Breckenridge Texan

From JP to County Judge: Michael Roach ushers in new era for Stephens County

From JP to County Judge: Michael Roach ushers in new era for Stephens County
January 06
05:05 2019

As 2018 faded into the past at midnight Monday, the citizens of Stephens County began 2019 with their first new county judge in 24 years. Michael Roach, who has been the local Justice of the Peace for the past four years, took over the position following the retirement of County Judge Gary Fuller.

In December 2017, Fuller announced his decision to not seek reelection, and Roach ran for the office unopposed in the 2018 election.

Fuller presided over his last County Commissioners’ meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 26. It was also the last meeting for retiring commissioners D.C. “Button” Sikes, Precinct 2, and Rickie Carr, Precinct 4. Coming in as new commissioners will be Mark McCullough, Precinct 2, and Eric O’Dell, Precinct 4.

Before that last meeting, the changeover had begun. Fuller had already moved his personal belongings out of the County Judge’s office, and Roach was in the process of moving his items from his third-floor JP office to the first floor of the courthouse.

Last week, Roach sat in the JP’s office, looking back over his term as Justice of the Peace and discussing his plans for the future of county government.

Justice of the Peace Roach

During his tenure as Justice of the Peace, Roach made several changes to the way the office operated, much of it involving technology. Citizens may now get a variety of forms on the Stephens County website. For example, if someone gets a traffic ticket, they can download a plea form into their phone, fill it out, take a screen shot of the form and send it directly to the JP’s office. If they are pleading guilty and want to pay the fine, they can do that online, as well.

Other documents online include a small claims packet that includes information about filing a small claims case and the necessary forms, an eviction packet, and a “Repair and Remedy” packet that can be used by tenants to enforce a landlord’s duty to repair or remedy certain conditions of the housing.

Roach said having the forms online seems popular with business offices that can save time by not having to visit the courthouse and with citizens under the age of 40, who are not only more likely to access forms and documents online but also who tend to not be concerned as much about handling issues such as tickets. In his experience, Roach said, adding the technology has increased the likelihood that some people will take care of their tickets.

“We tried to make our court really easy to do business with,” Roach said. “And I think it’s benefited our citizens, but it’s certainly benefited our court, too.”

Another use of technology that Roach put into place in Stephens County involves some of the magistrate duties, such as arraignments and bond hearings, but Roach’s first step in the change wasn’t technological. Before his term, inmates were taken from the jail to the JP’s office in the courthouse for arraignment, even on weekends. That process involved one or more Sheriff’s Office employees and could have posed a security risk, Roach said.

“There was a significant cost associated with that,” he said. So, he offered to go to the jail, instead. “That would just make things so much easier on everybody.”

Eventually, he worked with the company that handles the information technology services for the county to create a system for handling the hearings via video conference calls. That allowed him to perform the magistrate duties from his office or home while the suspect was in the law enforcement center.

Roach said he isn’t certain at this point if there will be opportunities in the County Judge’s office to improve things from a technological standpoint but that he intends to take the same approach as he did in the JP’s office. “If there’s a better way to do it, from a technology standpoint, we will do that and make the court more accessible,” he said.

Another of Roach’s accomplishments – the one he deems “without a doubt, without any hesitation” his biggest accomplishment – is Teen Court. The program allows local youth who have already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges to have their punishment decided by a jury of teens. Additionally, their defense representation and the prosecution are teens. The judge in the cases usually is the assistant district attorney or sometimes the district attorney or the Breckenridge municipal judge. Punishment usually includes a specified number of public service hours. The program allows the young people to avoid having a criminal record.

Stephens County had a Teen Court in the past, but it had not been active in recent years. Roach restarted the program in 2016, and it is now in its third year. Roach said many big cities have budgets for their Teen Courts but that in rural areas, such as Stephens County, the programs are all volunteer-based.

“(Teen Court) is and, hopefully will be, such an asset to the students and the school system and our community at large; it’s been a great program,” Roach said.

Roach’s plans for the future

Roach said he has some ideas for the County Judge office, but his first priority is learning his new responsibilities. “Constitutionally, it’s pretty significant,” he said. “I want to learn what all those are; I’m going to have to learn a lot. I’ll take the same approach (as I did with the JP office), which is to get all the education I can and be the best at it that I can possibly be.”

Any of his plans that he has for the county government are not based on complaints about the way things have been done in the past, he said. “It’s not to criticize the way anything’s being done,” Roach said. “And, I want that to be so clear –  it’s about moving forward, from here on. It’s not about what happened yesterday or being critical of anybody’s previous service; public service is an honorable thing.”

Emergency management

One of the first things Roach plans to do is take an active role in the county’s emergency management. “That’s the county judge’s constitutional responsibility; we’re the default emergency management director. You can have a coordinator underneath you, but you’re the director,” he said. “What large counties do is somebody’s hired to perform those tasks…but in rural Texas, that falls on the shoulders of the county judge.”

