Saturday, February 13, 2016

Notes on Brewster County Democratic Primary Candidate Forum, Alpine, Feb 13th, 2:00 PM.

I attended the Candidate Forum hosted and moderated by Big Bend Gazette publisher John Waters at the Alpine High School Auditorium Saturday February 13th, 2016. Offices up for election include the regional 83rd District Attorney position. The territory for this election includes Brewster, Presidio, Pecos, and Reeves Counties. Current DA Rod Ponton is being challenged in the Democratic Primary by Alpine attorney Jaime Escuder. The winner of the Primary will face Republican nominee Sandy Wilson from Marathon in the general election this coming November.

I had to leave this meeting near the end of it when I was notified about the passing of Antonin Scalia. I had to make some phone calls and respond to some messages regarding the inquest, which I would have had to do if I hadn't already committed myself to attending this forum.

Here are the notes:

Brewster County Democratic Party Primary Elections Debate
Alpine ISD auditorium, February 13th, 2016. 2:00 PM

Candidates present:

District Atty race: Rod Ponton, Jaime Escuder
Brewster County Sheriff's race: Ronny Dodson, 
Brewster County Commissioner Pct 1 race: Angie Bermudez, Luc  Novovitch
Precinct 3 commissioner up for re-election Ruben Ortega present.

Not present: Commissioner Precinct One candidate Carlos Lujan, Brewster County Sheriff candidate Cornelio Vega.

John Waters, moderator

Questions limited to one minute.
Questions from the public. Questions should be directed towards policy, not towards the candidate.
Rebuttals allowed within certain parameters.

Mary Bell Lockhart asks everyone to check out some handouts available at back of the room, including precinct maps.

Beginning comments:

Includes unopposed candidates

Roy Ferguson: 
Says that Poncho Nevarez was on his way from Del Rio, but children got sick in the car ride, and he is going to miss. Sends message of thanks for support, talks about progress last session.
Ferguson thanks everyone for support in 2012. Talks about jury pools and case loads. Thanks also the legal community for their support. 
Talks about running for re-election and how running for re-election focuses on accomplishments. Speaks about the improvements his office has made in the last four years. Speeding up legal system, affordability issues. Digital conversion has been achieved. Judge-driven docket instead of atty driven. Change from the past.
Digital dramatically cut expenses. In-court technology upgrades.
Streamlined docket system, leaving more time for jury trials than ever before. 
Cases are now disposed in months rather than years. Goal is to dispose of cases as quickly as possible. Backlog has been eliminated.
Every verdict has been affirmed by the courts of appeals, criminal and civil. 
Court appointed counsel takes hours instead of days, weeks. 
Outside work helping educate the community about the legal system. 
Currently serving in second term of Court of Appeals in El Paso as a substitute.
Oversees County Auditors.
Gives thanks to the community for support and for voting.
End at 2:16

Betty Jo Rooney, Brewster County Tax Assessor.
Reviews roles of County tax office.
Can now offer quarterly payment options to senior citizens.
Escrow payments can be made as well. These are new advances.
Her office tries their best to assist everyone as much as they can. She has been a public servant for 30 years now. She and Leo Dominguez have seven Sul Ross students as asst deputy election administrators.
Urges everyone to vote.

Candidate opening statements: 3 minutes each

Rod Ponton: active Democrat for 23 years. Thanks all the elected officials, voters for their interest. Commends Brewster Co commissioners court. Thanks Ken DeHart, former district judge, who is present.
Says he knows almost everyone here personally. Moved to Alpine in 1957. Loves it here, thinks this is the best part of Texas.
People are the thing that help make this area special. 
Graduated from UT, went to Texas Tech law school. Practicing lawyer since 1982. Elected DA in 2012, has served as Presidio County atty and Presidio city atty.
Current with all dockets, works hard to bring justice to all victims of crime in district, the largest in Texas. Honored to serve.

