That’s hitting them where they live


Elizabeth Ames Jones

Railroad Commission Chairman Elizabeth Ames Jones vacated her office when she moved from Austin to run for the state Senate, and she should not be continuing to collect her monthly salary, a lawsuit filed [last week] alleges.

In the suit, Austin attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire alleges that Jones’ move of her official residence to San Antonio on Nov. 1 to run in the Republican primary against state Sen. Jeff Wentworth violated a constitutional requirement that Railroad Commission members live in the capital city.

In order to run for the Texas Senate, Jones had to live in the district — which stretches from South Austin to San Antonio. Since she was appointed to the Railroad Commission in 2005, she has lived in a Tarrytown home that is not located in the Senate district.

Because she is no longer eligible to serve on the Railroad Commission, which regulates Texas’ oil and gas industry, she should no longer be getting a state paycheck, according to the suit.

“When an officer is prohibited by the constitution from discharging the duties of her office, her term in office has fully and finally ended, she cannot be a de facto officer and is nothing more than an interloper,” the filing by Austin attorney Doug Ray states, alleging that Jones is now being paid “for duties she is constitutionally prohibited from discharging.”

While the suit seeks to stop her paycheck, the suit does not name Jones as defendant — but instead was filed against Comptroller Susan Combs, who signs state paychecks. The law firm of Austin attorney Buck Wood, who has represented Wentworth in the past, filed the suit on behalf of Aleshire because the former judge is a taxpayer and has a legal interest in “seeing that his tax funds are not spent illegally.”

You can see a copy of the suit here. As the Trib notes, Jones has asked AG Abbott for an opinion on the matter. I’m no lawyer, but this is what the Constitution has to say:

Sec. 23. COMPTROLLER OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS; COMMISSIONER OF GENERAL LAND OFFICE; ELECTED STATUTORY STATE OFFICERS; TERM; SALARY; FEES, COSTS AND PERQUISITES. The Comptroller of Public Accounts, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, the Attorney General, and any statutory State officer who is elected by the electorate of Texas at large, unless a term of office is otherwise specifically provided in this Constitution, shall each hold office for the term of four years. Each shall receive an annual salary in an amount to be fixed by the Legislature; reside at the Capital of the State during his continuance in office, and perform such duties as are or may be required by law. They and the Secretary of State shall not receive to their own use any fees, costs or perquisites of office. All fees that may be payable by law for any service performed by any officer specified in this section or in his office, shall be paid, when received, into the State Treasury.

Emphasis mine. Seems pretty clear-cut to me: To hold statewide elected office, one must live in Austin. Austin is not in SD25, however, so we have a contradiction. And what does Commissioner Jones say in her defense?

While Jones has acknowledged that the Constitution says statewide officials should reside in the “capital of the state,” she argues that because the language is vague, it cannot be enforced.

Vague? Seriously? Again, I’m no lawyer, but “any statutory State officer who is elected by the electorate of Texas at large” and “shall…reside at the Capital of the State during his continuance in office” sure look clear to me. I’ll grant that it doesn’t specifically mention the Railroad Commission, but I daresay the folks who drafted this thing included that “any statutory State officer” bit because they realized that the composition of the state’s government may change over time. Just ask our State Treasurer about that. Let me say this: If there’s any evidence that any prior Railroad Commissioner – or Ag Commissioner, or any other “statutory State officer who is elected by the electorate of Texas at large” – did not reside in Travis County during his or her time in office without anyone kicking up a fuss about it, then I’ll concede the point. If not, I don’t see what leg she has to stand on. Judging by her lawyer’s pound-the-table response in the original story, I’d say she knows it, too. We’ll see what the court and the AG have to say.

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