Local, state candidates answer questions at VFW forum
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Voters of Copperas Cove had the opportunity to meet and hear from local Republican candidates at the Candidate Forum held last Thursday evening at VFW Post 8577.
Candidates in the Constable Precinct 2 race and the race for the County Chair position briefly introduced themselves, while candidates for County Sheriff and for House District 59 Representative each fielded questions sent in by audience members.
Candidates present included Shawn Camp and Chuck Wilson, for Constable Precinct 2, Jack Barcroft and William Abel, for County Chair, Roger Hammack and Sheriff Scott Williams for Sheriff and Rep. J.D. Sheffield, Cody Johnson and Shelby Slawson for House District 59.
County Sheriff Candidates
Hammack and Williams answered questions following a brief introduction from themselves.
Hammack shared that he had 25 years of experience in law enforcement. He said he thought that it was better when he was starting out than it is now, when people have to go to the academy for several months.
“I don’t think they teach the people in the academy of what protect and serve actually is,” Hammack said. “They teach them that their injuries or their security is more important than the people they’re working for. I was never taught that way, and as of today, if I put a badge on again, I’ll take a bullet for anybody in this room, whether it’s a civilian or it’s another police officer.”
He called law enforcement a calling that he received after reading about his great-great-grandfather, who was the third sheriff of Coryell County, during the Civil War.
Williams shared that he is an advanced peace officer.
“I went to that five-and-a-half- month training academy where they taught me a book of laws,” Williams said. “They taught me to be community service oriented. They taught me to protect and serve, then they taught me to drive fast, shoot a gun, all that good stuff.”
Williams said that since he’s been in office, he has modernized the sheriff’s office and “brought it out of the 80s.”
“We’ve forged great relationships with both the Copperas Cove Police Department and also the Gatesville Police Department,” Williams said. “That is something that was not there prior to me being in this office, and I’ll tell you I cannot take the credit, all the credit, for Copperas Cove. Chief [Eddie] Wilson back there and I have worked tirelessly to bridge this gap. It ain’t perfect but it’s a hundred times better than it’s ever been. That is probably one of my greatest achievements.”
Williams said if given the opportunity, he would continue to fit for each and every one of the citizens of Coryell County.
The first question asked whether Hammack thought there was anything missing form the Sheriff’s Office and what would the next program to be implemented be.
Hammack said he would have a full-time deputy at the schools in Evant and Oglesby. He also mentioned that there is a stray dog problem in Coryell County, and he would look into a county animal shelter. Hammack added that he would hold a town hall style meeting every spring and possibly a fish fry for the community.
Williams said he would choose to expand the county’s Crisis Intervention Unit made up of mental health deputies.
“Those folks are really working hard to keep folks with a mental illness out of our jails,” Williams said. “What I would like to do is I would like to grow that. Right now, it’s a grant-funded program, and the grants are almost up, and what I would like to do is to fold that unit in and create another division that’s paid for by the Coryell County citizens. I know that seems like a lot, they have about a $500,000 budget but they have saved us $2.7 million in putting folks in jail that don’t need to be in jail, so they have more than paid for their salary and their operation.”
Barcroft asked a follow-up question about the training deputies have to help them respond to PTSD related situations.
Each crisis intervention unit deputy is a certified mental health peace officer and a certified and trained crisis negotiator, Williams said.
“We will spend hours on end, sitting there trying to talk somebody down because they might not want to save themselves but we want to save them, and if we can get them over that crisis hump and get them the help that they need, most people can work through it with the help of people around them,” Williams added.
The next question was posed to Hammack first and asked how would the Sheriff interact with county officials such as the County Commissioners.
Hammack said that he would meet with two commissioners at a time so as to not violate the Open Meetings law, as well as meeting with the County Judge, to discuss items to be placed on the agenda.
“You got to be on board with the commissioners,” Hammack said. “You got to support them and hope they support you too because the Sheriff is the one that has to have the budget set up to run the Sheriff’s office and the jail.”
Williams said that he and the commissioners all work together, as professionals.
“[Commissioner] Kyle [Matthews] and I have gone nose to nose; we’ve butted heads, but you know what, it’s business,” Williams said. “It ain’t nothing personal.”
Williams added that despite not agreeing on every single thing, they can work through issues and respect each other at the end of the day.
The next question asked about the staffing of the jail.
The standard is to have one jailer per 48 inmates.
“The Coryell County jail supersedes that hands down,” Williams said. “The way our jail is built, it takes four to five per shift to operate our jail. With us housing out of county so much, on my day shift, there’s usually seven or eight in place and that is transportation officers.”
