Republican candidates for Fort Bend Sheriff and Precinct 3 Constable squared off at a candidates’ forum hosted by the West Fort Bend Republican Women’s Club this afternoon at The Club at Falcon Point.
Incumbent Sheriff Milton Wright and challenger Billy Frank Teague responded to a series prepared questions, as did the incumbent Constable Rob Cook and challengers Jesse Zamaripa and Wesley “Wes” Martin.
All were first asked to discuss their qualifications for the office they are seeking and why they were best suited for the post. Wright cited his experience as the county’s sheriff since 1996, 19 years as a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety and 15 years as a Texas Ranger.
“My experience is the number one issue here as far as qualifications go,” Wright told the luncheon meeting. “With this background, you have on-the-job experience, so to speak.”
Wright also said that he has effectively run one of the largest sheriff’s departments, and one of the largest county jail facilities, in the state.
“We are constantly ranked one of the best,” Wright said. “And Fort Bend is ranked as one of the 10 safest large counties in the state.”
Teague also pointed to his long law enforcement career, which includes over 40 years of service in municipal, county and state police agencies.
“I have 8 years as a police officer in a municipal police department in North Texas, 3 as a police officer for a city in Fort Bend County, 8 years as a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office and 20 years with the Texas Department of Public Safety,” Teague pointed out.
He also said that his experience as a police officer in Irving was at a time when the area was experiencing rapid growth similar to what is currently occurring in Fort Bend County.
“I’ve seen what small areas that were once rural can do when they have the right leadership,” Teague. “That’s what I plan to bring to the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. I know what it takes to run a sheriff’s office of this magnitude.”
Cook cited his 19 years as Precinct 3 Constable and his demonstrated ability to get the job done as his strongest qualification.
“I’ve been doing the job in this office for 19 years. In that time there have been 4 sheriffs, 5 county judges and several county commissioners and I’ve been able to work with all of them,” Cook said.
He also cited his 27 years as a law enforcement officer, being a university graduate, graduate of the FBI National Academy and his certification as a Master Peace Officer with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. He also noted that he serves as a youth mentor with sports leagues, the Boy Scouts of America and the livestock show and rodeo.
Challenger Zamaripa said that he agreed Cook’s experience was extensive, but said a constable has to be available to be effective.
“Everything my opponent said is well and good, but first you have to show up to work to do the job,” Zamaripa said.
He cited his own experience as a deputy with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, saying that it has equipped him to be constable and has given him the perspective needed to address problems and bring new ideas to the constable’s office. He also challenged whether or not Cook’s college degree translated into law enforcement training.
“I feel my opponent likes to double up his (training) numbers. A college degree in physical science has nothing to do with law enforcement,” Zamaripa said. “My (training) hours are in law enforcement.”
Martin, who gave his occupation as a “professional cowboy and rancher,” admitted that he had no experience as a law enforcement officer, but that he had a strong understanding of the people of Precinct 3.
“I’m not as qualified as a law enforcement officer,” Martin said. “But I am a person who can lead people and who does lead people and I know what the people of Precinct 3 need in a constable.”
The follow-up round of questions centered on what changes the candidates thought needed to be made in office they were seeking. Wright said that he believed the department was going in the right direction and sweeping changes were not needed.
“I believe there are no changes necessary except as circumstances change; we’re doing quite well,” Wright said.
He noted that in a staff of 600 employees, his office currently only has openings for 1 patrol deputy, 2 dispatchers and 3 jailers.
Wright added that his office expected to open a Precinct 3 sub-station later in the year, which would be the only major change he anticipated.
Teague said that changes were definitely needed to meet the demands of a growing county while managing the taxpayers’ dollars and keeping public safety the paramount goal of the department.
“In an ever-growing county, we need a sheriff with the vision and ability and knowledge to manage a sheriff’s office into the 21st Century,” Teague said, “and I’m the man who has that vision and ability.”
