President Ronald Reagan once said that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”
Personally, I believe that to be true as well, but in the case of government in Parker County, and those running for office for the first time or re-election, I sincerely believe their hearts are in the right places.
Last week, I had the privilege, along with some of my brethren in the media business, to play a part in a political forum hosted by the Parker County Republican Party. Hundreds filled the courtroom of the historic courthouse creating an almost Norman Rockwell scene.
My cohorts and I fielded dozens of questions, carefully written on cards, that were addressed to candidates running for a variety of positions. Several cards were omitted as they were determined to be “gotcha” type questions squarely aimed at disparaging contestants.
This is how it went down.
State Board of Education - District 11
• First up was Lady Theresa Thombs who is running for State Board of Education, District 11.
Thombs told the audience that she had been a small business owner for more than 20 years with “real-world experience.”
“I’m a real estate agent and I have served all over the world doing mission work with children,” she said. “I have been in countries where kids are sitting on dirt floors, with no shoes and not knowing where their next meal was coming from.”
She said she witnessed children sharing paper and pencils, working trigonometry questions “long handed,” quicker and more accurately than children with calculators in the states.
“There is a huge disconnect.,” she said. “It is time we started getting back to the basics of education, of reading, writing, mathematics and history the way it actually happened, and without the social agenda.”
She then told a story of a woman that she works with whose son will be graduating this fall from high school. She said he has taken the Army entrance exam on three occasions but has failed to pass it because he cannot pass the multiplication portion of the exam.
“It’s time to get back to the basics,” she finished.
Her challengers Patricia “Pat” Hardy and Eric Mahroum were not in attendance; no questions were asked of her.
• Jeane Brunson, incumbent, introduced herself as having 22 years as the County Clerk and, prior to that, served for two years in the county judges office in whatever capacity she was needed.
“During my tenure as County Clerk, I have seen to it that all offices have been brought into the future with high technology,” she said.
She said in the event of a natural disaster that her offices could be back up and running in a matter of hours.
“All documents are held off site and not close to Weatherford,” she added.
Before any question could arise regarding her attendance at Commissioner’s Court, she herself brought up the issue.
“You may hear I’ve not been in Commissioner’s Court but 77 times last year or 85 times the year before,” she said. “I can tell you it’s because I have 22 employees, five budgets and five separate offices. I do delegate the duties of the County Clerk’s office to my employees, who are deputized to sign my name.”
• Challenger Paula Durant said she’s been with the clerks office since 2010 and has quickly moved up to positions of greater responsibilities.
“This race isn’t about who’s been here longer or their tenure,” Durant said. “It’s about who you feel is better suited for the job.”
She said the job certainly comes with “enormous” responsibilities and that one that she plans on doing, if elected, is to do away with the “use it or lose it” mentality.
“A lot of the offices in the county are required by their elected officials or departments heads when it comes to the last month of the fiscal year to spend it,” she said. “I don’t see a problem with it going back into the general fund.”
She said she would bring the county further ahead in the area of technology which she felt Parker County lagged in, and that she would have a open-door policy because she would be in her office every ay.
Can you talk a little about technology in your office, what you have done in your term with technology and what you would like to do to improve the technology in the future?
“I will tell you that Parker County, as a whole within the court system, will be going to an entirely new system this summer,” she said. “I don’t see the need to improve on anything when the entire county will be combined into one court system to meet the specifications by law.” She said it’s county wide and they will work together.
“I don’t need another system,” she added. “As far as records and deeds are concerned, our software is always updated.”
She added that she also has an employee scanning court records who is not paid by taxes.
You’ve mentioned we are behind in technology in the county. Can you explain that and how do you plan to pay for any new technology that the county does need?
“The technology we have in place is perfectly adequate, but as far as having all of our court records online and available -- those are not,” she said. “We’re not utilizing positions we already have available.”
Durant also said that she wanted residents able to use credit or debit cards with the same ease the county has.
County Commissioner, Precinct 4
• Steve Dugan said he has worked with the county for 29 years and alongside six different commissioners.
“I’ve earned the endorsement of our current Commissioner Dusty Renfro for this position,” Dugan said. “I’m experienced in road construction and bridge maintenance and have experience with the county budget process and purchasing procedures.”
