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Reserve Citizen Airman helms Texas county

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization
Orange County, in Southeast Texas on the border with Louisiana and just 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, is home to more than 80,000 Texans and led by Air Force Reserve Maj. S. Brint Carlton.

Carlton was elected to the county’s top position in 2014 and has used the experience and leadership he gained in the Air Force to steer policy and guide his decisions.

With over 10 years of Air Force service, including time on active duty and in the traditional and individual reserve programs, Carlton has had ample time and opportunity to gain the leadership skills he uses every day in Orange County.

“I credit my leadership skills, understanding of budgets and my focus on the big picture to what I learned in the Air Force,” he said, speaking with a barely detectable southern drawl.

The Orange County native began his Air Force career in 2005 after finishing a master’s degree in health administration at the University of Florida. He spent just shy of four years on active duty as a Medical Service Corps officer. Following a deployment to the Middle East, he transferred into the traditional reserve at the 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to pursue more education. He knew that his MHA would pair well with a law degree and had seen his father’s success practicing family law, so Carlton used the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits he earned on active duty to earn both a juris doctor program and master’s degree in business administration at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. It took him 2 1/2 years.

After graduating in December 2011, he returned to Orange County to practice family law with his father. He also left the 433rd for a joint assignment at the 953rd Reserve Support Squadron at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, in 2013. He soon realized, however, that practicing family law was not for him. He applied for, and was hired, into the district attorney’s office as a juvenile prosecutor. This new position was much more to his liking. He felt the work was having a positive impact, giving children who found themselves in trouble with the law a chance at a new start while also getting justice for victims. He said it wasn’t long before some fellow county employees suggested he might do more for Orange County, asking him if he had ever thought of running for county judge.

While the word judge often invokes images of a robed figure presiding over a courtroom, Carlton said a county judge in Texas is more akin to a governor or the CEO of a company, albeit one with a judicial aspect. In Texas, some of the roles a county judge fills are as budget officer, the head of emergency management, and presiding official of the commissioner’s court. They also preside over local judicial matters such as misdemeanor, probate and civil cases.

After talking with his family and researching the role in depth, Carlton began his bid for county judge in 2014. The four-way election named no victor; Carlton earned 26 percent of the vote. The election came down to a run-off between the Airman and former county commissioner John Dubose. Carlton won 53 percent of the vote in the run-off and entered office Jan. 1, 2015.

At 32, he was one of the youngest county judges in Texas. He was also the county’s first new judge in 20 years. The people of Orange County were ready for something different, he said.

County commissioner Barry Burton, another Orange County native who was elected at the same time, said the Air Force reservist brought a new style of leadership to the county.

"Brint is a forward thinker, he said. He’s looking five, 10, 15 years into the future and he’s finding ways to make county programs sustainable.

In the past, the budget cycle was a year-to-year kind of thing. We don’t do it that way anymore,” said Burton.

As Carlton adjusted to public life, he also had to rebalance his relationship with the Air Force. His assignment at the 953rd, a three-year commitment which he had taken even before starting at the D.A.’s office, was more demanding than expected. In addition to numerous trainings, he found himself participating in exercises and missions that had him globetrotting, including several high-profile readiness exercises and seven weeks spent in Italy assisting with U.S. efforts to combat the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa. Carlton had to exercise his authority as head of Orange County emergency management by calling in a flood evacuation order while on an exercise in Korea.

“It was a lot more than I expected and took away from my time in Orange County,” he said. “I was not getting much sleep as I did military work during the day and civilian work during the evenings."

As his commitment at the 953rd was nearing its end, the major began looking for other opportunities in the Air Force Reserve and he landed in his current assignment in 2016. While he wasn’t specifically looking for a position in the Individual Reserve, an Individual Mobilization Augmentee vacancy with the Air Force Medical Operations Center at the Pentagon offered fewer training requirements, increased flexibility in his annual commitment and also allowed him to check off another of the four pillars of his officer career – a National Capitol Region assignment. He said his decision to continue serving also benefits the county because he will continue receiving “valuable and relevant experience and training in leadership and planning that this county sorely needs."

Despite the challenges of balancing his Air Force and civilian careers, Carlton has seen success since taking office. He faced a number of challenges upon beginning his new job, including rising expenses, growing debt, an aging and shrinking population, and stagnation in business growth. To date, the county judge said his biggest accomplishment has been doubling down on growing the county’s reserve fund. When he took office, the fund had only enough money to sustain the county for three days. Since taking over the budget when he was sworn in on Jan. 1, 2015, the fund has grown from $392,000 to $4.6 million--without raising the county property tax rate. He has also made improvements to the county infrastructure, purchased over $1 million in new vehicles, machinery and equipment, and increased government transparency.

Jimmy Sims, the mayor of Orange, Texas, Orange County’s principle city, said Carlton put county affairs back in line by increasing accountability for county employees and fixing the big financial challenge he inherited when elected. The two have worked closely together since the election, something Sims said was new for him.

“He’s doing a superb job,” said Sims. “He’s young, energetic and he holds people accountable."

Another improvement -- a focus on efficiency -- which he did by entering into an energy efficiency program to lower expenses at all county buildings. This included switching to LED lights and ensuring the buildings were properly sealed to make the most of cooling systems.

Burton said this plan will pay for itself. The old way of maintaining these buildings, he said, was to run the equipment until it broke and then scramble to fix it. Now, everything is on a maintenance schedule, which allows the costs to be built into the budget.

“It’s not necessarily doing more with less but doing more with what we have; being as efficient as we can be before we ask for a tax increase,” said Carlton.

Carlton also shook things up on the economic development corporation. Before he took office, the corporation was made up of only county, city, and port officials. The judge opened it up to local business leaders and school district officials as well. He also shifted away from focusing only on large projects like attracting big petrochemical companies, working instead to bring in more research and development, retail, manufacturing and housing opportunities. While economic development is ultimately a long-term project for the county, Carlton said the changes lay the groundwork for greater economic impact and a quality of life increase for the county in the years to come.

Jody Crump, who was elected as a county commissioner in 2011, said the county needed a leader who wasn’t afraid to make changes. Expenses were going up, tax rates were going up, someone had to grab the bull by the horns; Carlton came along at the right time, he said.

“He’s very effective at saving money… and doing the right thing, regardless of the political damage to himself,” said Crump.

Crump, the longest serving of the current court, believes Carlton’s Air Force training and experience, along with his education, has established who he is today; something for which he is thankful.

Carlton said the most important leadership skill he brings to the table comes from the combination of smaller skillsets he learned in the Air Force. These other experiences, such as emergency management, preparing budgets and serving as a health administrator, have prepared him to frame things in terms of what is best for the common good, rather than that of special interest groups. It has also helped him have a better chance to encourage those who don’t see eye to eye to work together. His decisions don’t always win him praise, he said, but in the end his goal is to get everyone working together for the betterment of the entire county, not just individual groups.

“He is a statesman and I am very impressed with how he handles himself,” said Crump. “He does what’s right even if there’s damage coming."

Putting aside the various tasks associated with county judge, Carlton classified the job as primarily one of leadership -- leadership in the budget process, leadership in economic development, disaster management and serving as the face of the county. The county judge has to make tough choices and take responsibility for the outcomes, he said.

“What that means to me is giving full credit and taking full blame. That’s what I’ve learned in the military,” said Carlton. “When you’re in a position of leadership and authority and something goes wrong, it’s your fault and you don’t make excuses, no matter what happens."