Counting candidates for local, state and federal office, and their representatives, coalition President Wayne Arnold estimated that about 85-90 persons attended the first-ever gathering held at his new “Event Center” on Lantana Road just north of Gilmer. Although the forum was open to candidates of all political parties, only GOP candidates and their representatives spoke.
Nine candidates for county offices ranging from Justice of the Peace posts to County Judge spoke, as did three Congressional candidates and representatives of three candidates for statewide office.
Forum moderator Phillip Williams, a Gilmer journalist, read the written questions, and the candidates were also questioned by a panel consisting of former Upshur County Republican Party Chairman John Melvin Dodd and current Upshur County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr.
The panel was originally to consist of Dodd’s son, current GOP County ViceChairman Joe Dodd, Miles, and Upshur Libertarian Party Chairman Vance Lowry. But Joe Dodd and Lowry did not appear. (Joe Dodd’s mother said Tuesday he had a family obligation, and Lowry said Tuesday he had a conflicting engagement. Lowry also said nobody had called to tell him when the event, originally set Feb. 11, had been rescheduled nor that he was still on the panel.)
County Judge Dean Fowler, opposed for reelection by Ronnica Ridgeway, refused to appear at the forum because of the originally-planned composition of the panel. He had issued a written statement saying, “While I respect the Chairmen of the Democrat and Libertarian parties, they do not share the same Republican principles that I stand for. At this time, I am not running in a November general election. I am running in the Upshur County Republican primary.
“I find it strange, even inappropriate, that those gentlemen would be seated on a panel asking questions at a ‘conservative’ forum. For that reason, I did not attend. I hold true to the belief and statement of President Ronald Reagan when he said, ‘A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers.’”
Also during the forum, said candidate for Pct. 4 County Comm. Karmen Kelley, one of her tires was slashed and an attempt was made to slash another. She said Tuesday the Sheriff’s Office investigated and determined the act was vandalism, rather than damage from another cause.
As for the forum itself, which consumed more than three hours counting the time for two breaks, Pct. 2 County Comm. Cole Hefner faced the most questions from the audience, and was grilled about subjects ranging from county finances to his past advocacy of lowering the county’s number of Constables and Justices of the Peace.
Hefner for the first time said publicly that the county’s nearly $1 million budget shortfall came to light last May only after he threatened to have the County Commissioners Court consider a subpoena for financial records.
Hefner, who is opposed for reelection by Don Gross, said the court cut expenses about $1,050,000 his first year in office, when the then-County Auditor (Janice Tucker) and County Treasurer (Myra Harris) said the county had $1.9 million or $2 million in reserve funds. At the time, the county actually had a negative balance of $72,000, Hefner said.
Never mentioning Ms. Tucker or Mrs. Harris by name, Hefner quoted the former auditor as saying the “balance sheet was not correct, but she couldn’t figure out how to fix it.” The court budgeted reserve funds it wrongly thought it had, then raised taxes his second year in office “with me voting no,” Hefner said.
He said he and Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer (who is also up for reelection and spoke at the forum) “began to hound the auditor and the treasurer” for the exact amount of the county’s reserve funds. He said that when he threatened to subpoena financial information, the shortfall came to light.
“I had been asking for this information for six or seven months,” Hefner said. He said the shortfall resulted from spending reserves the county thought it had, and from an overrun in the budget for insurance claims.
At a May 13, 2013, emergency meeting of the County Commissioners Court held to deal with the shortfall, he said, he wanted to know what the problem was. According to Hefner, Ms. Tucker and Mrs. Harris said their numbers didn’t match up.
“That’s their job. . .They were questioned quite heavily there,” he said. Today, the court still has zero reserves, although it spends “$2 million less than when I got here,” he said.
Hefner also defended his decision to vote to move the county depository to a different bank, saying several banks in the county pay taxes and the least he could do was let them bid on becomng the depository.
In addition, Hefner was asked whether it was he or Fowler who initiated opening Commissioners Court meetings with prayer (Fowler has implied in a television commercial he himself had a role in doing so).
Hefner said “I wanted to” start it. He said he told then-Pct. 1 Comm. James Crittenden, who was presiding over court meetings while Fowler was suspended from office, that he wanted to open the meetings with prayer.
Hefner said he was going to visit Fowler about it, but the judge was suspended (Fowler was suspended within days after Hefner became commissioner, and later cleared of misdemeanor charges that led to his 9-month suspension by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.)
On another topic, Hefner responded to his opponent Gross’s stressing the need for economic development in the county. The commissioner pointed out that several businesses, including Duoline and a tubular firm which is bringing in 120 jobs, have come into the county.
He also said commissioners had a role in bringing in business becuase they “calmed things down” in their meetings, and thus the county is “more attractive” to business. Hefner also noted the county has a local economic development corporation and the Gilmer Industrial Foundation.
Gross, who faced far less questioning than Hefner, told the forum he had “talked with 67 people in the last three weeks looking for work” and “we owe it to the taxpayers of this county to build economic development.”
“Rooftops do not build a tax base,” but business does, Gross argued. And the county has only brought in four businesses in the past few years, he said.
He also said business looks for an intact emergency management plan, and that the county’s current one looked “like it was 10 years old. We can do better.”
He additionally said economic development “takes a good infrastructure” of water, phone and electrical service, and roads.
