Coronavirus takes center stage in discussion over temporary Jeff Davis county judge

“A lot of us are finding our voices in hopefully a reasonable and non-confrontational way,” said one critic of mask requirements who'd come to speak at the meeting.

FORT DAVIS — The Jeff Davis Commissioners Court met in-person on Monday with the goal of appointing a county judge to replace Kerith Sproul-Hurley, who died earlier this month at 45. Although the court has typically met over Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic, they decided the death of Judge Sproul-Hurley was “too important” to skip an in-person forum, Teresa Todd, the county attorney for Jeff Davis County and a personal friend of Sproul-Hurley, said in an interview last week.

With residents and officials spaced out at the Kelly Outdoor Pavilion — but with few wearing masks — the meeting started off on a somber note, as officials shared remembrances of the former judge. Commissioner Albert Miller described her as a “good friend and colleague” and “a very fine person,” while Mary Ann Luedecke, a justice of the peace, said her absence left “a huge hole in this court.”

“We are missing a friend, a valued colleague and someone we hold dear,” Luedecke added. “Whoever takes this position has huge shoes to fill.”

County residents were eager to speak when the commissioners court opened the floor up to public comment. The conversation turned quickly to the mask mandate — one of the last big actions taken by the commissioners court before Sproul-Hurley’s death.

When Governor Greg Abbott in June imposed mask rules across the state, he allowed counties with less than 20 active cases — including Jeff Davis County — to request an exemption from the rules. Judge Sproul-Hurley and her commissioners spent weeks considering the issue and fielding calls and emails from residents — but in July, at a meeting where the vast majority of public comments were pro-mask, they ultimately opted against an exemption, instead deciding to keep the statewide mask rules in place.

Monday’s meeting was different, though — and in the eyes of many of those in attendance, county officials had made the wrong move. During the public comment period, one resident spoke of personal traumas that she said made it difficult for her to wear a mask, while others accused county officials of overstepping their bounds and warned they could face lawsuits.

Another resident accused Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, of profiting from the pandemic and said that officials at the World Health Organization should be considered “war criminals” for their coronavirus response. As each speaker finished, much of the audience erupted into applause.

In simpler times, the appointment of a new county judge might have been a subdued affair. Rural commissioners courts are hardly known for controversy, though there are exceptions, like debates over Second Amendment ordinances and music festivals. And a new permanent judge will be elected by voters in November — meaning any temporary appointment would preside over only a few sessions of the court.

But with budget season here — and with the coronavirus crisis continuing in the state and country — these are hardly simple times for officials or residents. And in Texas, county- and city-level level governments have become one of the main battlegrounds over mask requirements and other coronavirus precautions — a fact that helps explain how Monday’s meeting over a temporary judicial appointment instead became a referendum on masks.

“The COVID-19 thing has become fairly contentious for a lot of people,” said Melanie Blackman, a resident who’d turned out to voice her concerns over mask mandates. “There are strong opinions on both sides.”

While Sproul-Hurley’s replacement will serve for just a few months, some Jeff Davis County residents fear her replacement could use their brief time in office to push through further coronavirus restrictions. Blackman acknowledged that being a county commissioner was a “fairly thankless task” but said the debate over masks “absolutely” influenced her decision to attend Monday’s meeting.

“A lot of us are finding our voices in hopefully a reasonable and non-confrontational way,” she added. “I’m hoping everyone will do that.”

In the wake of Sproul-Hurley’s passing, county officials at first seemed to have a solution to avoid any controversy: Curtis Evans, a county commissioner, would resign and take on the role of temporary judge.

Evans is a widely respected official in the community, having served as a commissioner for decades. But Evans turned out not to be a possibility: while currently serving as a commissioner, there was no legal way for him to take the role of temporary county judge.

Instead, a more polarizing candidate was being considered: Larry Francell, the county’s emergency management coordinator. In other times, Francell’s nomination for the temporary judgeship position would have likely prompted little debate. After all, he’s another longtime public servant with ties to the community and currently serves as the county’s emergency management coordinator, which typically handles nonpartisan issues like fires.

But these days, Francell’s role involves managing the county’s response to coronavirus, and unlike other county officials like the late Sproul-Hurley who often declined to opine on masks publicly, Francell has been an outspoken proponent of mask requirements.

“We’ve got to start protecting each other,” Francell previously told The Big Bend Sentinel. He acknowledged that opponents of masks often invoke concepts of freedom but insisted “we’ve got to change the narrative” — arguing that people’s rights are “infringed upon by people who do not wear masks,” because people who refuse to wear masks present health risks to the whole community.

At the Monday meeting, residents accused Francell of bullying mask critics and said they wouldn’t feel well served if he took the temporary judgeship position. “Larry has made his opinion clear,” resident Melanie Blackman told The Big Bend Sentinel, “to the point that people would not feel represented.”

With comments like that in mind, commissioners went into executive session to deliberate their decision. And around an hour later, they came out with an update: rather than appointing a judge that day, they would solicit applications before choosing one.

After speaking to a lawyer with the Texas Association of Counties, county officials determined they could likely at least start the budget process without a county judge (though they’d still need a judge to sign off on any final budget decisions). And they stressed that they’d followed the same process in the past, when other county positions needed to be filled on a temporary basis.

“The easiest path forward was to appoint somebody today,” Teresa Todd, the county attorney for Jeff Davis County, said in an interview after the meeting. “But probably the right path forward was exactly what the court did.”

The move was intended to allow commissioners time to consider different candidates — but some attendees worried the commissioners were simply putting off their decision to avoid an immediate backlash from the fired-up crowd.

“I think absolute transparency needs to be there if you expect or would like to have full support of the community,” one resident told commissioners. He acknowledged such an application process may be standard but stressed: “It’s a different set of circumstances this time.”

No applications have been filed yet. At press time, though, at least two possible candidates are reportedly being considered for the position.

One is George Grubb, a former Jeff Davis County judge who served until 2014. The other is Larry Francell.

In an interview on Tuesday, Francell said he wasn’t yet sure whether he would seek the temporary judge position. But as he saw it, a “vocal minority” of mask critics at Monday’s meeting were trying to undermine common sense safety measures and were angry at him for fulfilling his duties to protect residents.

Francell, who serves as emergency management coordinator at the discretion of the county judge, noted that his role has been complicated by Sproul-Hurley’s death. “I’m out of a job right now,” he said. But he stressed that he’d served the county for years — including four years as the EMC and another eight as a commissioner — and touted his ability to get grants for the county. He’s also written an over 300-page emergency management plan with dozens of appendices, which primarily addresses wildfires.

“Why don’t you step up and run for office?” he said of his critics at Monday’s meeting. “Take my job and find grant money for new ambulances and technical rescue gear and training for EMTs. It’s easy to complain.”

The coronavirus crisis will likely continue for at least a few more months, and one of Francell’s critics may well decide to run. But in the meantime, Francell sees his role in straightforward terms. His job, he said, involves “explaining in a rational way that if we’re going to get this [coronavirus] thing under control, this is what we have to do.” And for Francell, that means making calls that won’t always be popular.