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A look at Travis County's candidates for sheriff

Tuesday, June 22, 2004 by

Hamilton, McNeill have many surface similarities

In the wake of Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier’s announcement last year that she would not run again, a whole field of aspiring law enforcement professionals lined up to run for both the Republican and Democratic nominations.

By the time the dust settled on March 9, Frasier’s handpicked favorite, former Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission Chief of Enforcement Greg Hamilton had easily defeated his three opponents in the Democratic primary. On April 13, after a rough and tumble runoff in the Republican primary, Austin Police Department Commander Duane McNeill finally won the nomination, defeating Precinct 3 Constable Drew McAngus.

Since then, the race has slowed to a crawl. A comparative reading of the two men offers up a host of similarities, but also some serious differences, both in opinion and approach. The race is a toss-up., Neither candidate enjoys the benefits of incumbency, and neither candidate is widely known outside his own party.

Both McNeill and Hamilton played football in college. Hamilton played quarterback at Southwest Texas (now Texas State), and McNeill played for his alma mater, Mississippi State. Both feel that leadership skills honed on the field contributed to their rise in law enforcement. Both have a healthy ambition that led them to the top ranks of their organizations. McNeill has served 24 years with APD, and Hamilton has spent a decade at the helm of TABC. Both say they have no spare time, although McNeill walks twice daily near his home in Circle C, and Hamilton and his wife are active in East Austin’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Republican critical of Frasier

McNeill said he would be willing to spend the time rehabilitating what he said was a “crumbling” system at the sheriff’s department. “I really think I can make a positive impact,” McNeill said. “If all things were equal between me and my opponent—which I don’t think is the case—the real question here is: people need to ask who’s going to spend the time” fixing the problems in county law enforcement, particularly in the jails.

“A lot of things are crumbling,” McNeill said. “There’s a lack of leadership in the sheriff’s department.” He said he first became interested in the job because of a lack of follow up from the sheriff’s office. “I’ll tell you what happened about four years ago. I sat on a jail subcommittee with the sheriff’s department,” he said, and he was frustrated because he could not get his calls returned. “I can return a phone call, and that would be a big improvement,” McNeill said. “As time has gone on, there’s a lot more reasons why” he wants to serve.

Hamilton had nothing but praise for Frasier as he described the process of his decision to run. “The general public loves Margo,” Hamilton said. “Margo is so personable, and she’s real,” Hamilton said. “A lot of politicians can turn it on and turn it off,” but he pointed out, “one of the things about Margo is, what you see is what you get. There’s no facade there.”

Hamilton said he now appreciates the difficulties that Frasier faced as a politician. “I’m just getting used to this politics stuff. This is my first rodeo,” Hamilton said. “The best thing I can say about it is, I’m meeting a lot of great people.” Hamilton said he twice turned Frasier down when she asked him to run. “I had no desire to run for political office,” he added, but after consultation with his pastor and his wife, he decided he could make a difference.

Sheriff will face parity of pay issue for corrections officers

One key issue that has come to the fore is the lower level of pay offered to correctional officers versus those put on patrol. Hamilton and McNeill both made it clear that some difference in pay should exist.

“What we need to look at is to decide what level of disparity is reasonable,” Hamilton said. He started out as a correctional officer. “I was fortunate to go out on the streets early on . . . We need to look at areas that are classified as jailers, but the requirement is that you’ve got to be a certified peace officer,” Hamilton said, noting that a procedure for moving to patrol was the best way to provide pay-scale mobility for correctional officers. He pointed out, however, that “there’s a lot of people that have no desire to go out on patrol.”

On that issue, McNeill said, “Well, it is a concern . . . From the corrections side, they want to have parity with law enforcement, and that’s not going to ever happen . . . I don’t want to see anybody leave the sheriff’s department from either of those departments. It’s tough being in Travis County because you’re always going to have to compete with APD and the Round Rock Police Department.” McNeill said there has to be a pay scale that roughly mirrors those of the police departments.

The two addressed funding concerns in a similar manner. “In tough economic times,” McNeill said, “you can’t keep pounding people that are homeowners, but I think there are . . . inefficiencies.” He said that as the next sheriff, he would “provide a better tax return for the citizens” through coordination with judges and prosecutors.

“I’m real big at trying to stretch the dollar,” Hamilton said, noting his experience as a consultant for the Justice Department building relationships and dealing with federal funding. “There’s a lot of money out there,” he added.

