GALVESTON, Texas -- Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough might be challenged on the ballot by Mark Henry, but the political war in many ways has been waged between Yarbrough and Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark.
The two never have really been allies, but in 2008, the Democratic county judge and the Republican’s lone voice on the commissioners court teamed up to pass a $135 million bond package.
What a difference two years can make.
In November 2008, the county still was trying to dry out and get out from under the mud Hurricane Ike left behind. Still, the unlikeliest of political allies were working together to get voters to approve bonds for new roads, drainage improvements and county facilities.
The fact the men were working toward the same goal struck them as unusual.
"That’s been a nice side benefit of this bond issue," Yarbrough said two years ago.
Clark said: "When you do what’s right for the citizens of Galveston County, there is unity."
While the two men have had their scrapes, they also have been unified before. When American National Insurance Co. wanted to get a tax abatement for a building in League City, Yarbrough had to abstain from the discussions and vote because of his position on the insurance company’s board of directors.
It’s the same board position that has him under fire by Republicans, including Clark, now. Clark has called on Yarbrough to resign his post as county judge or from the ANICO board.
Yarbrough voiced support for the abatement outside of commissioners court but kept his involvement hands off.
It was Clark who took the cause, pushing for the abatement even though commissioners just had adjusted the county’s procedures on giving abatements. Of course, the building is in Clark’s precinct.
It was Democratic Commissioner Stephen Holmes who opposed the abatement.
It’s a point that Clark’s party doesn’t bring up as it slams Yarbrough for the American National tax abatement.
The two men also have seen eye-to-eye on most road issues.
They’ve also agreed on efforts by the county to get its cut of federal community development block grants to fund recovery from Hurricane Ike at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Clark is the county’s representative.
‘Trouble Maker’ Image
Clark does not regularly attack the Democrats on the commissioners court. He does ask questions, but no more than others.
Often, something Clark questions one week is adjusted the next time commissioners discuss the topic.
"I mostly asked questions because I want something on the public record," Clark said. "I also know that I can’t be the one to always take on every member of the commissioners court on every issue. I’m outnumbered."
Yarbrough agrees but notes Clark’s questioning picks up as elections draw near.
"Most of the time, we are good about keeping the politics off the court," Yarbrough said. "Ken always has his questions, but I understand where he’s coming from. Every four years, though, he tries to say it’s not political, but it is, and he knows it."
Yarbrough and others point to Clark’s recent accusations the process used to hire a title firm to handle work in a Hurricane Ike recovery program was improper. Clark said Yarbrough hid the hiring of the title firm, which is owned by Democratic Commissioner Pat Doyle, to work on the county’s property buyout project. Yarbrough dismissed that claim as a politically motivated "stunt" that is "a cancer on the system."
"For 16 years, we haven’t allowed the confines of our courtroom to be taken over by politics until the last month," Yarbrough said.
Clark admits he’s worried that should the Democrats hold the majority on the commissioners court, he will pay a political price when redistricting takes place. He fears the other court members will redraw the lines so that he is at risk of losing his seat.
Doyle fanned Clark’s fears when he barked at the commissioner, "You better hope (Henry) wins" after Clark first brought up questions about Yarbrough’s role in the decision to award business from the county’s Ike buyout program to Doyle’s title firm.
The biggest showdown, though, didn’t come on the eve of the election.
With the threat of the University of Texas Medical Branch losing state funding to rebuild after Ike, county commissioners were under the gun to increase funding for indigent health care. At first, Yarbrough thought the best route was to create a hospital district, which would have required a referendum.
Clark also favored giving the voters a voice on increased funding and the creation of a new taxing authority — a hospital district — that would come with it.
As opposition to a hospital district grew, Holmes and Doyle backed the idea of raising the county tax rate. Given the severe drop in property values after Ike, the increase would not trigger a tax rollback election.
Yarbrough and Clark opposed to the idea. Yarbrough stuck with the hospital district concept, even considering limiting its service area, thus cutting out most of the North County, which is where most of the opposition was.
Clark, whose district is in the North County, was in favor of giving the hospital district a chance at the ballot box, even though he wasn’t convinced there weren’t other ways to meet state demands.
"I don’t have a problem with the citizens voting to tax themselves," Clark said in 2009.
