A Horse of a Different Color

One Horse Auction Cancelled, One Allowed

By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

ANDERSON COUNTY – Life during the COVID-19 pandemic can be odd. Some people wear gloves and masks when they go out in public while some folks do not. Some people want to protest orders that are designed to keep them safe, while others want stay-at-home orders extended.  

Some businesses have been deemed essential while others have not. If deemed essential, businesses of the same type are usually guided by the same set of rules and regulations. For instance, if McDonald’s decided to serve sweet potato fries during this time, Burger King would – theoretically – have the same option. It is highly doubtful the FDA would step in and say it was perfectly fine for Mickey D’s to sell sweet potato fries, but the King couldn’t.

The same rules generally apply to the same types of organizations whether or not the world is in a pandemic. In Anderson County, however, apparently that’s not the case.

According to Kirk Smith, co-owner of Anderson County Livestock Exchange, earlier this month, he had a scheduled auction which was shut down while another auction at the Elkhart Horse Auction was allowed to take place.

“We had scheduled a horse sale,” Smith began. “We advertised, printed fliers and put them out all over this county, as well as other counties. We did a lot with Facebook and also did a direct mail campaign. Well, we got a huge response because it was so widely advertised. The numbers we were getting in showed we were probably going to do between 200 and 250 horses. The sale was for Saturday, April 4.”

Smith said his intention was to have his sale earlier in the day so it didn’t interfere with anything the Elkhart Horse Auction was doing on that Saturday.

“It was nothing against what they do. Their business is their business. We were not trying to kill their business, we were trying to supplement it with two horse sales. Everything was going fine and we were excited. We had modified some stuff in the back to be able to move the horses a little easier. We were all set to go,” he said.

On Thursday, April 2, a wrench was thrown into the works when Smith said he received a call from his sales manager Luke McGinn.

“He tells me on Thursday morning (Anderson County Precinct One) Commissioner Greg Chapin called him and said we couldn’t have our sale and that the county judge (Robert Johnston) had ruled he didn’t want all the people traveling to Anderson County from all over the state and possibly out of the state,” he said.

After thinking about it for a moment, Smith said he called State Representative Cody Harris and expressed his belief that under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders, livestock auctions were exempt from being shut down. Anderson County, however, was saying different.

“He said ‘Why?’ I said because people would be coming from all over Texas and he (Harris) said it didn’t matter. ‘You get cattle from all over Texas, right? So, what’s the difference? Let me call the governor’s office and then I’ll call Commissioner Chapin,’” Smith explained.

Harris returned the call and told Smith he had a call into the commissioner and added he spoke with the governor’s office which informed him the horse auction was exempt.

“About 30 minutes later, Cody called back and said he spoke with Chapin who told him the judge shut it down because it wasn’t part of the food chain and the only reason cattle auctions were exempt was to keep beef moving into the food chain,” he said.

Smith said he attempted to explain that to stay in business, companies like his had to make some type of profit to keep the auctions open in order to keep beef moving into the food chain, adding cattle sales were down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eventually, Chapin and Smith spoke on the phone about cancelling the auction.

“He called up and I said several things. Being with a livestock auction, I’m exempt and he said I needed to be reasonable. The judge is worried about horses coming from all over the state, different counties and even out of states like Louisiana and Oklahoma. He said we’re just trying to protect the citizens and you have to understand that. I said well, I’m just trying to protect my business and you have to understand that. He said, ‘No, I don’t understand that.’ I said really? I guess you and the judge are still being paid? If you guys were to forfeit your salaries in the light of this horrendous mess we’re in, that would be a different story. I don’t think that has happened and he said they were still being paid,” Smith said.

Following some back-and-forth between the two men, Smith said Chapin informed him “… he was doing me a favor. The judge was going to let you have it and then show up with the sheriff to shut you down.”

Smith explained – after speaking at length with the county commissioner – he realized his argument to hold the auction was going nowhere and as a result he decided to comply with the county judge’s order and not hold the auction.

Once the decision to cancel the April 4 auction was made, Smith said he began working the phones in an attempt to let everyone possible know the sale wasn’t going to happen.

