Sheriff candidates face off in twin forums

Posted 2/25/20

All four candidates for Madison County Sheriff gathered at the Kimbro Center Thursday to field written questions from audience members regarding issues in the county. Candidates for the other two competitive races, Tax Assessor-Collector and County Commissioner Precinct 1, were also introduced.

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Sheriff candidates face off in twin forums

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All four candidates for Madison County Sheriff gathered at the Kimbro Center Thursday to field written questions from audience members regarding issues in the county. Candidates for the other two competitive races, Tax Assessor-Collector and County Commissioner Precinct 1, were also introduced.

All other county races in this election cycle – all to be decided in the Republican primary – feature unopposed candidates.

Questions aimed toward the potential sheriffs Thursday included issues such as dealing with county growth, facilities, liabilities, the proposed bullet train and basic law enforcement practices. The candidates were also asked whether or not they would comply with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security as well as their views on abortion.

Candidates Les Neeley, Jon Stubblefield, Bobby Adams and Billy J. Reeves were all strongly against the idea of the proposed Texas Central Railway from Houston to Dallas that would cross through the county. They also shared a pro-life stance and a willingness to comply with ICE agents, if necessary.

The first of the questions, which were read by Madison County Texas Republican Chairman Kevin Counsil, referred to the rapid growth in Madison County, county pay raises and the state of the jail.

“Growth is coming and we need to be able to address that growth,” said Neeley. “We need to manage it or it will manage us.”

Neeley acknowledged the fact that county pay raises fall under the jurisdiction of the Madison County Commissioners, but referenced the need for higher salaries.

“Right now, a starting deputy sheriff starts at $17.30 an hour, which is $36,000 a year,” said Neeley. “I want to put together a salary study to see if we can get them a little bit better of a compensation. I think we can do better and I want to work with (County Commissioners and Madison County Judge Tony Leago) to get pay raises for our employees.”

Adams also addressed the potential problems that will continue to impact the county while growth inevitably continues in the coming years.

“Houston is slowly eating its way up here to us,” said Adams. “We have to be prepared for that. The only way the sheriff can really prepare for anything like that is to have the manpower to deal with it.”

Adams referenced the county’s drug problem and the new issues that will likely stem from it as more people fill the streets.

“These people need to be taken off the streets, but the penitentiary is not the place for them,” said Adams. “That’s the House of Hope. These people have a problem.”

Adams referenced a situation in Walker County from the 1990s, in which a chief deputy attended every commissioner’s court meeting and harped on pay raises, to convey the importance of constantly pushing for higher employee salaries.

“These people are hurting,” said Adams. “There is no reason for law enforcement officers to work seven days a week just to make ends meet. That is not right. These folks need us to help them as taxpayers.”

Stubblefield added to the question of growth by pointing out the importance of working with Madisonville city officials.

“One of our plans is to work with the city’s comprehensive plan and work on making five and 10-year plans on strategic planning and infrastructure,” said Stubblefield. “Hopefully working with them will give us a better idea of what our county, as a whole, needs to manage growth.”

Reeves, who answered this particular question last, added to the importance of working with County Commissioners in the fight for higher wages.

“I know these people and I know these commissioners and will work endlessly with them,” said Reeves. “I would work to get those people the raises they deserve. You cannot sleep good at night wondering if there is just one deputy on duty and where they might be. We need a plan to get more deputies on the street and the people need to know who they are.”

Neeley also acknowledged the need for more deputies, comparing the number of sheriff officers (13) to that of the Madisonville Police Department (12), despite covering an area of 472 square miles, compared with 4.29 square miles for the city.

Each candidate expressed a desire to give the county jail certain upgrades, but did not feel a need to replace the facility.

“I have worked in maximum security prisons throughout my 30-year career,” said Reeves. “Cleanliness, just like your momma taught you, is next to Godliness. I am not going to tell you the jail is deplorable. It does need work and there are some maintenance issues that need to be addressed.”

“A lot of stuff just needs to be fixed on the inside and we need an overhaul,” said Stubblefield. “It needs to look better out front. We have free labor, so it should never get that bad. Really, I do not see anything major that needs to be done to the jail as a whole.”

Neeley and Adams offered similar statement in regards to the jail.

“Our jail is structurally sound, it just needs a facelift,” said Neeley. “I would much rather spend what funds we have improving what is there and maybe we can get 10-15 more years out of it rather than go off into debt and spend $20-30 million on a new facility, have to float a bond issue and raise your property taxes. We do not need to raise property taxes.”

