Suit filed by City of Hearne over citizen petition seeking audit

By  | 

HEARNE, Texas - As expected, the City of Hearne has filed a lawsuit over the citizen initiative asking for an audit of city finances.

Last month, a petition signed by more than 500 residents was submitted for approval. It asks for a vote on a mandatory hiring of a forensic auditor to be picked by the Robertson County District Attorney to dig through Hearne's finances.

Questions have been raised about how money is being spent after the indictment of City Manager Pee Wee Drake for misuse of funds. That case was later dismissed.

Late last month, Hearne's city council voted 4-1 to ask a judge to determine whether that petition is legal. Wednesday, that came in the form of a suit against the person who submitted the petition, former Hearne Mayor Milton Johnson.

The suit says the voters can't circumvent power given to the city council or the city manager. Plus, it claims Hearne city charter doesn't allow duties like hiring an auditor to be given to an outside entity like a district attorney.

Robertson County DA Coty Siegert told News 3 last month he did not believe he could have the authority to accept city funds to make an audit happen. That belief is cited in the city's legal action.

The suit also notes that since 1964, an annual audit has been mandated in the city charter.

The plaintiffs are seeking three declaration from the 82nd District Court. One is that "the proposed initiative extends beyond mere legislation and encroaches on the administrative duties" outlined by the city. Hearne officials also want the court to say "there is no contractual or statutory authority for the Robertson County District Attorney to handle the business affairs of the City of Hearne with respect to conducting audits." Third, the plaintiffs want a declaration "that the proposed initiative is prohibited by the terms of the City Charter wherein the initiative is an attempt to appropriate public funds."

In response, attorney Ty Clevenger, who is representing Johnson in the suit, says the question of whether a law is enforceable can only be done after approval from the voters. He cites a 1980 Texas Supreme Court ruling in the case of Coalson v. City Council of Victoria.

Clevenger also says if the city continues to pursue the legal action, a counter-suit against City Attorney Bryan Russ is likely.