CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — It was a frustrating time for several members of the Nueces County District Attorney’s office after an agenda displayed there would be a discussion surrounding a significant pay increase for the county’s court administrator — a position that has already seen several raises since 2017.
That item prompted many attorneys to speak out during Commissioners Court this past Wednesday. This time — representing themselves and their livelihood.
“I do not know if this person deserves a pay raise,” said Will Greenlee, Nueces Country Assistant District Attorney. “What I do know — is optics and talent — each of you know the budget. You know how underpaid this district attorneys office is… If prosecuting criminals is a priority, then it should show in the budget.
“What is a priority here before the court today, a single bureaucrat proposed to make $30,000 more than a starting attorney going to trial on an assault family violence case — for somebody who’s been beat to a pulp.”
According to the Commissioners Court agenda from March 10, 2021, the court administrator is an unlicensed position that currently earns $78,894.40 at a group 35, step 2 pay group
The proposal would have increased the salary by $8,028.80 — leading to a grand total of $86,923.20, not including the $1,766.34 in benefits, moving them to pay group 37, step 2.
In contrast, according to the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office, a starting out misdemeanor attorney earns $54,932 a year at pay group 29. Their listed “Felony Attorney I” position — earns $60,486 a year at pay group 31.
Angelica Hernandez, also an assistant district attorney, said it was a slap to the face to her and her fellow prosecutors.
“To see on an agenda item that my highest paid prosecutor — which is a felony six — is going to be paid less than a non-licensed court administrator, it is not right, it is not fair,” Hernandez said. “If you’re going to do it for one, who doesn’t carry near the load that they carry — the hundreds and thousands of cases on their dockets, then you need to do for all.”
Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales, didn’t immediately respond to the comments since they were during the public comment session of Commissioners Court, but later said that the attorneys had not yet seen all of the facts.
“This does come to us as a request from the Board of Judges,” she defended herself. “It’s important to know that we are democracy and so that means when you see an agenda, item, it needs to be thoroughly discussed.”
The item was ultimately tabled.
Two days later, the Board of Judges met at 11 a.m. on Friday, collectively confused on the proposal that had their name associated with them.
“We need to get to the bottom of it,” said 148th District Court Judge Carlos Valdez in a Zoom call open to the public. “And for everybody who’s listening, the judges — the Board of Judges had nothing to do with us. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s what we’re trying to do — is find out what happened and then, take whatever action is necessary to make sure it never happens again. Because this, what happened — was wrong.”
28th District Court Nanette Hasette said the announcement of a pay increase came off as a “sucker punch” to county employees, including the DA’s office.
117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts said that the board had had at one point discussed the reclassification of the court administrator position, but never a raise.
"I think the record should reflect that we did talk about a job description — a change in the job description where we eliminated one of the responsibilities of the court administrator, and — in effect — included another one,” Watts said. “We also talked about the elimination of certification, but there was never a discussion as far as I can recall with regards to a step — a pay-grade increase and or the salary.
“In fact, I think what we talked about is that whoever is going to succeed Marilee (Roberts, the current court administrator,) at her retirement, it would be a range subject to the qualifications and the experience.”
“They put our name out there and said that we had approved something and that we were pushing for this and we’re requesting it, and that’s simply not true,” Judge Valdez added. “Our integrity in dealing with The Commissioners Court needs to be repaired. We need to find out what happened — we need to address it.”
The board later called for a recess. When they came back to session after 3 p.m. Friday, there were added confusions as to whether or not the board was subject to the Open Meetings Act.
A member from the county attorney’s office suggested that the board provide proper notice to the public, but after extensive dialogue and reviewing similar case law, the majority voted to proceed around 3:40 p.m.
At around 5 p.m., following an executive session, Inna Klein, 214th District Court Judge, announced that the board would collectively request the reclassification of the court administrator position from Wednesday be withdrawn.
“As it was improperly placed on the Commissioner’s agenda without the Board of Judge’s resolution or approval, consent and/or knowledge,” Judge Klein said.
Members of the board later apologized to attorneys participating in the Zoom call.
Judge Canales did not respond to our email or phone call for comment.