Williams said that with a new 240-bed facility, he would only need two to three more jailers per shift.
The next question asked about the timing of building a new jail and justice center and which should be prioritized.
“I feel like that we likely need a jail,” Hammack said. “Now how big it’s going to be and how much it’s going to cost; we need to know.”
Hammack also brought up problems the jail has previously faced, including the death of a female inmate, which resulted in jeers from the audience.
When Williams stood up to answer the question, he asked Hammack, “Is that all you got?” before addressing what he called “ignorant remarks.”
Williams acknowledged the death of the inmate and pointed out that the case went to a Grand Jury and had an open inquest with several subject matter experts who said there was no criminal act and that the inmate died of natural causes.
Williams moved on to answer the question of a new jail by saying he believed the county should build one.
“Our building that we’re in right now is very antiquated,” Williams said. “We failed our jail inspection last time not by how our jail is run. It failed because the building is coming down around it. We scrambled and we scraped, and we did everything we could to get back into the positive light of the Texas Commission of Jail Standards. We did and as far as the law enforcement center, we’re sitting on top of each other right now.”
Williams added that he runs a Sheriff’s Office that operates 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
The final question was directed first to Williams and asked what the number one challenge is for the Sheriff’s Office.
“The number one challenge I see is competing in market where I have to retain staff at such a low salary,” Williams said.
Deputies could go to Burnet or Williamson County and make $20,000 more than they do in Coryell County, he added.
“Probably the greatest challenge is for us to work with the Commissioners Court to get some sort of economic development in here which will give us more funds instead of taxing the crap out of us homeowners,” Williams said.
Hammack said he felt like the number one problem is the jail. He added that he agreed that deputies need to be paid more.
“Now if we could come up with a way to come up with a few cuts on some of the benefits that they’re getting, we might be able to pull it off,” Hammack said.
He said he would personally take a $10,000 pay cut if elected. During his closing argument, Hammack added that he would also have more deputies patrolling the county.
During his closing argument, Williams explained that the call volume and number of arrests made nearly doubled once he took office.
“To sit here and be disparaged by a man of this caliber is horrible,” Williams said. “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to disparage him. I ask that you do your due diligence and research both of us…I don’t claim to be perfect, but I’m honest. I have a high level of integrity. I have a high level of morality, and I believe in community service. I believe in public service.”
Texas House District 59 Candidates
The candidates for the State House of Representatives District 59 also answered several questions following a brief opening statement.
Shelby Slawson, from Stephenville, shared that she is a “fierce and unapologetic conservative” who believes in limited government, low taxes, reasonable regulation, defending the Second Amendment, is pro-life and believes in personal responsibility.
“Now, you and I live in the best part of the greatest state in the nation and it’s because of our people out here who are working for a living, raising their families, paying their bills, minding their business and honoring their God,” Slawson said. “It’s because of rural Texas that we have a Sen. Cruz today instead of a Sen. O’Rourke. It’s us, so it is inconsistent for us when for the last eight years we’ve been represented in Austin by someone who consistently ranks at the bottom of the conservative index, is the second most liberal Republican in Texas. It’s just not in line with the strong, conservative principles and values that we have out here.”
The current incumbent for HD 59 is Rep. J.D. Sheffield, a physician who has been practicing in Coryell County for 27 years, the last two of which have been in Copperas Cove. Sheffield has been in office for four terms, or eight years.
“You can get down there and sit on the floor day after day and never stand for anything and take the safe votes, take the votes that won’t get you an opponent in the primary,” Sheffield said. “Just go with the flow, but that’s political expediency. I don’t do that.”
The third candidate for HD 59 is Cody Johnson, who called himself a professional cowboy. He started by mentioning accusations made against him earlier that day. He asked if the audience thought the media’s treatment of President Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had been fair and called the accusations made against him “political sabotage.”
“We live in a troubled time,” Johnson said. “Our government is screwed up. If we allow this to continue to happen, we’re not going to get any better. We’ve got to change things, y’all.”
The first question for the candidates asked about a thing called “chubbing”, where representatives will kill a bill and prevent it from moving forward by talking for 10 minutes straight. The Senate counterpart is called “filibustering.”
Barcroft asked, “If elected what would you do to work with your colleagues in the House in trying to return civility to the House?”
Slawson answered that she has a long history of working with a variety of leaders.
