Candidates running in contested local races in the 2020 Republican Primary fielded questions from Angelina County residents during a Tuesday night forum.

The forum was hosted by the Lufkin/Angelina Chamber of Commerce’s Governmental Affairs Committee, Young Professionals of Angelina County and The Lufkin Daily News at the Pitser Garrison Convention Center. Before the official event began, the candidates spent some time meeting constituents and discussing their policies at individual booths in the convention center.

Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves before moderators Scott Skelton and Tara Watson-Watkins started asking questions, some of which were contributed by audience members.

The three candidates in the sheriff’s race, incumbent Greg Sanches, Bryan Holley and Terry Free attended. They drew numbers to determine the order in which they answered questions.

Holley has been in criminal law enforcement for 28 years. He said he has served in patrol, narcotics and criminal interdiction, as a K-9 handler, on the SWAT team, and in International Police and as chief of International Patrol.

Holley left the sheriff’s office in 2013 after 12 years of service to work for the Hudson ISD police department. He served 15 years during a previous stint with the sheriff’s office.

He wants to see the creation of a full-fledged narcotics unit back on the streets in Angelina County. He also wants to see other local agencies and surrounding counties sharing intelligence with each other to better improve their crime response.

Free served the last 26 years in environmental law enforcement with 21 certifications across the board in public safety and personal protection. He has more than 30 years of experience managing budgets and teams.

He said he doesn’t want to be the face, but the pace of the sheriff’s office. He doesn’t want to see wasted money and believes a structured plan will make the office something to be proud of.

Sanches’ career began while working at the sheriff’s office from 1981-83 while at Angelina College. He attended the Texas Department of Public Safety’s recruit school in Austin, working in Conroe and Livingston before transferring to Lufkin. He was chosen to be the safety education officer in 1990, a position he held until his retirement from DPS in December of 2011. He was elected sheriff in 2013.

He talked about the large changes he’s made in the sheriff’s office, including the increased transparency, greater accountability and the implementation of plans that created what he believes is the greatest sheriff’s office in history.

Question 1: What is Angelina County’s most pressing law enforcement issue, and what will you do to change issues as the sheriff?

All three agreed the drug problem in the county is the biggest issue.

Holley believes creating a narcotics team and sharing intelligence with other agencies is the way to solve it.

Free described a three-part plan to fix the drug issue. Part one, put together a task force; two, create a concerned citizens group; three, implement drug education programming in the schools. He also believes the county needs stricter animal control regulations.

“It is an issue with animal cruelty,” he said. “I have the education and background to take care of that and bring forth policies that are a little more strict in Angelina County than what the state has to offer.”

Sanches believes he’s been tough on drugs, but wants to add another narcotics position in the next year or two.

Question 2: How do you feel about neighborhood crime watches? Do you support them? And how will you work with them?

All three said they’re necessary because the sheriff’s office can’t be everywhere at once.

“That’s what we’ve got to have,” Holley said. “Citizen interaction. We can’t do it all by ourselves, and I will help any citizens group like that … get set up and get started. And recognize they are an absolute need for us.”

Free said the creation of a concerned citizens group is a part of his three-part plan and that such a group also would hold him more accountable.

Sanches believes deputies need support from the citizens and that he’s been working with those types of groups in the county already.

Question 3: What do you believe is your greatest accomplishment in your career and in your life?

All three said their families were their biggest life accomplishments.

Holley cited the creation of a police force while serving in Liberia as his biggest career accomplishment. They had to almost entirely reboot the system and build the agency from the ground up, which required bringing the officers to at least the U.S. standards of training.

Free said serving the region for 26 years was the biggest accomplishment and he looks forward to continuing to do that if elected as sheriff.

Sanches said being accepted to join DPS because it prepared him for his role as sheriff. It also attracted good people to come with him to the sheriff’s office such as his chief and captain.

Question 4: What is your plan to combat the attrition rate at the sheriff’s office because of deputies leaving for better paying positions?

They all said pay is a large part of that problem.

However, Holley said the issue truly begins with leadership and that deputies need someone who listens to them and that they know will go to bat for them. They also need to know there’s a chance for advancements.

Free said people do not always leave because of pay, but as a leader you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask if the problem is you.

Sanches said he has stood up for the deputies, but the pay is most needed to attract and retain deputies. He said he would continue to stand up for the deputies as long as he is sheriff.

“We’re losing deputies to school districts who are paying $10,000 or more (than the county),” he said. “That is unreasonable, for county law enforcement be paying low pay like that. Those guys are putting their life on the line every day, the job they do is just as important as any other law enforcement agency in this state.”

Question 5: What do you see as the sheriff’s primary role?

Holley said it’s conserving the peace in the county. The sheriff has to be everywhere at once and they can make that happen by increasing the number of deputies.

Free said the sheriff has several roles, overseeing the jail, the sheriff’s office, motivating employees, managing a budget and managing the department’s programs. He wants to bring his management skills to the job to move the office into the future.

Sanches said it’s an administrative role and being fiscally conservative, keeping track of the vendors, the patrols and their property and being out in the public, communicating with constituents.

Question 6: Why should voters support you over your opponents?

Holley said he knows how to make the changes he sees that need to happen. He knows how to work with the commissioners every day and to work with other agencies.

