Comprehensive look at Judge Bush’s large pay increase

Photo by Dave A. Vance.
Ellis County Judge Carol Bush addressing the salary grievance committee during a September 9, 2016 hearing to request a significant pay increase.

ELLIS COUNTY — Ellis County Judge Carol Bush will now be the fifth highest paid county judge in the State of Texas and will have a salary larger than Texas Governor Greg Abbott after a pay increase of about $70,000 bumps her salary to $165,000.

(Note: Links to external documents, videos and other resources are included throughout this article for the purpose of providing supporting information. The links will open in new windows. Video of the salary grievance committee hearing and of the Commissioners' Court meeting voting on the budget are included at the bottom of this page.)

Bush was making a base salary of $94,835 without including the salary supplement she receives for sitting on the juvenile services board. Her new salary for fiscal year 2016-2017 that begins on October 1 will be $165,000 after a salary grievance committee unanimously increased her pay. According to Ellis County Auditor Mike Navarro, that amount will be inclusive of the salary supplement she receives for sitting on the juvenile services board.

Jason Whitely of WFAA asked Bush on September 13 what changed in her duties to justify such a large increase in pay.

"There’s nothing that has changed in my job duties other than challenges that growth brings. What I’m saying is that traditionally the position has been underpaid," Bush told Whitely.

Selection of Salary Grievance Committee

Bush requested a hearing with a salary grievance committee and met with the committee on Friday, September 9 to request a pay increase. The makeup of the committee was changed on July 12 from six elected officials and three members of the public to become strictly nine members of the public chosen at random from a selection of the previous year's grand jury pool. State law provides for either option, with approval from the Commissioners' Court. According to state law, Texas Local Government Code Sec. 152.014, Bush would remain as chairman of the committee, a non-voting member, no matter which option was chosen.

Bush brought the request for the change to the Ellis County Commissioners' Court on July 12 of this year. Item 3.3 on the July 12 Commissioners' Court meeting agenda read, "Appointment of persons to the Salary Grievance Committee for FY 2016-2017."

"I think it's time that we go to that system because having elected officials on a salary grievance committee making those decisions is probably not the best way or the fairest for grievances to be addressed," Bush told the commissioners.

"I believe that by going to the members of the public, you're getting a broad base of the constituency. And quiet frankly, you take the politics out of the grievance process. With elected officials there's often too much fear that if they vote for it or against it that it might hurt them in terms of votes with the community and that's not what I believe the purpose of the committee is and it should be a committee made up of independent thinkers that are bold enough to make the decision that they feel is right when the person comes before them. I'm asking the commissioners' court to join me in voting to do away with the elected officials on the salary grievance committee this budget year and go ahead and go with the nine-member committee."

The Commissioners' Court unanimously approved the change based on the reasoning that it would remove the potential for political agendas, elected officials fearing repercussions from constitutions for voting in favor of or against a pay increase for a fellow elected official and to provide the public more power over elected officials' salaries. Precinct 1 Commissioner Dennis Robinson made the motion to approve.

"Motion to choose a salary grievance committee for fiscal year 2016-2017 through public members is made by commissioner Robinson," Bush said.

The motion was seconded by Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry and passed unanimously. Following the vote, Bush, in compliance with Texas Local Government Code Sec. 152.015, randomly selected nine names out of a bucket for the committee plus six alternates. Video of the meeting, including name selection is available on the Ellis County website.

The first nine names chosen were: Christina Brubaker, Lynette Hutson, Robert Martin, Trish Anna Hooper, Tily (Matilda) Perry, Kathleen K. Boone, Harold Buddy Markham, Jr, Lisa Williams, and Mr. Stacy Tweet. The six alternates chosen were: Lynda Kelley, Erica Young, Ashley Tidwell, Sandra Kelso, Jordan Clay Hall and James Driskill (Nash).

To clear up rumors that have been spreading around the county, a constitutional county judge does not select grand jury members. Additionally, as of Septemeber 1, 2015, district judges randomly select grand jurors. The practice of "pick-a-pal" ended with the passage of House Bill 2150 in 2015. Prior to the new law, district judges could appoint a handful of people to serve as jury commissioners. Those hand picked commissioners would then select 15 to 40 members of the public to potentially be on a grand jury. The option for district judges to randomly selected grand jurors still existed. It is unclear at press time which method Ellis County used in 2015.

