One-on-One with Judge Jill Sklar
By John Meng
Herald-Tribune: As you reach the halfway point in your term, you have had a chance to learn all the nuances of the office. What, if anything, surprised you about the county judge position?
Judge Sklar: I will say that there were a lot of things I thought I would be dealing with but my two major challenges I have had in my first two years I never anticipated they would be on my plate — the cyber attack and, of course, COVID-19 just didn’t seem like something a county judge would be dealing with. But it has taken a lot of my time.
Herald-Tribune: No other surprises when it comes to the day-to-day?
Judge Sklar: I guess the county judge, especially in small counties like Jackson County, wears so many hats, and I realized there was all those different duties but sometimes you deal with every single one of them in a 9-, 10-, 11-hour day. You’re constantly switching hats and what you think you might be working on one day could be taken off your plate and you’re doing something totally different. But it definitely makes for an interesting job.
Herald-Tribune: Now that you’re halfway through your term, if you describe your time in office with one word, what would it be?
Judge Sklar: (pauses). That’s a hard one. I’m going to say fulfilling.
Herald-Tribune: What do you like most about being the county judge?
Judge Sklar: Solving problems. We’ve had lots of problems that need to be solved. Lots of people call the county judge. I might not be the right person they need to get to in order to solve that problem, but it’s helping them get to that right person and having conversations with them to help determine what their goals are, what their needs are, and how to fix that problem whether it’s a personal problem, a community problem or an organization problem. I think there’s a lot of brainstorming and thinking through different issues to come to a good conclusion.
I guess that goes back to why I think this has been such a fulfilling job. We’ve been faced with a lot of problems in Jackson County over the last two years, and I’m happy that I was in a position that I could help our constituents work through those challenges.
Herald-Tribune: You worked for a private law firm prior to being county judge?
Judge Sklar: Yes, I did one year in private practice. Then I worked for essentially the biggest law firm in the State of Texas – the Attorney General’s Office. A public law firm I guess you would call it. I have been able to bring some of those skills from my 11 years at the Attorney General’s Office, five of those years were in management position, so I think that has helped tremendously filling the shoes as the county judge.
Herald-Tribune: What has been some of your toughest challenges as county judge?
Judge Sklar: Of course, the cyberattack in 2019. Not many counties or cities had gone through that. We were one of the first ones in the State of Texas. Then, a few months later, there were 24 others hit and they were able to learn from what we went through. But being that first group that had to go through it, it was definitely a challenge. We have learned a lot. The county has made great strides in protecting our information and restructuring our network. I can’t say it will never happen again, but we invested a lot of time and resources to hopefully prevent it from happening, as well as educating those who work for county from preventing it from happening again.
Herald-Tribune: And your efforts are still ongoing?
Judge Sklar: Absolutely. That’s the way of technology. It evolves very rapidly. What may have been the solution six months ago may not be the solution anymore because someone out there who is very smart has figured out how to get around that solution. I think we are fortunate to have a great IT provider who we contract. We work very closely with them, and they seem to stay on top of all the newest and latest threats. They work very closely with us and advise us on everything we need to do to make our system more robust.
Herald-Tribune: Then you had another tough challenge with COVID-19?
Judge Sklar: Of course, COVID comes along after we think 2020 is going to be a much better year that 2019. Then we get hit with COVID, and it’s definitely been a challenge. Locally, we thought we were doing one thing and the State and Federal government tells us we’re doing something else. It’s been a real back-and-forth on who’s in charge, who’s making the decisions and what direction are we going. During COVID, I felt like showing up at the office every morning I was going to get information that sent us in a completely new direction. I’m not sure there’s any one person to blame. But I will tell you that as this evolved and data started coming in and testing started happening, I don’t think anyone was prepared for the amount of information you have to deal with when you have a pandemic going on. That was part of challenge in itself just trying to keep up with numbers and those sorts of things.
Herald-Tribune: In your first two years, what has been your most difficult decision to make, and why?
