The future of the position of chief of staff in Hays County was addressed in public comments, discussed in open court and further analyzed in executive session Tuesday by the Commissioners Court, but no action was taken.
County Judge Ruben Becerra, when court re-convened from its closed session, said that he and Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith “will be working to modify the job description” of Becerra’s former chief of staff Alex Villalobos, and that the issue will be brought back to court for an “update and possible action.”
The issue of Villalobos first surfaced during the court’s meeting Sept. 17. Smith and Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell, who served for three years as chief of staff for former county judge Bert Cobb, proposed during budget discussions in open court that the chief of staff position be moved from the judge’s budget to countywide funding.
The move was seen by some as either partisan or racial. It passed along party lines, with Smith, Shell and Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones, all Republicans, voting in the affirmative and Becerra and Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, both Democrats, voting against, as well as noting they were reluctant to vote at all without Villalobos present.
Both Smith and Shell had complained that Villalobos only answered to Becerra.
Prior to the executive session Tuesday, Shell said he thought the position “can be reorganized in a way to serve the whole county,” adding that it’s the court’s job to “describe how that happens” while “being fair to the employee in this case.”
Smith noted that while Becerra said Villalobos had been addressing crucial issues especially pertaining to criminal justice reform (hearing presentations, going to meetings), he didn’t feel other commissioners were kept in the loop.
“There may be things you are well informed on that I’m not,” Smith said. “And there may be things I’m probably well informed on that you’re not … I think we can both work harder to get that done,” Smith said.
At the request of Ingalsbe, Villalobos took the podium and told the court that “continued professionalism is my obligation.” He said that he always treats others with respect and even in the “heat of the moment” continues to show respect. He said he has had “people hurt him in very bad ways” and “seen some ugly stuff,” but that he “thinks it’s important” that he has reached out and that the county move forward together.
In public comments, Jordan Buckley of Mano Amiga addressed the racial perception. “I mentioned it’s been 170 years of all-white rule in the judge’s office and my disgust at the commissioners who look like me trying to gut the office.”
He noted that other counties of similar size have allowed two staff members in the office of the county judge, “so leaving our judge with only one staffer is way out of balance with similar-sized counties.”
Former commissioner Ralph Gonzales also spoke in favor of the position remaining within the purview of the county judge’s office.