Minutes taken from that July 12 meeting read:

Minute Order No. 287.16. "APPROVING SELECTION OF NINE (9) PUBLIC MEMBERS FOR SERVICE ON THE ELECTED OFFICIALS' SALARY GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE FOR FY 2016-2017 IN ACCORDANCE WITH LOC. GOV. CODE 152.014(a)(2)."

Minute Order No. 288.16. "APPOINT THE SALARY GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE FOR FY 2016-2017 COMPOSED OF NINE (9) PUBLIC MEMBERS WHOSE NAMES ARE DRAWN AT RANDOM FROM THE LIST OF GRAND JURORS FROM THE PRECEDING CALENDAR YEAR AND WILL BECOME MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE UPON WRITTEN ACCEPTANCE TO THE COUNTY CLERK."

Fiscal year 2016-2017 begins on October 1, 2016 and runs through September 30, 2017.

The previous year's salary grievance committee consisted of Bush as the chairperson, sheriff, tax assessor, treasurer, county clerk, district clerk, county attorney or criminal district attorney and three members from the public chosen at random from the previous year's grand jury pool. The June 8, 2015 Ellis County Commissioners' Court minutes stated, "APPOINTING PERSONS TO THE SALARY GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE FOR FY 2015-2016." Tila Janes, James M. Parks and Shaw A Patin were selected as the primary three public members. Alternates chosen included Gary Cochran, Julie Brown and Keela Narramore.

Salary Grievance Committee Hearing

Although the names of the actual seated committee were not publicly introduced during the September 9 salary grievance committee hearing and were not included on the agenda for the public meeting, it has been confirmed that Robert Martin, Stacy Tweet and Harold Buddy Markham Jr were three of the nine members on the committee. These are three of the nine members selected during the July 12 Commissioners' Court meeting.

Bush spent over an hour explaining her duties to the committee, taking credit for many building projects in the county, explaining that she felt she was the highest elected official in the county, comparing her job to elected officials of surrounding cities, comparing her job to a CEO of a corporation, and making her case on why she thought she deserved a raise.

"Really, my position is more like a county manager, more like a city manager or superintendent," Bush told the committee members.

"The subordinate positions in many of the cities are compensated far more than I am," she also said.

She asked the committee to increase her salary to at least what County Court at Law Judges Jim Chapman and Gene Calvert are making. Ellis County Court at Law Judges are paid $151,889 per year.

"I'm not asking that you send me back to the Commissioners' Court with a salary of $216,000. I'd be thrilled if you did, but that's not what I'm asking for. I'm saying right the wrong that's in our structure right now. Put me up there with the County Courts at Law judges," Bush said.

Comparing Salaries of County Judges

Although the duties of a county judge are vast, the duties of the Ellis County Judge are no different than the duties of any other county judge in a comparable sized county in the state of Texas.

One committee member asked Bush what the salary is for the comparable position in Johnson County. She answered that the salary was comparable to her current salary but that it is hard to compare the two jobs because of demographics and job responsibilities.

"A comparable position in Johnson County would pay similar to what mine is, it is. That is not unusual. $94,000, that's not horrible, but it's not some of the other counties. It's not the smaller county that pays their county judge $140,000. It's not Dallas County that pays its judge $185,000, Tarrant County $175,000 - $180,000. It's hard to compare it that way because it has a lot to do with demographics and with the job responsibilities and it doesn't take into account the different staffing (inaudible) that some other counties (inaudible). Dallas County, they have multiple subordinate positions that make more than I do," Bush answered.

With some salary supplements included, the Texas Association of Counties 2016 Salary Survey shows Bush making $100,603, which includes a salary supplement of approximately $11,212 for sitting on the juvenile services board.

Bush's new salary of $165,000 follows Dallas County at $176,508, Harris County at $175,538 and Galveston County at $167,400. Tarrant County is missing from the survey, but the Texas Tribune reported a salary of $172,298 for the county judge this year. This would make Bush the fifth highest paid county judge in the state of Texas.

According to the salary survey, Ellis County had an estimated 2015 population of 163,632. Prior to Bush's raise, she was the third highest paid county judge in the eight counties with a population between 130,269 and 195,000. The county judge in Ector County is paid $108,476, Midland County is $104,109, Johnson County is $92,040, Hays County is $88,505, Randall County is $82,740, Guadalupe County is $74,087 and Taylor County is $60,913. Bush's raise to $165,000 will now make her the highest paid county judge out of these eight counties in comparable populations.

