By GRACE GADDY
Candidates in the five local contested political races for the March 4 primary election answered questions from community members Thursday during a forum held at the Ben E. Keith Community Room, located at 2019 W. Oak St. in Palestine.
The Palestine Area Chamber of Commerce and KNET 95.7 FM/1450 AM hosted the event. Attendants submitted questions prior to a Q&A session, which were selected from the pool and presented by moderator Gary Richards of KNET 95.7 FM/1450. The event was broadcast live on the radio and online.
Candidates included county judge candidates Robert D. Johnston (incumbent) and James W. Westley; criminal district attorney candidates Doug Lowe (incumbent) and Allyson Mitchell; district clerk candidates Janice Staples (incumbent) and Sue Sessions; county clerk candidates Mark C. Staples and Misty Cross; and county treasurer candidates Rafael Hernandez and Tara Lambright Holliday.
To begin, Richards asked candidates how they were qualified, and why the citizens of Anderson County should trust them to receive and disburse funds for the county.
Hernandez recounted a history in military service over 30 years, as well as managerial experience that included the oversight of more than 100 persons.
“I was responsible for morale workfare and effectiveness of our organization,” he said, referencing corporate experience in Houston.
“I retired from that and came to Palestine, Texas – a place that I love dearly. Here I opened up my own business, and today I manage my business from A to Z. So as you can see, I have experience in the private sector as well as the corporate sector.”
Holliday also recounted experience, noting she had worked in the auditor’s office for the past six years, working her way up to first assistant auditor.
“I work closely with the treasurer’s office,” she said. “I believe that with my knowledge and experience working so closely with the treasure’s office is how I can bring so much to the office.”
As for how the candidates would invest county funds, Hernandez said he would treat the county’s money the same as if it were his own, making sure bills were paid on time “so that we wouldn’t pay fees to the IRS.”
“When I saw that we paid $1,400 on a $60 some-odd bill, I became upset about it and decided I was going to throw my hat into the ring,” he said. “I want to go into the county treasurer’s office and bring it up to form a team.”
Hernandez also said he planned to ensure that everyone was cross-trained, “so in the event that something happens, everyone can do everybody else’s job.”
Holliday said she believed the role was vital for the county and that she would secure the county’s funds and “make sure everything goes well.”
“Working in the county auditor’s office, I’ve seen some issues that I want to handle in the office – I want to bring back unity and communication with all the departments in the county,” she said. “I’m qualified for the position. I believe I can bring a lot to this office.”
“As county clerk, you will be responsible for land records,” Richards said, asking candidates what they believed could or should be done to make the access of those records more efficient for the public.
Cross responded by acknowledging that the office was behind in accomplishing this.
“We need to get those records all online,” she said.
Staples said the office was in the process of getting the land record index online, including images, which will be available to view for a fee to offset operating costs.
“That is a priority for us in the office to get online,” he said.
As for the role of county clerk, Staples explained that the office covers 16 different departments, handling everything from birth certificates to criminal appeals.
“I think the most important thing is to preserve our records,” he said – a point Cross also underscored.
“I think this office holds the history of our lives,” she said. “It’s the second top producing office in the county. I think we need to stay on top of technology for the taxpayers to make it convenient for all of us.”
Cross said she decided to run for county clerk after working for the county for seven years.
“I think a lot of people complain about things but do nothing about it, that’s why I thought I would run,” she said. “I know I can do the job, and I enjoy it there and I enjoy customer service.”
Staples said he started out in the office part-time as a land record clerk and “worked his way up the totem pole” to the highest possible position.
“I feel that I am the best candidate for the job,” he said, noting he was up-to-date on relevant legislation through continuing education in the office, on top of 142 hours of college credits and managerial experience.
Candidates for district clerk were asked why they wanted to be district clerk.
Staples said she’d always loved the legal profession and had jumped on the opportunity to join the staff in the district clerk’s office 16 years ago. She was later elected to serve as district clerk in 2003, a position in which she is now going on her 12th year.
“I love my job. It’s been a joy to serve the county,” she said.
Sessions said she has been in law enforcement for 39 years – currently serving as a sergeant in the Anderson County Sheriff's Office – and that becoming the district clerk had always been a dream of hers.
“I believe that it’s the right time for a change in the district clerk’s office,” she said.
As for changes she would make, Sessions said she wanted to update the old records and make them accessible to the community through a public computer in the office – a station that was pulled during Staples’ term.
