A forum for Republican candidates for four Upshur County offices in the May 29 primary sparked some lively exchanges Thursday night before an audience of about 100 persons at the Gilmer Church of Christ annex.
Most, though not all, of the candidates for sheriff, Pct. 1 county commissioner, Pct. 3 commissioner, and county Republican chairman showed up to field questions from a 3-member panel, and written questions from the audience, at the gathering sponsored by the Republican Women of Upshur County.
Diane Crabtree, president of the GOP women’s group, said Friday she thought the turnout was “great.”
Subject matter ranged from Sheriff Anthony Betterton, who is seeking reelection, debating his record with his challengers, to whether the two incumbent county commissioners seeking reelection and their opponents would be willing to cut their own salaries.
Panelists included Gilmer Mirror Editor Mac Overton; Gilmer businessman/free-lance reporter Phillip Williams, who writes for four area newspapers (including The Mirror); and Mollie Herrington, deputy president of Region One of the Texas Federation of Republican Women. Barbara Vogl acted as mistress of ceremonies.
Candidates who participated besides Betterton included all three of his challengers, Larry Webb, Donald Willeford, and Greg Mandreger; Pct. 1 Comm. James Crittenden and three of his four opponents, Mike Chandler, Wayne Oney, and Richard (RB) Hodge; Pct. 3 Comm. Lloyd Crabtree and his lone opponent, Frank Berka; and GOP County Chairman Ken Ambrose, seeking reelection.
One candidate for Pct. 1 commissioner, Paula Gentry, and Ambrose’s two opponents, Cynthia Ridgeway and Chuck Mears, did not attend, although Mrs. Crabtree said they were invited.
Each candidate was allowed a 45-second opening statement, and a 45-second closing statement, while answers to questions were also limited by time during the more than 1 1/2-hour event.
After the candidates for the two commissioners’ offices spoke, the contestants for sheriff plunged into a discussion of Betterton’s performance as he seeks a fourth term. Betterton said in his opening statement that he had a “proven record” and a “team of people behind me that’s doing a great job,” and his challengers were asked why the county needs a new sheriff.
“He’s shut the department in and (is) not listening to the citizens,” Webb charged, pledging to “build a relationship” with the public.
“I think Sheriff Betterton has lost touch with the whole of the county,” said Willeford, who charged the Sheriff’s Office treats people with lesser incomes “differently” from other people.
Mandreger, who ran unsuccessfully against Betterton in 2008, said running against someone makes the challenged person better. Mandreger said that when he ran, “I saw major improvements” in Betterton’s office in equipment.
Betterton replied that, “I was raised poor” and “I’ve not lost track with the people in this county.”
He blasted Webb for speaking at a private gathering last week to get front-page publicity in The Gilmer Mirror, saying that was “not being fair to the citizens of Upshur County.” Webb replied he was invited to speak at it.
Betterton also said his office’s recovery rate of stolen property was better than the Longview Police Department’s (where Webb is employed), but Webb said the two agencies could not be legitimately compared.
Earlier, the candidates were asked what changes they would make in the Sheriff’s Office.
Webb said he would retain current personnel, but “the big thing would be (to) change the relationship” with the public by keeping it informed.
Willeford said he would probably keep the staff the same, but probably make changes in the office’s “upper administration.” Mandreger said he wanted deputies to receive “pay that they can survive on” and “not have to worry about working a second job.”
After those comments, Betterton said, “I’d like to thank my opponents for telling me I’m doing a good job.”
He also said he had put together an office that could work with other agencies. Although “there’s some people in this room I refuse to speak to,” Betterton added, his office handles complaints.
Mandreger then said he would like to keep the current team in the Sheriff’s Office together, while Webb said he wanted to improve its communication with city police departments.
Betterton protested that “they’re (his opponents) saying the Sheriff’s Office does not work with these other agencies” when it actually does.
Also during the debate, he and Webb quoted budget figures as they appeared to spar over the office’s expenditures.
Webb said the sheriff’s jail budget decreased, but that the separate budget for the Sheriff’s Office increased this fiscal year.
“All it is, was a number shuffle,” Webb charged.
But Betterton blamed the County Commissioners Court for erring in budget line items, citing the fact the court had two new members, an interim county judge, and a new county auditor during the budget process. The sheriff said County Auditor Janice Tucker added some funding for him.
Concerning spending for the Sheriff’s Office, Willeford said it can “cut these high-dollar cars that we have.” He also said the office needed to mark all autos which aren’t involved in the Criminal Investigation Division or undercover work.
