Sheriff candidates square off at forum

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With only one race in Austin County for the primary elections on March 3, the Austin County Republican Party hosted a candidate’s forum Feb. 11 at the Hill Center in Sealy.

Approximately 50 people turned out to hear what the two Republican candidates for sheriff had to say and to pepper them with questions.

Incumbent Sheriff Jack Brandes is being challenged by Precinct 3 Constable Ronnie Griffin. There is no Democratic challenger for the general election in November. Moderator Chuck Beers

began by allowing candidates for the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals to make brief statements before turning to the main event.

Griffin and Brandes were each given an opportunity to make opening statements and then ask each other a question. It was then opened to questions from the audience. At the close, the two candidates were allowed to ask each other one more question.

The following are condensed answers to most of the questions that were asked.

Ronnie Griffin

I have been in law enforcement now for 32 years. Started in Harris County, patrolling the streets there and the last 23 here in Austin County. Being in law enforcement that long, there have been times where there are situations where you wind up in the hospital getting stitched up. One of my main concerns here in Austin County is the protection of the citizens and the patrol deputies that patrol this county.

I didn’t decide overnight that I wanted to be sheriff, it was a cumulation of events that I witnessed over the last few years, which was the fact that there are times when there have only been two deputies on patrol in this county. And to me that’s unacceptable; not in today’s time. Twenty-five years ago we had two deputies on patrol and 25 years later we should have way more than that on patrol. That is why I have decided to run for sheriff and that is my main reason for running for sheriff to make sure that everybody is safe and that includes the deputies on patrol in this county.

Jack Brandes

I’ve kept you safe for the last seven years. I love being sheriff, we have a great county. The reason our county is good is because of you, the people of Austin County make it good.

I was born and raised here in Austin County, I attended Sealy High School. I met my wife Sharon at Sealy High School and I married her, and I’ve been married to her for 48 years, working on 50.

I’m deeply vested in Austin County. This is my home. I’ll do everything in my power to keep this county good. We’ve worked hard with our sheriff’s department; we’ve brought our sheriff’s department a long ways. We have accomplished a lot of good things.

I’ve been a good steward of your tax dollars. I’ve watched the budget. I bring 30 years-plus business experience to the sheriff’s office and our budget reflects it. I’m real careful about how we spend your money. We use forfeiture funds to supplement our budget. We do a lot of things with forfeiture funds so we don’t have to spend your tax dollars. We buy major supplies for deputies … we buy a lot of good supplies that we normally couldn’t purchase… We are able to keep our deputies in real good, up-to-date, quality vehicles and supplies. We buy bulletproof vests; we buy ammunition for practice at the firing range … We’ve built a firing range with forfeiture money.

We were finally able to get the proper budget where we could pay our deputies a livable wage. We are now able to hire deputies from other agencies. We are able to take our time … and hire the best deputies for this county. You deserve the best.

At one time we were one deputy from having a full staff. When we have a full staff, then I’ll have four deputies on patrol 24 hours a day. Right now I have three. But we just promoted two deputies up to the narcotics division, so now I have three openings.

A lot of good things have happened since 2013 when I took sheriff. Crime has fell 18% in the unincorporated areas of Austin County.

In 2017 and 2018, crime in Austin County fell 24.5%. That’s because we have good deputies that work hard for you, are visible, and on patrol.

We’re going to protect our kids; we’re going to protect our county. That’s our job. Putting the bad guys out of business is a priority for us. We have a top, crack narcotics team.

My wife and I believe in giving something back to the community. I have furnished the use of our aircraft. I’m a commercial pilot. I fly for the sheriff’s department … and we furnish that free of charge to the county. I’ve never took not one dollar for the use of my aircraft here in Austin County.

I’m hands-on, I’m out there all the time. We have a good, top-notch department. We have the best deputies you’re going to find. They care about you. They go beyond their time of duty. When they get off duty in plain clothes, they’re out there, they still care about you.

Anything we can ever help anybody with, all you have to do is call. I’ll return each and every one of my phone calls. You can ask anybody in here that wants to track me down, I’ll return each and every call.

From Griffin to Brandes:

During your tenure as sheriff, there has been times when we’ve had officers with five, 10, 15 years of experience that were hired during your tenure and left during your tenure. Can you explain why we’re losing so many good officers, and I don’t see it as the pay because they know what it is when they come here?

Brandes:

A lot of times officers want to work here for a while and they want to move up to bigger agencies that have better pay and better opportunities. It may not be just the pay, but it’s the benefits. A lot of agencies offer benefits that our county can’t afford… We can’t help that, that’s going to happen.