Jaime Escuder: Agrees with Ponton that he, too, loves this area. Remarks that he works very hard every day trying cases as opposed to campaigning.
Doesn't feel like he is an outsider, but doesn't think that has anything to do with justice or the DA job, regardless.  DA office is very important. Must make sure that victims have recourse, but also that the office has utmost integrity.
The process of being indicted is the most important thing that can ever happen in an accused's life. Not to be taken lightly or for political purposes.
Humility is extremely important. Must be careful about the job as well as firm.
District 394- he believes we need a better DA office, focuses on increasing the reputation of the court system in this District. 
Requirement is justice, not necessarily number of  convictions. 

Questions from audience regarding DA

Oscar Cobos: wants to know about expertise versus beliefs. 
Favor and disfavor, beliefs matter, first question is regarding whether you believe in God and separation of church and state.
Ponton says he is a Christian, church member, believes in first amendment, also in practicing beliefs
Escuder says we have an obligation to live as morally as possible everyday in every way, preserve the habitat. Believes in Constitution of TX and USA

Second Cobos question: open meetings act violations have not been pursued. How much would you be willing to pursue investigations.
Ponton says he knows the act and will fully investigate any violation of act. No reports thus far, but would be investigated if they were.
Escuder says that he would definitely pursue charges is they were warranted by law enforcement investigation.

Barry Zavah: Asia about caseload. Ponton: What is the difference in caseload as compared to before your tenure? Escuder: what do think about cases not pursued by Ponton vs case pursued and any controversy?
Ponton: says victims had been crying out for justice, picked up old cases, reviewed them, pursued them. Channing Murry case referenced. Chacon case referenced by Ponton in bringing forth old cases, succeeding in convictions. District-wide pursuit of back logged cases. Over 300 cases back logged when he came into office. Took care of it.
Escuder: Speaks of indictments that have been possibly biased. Says that prosecutors have the power to indict and dismiss therefore there is no reason to be losing jury trials if the cases are not strong. Weak cases should either not be pursued, or should be negotiated to plea.  Says he would like to leave it to audience's own imagination as to why some things look bad.
Rebuttal from Ponton: says that jury outcomes have been presented by opponent as DA's fault. References Tony Flint case. Took case to trial to represent victim and family. Sister of Glenn Felts wrote a letter in support of the efforts by the DA's office. Grateful despite loss. Jury system has the opportunity to say not guilty. He is not ashamed of the system, despite disagreeing with the outcome. 
Escuder: Estella Watts DWI case, other cases that Escuder and Kirk Meade won that were not prosecuted properly.

Brian Shugart: do you believe in death penalty?
Ponton: yes, but in rare occasions.
Escuder: I will not avoid the question, despite opinions of public. Says he absolutely  does not believe in death penalty.

Sheriff Forum:
Ronny Dodson:
Opening statement. 
16 years, seeking fifth term. 
Took office 16 yrs ago and had substandard equipment. 
Developed impound lot to generate revenue to purchase equipment. Money is used for law enforcement purposes and and drug education. Chief deputy is great at managing grants. Putting together a great long term staff has been rewarding. 
Jail: has increased jail fund by nurturing relationship with Federal Marshals. Have increased yearly from $270,000 to over $700,000. 
Jail is successful for federal and local people.
Huge responsibility.
 Wants to continue on as Sheriff. Happy with the new commissioners court, has more to do in this job prior to being done with it. Opponent did not show up, but wants questions from the public anyway.
Questions from public:

Theresa Zelasny:
Asks questions about what the crosses on the vehicles mean to the Sheriff's office.

Dodson: says that the thin blue line on the crosses are pretty cool. Local person brought it to them. Whether you believe in God or not, nobody helps deputies when they are in the field. Situation can be scary. Feeling of divine person watching over them can be a help to individual officers.

Theresa agrees but she sees that sometimes a person of another faith could be made to feel like they may not be treated fairly. Disregard for separation of church and state? She thinks it's wonderful from a personal perspective to have faith. Is it best practice to appear as if beliefs could affect law enforcement activities?

Dodson: oh no, we don't feel like we would ever discriminate against everyone. Has nothing to do with anything but spiritual protection, mindful protection for officers. 
Border is not secure, it is dangerous, and extra security for people in the mind means a lot. Mentions Jewish friend who put cross on his own car to support law enforcement.