“For the most part,” he continued, “that worked okay. Friday night, we had a trailer show up with some horses and I turned them away. I told them we couldn’t have a sale because the county judge shut us down.”

The next day, April 4 – the day of the originally scheduled auction – Smith said two trailers showed up, 10 minutes apart, and he got them turned around.

“In 40 minutes, the second truck was back. He said if I wanted to cancel the sale because of the virus, you should have just told the truth. Blaming it on the county is (expletive deleted). I don’t like being lied to. I told him I didn’t lie to him. I also told him I had been informed if we had the sale, the sheriff was going to show up and shut us down. He said that was (expletive deleted) and he had just checked his horses in down the street and they’re having their auction,” Smith said.

Smith added that they might think they’re having a sale but the sheriff is going to show up and shut them down.

“He told me the (expletive deleted) sheriff’s department is working the sale down there. He leaves and then I got in my truck and went down there. Sure enough, they’re having a sale and sure enough they have Anderson County deputies at the front gate, checking people in. They were telling people they couldn’t get out of their trucks to unload the horses. We’ve been doing that with cows since this thing started,” Smith indicated.

The following Monday (April 7), Smith said he called Chapin to find out what was going on and was told the sale was online and the sellers had to drop off the horses and leave the area.

“I told him we had been doing this with cattle since this thing started. I also told him we own a large cloud-computing company in Houston so do you think I couldn’t have had mine online if they could have theirs online?” Smith explained.

Chapin, according to Smith, said he should have been told about the Livestock Exchange’s computer capabilities.

“I told him online is irrelevant. The reason we were shut down was all the people coming in from out of the county. That’s what you told me and he said I don’t remember telling you that. He asked are you telling me that I’m lying and I said that you said it. None of this online stuff existed,” he said.

Smith explained Chapin told him the Elkhart Horse Auction people convinced the county judge the online auction would be safe and the judge signed off on it.

When Smith asked when that happened, Chapin said it might have happened on Thursday. Asked if Chapin thought it might have been a good idea to inform Smith at the Livestock Exchange, Smith said Chapin replied, “Well, we probably should have done that but it didn’t happen.”

Smith said he also asked the commissioner for something in writing to try and help clarify the situation as well as blunt some of the negative feedback, but Chapin declined to do so.

Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston was contacted about this matter and the judge said he had never spoke with Smith.

“You need to speak with Commissioner Greg Chapin. I have never had a conversation with the man. All the conversations were between Commissioner Chapin and him,” Judge Johnston said.

When asked about why one auction was allowed and the other was not, the judge said, “One was a video auction and there were not people there.

The judge was informed Smith said the option of a video auction was never discussed until after the sale occurred.

“That’s where you will need to speak with Commissioner Chapin. I’ve heard this same story. I don’t know what was said and I don’t want to repeat something I didn’t say. I’m not denying it wasn’t said, I just don’t know in what context it was said,” Johnston said.

The judge indicated it was Chapin who spoke with the owner of the Elkhart Horse Auction (Donna Lewis).

“He (Chapin) did talk to me about this. I don’t know that it was ever mentioned. Apparently it was never mentioned to the man who owns the cattle sale in Elkhart. Apparently, it was never mentioned to him that they could have a video sale. The other lady who owns the horse auction brought that up to Commissioner Chapin. I didn’t have a problem with her having a video auction,” Johnston said.

“I didn’t know the other gentleman had the capability (for a video auction,)” he continued. “He didn’t bring it up to us. I’m assuming that’s what he’s wondering – why didn’t we tell him. We didn’t bring it up to the other lady. The other lady brought it up to us and we said yes. I assume if he had asked if he could have had a video auction, we would have let him have a video auction. There would have been no problem in doing that. It wasn’t – I guess – our responsibility to bring it up.”

The judge added, “I understand he probably has all the video resources in the world to do that from what he told Commissioner Chapin. But, he didn’t bring it up when he talked to Commissioner Chapin at that time. If he had said he wanted to have a video auction – get after it.”      

Attempts to reach County Commissioner Greg Chapin for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.

Smith estimated he lost approximately $30,000 because of the auction being cancelled. He indicated he would attempt to get on the next Anderson County Commissioners Court agenda in an effort to find some answers.

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at [email protected].   

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