The Bridgeport Lions Club packed the house Monday night for a primary election candidate forum.
Republican and Democratic candidates stumped on the eve of early voting for the March 4 primary, with the county judge race taking center stage.
Candidates were given three minutes to introduce themselves and present their platforms before the program shifted to a question-and-answer session.
Kyle Stephens introduced himself as a lifelong resident of Wise County and said he’s aspired to run for county judge for years.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” the former county commissioner said. “When I first ran [for commissioner], that was my goal, to come back and run for judge.
“Judge McElhaney was a friend of mine, and I wouldn’t have run against him but upon his unfortunate death, it’s allowed me the opportunity.”
Chico Mayor J.D. Clark said a love for public service prompted him to run for county judge.
“Public service is my passion. It’s what led me to run for city council, led me to being a teacher, led me to run for mayor and now as a candidate for county judge,” he said. “I believe in the potential of Wise County, and it’s time for fresh, innovative leadership.”
Bridgeport Mayor Keith McComis said he’s been involved in community activities his entire life. He said he’s not a politician, but a public servant.
“I’ll be leaving my position better than where I found it,” he said of his mayoral post. “By the end of the fiscal year, we will have nine to 12 months of operating expenses in reserve, and this was done without a tax increase.”
Democratic candidate Jim Stegall spoke last.
“Ditto, ditto, ditto to all those guys,” he said. “Although I like them, I look forward to running against one of those guys.”
Stegall will face the winner of the Republican primary in the Nov. 4 general election. He told voters that he wants to work to ensure transparency and oversight of county activities. If elected, he also plans to manage county growth, keeping quality-of-life issues in mind along the way.
When the program shifted to the question-and-answer portion, audience members wanted county judge candidates to address long-range water planning, economic development, earthquakes and the local fairgrounds.
Candidates were asked their opinion of metering individual water wells, an idea that got no support.
As for a long-range water plan, candidates agreed action needed to be taken. McComis said the issue would require the cooperation of local entities as well as those at the state and federal levels.
“It’s very important with the growth that’s coming that we act and act quickly to get a water plan in place so our future generations will be supplied,” said Stephens.
Clark said he’s not content to wait on the state to solve the problem.
“We’ve seen how the state tends to operate,” he said.
Clark said Wise County is rich in human resources that should all come to the table to discuss and devise a plan.
“We do have an obstacle with the Tarrant Regional Water District, but they don’t control all the water rights,” he said.
All candidates also strongly believe Wise County can benefit from economic development.
“You have to forget about bringing businesses to the north or south,” said Stephens. “It doesn’t matter where business goes, it will benefit everyone.”
Clark said the county judge is chief executive for the entire county, and it’s his job to pitch businesses on the benefits of the county.
“Which city they come to shouldn’t matter to the judge, just get them inside these borders,” he said.
McComis had looked into economic development corporations in Hood and Ellis counties and said he thinks something similar could be worked out for Wise.
“They’re unique and individual, but it can be done and I would work for that,” he said.
Stegall said Wise County needs to consider incoming growth and the fact that the outer loop of the Metroplex is coming into the eastern side of the county.
“We have to overcome logistics,” he said. He emphasized that the balance of education, employment training and economic development will lead to a greater quality of life for citizens.
Candidates were asked to address the earthquake issues affecting Wise County residents – and if they thought the oil and gas industry was to blame.
Stegall said to get to the root of the issue the county needs an elected representative to “go to bat for us.”
“We need to get the whole state involved in this,” he said.
McComis said the earthquakes start much deeper than where fracking occurs.
“It’s basically the nature of the earth,” he said. “If the oil field is doing it, then we’re all at risk because we live in the middle of it. It’s just something that you have to play by ear and hope it’s Mother Nature and it’ll go away one day.”
Clark said obviously something has changed that’s started causing the earthquakes, and he’s receptive to hearing more about the research and moving forward from that point.
Stephens said he wasn’t sure if it was the oil and gas industry or not.
“… I don’t know but we have to wait and see what they determine or what they think … again, that’s Mother Nature,” he said. “It comes from a higher power than anyone in this room.
“You can’t stop oil and gas,” he said. “That’s the rock we lean on. Until they actually tell us what’s causing it, there’s nothing that we can go forward with.”
The group was also asked if they felt the way in which the county seized the fairgrounds from the Wise County Sheriff’s Posse was fair to citizens and the Posse, and what they would do to restore the relationship and transparency to county government.
Stephens said he was a former Sheriff’s Posse member and he wasn’t sure the relationship could be mended at this time.
“It can in time, but that will be long after me I’m afraid,” he said. “If elected county judge, I will move forward to make sure facilities are kept up and make sure the youth of the county have a place to go.”
Clark said he agrees that the county needs a first-class fairgrounds facility, but with all the “hurt feelings and hard feelings, obviously, things could have been handled better.”
He said although he couldn’t undo what’s already happened, he’s committed to being a bridge builder in the community.
“We’re going to be in this together and have a fairgrounds that we all approve of and can be proud of,” he said.
McComis said it’s hard to find an answer or fault.
“It’s a shame that it ended the way it ended …” he said. “But it needs to be something we need to take pride in no matter where it’s at. Without knowing what went on on both sides, I can’t tell you what I’d do.”
Stegall said if elected, he looks forward to working with commissioners to bring it back to a “world-class place.”
Candidates running for Precinct 4 commissioner were also asked about the precinct budgets and to address the issue of earthquakes affecting Wise County residents. Read their responses in the Feb. 22 issue of the Messenger.
Unopposed candidates who also spoke included Melton Cude, running for re-election as County Court-at-Law No. 1 judge; Terri Johnson, running for re-election as Precinct 2 justice of the peace; and Tracy Smith, running for Wise County Democratic Party chair. Daniel Rivas, running for county treasurer, was the only opposed candidate not in attendance.