John Waters asks about Jewish friend: what about putting a Star of David or Muslim symbol on cars? Yes, I would says Dodson, as long as there is a thin blue line on it. 
Pressed further, Dodson says that he would not put a Muslim symbol on the car since that is not what he believes.

Ponton: says when issue arose, he took a picture, sent it to TX AG for an opinion. 
Recently a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn was ruled to be ok. 
Clarified to TX AG that Sheriff was not providing discriminatory service. Asked for opinion, but it is not DA's decision to make. Will comply with whatever decision comes down.

Escuder: says he does not believe and has never seen evidence that Sheriff Dodson discriminates, but would have strongly advised against it, since it could discourage people from contacting Sheriff, bring doubt about service. Even the hint of bias on public offices is not something he would encourage.

Question from Bernie Zelasny
Suggested in an email to sheriff to put a Co-Exist sticker on cars. Would he do that? Sheriff says yes, as long as there is a thin blue line. 

Congenial behavior amongst audience members.

Break for five minutes at 2:58.

Reconvene at 3:07

Commissioners Court pct 1

Angie Bermudez: opening statement
Glad to see everyone. Native of Alpine. Raised here, born in 1947, raised in Catholic School until third grade, tried public school. Went back to Catholic school. Later went to public school and played basketball. 
Sul Ross University majored in eduction, minor in Spanish. Enjoyed working as long distance operator. Zero dialing came in, she moved to teaching for a year. 
Assistant clerk at post office at Sul Ross. Worked as director for 35 years. 
City council at Alpine from 2009. Loved council so much she decided to try for commissioner. She loves challenges, knows it is harder than city. She wants to serve and promises to be great.

Luc Novovich- moved to Big Bend in 1998
Came to US in 1988. He and wife were in the news business. 
Marathon for fifteen years, moved to Alpine three years ago. 
Had been appointed last year by Judge Cano to commissioner. 
Very surprised to be chosen. Made it clear to Cano that if he was chosen he would not be a rubber stamp. Has not been. Open to compromise. Working on what's best for County. Baptism by fire with introduction of pipeline by company at his first meeting. Was blunt with the company. Pipeline has been one of his big issues, he has been insisting on safety and security after researching what his power really could be. 
He has a strong interest in improving the ambulance services, especially for long distance transport. Out of county transport by ground had not been available. Has now initiated a ground transport ambulance service at hospital.
Truly believes that locally democracy still exists. One of the last places for localized democracy.

Brian Shugart: question for Carlos Lujan (not here). Received a campaign flyer with serious accusations about current commissioners court. Wants to see proof of accusations because allegations are destructive. Unfounded accusations need to be addressed. Put up or shut up.

Waters: invites candidates to reply to Lujan's accusations. Does either candidate have any information regarding these accusations? "11 ghost employees stealing $50,000"
Novovich says he does not know the details on it, says it's important to know who is asking the questions, making the accusations. Novovich tried to speak to him about the allegations, Lujan said he would provide info, but never got it to him. Novovich thinks the new County Auditor would have found something, anything like this, she is very competent.

Sheriff Dodson: says that the allegations and that the incident in Terlingua when the former treasurer made accusations about all this that is was a blindside. 
Sheriff and commissioners called Homeland Security to get expertise. HSI and the bank determined that it was run of the mill attempted fraud by unknown people outside of county government. 

Novovich says that they were surprised at the commissioners court meeting in Terlingua when this was first presented by the treasurer. Says that with further investigation that it was determined that it couldn't have come from within the County. Lujan has been trying to turn it into a large conspiracy.

Dale Christopherson: question for Bermudez and Lujan. Concerning 2014 negative audit. Incumbent Novovich has been educated and responsive to these issues. How does it make sense to replace someone who is educated about this already? 

Bermudez: says audit speaks for itself, she has been through multiple audits. It speaks for itself, you read it, get in and fix things and try to improve for the future.

Novovich: says with all due respect this is from 2014, before the current commissioners court. Putting new policies in place by the new court includes knowing why things were not right, fixing these things through policy changes.
Says that problems are from throughout County government. Educational process about issues takes time, unity. New unified software system is a first step, a really good one. This is 2014 audit, 2015 may look worse. We are dealing with it

Bermudez: she knows about this audit. Her experience on the City council makes her qualified. She has been able to ore with things like this, she can do it as well as everyone else. Has a lot of education on this. 