“I’m a very collaborative person and over the years, have served from economic development to annexation, education foundation, a lot of places like that, by selection and appointment by other leaders in the community, so I have a long history of being able to work with people with diverse opinions,” Slawson said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have strong opinions of my own, but there’s a difference between talking about issues and making things about personalities. Part of what we’re seeing right here is the inability to draw that distinction, so to bring about that crossing the aisle and working with other people, you have to have someone with the personality and the demeanor to be able to separate and articulate issues from people, and I have a long history of doing that.”
The next question asked the candidates what they would like to help get accomplished as far as pro-business legislation to help Coryell County.
Sheffield said the key is to start by lowering property taxes, which the state legislature worked on by increasing the state’s portion of public education from 38 percent to 45 percent to help take some of the strain off local and property taxes.
“Combine that with the homestead exemption increase that we passed, and that’s a significant step in the right direction,” Sheffield said. “Now the next thing to do is to cut regulation, and that’s where these unfunded mandates cause so much problems and so much trouble.”
Sheffield mentioned that the House had passed a bill to stop unfunded mandates, but the bill did not pass the Senate.
“We have too much regulation as it is already, we don’t need anymore,” Sheffield said. “We need to cut what we have, and I think that’s one of the best things that President Trump has done this term is to cut regulation for so many businesses.”
The third thing Sheffield mentioned is the need to have good schools.
“That generation in those schools is our next generation,” Sheffield said. “They’re our most important generation. We have to have them, by the time they graduate, either college ready, vocational ready, military ready, but we need them especially to be lifetime ready, and they need to know how to be good citizens and so we need to educate those folks locally and provide them business opportunities so they stay local and don’t move away.”
On the question about school choice, all three candidates expressed their support for public schools.
Slawson said she thought the issues found in public schools don’t come from the local schools but rather from Austin and from things such as standardized testing.
Johnson said he thought that schools need to offer more challenging courses such as Home Economics, advanced Ag classes and different kinds of industry.
“We’re teaching our kids, and we’re sending them off to college and they’re getting these big fancy, liberal arts philosophy degrees, and when they’re getting out, they have all this debt, and they don’t have no jobs,” Johnson said. “Our trades are lacking.”
On the topic of standardized testing, all three candidates agreed there should be less testing.
“We have way too much standardized testing in our public schools at this point,” Sheffield said. “We have way too many teachers who feel forced to teach to the test because their job can rely on their students’ test scores. That’s wrong.”
Sheffield said that he believed TEA should be turned into a resource that provides material and resources but does not mandate any type of testing.
When asked about anti-abortion legislation in Texas, Johnson shared that he was adopted. His biological mother was 16 when Johnson was born in 1968.
“I was one of three thoughts- abort, keep or put up for adoption,” Johnson said. “I’m lucky to be here, y’all. Conception is life to me. It will always be that. There’s no middle ground, there’s no gray ground. If you’re going to conceive a baby, that’s your baby.”
Slawson said she also believed that life begins at conception and that Texas is failing in that it is not leading on the issue of abortion. She said she would bring forth a heartbeat bill, which would ban abortion after a heartbeat is detected, typically within the first six weeks of conception.
Slawson said she is endorsed by Texas Right to Life and pointed out that her opponent, Sheffield, has not brought forth any pro-life legislation.
Sheffield said that he is endorsed by two of the three pro-life organizations in Texas and was a joint author of a pro-life bill signed by Governor Greg Abbott in the recent legislative session. He said he is not endorsed by Right to Life because of his views on abortion when it is medically necessary for the mother’s life.
“When it comes to issue of a woman whose pregnancy is harming her life, as a doctor, I believe that woman should have the right to make the decision as to her treatment,” Sheffield said. “She can choose to terminate the pregnancy and live or to take her chances. Now, as a doctor, that comes down to a decision by the patient.”
The final question asked was about what each candidate would do to influence the management of TDCJ, especially since a person could be working full-time at the prison and still qualify for food stamps.
“These correctional officers in the gray work every day in 100-degree heat shoulder to shoulder with people who would like to kill them,” Sheffield said. “Think about that. That kind of atmosphere and we’re paying them such a paltry sum.”
He said that TDCJ needs more funding. As a state representative, Sheffield said he brings up TDCJ often.
Slawson said that pay is a big component but is not the only thing to focus on. Another thing to focus on must be the issue of severe understaffing. Slawson added that there are softer things to do to help solve the problem.
“Being willing to invest in the training of those individuals so that they can create other opportunities for themselves down the career ladder,” Slawson said. “Making sure they have the appropriate equipment that they feel safe when they are physically in that facility is an important component of that, and just to have the respect as a professional within the industry because some of them have voiced concerns before that while they are working in a very difficult environment, they feel kind of lesser than than some of our other law enforcement officers.”