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Criticism mounts at appraisal district

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An appraiser at Bandera County’s Central Appraisal District and the district’s deputy chief appraiser complained to the district’s board last week about harassment and mismanagement issues within the office, bringing additional scrutiny to an agency whose chief appraiser already faced accusations of improprieties.

In addition, the deputy chief appraiser, Jana Camp Herrera, whose professional status with the district is uncertain, told the board at its Thursday, Jan. 30, meeting that she has reviewed evidence supporting complaints by the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District against the district’s chief appraiser, Wendy M. Grams, and had concluded her prior confidence in Grams had been misplaced.

“For lack of a better term, I feel as if I were duped,” Herrera told the board during a segment of the meeting reserved for public comments.

Her comments and earlier comments by Appraiser Melissa Checkovage added to the criticism that the appraisal district has faced since the river authority filed its broad-based complaint with the state in December 2018.

That complaint, filed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, focused on allegations that Grams had approved appraisals for nearly identical residential properties in the Flying L Subdivision that left them with vastly different values and could not accurately explain why those differences arose.

In addition, the river authority’s complaint contained allegations from appraisal district employees who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Those statements raised a variety of allegations against the chief appraiser, including falsifying documents and destroying evidence, falsifying groups of appraisals to circumvent Texas Comptroller’s audit requirements and improperly acquiring and using sales information on property transactions in Bandera County.

Other complaints against the district reportedly were filed with the licensing department, which oversees the credentials and operations of property tax professionals and consultants in the state, but copies of those complaints have not been made available to the Bandera Bulletin.

Checkovage told the board Thursday that she was filing a formal complaint against Grams and the CAD’s Administrative Coordinator Angie Massey for harassment and retaliation related to Checkovage’s role in a complaint filed against Grams with the licensing department in December 2018.

She said in the first few months after the complaint was filed, there was only speculation about her role in the report, but last December, “speculation turned to fact” when Grams, her defense attorney and the district’s attorney viewed evidence in the case in Austin. That, Checkovage said, resulted in “more intense mistreatment.”

Checkovage declined to discuss what she had complained about to the state in 2018. Whether it was one of the allegations included in the river authority’s complaint was uncertain.

The appraiser, who did ask the board to review her grievance as part of its closed-door review of personnel issues later in the day, said she had filed her complaint under the Texas Whistleblowers Act. That, she said, protects public employees from being suspended, terminated or retaliated against for legal violations alleged against their employer or co-workers.

Herrera, who has been the appraisal district’s deputy chief appraiser since 2018, said her complaint concerned the way in which she was being managed, not with Gram’s handling of documents, her qualification for office or other issues raised in the river authority complaint.

Herrera said she complained to Grams in October or November of last year that she was being treated unfairly and was being held to a higher standard than other management team members.

After she filed that complaint, Herrera, in a later interview, said that the work environment became increasingly hostile toward her and that she has received more disciplinary write ups than ever before in her career.

Matters came to a head late last month, Herrera said, when she was told she could resign or be fired from her position. She said she did not resign and despite asking twice for the last date of her employment with the district and for a reason for her termination, had not received either.

She also told the board she had talked to two district employees who said that Massey had met with them and attempted to coerce them into making statements that would support allegations of insubordination or violations of district policy against Herrera.

Board President Bo Mansfield, in concluding the nearly two-hour executive session the appraisal district board held on personnel matters last week, said the board appreciated receiving the comments at the meeting and that the board was taking the complaints seriously.

The complaints were turned over to the district’s attorney for review, but Mansfield said he did not know how long the inquiry might take.

He declined to comment on the allegations made Thursday or on the complaint filed by the river authority until the investigations into those matters are complete.

The state licensing department acknowledged that the river authority’s complaint was still under review last week.

Grams and Massey also declined comment on the complaints made.

Bandera County Tax Assessor-Collector Gwenda Tschirhart, who is a non-voting member of the district’s board, said she could not comment on matters under investigation but would like to see the appraisal district board conduct a more thorough review of some allegations that are brought forward.

The appraisal board welcomed two new members last week, Ernest DeWinne and Don Giles. Critics said they hoped the election of those members would improve board operations.