By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON Candidates for county judge squared off Friday at a political forum hosted by the Bell County Bar Association.
For the first time, incumbent Jon Burrows and Belton attorney John Galligan, both Republicans, went head-to-head answering questions posed by the association and audience members.
And the issue that seemed to be on everyones mind was jail overcrowding and the new district courthouse that is slated to open in late May.
Galligans position is that the commissioners ignored the wishes of the voters when they went ahead and built the new district courthouse and now they want to build a new jail.
If there was a choice between a new courthouse and a new jail, why didnt they build the jail first? Galligan said.
The Belton attorney said that the commissioners court took the position that the voters said no to a tax increase when they really said no to a new building.
Burrows commented that when he took office on Jan. 1, 1999, a month later, he had a meeting with the sheriffs office, building and maintenance and various other county departments.
At that time, the sheriff said that within five years the jail will be full, Burrows told the audience. Building and maintenance told us that the district court building was old and needed to be updated by Sept. 1, 2005, or the county would face a $5,000-a-day fine.
Burrows explained that had the first plan passed back in 2003, the issue of what do about the overcrowded jail wouldnt be an issue. The first plan included a district courthouse, a jail addition and county offices at a tax increase of 2.5 cents.
It takes two years to build a jail, he said. No matter how efficient you are, eventually you have to do something.
Galligan and Burrows did agree on Bell Countys economic outlook growth in the county is not going to slow down.
Bell County has a great potential for the future, Burrows said. The issues of overcrowding also brings good issues of more jobs.
The growth of Bell County is the ticket to our success, Galligan said.
One question posed to the candidates asked what their response was to accusations that Burrows ignored the wishes of the voters and that Galligan was against the new courthouse because of the location of his office that is within walking distance to the current building.
Anybody who knows me will tell you that my position on the bond issues is not because of my position to the courthouse, Galligan said.
I have continued to invest in downtown Belton ... I take that as a personal affront to anyone who suggests that.
Galligan said the spin about taxes that was given as a reason why the commissioners went ahead and built the new district courthouse over what the voters said was just smoke screen.
The commissioners court went ahead and did what they wanted to do from the beginning, he said.
We can no longer as taxpayers think of pennies on the dollar rate, Galligan said.
Galligan told the audience that the bond elections have given rise to the disenchantment of local government, reiterating an earlier statement that he has been a public servant and never a politician.
Burrows said that after the petition by residents to put the first bond to a vote failed, the commissioners went ahead and called for an election.
When that election rejected the proposal, a task force was put together that identified the district courthouse as the No. 1 priority.
The issues that were identified by the task force were code issues of the current building, elevators and the need for extra space.
The commissioners revised the original plan and included only a district courthouse and jail addition.
Voters once again struck it down.
What people were voting against in our minds was the tax issue, Burrows said.
The new building is being built on limited tax notes and does not require a tax increase.
I have tried to provide effective and conservative leadership, he said. Im proud that our tax rate is the lowest in the area.
Candidates for county clerk and the judgeship for county court-at-law No. 2 also spoke at the forum.
Republican Shelley Coston said that most of the people in the room are directly affected by the office of county clerk.
There is only one issue who is the most qualified candidate, she said.
Coston told the audience that she possessed the skills and abilities to which Bell County is accustomed to dealing with in the county clerks office.
Republican Trudy Stuart said she has always been interested in county government.
I will provide valuable leadership to make the office of county clerk more customer-friendly, she said.
Stuart said she has done volunteer work for hospitals, nursing homes, and her church, and she possesses the multitasking and interpersonal skills needed to be the county clerk.
Democrat Rosa Hernandez running uncontested in the primaries said that she has many years of experience in recordkeeping.
I will do anything to anyone the way that I would expect them to do it for me, she said.
Three Republicans are running in the primary for the county court-at-law No. 2 judgeship Attorneys Buck-ley Major, John Mischtian and Bob Barina.
Major said he re-entered private practice in 2000 in Killeen after serving since 1989 as the assistant attorney general for Texas in Bell County.
You know me to be honest, responsible, straightforward and capable, he said.
I am an experienced trial attorney who is ready and able to try cases when needed.
Temple attorney John Mischtian said that he is a firm believer that a judge is a servant of the people and the law.
A judge should never substitute his own views and opinion for what he feels the law should be, he said.
Mischtian told the audience of fellow lawyers that nothing magical happens to a lawyer when he becomes a judge. They are not suddenly imbued with sage knowledge and judicial temperament.
But I strive to be a strong and effective advocate for my clients and attentive to duties to both the client and court, he said. These are the same qualities I intend to bring to the bench.
Barina said that he has accumulated experience and knowledge over the years in several areas of the law.
I will be a judge who is going to be consistent (in his decisions) because it is based on the law, he said.
You have to have what it takes to make a decision that is based on what is right and not on what is popular.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org