Travis County Commissioners Court mulls firearm policy

The Travis County Commissioners Court meets Jan. 12 in the courtroom at 700 Lavaca St. in Austin.

The Travis County Commissioners Court meets Jan. 12 in the courtroom at 700 Lavaca St. in Austin.

The controversial issue of whether to allow firearms in the workplace was a focus for the Travis County Commissioners Court during its Jan. 12 meeting.

The court considered policy regarding concealed and open carry on Travis County properties or in county vehicles but did not take any action on the agenda item regarding the policy. However, commissioners did hear from county employees about requests and potential implications of the rollout of new legislation.

Recent changes to state law are going into effect—most notably, handgun license holders can openly carry firearms as of Jan. 1. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she is concerned about the law’s rollout.

“There are going to be problems in implementation of this law, and we want to be mindful and prepared so that we can make the best decisions,” she said.

Eckhardt said she thinks some county staffers will feel that they should instead work for privately owned companies “where they would be safer." She added most private-sector companies already prohibit guns.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said it should be the responsibility of the Travis County commissioners court to protect county employees. Daugherty said he would be in favor of limiting public access into county buildings and installing metal detectors at all entrances in order to keep firearm-carrying members of the public out of county buildings.

Feedback from employees

Representatives from offices including the Medical Examiner and the Natural Resource Environmental Quality Division spoke about concerns specific to their employees. Many speakers cited the need for employee training, as well as the need for employees to report to supervisors if they are carrying a firearm.

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said a few exceptions are outlined in the law, such as schools and polling places, and she hopes the courts will fall into those exception categories so that the public cannot bring guns into the buildings.

“It’s my belief that I can tell my employees wherever they are situated that they may not bring handguns into the workplace," She said. "We handle not just dust-ups but some really rancorous arguments, we have a [child protective services] component and those are generally deemed to be the most dangerous situations anywhere."

Bruce Elfant, the county’s tax assessor and collector, noted security features are lacking at the tax office and some of its satellite facilities.

“You need to be treating the tax office like you treat a bank,” he told commissioners. “We collect and disperse $3.5 billion a year.”

Elfant said tax office employees would like to see more peace officer presence and required instruction for employees carrying firearms. In some cases, county staff must be bearers of bad news to members of the public, and if members of the public can bring guns into their workplace that could put people in danger, he said.

“You’re authorizing employees to make the same level of judgment that a peace officer would have to make in a split second,” he said.

Elfant said employees also emphasized that Travis County needs to establish a mass emergency notification for Travis County employees that is sent to their cell phones.

County Executive Sherri Fleming with the Health and Human Services Department said before taking action on open carry policy, the commissioners should consider that county offices are places where children and seniors congregate.

“There will be a significant fiscal note that you will have to bear in terms of the decisions that you have to make,” Fleming said.

Though the court did not change its policy regarding open carry in county buildings, the court did take two separate votes to approve updates to codes stating county employees who are under supervision of the commissioners court are not allowed to bring firearms to the workplace—a clerical measure, Eckhardt said. Commissioner Brigid Shea was off the dais for the first vote, while Commissioner Ron Davis abstained from the second vote.