Alpine staff lament state of municipal court and council approves guidelines for city attorney

ALPINE — The second half of the Alpine city meeting took place last Wednesday night, where conversations primarily centered around City Attorney Rod Ponton’s work with city staff and council. Leading the discussion was council member and mayor pro tem Rick Stephens, who said Ponton’s recent actions “do not appear to be consistent with the charter” for the city of Alpine.

Stephens also introduced David Hale of code enforcement, Alpine Police Chief Robert Martin and animal control officer Jennifer Stewart to each discuss their experiences with the municipal court in Alpine.

Hale told council that “having a fair and neutral municipal court is the goal, and so far this hasn’t been the case.” He said his department was concerned that Ponton was dismissing too many of the code enforcement office’s citations, rather than prosecuting them through the municipal court. “As far as our department is concerned with the caseload and how the municipal court has been handled, we’ve lost confidence in the judge and Mr. Ponton in the process.” The judge, Sandy Stewart, recently resigned from the role and the city is seeking a replacement.

City Manager Erik Zimmer told the council he didn’t believe that the bench book, a guide for municipal courts, “has been employed correctly.” At his turn to speak, Chief Martin expanded on this, telling the council that to his observation, there were “defendants and witnesses that gave testimony in a hearing that were never sworn in.”

Ponton reaffirmed his desire to continue serving as Alpine’s attorney and defended himself against the allegations of dismissing too many municipal cases. In one case brought up, a man was given 97 citations for a variety of code violations over a long period of time.

Ponton pointed to that case in an interview this week as an example of why not all municipal citations are prosecuted. He said, “People in municipal court don’t have money. If they had money, they wouldn’t have had a junk car in their yard in the first place. So the judge might make a decision to dismiss 70 of the tickets and make him pay a fine for some of them.”

Ponton also clarified that he doesn’t have the authority to dismiss cases on his own. “I would only recommend it if there’s been a discussion between me and the judge and frequently with the defendant also, for a way to resolve it.” It is the ultimate purview of the municipal judge to dismiss citations.

However, at Wednesday’s meeting, city staff frustrations extended beyond just the handlings of municipal court itself. Stephens spoke up about Ponton’s meeting with Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson that took place last month, regarding the sheriff’s decision to stop accepting Alpine Police Department arrestees who had not already gone before a magistrate and an attempt to regain the right for APD to jail arrestees without magistration.

Stephens said that the council had not directed the city attorney to set up that meeting and that council had not contributed input on what they might want out of an agreement with Dodson. Stephens pointed to Ponton sending out letters that raised allegations about APD arresting people without probable cause, but without informing council prior to sending the letters.

“The core issue in my view is the city attorney has conducted meetings, written letters, put a deal together with the Brewster County sheriff and publicly documented serious issues, yet has not taken the time other than to send us a letter,” Stephens said. “He did all of this without prior action or coordination with city council. Further, the city attorney has not taken the action to document the alleged issues raised by the sheriff, attorney or others and presented that information to the city. There’s been lots of hearsay,” he said.

Ponton said he had recently spoken with the county attorney and was working to collect proper documentation to substantiate claims that APD had made improper arrests and present to council later this month.

At the end of the conversation, council unanimously voted to approve four expectations they hoped would guide the relationship between the city attorney and council. Those included the attorney making a report at every city meeting, seeking city council or city manager approval before taking actions or writing letters (other than particular correspondence with opposing legal counsel if needed), providing another report after every municipal court “to discuss key actions and results from a prosecution perspective,” and finally, that the city attorney, city manager, chief of police, code enforcement and animal control will report back at the next city meeting to “discuss the lack of confidence and issues associated with what’s going on in court.”

The city council of Alpine will meet again on Tuesday, October 20, at 5:30 p.m.