Challenger Bill Huddleston, left, and incumbent Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff, right, squared off last week at the League of Women Voters debate. The two men are vying for the Democratic nomination for Hays County Sheriff in the March 2 primary election. San Marcos Local News photo.
By SEAN BATURA
In perhaps the most aggressive performance at last week’s San Marcos Area League of Women Voters (LWV) debate of Hays County primary candidates, Democratic Hays County sheriff challenger Bill Huddleston drew rhetorical steel and hacked at what he perceived to be incumbent Tommy Ratliff’s weak points. Ratliff launched no attacks, but dismissed Huddleston’s criticisms as being inaccurate.
Huddleston launched his first strike as he answered the LWV question about how to prevent future maintenance problems associated with the Hays County Jail, which failed four different state inspections last year before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) ordered the county to close the jail kitchen.
Huddleston said Ratliff unnecessarily brought state scrutiny on the jail. Ratliff said the jail had been neglected for too many years and needed serious attention.
“As sheriff, I would never have called the state jail commission … to come down, do an unscheduled inspection of that facility, which cut off our ability to have any flexibility in the continued maintenance of that facility,” Huddleston said. “It put us in a bind. Thank you, commissioners, for bailing us out of that. But I know that facility can be maintained with good management.”
Said Ratliff, “This jail is 22 years old, and there are a lot of problems with the jail. They certainly didn’t happen overnight. This is something that’s been ongoing for a long time. The issue with the roof has been ongoing for over ten years. If it had been fixed over ten years ago, then a lot of these problems wouldn’t have happened. So, we’re working with the commissioners court, and we’re taking care of business, and we getting it done and taking care of the Hays County Jail.”
Huddleston said that if the commissioners court had known about jail deficiencies for ten years, it would have budgeted for repairs at some point, which, he said, it did not.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) also recently criticized Ratliff’s decision in April 2009 to invite the TCJS to inspect the jail.
On Nov. 5, TCJS ordered the jail’s kitchen closed, which put a crimp in the county’s timeline for repairs. The county had initiated various repairs after receiving notices of noncompliance from TCJS in April and September.
Through an administrative loophole, the county forestalled the kitchen closure in November, saving tens of thousands of dollars in mobile kitchen rental fees. The kitchen has since been shut down and is undergoing repairs.
More than two weeks before the TCJS inspection that Ratliff invited, he presented the commissioners court with a report detailing jail problems, such as prisoner overcrowding and a caved-in ceiling, which, he said, resulted in more inmates being shipped to Guadalupe County. Ratliff also told commissioners that the county had neglected jail repairs “for several years,” and that the court needed to “step forward” and fix the problems. Ratliff warned commissioners of increasing costs for shipping prisoners out-of-county.
Guadalupe County has charged Hays County more than $255,900 this fiscal year for housing prisoners, with more prisoners than normal being sent out-of-county due to ongoing jail repairs. Hays County budgeted $350,000 this fiscal year for housing prisoners out-of-county.
The jail’s deteriorating roof is in the midst of being replaced. Repairs associated with the jail roof may cost $665,100, minus possibly as much as $293,442 in settlement money. Ratliff said recently that the commissioners court became aware of the availability of settlement money on Dec. 13, 2000. The commissioners court did not engage in discussion or cast votes regarding jail fixes in the two weeks following Ratliff’s presentation.
During the portion of the debate involving questions from the public, an audience member asked Ratliff about the Buda patrol, a sub-department of the Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) devoted to patrolling Buda. Buda Patrol was created by contract between the county and the city, the latter of which chose last August to let the contract expire in April.
The audience member asked Ratliff if Buda city councilmembers cancelled the contract because Ratliff demoted and reassigned then-Buda patrol Captain Bo Kidd without first consulting them. The audience member said something he read indicated the council had been “furious” at Ratliff. Ratliff said “it was a real long story” which could not be told fully, given the time constraints of the debate.
“I can tell you this: it wasn’t because I demoted anybody,” Ratliff said. “That person took another position at the department at his request.”