Free said his history and experience are what will help him as sheriff. He could promote teams to do their best and would stand up for stricter county regulations.

Sanches said he’s made the office the best in history, most transparent and reduced the crime rate. He said he is proud of the work of his administrators and deputies.

Candidates in the Precinct 1 Commissioners race, incumbent Greg Harrison and John Vaughn attended the event. Stephen Allen, who is also running, was not there.

Vaughn has been a businessman in Angelina County for more than 18 years. He said he spent that time learning to take charge in day-to-day operations of a business, managing employees, equipment and working under a budget.

“I have an accessible and diverse background in various areas of businesses,” he said. “I have developed a unique skill set as a result. As your county commissioner, I am ready to put these skills to work by ensuring our roads are safe and well maintained.”

Harrison has served as the commissioner for five years. He expressed gratitude for his crew and family. And he explained the county’s need for diverse funding sources to better care for the roads, saying he knows the roads are bad and has been fighting the rain for five years.

Question 1: What do you see as the most pressing needs for infrastructure or capital projects in the county?

Both agreed that the roads are the biggest issue. Vaughn said he wants to do what he can to ease the precinct’s unhappiness with the current road situations. Harrison said the deeper issue is that of funding.

“The first of the year, every year we have a budget,” he said. “But the sad part about it is it’s so small that we spend it patching before it’s time to rebuild roads.”

Question 2: If new money was available what one area of county services would you feel most need additional resources?

Both candidates said money is needed equally, countywide, so any new money should be distributed as equally as possible.

Harrison also pointed out that law enforcement, especially in regards to the courthouse, is in need of the funding to more effectively move cases through the system.

Question 3: Should any part of the county budget be shielded from cuts, if so what area?

Vaughn doesn’t believe there should be any cuts for any department in the county and couldn’t think of any area. Harrison agreed, saying every department is there for a reason and they should be working together.

Question 4: A committee of Angelina County citizens has been formed to secure 2,800 signatures to present to the commissioners court to have them call an election on the issue of the adoption of a unit-road system. Are you in favor of adopting a unit-road system?

Vaughn said he wanted to become better educated on the issue before answering the question.

Harrison said he was against the system because it wouldn’t change the current condition of the roads, the people currently working on the roads or the equipment. But that it would add the salary of an engineer for $200,000 a year and another $150,000 a year for a road boss and that money, if the county had it, should be put toward the roads.

Question 5 Bob Flournoy asked the commissioners: If you are elected commissioner, would you be willing to have the commissioners call an election without the need for the 2,800 signatures?

Both said that if the law said the signatures were needed, that’s what they would do.

Question 6: The Kurth Animal Shelter Advocates are aware the county follows the law set by the state of Texas concerning animal welfare. If elected would you seek to improve or exceed the current laws in place, and if so what changes would you work to implement?

Both said they wanted to do what they could to improve the lives of animals in the county and, if they needed to make changes, they would. Harrison recommended the advocates visit the commissioners court and bring their ideas forward so the court could begin looking into it.

Candidates in the Precinct 2 constable race, Danny Anders and Dennis Cochran attended the event. Incumbent Republican Trae Travathen was unable to attend because his child had surgery on Tuesday.

Cochran worked for the state for 29 years and retired a few years ago. He has been a certified peace officer for 20 years and served as a reserved deputy for the sheriff’s office for 14 years. He is currently an investigator with the Texas A&M Forest Service Law Enforcement.

“I want to be a full-time constable for Precinct 2,” he said. “What I mean by full-time, not just serving civil papers … I want to be out there, be where the people are. Listening to you and your concerns.”

Anders has 40 years of experience in law enforcement, 35 of which were within the county and 23 with the sheriff’s office. He served the last 12 years at Central ISD, and said the constable should interact with the people in his precinct and countywide.

He said he had three things to tell the crowd: one, go vote; two, that his word is his bond; and three, that come Sunday morning to go church.

Question 1: What skills and expertise do you possess that make you qualified for this position?

Both said experience and their ability to interact with people were their greatest assets.

“You’ve got to be able to interact with the people,” Anders said. “The young people are our future and you’ve got to deal with them as well as you deal with others. And you’ve got to deal with people as a constable.”

Question 2: What do you consider are your greatest strengths and weaknesses for this job?

Both men again cited their ability to interact with people as a strength. They said having too big of a heart or perhaps being too lenient as weaknesses.

Cochran believes he can bring calm to a bad situation. Anders said that in law enforcement, they have to deal with people at their lowest points.

Question 3: Why should voters vote for you, rather than your opponents?

Cochran promised he will work more than 40 hours a week and that people will see him doing that.

Anders again cited his experience and said the job is a full-time job and that’s what he intends to do. He wants to be a part of the precinct and the whole county.

Three other candidates introduced themselves to the crowd.

Lufkin attorney Janet Cassels is running unopposed for district attorney. She gave a brief overview of her career.

Republican incumbent Dr. Keven Ellis, who is running for the State Board of Education, also went over his career, including his role in the passage of House Bill 3. He said his goal is to continue supporting rural teachers and schools.

Democrat Brenda Davis is running for Ellis’ seat in the general election. She said she not a politician but a retired teacher who said she’s not ready to give up on Texas public education.

Jess Huff’s email address is jess.huff@lufkindailynews.com.