Hopkins County Sheriff Butch Adams (top) and his Republican Party challenger, Norman Sanders, field questions from the audience after making their opening remarks at Thursday night's Political Enlightenment Group Forum, held ever election year to give people a chance to hear from the candidates.
Staff Photo By Jessica Worth

Election 2008: Candidates face off at PEG Forum

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

Oct. 24, 2008 - Hopkins County Sheriff Butch Adams and his re-election challenger, Norman Sanders, squared off on the future direction of the county's law enforcement agency during a candidate forum Thursday night.

A dozen candidates or their stand-ins touted their ideologies and qualifications for a crowd of about 100 voters at the Political Enlightenment Group's traditional election-year forum.

Candidates for Hopkins County sheriff, county commissioner, state house of representatives and state district judge, as well as three people running for a rural school board spoke and fielded questions at the non-partisan group's forum held at Best Western Trail Dust Inn's Heritage Hall.

The speakers included:

? Republican Kirby Hollingsworth of Mount Vernon, running for District 3 State Representative, and Bill Brannon, Hopkins County Democratic Party Chairman, speaking for incumbent Democrat Mark Homer of Paris, who could not attend due to a scheduling conflict.

? 62nd Judicial District Judge Scott McDowell of Paris, the incumbent seeking a third term, and his Republican challenger, Erwin Cain.

? Hopkins County Sheriff Butch Adams, who has held the seat for the Democratic Party since 1996, and Republican challenger Norman Sanders.

? Incumbent Precinct 3 Commissioner Don Patterson, a Democrat, and Hopkins County Republican Party Chairman Chris Brown, speaking on behalf of GOP nominee Ron Reed, who was out of town on business.

? Precinct 1 Commissioner Beth Wisenbaker, who became the first Republican elected to a county office since Reconstruction when she won the post in 1996, and her challenger J.W. Ragan, the Democratic Party nominee from Miller Grove.

? Sulphur Bluff Independent School District Board of Trustees candidates Toney Hurley, Billy Emerson and Russell Vanbibber.

But the highlight of the evening -- and the race that featured the most disparate discussions -- came when Sheriff Butch Adams and challenger Norman Sanders took questions from the audience following their introductions.

Both men certainly have the requisite experience for the job.

Adams, who has been married to his wife, Beth, for 30 years and has three sons and one grandson, graduated with an associate degree from Tyler Junior College, then spent 19 1/2 years at the Sulphur Springs Police Department, first as a patrol officer and then a detective, "so I have 31 years of full-time police and law enforcement," he told the crowd.

Since becoming sheriff, he has served as an adviser for the East Texas Police Academy, worked with the Northeast Texas Child Advocacy Center, was a founding member of Teen Court, and is currently on the board of directors of the Sheriff's Association of Texas.

"When I was elected sheriff I had several goals, and with the help of my professional staff, we've achieved those," Adams said. "We instituted the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, and with the city have staffed a special crimes unit to fight the war on drugs, and increased the patrols on county roads.

"Through the fine work of our deputies and investigators, we have a lower crime rate in our county, with a clearance rate of 94 percent," Adams continued. "I have the proven experience and leadership and track record in this office and believe I am the best candidate for this office."

Sanders, who has two sons and a grandson with his wife, Cathy, is a Navy veteran and served as a volunteer fireman and paramedic in Sulphur Springs for about 14 years before joining the police department in 1993. He has since worked his way up the rank to lieutenant. He has also served on the Sulphur Springs Independence School District board of trustees in recent years.

"I think that I have the experience, especially the life experience and leadership experience," Sanders said. "When I was in the Navy, I ran a watch section that had 16 men in it, and spent 110 consecutive days off the coast of Iran when they had our people in the embassy, so I know what tension is, I know what stress is.

"I think I'd do you a really good job," Sanders said. "I believe I have the capabilities and the knowledge to do an excellent job as sheriff of Hopkins County."

The moderator, Harry Leon Lewis, then field the first question from an Arbala woman who identified herself as Genera Kessler. She asked about rumors that the sheriff's office budget was "in the red."

"How will you take care of funding?" she asked.

Sanders spoke first.

"When I was on the school board at Sulphur Springs, the [district] handles the largest budget in all of Hopkins County and Sulphur Springs -- too bad it's a taxing entity," he said. "But we always maintained and stayed within our budget, and we worked with everyone we had to to stay within our budget. We communicated with teachers, we communicated with principals, everything we needed to do. I don't think it will be a problem to stay within the budget once I get elected."

Adams, speaking second, acknowledged his office was over budget, but said there were multiple mitigating circumstances involving the jail that caused the problem.

"I'm in a building that we are constantly doing repairs on," the incumbent sheriff said. "In 1998 we added on the newer stuff -- we don't have any problems with that. But when you talk about a building that's wore out, you're going to have [cost overruns]."

He spoke of generator that blows fluorescent lights out every time it kicks on.

