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.