Nathaniel Moran’s bedside table is usually covered with varied types of historical nonfiction.
The book currently occupying his nightstand, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is a departure from his favorites, something he’s reading with his middle child, Victoria, 9.
Mark Twain’s sequel to the “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is commonly on banned books lists because of its harsh language and racial stereotypes, but those same themes made it an ideal teaching tool for his daughter, especially with the national conversation focused on race relations.
“I don’t want her first exposure to certain words or themes to be from someone else in a negative context,” Moran said. “I want to control the conversation, to say, ‘This is evil, and this is good,’ and help make the distinction.”
Providing information, then having an honest conversation, is an approach Moran said he takes with his children, his colleagues and clients.
And, he pledges, it will be the approach he takes with the taxpayers of Smith County.
“When you treat people with respect, kindness and grace, and they treat you that way in return, whatever issue you have out there isn’t too big to solve,” Moran said. “You talk about it and work it out.”
Moran was sworn in on Friday as acting county judge. He was unanimously appointed by the Smith County Commissioners Court last week to fill in for County Judge Joel Baker, who was suspended without pay by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in late June. He was indicted on three counts of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.
It’s unclear how long Moran will serve.
Baker’s suspension is valid until a new order is issued by the commission, and could last until the court case is closed or Baker’s term is up in 2018. Baker appealed the suspension and will have a hearing Aug. 11 in Austin.
An attorney by trade, Moran’s last day as partner with Ramey & Flock was on Thursday, a day before his 42nd birthday, when he took the oath of office as county judge. He worked for the firm for seven years, from 2002 to 2009 and then returned in 2012.
Moran’s practice is primarily in business litigation, with an emphasis in creditors’ rights. It includes drafting contracts as well as real estate and commercial lending transactions.
“It’s fun being in the courtroom, but it’s also very fun to be detailed with a document to find that it’s written appropriately, which I find isn’t done often enough,” Moran said.
He plans to take over Baker’s duties overseeing probate and mental health hearings, which County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Floyd Getz currently is handling. Moran will take over in early August.
He said he’d recuse himself from any current pending litigation involving his former firm.
“I think this is a great move for the county,” said former Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass who worked with Moran for about a year on the council. “You have someone who has good business sense, who has a good work ethic and solid family values, plus legal abilities and experience behind him being an attorney. I think it is a very wise move by the Commissioners Court.”
Trust is the biggest issue Moran sees facing the county, calling it the “elephant in the room.”
After more than a year of investigations by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the FBI into Baker and the Court, public trust in the body is at a low point.
“We need to stabilize,” Commissioner Cary Nix said. “We need someone who is stable and brings some fresh ideas, so we can try to move forward. The things that have gone on put a cloud over the court, and we need a fresh outlook.”
Moran said the best way to regain that trust is through transparency.
“I think by its nature, it’s tough to build a relationship of trust,” he said. “That is more easily built when you’re working one-on-one, and in a government entity it’s hard to do that. Trust is built in a lot of ways – through transparency, by getting information out to the public timely and correctly.”
It’s also built face-to-face.
“My hope is I’ll have a ton of interaction with people for however long I’m here,” Moran said. “I think the more personal the relationships are, the more you get to know someone, and the more you realize that we can figure this thing out together. That’s my goal – to make sure we do it together.”
Another trust factor is process.
“It’s usually the process that is more important than the outcome, or at least as important,” Moran said. “That planning process must involve transparency.”
That includes putting all of the information in front of the public and allowing it to be involved, or at least heard, during the process.
“Allow the public the ability to weigh in so it understands you are hearing what it has to say and taking that into account when making decisions,” he said.
Perhaps the largest challenges facing Smith County is an aging network of roads.
It could cost between $86 million and $124 million to make improvements and maintain the existing roadway configuration, according to a study commissioned by the Commissioners Court in 2014 and completed in summer 2015.
“I’m a person who believes in keeping our tax rates as efficient as possible, but I also know that you can’t ignore the needs of the county,” Moran said. “The infrastructure needs of the county, in particular, you can’t ignore long term.”