“There are operational penitentiaries in the state of Texas that were built in the 1800s,” said Adams. “All this jail right here needs is some expansion for the growth that’s coming. It needs to be cleaned up and looked at on a daily basis. Anything that’s wrong, no matter how small, needs to be fixed right then.”

Another question asked the candidates what they would do if given information on a criminal offense committed by a citizen of so-called “upper-crust” (or prominence). All of the candidates expressed a willingness to work with outside agencies to properly handle a case, if necessary.

“In a lot of cases like this, we will seek help from other agencies,” said Stubblefield. “It is usually the Texas Rangers we will seek out, that is who I would more than likely bring in unless we saw fit for some federal charges. We do not always have the resources to work these kinds of cases.”

“To me, it does not matter if you have a dollar in the bank or a million, the law applies to everyone equally,” said Adams. “It really depends on the particular case. In my position in the district attorney’s office I had the opportunity to work with several Texas Rangers, FBI agents, DPS narcotics agents, and a whole line of folks.”

Neeley joked about his local status and how it would assist him in this pursuit.

“Being the ‘new guy’, I am kind of at an advantage here because I may not know who all the upper-crust people are,” said Neeley. “If somebody brings us information on a crime, let’s go investigate it. If it’s an issue we can investigate in-house, let’s do it. If we have to bring in another agency, I know how to call them and I know how to call the Madisonville Police Department. We get help wherever we can find it.”

“I am smart enough to know when I am in over my head,” said Reeves. “I know who to call and if we need help from an outside agency, I have no problem doing that. Being with the state as long as I have, I have a lot of those resources. That’s available to everybody up here, but I do know many of those folks personally and can reach out without any issues.”

The candidates were also asked about the biggest liability that would impact the elected sheriff. All four agreed that the jail was the biggest liability.

“Fortunately, I know how to handle (the jail) because that is what I did in maximum security prisons with convicted felons who like to file lawsuits about every 15 minutes,” said Reeves.

Reeves also referenced potential liabilities with deputies and possible allegations against their use of force.

“These guys who are out on the streets patrolling are asked to make quick decisions at a moment’s notice,” said Reeves. “A lot of times, that includes using force. Sometimes, people will make false acquisitions about excessive force. But I do not worry about that as long as I know those deputies are trained in the right way of doing things.”

Neeley added to Reeves’ point by referencing the importance of body cameras and their role in exonerating falsely accused officers.

He also referenced the importance of civil service and knowing the many nuances that go along with it.

“In Harris County, we had a deputy with a court ordered writ of attachment from another state to take someone’s child away from them,” said Neeley. “The writ needed to be domesticated. We got sued big time for that. Somebody needs to know these things.”

Stubblefield, who answered the question last, offered a broader plan for handling liabilities as sheriff.

“We fix our liabilities with the knowledge we have and training,” said Stubblefield. “The better trained our people are, the less likely we are to run into liabilities. We need to always train every person on patrol to function as a supervisor. That way, no matter which officer you get, you are getting a person who is knowledgeable in the law so we do not have have those type of incidents.”

One of the submitted questions was not publicly read, but instead acknowledged by Counsil at the conclusion of the forum’s sheriff portion. Counsil stated he did not read the question because it was addressed to just one of the candidates rather than all four of them together.

Neely later informed the Meteor of the contents of the question, which inquired as to why Reeves is yet to become a certified peace officer despite running for Madison County Sheriff, and who would pay for his academy training, if elected.

“The office of sheriff was not something that was in my grand retirement plan,” said Reeves in a lengthy statement to the Meteor regarding the question. “It was something I only considered after being approached by several concerned citizens who asked me to run.

“Another part of this answer is that I am a loyal employee and currently employed by TDCJ as a armorer in the weapons facility. As a longtime department manager, I understand the stress of trying to rehire a position and would be remiss to leave and put my employer in a bind if my being sheriff is not what the citizens want.

“For those interested, my plan, if elected, is to do my best to find an academy that would allow me to start as soon as possible and have the course completed before I take office. My plan includes paying for this course so I will not be a burden to the taxpayers of Madison County.”

Reeves also inquired as to why his opponents have not enrolled in supervisory and jail safety management courses.

“We all have our individual strengths we bring to the voters, and the voters must decide what type of management and foresight our Sheriff’s Department needs for the future.”

Following the conclusion of the sheriff portion, the audience was introduced to the candidates for Tax Accessor-Collector and County Commissioner Precinct 1. The candidates for Tax Accessor were incumbent Karen Lane and challenger Shanah Grisham. Candidates for the open commissioner’s seat were incumbent Ricky Driskell and challenger Matt Post.

No question and answer portion was held for these candidates.

Another forum was held through the Madison County NAACP Unit 6193 at the Senior Center Monday evening.

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