Ten days after distributing a six-page explanation of his economic development beliefs, Orange County Judge Dean Crooks announced Wednesday morning he is resigning.
He read a statement at the beginning of the weekly Commissioners Court meeting. People had packed the meeting room and hallways to protest his economic development views.
He said the county “can’t survive the internal strife” that “threatens to tear us apart.”
Business leaders in the community, along with other cities in the county felt the need to make statements and show support for the possible Chevron Phillips expansion and the work of the OC Economic Development Corporation after Crooks made several statements over the past week.
Even Pinehurst Mayor Pete Runnels, who was by Crooks’ side throughout his campaign and even swore Crooks into office, took time to announce his support of the EDC at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Runnels said, “As Mayor I believe we should work in unity to bring this project to conclusion…we should use every tool we have at our disposal….tax abatements are a tool in our box for a reason.”
All four county commissioners said they were surprised by the sudden resignation, though by Tuesday afternoon word had been spreading about the judge’s plan.
Crooks released his economic development opinion letter last week as Chevron Phillips has named Orange County as a finalist for construction of a new, $5 billion petrochemical plant. A company spokesman in January said the project would bring 3,500 construction jobs. County commissioners have said the plant could hire hundreds of permanent workers.
Crooks has held his seat less that a year. He beat incumbent county judge Brint Carlton in the 2018 Republican primary, and then was appointed to the position in May when Carlton resigned for a new job. Crooks won the November general election and began his first full term on January 1.
At Wednesday’s meeting, he said he will submit his resignation letter to Commissioners Court next week for a vote to accept the resignation. The resignation could not be put to a vote Wednesday because it was not on the meeting agenda.
Precinct 3 Commissioner John Gothia is judge pro tem. Commissioners Court will be responsible for appointing someone to become county judge. The person could be one of the commissioners or another eligible citizen. The appointee would serve until the next general election, which will be November 2020.
Crooks told the crowd Wednesday he never said he opposes tax abatements. He said he had sent a letter on January 25 to County Economic Development Director Jessica Hill saying he supports a 100 percent abatement for Chevron Phillips with agreed yearly payments to the county.
The Chevron Phillips project was made public on January 14 when the company asked the West Orange-Cove school board for a 313 economic development plan through the Texas Comptroller’s Office. The proposed site for the plant is about 50-50 between WO-C and Bridge City. Both districts have approved the plans.
Crooks said Wednesday he loves Orange County and wants the county to grow and prosper, and would love to see the new plant built here. He believes in less government and more free enterprise.
After announcing his resignation, Commissioners Court called for a short recess. Crooks did not return to the meeting as more than a dozen citizens, business owners, elected officials from cities, and the president of the Stark Foundation spoke favoring tax abatements and support of economic development.
Several also spoke in favor of Orange County Economic Development Director Jessica Hill. Praises about Hill drew applause from the audience.
Only one person, former Orange County Republican chair Trudy Pellerin, spoke in favor of Crooks’ view to negotiate with industries. She said if someone would spend five minutes with Crooks, they would be able to tell that he loves the county. She said the reason Chevron Phillips is looking to locate in Orange County is because of things like roadways and pipelines, not tax abatements.
She also said Crooks has been treated in an “unprofessional manner” by his critics.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Robert Viator at the end of the meeting told the audience to “please take the high road” and not to criticize Crooks, especially on social media.
“We need to be positive,” Viator said. “We don’t need to tear him down.”
Dean Crooks’ resignation letter that he read in court
Commissioner John Gothia is the County Judge Pro-Temp and conducted the rest of the agenda. At the conclusion of the regular meeting Gothia and Commissioner Johnny Trahan met with representatives from the Texas Association of Counties who were in attendance for other reasons. Joining the two commissioners and the representatives from TAC for about one-hour were Assistant District Attorney Denise Gremillion and Human Resources Director Lori Ardoin.
Gothia explained the reason for the meeting was to discuss the legal procedure for replacing Crooks. “We want to make sure that we move forward correctly and within the law is how we need to do this,” Gothia concluded.
The next step for the Commissioners Court will be accepting an official letter of resignation when it is tendered by Judge Crooks. A closed session with the Court’s legal counsel Gremillion and all four Commissioners will probably be on next week’s agenda to discuss how the county will proceed to find a replacement for Crooks as the county judge.
The Commissioners did conduct other business. They approved allowing the County Clerk’s office to spend $860 in restricted funds to purchase a new Fujitsu scanner. The scanner is not a budgeted item, but is covered under restricted funds that are controlled by the County Clerk.
Approval was given by the Commissioners to a resolution requesting the Texas Legislature to amend Chapter 352 of the tax code. This would allow Orange County to use Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue or HOT funds for a pavilion to be built at the City of Orange Boat Ramp and for improved landscaping with security fencing at the location.
Purchasing Agent Connie Cassidy was approved to advertise for proposals of National Flood Insurance to cover county buildings in special hazard areas. A selected committee of Missy Pillsbury, Kurt Guidry, and Joel Ardoin will review the proposals for the flood insurance when they are received.
-Margaret Toal and Dan Perrine, KOGT-