Learning from mistakes made in Tulia

Hamilton told a story from a program he helped create, and named Safe Prom/Safe Graduation. “While I was at TABC, we had to deal with Tulia.” He said local officials requested that TABC come in because a parent had bought a keg for an after-prom party. “My agents went in there and they were addressing a high school graduation party,” Hamilton said. He said then the agents somehow got out of line. “Our agents made the kids get on their knees.” Hamilton said he was deeply disappointed in the agents’ actions. “Our agents’ conduct wasn’t what we expected of them . . . We terminated employees there.” Hamilton said he was supported by some in the American Civil Liberties Union for taking corrective action in the incident, which was unrelated to the well-known Tulia fiasco involving uncorroborated convictions of many in Tulia’s African American community. Hamilton said he was not qualified to speak of those events, but he did say, “I’m glad to see that they’re trying to right their wrong.”

McNeill said he learned a lot growing up in Memphis during the civil rights era. Abandoned along with five siblings, McNeill was a ward of the court until he was 16. He went to two different majority African-American Memphis high schools and describes one of his first days at school just after the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. “I was a minority,” he said. “I bore the brunt of people’s dislike of white Americans.” He described being hit in the back of the head by a baseball that day. “There were some very interesting experiences . . . Do I know what it’s like to be black? No, but I do know what it’s like to be a minority,” McNeill said. “It made me a more productive person.”

While arguing that the county needs to deal more effectively with mental health issues, Hamilton noted that simple incarceration is futile so long as offenders have no skills. “I don’t have the magic bullet, but I think there’s ways that we can teach these people skills,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been in law enforcement since 1985. I really believe that law enforcement needs to step back for a minute. Believe me, I think there’s a lot of people that need to be in jail—and we don’t need to let them out—but there’s others that we need to teach life skills.”

The two agree that jail should be a place for bettering oneself, not just punishment for its own sake. “What you’re advocating is a change in behavior,” McNeill said of the jailer’s perspective. “If they choose to continue to violate the law, there need to be consequences.” But, he said, “When you have a captive audience, sometimes you can take that and make it advantageous.” He said he hoped to “change their mindset and get them back on the right path.”

Council committees busy . . . This is the final week before the Council takes its annual summer break. In addition to Thursday’s Council meeting, Council members will be busy attending committee meetings. The Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30am today in Room 3 04 of City Hall. The city’s external auditors, KPMG, will present the FY 2003 Management Letter. The city auditor's office will present an audit report on the current fee structure for General Fund departments. The Healthcare Subcommittee will meet on Tuesday and the Telecommunications Infrastructure Committee will meet Wednesday afternoon . . . Other meetings . . . Keep the Land, whose purpose is to insure that the city lease rather than sell the land at the former Robert Miller Airport, is branching out. The group is hosting a symposium tonight entitled, “City Government: An Owner’s Manual,” beginning at 6:30pm at the AFL-CIO hall, 1106 Lavaca. The panel is weighted heavily with activists, including Susana Almanza of PODER, Steve Beers of the Save Barton Creek Association, Mike Blizzard of Grassroots Solutions, Bill Bunch of the SOS Alliance, Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition and Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning Group and Prime Strategies, Inc. . . The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Design Commission will hold a special called meeting to continue discussion about their role in future city projects and guidelines. They will meet in the 8th floor conference room of One Texas Center at 5:45pm . . . The Parks and Recreation Board is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at the department’s headquarters at Lamar and Riverside . . . The RMMA Plan Implementation committee will meet at 6pm at Waller Creek Center . . . Bow fishing proposal stirs protest . . . A proposal to prohibit bow fishermen from engaging in the sport has elicited a number of passionate emails from those who enjoy bow fishing, as well as from their opponents. One man emailed from New York, writing that he spends about $5,000 a year on his bow-fishing vacation in Austin. Evidently, Town Lake and Lake Austin have become widely known as bow fishing destinations. Members of the Carp Anglers Group argue that bow fishermen are depleting the lakes of large, prize carp, which the anglers catch and release. The matter is still pending in a committee of the Parks and Recreation Board and would not be expected to reach the City Council agenda before September, if at all . . . Toll road protests continue . . . The anti-toll road forces have organized an email campaign to members of the CAMPO policy board, urging them to reject the entire proposal. However, many of the emails are mere form letters, some lacking signatures. Members of the board are thus more likely to heed letters with a personal touch than those just asking. .

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