Teague added that the sheriff needed to make sure personnel are assigned to areas where they are needed most, and that the department does the job of protecting residents “without excuses.” He also said that the sheriff needs to be mindful of budget issues and be willing to “balance, maintain and cut the budget every day.”
Teague also said that the department must be able attract top law enforcement talent.
“We have to be able to recruit and retain qualified personnel of the highest integrity,” Teague said. “I want to create a sheriff’s office that everyone can be proud of and complete our mission to serve you, the citizens of Fort Bend County.”
Cook said that the focus of his office must remain on serving legal documents from the county’s justice of the peace courts.
“We have to take care of our primary focus, which is civil. Then we do the other things like accidents, patrol and the like,” Cook said. “We do respond to emergencies when we’re close, but those are the primary responsibility of agencies like the sheriff’s office and local police departments.”
Cook added that to respond regularly to criminal and traffic-related calls would increase his department’s expenditures by 40 – 50 percent.
“In the time I have been constable, we have increased staff by only by 2 deputies and 1 clerk. During that same time, some agencies have more than doubled,” Cook noted.
Zamaripa said that he would seek federal grant funding to obtain more personnel, have an “open-door policy” and be more accessible than the incumbent has been.
“I believe you need to be seen,” Zamaripa said. “You don’t just work every 4 years; you have to be seen all the time.”
Martin said he would like to fully staff the constable’s office and work shifts to more effectively serve civil papers. He also said that would have nothing but marked patrol cars.
“Unmarked cars are not crime deterrents,” Martin said.
As a final question, the candidates were asked the most important issue facing the office they were seeking. Most agreed that the county’s ongoing growth was the most daunting challenge to be addressed.
One by-product of that growth was the need for more jail space which, Wright said, would be addressed with the opening of the new jail facility in July. He pointed out that there is a jail space shortage throughout the state, and the county has had to contract with Dickens County in the Panhandle to take overflow prisoners in the interim.
“Our biggest challenge right now is to get the (new) jail up and running. The challenge isn’t the cement and steel, it’s staffing the jail,” Wright said.
Teague agreed that growth is a significant challenge and said that calls for service must be constantly evaluated to ensure that patrol coverage is adequate and public safety is not compromised.
“We have to daily evaluate population and calls for service in the country and look at what those numbers means to staffing. You cannot just take a chunk out of the county and throw 2 or 3 deputies out there,” Teague said.
He cited the Cinco Ranch area as an example. He said that there are currently 2 or 3 deputies assigned to the district that includes Cinco Ranch when it should instead be staffed with 6 – 8 deputies and designated as a patrol beat of its own.
“Deputies are not being managed and utilized properly,” Teague said. “We cannot use sub-stations and storefronts as excuses. The officers should be out there on the beat to defeat the criminal element. We must move forward with leadership, integrity, service and vision, and that’s what I will bring to the office of sheriff.”
Growth was also the most frequently-cited challenge facing the constable’s office. Cook said that he has been handling growth-related issues throughout his tenure as constable.
“I have handled growth since 1989 when the population of Precinct 3 was around 60,000 people. Now it’s over 200, 000,” Cook said.
Added to the growing population, Cook said, is the increasing complexity of demands on law enforcement officers. He said that they key to handling those demands is a greater emphasis on training.
“Law enforcement is getting more complex every year. That’s why we’re providing more and more training,” Cook said.
Zamaripa said that the availability of the constable was the most important issue he would address.
“The constable needs to work closely with employees and the community, and you have to be a full-time constable, not just part-time,” he said.
Zamaripa pledged to have an open-door policy, attend homeowner association meetings and improve morale and working conditions.
Martin agreed that an increasing population was a top challenge.
“With an increase in population there will be an increase in civil papers and those papers must be served as quickly as possible,” Martin said.
He also said that the constable needed to be more visible, saying that in spite of the fact that he has lived in the Simonton area for over 10 years he did not even know who the constable was.
“I had to look him up on the Internet,” Martin said. “Not just the deputies, but the constable himself must be visible.”
The Republican primary will take place March 4. Early voting begins Feb. 19.