Hays County judge candidates Jeff Barton, left, and Bert Cobb, right, speak last week to the Hays County Fraternal Order of Police and the Hays County Law Enforcement Associaton. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The two-month run to the Nov. 2 general election began last week with the two candidates for Hays County judge telling county law enforcement that their race would be polite and civil.
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and former Central Texas Medical Center (CTMC) chief surgeon Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos) spoke to a candidate forum conducted on Sept. 7 by the Hays County Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the Hays County Law Enforcement Association (HCLEA).
FOP and HCLEA will soon announce which candidates receive their respective endorsements. The forum also included candidates for county sheriff, Hays County Court at Law No. 1 judge, 428th district judge and commissioners precincts 2 and 4.
Cobb did not outline a platform, but spoke of his personal and professional background, thanking Barton for “his courtesy,” and for keeping the political race “on a non-personal level” and “on the issues.” Cobb said citizens have a duty to stay informed and be political participants.
Cobb said he has lived and practiced medicine in Hays County for 31 years, before which he was in the U.S. Air Force. Cobb said he was mostly raised in Temple.
“We could not live safely without you,” Cobb told the police in the audience. “It’s the menial things that you do that really matter the most to us. It’s stopping to get the cattle off the road. It’s stopping and helping a stranded motorist. It’s helping someone that needs help when they need it … You are the face of Hays County. When someone calls 9-1-1 and you are sent out, you represent me, the court, the people of Hays County, and all your fellow officers. I’m very proud of you, you’ve done well.”
Cobb yielded the rest of his opening statement time to Barton, who said the county judge race would be “without rancor.” Barton said FOP endorsed him for county commissioner four years ago, for which he expressed appreciation. Barton said employees of the sheriff’s office four years ago were some of the lowest paid in the region until the commissioners court increased their pay to “a competitive level.” Barton said he took the lead on implementing an employee step plan for county law enforcement officers.
“Last year, in our first full year of implementation, when it would have been very easy to give up on that (step) plan, when our incumbent county judge back in the county recommended that we set aside that plan, I helped lead the efforts … to stick with it in a very tough budget year,” Barton said in his opening statement. “In a year when we weren’t able to give other county employees a raise, we honored the promise, the commitment we had made to law enforcement.”
Barton said law enforcement and judicial functions are fundamental, part of the county’s “core mission,” and require about 33 percent of the county’s budget. To address growth, Barton said the county needs to invest in “road and infrastructure and intellectual capital of our people,” preserve the county’s waterways and historic character, attract jobs and economic development, and build cooperation between government entities within the county and “rebuild those bridges of trust within county government.”
FOP and HCLEA asked the county judge candidates what they foresee as the most important issues facing the county in the next four years.
“First of all is water, second is growth, third is transportation,” Cobb said. “And fourth is jobs.”
Cobb said the county must conduct the proper planning for county growth. Cobb said the retirement plan for sheriff’s office employees is 15 percent under-funded.
“I think that’s an important issue we need to address,” Cobb said.
However, Barton said he had “just seen” an annual report from the county insurance committee which he said indicates the county’s retirement program is not underfunded but “is in good shape as far as I know.”
In their opening statements, the candidates for Hays County sheriff spoke of their professional experiences in law enforcement. Democratic incumbent Tommy Ratliff, appointed by the commissioners court in 2008 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Sheriff Allen Bridges, also spoke of his community involvement.
Republic sheriff candidate Gary Cutler said that, if elected, he would put a command staff in place to “keep up the jail” and comply with state jail standards. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) gave the county jail a failing grade on multiple occasions last year. The first inspection was invited by Ratliff, who had earlier advised the commissioners court of the deteriorating condition of the jail. TCJS gave the jail a passing grade in June.
“I was responsible for drafting, overseeing and dispersing a multi-million dollar budget for (Travis) County, for the sheriff’s office,” Cutler said. “I supervised approximately 10 different details under me. I had all the investigators, I had the narcotics unit, which I had assigned to the Austin Police Department.”
Cutler said he would see that officers continue to receive training they need and put a disciplinary system in place for officers based on Loudermill concept, which calls for due process and certain rights for public employees as they go through a disciplinary process. Later, Cutler criticized Ratliff for not having a designated internal affairs investigator. In his closing statement, Cutler said he wants all employees of the Hays County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) to know their jobs would be secure with him as sheriff.
“I know that’s a big issue,” Cutler said. “I’m hearing it throughout the county. I want to assure people of that. However, there would be some re-organizing. I’m not going to say there wouldn’t be. Also, I will put in place a promotional process on merit.”
Said Ratliff, “We are fair to everybody.”
Ratliff said he started a disciplinary program in 2008 similar to police departments in Austin and Round Rock. Ratliff said his office needs to be careful about instituting new disciplinary procedures because they may be harsher than they need to be. Ratliff said his office would examine adopting new disciplinary procedures if there is broad support for it.
Ratliff said the HCSO was more reaction-oriented before he became sheriff.
“We’ve become a lot more on the offensive,” Ratliff said. “We’re out there looking for crime. We’re not waiting for it to happen and go to it. Our people are hard workers. We’ve implemented a program where we have a burglary detail that goes out and gets into these subdivisions where people are having problems, works with our criminal investigations division. The bait vehicles are new to the county, the cameras across the county.”
Ratliff said he implemented a monthly meeting of Central Texas criminal investigators and established a full-time sex offender deputy with an administrative assistant. Ratliff said he also has implemented better firearms training, a criminal interdiction team, a new mapping system in the criminal investigations division, and a deputy who works with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The FOP began sponsoring candidate forums in 1998. FOP and HCLEA includes some officers from the HCSO, the San Marcos Police Department (SMPD), the Kyle Police Department (KPD), the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC), Texas State University Police Department (UPD), and the Hays County constable offices.