Smith steps down from sheriff’s post
Trinity Standard , April 2007
GROVETON – Trinity County is now in the market for a new chief law enforcement officer following last week’s resignation of embattled Sheriff Jimmy Smith.
Smith, who was being sued in district court over his right to hold the office, turned in a short letter of resignation to Trinity County Judge Mark Evans about 10 a.m. Friday, March 30.
“The letter was basically one sentence,” Evans said. “It said that he would ‘resign the office of sheriff effective at the close of business on Saturday, March 31’.”
Because the sheriff’s department operates on a 24 hours basis, Evans said he took “close of business” to mean that Smith’s resignation took effect at midnight, Saturday.
Evans said Smith listed no reason for the action in the letter but it was his understanding that the sheriff decided to step down in order to prevent the county from losing its law enforcement liability insurance.
“He indicated to me that he did not want his officers to go without the protection of insurance coverage so he was stepping down to remedy that,” Evans said.
The Texas Association of Counties (TAC), which provides a number of insurance policies for the county, had notified local officials that because Smith was not a state certified peace officer, they would cancel the law enforcement liability insurance on Saturday, March 31.
The $1 million policy provides financial protection to the county as well as to sheriff and constable personnel in the event they cause damage or injury during the course of their duties. The liability policy also would provide the county and the officers with attorneys in the event that they were sued for damages.
“The first thing I did after the sheriff presented me with his letter of resignation was get on the telephone to TAC,” Evans said.
The judge said TAC insurance officials asked him to fax them a copy of the resignation.
Once that was done, they asked Evans if the county wanted to continue the liability coverage. When Evans confirmed the policy was still needed, TAC officials assured the judge there would be no lapse in the coverage.
Smith’s resignation on Friday also came after the sheriff took the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards-Education (TCLEOSE) exam for the third time.
“It was my understanding that he took the test again on Thursday,” Evans said.
A check with TCLEOSE on Monday confirmed that Smith took the test last week and again failed to obtain certification.
Smith had taken the TCLEOSE test twice last year – in November and December – and had failed to obtain his mandatory certification on both tries.
His test last week was his third and under TCLEOSE rules, if someone fails the test three times they are required to complete a police academy program before they can be tested a fourth time.
It was Smith’s lack of certification that resulted in a civil lawsuit being filed in January challenging his eligibility to continue as sheriff.
Under the Texas Occupations Act, Smith was required to obtain certification as a peace officer within two years of taking office. Because Smith was sworn in as sheriff on Jan. 1, 2005, the deadline for obtaining certification was Jan. 1 of this year.
Evans said that with Smith stepping down as the county’s chief law enforcement officer, the post will be filled temporarily by Chief Deputy Jim Gratz until the Trinity County Commissioners Court decides on a replacement.
“By statute, the chief deputy acts as the sheriff during any vacancy or during the incapacity of the sheriff,” Evans explained.
Gratz said this week that it was business as usual at the sheriff’s department, despite the loss of Smith.
“We’re still here to enforce the laws, answer calls and serve as a professional law enforcement agency,” Gratz said.
He said that until the sheriff’s position is filled by the commissioners, the department will be “in a holding pattern” and he will continue to serve as the “acting sheriff.”
“I kid people when I tell them ‘I’m acting like the sheriff’ but we should know who will be appointed before too long,” he added.
The judge said the commissioners will begin the process of filling the vacancy when they convene for their regular meeting on Monday, April 9
While commissioners could appoint a replacement at the April 9 meting,, Evans said it is more likely the selection will be made at a later date.
“There will certainly be a discussion about an appointment during Monday’s meeting, but it may only be about the appointment process,” he said.
Evans indicated that commissioners may want to set up some type of formal selection process and interview one or more of the candidates.
“I’m sure the commissioners and I will have people calling us throughout the week asking us to keep their name or someone’s name in mind for the appointment,” Evans said.
Under Texas law, the candidate selected to fill the vacancy could hold the appointment until the next general election, which is scheduled for November 2008.
The last time the county commissioners were asked to fill a sheriff’s vacancy came 1981 following the February death of longtime Sheriff Lynn Evans, father of the current county judge.
At that time, the sheriff’s widow, Peggy Evans, was appointed to fill the vacancy but she resigned a few months later. Commissioners then named one of their own, Pct. 3 Commissioner Bunk Harrelson, to the post until the 1982 general election.
In a move designed to preserve the county’s liability insurance protection, Trinity County Attorney Joe Bell had filed a request on March 26 to have Smith temporarily removed from office pending the outcome of the civil trial, which was scheduled for April 23.
Bell , who was prosecuting the lawsuit against Smith, said Monday that Smith’s resignation appears to have settled the matter.
“The resignation makes the issue of his removal a moot point,” Bell said.
He noted that visiting District Judge Kenneth Wise of Houston had not acted on his request for a temporary removal prior to Smith’s resignation.
Wise was appointed to hear the lawsuit after the first visiting judge selected for the case, District Judge Quay Parker of Anson, was rejected by Smith’s attorney, Frank Blazek of Huntsville.
The civil lawsuit challenging Smith’s right to serve as Sheriff was filed in January after Groveton Police Chief Ralph Jester submitted a petition to the area’s Administrative Judge Olen Underwood.
Jester cited Smith’s failure to obtain the state mandated certification which he called a “dereliction of duty.”