"We've had it checked -- they say it's a power surge and they can't do anything about it," Adams said.

A recent state jail inspection cited the county jail for doors that are supposed to unlock remotely but don't work right, something Adams said was an ongoing problem.

"We couldn't find anybody to work with it," he said. "They would come in and say 'We can't get parts for this.'"

Adams said he finally found a group that can work on the doors at the last sheriff's conference he attended, but they can't do the work until January.

"I have to use the money the county commissioners give me, just like he (Sanders) would give it to the teachers, to the schools," Adams told the crowd. "They give it to me, and I try to stay within the budget."

But rising costs have hindered his efforts, he said.

"We've had gas go up. We've had transportation costs [increase]. We've had more inmates, and I can't govern who brings in the prisoners, whether it be [state troopers, city police], or us," he continued. "But most of your interstate people are brought in by DPS and the city. When they go to court and they don't show up, I have to go wherever they are and get them. It's not my fault, it's not the commissioners fault, it's not your fault. But it's part of life."

The sheriff also said the state jail commission required his office to add three more jailers last year after the budget had been completed.

"So it had to be adjusted for that, so yeah, I went over in that area, too," he said. "But the main deal is we have criminals doing crimes, and we're catching them, and they're coming to jail. How they get out is their problem, not ours, but we're bearing the cost. We're also having more clearance rates, and with that, we have more people coming to jail. So that's one of the main reasons we're over budget."

Carolyn Thomas, who served on the SSISD board with Sanders, asked how the candidates would get jail overcrowding, a longstanding problem that preceded Adams coming into office in 1996, under control. (The state jail commission recently warned the county it could face sanctions if the problem was not corrected.)

Adams was first to answer this time, noting that action has been taken since that last jail inspection, and the jail population has been below capacity for the last three to four weeks as a result.

"As far as what to do, our JPs (justices of the peace), our judges, our prosecutors are trying as best they can," he said. But the bottom line is we're overcrowded and the place is not big enough, and that's something we're going to have to look at in the future. As far as what your options are, it's building."

Another option that has been suggested, he said, is privatizing the jail.

"To do that, they (a private company) would come in, build a jail, they would absorb the inmates, we would pay them so much per day -- which would be equal to about what we spend in the budget -- and after 20 years, we get the building," he explained. "Well, that's not going to do much good if we just get 300 or 400 [jail cells]. We need to get a jail that's going to have a big amount that we can grow into, or we're kind of wasting our time."

Sanders responded to the question next, saying long-range planning is the key.

"I think one of the most important things you need to do when you're in a position like this is plan for the future," Sanders said. "And Ms. Thomas knows me well -- I sat next to her on the school board for several years. She knows I like to look 10, 15, 20 years in advance. I think that's the important thing -- you're going to have to work with the commissioners and county judge to figure out what the best options are going to be, make a plan and work toward that plan.

"If you don't have a plan, then you're just reacting to what is happening to you day after day after day," he added. "You can't just plan five years in advance. You've got to get out there a ways and make a plan you can work with. I'm sure I can do that with the county commissioners."

The last question, posed by a woman who only identified herself as "Audrey," asked how they would better or maintain the 94 percent clearance rate.

Sanders started out by saying that a 94 percent clearance rate is "outstanding," and that the investigators at the sheriff's office are obviously doing a great job.

"But wouldn't it be better if a lot of that property didn't get stolen in the first place?" he asked, receiving applause from some.

"Patrol, patrol and patrol" is the answer, Sanders said.

"And teach your patrolmen to communicate," he emphasized. "If you see a guy on a tractor or working on their car, you pull in their and talk to them. You find out what's going on on his oil road. Because no matter how good you are, you're not going to know every little thing that's going on in every little spot in the county, so you have to communicate, you have to find out what's going on on that guy's turf. You'll be surprised how much you'll find out.

"That's what I did in the Pacific Park area, and it worked really, really well for me," Sanders continued. "I'd see guys playing dominoes and I'd get out and talk to them, and I'd find out who the bad guys were in that area. You'd be surprised how fast you could clear up some problems, because that guy knows what's going on on his road."

Adams was quick to take the microphone for a rebuttal, saying the real-world logistics of patrolling the county make Sanders' ideas harder to achieve than he realizes.

"That sounds real good, but in the city, you've got a few square miles. In the county, you've got over 700 square miles to patrol," Adams said. "And I guarantee you, you get a call in Sulphur Bluff, the next one's going to be toward Miller Grove, and it's going to take 45 minutes to get there. When you have three deputies working, you probably have one doing an order of protective custody, the other's tied up in court, and it's going to be hard to get out and go to the store and talk to people.

"But I've got several of my deputies that spend their time out there talking to people, and I give them credit, they're doing an awesome job," Adams concluded, earning the loudest applause of the night.

Look for more summaries of the candidate forum in upcoming editions of the News-Telegram.

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