One reader rightly raises the question of whether County Commissioner John Wiley Price may have violated state law prohibiting undue influence by commissioners courts in employee hiring, citing:
Texas Local Government Code § 151.004.Similarly, rumors are flying into my email box about open records requests by the media seeking to determine whether Commissioner John Wiley Price violated Dallas county rules by personally vetting personnel files of Public Defender attorneys. At issue is a county ordinance stating:
COMMISSIONERS COURT MAY NOT INFLUENCE
The commissioners court or a member of the court may not attempt to influence the appointment of any person to an employee position authorized by the court under this subchapter.
Acts 1987, 70th Leg., ch. 149, § 1, eff. Sept. 1, 1987.
Sec. 86-673. Outside request to access files.If Price did not seek such permission from the DA's office, he may have violated the law.
Any request for access to an employee's file not made by the employee requires the following:
(1) Submission of a written request; and
(2) Review of the written request by the civil section of the district attorney's office prior to release. The written request must be immediately forwarded to the civil section of the district attorney's office for review due to strict time constraints for objecting to such requests for information.
(Ord. No. 2000-173, § 17.02, 1-25-2000)
The stated reason for these dismissals is a county budget crisis, but providing counsel for indigent defendants is a constitutional requirement for counties, and if there aren't enough PDs then more expensive private counsel must be appointed to do the job. Indeed, Dallas' public defender office keeps Dallas' indigent defense costs much lower than its neighbors.
I still can't help reaching the same, nebulous conclusion I came to when Brad Lollar was first fired: "This seems like an instance where there's a backstory that explains most of what's going on that we just don't know right now. Maybe Price is just on a crusade against lazy bureaucrats, or perhaps there's a less obvious agenda at play that I can't identify at the moment." We still don't know that backstory, but the budgetary reasons given for the Dallas PD purge simply don't hold water.
Mark Bennett, the blogger at Defending People and the President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Assocation, told the Houston Chronicle Price's interference must be viewed as a "cautionary tale" if Harris creates a public defender. The incident justifiably "reinforced his skepticism of any indigent defense system run at the whim of county commissioners."
Though I'm a supporter of public defender systems, given what's happening in Dallas it's hard to argue with Bennett's cynical conclusion. That's the reason above all else why Price's actions deserve wide disapprobation.