“For four years we have been playing the blame game and blaming this problem on everyone. I believe that it’s time to stop blaming and start fixing that problem,” Sessions said.
As for other changes, she said the office needed to increase its hours of operation in order to be more available for taxpayers.
“I believe that office needs to open at 7:30 in the morning and I believe that the office needs to be open during the lunch hour.”
In response, as far as new implementations are concerned, Staples said the biggest thing she is looking to do is carry on with efforts in e-filing, per a Supreme Court mandate that all documents be filed electronically by 2015.
“The software company that we are now using is also the company that is handling the e-filing. We have that to look forward to, we have some training to do, we also are looking forward to restoring some of our older books.”
Staples said the office did not currently have the budget to update records until the fund for restoring archives could build up.
“The office is very well-run, we have a great staff, very friendly, always willing to help in any way that we possibly can,” she said, “and if there’s anything you should ever need, just let us know.”
Sessions said she wanted the public to know she was a work-a-holic and would give above and beyond to ensure “that the job is done.”
“I believe it’s time for a new set of eyes, a new set of goals,” Sessions said.
Staples said she had built up 440 hours of continuing legal education over the past 12 years and that her experience as district clerk spoke for itself.
Turning his attention to county judge candidates, Richards asked incumbent Johnston why he wanted to remain in the position.
“To continue what I’ve accomplished in the first four years I’ve been in office,” Johnston said, “and just to continue making Anderson County a better place for us to live.”
As evidence of these accomplishments, Johnston pointed to a stabilized budget and boost in area economic development since he took office.
“We have brought our budget back up to where it should be, and we’re very proud of that,” Johnston said, referencing a deficit during the first two years of his term.
Johnston said he had saved the county money through the renegotiation of an electric contract and the rebidding of insurance, and had increased the county’s tax base by bringing in two large companies that in turn enhanced the workforce.
“We’ve brought over 1,000 jobs to Anderson County,” he said. “That’s my priority, with your tax dollars… bringing in new business and new industries. We’ve been able to add over $1 million to our general fund.”
Richards then asked Westley why he wanted to be elected as county judge.
“Having been an elected official for the past 15 years, I’ve had the ability to see issues the county has from the inside out,” Westley said. “There’s no way you can understand fully what a job entails until you’re actually in that position. But our county, right now, is running at a mediocre process, where it could be doing much better.”
Westley said one way to be “doing better” is to increase benefits for county employees – “our greatest assets.”
He said while the county couldn’t compete with the private sector as far as pay scale goes, there are still steps that could be taken to benefit employees.
“They need to know there’s going to be a pay grade increase for them. There’s an opportunity for them to increase their wages.”
He said he’d work to make sure the “basics” were covered first through balancing and prioritizing the budget.
For instance, he’d decrease the county judge’s travel budget from $10,800 to $4,800 a year and continuing education expenses to $5,000.
Westley said money was spent in excess, and “we need to prioritize where it goes” – such as to county employees, veterans, volunteer fire departments and the county’s century-old courthouse.
Westley said he also wanted to focus on building good infrastructure for the future.
“I believe in the next 30 years, you’re going to see the landscape change even more,” he said, “positions that may not have developed yet…because technology is changing so fast.
“We need to get out to promote what we have. We need to work with the cities around us, without reducing services, without raising taxes.”
In other matters, the candidates discussed expenses, public safety and the juvenile justice system, respectively.
Based on today’s challenges, Richards asked Lowe what issue deserved his focus in Anderson County, and how he planned to deal with it.
“I think our biggest problem is drugs,” Lowe said, noting a 20-month long multiagency investigation in which his office had been instrumental to bring down a drug trafficking operation.
“I think we can do more, Gary,” he said. “It will take the cooperation of each and every agency, so one of the things that I would like to do is to is seize more property from the criminals.”
Lowe gave an example from 2012, when a multiagency investigation of an illegal gambling operation resulted in the seizure of $2 million in assets for the county, specifically in new technology.
“I think we need to use our resources to attack criminals through their money,” Lowe said.
In response, Mitchell explained that today’s criminals are sophisticated with carefully calculated methods.
“I think here in Anderson County that our biggest challenge is the just and proper prosecution of these criminal cases,” she said. “And I mean not giving away fine-only cases for burglaries of a vehicle, resisting arrest… fine-only for DWI, and fine-only for DWI second. That’s not just and proper punishment.”
