Sparks Fly: Smith County candidates lock horns at Liberty Hall

Published on Tuesday, 11 February 2014 09:04 - Written by

ADAM RUSSELL, arussell@tylerpaper.com

Candidates in four local races, including Texas House District 6 and Smith County judge, politically sparred Monday night at Liberty Hall.

About 100 attendees watched as candidates from Smith County Commissioners Precincts 2 and 4, County Judge and state District 6 answered questions in the debate sponsored by KYTX CBS19 and the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

 

SCHAEFER Vs. OGLE

District 6 state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, and Skip Ogle, a community relations person with Suddenlink and small business owner, rounded out the night.

Schaefer, 37, an attorney, developer, Naval Reserve lieutenant commander, said Texas is drawing residents from other states because of its strong economy. But he said it could do better. He wants to focus on cutting bureaucratic red tape for educators, cut regulation and government duplication and find a sustainable health care model.

“Freedom is the long-term solution,” he said. “We need bigger Texans and littler government.”

More resources to stop illegal crossings and protect Texans, vocational training in public schools rather than teaching to tests, protecting life and encouraging free enterprise and responsible state spending were among positions he wants to champion in Austin during his second term.

Schaefer defeated longtime District 6 Rep. Leo Berman in the 2012 Republican primary.

Ogle, 47, a former lobbyist and small-business owner, introduced himself to the crowd as the best person to represent and advocate for Tyler, East Texas and the state. He said the state faces major challenges because of a booming population. He said transportation, water and education would be strained and that Tyler and East Texas needs a leader who can build coalitions and provide solutions.

He criticized Schaefer, calling him ineffective.

“I want to work for this community, not against it. I have a long résumé as a coalition builder and that’s what I want to do for this community in Austin.”

Schaefer called Ogle’s criticism was not fact-based and that he effectively worked with the East Texas delegation on many items. Discussion about a local pharmacy bill and Schaefer’s role in its passage was broached. Ogle said the bill was put in jeopardy because of Schaefer’s poor relationship with Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.

Schaefer said he played a pivotal role in negotiating with conservatives and said instead of questioning his role, Ogle should ask how a new bill became law in one session.

“You’re searching for failure in the midst of success again,” he said. “It was an East Texas team effort. You don’t get anything done by yourself in Austin.”

Differences continued on transportation.

Schaefer said there were three options with regard to funding highways — continue adding debt, raise taxes or live within the state’s means. He said the state should look within its budget first and that it should direct new revenues from a growing economy toward roads. Ogle said the state should continue to look at funding opportunities, such as toll roads, but that legislators should “scrub” the state budget for savings.

On public education, Schaefer continued to stress vocational training in high schools because he believes the state’s policy to emphasize college has failed. Ogle accused Schaefer of not supporting the most recent TISD bond, which included a vocational training center.

Schaefer denied the accusation and said he did not publicly support or oppose it. Ogle was stumped when Schaefer asked for proof that he opposed the bond.

Candidates were asked about water last.

Schaefer said East Texas legislators had an obligation to defend regional resources. He said the region has rights under state law, but his relationships with legislators, especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth area will be important to discussions and negotiations. Ogle said projects take decades to come to fruition and that legislators need to act now to prepare for the future.

“We’ve got to protect our resources,” Ogle said. “We’ve got to build more lakes and reservoirs and work with cities along the Interstate 35 corridor to find a win-win.”

In closing, Schaefer pointed to Ogle’s decade-long work as a lobbyist and financial support for Democratic candidates. He said he would continue to stand on principal for East Texas.

Ogle said he would be an effective coalition builder for East Texas and that Schaefer’s rhetoric rendered him ineffective. He said the state needs leaders who can work together to keep the Texas economy growing and build a better tomorrow.

 

BAKER Vs. FURLOW

Two-term County Judge Joel Baker and retired Texas Army National Guard Maj. Gen. John Furlow kicked off the rounds of debate.

Baker, a local attorney, 45, is seeking his third term as county judge. He said he was proud of his tenure and the progress the commissioners court has made since his election in 2006.

Furlow, 58, is also a local certified public accountant, said the county under Baker has done a poor job planning for the future. He continued to criticize Baker for the lack of long-term planning for roads.

Baker said the county faced difficult economic conditions and made difficult financial decisions to keep a level budget.

Candidates were asked about roads first. Furlow said the county budgeted about $8 million for roads this year and yet there was little to show for the money spent. He said the county is spending money on a reactionary basis instead of planning for the future.

Baker said the county did move to a maintenance only program, but the county plans each year to address county roads and bridges.

Both candidates were questioned about how they would address the cost of addressing county roads. Baker said if millions of dollars are needed to address county roads as Furlow has stated in the past, it would take innovative financial ideas to address the cost. He asked Furlow where the money would come from.