Judge Sklar: Most difficult decision (pauses). I don’t know that I pinpoint any one decision as that one was extremely difficult. I think during COVID there was pressure from a lot of different folks on what was the best way to solve this problem. And, still today, I don’t think anybody knows what the silver bullet is. I think it was just an on-going challenge to sift through the massive amounts of information that you’re getting from all different directions and trying to make the most common sense, best for our community, decision and keeping us on track and not make any knee jerk reactions. Because that’s what I think… a lot of the information you get, lots of different opinions, people want their problems solved in a certain way and one solution is not always the best solution for all.
Herald-Tribune: Now that we have a vaccine for COVID, do you feel COVID will continue to be a major concern for the county?
Judge Sklar: I think we got a ways to go to get through this. As the vaccine rolls out. We had about 300 doses here which have been administered in the last two weeks. Last time I checked with the hospital, they had another 400 people on their waiting list, and we don’t know when the next shipment will be coming in. And, that’s only 700 people in a county of 15,000. We have a long way to go. But I think as people get vaccinated and we move into the summer and we see the numbers go down, I think there’s going to be a lot more confidence in how to move forward and live with COVID. I don’t think COVID is going away. It might be something like the flu. It might be something we’re dealing with every year. We live with it, and I think we’ll eventually get there. But will it go away in the Spring of 2021? No, I don’t think so. I think we’ll be sorting through it for the rest of 2021.
Herald-Tribune: Have you been vaccinated?
Judge Sklar: No. But I plan to get one. Herald-Tribune: Is there any one thing or action you would have changed in your term so far? No. I can’t say there are any big regrets or any big decisions that we’ve made that I felt has gone the wrong way. I feel that we’ve done a very good job in Commissioners’ Court making the best with what we have. We continually have to do more with less. We know our tax base. There’s only so much our constituents can dish out, and I think we’ve done a very good job of holding the line and doing what we can with what we have.
Herald-Tribune: As a leader in the community, where would you like to see Jackson County in the next five years, and what steps would you take to achieve that vision?
Judge Sklar: I think Jackson County has a very bright future. What I keep hearing is that the State of Texas is growing. We’re seeing Houston and Fort Bend County coming closer to us from our east and we have Victoria and San Antonio growth coming from our west. We have to be smart in our approach for the next five to 10 to 15 years. We have the I-69 corridor being completed sometime in the next five years. What I’d like to see is for Jackson County to have some smart growth. I grew up in a small town very similar to Edna. I love that. We love that small town feeling. We want to maintain that but also capture some of this opportunity that is heading our way. It’s a matter of prioritizing our needs and growing in a way that maintains the small rural atmosphere that we’ve all enjoyed.
Herald-Tribune: Obviously your resume is very distinguished. From attorney to AG’s office to county judge. But how do all of those accomplishments compare to be crowned as Gater Queen at the Anahuac Gaterfest?
Judge Sklar: (laughs) Did I tell you that or did you find that out yourself?
Herald-Tribune: I did my research.
Judge Sklar: (still laughing) Gater Queen was definitely a fun thing to have in Anahuac, Texas but I feel being here in Jackson County and obviously very humbled by receiving the Citizen of the Year Award, that means a lot more than a beauty contest for sure. (laughs). I was not expecting that question.
Herald-Tribune: Is there anything else you would like to share with Jackson County residents and our readers?
Judge Sklar: We talk about all the different hats a county judge wears and I’ve tried to improve in some way each one of those duties. In Emergency Management, for example, we worked on a VOAD (Volunteer Organization Active in Disasters) group that is now ready to help out in times of a disaster.
As the chairman of the juvenile justice board here in Jackson County presiding over juvenile cases, I’ve worked with the department, Commissioners’ Court and some non-profits to really expand our diversion programs. Even when the state is cutting budgets, we’ve been able to parter with non-profits to have after-school programs. We’re in our third year in Edna, and now our first year in Ganado. There’s even been talk now about maybe getting the program in Vanderbilt which is phenomenal for a small community like Jackson County to have that.
I’m just happy that I work with a great group of people that are always open to figuring out the best way to solve a problem and want to work together. I feel like Jackson County, the cities and schools and the other organizations do a very good job of working together to advance the entire community. I think that is extremely important and I’m forever grateful for the leaders that I’m working with to help me do that.