by WES FERGUSON
An emotional, public dispute over Justice of the Peace Beth Smith’s involvement in the Kyle Fire Department ended Tuesday with Smith’s reappointment to the department’s governing board.
Smith has served on the fire board for nearly three decades. But with her term expiring at the end of 2011, Hays County Commissioner Mark Jones decided he would not renominate her to the position, igniting a contentious debate over the normally routine appointment.
Jones claims that Smith’s dual role as an elected official and board member poses a conflict of interest, but his colleagues on the commissioners court overruled him.
“All the public comment I’ve received in public hearings and emails and other communication are overwhelmingly in support of the reappointment of Judge Beth Smith for the position she currently holds,” Commissioner Ray Whisenant said during court deliberation.
Jones moved to appoint a different nominee for the position — Chad Benninghoff, a Kyle/Buda VFW Post quartermaster and resident of Hometown Kyle — but the motion died when no one seconded it.
Whisenant then motioned to reappoint Smith to the board of the Hays County Emergency Services District No. 5. The court approved the nomination 4-1, with Jones casting the lone dissenting vote.
Minutes after watching the commissioners approve her nomination, Smith said she had been “a little bit anxious, but I had confidence that Commissioner Whisenant would come through with an appointment.”
Part of the Kyle Fire Department’s emergency services district falls in Whisenant’s commissioner precinct, which is centered in Dripping Springs.
Before Jones raised his objections, Smith said, there had been no problems with her service on the board. She has been its president since the fire district was created in the mid-1980s.
“I’m sure there are a lot of qualified people out there,” Smith said. “I think it was the experience of being on there for 25-plus years that made the difference, and we’ve always had an excellent relationship with the fire department.”
Jones said he can live with the court’s decision and will continue to work well with Smith — a point that Smith was also quick to make — though he still objects to her position on the board.
“I think it’s hard for an elected official, when they have to worry about their next election, to be unbiased and impartial as they need to be,” Jones said after the meeting. “I’m not saying she hasn’t been. It’s nothing against her and there has been nothing about her in the past. I just feel strongly that an elected official doesn’t need to be on the board.”
Some of the loudest critics of Jones’ decision have been Kyle Fire Department officials such as Chief Glenn Whitaker. But Jones questioned whether firefighters should have so much influence when choosing the members of their own governing board. The board approves the fire department’s annual budget, for instance.
“There may be a conflict of interest in that,” Jones said. “A city manager would love to pick a mayor and city council. And I guarantee you a superintendent would love to pick the school board. There’s got to be a separation and checks and balances.”
Whitaker, who sat beside Smith at Tuesday’s commissioners court, said her role as justice of the peace has never posed a conflict on the board. Instead, he said, her legal expertise and familiarity with county budgets have led to better decisions for the fire department.
“Why knock somebody out of a position that wants to be there and does a good job? If it’s not broke don’t fix it,” Whitaker said. “All I know is I’m confident in Beth and didn’t see a need for change.”
Smith supporter Lila Knight said the dispute with Jones has been “kind of awful,” but at least more Kyle residents are now more aware of the fire department and its emergency services district.
“If we can salvage something out of this stupid controversy that didn’t need to happen,” she said, “that’s it.”