By AMANDA KIMBLE
ERATH COUNTY (December 29, 2016) – In a matter of days, Erath County officials will be sworn into office. With the official start of the new term beginning on Sunday, New Year’s Day, Interim Sheriff Matt Coates will be sworn in just after midnight on January 1, according to County Judge Tab Thompson.
County Commissioners met in special called session on Thursday and immediately approved a one-year, $25,000 bond for Coates. Commissioners also unanimously approved Coates’ two-year appointment to the interim sheriff position.
“Things all happened so quickly the other day, Matt, literally, but know we’re all here to help you,” Thompson told Coates during the meeting. “These offices here (in the courthouse), we all want to help you in any capacity possible. We do that for fire and EMS and we’re here to do that for your department as well.”
Meanwhile, Coates was honest with the commissioners about moving forward.
“I don’t want to tell y’all this is anywhere close to over, but I’m getting my feet on the ground,” he told the commissioners. “I met with the Howard County Sheriff yesterday, just to discuss how they handle their jail and ways to make what we do more efficient. Most things with the department and what we’re doing here already should be right on point, but we can always find ways to improve. And I have good ideas on that.”
Coates gave a brief report on sheriff’s office coverage and patrol. He said most of the shifts of suspended officers were easily filled by other officers willing to step up, and when patrols are not covered, Coates fills in himself. He also advised the court of his plans to cover a few jail shifts in the coming weeks so he can better understand that side of the department.
“I’ve had overwhelming support from, not only the county and the staff at the sheriff’s office, but from the community,” Coates said.
In his first official act as interim sheriff, Coates suspended Sheriff Tommy Bryant’s next in command, Chief Deputy Jason Upshaw, as well as investigators Captain Randy Fowler and Lt. Bobby Mendez and Sgt. Weldon Wilson without pay.
“Our county, our communities, they need to know we take our hits when they come, but we rock on and move forward and that’s what we’re doing,” Chris Brooks, county fire chief, said. “All of us are standing not just behind, but alongside the new sheriff.”
While details surrounding the investigation remain largely unknown, the suspensions follow an investigation of the certain officials in the sheriff’s department by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Coates has the support of fellow law enforcement officials, elected representatives and citizens, but he was not elected by voters. Sunday’s oath is the continuation of an appointment that began December 20, when county commissioners held an emergency meeting, selecting him to fill the vacancy left by Bryant. The longtime sheriff was found dead of an apparent suicide hours earlier.
The two-year appointment approved Thursday means he will hold the seat until after the next general election, in November 2018. The frontrunner in that race will take office January 2019.
Bryant ran uncontested in the November 8 general election after receiving the Republican nomination in a landslide victory in the March primary election.
Bryant received almost 70 percent of the primary votes. Clell Murray, a Tarleton State University police officer, received more than 26 percent of the vote, and Leslie “Tish” Lecroy, a veteran of the sheriff’s department and Dublin Police Department, received the backing of a little more than four percent of the more than 3,100 voters who cast ballots in race.
Bryant was poised for retirement and set to begin his sixth term – and 20th year – as Erath County Sheriff when the news of his death shocked the community.
Coates, a seasoned law enforcement official, brought to the office a career includes more than two years as investigator in the office of District Attorney Alan Nash, a one-year stint as a deputy under Bryant and years working for county and city police forces in Howard County and Big Spring.
Coates will be sworn-in at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2017, in the Erath County Courthouse. Following his ceremony, Coates will then swear-in any patrol officers or other deputies.
Meanwhile, County Clerk Gwinda Jones said other officials, including constables, commissioners, attorneys and the tax assessor/collector, will be sworn in at 9 a.m. Tuesday, January 3 in the 266th Judicial District Courtroom.
For three of the officials, reciting the oath of office comes more than nine months after winning the party’s nomination in the March 15 primary election. On the county level, the November 8 general election was uneventful since no Democratic candidates stepped up to challenge Republicans.
Jason Schipper is set to begin his first term as Pct. 1 constable after defeating Scott Daily and Jimmy Towe in a three-way primary race, receiving more than 56 percent of the vote.
Schipper is a graduate of Tarleton State University began a career with Stephenville Police Department since 1994, working as an officer and investigator.
The only other county candidate who faced a challenge in 2016 was Pct. 3 Commissioner Joe Brown, the incumbent received more than 65 percent of the votes, fighting off a challenge from Dale Wesley Dove.
Other officials who are set to begin another term after being uncontested throughout the election include Alan Nash, district attorney; Lisa Pence, county attorney; Lee Roy Gaitan, Pct. 2 constable; Jennifer Carey, tax assessor-collector; and Dee Stephens, Pct. 1 commissioner.