Bell County commissioners have an important decision to make.
That decision — appointing someone to fill the seat being vacated by Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown — will say a lot about their political sensibilities.
Will commissioners seek to fill the seat with another Democrat, like Brown? Or will they use this opportunity to turn the seat over to a Republican — the party represented by three of the four commissioners and the county judge?
Brown, the only black woman elected justice of the peace in Bell County’s history, was removed following a trial last week, during which Brown’s ability to perform the duties of her office was brought into question.
The jury decision, though unanimous on 16 of 17 counts, was nevertheless a difficult one for many people involved in the process.
Removing a duly elected civil servant from office is not something that should be done lightly — and in light of the weighty testimony given over four days last week, it seems the jury likely came to the right conclusion.
Still, Brown represented a significant change from the status quo — defeating a 20-year Republican incumbent and winning 52 percent of the vote. At the time of her election in 2016, she was the only Democrat and the only African American to hold county office.
Though Brown drew fire for some of her decision making — including setting a $4 billion bond for a defendant to prove a point, and declining to recuse herself when her son came before her court — she was generally well-liked by those who worked with and for her.
When a Killeen attorney filed a complaint against Brown seeking to have her removed, some Brown supporters saw the move as politically or racially motivated — or both.
The push to remove Brown subsequently drew opposition from an online petition that hinted judicial complaints against Brown were linked to partisan politics and racial prejudices. That petition, started the week before Brown’s trial, garnered more than 650 signatures.
The petition was directed toward County Attorney Jim Nichols, a Republican. It was Nichols who decided to move the case forward to trial after an independent district judge ruled the case had merit, based on the Killeen attorney’s petition for removal.
There are legitimate questions as to how the case was handled by the county prosecutors, including how much time and money was spent on the effort — when other county issues, including potential conflicts with state law by the regional water board, are left hanging.
Now the county must move forward with appointing a new JP to Brown’s post, and that starts Tuesday when county commissioners discuss how to proceed.
Texas law allows commissioners courts to fill a vacancy for several elected positions, including justice of the peace. However, there is no specific state-mandated process for doing so.
Bell County commissioners have used an application process to fill a commissioner vacancy and a JP seat in recent years. They typically also had someone in mind, according to an FME News Service report on the subject.
But this is where the water could get a bit muddy.
Certainly, some commissioners may think the obvious choice would be to reinstate Garland Potvin, the longtime incumbent Brown defeated in 2016.
While that may make sense from an experience standpoint, it would be a slap in the face to the nearly 24,000 voters who cast their ballot for Brown two years ago.
In order to fulfill the wishes of the voters, commissioners should choose another Democrat — and preferably a minority — to serve the remainder of Brown’s term. Doing so would serve to blunt any criticism that Brown’s removal was politically or racially motivated.
That’s not to say this should just be an appointment designed to appease critics or cater to a certain demographic. Western Bell County needs a hard-working, hands-on justice of the peace, no matter who is selected.
The successful candidate should have considerable administrative skills and demonstrate an aptitude for dealing with difficult and complex cases. A background in law enforcement — at some level — would certainly be a plus as well.
But before the commissioners make their selection, they should take steps to ensure the process is as open and transparent as possible.
They’re off to a good start.
Bell County Judge David Blackburn said last week that Tuesday’s meeting, during which commissioners will discuss the selection process, will be in open session.
If commissioners decide to opt for an application process, that process should be fully explained and posted on the county website, as well as advertised in all county newspapers.
The county should also fully list the duties and responsibilities of the office, so that any interested applicants can understand what the post entails.
Also, commissioners should meet with the county chairs of both major political parties to go over the process and solicit input and advice. Already, Bell County Democratic Party Chair Chris Rosenberg has expressed her willingness to work with commissioners on the issue.
Ultimately, the commissioners must take their time and make sure they have the best possible candidates from whom to choose before making their pick.
Killeen-area residents deserve a JP who represents them well, on the job and off.
If commissioners find someone who can fill the bill, they will have made a great choice.