We keep a lot of people that’s been here a lot of years. They’re happy here. The morale in our department is very high – higher than it’s ever been. Our deputies are very happy. Our turnover rate since we got our pay up is nothing like it used to be.

Brandes to Griffin:

Why are you running?

Griffin:

My reason for running is strictly because of incidents I’ve seen in the county when we’ve had two deputies on patrol and to me that’s totally unacceptable being in law enforcement. It is 40 miles from Brazos Country to Industry and if you have two deputies on patrol, the potential for somebody to get hurt is extremely high. My main concern is to put more deputies on patrol. I think we should have no less than five or six deputies on patrol in this county and the money in the budget is there to do it and that’s what we need to do.

For Griffin:

What were your previous law enforcement jobs?

Griffin:

I started off as a constable in Harris County working patrol and serving warrants there. I moved to Alief school district where I worked for the school district for a while. When I worked here, I worked for the Sealy Police Department… Worked at Waller Police Department also.

Should Austin County be a Second Amendment sanctuary county?

Brandes:

I’m a constitutional sheriff. I support the Second Amendment. I’m going to protect your right to bear arms until there’s not a breath left in my body.

Griffin:

I think everybody in Texas has that right to bear arms. I think what the sheriff was saying is he will defend that right as it’s written right now. There are a lot of crazies out there that will try to change that law.

If the law were changed, everybody in this county that owns a gun, I think I would deputize you as my deputies and that way we won’t have an issue of who’s going to have guns.

Why does law enforcement get priority at the dispatch center; what about fire and EMS?

Griffin:

There are issues at dispatch; there’s been issues at dispatch for years and years. You’re right, there needs to be some type of set individual to monitor each channel to where you can have one person answering each caller.

There needs to be some separation to where each frequency is monitored by each dispatcher and that is something that needs to be looked into.

Brandes:

We’ve constantly improved dispatch. We have most of the time three people in there, sometimes four dispatching. Everybody is a priority in dispatch, law enforcement, EMS, fire, everybody’s a priority. There’s never been anybody hurt because dispatch didn’t dispatch or an equipment malfunction or anything of that nature.

I haven’t had any complaints. We’re willing to make changes … but we have to communicate… Bring it to the table.

How are we drawing really good applicants so we can hire the best?

Brandes:

Number one, we have a good department. We raise the bar in our department. We’ve made management changes and we have over 100 years of combined law enforcement experience on our management team. They manage things efficiently. We have a good school system set up where everybody can get the proper hours of required schooling. We take care of our deputies; we treat them right. We give them extra good equipment. They get to shoot a lot; they get to do a lot of things. When a new deputy first walks in the door, he makes $50,000 a year.

We have a career path, so to speak. We offer a wonderful environment. Since I have been sheriff, we’ve not had a murder in Austin County.

To Griffin:

How would you pick your staff?

Griffin:

I would have the administrative staff go through those resumes and pick the best. Then we’d have a roundtable discussion… I would look at their experience, number of years at an agency, if moving around a lot, and their schooling.

What should we do while the jail is being refurbished?

Griffin:

My main issue with the jail is that we are not arresting anyone to put in jail so there are a lot of criminals walking around the streets here that we cannot arrest because we have no place to put them. Once the jail is finished, hopefully we can get back to enforcing the laws in this county and put people in jail rather than let them walk on by.

Brandes:

At one time we had a 96-bed jail and half the jail basically rotted away. The only prisoners we house in Fort Bend are females. We right now have a 42-bed jail. Today we had 24 people in jail and three females in Fort Bend. We can’t hold a juvenile, they have to go to Fort Bend. We pay $55 per day per head at Fort Bend.

Once we get our jail built, we can hire all our people and house all our people again. The judges decide if they go to jail or not… It’s not our decision, it’s a judge thing. We do our best to make sure no dangerous criminals get turned loose because of money, but it’s up to the judicial system.

Griffin to Brandes:

I’d like to know why our tax dollars aren’t being used to put more deputies on patrol when the budget continually has excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Brandes:

If positions aren’t filled, you have money left over… How can I go to commissioners court and ask for more deputies if crime has decreased 18% since I’ve been sheriff? When I’m fully staffed I’ll have four deputies on each shift. I had to struggle and fight like crazy to get decent salaries for the deputies we have.

Brandes to Griffin:

If you want five deputies on the street, how are you going to pay for them?

Griffin:

The last four years the budget, there has been excess of $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 left over in the budget. That money is our tax dollars. If that money is an excess that means there is enough money to put more deputies on the street.

Brandes' response:

In the past, the budget was not done right… I could hire them one year, but there is not enough money to keep them… If you’re not full staff, you’re going to have some money left over and they go back to the general fund.

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