Gross, whose background is in public education and as a school resource officer for the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department, lost to Hefner by 12 votes in the 2010 GOP primary. Besides discussing economic development, the former schoolman also advocated having nighttime meetings of the Commissioners Court and said he liked zero-based budgeting.
Pct. 4 Comm. Spencer elaborated on Hefner’s statements about the county’s past financial woes, saying “We kept asking for numbers and asking for numbers and (getting) no cooperation.”
“We never got numbers till the outside audit came in,” Spencer said. “We brought the problems to light with transparency.”
He also disagreed with Gross’s assertion that “housetops” aren’t a tax base. And concerning economic development, Spencer said “I can’t go grab a company and bring him in here. . .(We’ve) got to build a labor force.”
Asked what the court did to bring in the businesses Hefner mentioned, Spencer replied “directly, nothing.”
The Pct. 4 commissioner also said he had a plan to make county employees, most of whom have not received a raise in several years, happy.
Mrs. Kelley, who also said she favored economic development to ease the tax burden, appeared to dispute claims by one or more current commissioners that the county has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by cutting retirement benefits and changing its health insurance carrier.
When benefits were cut, she said, employees looked for other jobs and the county had to pay them off when they left. As for insurance, the 36-year county employee said there had been no savings to date on that, and said the county needs to get out of its “financial crisis.”
“I will never vote for an unbalanced budget,” said Mrs. Kelley, who said she had helped prepare the county budget as a county employee. Currently working in the County Treasurer’s Office, she formerly worked in the County Auditor’s Office many years ago before becoming the county’s Information Technology officer for years.
Ms. Ridgeway, running for County Judge, said the county needed leadership from someone who votes on issues at Commissioners Court meetings (Fowler has normally voted only to break ties). She also said the county should focus on bringing in business to “diversify” the tax base.
Asked what she would do for economic development, she said she would “model ourselves” after Gregg, Smith and Camp Counties since they are bringing in business.
On another topic, although all four current county commissioners are supporting Fowler against her, Ms. Ridgeway applauded the court for cutting expenses. But “we also have to expand our tax base,” she said.
She additionally advocated “zero-based budgeting” for all county departments.
Another candidate for county office, Todd Quinn, said he was running for County Treasurer because “local government should be run more like a business.”
He said the county needs to address the “ability to provide prompt service” of giving information for budgeting to the County Judge and commissioners, and he pledged to make sure the county knows how much money it has at the end of each day. His opponent, Brandy Vick, did not attend the forum.
Two of three candidates for Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace, Cheryl Taylor and Wyone Manes, also spoke. (Another, Kimberly Clift-Stone, did not attend.) Mrs. Taylor said she would leave her nursing job to be a full-time JP, and pledged to be present for law enforcement officers and firefighters since she has heard no JP is around to sign warrants for the officers.
Mrs. Manes, who held the Pct. 1 JP office from 2008 to 2010 and was defeated for reelection, said “I did work the job” as a full-time judge. If her office clerk was out, she said, she worked in her place.
Sherry Jewkes-Larsen, one of two candidates for Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace, faced a pointed question about whether she thought it had been a good idea for her to release an autopsy report in a murder case to a newspaper without first consulting District Attorney Billy Byrd.
She said the report had not yet been sealed at the time and was public record, so consulting Byrd wasn’t an option.
Mrs. Jewkes-Larsen also made an apparent attempt to differentiate her credentials from her opponent, Gilmer Municipal Judge Rebecca (Becky) Skinner (who didn’t attend, reportedly due to illness). Mrs. Jewkes-Larsen said a JP deals with more issues than a city judge and that she is “experienced in all those aspects” since she is a longtime clerk to retiring Pct. 1 JP W..V. Ray.
Before the county candidates spoke, three of current District 4 U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall’s five GOP opponents addressed the meeting: John Stacy, Lou Gigliotti, and Brent Lawson. Hall represents part of Upshur County.
Stacy, whose background is in insurance, said that as a city official in Fate, he had lowered taxes twice, and obtained repeal of a county tax on the city. Lawson, a Texas Instruments engineering manager, said he was running so he wouldn’t have to apologize to his grandchildren in 20 years for leaving the nation bankrupt.
Gigliotti, a businessman, advocated Congress take power back from regulatory agencies and impeach President Obama.
Andrew Hall, representing gubernatorial candidate Lisa Fritsch, called the Tyler native a “young black lady” who tried to be a liberal Democrat in college, but “couldn’t get there.” He said she is pro-life, and that politics needs “fresh, engaging candidates” like Ms. Fritsch, now of Austin and a onetime radio talk show host.
State Rep. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) spoke for Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton, saying all three GOP candidates for that post were qualified. However, Hughes said, Dan Branch has historically been a moderate Republican who is trying to reinvent himself as a conservative, and Barry Smitherman “doesn’t have a voting record” in the legislature and is not “battle-tested.”
By contrast, Paxton was named the Texas Senate’s most conservative member, opposed public/private partnerships on toll roads, has won sevedral endorsements, and been praised by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, said Hughes.
Hannah Watts, speaking for her father, land commissioner candidate David Watts Jr., said the Upshur Countian “comes at this office from a business perspective” and that he wants “to run this agency (the General Land Office) like a business.” She cited his support from Tea Party groups.