“Because if you need that kind of money, it has to come from somewhere. It has to come from the courts. It has to come from law enforcement. It has to come from the jail,” Baker said. “There’s a limited number of dollars available.”

Baker noted the county was responsible for one of the largest county road inventories in the state and has the 21st lowest property tax rate in the state.

Furlow said he would have started the 2011 budget process (when major cuts in staff and funding were made) by taking a pay cut to lead by example, a reference to Baker and commissioners’ approval of pay increases for all county employees and elected officials in 2006.

Baker said approving the pay increase in 2006 was a mistake but that the court changed its policy, which required him to face re-election before accepting the two remaining salary increases.

Furlow said his accounting experience would allow him to implement a zero-based budget and find savings that could be put toward roads. He said

“Smith County is not where it needs to be because it’s flying blind with no plan,” he said. “That’s why the job is better suited for an accountant and strategic planner.”

Baker said the court is focused on hiring a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive county road plan. The county is also interviewing road engineer candidates to implement the plan but that it will take money to implement any plan developed by future courts. He said he has ideas to find funding without raising taxes, including determining the benefits of creating a Transportation Reinvestment Zone around Toll 49.

Furlow said he would not support creation of the zone and would seek other revenue sources other than taxes.

 

HAMPTON Vs. SANDERS

Precinct 4 County Commissioner JoAnn Hampton and challenger Donald Sanders were the second pair to debate.

Mrs. Hampton was elected to the Smith County Commissioners Court in January 2003. She served on the Tyler City Council for six years and mayor pro-tem for one year. She is the senior member of the court.

Sanders, 61, served as city councilman from 2006 to 2012 and as mayor pro tem in 2008 and 2009.

Mrs. Hampton said her experience on the court is invaluable to the county and her precinct. She said she is committed to ensuring the county faces constituent concerns head on.

Sanders said he would use his experience on the city council, community boards and within the community to address Precinct 4 concerns.

County roads were a topic for commissioners as well.

Mrs. Hampton said new revenues may be necessary to address roads but added that raising taxes “doesn’t always get you what you need.” Instead, she said, the county has done a good job financially and operated conservatively, including infrastructure improvements on a “pay-go” basis.

Sanders said the court should utilize resources it has to focus on projects rather than tap taxpayers for more.

Candidates were questioned about accessibility.

Sanders said he would have an “open door” policy and keep constituents informed via town-hall meetings. He said he would be more available to constituents because he is retired. Mrs. Hampton said her office has held town-hall meetings and that she is accessible and “out and about” within her precinct throughout the week visiting with constituents and hearing their concerns.

 

NIX Vs. BARNETT

Precinct 2 Commissioner Cary Nix then faced off with challenger Barry Barnett.

Nix, 54, of Whitehouse, a fourth-generation rose grower, is seeking his second term as Precinct 2 commissioner.

Barnett, 50, of Troup, owns ETJS LLC, an aviation management company, which oversees maintenance for a local charter company at Tyler Pounds Regional Airport.

Animal control was the first issue put to the candidates.

Nix said he has worked closely with the city and nonprofits to develop a long-term solution for Smith County animal control, but he is looking out for taxpayers. Barnett said the county needs to do a better job finding homes for the animals and that he pledged to help raise money to improve the county’s program.

Candidates continued to draw questions about county roads.

Nix said the county road department has done an admirable job with the money it is allotted. Barnett said the court should plan better and find more savings in other areas. But he said he would consider all options with regard to making roads a priority, including cutting other departments or raising taxes.

 

OTHER RACES

Candidates not in the debate were offered an opportunity to introduce themselves.

Four candidates vying to replace retiring County Court at Law Judge Thomas Dunn, including attorneys, Jason Ellis, 31, James Huggler, 44, Brent Ratekin, 45 and Mike Patterson, 63, introduced themselves.

John Jarvis, 46, who will face longtime incumbent 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark, introduced himself. Judge Clark was not present.

Incumbent Justice of the Peace Precinct 3 James Meredith, 57, who has been in office since 2002, introduced himself to the Liberty Hall crowd. His challenger, pre-law college student Noah Butler, 23, was not present.

Both candidates for district attorney also introduced themselves: incumbent Matt Bingham, 46, and 33-year-old attorney Austin Reeves Jackson, of Lindale.

 

For those unable to attend, the debate was taped and will be made available today on the CBS and Tyler Paper websites. The full debate also is being made available as a public service to viewers of TISD-TV, the cable education channel of the Tyler school district. The entire debate program will be televised several times each week starting Tuesday and ending March 3. The program will air at least once daily on the following schedule: Sundays and Fridays at 7 a.m.; and Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.

TISD-TV broadcasts on Suddenlink cable channel 19, with a live streaming signal accessible from the tylerisd.org website.