The Republican Party of Harrison County kicked off the first of three debates, Thursday night, gearing up for the March 3 Primary Election.
The debate, which was held at Marshall High School, focused on the Pct. 1 county commissioners’ race between incumbent William Hatfield and challenger, Robert Bryan.
Hatfield, who is seeking a third term, said he loves his job and wants to keep it.
“I have enjoyed serving Precinct 1 in Harrison County,” said Hatfield.
He said he loves it so much that he closed down his Copy-rite company of 28 years in 2014 to focus solely on his elected office.
“I’ve worked very hard to trim excess spending and to redirect dollars to priority needs in the county,” said Hatfield.
He said his opponent boasts about being able to do more, but the incumbent believes he wants to be a part-time commissioner.
“My opponent even asked how many days do you have to work if you’re a county commissioner?” Hatfield said. “Folks, I pledge to continue to be the full time commissioner, always standing up for the taxpayers, trying my best to get $1.10 for every dollar that we pay in taxes. Full-time job. Full-time commissioner.”
Bryan, a local businessman, former DPS trooper, and a former fire chief of Elysian Fields Volunteer Fire Department, said contrary to what Hatfield implied he’s not worried about how many days a week he’ll have to work.
“I’m worried about getting the job done,” said Bryan. “Getting out and doing your job is one thing, but when you get out and you go to every little event and you get your picture took, every day in every little thing you do, that’s not being a county commissioner, folks; that’s being a politician.
“I want to be your county commissioner,” Bryan continued. “I’m going to get out there and work and I’m going to get out there and work with the people.”
During the debate, the candidates entertained questions given to local party chair, Lee Lester, who served as moderator. And while they did spar over some opinions made, they did agree on certain issues, regarding competitive pay for law enforcement and plans of the city of Marshall that may impact the county.
When asked what their plans were to improve the salaries of county law enforcement to attract more applicants, Hatfield said the commissioners court and have also made other improvements to address officers’ needs and make the job more appealing.
“We’ve got computer-aided dispatch,” he said for example. “The officers now have screens in their cars. They don’t have to go in and turn their paperwork in. They can answer it all on their laptop.”
Bryan, a retired law enforcement officer, said he bleeds blue believes more economic development will help provide better salaries.
“One thing we need to work on in Harrison County is our economic development and if we can draw business to Harrison County and build up that economic base, then we can start working on the different services for this county — — one of them being the pay for our officers,” said Bryan. “I have ideas of drawing in some businesses and a plan for implementing that.”
When asked what part of county government will be his area of focus if re-elected, Hatfield said roads.
“Right now we’ve got $800,000 out in road damages,” said Hatfield. “Unfortunately, with the state of Texas, all we can charge these companies that are beating our roads up is for material.”
“So my main focus will be on the roads,” said Hatfield. “Right now, we’ve got to do something with the roads, but you can’t fix roads while they’re tearing them up.”
When asked what his priorities would be, Bryan said he’ll work as a team to address needs.
“I would make it a ‘we’ thing,” he said. “That’s the way you do it. You go to different department heads and you ask them what are your needs, how important are they to you and then you evaluate that and you go with the other commissioners, y’all sit down and you visit with them. You get together and you figure out how to use that money together.”
Asking for a rebuttal, Hatfield told Bryan that’s what the budget process is for.
“Every year we have a budget process that starts in May and that’s when the different departments come to each one of us and express their needs and what they want,” said Hatfield. “It’s called a budget process.”
When asked how he voted on the county budget, which included a tax increase, Hatfield first clarified that it was increased by a half a cent, which only increased the revenue by $300,000 and not $1.7 million as implied in the question.
“The half a cent raised over $300,000. The reason we raised that is because we’ve got $400,000 worth of chiller work on that 1963-model courthouse that we’re trying to repair and take care of,” the incumbent explained.
When asked how he would’ve voted on the new fiscal year budget, Bryan said he would’ve fought against a tax increase.
“I hate that we’d have to do it off the backs of our taxpayers,” he said.
Another question asked derived from the commissioners’ decision to continue with Meadowbrook Funeral Home as the county’s vendor for the county’s indigent burial services, instead of going with Downs Funeral Home, which provided the lowest bid.
When asked how he would vote in the event two reputable vendors had bid on a contract, following all financial stipulations of the county, with the lowest bidder offering thousands of dollars worth of savings, Bryan said he would have to follow the law.
“You also need to review your contractors; but as far as that question goes, I think I would have to stay with the law,” he said.
Hatfield argued that the county does follow the law.
“And by law, you do not have to take the low bid,” Hatfield responded, sharing his experience as a former businessman.