“We’ve always gone to cheaper cars,” Betterton responded.
Webb said he would keep the jail certified by the state, and solicit outside contracts to house prisoners from outside the county. He said Upshur County lost 20 Smith County inmates it was housing when the local jail lost its certification for a time.
Earlier, Betterton contended that nearly every jail is undercrowded and “begging for inmates.” Asked how the county had had a projected $700,000 shortfall last year on revenue from housing prisoners, he said there was “no way to fix that problem till somebody gets” overcrowded.
As for Upshur’s jail losing its certification, Betterton said the Gregg County Jail had, too.
Mandreger said he planned on “no empty cells” in the local jail by making sure lawbreakers were brought to justice, but Willeford dismissed that idea, saying that with no empty cells whatever, the county would have to spend a large amount of funds to house its inmates elsewhere.
Asked how they would secure additional funding for the Sheriff’s Office, Webb and Willeford said they would seek grants and try to house inmates from other counties for pay.
Mandreger said he would start a “cold case unit” with retired volunteer officers working without pay.
After those comments, Betterton declared, “Again, I would like to say thank y’all.” He pointed out he had obtained a grant for his school resource officer; and contracted with Gilmer ISD to provide security to its campuses.
When Mandreger said he’d like to use money from drug seizures, Betterton said “We’re doing that.”
Later, Webb’s comment that he would institute a rural community safety program with citizens on patrol brought a retort from Betterton that at a “crime watch” meeting, four of the seven persons who showed up were candidates for office.
Betterton also said of one of his opponents, “His man will not be running the Sheriff’s Office” if the sheriff is reelected. (Betterton did not identify the “man.”)
The sheriff’s candidates, all of whom have years of experience in law enforcement, also responded to various rumors or statements about them.
Mandreger, asked about a rumor he lacks a Texas state peace officer’s license, said he has one, carried by the White Oak Police Dept.
Asked about criticism from Betterton over his performance when he was the county’s emergency management coordinator, Mandreger replied he had handled three train derailments, two hurricane evacuations, and had written an emergency management plan.
Willeford, asked about a rumor that he has trouble holding a job and doesn’t stay anywhere very long, replied, “When I’m lied to, belittled, why should I work for someone that doesn’t care a hill of beans about me?”
He also said he was not anyone’s “good old boy.”
Webb and Mandreger were asked to respond to a past statement by Willeford that of the challengers to Betterton, only Willeford had experience dealing with jail work and civil processing. Webb and Mandreger said they had experience in those areas, with Webb saying his jail experience came when he was a military policeman.
Betterton was asked about a statement by District Attorney.Billy Byrd that he is keeping Byrd’s office from seeing certain information on computer—such as persons’ criminal histories on a state website, and who is in jail. Byrd has complained this hampers his work.
The sheriff replied that he had nothing to do with the state website. Betterton also said that if Byrd had a problem with the county’s Information Technology department, “he needs to contact the I.T. department.”
In the Pct. 1 commissioner’s race, Crittenden and Hodge said they would not cut their salary for commissioner, while Chandler and Oney said they would.
Crittenden said he is a full-time commissioner, while Hodge said he would be taking a 50 percent pay cut from his current job if elected.
Crittenden, seeking a third term, said “We’ve made great progress since I’ve been on the (commissioners) court.”
“I have been your voice up here. . .I ask the questions in court,” he said. “I have been recognized in the paper and in the media (for being). . .your voice,” he said.
He said the county had cut its budget by slightly more than $1 million and is on track “to be ahead of the game.”
Chandler cited his experience in the oil and gas production business and in real estate. He said he would cut “fat” in the budget that has been “grossly neglected.”
“Start cutting those things that are unnecessary,” Chandler urged, complaining that the county’s share of financing the Upshur County Appraisal District is $180,000.
He said he could change the county’s financial picture from being in the red to being in the black.
Oney, owner of several computer stores, said “economic development is one of my goals” and complained that “maintaining the roads of Upshur County has been random at best.”
He said the court needed to let county Road Engineer Eric Fisher repair the roads under the county unit system.
Hodge, a cattleman and storage business owner, said he had 40 years retail management experience, including experience in payroll budgets. He said he would “definitely research grant money” and pursue businesses to relocate to Upshur County, which might prevent increasing property taxes.
Asked about the county tax rate, Crittenden said the court had lowered it for several years that he was in office until last year, when it wasn’t increased “more than we needed to.”