Ruben Ortega: current commissioner making opening statements.
12th year Precinct 3, Marathon and all of eastern part of County, all the way down to Lajitas. Includes part of Alpine as well. Very vast territory. 
He works for propane company as well. Gives him a chance to see people and serve them in person. Sits on the board for Big Bend Community Action, Solid Waste Board.
Audit is an issue, new court is getting a good handle on the issues. New treasurer office will be a plus. 
County and City need to be working together with regard to road and bridge. Budget for roads is about $150,000 year. Lots of miles to cover with very little money.
He is mindful of the County as a whole.

Joseph Goldman:
Water issues. Nobody is talking about this. Thinks groundwater conservation district has made everybody concerned and has tried to get the TX Leg to enable local control, but now that pipeline is here, can anyone speak to the concern for water to accommodate the higher risks of the pipeline coming through? Water for grass fires? Noxious chemicals? Welding? Does Sheriff's office have a plan.

Ruben Ortega says that commissioners can only help water district. The state has this set up this way. As far as welding goes, all of it will be robotics and under a tent to discourage stray sparks. 

Novovich says that these questions are best for the water district board. They have had years to figure this out, and maybe they can address this. County can only assist and try to push issues. 
The county has very few powers regarding concerns about addressing pipelines, land rights, etc. County does have some power when it comes to specific projects, industries, etc. Not much with regulating water.
He brought attention to FERC about fire possibilities. We do not have the means to combat a major fire event. Also brought this to ETP. No answer from either thus far. Due to the nature of being in the middle of nowhere they may have the responsibility to provide their own service

Bermudez: says that since it looks like the pipeline is definitely coming that agencies should have a round table and try to plan for emergencies, contingencies. 
She believes that the area most likely cannot handle any major issues and we need to evaluate risks. She met with Carol's ambulance service and they were wanting to find out how to serve the area. Bermudez advised her and now the company is here to serve the area. Possible future expansion. Fire dept, hospital, water system, all are concerns.

Ronny Dodson: says he got a call ant sparks and high winds at Pumpco site. confirmed report. Emergency burn ban was issued by commissioners. 
Says that there will be a huge influx of unemployed oil field workers coming in for pipeline. Going to stress the criminal justice system. Says that the Pumpco bosses themselves are professional, but the labor crews are rowdy. Same everywhere.
Going to be really tough to handle any major emergency. Now and down the line like in Cuero.

Novovich: says that county has a professional emergency management coordinator. Has been asking Pumpco and ETP ant whether they will be having specialized trainings for gas/pipeline fires. Says that he himself asked for a Class 3 pipeline around Alpine and ETP agreed. Says that county and city do not have the dollars to provide a large emergency management system. Will have to tap private companies.

Bernie Zelasny: 
Concerns about pipeline. Says that he understands that once pipeline is built it will be a local emergency management issue. No support from ETP after construction. Is there a way to force entities to provide manpower and/or equipment in an emergency.

Ortega: there's not much there to force them to do anything. They are regulated by state and Feds. We will have to pressure them and make do with hat ever small extra monies we get from the pipeline and use money judiciously.

Novovich: he asked ETP what the blast radius of a pipeline explosion would be. No answer.
Cuero blast radius was 1200 feet and grass ignited 1600 feet away from blast. Same company, same size. 
Says that pipeline project was planned by very smart people who are connected and wise. They have the regulators on their side. What do we get out of it? Not a lot, but high tech remote controlled valves and state of the art safety equipment. That is it. 

Bermudez: agrees with other commissioners. Money talked in the case of the pipeline. 

Zelasny comments about FERC review: is there a chance that the county would support the new efforts by the BBCA trying to sue the FERC?

Novovich says that he has to represent both the people who oppose and also those who support the pipeline. His ethics make his focus on safety, technical aspects. Legal aspects with regard to County.

-- Apologies, everyone- at this point I was notified about the situation concerning the Antonin Scalia inquest at Cibolo and had to leave the meeting to take telephone calls and messages.---

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