Ratliff said the questioner was “certainly misinformed about a lot of things.” Ratliff said he has a “good relationship” with Buda’s mayor, city manager, and city council, adding that his department will continue to provide law enforcement services to Buda just as it would to other parts of the county, whether or not Buda patrol disbands.
Huddleston lost the November 2008 election for Hays County sheriff to the Republican incumbent, the late Allen Bridges. After Bridges passed away from a heart attack in a month, Ratliff and Kidd were among those considered for interim appointment to the sheriff position. The Hays County Law Enforcement Association endorsed Kidd. The commissioners court voted, 4-1, to select Ratliff.
In July, Kidd asked Barton, who represents the Buda area, to place a request for two upgraded mobile radar units on the commissioners court agenda. During the July 21 meeting at which the court would have decided whether to buy the equipment, Barton announced he was pulling the item at Ratliff’s request.
The next week, Ratliff demoted Kidd to detective and reassigned him to the Narcotics Investigation Division. As a result of the demotion, Kidd’s salary shrank by $14,183.64. His earlier salary was $78,320.76.
In August, Buda Councilmember Ron Fletcher said that though the Buda patrol contract, according to the city’s attorney, is based completely on the goodwill of all parties, “we’ve seen no sign that we should expect any goodwill whatsoever from the sheriff.”
Huddleston told the questioner at last week’s debate that he was “not entirely misinformed” about what happened.
“I think we all know what it’s like to have a supervisor tell you, ‘You do want to request a transfer, don’t you?'” Huddleston said. “As sheriff, I would never have offended the people of Buda to the point that they voted to break a contract for service with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office that Sheriff Bridges worked so hard to establish.”
Responding to the league’s question of how to mitigate the problems of excessive driving speeds and noise, Ratliff replied that he became active in a program — Project Graduation — aimed at fostering responsible driving behavior in public school students age 17-25.
“I think education is very important,” Ratliff said. “That’s why I became involved in that. We have an enforcement division … in the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, and we have people enforcing the law and using good judgment out there.”
Ratliff expressed confidence that county law enforcement policies, coupled with continued educational outreach, will “keep people safe on the roads.”
Huddleston said the county provides good law enforcement services to residents, but said there is always room for improvement. He said one way to improve services is for residents to provide more customer feedback. Huddleston said though he is not working for the HCSO right now, he still considers it his department. Huddleston worked for more than two decades in a variety of capacities for the HCSO.
“Because I helped build it for over 20 years, and I helped train the people there,” Huddleston said. “And the input from you, the relationships that we have with you, are what (will) dictate, and help us provide the services that you want, including traffic services.”
Answering an audience member’s question of how to change what he said is the public’s perception of an overly-political sheriff’s office, Huddleston said it is not perception, but reality.
“The way the issue with the jail was addressed and was conducted, that must have been all political,” Huddleston said. “What possible reason do you call for an unscheduled inspection that you know is going to fail, unless it is not manipulative and political?”
Huddleston said “the buck stops” at his desk, and vowed to keep politics out of the sheriff’s office should he be elected.
“I have really good employees at the Hays County Sheriff’s Office,” Ratliff said. “There’s no politics in play at all there, we’re just protecting the citizens of this county. There is no politics being played on the jail issue. We followed exactly what we were supposed to do. The commissioners court is responsible for maintaining the jail, and I’m responsible for maintaining the safety of the people that work there, and inmates. It’s the commissioners court’s responsibility to provide the funds, not mine … Once they did provide the funds, then the jail started getting fixed.”
Hays County commissioners voted in October to spend $1,455,388 in short-term repairs to the jail and about $246,400 for consultant firm Broaddus and Associates (B&A) to conduct a physical assessment of the jail.
As of November, the county paid Broaddus and Associates (B&A) about $61,581.81 for overseeing repairs to the jail, plus about $70,244.70 for related consultant fees to MGT for that firm’s analysis of the county’s justice system. The MGT study, recently released, is intended to find ways to move people through the justice system faster, saving space in and wear and tear on the jail.Email | Print