Orange Couny fires veterans' service officer

Gene Smith

The Orange County Commissioners fired Veterans’ Services Office (VSO) director Gene Smith during a special court session Monday, April 21. Smith says he was let go after battling with commissioners to hire a replacement for an employee leaving the office, but the commissioners and Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux say Smith’s public contempt of the court via Facebook was one of their reasons for his termination.

Smith’s request for a new coordinator for the Orange County VSO appeared as No. 19 on the court’s agenda. Commissioners held a brief recess directly after approving item 18, and when they got back, Judge Thibodeaux said they would pass on item 19, no surprise considering the language of No. 29 on the agenda, which read “Closed meeting, held pursuant to Tex. Gov. Code §551.074 (personnel exception) to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, and duties of Gene Smith.”

Smith appeared in front of commissioners at a previous meeting requesting the replacement of the VSO coordinator who left in February. Smith was told he would need to wait six weeks for a replacement as mandated by the court. Smith applied for a waiver of the hiring time limit but was rejected. He says the process by which he was rejected was not legal, but the court disagreed.

At Monday’s meeting, rather than going into a closed session, Smith said he preferred conversation between himself and commissioners be open to the public. Pct. 4 Commissioner Jody Crump started by asking Smith about comp time recorded on the books of the VSO. Smith said he only recorded the comp time to show how many hours he was working and had not requested pay for the extra hours. Commissioner Crump and Pct. 2 Commissioner Owen Burton suggested that even working the hours could be construed as a violation of law because Smith’s position as director of the VSO falls under federal guidelines exempting him from comp time; Judge Thibodeaux concurred, alluding to a previous situation for which the court was penalized.

Pct. 3 Commissioner John Banken motioned for Smith’s dismissal, which was seconded by Crump.

Before the vote, the judge asked if anyone wished to speak, and Smith stepped up to the podium to address the court. He said it was his belief the meeting of the hiring committee was unjust because only three of the chosen members were present at the meeting, meaning no vote could be passed according to Smith, and then recommended to the court to deny the waiver of the six-week hiring wait that Smith requested. He then said three commissioners, Banken, Crump and Burton, held illegal quorum prior to every commissioners court meeting when they converse before  the meeting. He alleged that their decisions were made prior to the meetings’ beginnings. “This needs to be investigated by the D.A.’s office, as well as the state Attorney General’s Office,” Smith insisted. “I’ll gladly sacrifice my job to see integrity put back into this court.”

Commissioners unanimously voted to terminate Smith, and Thibodeaux addressed the court to “straighten out some facts.” He said there was not an illegal quorum by commissioners and told the ousted director that the turn of events was “unfortunate,” but surmised Smith only had himself to blame after making derogatory comments about the commissioners court on social media sites.

March 17, Smith posted on Facebook, “Back to commissioners court today sure hope they rule in favor of the veterans. With only one veteran on the court I am not sure the others realize that without these brave men and women, there would have been no free election to put them in office. Sure hope they do not make a black Monday out of St. Patrick’s Day.”

Later the same day after his meeting with commissioners, Smith, obviously frustrated by the result of the meeting, posted, “It is a sad day for the Veterans of Orange County when one of our commissioners breaks his own rules and holds a kangaroo court with a stack deck to plot against the Veterans.”

Thibodeaux told Smith his Facebook complaints significantly factored into his dismissal.

“All in all, Gene, all I am going to say is that it’s very unfortunate that it’s gotten to this point, but you blasted this commissioners court on the Web on Facebook,” Thibodeaux charged. “You’ve called them a ‘kangaroo court’ (a court in which the law is disregarded). You totally disrespected them on the Facebook, and that came back to me on it. Therefore, I think that’s one of the key areas on that.”

Smith, a veteran Navy “Seabee,” was appointed as VSO director in July 2011. Commissioners are currently looking for someone to fill the position, and an agenda item in that regard is expected at the next meeting Monday, April 28.