Stephens County Deputy Bill Flournoy has been the emergency director for about six years, and during that time a community plan was developed that allows the county to receive grants. “So it’s very, very important,” Roach said. “That’s not something that I’m going to delegate; that’s something that I’m going to take the responsibility for. Deputy Flournoy will still be an active part and still be a coordinator of that. We’ve planned a six-month transition period.”

The director of emergency management is significant in helping the community deal with situations such as tornadoes, fires, floods, etc. “There needs to be an active coordination with all of the agencies where we provide the best response possible. I’m not saying there’s ever been a failure there, but I believe we can take that to the next level, and I plan to do that,” Roach said.

County budget

The county judge is the county’s budget officer and is in charge of the county budget, and that’s a role Roach takes seriously. In August 2019, when the county begins working on the 2020 fiscal year budget, he plans to take the approach of zero-based budgeting.

Many counties operate on a recurring budget, starting with the same budget they had last year and adjusting it to cover inflation and other expenses.

“This year, we’re going to zero out everything and start from the ground-up and justify every tax dollar that’s spent,” Roach said. “It helps you identify any wastes, if there are any. And, I’m not alleging that there are wastes, but it’s a waste-cutting mechanism, and it’s very beneficial.

“I don’t think that a county wants to do that every year because of the arduous task that it is, but maybe once every four years or some interval like that, you can go back and cut everything back to zero and say, ‘OK, let’s justify these dollars,’” the new county judge said. “And, then it helps you identify programs that aren’t working.”

Stephens County has a relatively small budget of about $5 million, he said, and almost every penny is accounted for. “So, we’ll see what kind of savings we get from that,” Roach said. “As the county judge, I want to know, for myself, from that first budget, where every dime went. I want to be able to look at the taxpayer and say, ‘You know what, as a court, we accounted for every single penny of the taxpayers’ money.’”

Roach said he has worked in the business sector as a business owner and with a nonprofit as pastor of The Lighthouse Church and that’s he’s learned from both.

“It’s somebody else’s money,” he said. “I think that’s easy to forget. It’s so quick for me to look at a budget and say ‘What’s my budget?’ for the JP’s office. It’s important to keep in the forefront that it’s not really our budget. I take that serious. This is money coming from elderly folks with fixed incomes that still own their homes, from young families trying to buy homes, people who have investment properties…they’re funding county government. So, we’ll take that zero-based budgeting approach this first year, strip everything down, build it back and make sure that we know where every dime is.”

Roach acknowledges that those who have been working in county government for a while may know just by looking at the budget what the money is for, but as a newly elected official, he wants to know first-hand. “And we have a new court, we have two brand-new commissioners. This is going to be their first rodeo,” he said. “Commissioner (Will) Warren from Precinct 3, this will be his third year in office, starting in January. Commissioner (Ed) Russell, this will be his seventh year. So it’s a very young court. I think it’s a great time to break it down so everybody knows where the money’s going.”

County contracts

Another thing Roach plans to do is to go over every contract that the county has. “We’ll look at them and ask ‘Is there a better way to do it?’ If there isn’t, then let’s keep doing it the way we’re doing it,” he said.

Some of those contracts include the interlocal agreements with the City of Breckenridge and other agencies.

Constitutional county court

A fourth issue that Roach would like to deal with involves the responsibilities of the county court in Stephens County.

“Budgeting, interlocal agreements, emergency management…those are things I know I would like to tackle. The fourth thing – this is more of a wish list – I would love to see the county reestablish the constitutional county court,” he said.

He explained that in 1939, the State of Texas exempted Stephens and Shackelford counties from some of the duties assigned to the county courts. A bill passed by the Texas House and Senate and signed by the governor, limits the types of cases handled by the two courts. Some other counties in the state also have similar exceptions.

At the time the exemptions were put in place, the Stephens County judge was really busy on administrative matters, Roach said. “If you take yourself back to 1939, you don’t have the benefit of a word processor and all that, so any little task becomes pretty significant, and it was overwhelming, the amount of work,” he said.

The bill lists all of the things that a county court is constitutionally required to do, but under the list of exceptions, it states that in Stephens County, the county judge only has jurisdiction over probate and juvenile issues, he explained. “All other jurisdiction, by law, then went to the district court,” Roach said.

Today in Stephens County, 80 years after that law was signed, misdemeanor cases are still heard in the district court, rather than in the county court. “The way it works in Eastland and the way it works in Young County is that their county judge – constitutional county judge – hears those misdemeanor cases,” Roach explained. “So, what you have is the court works a lot faster than it does here. What it also allows is less time for a defendant to stay in the jail. … So, I think by having a constitutional county court, what you do is you speed those cases up, and it allows the constitutional county court to do what the constitution says it should do, which is process those cases; it takes them off the district court’s docket and allows them to focus on felonies, which is what they do.”

