At subdued meeting, EMC Francell named interim Jeff Davis County judge

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — When Jeff Davis County commissioners met for a special meeting on Tuesday to appoint a temporary county judge, they seemed determined not to have a repeat of the last meeting, when many residents used the public comment period to criticize officials, warn of lawsuits and downplay coronavirus concerns.

Near the start of the meeting, Commissioner Curtis Evans gave some ground rules on decorum for visitors, including the fact that visitors had to keep their comments focused on county business. But it was a very different crowd this time, with just around a dozen people in attendance — many of them wearing face coverings. And when it came time for public comment, no one stood to speak.

After a short executive session, the commissioners court named Larry Francell as the interim county judge. Francell is currently the emergency management coordinator for Jeff Davis County, and he’s also an outspoken proponent of masks — a fact that helps explain why the appointment of a temporary judge became a partisan bickering match in the first place.

Controversy started brewing in Jeff Davis County last month after County Judge Kerith Sproul-Hurley died suddenly. She was just 45, and her unexpected death left county officials scrambling to find a temporary replacement.

But when officials met in August to appoint an interim judge, that meeting went largely off-the-rails, as The Big Bend Sentinel also reported. A large crowd of residents turned up to the meeting, and many used their public comment period to criticize Francell and mask rules. One resident spoke of personal traumas that she said made it difficult for her to wear a mask, while another said members of the World Health Organization should be considered “war criminals” for their coronavirus response.

Partially in an effort to calm the crowd, county commissioners ultimately decided not to name a county judge at that meeting. Instead, they said they would solicit applications and decide on a judge at a later date.

Three candidates applied, including Francell, former County Judge George Grubb and resident James Trussell. And when officials came out of executive session on Tuesday, they unanimously voted to appoint Francell.

While the crowd at the last meeting swayed heavily against Francell’s potential appointment, the only two public comments at Tuesday’s meeting — both of them written — supported the nomination of Larry Francell.

Those residents weren’t alone, either. After hearing how the last meeting went, many Jeff Davis County residents wrote to their commissioners to express support for Francell, officials said. “That was a substantial group of folks,” County Attorney Teresa Todd said.

Politics aside, Francell also has plenty of experience in county government, including the ins-and-outs of writing grants, and regularly attended county meetings. “He’s pretty much up to speed on everything,” Todd said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Francell said he was honored and humbled by his appointment. And while some in Jeff Davis County have sought to portray him as a pro-mask tyrant, Francell stressed he would run the county commissioners court as it’s always been run — through consensus.

“My attitude is to just stay the course,” he said. “The nice thing about Jeff Davis County is that we’ve always done everything by consensus.”

“You’ve got five people in that court, and you’ve got to have three people to get anything done,” he added. “I spent 12 years on the court [as a commissioner], and that’s one thing you learn very quickly.”

Jeff Davis County residents will decide on a new permanent county judge in the November 3 elections. Current Commissioner Curtis Evans, the Republican candidate for judge, will face off against Fred “Dusty” Rhodes, a Democrat.