“The low bid is not always the best thing,” said Hatfield. “I am very offended for anyone to stand up here and say that we don’t follow the law here in Harrison County.”
In his rebuttal, Bryan said he also mentioned policy. He said, he too, has experience in bids as a former fire chief.
“I took bids as the chief, and I didn’t always go with the cheapest bid either, so I will agree to that point,” said Bryan.
When asked about the county’s involvement in the city of Marshall’s proposed construction of a new animal shelter, Hatfield noted the county’s decision to contribute $250,000 in support of the project, and add stipulations.
“I strongly supported that,” he said of the animal shelter. “As a matter of fact, I made the motion.”
In his response, Bryan said he, too, agrees there should be an updated animal shelter, but believes the county should have a voice in the process.
“If you’re giving that kind of money away, we need to have a commissioner or somebody appointed to work with the city on that,” said Bryan.
Troubled by Bryan’s use of the phrase “giving away money,” Hatfield argued that the county does not give away money.
“We met with city folks and that’s why it had stipulations,” said Hatfield, noting requires no payment from the county until it’s built.
Clarifying his statement, Bryan said he used “give” as a play on words.
“Again, I just think there needs to be a county voice in this,” Bryan reiterated. “We need to know what’s going on with it as much as anything, as much as they do, so we can have that voice.”
CITY PROPOSED DOWNTOWN CHANGES
When asked their thoughts on the city’s proposed changes to the east side of the courthouse Whetstone square, which consists of the creation of a green space and outdoor theater area, as well as a pavement fountain for children to enjoy, both candidates shared mutual feelings.
“Number one, really the folks that drew that plan together, maybe they should’ve checked to see just who really owns that square,” said Hatfield. “That whole square belongs to Harrison County.”
Both believe the city will particularly run into strong opposition from the Texas Historical Commission, which establishes guidelines on courthouse preservation.
Hatfield further noted that the courthouse already has a problem with parking, especially when all courts are picking juries. Thus, to close off that end of the square would worsen the problem, he said.
“I agree, there’s extremely limited parking around the courthouse and all the other businesses around there,” Bryan added. “And if the city of Marshall is expecting our downtown businesses to maintain their parking areas in front of their businesses there, it’s going to get real tough.”
RUNNING FOR OFFICE
When asked his reason for seeking office, Bryan said constituents have complained about a lack of professionalism and communication.
“That’s one thing I did for years, folks — contacting people, working with people, working with their issues — and we had to do so with DPS in a professional manner,” he said. “You had to use effective communication, active listening and you worked with these people on their issues. I will work with Judge Sims, I will work with these other commissioners and we could resolve issues.”
In his rebuttal, Hatfield said he knows he’s stepped on some toes and have disagreed with people when bringing things to their attention, but he wouldn’t change anything he’s done.
“My opponent claims to want to be a kinder, gentler, commissioner; but let’s reflect back to when he was a highway patrolman. I don’t hear things that he was that kind and gentle,” Hatfield quipped.
The incumbent explained he’s been adamant about not accepting the commissioners court meetings, in some instances, because they are sometimes incorrect.
“I’m not signing my name to a document that’s going to be on the record (incorrectly) in that courthouse,” said Hatfield.
Responding, Bryan said he’s not talking about being kinder and gentler, but more professional.
“Like I’ve told my opponent before, it’s not what you say sometimes, it’s how you say it,” said Bryan.
“When you’re meeting with somebody, you treat them professionally and you take care of their business,” Bryan continued. “That’s what you do as a commissioner because you’re one of the closest persons as an elected official to the people and you work with them and you do all this while maintaining a professional demeanor.”
Hatfield said his responsibility has been to the voter and to the spending their money wisely, even when his decisions weren’t popular.
“I have not let my personal feelings or friendships get in the way of doing the right thing,” the incumbent said. “I’ve stood up for the county even when I knew I would take fire from those I opposed.”
Hatfield asked voters to not take for granted, thinking he’ll be reelected.
“I need you to get out and vote for me,” he urged. “
Bryan thanked all for coming out.
“Teddy Roosevelt once said, do what you can, with what you have and where you are; so I’m telling you I know what I can do, I know what I have; put me to work,” said Bryan.
The local party has two more debates slated. The next one will feature the precinct 1 candidates again Tuesday, Jan. 28, at Waskom High School. The last will be at Hallsville Junior High on Feb. 4 in the Pct. 3 commissioners race with incumbent Philip Mauldin and challenger Rodney Blackwell. The times are 6:30-7:30 p.m.
“Y’all come out and question your candidates,” said Lee Lester, the local party president.