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Hays County Democrats in a grudge match to lead commissioners court

Monday, February 1, 2010 by John Davidson

To hear Hays County Judge Liz Sumter and Pct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, both Democrats, talk about the challenges facing Hays County and what should be done about them, you’d think they were running mates—not opponents running against each other for county judge in the March Democratic primary.


Both candidates emphasize the need to plan for growth by building infrastructure; both emphasize the need to do so in a way that protects the county’s natural resources; both talk about fiscal responsibility during tough economic times.


But you wouldn’t know it to hear them talk about each other.


Barton described Sumter‘s approach to roads and infrastructure projects as “laissez-faire” and the product of “wishful thinking.”


“That is the most bizarre comment I have heard in three years,” Sumter said in response. “That is just way out of left field.”


Barton, a county commissioner since 2007, who also served from 1992 to 1998, doesn’t think so.


“I don’t think she has been proactive and I don’t think she has been effective in planning for infrastructure,” Barton said. “And she has not been able to build up trust and a coalition among regional leaders and city leaders that would create a framework for community consensus and a really aggressive approach to planning the future of Hays County.”


“Actually we’ve taken a very aggressive approach,” Sumter said, citing efforts over the last three years to support sustainable growth by changing the county’s subdivision rules and regulations in order to protect water resources, particularly the Trinity Aquifer. Sumter also cited other cooperative efforts aimed at both economic development and environmental protection, like the regional floodplain management program, an economic development study in partnership with the City of San Marcos, and the 15-county Hill Country Coalition, which is pushing for a bill that will give counties more control over growth and development.


“I would venture to say that in the last three years we have probably done more than in the eight years before that, in terms of getting infrastructure into this county that has been badly needed for a number of years,” Sumter said. Prior to Sumter’s election, Republican Jim Powers served as judge for eight years, along with a Republican majority.


Barton’s base is in the Kyle-Buda area, where his family has deep roots (his father, Bob Barton, is a former state representative who has remained actively involved in Hays County politics). Barton said his decision to run for county judge is based on requests from constituents and the need, in his view, for a balance between managing growth and preserving “the special character of the Texas Hill Country, and I think I’m perhaps uniquely well-suited to do that at this particular juncture in the county’s history.”


In recent years the county has been grappling with unprecedented growth and the pressing need for infrastructure to support it. In November 2008, Hays County voters approved a $207 million road bond—the largest ever in the county—and that same year approved a $30 million park bond to protect water resources.


Both candidates cite these projects as evidence they are committed to a proactive approach to managing growth. Sumter has criticized Barton for a lack of initiative on road projects, and Barton has been quoted saying Sumter is not as supportive of transportation projects and road bonds as he is.


In reality, both candidates don’t diverge much on policy. But there is a difference in style and how each one approaches process, according to political analyst David Butts. One on hand, the perception among Hays County Democrats supporting Barton is that Sumter has been resistant to widening or building new roads in response to growth in the county. “I think that has caused part of the rift,” Butts said.


On the other hand, Sumter‘s supporters, many of whom are concentrated in the Wimberley area and the western side of the county, tend to be progressive Democrats that strongly support environmental preservation and conservation. To Butts, these Democrats are not eager to see massive developments and road projects on the western side of the county, “and Sumter has been somewhat representative of that attitude.”


Sumter might also have a certain appeal to Democrats concerned about government spending, and therefore “can probably run, as she views it, somewhat tight-fisted with the dollars,” Butts said. “I don’t think she’s a no-growther at all, but I think she tends to be less enthusiastic about it.”


Barton, who has complained of a lack of transparency in Sumter‘s office, has also repeatedly brought up the fact that he rejected a pay raise for county commissioners in 2008, and criticized Sumter for proposing the pay increase without citizen review.


“This office is very open and transparent to all citizens,” Sumter said. “We take very seriously the position of county judge as being the voice for all citizens in this county, not just one precinct or one quadrant.”


Republican candidates vying to take on the winner of this race in November are Bert Cobb and Peggy Jones.

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