"Where was he when I was putting my neck out pushing for a hospital district?" Yarbrough asked. "He wasn’t out there pushing for the creation of a hospital district. He was waiting for which way politically was best for him. Now he and Mark Henry are all champions for (a vote to create) a hospital district.
"They weren’t out there with me when I was pushing for that agenda."
Clark argues he was consistent that he wanted the public to have a vote, no matter which direction commissioners chose to go.
The Vote And Tirade
Opposition kept growing, and the idea of a gerrymandered hospital district was not well received.
State Rep. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said the tax increase was a better option. He warned the county not to try to call the state’s bluff on its demands of increased funding for the health care for the poor.
When he saw he didn’t have the support on the court from Doyle and Holmes for a hospital district, Yarbrough threw his support behind the Doyle plan. Clark insisted he wanted a ballot initiative.
When it came time for the vote, Clark was the lone opposition to the tax rate increase of 5 cents per $100 of assessed value. That infuriated Yarbrough, and he unleashed on Clark at the end of the commissioner’s court meeting then gaveled the meeting to a close before Clark had a chance to respond.
Some of Yarbrough’s allies thought the tirade was out of character and helped Clark’s cause. That incident reverberates today with many as a bullying tactic.
Even as the tax increase essentially has gone away to be replaced by the tax increase voters approved in 2008 for the roads, facility and drainage bonds, Yarbrough’s reluctant support for the plan has been used at every turn during the campaign.
Clark: Yarbrough’s A Good Guy
Despite their differences, Clark said he personally likes Yarbrough.
"He pays attention to details," Clark said. "During budget workshops, he brings up issues we haven’t discussed for a year or points out something we haven’t thought about. As a person, he is a nice person."
When asked if he believes Yarbrough is unethical or untruthful, Clark wouldn’t answer directly.
"I am not going to say the man’s a crook," Clark said. "After what I found, it leaves me scratching my head."
While Clark wouldn’t comment directly, two fellow Republicans disputed the accusations Yarbrough used his position to direct business to Moody Bank. Moody interests own most of the stock in American National Insurance Co.
Kevin Walsh, the county treasurer, said responsibility for the county’s decision to use Moody Bank to handle its accounts and investments lies with his office.
"It’s my recommendation that (commissioners) vote on," Walsh said. "Moody was the better choice. They gave us the best interest rate on the county’s investments at a time when rates were very low."
Asked if Yarbrough ever pressured him or his office to give business to Moody, Walsh adamantly denied it.
"Never happened, and I know it never would," Walsh said. "One, I wouldn’t let it happen — but neither has Jim."
Cheryl Johnson, the county’s tax assessor-collector, never has been considered an ally of Yarbrough’s, but she said those taking shots at Yarbrough for the county’s contract for the tax office’s lock box program was "disingenuous."
She said while her office recommended another company, she understood Moody Bank was comparable and cost less to do the work. She also said Yarbrough never did anything unethical when it came to her office handling the lock box contract.
Still, Johnson admitted she is uncomfortable with the perception given by Yarbrough’s spot on the board at American National and Doyle’s business dealings with a county program.
"It may not be illegal, but it does send the wrong message," she said. "I’ve warned Jim and Pat that it doesn’t look right."
Yarbrough: ‘I Can Work With Anybody’
"I haven’t often had difficulty working with (Clark)," Yarbrough said. "If you look at the big picture, we have been able to work on most things without any problem."
The judge paused then chuckled when asked if Clark is a good guy.
"It’s probably not a good time to ask me that," Yarbrough said. "I will say this, we all bring assets to the table. The beauty of the system is that we don’t all come from the same backgrounds, and that is a healthy process.
"Ken and I generally are able to work together and keep the politics out of the process, but from time to time he takes the political, expedient way out. That’s the part I don’t like."
Yarbrough said he isn’t looking to be Clark’s best friend but insists he can work with anyone on the commissioners court to achieve goals for that commissioner’s precinct. He also notes that a once-rocky relationship he’s had with Johnson is much improved.
"I’ve gained respect for where she comes from, and she has some good ideas," Yarbrough said. "I’ve gotten to know her the last six years now, and we have a better understanding for one another."
Johnson also noted a better working relationship with Yarbrough.
"Four years ago, Jim Yarbrough and I were barely speaking," she said with a laugh. "These days, we can have a full conversation."
This story was brought to you thanks to khou.com’s partnership with the Galveston County Daily News.