The Republican Women of Upshur County sponsored the event at the Gilmer Civic Center, and organization President Rhonda Pope estimated 100-125 persons attended. The tone of the roughly 1 1/2-hour forum (not counting an intermission) was generally civil, although there were some pointed remarks and Sheriff Anthony Betterton created a stir by asking a question from the audience rather than submitting it in writing.
Of the 19 candidates in seven contested races who were invited to participate, only two didn’t appear. Tina Smith, running for county clerk, did not respond to the invitation, and Martha Goolsby Wilson, running for Pct. 3 justice of the peace, declined on grounds she had a prior engagement, Miss Pope said.
Candidates in the six contested races for county office, and in the 3-way contest for GOP county chairman, were questioned by a 3-member panel, and fielded mostly written questions from the audience. The panelists were KETK-TV News Director/News Anchor Neal Barton; Joyce Hugman of Gladewater, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee; and Gilmer free-lance newspaper journalist/businessman Phillip Williams.
Barbara Vogl moderated and read written questions submitted by the audience. Candidates also made brief opening and closing statements.
First up were County Judge Dean Fowler, seeking re-election to a third term after recently converting to the GOP from the Democratic Party, and his opponent, longtime Republican activist and former county GOP Chairman John Melvin Dodd. Fowler defeated Dodd in the 2006 general election.
Fowler said he was running as a Republican “to the dismay of a very small handful,” but to the joy “of many more.” Dodd pointed out he was a “lifelong” Republican.
Asked how a county judge could set the agenda for the community, Fowler said he could “frame the issues when it comes to the budget” and through “preparation of the agenda.”
Dodd responded that he favored holding budget workshops with each department head, and “I don’t intend to have bickering and snide remarks that we have too often in Upshur County Commissioners Court.”
On the possibility of hiring a road engineer for the road system, Fowler said the court “should look at that issue again.”
He said enough time had passed since only two engineers had applied for the job. One wouldn’t come for an interview and the other had been fired from another county, the judge said.
Dodd charged Fowler with breaking a promise to him to vote at the commissioners court’s Dec. 15, 2008, meeting to advertise for an engineer.
Concerning the often-heated atmosphere at commissioners court meetings, Fowler said “I see most of the problem...(of having) peace and harmony...(as being) caused by one elected official—one commissioner. There’s very litle I can do about it.” He said he tries to gain cooperation.
“This (bickering at court meetings) is not unusual to Upshur County,” Fowler contended, saying it’s “the way our system works.”
He did not identify the commissioner he cited as causing a problem, but it was an apparent reference to Pct. 1 Comm. James Crittenden, Republican with whom Fowler has long feuded.
Dodd argued that “the county has become the laughingstock of East Texas.”
“I can get along with all four commissioners,” Dodd said. “You will see a difference (in the tone of meetings), I can assure you.”
Fowler said he was “offended” that people would refer to the county as “a laughingstock, as Mr. Dodd does,” and argued it was wrong. The county has “made great strides” in his seven years as judge, Fowler maintained.
Dodd said he had gone to his first commissioners court meeting in 2005, and had been “shocked” at what he has seen there.
Winner of the Fowler-Dodd race faces Democrat James (Jim) Eitel in the November general election.
Last to appear were three of the four GOP candidates for county clerk — incumbent Peggy LaGrone, seeking re-election to a second term; Cathy Mullins, and Brandy Lee.
Winner will face Democrat Robin Rodenberg, who lost her bid for re-election to Ms. LaGrone in 2006, and Libertarian June Forbing in the November election.
Mrs. Mullins cited her experience of more than 20 years in the workforce. Mrs. Lee, a clerk for the Pct. 3 justice of the peace office since 2004 and a former records clerk in the county jail, cited her “eight years experience working for the people of Upshur County.”
Mrs. Lee also said she was responsible for ordering supplies in her office and that she’s the “one that has experience in local government.”
Asked to cite one thing that would make the office better, Mrs. Mullins said it needed an “air of civility” and to be “professional.” Mrs. Lee said the office “should be about politics only once every four years.”
Ms. LaGrone said the office is “run professionally” and that elections occur every two years. She said she “would continue on with what I have been doing” and make all county records available online.
Asked what she would do to improve her relations with others, Ms. LaGrone said “The news has taken some real hard shots at me, especially The Gilmer Mirror...Everybody needs to participate in this (improving relations).”
(The clerk said Sunday that her reference to The Mirror involved the amount of coverage the newspaper gave a federal lawsuit brought by two employees she fired. The case was settled out-of-court, and Ms. LaGrone was dropped as a co-defendant with the county.)
Ms. LaGrone also said that she had re-indexed records and “saved the county money.” She said her office had performed one project at a cost of $600 when an outside vendor had wanted $66,000 for it.
Asked what their problem was with Ms. LaGrone, Mrs. Mullins said she had no personal problems with the clerk and that her (Mrs. Mullins’s) agenda was not “personal,” while Mrs. Lee replied “I don’t really enjoy reading....(about Ms. LaGrone’s) trouble with other elected officials.”
Ms. LaGrone maintained that the problems have “not always been my doings,” and that she had “stood my ground.”
Asked about the impact of lawsuits on the county, Ms. LaGrone said an unidentified person had stated that he “has sought out an attorney to sue the county.”
Also appearing were the three candidates for the Pct. 2 county commissioner post being vacated by retiring Democrat Joe E. (Buddy) Ferguson. Either Cole Hefner, Don Gross, or Mark Mitchell will face Democrat Joe Newsom and Libertarian Allen Weatherford in the November election.
