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2012-09-27

Smith resigns, leaving Merritt 'top cop'

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Citing "circumstances beyond his control," Chief Deputy Richard Smith resigned as titular head of the Bandera County Sheriff's Department, effective Tuesday, Sept. 25.

During a special meeting on Monday, Sept. 24, by a 3-2 vote, Bandera County Commissioners allowed Capt. Shane Merritt to "discharge the duties of sheriff" until the winner of the Tuesday, Nov. 6, General Election is determined. Republican candidate Daniel "Dan" Butts faces Democrat James "Bubba" Popham. The winner will be appointed interim sheriff until Tuesday, Jan. 1, when he takes the oath of office.

Déjà vu - all over again

The special meeting had a déjà vu quality about it - a similar one occurred when Smith took over the department in June 2011. Similarly, this week, rather than appoint an interim sheriff, commissioners will allow Merritt - as BCSO's next in command - simply to assume the duties of sheriff.

The court's presumed predilection to passivity didn't sit well with Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris, who said, "I want the Weldon Tucker nightmare to end today. I'm tired of being embarrassed by the sheriff's office." Harris also reminded his colleagues that he offered the only dissent when the court allowed Smith to become the chief administrative officer for the BCSO.

"Just 30 days ago, the chief deputy appointed Shane Merritt to captain over a very capable Sgt. Danny Bowermaster," Harris continued.

When asked about Merritt's promotion, Smith indicated that Bowermaster had had insufficient administrative experience for the captain's position. "He didn't have the time in service and I needed someone to fill that spot," Smith explained.

After "pondering the situation," Precinct 1 Commissioner Bruce Eliker said, "The problem with appointing someone now is that we don't want to influence the election with only 44 days to go. This will give the sheriff's office a chance not to be run down in the papers again."

Voters to determine sheriff

Later, clarifying his remark about "papers running down" the sheriff's office, Eliker added, "We want the voters to determine the county's next sheriff, not the commissioners."

"With the results of the primary and run-off elections, I think the voters of this county have already indicated who they want for their next sheriff," Harris rejoined.

"There's no question that Dan (Butts) will win the election," Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese said. "It's time to put this at an end. We need some strong leadership.

It's been a mess out there for years."
"We don't want to influence the election," commented Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King. "Let the election play out."

"People will take it the way they want to take it," Keese shot back.

"People forget we appointed a sheriff one time and he was elected twice," noted County Judge Richard Evans. "The only thing they remember is that the court appointed a sheriff who resigned under bad circumstances. Stigma is perceptual not factual."
Evans continued, "I don't know if this is the right answer, but I don't want a new sheriff to start off with letters to the editor saying, 'The good ole boy system is alive and well.' This will only be for four to six weeks. As soon as we get a winner in the General Election, he'll become the sheriff."

Evans' "yea" vote broke a 2-2 tie that saw Eliker and King also casting votes that enabled Merritt to assume command of the BCSO - with a stern caveat, however.

"If something goes awry out there the day after tomorrow, I will post an agenda and we'll appoint an interim sheriff," Evans said. Merritt indicated he understood the judge's meaning.

BCSO leaderless

With less than six weeks to go before the Tuesday, Nov. 6, election, Smith's abrupt resignation left the department leaderless for a second time in approximately two-and-a-half years. Of Texas' 254 counties, Bandera is the only one currently without a sheriff - now it's also without a chief deputy.

During an interview on Wednesday, Sept. 19, County Judge Richard Evans said he received "secondhand notification" of Smith's resignation and remained unaware of what had prompted his unexpected departure.

Smith was one of six candidates who vied for the position of county's top cop during the protracted Primary Election. However, after garnering only 15 percent of the vote, he failed to make the July run-off election. The Republican run-off pitted Butts, a former sergeant with the Texas Department of Transportation, against former Kerr County Sheriff Frances Kaiser. The final tallies showed Butts with 2,193 votes, giving him an impressive 60 percent of the total number of votes cast.

'Meteoric rise'

As an 18-year veteran of law enforcement, Smith's rise within the department had been described as "close to meteoric as you can get in Bandera County." Smith joined BCSO in July 2008. In September 2009, Tucker appointed Smith as newly minted BCSO Director of Law Enforcement. Prior to assuming that title, Smith had served as sergeant in the BCSO Criminal Investigations Division.

After the resignation of then - Chief Deputy Don Berger, Tucker appointed Smith chief deputy in December 2009.

After ex-Sheriff Weldon Tucker resigned in disgrace in April 2011, commissioners declined to appoint an interim sheriff. Instead, they allowed Smith, as chief deputy, to become the BCSO chief administrative officer.

At that time, the court took fire from the community because many perceived commissioners had shirked their duties - especially since their action turned the reins of the law enforcement department over to an officer who, in the words of one taxpayer, "... been appointed by a felon."

In lieu of being prosecuted for felony abuse of official capacity for using a county rescue boat as a personal recreational watercraft, Tucker resigned his elected position and permanently surrendered his peace officer license.

For his part, Smith is playing his employment cards close to the vest. "I have options in Houston and Austin, but I've been asked to hold them 'near and dear' until my family and I make a decision," Smith said in an interview. When asked when he expects to make a decision, he said, "I have to report to duty somewhere at 8 am tomorrow morning."