. Thus, a county and school districts in the county may not 'jointly' develop or sell rights to natural resources and minerals in county school land by forming a joint venture, a local government corporation, or other association to exercise the county's constitutional authority."

Added Abbott, "A county or school district may not recoup expenses to develop or sell natural resources and mineral rights in county school land from subsequent proceeds or income from such land." Nor, he wrote, can a county and its school districts "share in the revenue realized from the sale of natural resources and mineral rights in such land."

Said Ms. Ridgeway, "Although I am certain that those who approached the school boards about funding an investigation had the best of intentions, the AG opinion raises legitimate concern as to whether or not the schools can legally assume the Commissioners Court responsibilities. The AG opinion states, in part, 'a county must bear its expenses to administer the constitutional trust' under the Constitution.

"In summary, it is clear that at the very least the Judge of the Commissioners Court, as an experienced judge and attorney, should have asked the AG for clarification before asking the schools to assume the financial burden of investigating the mineral ownership concerns, which is under the management of the Court. Instead, the Court has asked the schools to pay, whether or not they should," and "investigation is long overdue."

"Public officials are responsible to investigate, ask questions, and encourage citizens' participation. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse," Ms. Ridgeway's statement concluded.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
I think not
March 03, 2014
Dean has never run a successful business. All he has tried has failed. Once an attorney he worked as a probation officer and even failed at that. His father in law has always bailed him out (he even lives in his in-laws house). He can't manage a business or his own finances, much less the county's. How many deficit budgets has he passed? When he was a democrat, he certainly spent the money. Even as a Republican he could not understand that if you spend more than you make you will eventually be in trouble. Now we all suffer because of his poor math skills. He even pays friends twice with taxpayer dollars.
February 07, 2014
This chick is CRAZY ??? At least she looks CRAZY...what is up with her googley eyes ?
Crazy Indeed
February 16, 2014
She does look CRAZY sort of like a Lunatic !!!
Throwing money away
January 24, 2014
The county would not have a depleted budget if Fowler would quit giving himself pay raises. Fowler is vastly overpaid for the trivial accomplishments he has performed. Why don't you cut your salary in half and reimburse the county for all of the screw ups you have done over the years Fowler? Did your buddy ever reimburse the county for you paying him double what he was owed? For a lawyer it is amazing that you cannot do simple math correctly. Then don't practice as a lawyer do you?
He is the moron
January 05, 2014
Indicted for throwing a Korean War veteran out of court. Paying his vacation buddy twice what he is entitled with tax money and screwing up money owed to the county all while failing to have a balanced budget (even this year). Fowler Is The moron.
Your kidding, right?
January 04, 2014
I am not sure why the fact that Upshur County has not sold the school lands is relevant. Most schools have not sold their mineral interest, which is the topic here. As Patrick Henry so eloquently put it "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." As the Gilmer Mirror will report this coming week, there is real reason to be concerned that the transactions of our leaders have been concealed from us. A people who are willing to give up freedom for peace deserve neither (paraphrase of Benjamin Franklin). Ms. Ridgeway is a first year attorney and has run a successful business. She went to law school as a second career choice and i feel sure has tried more cased as an attorney than her opponent. She is a 5th generation Upshur county resident. She came here to come home and raise her children with a better way of life. I feel sure that she has never been indicted and has not "mistakenly" double paid a friend for court appointments with tax payer dollars. I am not sure why where she was born is relevant. I know that if a person gets indicted and pays his friend twice what he is owed with tax dollars (by his own admission) that where there is smoke there is fire. I am sure that she is not the moron here.
You're the Moron
February 25, 2014
Hey Moron, get it straight. There are exactly six counties, out of 254, that have not sold there there surface or mineral interests in there school lands. Are you still following me or are we in too deep already? Business, Wow Ronnica has had a successful guardianship business in Houston. Talk about Lawyer welfare !!! Fowler has owned at least four businesses right here in Upshur County. You really want to call her a 5th generation Upshur County resident? That is laughable, she moved here in February 2013. Fowler has lived here for 52 years. Oh and trials, if you had any idea how our system of government worked, you would know how to look this kind of thing up. Ronnica is not transparent enough to tell us exactly how many trials she has had. A simple search of the Upshur County District Clerk and/or County Clerk records show that Fowler has had literally hundreds of trials in Upshur County. That doesn't count trials in Gregg, Wood, Camp, Marion and other adjoining counties. You are a MORON.
Mr ridgeway
January 04, 2014
Yep, just when things were beginning to stabilize we get a first year lawyer running for an office in a community she knows nothing about. She's like a carpet bagger from the civil war era, she has nothing at stake here and condemns others who have grown up here and raised their families here. Furthermore, very few schools still have their lands most sold them years ago, and if we had some ignorant out of town first year lawyer as our judge we probably would have sold our land too... What a moron!
January 24, 2014
This attitude is exactly why Upshur County has been the laughing stock of east Texas during Fowlers time in office. Fowler and the commissioners court have made Gilmer look like the most ignorant group of rednecks in east Texas. He is a lawyer that wants to be a county judge instead of a lawyer. His job only requires a high school education and Fowler still screws up at his job. If he worked as a "lawyer" in the county judge position he would get alot more done. Instead he floats in the job doing "little" things instead of accomplishing the big tasks. Morons like you are easy to impress with a few big words and a pat on the back. When you get the small town boys, that never really left Gilmer, out of office and get people in that really care about the position you start cleaning out all the crooked people in office. As we all know, Upshur County offices are full of corruption. Fowler has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar many times as it has been pointed out by other posters on this site. It's just a question of time as to when the mouse trap is going to shut close on him.
big money
January 03, 2014
Just goes to show,,, the big money sponsor commissioners court, does not have a clue! Again the laughing stock of the area,,,

Still has not fixed the rr crossing at Holly Rd. It has been this way for over a year,,, It is damn hard to get a good road crew in this county.
Frank Berka
January 06, 2014
Railroad crossings are the responsibility of the Federal Government. Under the dangerous circumstances of thousands of dead trees needing removal, I believe we have as good a county crew as can be found.