There was contention to go around Monday at the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center as the candidates for the Eddy County Commission debated ahead of the June election.
The battle regarding the legality of the current commission’s use of county funds to hire an independent contractor for the County Assessor’s office and candidates’ pasts were hot-button issues at the debate.
The debate between District 2 candidates Royce Pearson, incumbent, and Jon Henry began with heated words right out of the gate as moderator Gene Dow’s first question regarded rumors of both sides looting one another’s campaign materials.
“We have no interest in taking signs,” said Henry. “I know we’ve been accused of stealing bumper stickers, but that’s just incorrect.”
According to Pearson’s rebuttal, someone has been maliciously stealing his campaign paraphernalia.
“It’s interesting that the last time I placed signs in locations, my sign was removed and his sign was placed in the position where mine used to be,” said Pearson. “My bumper stickers have been missing. I didn’t think we were going to talk about this, but we’ve moved passed it.”
Pearson was later asked why he voted “yes” to hiring an auditing firm from Arkansas at a cost of more than $750,000 to perform an audit of oil and gas companies doing business in Eddy County.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that county tax assessor should go ahead with the oil field audit; in our first meeting in April, we did vote 5-0 to hire the contractor,” said Pearson. “The only thing that would happen if we refused to hire the contractor is we would be back in court.
“I feel like we really didn’t have any other choices. I have never, never been in favor of the outside audit, but when you get pushed against a wall and the Supreme Court is saying, ‘You will allow her to do that or you’ll be fined for interfering with the office of the County Tax Assessor,’ we acted accordingly.”
Henry said he would have voted “no” on the issue regardless of the Supreme Court’s orders.
“You do have a choice. You’re an elected official; you have a yes or no vote, and you vote what you think you should,” Henry said to Pearson. “I would have voted ‘no’ because the oil and gas industry is a huge product of Eddy County.”
Other issues the candidates discussed concerned the cost of the previously mentioned audit, legalization of Sunday packaged alcohol sales, the usage of social media, and the 2016-17 fiscal year budget.
The debate between District 3 candidates Glenn Collier, incumbent, Larry Wood and Guy Lutman followed.
The first question issued regarded Collier’s age and how that might affect another term as a commissioner.
“I think you’re as old as you feel,” said Lutman. “I don’t think age should really come into it.”
Perhaps the most controversial issue during the second debate was Wood’s departure from the Artesia Magistrate Court and any hindrance it might have on his performance as a commissioner.
“There was a public defender in my office that sexually harassed my staff and mistreated witnesses. I eradicated him from my court,” said Wood. “I knew when that happened that there would be consequences out of it. It will not be an issue.”
The District 3 candidates also discussed the oil and gas audit.
“We took a long look in order to rid our reputation and rid it being hidden. We decided the best thing to do is to put it on the table and let it proceed so we would be able to resolve it. Every commissioner is a person that is elected and has their own mindset and each of us respects each other,” said Collier. “Some wanted to go a different way, some wanted to not do anything. Whatever it was, we did unanimously to satisfy oil and gas and still say we are transparent to our public.”
Lutman’s rebuttal included his past term on the Eddy County Commission.
“Shame on the county assessor; it’s tragic it’s come to this,” said Lutman. “We should have persuaded that assessor that you’re not going to do this to these people; you’re cutting the hand off that feeds you. I would have voted no, even if it went further.”
Wood agreed with the way the current commissioners voted on the issue.
“They had two options to go. The way I heard it is that this was handed down by the Supreme Court. I couldn’t tell you if it was a mandate or not,” said Wood. “I felt like, at that time, the county commission had the only thing in front of them that they could do.”
At 6 p.m. today at the OPAC, a second debate will be held, this time for Eddy County sheriff’s candidates Mark Cage, Kelly Lowe and John Patterson, and treasurer candidates Frank Barrera and Laurie Pruitt.