Mitchell posed the question to attendants of what message that sends to members of law enforcement and offenders.
“If we can send a strong message to these burglars, we will hopefully send a strong message to the drug users,” she said, “because drugs are the root of the burglaries; drugs are the root of the thefts.”
As for how she’d handle repeat offenders, Mitchell called it a “rough situation,” explaining that both those using the drugs and those supplying them must be dealt with.
“You have to absolutely make a statement with them, and you will not make a statement when you do what has been done in the DA’s office, when you give drug users a fine-only offense,” she said. “This summer, deals were made with defense attorneys for fines only on dangerous drugs and on the possession of marijuana cases. That’s not the solution.
“You’re not held accountable under the thumb of probation,” she said. “We have to send a message to them that the citizens of Anderson County are not going to tolerate their repeated behavior.”
In response, Lowe elaborated on what drugs do to a person, and how probation often doesn’t cut it.
“When I started as district attorney in 1999, I didn’t even know what methamphetamine was. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I’ll tell you that that substance, if there’s evil in this world, it’s methamphetamine. That substance is so addictive and so powerful that it takes people’s lives away... So the criminal justice system says that the first thing we’re going to do is to try to treat them, if it is an addiction.”
Lowe said the nature of an addictive drug problem makes probation hard for offenders, noting “if you have a drug addiction, your chances of making probation are less than half.”
In general, he said the first option is to help with the root problem by sending users to a substance abuse sanctioned facility.
“But at some point in time, you have to tell them, ‘You made your choice. You chose this drug over your family, your community, your life,’” Lowe added. “And we send people to prison everyday for drugs. You have to say to those people, ‘You made a choice, the wrong choice, and we’re going to lock you up.’”
Lowe said young people have to understand that drugs are anything but glamorous, and so his office has a history of giving stiff sentences to users.
Lowe said he was committed to the community and the fight against drugs.
“It’s been my great honor and pleasure to be district attorney. It’s been 16 years. My hair is a little grayer, but I don’t think our job is done, that my job is done for the people of this county.”
Lowe said over the years, he had built a great team of prosecutors and investigators, that his office had collected over $700 million in hot checks, started a family violence program and a DWI no-refusal program, and maintained a strong record.
“I’m proud of our record of prosecution. We’ve tried 110 felonies, we’ve tried 208 cases all together,” he said. “And so we’re doing a good job for this county, and before you throw out that, you need to think about the quality of work that you’re getting and what we do for you. And that’s why I want to be district attorney, because I think I’m invested in this community and we’re making a difference.”
In response, Mitchell said she did not make the decision to run for criminal district attorney lightly.
“I’m a fourth generation resident of Anderson County. I’m proud to be here,” she began, “and I am extremely qualified to be our new district attorney.”
Mitchell recounted her experience, stating she was a career prosecutor, licensed in 2000. She worked in the Anderson County District Attorney’s office for five and a half years, handling cases ranging from Class C misdemeanors to DWIs.
“I actually had never lost a DWI when I left that office. People were sent to jail and they were placed on probation, no one was ever given a fine only,” she said. “In 2006, I moved to the Special Prosecution Unit, and what I do there is I prosecute cases that occur on (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) property. Anything that happens out here happens in there,” she said, from drug to murder to sexual assault cases.
“I also am the section chief of our juvenile division, and what that means is I work statewide to prosecute through the Texas Justice Department. I oversee eight employees, I work with a very large budget, and I personally prosecute in addition to my supervisory responsibilities.
“So I have 13 years of experience and I’ve done a lot during that short period of time. I have a unique perspective. I have worked in 11 different counties, so what I want to do is take what I’ve learned at the various counties I’ve worked in and bring them to use in Anderson County.”
In response, Lowe noted it was he who taught Mitchell much of what she knows in trying cases. He added that her stance against employee corruption in the criminal justice system was weak, giving out deferred probation to those who deserved tougher sentences.
Mitchell said the office had become stagnant and stale under her opponent, and she had the enthusiasm and the vision to make a difference.
In other matters, the candidates discussed the court’s docket, the public’s access to the district attorney’s activities, and both candidates’ stance on running as Republican.
Early voting has started and is being conducted at one main polling location, the Anderson County Courthouse Annex, located at 703 N. Mallard St., Suite 103A. Early voting will continue from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. today; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Feb. 24-26; and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Feb. 27-28.