Candidates for Union County judge answered questions concerning economic development, road and bridges and much more at a candidate forum Tuesday.
The El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce and the Union County NAACP held a public forum at the El Dorado Municipal Auditorium, where candidates for Union County coroner, Union County clerk, Union County judge and El Dorado mayor answered questions and discussed their platforms.
Incumbent Union County Judge Mike Loftin, a Democrat, and opponent Cliff Preston, a Republican, began their portion of the forum by discussing their experience and visions of the county judge position during their opening statements.
Loftin said he has served as the Union County judge for eight years, and eight years prior, held the position of road foreman for the county.
“We’ve made many improvements over the last eight years in our infrastructure,” Loftin said. “There are things that we could do better. We’re human, we make mistakes, but we always go back and correct them and we always take responsibility for them.”
Preston began by describing his vision for Union County.
“I have a vision of Union County where the people are the boss,” Preston said. “In order for that to happen, we have to raise the standards.”
Preston said, if elected, he is going to raise standards for how people in the courthouse are treated and how the county builds and maintains roads.
“And last, but not least, we have to raise our standards on how we communicate with the taxpayer,” Preston added.
When asked what each candidate considers to be the No. 1 issue for county government, Loftin answered “funding.”
“We need to be sure that we have the funding to cover the budget so that we can continue to provide the services to the taxpayers that we provide today,” Loftin said. “It is exactly that, a budget. But we have to be sure we have the funds coming in to cover that budget for the entire year so that we can provide the services that you deserve.”
Preston agreed that funding is important, but said he believes the No. 1 issue is serving the taxpayer.
“Where we get that funding is from the taxpayer and if we’re not serving the taxpayers, then we’re not doing our job,” Preston said. “What I would like to do is continue to seek out, communicate with taxpayers of this county, answer their questions, give them honest answers and be able to serve them as best as possible.”
When asked about the county judge’s role within the Quorum Court, Loftin said the county judge presides over the Quorum Court, has no vote, but has the power to veto.
Preston added that if a county judge does veto, the Quorum Court can overturn the veto with a two-thirds majority vote. Preston described a “flow chart” of Quorum Court, where the taxpayers are at the top, the court members are in the middle and executives are at the bottom.
“I believe that we’ve got that mixed up,” Preston said. “I believe that the county judge in this county, and many other counties, not just this one, has a little too much power and what I’m trying to do is make sure that the Quorum Court represents the people and give power back to the Quorum Court, which is giving power back to the people.”
Loftin said he considers roads and bridges to be a high priority of the county judge’s office, adding that it takes up over 50 percent of his time each day.
“The people deserve a decent road to drive on,” Loftin said. “We have constantly improved on that. We’ve got 2,000 miles of roads, 300 bridges in this county, and with a budget of (about) $6 million each year, it’s impossible to refurbish all of the roads and replace all of the bridges. By the tine we get around to them, the ones we fixed 10 years ago, it’s time to work on them again.”
Preston agreed that roads and bridges are a high priority of the county judge’s office. He said he would change how the roads are prioritized, “to make sure that the most people can benefit from the resources that we have in the county because everybody pays and everybody deserves to get heard.”
When asked about the county judge’s responsibility in economic development, Loftin said the county judge should play one of the lead roles in that, along with the chamber of commerce and other elected officials.
Loftin said since he has been in office, there have been 625 new jobs brought to Union County.
“Some of those jobs came from new projects, some of them came from expansion projects, such as El Dorado Chemical,” Loftin said.
Loftin said he took the lead on bringing the Conifex sawmill to the county.
“I spent countless hours with those people working out the details, helping them find funding and to date, they have over 150 employees out there,” Loftin added.
Preston also agreed that the county judge plays a large role with economic development in the county, adding, “after eight years, I want to make sure that we have more than one industrial success story to tell.”
When asked if there was anything he could do better as county judge, Loftin said, “there’s always things that we can do better.”
“I have honestly done what I thought needed to be done,” he said. “I’ve been a good steward of your taxpayer dollars, I’ve made improvements to the infrastructure. My track record is what it is. You know what I’ve done, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Preston replied, asking everyone to look at Loftin’s track record.
“I want people to look at the record, be informed and make that decision,” he said.
When asked about which issues in the county judge’s office need transparency, Loftin said every part of the office should have transparency.
“I’ve always had an open door policy,” Loftin said. “Anything we do there is a matter of public record.”
Preston also said everything should be transparent in the county judge’s office, but also in the Quorum Court and “every other office in government.”
Preston said one way to enhance the transparency of Quorum Court would be by moving meetings to evenings.
“Transparency is important and it’s easy to say that we want transparency, but again, I ask you to look at the track record,” Preston added.
During closing remarks, Loftin said he will continue to improve the county road system.
“I spend very little time in my office,” Loftin said. “I’m either under a bridge or on a road project or maybe even running a piece of equipment or driving a truck … If I need to do that, I can. I have that experience.”
Preston asked the audience to “make the next right decision.”
“I’m asking you to vote for change,” Preston said. “I would love to have your vote and I’m not going to be perfect, but I promise you I will never let you down.”
Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.