Although changing the way the court system works in Stephens County could save the county money, there also could be some up-front costs, Roach said, and that could affect any decisions to pursue a return to constitutional county court here.

“This is going to have to be a conversation between myself and the Commissioners’ Court, because they’ll have to fund it,” he said. “I’m not saying this is something that has to be done. I think it would benefit our county, but the main thing is that the case needs to be made to the Commissioners’ Court from a financial standpoint. … If the Commissioners’ Court is not for this, it’s not going to be a bone of contention for me. It’s an idea I think we should look at, and, if the court, which is representative of all these different precincts, feels that this is not the time to approach this, I’m going to defer to their judgment on it.”

In order for any changes to be made to the duties of the Stephens County Court, a bill will have to be introduced and passed by the Texas Legislature and then signed into law by the governor. It would be a local bill that only affects Stephens County, Roach said.

He said he’s had conversations with 90th Judicial District Court Judge Stephen Bristow and that Bristow is on board with a plan that would move the jurisdiction back to the county court. He said he has also talked to Rep. Mike Lang and Sen. Charles Perry about the situation and they are in favor of the idea.

Although there are some differences between the way county courts and justice courts are handled, Roach said he expects that his experience as a Justice of the Peace would be useful in hearing county court cases.

A welcoming atmosphere

Another thing Roach said he wants to ensure is that the county offices are a welcoming place for the community’s residents.

“This is the citizens’ courthouse, this is the citizens’ government,” he said. “When you come in this building, sometimes, it’s daunting. It’s four stories of granite, and it’s gray. It can be overwhelming, coming in to do business here.”

He said that he wants people to find a county government that is easy to work with, open and transparent, friendly, honest. “I’m not saying there are any issues to correct; that’s just the way we’re going to be,” Roach said. “We’re citizens, neighbors helping neighbors here. We’re going to take that approach.”

Rural Advocate

Roach said one of the differences between his position as Justice of the Peace and that of County Judge is that now he will be more of an ambassador for the county within the county and when dealing with the state and federal governments. “Advocating for the needs of rural communities…that’s really where my heart is,” he said. “We have got to advocate for the rural way of life. I plan to take an active role at the legislature; I will be there this session, looking and making sure the interests of our county are known. We want to make sure our voice is heard.”

One of the specific issues Roach wants to take up with the state government is the fact that the counties are responsible for housing state prisoners in the county jails. For example, if a person who is on parole violates that parole and is arrested on a “Blue Warrant” for that violation, the parolee could spend several months in jail throughout the hearing process. During that time, the county jail takes on the expense of housing, feeding, clothing, providing medical care, etc., for the prisoner. At this time, the state does not reimburse the counties for those expenses, Roach said.

He’s also concerned about unfunded mandates from the state government. Unfunded mandates are specific things that the State of Texas directs counties to do but does not provide the funding for. Some examples include indigent defense, indigent healthcare and jail requirements. About 25 percent of Stephens County’s budget goes to pay for unfunded mandates, with another 25 percent paying for law enforcement and the remaining 50 percent is for regular expenses, such as road maintenance and other official services.

Citizens’ Concerns

Roach said that since he announced that he was going to run for the office of County Judge, the number one concern of Stephens County citizens is the county’s spending. “Over and over again, without fail, (the biggest concern is) the way tax dollars are spent; it’s budget concerns,” he said. “I didn’t hear one thing about fixing somebody’s county roads.”

Roach takes those concerns seriously, as detailed in the above “County Budget” section, and intends to take a hard look at the way the taxpayers’ money is spent.

Although past spending cuts have already taken the county budget down to the “bare bones,” Roach said there could still be some room for cuts. He said his plan is to take a similar approach to that he took in the JP’s office and look to see if there’s a better way of doing anything.

“The conservative approach to government is you don’t grow government,” he said. “It almost grows on its own. You have to really fight against the growth of it and say, ‘OK, we have to rein this in.’ Government cannot grow, unless there’s an essential need for that to happen. … We don’t need a bigger government; we need a more efficient government.”

First meeting

On Monday, Jan. 7, Roach will preside over his first County Commissioners’ meeting, which will also be the first for O’Dell and McCullough. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the commissioners’ court room, room 115 in the Stephens County Courthouse.

The regular meeting days are the second and fourth Mondays of each month, but because the newly elected county officials will be attending school for training from Jan. 14-17, the first meeting of 2019 was rescheduled for Jan. 7.

 

Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: At the start of the new year, Michael Roach became the new Stephens County Judge after having served for the past four years as the local Justice of the Peace. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

 

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