During Bush's hour-long speech to the salary grievance committee, she compared the size of the county budget to the size of budgets of cities and that of independent school districts in justification for her request for a pay increase.

The 2016-2017 Ellis County budget was about $57.5 million. The 2016-2017 budget exceeds $61 million.

In this next comparison of counties, the salaries of county judges in counties with budgets between $50 million and $70 million will be used.

These 11 counties, along with Ellis County, include Ector County with a budget of $70 million, Guadalupe County with $67 million, Grayson County with $64 million, Tom Green County with $62 million, Parker County with $61 million, Kaufman County with $61 million, Randall County with $59 million, Potter County with $58 million, Wise County with $53 million and Comal County with $51 million.

Of these 11 counties, Parker County's county judge had the highest salary of $114,625. Ector County is $108,476, Potter County is $93,708, Grayson County is $90,098, Randall County is $82,740, Tom Green County is $81,655, Kaufman County is $81,304, Comal County is $78,666, Wise County is $77,250 and Guadalupe County is $74,087. Bush will now be the highest paid county judge out of these 11 counties with comparable budget sizes.

Bush Says the County Salary Structure is Skewed

Bush told the salary grievance committee that the salary structure for employees and elected officials in Ellis County is skewed.

"The structure is skewed and I would be here on behalf of all the elected officials to say there needs to be a change, it needs to be evaluated, but that's not my prerogative. I can only grieve my own salary," she said.

Bush also told the committee that one of her job responsibilities is preparing the county budget.

"One of my primary functions beside all of this other stuff that I do, is that I am the chief budget officer for the county so every year I'm tasked with preparing the county budget. This year $61,800,000 and some change," she said.

Despite Bush having the responsibility of chief budget officer, she has not presented a budget to the Commissioners' Court that would resolve the issue of a skewed salary structure for employees and elected officials.

Bush also used her gender as justification for a higher salary.

"I'd like to think that you can be a girl and you can grow up and you can put yourself through school and you can work hard and you can expect to earn what the males in this community earn. I don't wear my gender on my sleeve. I've never been one of those to say do something for me because I'm a woman," she said.

More from the Salary Grievance Committee Hearing

She admitted that the county is just now getting back to staffing levels equivalent to prior to the recession.

"We're just now getting to where were at staffing levels we were pre-recession," Bush said.

One item of contention is when Bush told the committee she has provided raises to patrol deputies and courthouse security deputies after having denied a request for step pay increases for the Sheriff's Office. All county employees, including elected officials received a three percent raise for 2015-2016 and will be receiving another three percent pay increase for 2016-2017.

"I've raised the salaries of our patrol deputies and our courthouse securities to recognize that they are our first line of defense. They are the ones that are so vulnerable when they go out so when proposing increases for them, I said no, I want to take them up even higher because they do need to be recognized for the job they do to protect and serve this community," Bush told the committee.

The Waxahachie Daily Light wrote on August 24, "Bush said the step pay program is not something that is going to be looked at this for this year and the proposed budget for this year has already been created."

During budget hearings, Ellis County Sheriff's Officer's Association President Josh Atilano met with Bush and the county commissioners to request a step pay program be introduced for Sheriff's Department employees.

Another comment Bush made that is likely to come under scrutiny from other elected officials is her statement that anything any other department or elected official wants has to go through her department despite each elected official being responsible for his or her own budget that was allocated to them during the passing of each budget for the fiscal year.

"Every facet, anything that the courts want, anything that the sheriff wants, the county clerks, all of those departments, they still have to come back to the county judge's office," Bush said.

After pleading her case, several people spoke to the committee in support of Bush's requested salary increase. Former State Representative Jim Pitts, Waxahachie Mayor Kevin Strength, Ellis County Auditor Mike Navarro, former County Commissioner Bill Dodson, former Ellis County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet and Jim Parks spoke in favor of the pay increase. Bush's Projects Coordinator, Sara Garcia, also read three letters from Russell Thomas, Robert "Bob" J. Lynn and Mike Ramsey.

