Smith County - Primary elections: Continuity for the court: A perfect night for incumbents

Published on Thursday, 6 March 2014 00:26 - Written by Adam Russell arussell@tylerpaper.com

All Smith County Commissioners Court incumbents retained their seats on Tuesday, according to complete but unofficial results.

Commissioners JoAnn Hampton and Cary Nix won their respective party primaries handily while Smith County Judge Joel Baker defeated challenger John Furlow. None of the court members face a general election opponent in November and will maintain their positions.

Baker garnered 9,149 votes, or 57 percent, to 6,914, or 43 percent, for Furlow. The contentious race featured a popular sitting judge, Baker, who had not faced a strong challenger until Furlow.

Baker, 45, a local attorney, took office in January 2007. He has experienced the ups and downs of elected office and as county judge, who acts as the chief administrator and budget officer for the five-member commissioner court.

There were multiple failed bond proposals and subsequent lawsuits filed by local watchdogs that accused he and other court members of creating planned proposals without posting public meetings. The court faced difficult decisions in 2010 when the recession forced budget cuts, including layoffs, and a property tax increase.

But he also oversaw a comprehensive reinvestment in county facilities, improvements in transparency, pay increases for employees to improve retention rates and a 384-bed jail expansion that will end shipment of prisoners and add efficiencies to the jail system.

Throughout his campaign to unseat Baker, Furlow, 58, a retired major general in the Texas Army National Guard and local accountant, was critical of the county’s lack of long-term planning. He blamed Baker for not having a plan in place to address county road conditions.

Furlow believed his time in the Texas Army National Guard, and as a certified public accountant/forensic accountant, would give him the collective leadership experience and financial management background to lead Smith County into the future.

Furlow did not return phone calls on Wednesday by press time.

The county invested more than $10 million in “pay-go” projects to improve existing facilities and renovate nearby buildings during Baker’s tenure. Department heads with private business backgrounds were hired and have changed the way county business and customer service is conducted, Baker said.

The commissioner court made small changes that have made a big difference, he said.

From changing the county’s culvert installation policy, saving more than $100,000 annually; to the establishment of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, opening the lines of communication between justice system stakeholders, including the sheriff’s office, district clerk and court justices to expedite processes and reduce inmate numbers, Baker said the court continues to look for better ways to operate.

Baker said Wednesday he hoped to add $3 million or more to the Road and Bridge Department. He anticipates the jail addition and exiting the recession should mean more available dollars.

“I would like to set aside the money to start a dedicated fund for roads and then go on a pay-go basis for bigger road projects this coming budget,” he said. “We’ll still have to figure out a long-term funding source but that would be a significant start.”

Mrs. Hampton said the re-election of incumbents means the public trusts the direction of the court. She said the continuity of the court would be critical in future plans to address needs, such as county roads.

“That’s the best thing that could have happened because of the continuity. We’re on the same page. Yes, there are differences of opinions sometimes, but there is great leadership on the court and any change might have changed our ability to move forward on critical plans,” she said.

She defeated challenger Donald Sanders, 716 votes, or 61 percent, to 454 votes, or 39 percent. Sanders, a former city councilman, was critical of Mrs. Hampton’s availability to constituents and believed his experience on the city council and fresh ideas and voice would be good for Precinct 4.

Mrs. Hampton thanked Precinct 4 voters and gave God the glory for allowing her to serve. She believes the court is focused on addressing roads as its No. 1 priority.

Beyond implementing a county road plan and bringing the new jail online, Mrs. Hampton said she would continue working with other community organizations and municipalities to create jobs and opportunities to provide a better quality of life for residents and employers.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Cary Nix was re-elected for a second term.

Challenger James “Barry” Barnett received 952 votes, or 23 percent, compared to 3,200 votes, or 77 percent, for Nix.

Nix, 54, a fourth-generation rose grower from Whitehouse, said roads would be the top priority for his second term. He said he was disappointed the recession set the county’s road-building capabilities back, but that he believes the court is prepared to move forward with a comprehensive infrastructure plan.

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

Nix said the No. 1 priority would be county infrastructure and that the court is preparing to make positive steps in that direction before the budget process begins this summer. He expects the court will approve hiring a road engineer and hopes to have a consultant-prepared comprehensive road plan available to prioritize funding.

“Funding will remain the big question,” he said. “When we have the plan, we’ll have a better idea what direction we will need to go in, but we’ll still want to hear from the public before we move one way or the other on addressing roads.”

Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace James Meredith defeated challenger Noah Butler. Meredith received 3,083 votes, or 78.4 percent, compared to 850 votes, or 21.6 percent for Butler.