Ben Zeller sworn in

Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller is sworn in Jan. 1, 2019, for his second term in the 377th Judicial District Courtroom.

For two years, Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller served on the main board for the Texas Association of Counties – the association that carries the county’s insurance and is being sued by Refugio County for poorly handling claims after Hurricane Harvey.

Zeller served on the board from Jan. 1, 2017, to Dec. 31, 2018, according to Cary Roberts, the Texas Association of Counties‘ media relations officer.

While on the board, Zeller said in an email this week, he attended quarterly TAC meetings, gave input on the overall direction of the organization and reported back to the membership of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association, of which he was president in 2017.

The Texas Association of Counties is the “representative voice for all Texas counties and county officials,” its website states. Through TAC, the website states, counties join together to respond to the needs of Texans by finding solutions to challenges faced by counties.

The members of TAC’s board are all elected officials who are placed on the board as representatives of the various county associations in the state, including the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association, the Texas Association of County Auditors and the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association, Zeller said.

As president of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association in 2017, Zeller said he was automatically placed on the TAC board to represent that association.

Although the board is made up entirely of various county officials, it can be a complicated arrangement, said Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of Common Cause Texas, a nonprofit group that advocates for accountability in government

“It raises questions about how TAC operates,” he said. “When you say, ‘TAC recommended this,’ does the staff do that or does the board have any role in day-to-day operations and decisions?”

Zeller said some of the “biggest things” he participated in as a board member included creating a succession plan for board leadership, participating in the hiring of a new executive director and giving input on an expansion of TAC facilities in Austin.

According to TAC’s website, board members establish policy for TAC and establish the scope of TAC services and the association’s budget. Roberts said members do not receive any payment for serving on the board.

Zeller only served on the main TAC board, which is separate and independent from the various other boards TAC has, he said in the email. TAC’s other boards include a risk management pool board and a county information resources agency board, which are also made up of elected county officials.

But Gutierrez said the fact that county officials serve on the main board could still “make it tricky” for the board to be impartial about how the association handles county matters.

“If (board members) have some say over the budget, there’s certainly at least the possibility that the judge could have had a role in determining where resources go for hurricane recovery,” he said.

Businessman John Clegg has stated similar concerns.

“I find it troubling that our county judge was sitting on the board of directors of the insurance company that was handling the claim for Victoria County,” he said.

Refugio County, which also suffered significant damage from Harvey, has sued TAC for $1 million for failing to properly handle its claim from losses caused by the storm, stating in the lawsuit that the association “improperly denied and/or underpaid Refugio County’s claim.”

The adjusters assigned to the claim, the lawsuit states, “conducted a substandard investigation and inspection of the properties, prepared reports that failed to include all of the damages that were observed during the inspections and undervalued the damages observed during the inspections.”

Refugio County, like Victoria County, hired the Virtus Group to do remediation and repairs at the recommendation of TAC. The little-known Kansas-based company, now called Commercial Restoration Company, has become the center of a controversy about whether Victoria County spent Harvey recovery money in taxpayers’ interests. Zeller has defended the county’s decision to contract with Virtus because TAC recommended the company.

When asked previously for comment about Refugio County’s lawsuit, Zeller said in a written statement that he could only comment about Victoria County’s experience with the TAC. He said, “They were fair and responsive in paying for the damage to our many buildings and even gave us an extension to recoup some additional money. I wouldn’t want to go through another disaster like Hurricane Harvey without the Texas Association of Counties in our corner.”

Gutierrez said it would “make sense” that an elected official wouldn’t want to fight the association in a lawsuit, even if there was reason to do so. After Refugio County’s lawsuit was filed, Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns asked why Refugio County was “ahead of us with this.”

Gutierrez said, “That does seem like it could be a potential conflict of interest or lead to a member of the board not wanting to argue against this association, because they are invested with both parties.”

In a formal answer to the lawsuit, TAC asserted Refugio County’s lawsuit has no grounds. As of last week, nothing new has been filed in the lawsuit.

Zeller said serving on TAC’s board “expanded his knowledge of county government.”

“I was also able to see how innovative many counties around the state are, and learn from them by listening to other county officials and sharing ideas and best practices,” he said.

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter.

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