Decision by the Salary Grievance Committee

The salary grievance committee ultimately unanimously voted to provide Bush with a salary of $165,000. According to Texas Local Government Code Sec. 152.016, because all nine members of the committee agreed to the increase, the salary increase becomes effective for the 2016-2016 fiscal year and the commissioners' court cannot deny the increase.

"I'm honored. I'm honored. I don't know how to thank you for your service today," Bush told the committee. "It's tremendous. I just want to thank you. I'm floored. I appreciate you recognizing the value."

Bush will now make more than Texas Governor Greg Abbott, the chief executive of the state, who is paid $153,750 per year.

Following the vote by the committee to increase Bush's salary, the Ennis Daily News stated in their Sunday, September 11 edition, "Bush told the EDN Friday, a few hours after the committee granted her appeal, she sought the raise because she felt hired employees and many of what she described as “subordinate elected officials” had higher salaries in comparison to hers."

Commissioners' Court Meeting to Vote on 2016-2017 Budget

The Ellis County Commissioners' Court held a public meeting on Tuesday, September 13 to vote on the proposed 2016-2017 budget. Several members of the public addressed the court to voice their displeasure with the raise provided to Bush by the salary grievance committee.

Amy Hedtke was the first speaker. (WARNING: At the end of her speech, Hedtke used a vulgar word to drive across her anger. The word has not been censored.)

"I'd like to encourage you to take your insane, expensive pay raise, buy a huge dildo, and in the words of many Ellis County residents that are online, go fuck yourself," Hedtke told Bush.

Bush responded calmly by telling Hedtke to either take a seat or leave the courtroom.

"Ms. Hedtke you can have a seat or leave the courtroom if you're going to have crude remarks. You're entitled to your opinion and you can share that and we welcome that but a display of discourse like that is not appropriate," Bush responded.

Hedtke was led out of the courtroom by courthouse security.

Ellis County Citizen Publisher Dave Vance was called upon to speak next. Vance asked the commissioners to delay voting on the budget in light of a possible violation of the use of the wrong salary grievance committee.

"I come before you today to urge you to either consider delaying voting on the 2016-2017 county budget or amending the budget because it may include the use of funds in violation of state law," Vance said.

Vance contends that the agenda, motion and minutes recorded during the July 12 Ellis County Commissioners' Court meeting specifically stated the new salary grievance committee was for fiscal year 2016-2017, which does not legally begin until October 1, 2016.

"I contend that the committee used was the wrong committee because the motion that was passed on July 12 stated for "Fiscal Year 2016-2017", which does not officially begin until October 1. The motion and minutes are very clear in stating "fiscal year 2016-2017". Therefore, I believe the committee's decision is invalid," Vance said.

Vance continued to express his concern that passage of the budget with the included pay raise may result in the potential violation of criminal law by Bush.

"I am asking that this court and county legal counsel attempt to rectify the issue to avoid the possibility of a criminal violation taking place with the illegal use of public funds. The potential for a violation of Abuse of Official Capacity, a third degree felony, is real if an elected official benefits from the misuse of government property," Vance said.

Following public comments. Navarro went over changes to the proposed budget with the commissioners' court. Precinct 2 Commissioner Lane Grayson made a motion to pass the 2016-2017 budget and Precinct 4 Commissioner Kyle Butler seconded the motion. The motion passed with Perry being the lone no vote.

Problem with September 13 Vote - New Meeting Scheduled

However, a possible problem was found with the vote and another Commissioners' Court meeting has been scheduled for Monday, September 19 at 10:45 a.m. to take the vote again. A record vote must be taken to include in the meeting minutes and in the final budget. It appears the vote of one commissioner could not be determined and therefore another meeting needed to be called out of an abundance of caution.

The September 19 Commissioner's Court meeting will be held on the second floor of the Historic Ellis County Courthouse located at 101 W. Main St in Waxahachie. The public will have an opportunity to address the court if they complete and submit a form at least 15 minutes before the meeting begins.

Additional documents have been requested from Ellis County, but were unavailable at press time. The requested documents are expected to be available during the week of September 19.

September 9, 2016 Judge Carol Bush Salary Grievance Committee Hearing

Video copyright Ellis County Citizen.

September 13, 2016 Ellis County Commissioners' Court Meeting
(Warning: The first public speaker uses vulgar language.)

Video courtesy Ellis County.