Tuesday’s political forum for locally contested races on the March 3 primary ballot ended with some fireworks between District Attorney Kriste Burnett and her opponent Kristina Massey.
The Palo Pinto County Republican Party hosted the forum at Holiday Hills Golf Club for candidates running on the Republican ballot for the offices of district attorney, county attorney, district clerk, tax-assessor collector and county constable for precinct 5.
Like attorneys working a jury to sway a verdict their way, it was in the closing remarks where perhaps the night’s highlight moment came.
Now in private practice, Massey was previously a Palo Pinto County assistant prosecutor before Burnett took office in 2017.
“The problems I have been told over and over by the public with this administration is that they don’t do proper plea agreements,” Massey told the more than 100 people in attendance. “It is not acceptable to not give them the speedy trial they deserve. There have not been enough trials in the last three years.”
Massey promised to “get the trial docket moving.”
Burnett responded by telling the audience and others watching online that the mandate she was given by voters in 2016 was to pursue more aggressive prosecution of felons and “end the revolving door” of criminals going in and out of the system.
“I have, as your DA, to tell you I have been trying to uphold that mandate,” she said.
Burnett delved into comparative numbers for the three years she has been district attorney and the four years prior to her taking office. She said in her three years her office has handled 2,874 felony cases compared to 2,500 in the four prior years. Burnett said she has sent 478 individuals to state criminal justice institutions and another 223 to state jail. For the four years prior, she said the DA’s office sent 164 people to state institutions and 61 people to state jail.
“So you tell me who has been more productive,” said Burnett for the evening’s final comment.
Responding to a question, Massey said as a private practice attorney she has not tried a court case in the last three years.
“I know how to evaluate a case to get a plea deal or a dismissal,” she said.
Burnett said she has had 16 jury trials resulting in 19 convictions, and another 37 bench trials. She said most local felony cases result in please deals thanks to “aggressive prosecution” and knowledge by defendants and their attorneys that Palo Pinto County juries are tough on crime.
Here are highlights from the other four races and candidates:
Constable, Pct. 5
First-term incumbent Scott Mitcham is being challenged by deputy Frank Baker. Baker, a 1995 Mineral Wells High School graduate, and Mitcham were among three candidates in 2016. Mitcham has served as interim Mineral Wells police chief and worked drug cases with the former Cross Timbers Task Force and supervised the City County Narcotics Unit.
They were asked to describe the duties of a constable, which largely centers around serving as court bailiffs and the timely serving of papers and eviction notices. They were then asked why they were seeking the office and wanted to win.
“I am running because I am proud to call Mineral Wells home,” said Baker, who with his wife, Mineral Wells High School choir director Jeanne, have five children. “I have been on patrol for 14 years and I am looking for another way to serve.”
Mitcham drew laughs when he responded, “Because I want to keep my job,” he said. “I love being a constable and I love serving Palo Pinto County.”
Incumbent Tax Assessor-Collector Stacy Choate hopes to win her second four-year term in the March Republican party primary but faces a challenge from Stephanie Dunn, who currently works as the assistant to Palo Pinto County commissioners.
Asked about their qualifications and background, Dunn said she has 30 years of accounting and small business backgrounds. “The office of Tax Assessor-Collector is hands on,” Dunn said.
Choate has worked in the office since 2008 and said she holds more certifications than are statutorily required while continuing to receive ongoing education. “In this position, experience matters,” Choate said.
“I want people to have a positive experience with the tax office,” Dunn said. “If no one runs against the incumbent there will never be change. You can’t register your boat or pay property taxes at (the county annex). It’s time to bring technology to the Tax Assessor-Collector’s office.”
Choate said her office mails out 51,000 tax bills, titles over 33,000 vehicles and 1,400 boats annually 10 employees, all who must maintain their educational training.
“It’s an important position that serves the funding of important services in our county,” Choate said.
Last year, attorney Meagan Kostiha was appointed interim county attorney following the sudden passing of Jim Ashby. She is now running for election to the seat against attorney Cynthia Dillard-Ince.
Kostiha said she has handled 297 criminal cases with 128 convictions since taking office, and in the last six months another 302 new cases have been filed.
Citing previous experience working with the 11th Court of Criminal Appeals, Kostiha said she is moving her office to an online computer management system that will let attorneys access case files and information anywhere to help speed up prosecutorial processes.
“I had experience with this and knew I wanted to bring it here,” said Kostiha.
On the question of improving efficiencies, Ince said, “The thing I would do is try cases. I just want to try cases.”
Ince said she wants to bring child protective case prosecutions back under the auspices of the county attorney’s office. She said it is what previous county attorneys Phil Garrett and Ashby did. CPS caseloads was a factor in Garrett’s decision to leave the office and return solely to private practice.
Kostiha said CPS cases are specialized and she favors letting a regional CPS attorney handle those to allow her more time to focus on other matters of the office, which includes legal counsel and contract reviews for county commissioners and other offices.
Kostiha said she still works with the CPS regional attorney.
“The county does not receive funds from CPS cases, not a dime,” she said, adding at any given time there are 90 to 100 pending CPS cases in the county. “If the county took that over we would have to hire an assistant county attorney. The best solution is to utilize the regional attorney.”
Ince said those cases should come under local jurisdiction and decision-making.
“How many of you want to turn Palo Pinto County authority over to the State of Texas?” Ince said. “There’s no reason the county attorney can’t handle those cases.”
Sherry Roberson has worked in the Palo Pinto County district clerk’s office 22 years under two longtime district clerks – the late Helen Simmons and Janie Glover. When Glover stepped down last year, less than a year into her new term, District Judge Mike Moore appointed Roberson to fill the vacancy.
The March 3 primary winner will complete the final two years of the term. Roberson is running along with challengers Jonna Banks, the current paralegal and coordinator in the county attorney’s office, and Stacie Frye, a former district clerk assistant now working as a 911 telecommunicator for Mineral Wells.
The candidates were asked about accountability as it relates to handling any monies.
“The district clerk’s office is not a revenue office,” Roberson said. “A very wise district attorney once told me justice isn’t for sale.”
She said the office operates on a $244,838 annual budget covering salaries, equipment and office costs.
Frye said wile she has an accounting background, she has not had the opportunity to manage a budget.
With over 30 years of organizing and working fundraisers as a volunteer for various non-profit groups, Banks said, “I’ve had a lot of time handling money for those organizations.”
Asked changes they might make if elected, Banks said she would first want to observe the office for a time before making any changes.
“I want to be a positive role model for the office,” said Frye.
“I believe we have excellent customer service and I have a great staff,” Roberson said, adding that the office is evaluating whether to bring back a passport service for residents. She said bringing newer technology to the office is something she would also like to accomplish.
No county offices have Democratic challengers. The primary election is March 3, with early voting beginning Feb. 18.