He said he wasn‘t a politician, but was a conservative.
“I know what it takes to do the inter-local agreements and addendums that allow us to work with other towns in our precinct,” he added. “If you elect me, I’ll continue to improve our roads and bridges.”
• Fred Hammons told those in attendance that he’s had 20-plus years in law enforcement and has worked in the public sector more than 25 years. He sees communications as an issue.
“There’s no communication between the Commissioner’s office and the citizens,” he said. “I feel like I have things to bring to the table that will benefit Parker County as well as Precinct 4.”
Question one for both
What actually is the responsibility of the Commissioner’s office?
Dugan: “I believe it is two-fold,” Dugan said. “First is to take care of roads, bridges and streets and the other is to manage a budget.”
Hammons: “I believe roads and bridges are one thing,” he said. Then he spoke of the Walsh Ranch development saying that there was a lot on the horizon to deal with in that location.
Question two for both
What is your solution to the deer problem in the area?
Dugan: “We’re going to have to get some help from the state,” Dugan said. “I live in the area and they are plentiful; some eat my plants and bushes but I guess I sacrifice that because I like to watch the deer.”
Hammons: “I believe live traps are just too harsh,” Hammons said. “We’re going to have to work with game wardens and commissions to get a game plan. It’s all because of development - they have no where to go.”
• Cary McKay, a Parker County resident for almost 16 years and developer by trade, said what he would like to see is more transparency.
“What I would like to see is a much more transparent court in our Commissioner’s Court,” he said. “I believe it is time we videotape our courts, I believe it would be an enhancement for you the taxpayer, to see your court and know what’s going on.”
McKay took a shot at his opponent, saying he didn‘t believe it was right that the court, with a commissioner, the judge and an auditor, meet outside the court and discuss a $1.3 million shortfall.
“It should be done in court in public record,” McKay added. “Our court has to be above reproach.”
He said what’s “amazing” was that the county’s budget has seen an increase of 110 percent in the last 10 years, from $19.6 million to $41.3 million.
“Folks you are either happy with my opponent or ready for a change,” he said.
• Incumbent Mark Riley welcomed the crowd to the historic courthouse, which underwent a makeover since the time he became County Judge.
“It came in on time and under budget, something government doesn't always do, and I'm proud of that,” Riley said. “The County Judge has multiple duties and judicial duties are part of it.
He said he resided over one of nine courts in this county.
“It’s an important court,” he said. “I hear guardianship hearings, mental competency hearings, set bonds...it’s this important because it affects lives every time a decision is made.
“I have the temperament and the character to make judicial decisions and that's important.”
Year-after-year, Riley said, he has complied with the Judicial Code of Conduct during this election as every candidate is supposed to.
“Administrative duties are the other half of my job, the other other 40 hours a week,” he said. “It's not a part time job; we've had part-time volunteer commissioners, you don't need a part-time volunteer judge.”
He emphasized that he had no business interest that would conflict with the decisions he makes.
“Eighty-two percent of the 354 counties in Texas have a higher tax rate for the general operating fund than we do,” Riley said. “You can’t afford on the job training with the growth we’ve had.”
He said the county has won an award for “transparency” from the state comptroller’s office and that the bond rating has gone from A- to AA, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Riley received applause from the crowd when he spoke about the Western Loop.
“The transportation bond projects are on time and under budget and in just five years, something I was told would never be done,” he said. “And we’re almost through with the Western Loop; it will open in just a couple of months.”
Question one for both
What is your plan regarding transportation for Parker County?
Riley: “We have a plan, which is public, and always has been, done by TxDOT in 2004 for the entire loop west to east,” Riley said. “You funded the western portion with your $80 million,” referring to the county taxpayers passing the $80 million transportation bond back in 2008.
He said he was also glad to be a member of the Regional Transportation Council which consisted of 43 people that, by law, makes decisions about state and federal transportation dollars.
“I’m secretary of that group now and will be be the Chairman in 2015, we can’t afford to give up that position,” Riley added.
McKay: “I’ve been in this county for 15 years and we’ve been talking about this loop, it has continued to drag, drag and drag,” he said. “We can do better and can go faster.”
He said that planning needs to be with everyone together.