Hefner said he would be a conservative who would work with each department on budget issues. Gross also pledged to be conservative, citing his 30 years in education, including 12 as a school principal, and his current work as a school resource officer for the sheriff’s office. Mitchell said he had owned his own successful business for more than 15 years.
Hefner said he “would like to locate if there is any wasteful spending” and that he favored lower taxes. Mitchell said “lowering taxes would be a great thing.”
Asked what they would do to spur economic development and bring new business, Hefner said he would look for any way to invite industry to visit. Gross said he would “promote our schools, our churches, our people.” Mitchell said he would promote and show what kind of work force the county has.
As to the unit road system, Hefner said “it’s a good system if implemented correctly.” Gross said “voters wanted a road engineer,” and Mitchell agreed, but added that hiring one was a “tough question” since Fowler had cited the efforts to employ one.
Also questioned were the three GOP candidates for Pct. 4 commissioner — former Comm. Gary Drennan, Mike Spencer, and Ron South. Winner will face incumbent Democrat Glenn Campbell, seeking re-election, and Libertarian Vance Lowry in November.
South said he had time for the job and cited his skills in construction management. Spencer, who drew applause several times from the audience, said the county should be run “like a business.” Drennan, who lost the Democratic primary to Campbell in his 2006 bid for re-election, said “I enjoy serving people.”
South said he favored the unit road system, and didn’t understand why there is a “problem finding qualified people.” Spencer said “we need an engineer or someone who can manage this...get these roads fixed.” Drennan said he favored hiring an engineer.
Asked why incumbent Campbell should be replaced, South said Campbell was a “fine” man, but “I just don’t think he’s looking after precinct four business.”
Spencer said that at a commissioners court meeting, a paper had been passed to Campbell, who asked “no questions.” Drennan said two people had asked him, “How do you get something done?”; and had told him nothing had been done about a matter after Campbell had promised them action.
The candidates were asked their top priority. South replied he couldn’t say, but would like to act on hiring an engineer. Spencer said he could help calm the commissioners court, while Drennan said the county must pay more money to hire an engineer as “it may take more than $60,000.”
All three said they would take a pay cut in order to employ a road engineer.
The record of GOP County Chairwoman Brenda Patterson was raised when she and her opponents, Chrissy Fincher and Ken Ambrose, spoke.
A panelist quoted one of Mrs. Patterson’s supporters as saying that under her chairmanship, the number of Upshur County GOP elected officials had grown from one to 13; that she had paid the rent on the party’s county headquarters for seven months of the past year; and that she paid her own travel expenses on party business.
But Mrs. Fincher said “we need a positive image...(and we’re) not getting that right now.” Ambrose said Mrs. Patterson paying her own expenses brought up the question of how much money she has raised for the party, and charged that the rise in the number of GOP officials “pretty much had nothing to do with what she’s done.”
Mrs. Patterson disagreed with Ambrose’s statement about the increase in Republican officials, and said she didn’t mind paying her expenses as a volunteer. She also said the party had “made some remarkable achievements” in her seven years as chairwoman, and “it’s not just about the county chair.”
Asked about critics’ claims that she and her husband were living in the GOP headquarters, and that she paid election judges late, Mrs. Patterson said, “no, we don’t live there,” although they spend considerable time there working. She also said that some monies to help pay the judges didn’t come in from the state at first.
Sheriff Betterton, asking Mrs. Patterson about party finances, said she had contended that she “didn’t have to keep a record of that or make that public.” He asked if she would now make the record public.
“You’re showboating,” someone shouted at the sheriff from the audience as he asked the question.
The chairwoman said Betterton had confused “primary money vs. party money,” and that some records “are not public” in some cases.
Ambrose assailed Mrs. Patterson’s wary reaction to five elected county officials converting from the Democratic to the Republican Party last Dec. 1. Praising their character, Ambrose said it was “repugnant” that she had responded, “We’ll have to see how it (their action) turns out.”
Mrs. Fincher said, “I just want all the in-fighting (among Republicans) to stop.”
On their general qualifications, Mrs. Fincher cited her experience as a precinct chairman and officer in the Republican women’s club, saying she had created unity and a positive image with that group. Ambrose said he had been in business and understands “how things work.” Mrs. Patterson said she represents 16 counties on the State Republican Executive Committee.
The candidates in the Pct. 1 justice of the peace race, incumbent Wyone Manes and Laura Norred, also touted their qualificatons for the post they seek.
Mrs. Manes, seeking re-election, said she had kept her promise to be “a working judge” and allows payment plans for paying fines. Mrs. Norred, who works in communications in the sheriff’s office, said she had worked under four judges and would do a “wonderful job.”
Mrs. Norred proposed keeping the JP office open till 6 p.m.one day weekly for working people to pay their tickets, and said she would be “more accessible” than the incumbent. But Mrs. Manes said she was accessible, that persons could mail in their ticket payments, and that “I don’t think it’s good for the taxpayers to (pay to) be open” till 6 p.m.
Asked her stance on deferred adjudication — no conviction appearing on a defendant’s record if he/she successfully completes probation — Mrs. Norred said it was a “good thing” which kept cases out of county government. But Mrs. Manes said a justice of the peace cannot grant such probation.
Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch, whose sole opponent in the primary is Mrs. Goolsby, said she would not ask for a pay raise if re-elected and that she had “done so well in this first term.” She said she had had 76 death inquests in the last three years, but had had to order only 26 autopsies due to her medical background (as a nurse).
She also said that with the exception of a couple of pending cases, she had been able to dispose of every criminal case in her court without going to trial.