Moran said he would prefer to proceed in a pay-as-you-go manner, but said the county and its taxpayers, may need to look at alternative funding models to take care of current needs.
“Smith County taxpayers are sophisticated taxpayers,” Moran said. “The way you go about this is you give out lots of information. You make sure there are enough public meetings, so people have an opportunity to see what is going on; and you make sure the information is available, so they can study it. Then, you answer the questions as they come up. There will be lots of good questions.”
While on the Tyler City Council, Moran was in charge of getting the city’s smoking ban enacted.
“He took the lead on that whole project and made sure the medical community was heard and made sure the city got feedback from the business community from the restaurants,” Ms. Bass said. “I think Nathaniel is the right person at the right time (for the county).”
A LIFE OF SERVICE
Moran said he accepted the position because he loves public service.
“When I was on the City Council, it gave me the most fulfillment to hear the citizens, figure out a great solution and make it happen. And to be the policy driver for what will happen in the future, because I have a history with the community, and I intend to be here long term. I want to see great things for my kids and grandkids.”
Public service is something he learned from his father, Dale Moran, who was heavily involved in the community, serving on the Whitehouse City Council and as mayor of the city. He also ran two unsuccessful campaigns for county commissioner.
“My dad took the same view I did, that it doesn’t matter if you’re an elected official or not – service is service. Serve your family and help people around you,” Moran said.
Moran’s community service extends beyond his time on the council.
His resume is two pages long, with a full page dedicated to his past community service.
He was a founding member and past president of the Whitehouse Education Foundation. He had a hand in helping create the organization from scratch as well as raising more than $100,000 in grants to go in the very classrooms that educate his children.
He is a board member of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce, current president of the Discovery Science Place, board member of the Smith County Bar Association and member of the Cancer Foundation for Life.
Moran has been on the Tyler Economic Development Council, Tyler Library Advisory Board, Texas Municipal League executive committee on taxation as well as on the regional board of directors. He also was also heavily involved in the local Republican Party, serving as the Smith County Republican Club president, candidate committee chairman and as a precinct chairman and state convention delegate.
Working with nonprofit organizations provides personal fulfillment, he said, but not at the same level as direct public service.
“I love digging into problems and helping to be a problem solver. Messes don’t bother me. There’s always a solution if you communicate appropriately with the right people. If you gather all the necessary information, and if you critically think about the issues, you can find solutions to problems. Problems don’t bother me.”
Moran applies that approach to all aspects in his life.
When he and his wife, Kyna, learned their oldest child, Caleb, now 11, was profoundly deaf in both ears, they did everything they could to research how to help him.
They traveled to California for a monthlong course aimed at teaching parents to help their children learn in a hearing world. They started to see results, but it was slow, and experts told the family there was an age window for him to learn speaking skills.
“We had been trying to get him to learn to speak,” Moran said. “We were all learning sign language, and everyone was very supportive. We wanted to try to allow him that opportunity to have the gift of speech.”
They found a school in Houston that offered a specialized program for Caleb, and when a job opportunity opened up for Moran shortly after he was elected to his third term on the City Council, he said the decision to move the family to Houston became “the easiest hard decision” of his life.
“That shows his priorities are in the right place,” Commissioner Nix said.
After three years, Caleb completed the program, and the family moved back to Tyler. Moran returned to Ramey and Flock and began volunteering in other ways.
He is an involved dad who participates with Caleb in Boy Scouts of America and likes reading with Victoria and having deep discussions about the books’ themes.
Moran also has a penchant for writing, penning children’s books and poems for his kids.
And he nearly was a midwife for the couple’s youngest child, Juliette, who is now almost 8 months old.
The Morans decided on a home birth, but when the time came, the baby was arriving as fast as the midwife was driving to their house. Moran almost had to deliver the baby himself, but the midwife made it just before Juliette’s arrival.
“It was neat. It was so personal,” he said. “About an hour after the baby was born … I’m in the kitchen with a 1-hour-old baby, whipping up breakfast burritos.”