In a three to two vote this week, the Ellis County Commissioners Court approved the reopening of the four ground floor entrances to the historic courthouse in downtown Waxahachie.
The street-level doors to the courthouse have been closed for almost four years, with access available only through a controlled access point on the basement level. One incident that prompted the closure was when a vehicle left Main Street and struck the courthouse in December 2015.
During the court’s meeting Tuesday, several community members spoke on the agenda item, asking that commissioners consider reopening the entrances to the public. Among the speakers was Waxahachie Downtown Merchants Association Vice President Amber Caverly, who said the courthouse bolsters tourism and is a vital asset to the city.
“I speak for most of the downtown merchants when I say that this courthouse is our pride and joy and I think that you all know that as well,” she said. “As a business owner, the tourism in this town, we have seen it increase tremendously. I would say that 70-percent of my clients are tourists that come here not only for the things downtown but to see the courthouse.
“So, the words that we keep hearing as citizens of Ellis County are we don’t want to live in fear,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are open and the people that live in our county enjoy what we have.”
Fellow resident Sylvia Coulson shared Caverly’s thoughts about the courthouse’s accessibility.
“I would like to say that, as a citizen of Waxahachie, I would like to see our courthouse open,” Coulson said. “I would like to see the doors open.”
County Judge Todd Little said the matter had been in discussion for a couple of months. The idea to open up the courthouse doors also stemmed from a campaign promise Little made when he ran for the county judge’s position.
“We think that we are spending some unnecessary expenses in the historic courthouse,” Little told the Sun before Tuesday’s vote. “For about four years now, we have not had the doors open. We have had three deputies sitting here to a tune of about $60,000 per deputy. We think that the law has changed in the last few years that allows people that are licensed to carry to come into the building.
“So, we will probably be removing metal detectors but still securing the courtrooms when the court is meeting,” he said. “Other than that, we feel like the courthouse should be open for the citizens. It should be a place that they can come and visit and come and do business. Obviously, we are going to do everything to keep courtrooms and the judges safe, their staff and any of those people as it relates to an ongoing trial.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Little thanked his fellow commissioners, Sheriff Chuck Edge and County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson for their input on the matter.
Before discussion by the commissioners, Pct. 3 Commissioner Paul Perry made the motion to open the doors to the courthouse.
“I think at this point, it behooves us to open the four-street level openings to the courthouse,” Perry said.
Pct. 1 Commissioner Randy Stinson said while he has “no fear of coming into this court each day at all for myself, I want (everybody) to know that, if you work for me, I am going to do my hardest to protect you when you are in this building or any other building.
“When I ran for office, I didn’t run for political reasons,” he said. “I told people that I was not a politician, I’m an American and I stand for our liberties in this country. But, at the same time, I use common sense when I make those decisions. I said that I would not make those decisions based upon my political gain. So, when I do make my vote, it is for what I do think is better for Ellis County.”
Pct. 4 Commissioner Kyle Butler said steps should not go backward.
“I do feel the same way as Mr. Stinson … I was here when there were some different threats and stuff going on,” Butler said. “I know that the laws have changed in the last two or three years. I don’t think that we have any dispute about following the law as far as the LTC (license to carry.”
Butler said the added security to the building by only having the basement entrance open had not hampered anyone’s access to the historic courthouse – whether they were there to conduct business or take a tour.
“I know there are tons of tours that come through here,” Butler said. “There has never been a huge delay. If you are going to tour the building, you are going to tour it from bottom to the top. I don’t know why you would skip the bottom and the basement. I don’t have a fear of walking into this courtroom but I don’t feel protected by another license to carry. We should not put that on them saying you’re a license to carry and you all protect me. License to carry is to protect yourself.
“[The basement-only entrance] hasn’t put a damper on anything other than coming in and out with a controlled (access), knowing who is licensed to carry,” Butler said. “If you are not licensed to carry, there is going to be questions. That is the only question that I have when it comes to opening up all four [street-level doors]. Are you going to see who is licensed to carry or who is not licensed to carry? Is it going to be too late that they are now in there? Nobody knows. The good Lord is the only one that knows that. Should we try to protect our county employees to the best of our ability? I think that we should.”
Pct. 2 Commissioner Lane Grayson said the court’s decision was a difficult one that shouldn’t be made out of fear but by looking at the facts.
“We don’t want to be fearmongers,” Grayson said. “We don’t want to be extremists. But I will tell you that we should obey the letter of the law. There are concerns that I have. Personally, are we adhering to the laws that our Legislature is imposing on us?
“I do agree with my fellow commissioners that your LTC is not going to save me,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think that the opening of the doors is going to make anyone safer. What I am fearful of is a gun-free zone. That is just my opinion.”
Grayson said he has “100-percent faith” in the sheriff and his decision on the resources he expends on the courthouse to keep it and the people who walk through the doors safe.
“We should be fair and consistent to all of our employees no matter if they are in the historic building or if they are in the tax office, road and bridge office, or wherever they are at,” Grayson said. “I think that we should be consistent as we possibly can. I want to thank the sheriff for what he has done to continue to feed us these resources and not reduce those resources. I hope that we continue to always look at any potential breach. I have faith and the belief that he will.”
Following the discussion, Perry’s motion was seconded by Grayson. The item passed in a 3-2 vote with Stinson and Butler voting in opposition and Little casting the deciding vote.