“Folks, let not forget one thing, we need to plan for water or generations to come will not have it,” he said. “I’m the only candidate that wants water and finally gets us a plan so the government will get off our private property.”
Question two for both
What would you do to improve public safety through the Sheriff’s Office and for the county itself?
McKay: “I’d like to see our Sheriff’s deputy well equipped,” McKay said. “I don’t believe we need as many ‘inter-management people,’ I believe we need more sheriff deputies on the road.”
Riley: “I have a proven record supporting law enforcement in this county dating back to 1987 when I was Commissioner and you don’t ‘micro-manage’ that department,” Riley said.
Riley received more applause when speaking of the Sheriff’s Department.
“I heard my opponent talk earlier about getting in there and working with departments,” he said. “We have the finest sheriff in the state of Texas in [Jerry Fowler], he knows what he’s doing and I’m proud to have his endorsement.”
As a rebuttal to the issue of water, Riley said the county has no statutory authority to do anything about water.
“If I were a developer I guess I’d want the taxpayers to pay for my water systems for my developments as well,” Riley said.
• Challenger Dedra Vick said she and her husband have owned a successful convenience store for more than 25 years and that the next step in her career, she wanted the opportunity to use her knowledge and experience as a public servant.
“If elected, I pledge the same dedication to the duties of the Treasurer office as I did maintaining all those years in business,” Vick said. “Being fiscally responsible for all the financial transactions, I've been a treasurer practically my whole life.”
She said she realized what a “huge” responsibility it was to be Treasurer.
“To take care of your money as Treasurer, my primary goal is to do my best for the taxpayer and keep your dollars safe,” she said.
She said the Treasurer has to follow strict guidelines of the Public Fund Investment Act and receive commissioner’s approval. Final decisions about the investments are not made by the Treasurer.
“Information is supplied to the court to make that decision,” she added. “The Treasurer does not have sole power to invest; I will follow the guidelines and keep your tax dollars safe.”
• Jenny Barnwell said she was appointed to the position of treasurer in 2013 to fill the unexpired term of the late Jim Thorpe.
“I have more than 32 years of combined business and investment experience,” she said. “Since being appointed your Treasurer, I have revised the investment policy which is up for approval with the court. I've also implemented the new financial system the county previously purchased. We have a new payroll system, accounts payable and accounts receivable program.”
She said all of her staff are cross-trained, and that they don't need any more training.
“What I do want you to know about this decision is that the Treasurer is not just the banker, it’s the reconciler, the negotiator for bank depository contracts, this is about fudiciary responsibilities of managing your tax dollars, and there are millions,” she added. “I have that experience because I have managed millions.”
She said the county currently makes approximately $6,000 in income from money that has been idle in money market accounts calling it “pitiful.” However, if the funds were managed more effectively, they could earn as much as $250,000 to $300,000.
“I want to keep this position, I have a lot more to do,” Barnwell said.
She said she was the only candidate that had the ability to implement investment strategies and a plan that can make the county money.
You said you have had experience running a small business, can you be a little more specific and tell us how you feel it qualifies you to be the county Treasurer?
“Our business grew from nothing to a million-dollar business,” she said. “We reported to the state, reported to TECQ, to EPA. I managed five accounts; we’re lein holders, we own rental property so I'm used to a lot of bookkeeping and financial aspects.”
Question two for both
What specific investment experience do you have and how much money have you managed at one time?
Barnwell: “I have 13 years of investment experience,” she said. “I have acquired all of the licenses required in order to have a business as an investment broker. I have managed well over $70 million before; and have helped plan multiple portfolios for people to retire on and our own business.”
Vick : “I have managed our personal investments as a common-sense person.”
Justice of the Peace - Precinct 3
• Ann Hollis said she has lived in Parker County more than 33 years and has been at the Sheriff's Office more than 20.
“During that time, I worked in the jail helping with arraignments and worked with inmates,” she said.
Afterward, she moved on to patrol and worked with juveniles.
“I was a school resource officer and then moved into the area of crime scene and the area of advanced finger prints,” she added.
Later, she became an Advanced Peace Officer and has the certification to back it up.
“I would like to increase the time we have in court for citizens,” Hollis said. Perhaps consider nighttime court or Saturday court. The idea is to make it more convenient for the citizens.”
