Upshur official supports amendment on J.P., constable districts

GILMER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) -- An Upshur County commissioner is supporting legislation that would let Texas voters decide whether to empower his and certain other counties to reduce or increase their number of justices of the peace and constables.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner said Monday he will ask the Upshur County Commissioners Court on Friday to approve a resolution urging the legislature to approve letting voters decide on the matter in this November's state constitutional amendment election.

State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) said Friday he has filed House Joint Resolution 103, which proposes to let voters statewide decide the issue. His proposed amendment would let counties of at least 18,000, but less than 50,000 population set their individual number of JP/constable precincts between two and eight, he said.

To reach the November ballot on proposed amendments, Simpson said, his resolution must receive "supermajority" approval by the state legislature -- at least 100 votes in the 150-member House of Representatives, and at least 21 votes in the 31-member Texas Senate.

Hefner urged Simpson to propose the potential amendment, and said last week that reducing Upshur's number of JP/constable precincts from the current four to two is "what I see in my mind."

He said it could save taxpayers between $175,000 and $220,000 annually, depending on how much remaining personnel are paid. He also said every Upshur citizen he has talked with favors reducing the number of JP/constable precincts.

Responding to speculation that approving the amendment might lead the county to close the Precinct Three Justice of the Peace office in Gladewater, Hefner said passage would not necessarily result in that. He said closing that office "has never come up, to my knowledge."

"We (commissioners) would not choose which constable and which JP stays" if the county reduces the number, Hefner said. He also noted that all who were elected to those positions would be allowed to finish their full terms in office.

But the potential reduction in Upshur JPs nonetheless drew fire Friday from Pct. Three Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch.

"I really think it's not a good idea," said Mrs. Welch, who said she is happy her office is in Gladewater. "Upshur County is a big county to have just two JPs, and it's growing (population-wise) every day."

Mrs. Welch also said someone like herself could suffer job burnout by being "on call every night of the week" for two precincts instead of one, and "being on call every other weekend for the whole county. Upshur County's a big county (in physical size)."

Welch noted JPs deal with such matters as pronouncing people dead and emergency mental commitments.

Hefner said several counties -- including Titus, Hopkins and Cook -- have reduced their number of JP/constable precincts and "it works very well for them." He said Morris County is also in the process of reducing its number, and has hired "an attorney that is an expert in county government" to help draw the new precinct lines.

Hefner said he thought it would be good for Upshur County to also have a lawyer for it. But Mrs. Welch said, "How much you think it's gonna cost them (commissioners) to hire an attorney to do that?"

Simpson, meanwhile, said "I'm not taking a position on how many (JP precincts) the county should have." He said he was trying to delete a restriction in state law preventing counties from changing the number of precincts "for the convenience of the people."

The Longview legislator said the proposed amendment would be "just restoring the organizational freedom that the Constitution intended the counties have."


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