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Barton looks back on Hays term

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Jeff Barton was returned to the Hays County Commissioners Court in 2006 after an eight year hiatus. He won with a bridge metaphor: “When I ran in ’06, that’s what I talked about: build a bridge,” he said. “I tend to think in terms of metaphor anyway, and for me that is the defining metaphor of what’s going on in Hays County. We need to literally and metaphorically build bridges.”


Four years later, the political mood changed. Barton, the now again former Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner, lost the race to Republican Bert Cobb in the run for county judge. Republican Mark Jones captured his old seat. And incumbent Democrat Karen Ford lost her Precinct 4 place to Republican challenger Ray Whisenant.


As his term ended, Barton sat down to talk with In Fact Daily. He mentioned key victories in road and parks construction, economic development, and criminal justice. He said he was proud of the working relationship he had with all of his colleagues, including the court’s current lone Republican, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley. But he was also in a mood to reflect on the broader, philosophical change that spelled doom for his campaign in a year where bridge building wasn’t necessarily welcomed.


“Sometimes there are really profound differences, but that doesn’t make people with different ideas evil,” he said. “That seems cliché to say, but it is a thing that a lot of folks are having trouble grasping right now.”


During both of his terms in office, growth has been an important issue. “The first time I was commissioner in the ’90s, me and a few other people were talking about preparing for growth,” he said. “At that time, a lot of people still doubted that” it would happen. “There was a lot of criticism for over-planning and over-preparing.


“That has changed,” he said.


Barton noted that, during his tenure, the court had made moves to accommodate their growing jurisdiction. “There are some things that I am really pleased about that happened that helped prepare for that continued growth,” he said. “We passed the (2007) parks bonds, we passed (2008) road bonds, and we’ve started catching up on our road infrastructure.”


He also said that he was “personally proud of getting Hays County much more involved in (the) mass transit debate.”


Barton next discussed job creation in the county. “The private sector is creating those jobs but in several cases, Hays County played a pivotal role in recruiting…significant jobs and services like Seton Hospital…U.S. Foods in Buda,” he said. “(Those are) good paying jobs with full benefits. In the teeth of the recession, to be able to bring new tax base and new jobs to the county is something that I think most communities would desperately envy.”


He ended his look back with some thoughts about criminal justice. “We won’t be here to see the outcome, but I think this rethinking—the analysis we did of the criminal justice system…that started now more than a year ago—that’s going to allow us to right-size our jail and save tens of millions of dollars, to focus more on drug and alcohol rehab and mental health…that will restructure and reorganize some of the parts of our criminal justice system,” he said.


“That will really pay unimaginable financial dividends over the next five, ten, twenty years and, I think it will help us subtly focus on key things we need to do to provide better services both to make people safer and, for those who are in the system, to actually give those who want a second chance a meaningful second chance.”


With the current court set to make its final criminal justice recommendations just before it expires, action on those issues will be left to the incoming commissioners and judge. That fact could bring some alterations to what the current bench has in mind.


Barton wasn’t ready to answer questions about his political future. He initially dismissed the question with a Gaelic poem about gathering oneself before another fight and that familiar quote about waiting for campaign forgiveness from his wife. He added that it was too early to even consider another run while promising to stay involved in Hays County issues.


And he reminded us that, no matter the seeming ease of a transition to such a reliable Democratic enclave, he wouldn’t be moving north. “I come from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were really involved in this community,” he said. “I’ve got roots here. I’ve had people say, ‘if you were living in Austin, you could have a really successful political career.’ Maybe, maybe not. But the place I live and where I’m really rooted is here.”


Bridges or no bridges, it seems.

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