County judge candidates debate federal funding, ‘conflict of interest’
In preparation for the Republican primary election on March 1, Burnet County Judge James Oakley and challenger Doak Field shared future plans and opinions on county government during a question-and-answer candidate forum Tuesday, Jan. 11. About 100 people attended the ticketed event in Burnet, which was hosted by the Burnet County Republican Party.
At the start of the Q&A, moderated by county party President Kara Chasteen, candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves to the crowd.
Oakley is a Burnet County native who has spent the majority of his life in the area. He has served as county judge for seven years and been involved in county government since the late ’90s. He referenced his experience and his longstanding relationships with county commissioners as favorable qualities during his opening statements.
“Since becoming judge, we’ve been dealing with a lot of growth issues, and it’s been a challenge,” Oakley said. “(County improvements) have been a product of working together with the Commissioners Court. … I’m very proud with what we’ve been able to do there, and I’m lucky for who I get to serve with on that front.”
Field is also a Burnet County native. He played professional football before entering the corporate world for the majority of his career. He cited his team-player attitude, professionalism, and “100 percent laser focus” as major reasons to vote for him.
“I know I’m limited in what I can do and who I can manage, but I believe when you set the goals for the team … then we will do what’s best for Burnet County,” he said.
Candidates took turns answering 13 questions written on cards by those in attendance. Each candidate had two minutes to answer. Questions spanned several topics, including why each candidate is motivated to serve Burnet County, how they would help the sheriff’s office retain qualified law enforcement officers, and how they plan to meet the demands of growth.
Candidates were also asked to address road projects, including the planned Wirtz Dam bridge, which will connect RR 1431 and FM 2147 at an estimated cost of $30 million.
The engineering portion of the project, which includes design plans, surveying, and environmental studies, is about 30 percent complete following approval from the Commissioners Court in late summer of 2020.
Oakley explained that the bridge has been part of area road plans for years, noting that the cost of construction would not be paid for by local tax dollars but rather federal funding. He also said the bridge would help alleviate traffic congestion throughout the area, which is getting worse as the county grows.
“I’m very proud of that bridge and what it’s going to do to our area,” Oakley said. “We can do a lot of things to make our roads better, but new roads are new arteries that reduce traffic pressure.”
Field also expressed support of the bridge, while also noting concerns from residents.
“I said earlier that I’ve spoken to a number of Marble Falls residents, some who have lived there their entire lives, and it’s about 50/50,” Field said of public support for the project. “The concern about the noise and potential environmental pollution … I would like to study (the bridge) more.”
Recently, plans for the bridge have undergone some scrutiny. The city of Cottonwood Shores wrote a letter of protest in December 2021 calling for additional noise and environmental impact studies.
Multiple times throughout the event, Field stated he would never accept federal grant money and funding if he felt it would result in giving the federal government undue control over Burnet County.
“I will not accept any money, not a penny of federal money that has strings attached to it,” Field said. “They’re not going to be able to tell Burnet County how to spend that money, OK?”
Oakley pointed out that many facets of county government, including payroll for some positions and even tools and materials used by the sheriff’s office, are made available to the county through federal grant funding.
“I think there’s some underlying current there where folks think that if we accept it, we’re going to be subject to certain mandates and whatnot,” Oakley said. “That’s just not gonna happen. Every entity receives that money. It’s our money, so we put it to use. I may not agree with some of the programs that are out there, but if the shoe fits, we’re going to wear it as long as it doesn’t have strings attached that are a liability or adverse in any way.”
Perhaps the most controversial question of the evening asked whether Field thought it was a conflict of interest for Oakley to serve as a member of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative Board of Directors while also serving as county judge.
Currently, Oakley is the District 5 director on the PEC board and is up for re-election this year. The election is handled by the cooperative and is May 18 through June 10. Only members in District 5 can vote.
Oakley has served in the position since 2013, one year before he became county judge.
“I think it is a monumental conflict of interest,” Field responded. “PEC, in my opinion, is a monopoly, and the audacity that they have to put an $8 to $12 surcharge on every meter out there because they have problems paying for the electricity that they negotiated, the audacity of that is mind-boggling … any organization that has the audacity to make us pay for their mistakes, I don’t have much sympathy for them.”
In response, Oakley called the partnership an “enhancement of interest,” noting that the Texas Ethics Commission is the entity that sets the parameters that determines such conflicts. He also noted that his service to the co-op has resulted in valuable connections for the county.
“Infrastructure is what I’m involved with, and whether it be roads, power, or water, it’s what we must have,” he said.
When asked who they would work for if voted into the position, both candidates answered the same: the residents of Burnet County.
During the event, attendees were treated to a spaghetti dinner for the price of their tickets. Elected officials in attendance included District Attorney Sonny Mcafee, County Clerk Janet Parker, Marble Falls City Council members Reed Norman and Dave Rhodes, and County Commissioners Joe Don Dockery and Damon Beierle.