OUR TURN: Next district attorney has plenty of challenges

On Tuesday, voters head to the polls to decide one of the most pivotal runoff races in the Highland Lakes — the election of a new district attorney.

After nearly three decades in office, Republican Sam Oatman decided not to run again for the job as top prosecutor of the 33rd/424th Judicial Districts, which cover an immense area that includes Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties.

So the vote now comes down to two candidates — Angela Dowdle and Wiley B. “Sonny” McAfee. Though they are both Republicans, they are markedly different in their outlooks.

Dowdle is a family law attorney and mediator with local roots. McAfee only recently moved here and is a police officer turned attorney. Both have good ideas for the District Attorney’s Office.

But it will be up to voters to decide who the next district attorney will be. Hopefully, by now, the electorate has done their research, attended forums, studied each candidate’s campaign literature, listened to them during speaking engagements, reviewed their objectives and weighed their endorsements.

This newspaper does not endorse candidates. We leave it up to the voters to decide who their leaders will be.

On the other hand, voters who select the next district attorney should choose wisely so the wheels of justice continue turning. Or, better yet, move more efficiently.

There are many challenges for the next district attorney. He or she will be in charge of pursuing criminal cases in an area with one of the fastest growing populations in Texas, where old cultures are giving way to new and where criminal elements once seen only in other parts of the state have taken an interest in this corner of the Hill Country.

First and foremost, the new top prosecutor must continue to focus on adjudicating crimes fairly and impartially, not just clearing a docket. That means pushing for harsh sentences when warranted, and plea deals and probation when deserved. Justice, not saving costs, should be the highest priority.

Also, to allay public fears that sexual predators are returned too often to the streets because they receive probation instead of time behind bars, the new district attorney must tackle these cases in a vigorous and very visible manner, seeking the full range of punishment under the law.

In addition, there are manpower issues. The District Attorney’s Office has a staff of capable prosecutors and support personnel, but often has been plagued by turnover and the inability to sometimes offer competitive salaries.

The first issue — turnover — has to be addressed solely by the district attorney, but the second — pay — involves cooperation and consensus with the four commissioners courts that help fund the office. Continuity and institutional memory must be maintained in the District Attorney’s Office for better prosecution.

Also, the new district attorney needs to do a good job of communicating with the public by working with the news media in a timely fashion. The office is publicly funded, so taxpayers need to know how wisely their money is being spent on investigations, indictments, trials and adjudication.

The top prosecutor and the staff also must work to keep crime victims informed as a case unfolds and to be on hand to answer questions and offer guidance during a difficult time.

Finally, the new district attorney and prosecutors must work more closely with police by helping officers with warrants, remaining on 24-hour call, preparing officers for testimony at trial and offering prosecutorial insight during each step of the investigation. Likewise, prosecutors must remain as open as possible with the defense in order to avoid legal obstacles that slow a case.

There are plenty of challenges ahead for the new district attorney. We wish the successful candidate the best of luck and skill.


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