Nueces County Commissioners Court loses quorum after heated exchange
Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales prematurely adjourned a meeting Thursday morning after two commissioners walked out of the courtroom and broke quorum, meaning the court could not continue to conduct the business of the county.
The abrupt end to the meeting came after a heated argument between the county judge and Precinct 4 Commissioner Brent Chesney. This resulted in Chesney’s proposal to move the court from a workshop to the court’s agenda to call for a vote.
Thursday’s meeting is probably the most public example of an increasingly divided court of commissioners. It comes when Canales, a Democrat, is running for re-election against Republican challenger Connie Scott, a former state representative. The two will face off for the county’s first elected position in November.
The county judge denied Chesney’s motion because the court was hearing a presentation at the workshop, which was specially convened to discuss funds allocated to Nueces County through the American Rescue Plan Act. The judge and commissioners had multiple disagreements at the meeting before it resulted in Chesney being released.
Before he left, Chesney, the only Republican on the court, threatened to call for “a vote to impeach the president” before Canales attempted to move forward with the presentation. Chesney then got up and left the room.
At least three members of the tribunal must be present to constitute a quorum. When Chesney left the courtroom, only Canales and Precinct 2 Commissioner Joe A. Gonzalez remained there in person. Precinct 3 Commissioner John Marez was attending the meeting virtually via Zoom.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Robert Hernandez was not in the courtroom when Chesney left the courtroom. He later told the Caller-Times that he went out for a bathroom break.
“There must be three people in the room according to the orders of the governor,” Canales said as she discussed with court staff whether to continue. She then offered to adjourn the meeting, which had started more than two hours earlier at 8:30 a.m.
“Well, just to show you government doesn’t work, (Chesney and Hernandez) left the room. We lost a quorum,” she added.
Why did the commissioners meet?
The Court of Commissioners was meeting in special session to discuss the allocation of US bailout funds for dozens of projects in the county. Some county residents and local government leaders were on hand to advocate for some of those funds. Many of them didn’t get a chance to talk about their plans.
Before adjourning the meeting, Canales addressed those present who were waiting to speak, telling them “no business can be conducted because your commissioners have left the room.”
Canales initially declined to comment on the situation. Later, in an interview with the Caller-Times, she condemned Chesney and his decision to leave the courtroom without warning. She called it “shameful” given that residents and stakeholders who attended the court were unable to speak.
“These people came to speak up, and (the commissioners) got up and left. It’s shameful. It’s just shameful,” she said. “They’re the ones interrupting. It’s very clear to everyone but themselves. They have a narrative that they’re trying to bring to life.”
Canales said the meeting started well but ultimately fell apart when the topic of the county’s drainage issues and whether to allocate funds for related projects came up. The disagreements reached the level of Canales saying Chesney was “abusive” at one point, to which Chesney responded by saying his comments were inappropriate.
In a text message to the Caller-Times, Chesney said he left the courtroom to take a break and then return. He condemned the county judge for not waiting to see where he and Hernandez were in order to restore a quorum. His actions ended the meeting, he said.
“In response to Judge Barbara Canales’ continued dishonest and negative comments, my response is that Judge Barbara Canales will not repeatedly let the majority of the court vote on things she does not like. Judge Canales called several names of commissioners, yells at us, (and) constantly belittles and intimidates us,” he wrote. “I left the room with the intention of taking a quick break, collecting my thoughts and resuming my activities. Judge Canales adjourned the meeting unexpectedly instead of trying to find out where I was or where Commissioner Hernandez had to restore the necessary quorum that stopped county business.”
The disagreements came to a head when Chesney proposed to the court to move from the workshop to the agenda, meaning the court could take steps to allocate funds.
Canales said Chesney was irrelevant because she hadn’t — as chairperson charged with overseeing the court’s operation — kicked the court out of the studio. His motions also came when the court was in the middle of a presentation from Hagerty Consulting, a company retained by the county to ensure that ARPA funds are used in accordance with federal rules.
Gonzalez seconded Chesney’s motion, a process the court goes through before voting on a point. Gonzalez said he supported Chesney because he wanted to vote on something and then come back to the presentation.
Canales said she favored the workshop because federal rules on ARPA funding are particular about where funds can be allocated. The workshop was aimed at getting the commissioners to work with the experts so as not to break those rules, which she said could have significant ramifications for the county.
Canales and the commissioners disagree on whether Chesney’s motion complied with state rules governing the operation of county commissioners‘ courts.
It was unclear on Thursday who acted in accordance with those rules.
Hernandez said he was “disappointed” that Canales adjourned the meeting. He declined to comment further.
Echoing Hernandez, Gonzalez said the heated disagreements and resulting adjournment were a symptom of “mismanagement” by the county judge.
Gonzalez said the abrupt adjournment was the first he’s seen since becoming commissioner 13 years ago.
Canales, who encouraged residents to watch the video to see for themselves, argued that Chesney halted court proceedings. She said her decision to leave and break the quorum was politically motivated to cast doubt on her ability to lead.
“I never left my chair. They did,” Canales said. “But let’s all agree that Brent only gets really angry and disrupts meetings during election season.”
Canales acknowledged that the court had become more divided. She said it was the result of some commissioners “teaming up” against her – in particular, Chesney and Hernandez.
“It’s like during football season when the commentator says, ‘Boy, it wasn’t pretty, but it’s a win,'” Canales said. “I’m steering a good ship. A watertight ship that respects our constituents. … There was important information for voters today, and I had to get it out as chairman. If (the commissioners) want to abandon ship, I can’t force another elected (official) to do anything.”
“But,” she continued, “I can show my resolve not to get in the way of it being how they want it to be.”
Canales said she is looking forward to running for office on her record, which she said is replete with critical achievements in improving county infrastructure amid a global pandemic and multiple natural disasters. .
“We have so many projects in the works right now across all industries,” she said. “I think when you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish with this court and this county judge, the proof is in the pudding.”
Canales said further ARPA funding discussions would return to the court in the coming weeks.