She said she would also like to possibly implement a teen court, where juveniles would go in front of a court of their peers.
“My job as JP would be working for the citizens,” she added.
• Dusty Vinson called himself the "hometown" choice.
“For more than 21 years, I've had the pleasure of serving the community,” he said.
Currently, he said he is a senior investigator for Parker County DA's office where they handle all felony cases in the county.
“Prior to that, I've worked my way through the ranks of the Parker County Sheriffs Office going from Deputy Sheriff Field Training Officer to Corporal to Sergeant and on to Lieutenant,” Vinson said. While lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office, I was third in command.”
He said during that time, he commanded a patrol division where “I helped create, maintain and operate a patrol budget of $1.3 million.”
“I am former officer of the year, I hold Master Peace Officer Certification which is the highest form of license a peace officer can achieve,” he added.
• Jerry Hataway began his law enforcement career in 1985 as a patrol officer for the City of Arlington Police Department.
He said he decided to retire in January 2012 after reaching a highpoint in his career, commanding both a state and local task force preventing victims of human trafficking from taking place during 2011 Super Bowl.
He is a veteran of the Navy and has served on three different aircraft carriers. He’s also a former employee of General Dynamics where he worked for several years on the F-16 program.
He too is a Master Peace Officer and has experience in office management, budget planning and implementation.
Question one for all three
What would you tell someone new in your precinct why you deserve their vote?
Hollis: “Because I'm involved in what's going on in the community,” she said.
Vinson: “I have been involved in this community too,” Vinson said. “I’ve worked holidays and nights, while y'all been sleeping, I've been protecting your property. I want to continue to serve.”
Hataway: “I have a strategic plan to go forward and I've set my priorities,” he said. “I've set short and long term goals that will take place once the election is over.”
Question two for all three
Have you ever been involved in developing and maintaining a large budget, can you elaborate?
Hathaway: “As a commander with the Arlington Police Department, I have,” he said. A budget of approximately $1.3 million.
Hollis: “I've sat on many executive boards,” she said. “Having said that, you assist with and manage the funds and say where it goes.”
Vinson: “As Lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office I helped create and maintain a patrol budget,” Vinson said, “There's a big difference in working with a budget and creating a budget so, yes, I have experience in that.”
Justice of the Peace Precinct 4
• Bernard Suchocki said he is a conservative Republican with 32 years as a trial attorney.
“I have 14 years experience as a NASA engineer,” Suchocki said. “Over 32 years, I tried numerous cases in a lot of counties in Texas and I can tell you I will be a fair judge that listens to all grievances and render an opinion without any emotion or political influence.”
He said for the last 10 years as an attorney, he has developed a passion to be a judge.
“The three reasons why you should vote for me: first has to do with the work ethic and skills; second is knowledge; and third a promise,” he said. “I've had the experience as a young man of training, and also learning, from the best of the best.”
He said he both trained and learned from Apollo astronauts beginning with Apollo 7 all the way to Apollo 17 in guidance and navigation which included Neil Armstrong.
“I will bring the same work ethic as Justice of the Peace,” he added. “Second, I bring 32 years of legal and trial experience and third is the promise I will be a full-time judge.”
• Lynn Johnson, the incumbent, is also a lawyer and upon taking the position as Justice of the Peace wasted little time
“Since starting in January of 2011 we’ve worked our tails off,” Johnson said. “We organized, moderated it and increase productivity by 100 percent.”
She said during her time as JP, she has seen 16,000 cases.
“We've done this so our community could be proud,” she said. “Second, we provided legal information to the community so they can prepare themselves for coming before the JP.”
She said, third, she has focused on juveniles and was founder of the Teen Court in her precinct.
“I am pretty passionate about it,” she added. “Teen Court is one of those places where you have kids that have offensives come before a jury of their peers.”
She told of one young lady who was caught shoplifting a phone charger.
“She had the money in her pocket and she did it on a dare,” she said. “She came to Teen Court with her dad and answered before a jury and explained why she took that charger. That experience was far more impactful than for her to pay a fine.”
• Candidate Greg Martin did not attend the forum.
Early voting began Feb. 18 and runs through this Friday. The primary election is March 4.