County attorney talks financial repercussions of guilty verdict in Sanchez trial

PRESIDIO COUNTY — The Presidio County Commissioners Court met Wednesday morning for the first time since a jury’s verdict found Presidio County and its treasurer, Frances Garcia, had violated former county employee Katie Sanchez’s First Amendment rights. In 2018, the county voted to eliminate the county office Sanchez worked in after she unsuccessfully challenged Garcia for treasurer in 2018.

Providing an update following the case, County Attorney Rod Ponton explained the potential costs the county might face. The verdict would give half a million dollars for past wages and other damages to Katie Sanchez and another half a million dollars for future lost wages and damages to Sanchez. It also includes a $1 million assessment against Treasurer Garcia as punitive damages.

All of that adds up to $2 million, which is covered by the $2 million insurance policy the county holds. But the Texas Association of Counties (who represented the county and continues to represent them in the appeals process) informed Ponton that more fees could push the county beyond its insurance policy limits.

If Sanchez seeks compensation for her attorney’s fees and the county is ordered to pay them, prices may end up in the ballpark of another half a million dollars, Ponton told commissioners. And since it would exceed the $2 million limit, the cost could land in the laps of the county taxpayers. The attorney said the county’s insurance premiums are “certainly” going to go up, a guaranteed blow to taxpayers who foot the insurance costs every year.

“We don’t know exactly what the financial liability could be to the county, but it likely could impact the county, including the county having to pay out of tax money. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Ponton said.

County Judge Cinderela Guevara alleged that the TAC attorneys had not adequately informed the commissioners in executive session about the potential for attorney fees being charged to the county, nor that the verdict could ultimately exceed the county’s insurance policy limits. “When we had the option to settle out of court, we were never advised of that,” she said.

Ponton concurred, adding that the county was not advised by TAC that the verdict’s dollar amount could soar that high.

Addressing the treasurer, Ponton warned of potential repercussions, saying, “Ms. Garcia needs to be aware of the fact that it’s up in the air whether or not the TAC policy covers the punitive part. She may have to pay that part out of her pocket. If the county ends up having to pay out of its pocket, the county will also have a claim against Ms. Garcia.”

Ponton called the verdict “a big black eye to Presidio County,” saying, “I’m really disappointed in the actions of Ms. Garcia that were proven in the federal court in Pecos.”

More pointedly, he recalled an incident four years ago when then-Commissioner Lorenzo Hernandez resigned after receiving a bribery charge for accepting a financial bribe in exchange for voting to approve a contract in commissioners court. “I think Ms. Garcia should think about doing the same thing because of the terrible situation she’s put Presidio County in,” the attorney said. “Regardless, we’re going to have to wait for the verdict to turn into a judgement and the appeals process to go out. It has certainly put Presidio Count in a bad light at this point.”

In other county business, commissioners approved an update to the lighting ordinance, joining every city in the tri-county in adding new provisioning that will help the area become the largest dark sky preserve under the International Dark-Sky Association. The City of Marfa passed a similar ordinance update just one night earlier, becoming the final city in the tri-county to join the effort.

Bill Wren from the McDonald Observatory told commissioners that a stronger dark skies ordinance is cost efficient, good for recreational and scientific night sky viewing, protective of migratory bird populations and did not statistically impact night time crime.

“I think of our dark skies as something that we take for granted, but we’re very fortunate to live in an area where we can actually look and enjoy dark skies and actually see the stars,” Guevara said. Commissioner Knight added, “We need to preserve what we have as much as we can.” Guevara, Knight and Cabezuela voted unanimously to pass the ordinance update, with commissioners Eloy Aranda and Brenda Bentley absent.

As the fall season nears, so does the end of the county’s fiscal year. In preparation, the judge has called budget workshops that will take place Monday and Tuesday, where departments will share their wants and needs before commissioners pass a budget that will determine how taxpayer dollars are spent in 2021 to 2022.