He said county taxes are “very reasonable,” and indicated he thought school taxes were what is burdensome.
But Chandler cited the increase of slightly more than two cents in the tax rate last year and complained, “We’re already taxed to death.”
However, Oney said one had to look at the history of the tax rate, noting it had been “effectively lowered” before last year.
“The tax rate had to go up. I think it’s a fair rate,” Oney said.
Said Hodge, “I don’t believe the current rate is. . .excessive.”
The candidates were also asked what they could do about county roads, which are now under appointed County Engineer Eric Fisher rather than commissioners’ direct control.
Chandler said the county doesn’t have the funds to repair roads properly, and suggested cutting into other parts of the budget to free up funds for that. For example, he complained, spending $66,000 on the county’s phone service is “ridiculous.”
Oney said he would “get involved with the road engineer”and make a plan for improving roads.
Crittenden said the court has “got to allow the engineer to get in there and evaluate (roads)” and “leave him alone.” He additionally said the court must either raise taxes in order to improve roads, or live with current roads a bit longer.
Crittenden also said the $66,000 cited by Chandler isn’t just for phones, but is for “all communication services in the county.”
Said Hodge, “I’m not a big advocate of the unit road system (which the county now has.)”
“If he’s (the engineer) not doing his job, then the commissioners need to address that issue,” Hodge said.
Crittenden faced some written questions from the audience, and denied a rumor about him, saying “I have not solicited anybody to sue the county. . .I am not out encouraging lawsuits.”
In the Pct. 3 commissioner race, Crabtree, seeking a third term, said the current county tax rate “does not completely fund the expenditures of this year’s budget.” He said the tax rate “must be too low.”
As for roads, Crabtree said, “You cannot build better roads cheaper. . .Better roads and less money do not go together.”
“The roads are a very big issue,” he added. “We’re not keeping up with the maintenance. . .Our budget this year (which Crabtree voted against) was a disastrous budget,” cutting nearly $1.2 million, he argued.
He said the county must put more money into the Road and Bridge Dept. and that Fisher has been on the job only 1 1/2 years, so “he’s learning.”
Crabtree also said the county “cannot operate the way a business can. . .We have to provide the service(s)” to citizens.
As for his salary, Crabtree said, “I will not cut my salary because I have to provide for my family. I’m not independently wealthy. I have to work for a living.”
He also touted his experience on the job, saying reelected officials “understand how the process works.” In addition, he said, he serves on the East Texas Council of Governments’ group which tries to bring economic development to the area, and he was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Regional Review Committee.
Crabtree’s opponent, Berka, cited his campaign motto of “strictly business” and his 40 years’ past experience running new car dealershps. He said he had managed budgets more than twice the size of the county’s.
He said the county’s property tax rate is “okay as long as the values of properties stay current.”
Berka also said it was “ridiculous” that the county budget has funding to repair only 13 of the county’s 850 miles of county roads. He said the county might need to prioritize road work.
He also said voters’ first concern was “the reputation of the county.” He charged that Longview hospitals “suggested to our (county) employees that the county doesn’t pay its (hospital) bills.”
Berka also said he would propose that all commissiners take a $16,000 pay cut. If that didn’t pass, he said, he would donate $16,000 of his salary to such agencies as libraries, the Veterans Administration, and fire departments.
He also said he hoped to keep the county “out of the media” except for “positive” news.
Fielding a question from the audience that accused him of identifying himself with an unnamed group that has done “harm to the party,” Berka replied he didn’t “feel like I have aligned myself with anybody.”
GOP County Chairman Ambrose, last candidate to appear, cited several accomplishments during his first term as chairman, including a party headquarters which is open to the public; settling the party’s outstanding debts; and bringing more Upshur Countians into the GOP than ever.
Asked about his opponents’ published accusations that he is a “dictator” who has misused party funds, Ambrose said, “All I’ve ever asked for is cooperation. . .We need to work together and come together.”
He said his opponents on the county GOP Executive Committee have a “misunderstanding of the (party) rules.”
That segment of the party is hosting a separate county Republican convention from Ambrose’s on April 21. (His is set for 1 p.m. at the Gilmer Civic Center, theirs for 10 a.m. at the Disabled American Veterans post.)
The state GOP convention will accept a delegation from only one of the county conventions, and Ambrose predicted that those who attend his opponents’ convention “won’t be credentialed when they get to the state.”
A Republican source told The Mirror that the state GOP website lists Ambrose’s convention as the county convention for Upshur County.