The historic Ellis County Courthouse is officially opened for business — all four doors of it.
Following over two months of discussions, several committee meetings and one campaign promise, the Ellis County Commissioners Court voted 3-2 Tuesday afternoon to open all four first-level doors of the courthouse to the general public during regular business hours.
The decision comes after a rather passionate debate unfolded during the June 18 session of the commissioners' court, which ultimately led to the agenda item being tabled. It also stems from a campaign commitment that Ellis County Judge Todd Little made while standing in front of the courthouse's northern-most doorway on May 10, 2018.
"When it comes to our county government, 'No entrance allowed' is not acceptable anymore," Little stated during the announcement a little less than 14 months ago. Little made it known at that time that one of his campaign pillars was to work with the four commissioners and various county officials to reopen the courthouse.
Following the split vote Tuesday, that promise will be kept as soon as county officials and security personnel can work through the logistics of not tripping any fire alarms with the doors unlocked. Little informed the commissioners during the June meeting that BAT Security, located in Waxahachie, could secure the doors and safely bypass the fire alarms for a nominal fee.
There are also tentative plans to hold a re-grand opening of the courthouse doors at a date and time to be announced. The location will, of course, be at 101 W Main St in Waxahachie.
Before Tuesday's action, visitors to the courthouse — which began as a log cabin in 1850 that was later renovated to its most-current structure in 1897 — had to access the building from the basement ramp along W. Main Street. Once there, visitors were greeted by two Ellis County Sheriff's deputies stationed behind a metal detector.
The set-up, according to Ellis County Sheriff Chuck Edge was "not in congruence with Texas law," as it restricted access for visitors with a license to carry or concealed carry.
"The current situation with the metal detector downstairs and prohibiting the licensed to carry holders from bringing a firearm into this particular facility is not in accordance to the state law," stated Edge during a May session of the commissioners' court, which was when the issue was first brought forward.
At that time, Paul Perry, Pct. 3 commissioner, agreed that the current security enforcement was a violation of state law.
Anita Brown, the downtown development director and a Heritage Preservation officer, also addressed the court during the May meeting and said, "It's a travesty having this building locked down where people can't get into it easily. It broke my heart when this building was locked up like it is, and my heart has been broken every day."
The May discussion then turned into a lengthy, nearly two-hour debate on June 18. Edge presented his findings and recommendations, which included a belief that, if all four doors were opened, he could return at least two of the three deputies currently stationed at the courthouse back to patrol.
Edge also noted that additional security could be scheduled based on need, such as when the commissioners' court is in session.
The idea of wanding visitors was met with opposition by Pct. 4 commissioner Randy Stinson, while others mulled the possibility of continuing with three deputies and only opening one or two doors on the first floor.
Little even suggested a 180-trial period which received little discussion during the open session.
The June discussion and recommendations did, however, come after several meetings between a committee consisted of Perry, Little and Edge, with legal guidance provided by Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson.
It was ultimately agreed in June that the committee would meet again and present a new recommendation on Tuesday, which they did.
The action item to address the potential opening of the four first-level courthouse doors began with a public forum.
Amber Caverly, who owns the Velvet Angel Boutique and is the vice president of the Waxahachie Downtown Merchants Association, told the court that the courthouse is Ellis County's "pride and joy, and I think you all know that, as well."
She noted the WDMA has approximately 95 business in the association with "about 70 percent" of those located in the downtown area.
"As a business owner, the tourism in this town — and I've been in business for 12 years down here — I've seen it increase tremendously," Caverly said. "I'd say probably 70 percent of my clientele are tourists that come here, not only for the things that we have downtown but to see the courthouse."
Caverly explained that the words she continues to hear are that Ellis County citizens "do not want to live in fear." She then stated that residents genuinely want to have the opportunity to experience the community and public buildings as they are, and also want visitors to feel welcomed in the same sense.
"We would like to see some of the doors of the courthouse opened so that the experience is better and so that you don't have to enter through the basement," Caverly added. "[...] And another comment that people keep saying, with our local business owners, is that it is kind of a waste of security to have two to four officers sitting in this courthouse every day instead of being out on the streets. We would like to see those tax dollars used a little better."
Sylvia Coulson, who delivered a lengthy prepared statement to the commissioners during the June 18 session, then informed the court that she too would "like to see our courthouse opened."
Following approximately 45 minutes in executive session, the commissioners reconvened to formally address the agenda item.
"I think it behooves us, at this point, to open the four street-level or staired openings to the courthouse," Perry moved.
Little then reminded the court of the history behind the entrance being moved from the street-level doors to the basement, which occurred in 2015. "But the laws have slightly changed in the last couple of years," said Little, referencing the Texas Legislature passing the licensed open carry of a firearm (or sword, for that matter). That law went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, and it does not apply to long arms.
Both Stinson and Pct. 4 commissioner Kyle Butler opposed the motion, however.
"I understand that what we are fixing to make a vote on has to do more with feelings than it does protection," Stinson said. "I have no fear of coming here each day, at all. [...] When I ran for office, I did not do it for political reasons and I told people that I was not a politician. But I am an American and I stand for our liberties in this country. At the same time, I use common sense when I make those decisions."
He noted that his vote would be reflective of what he believes is best for Ellis County at-large.
Butler echoed Stinson's sentiment ahead of the vote. He also noted that he sat with the court during "different threats" that were previously made and stated that the court does not have "any dispute following the law as far as the LTC."
"I do feel somewhat, how do you say this, maybe a little overprotective of the employees of the county," Butler continued. "Because, if on my watch, we did loosen up and something, God forbid happen...We are working and have a good system in place now, that is kind of where I stand on it. I can't see going backward. And we are still right there with the law."
Butler agreed that "tons" tourists visit the historic building but also stated, "If you are going to tour it, you are going to tour it from the bottom to the top."
Lane Grayson, Pct. 2 commissioner, followed Butler by stating that the court should "follow the letter of the law."
Grayson first noted the decision would not be easy and agreed with Butler that a visitor with an LTC would not be there to save him.
"Your LTC is not going to save me. I don't want anyone to think that the opening of the doors is going to make anything safer," Grayson said. "But what I am fearful of, when I am fearful, is a gun-free zone. That is just my opinion.
"Even though today's decision is based on law, and sometimes there are challenges to what we do, I have a 100% faith in our sheriff and what he decides to and the resources he has to expend on this courthouse to make this courtroom safe and every person who walks in that door."
Grayson then seconded Perry's motion to open all four first-level doors.
The motion promptly passed 3-2, with Stinton and Butler voting in opposition.
During the discussion and prior to the vote, Little thanked Edge and Wilson for their input throughout the process.
"I am excited the commissioners' are standing with me to reopen our beautiful courthouse to its citizens, tourists, and downtown area merchants," stated Little in an emailed correspondence. "I believe this will continue to support our partnership with downtown Waxahachie as it relates to increasing tourism and with the Ellis County taxpayers."
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith