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Sheriff candidates sound off in forum

20140718 Sheriff-Candidates featureThe fate of the office for the top law enforcement officer in Hidalgo County could lie in the hands of 53 people.

It creates a much different challenge for candidates looking to get on the November ballot. Lupe Treviño, former sheriff, who was reelected in 2012, abruptly resigned from office in March and subsequently pleaded guilty to laundering drug money. The commissioners court appointed Pct. 4 Constable Eddie Guerra to the spot to serve until January.

Because Treviño resigned after the March primaries, it’s up to the precinct chairs in a heavy democratic-voting county to choose candidates to run for the seat in the November election.

Guerra is one of five candidates who applied for the spot. The others are Nereyda Morales-Martinez, an attorney in Mission; Francisco “Frank” Guerrero, president and CEO of Valley Metro Security; Juan Gonzalez, San Juan police chief; Geovani Hernandez, La Joya police chief.

Meanwhile, Hidalgo County Republicans have a nominations meeting set for Monday, July 21, to interview applicants and is still accepting resumes.

The candidates chosen by each party will face each other during the November general election.

The Democrats’ 52 precinct chairs and Party Chairman Ric Godinez are set to vote on their choice Saturday, July 26.

In advance of the vote, the regional division of CLEAT (Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas) held a political forum Monday for officers, precinct chairs and members of the community to hear from the democratic applicants. Guerra and Morales-Martinez did not attend, sending word that they had other commitments.

The three candidates in attendance–Hernandez, Gonzalez and Guerrero–each were asked what they’d do improve the reputation of the office after a series of scandals rocked the sheriff’s department and what they’d do about commanders in the office rumored to have known about the illegal activities.

Among other questions, the applicants were asked whether they’d force employees to work on their campaigns or raise money through ticket sales as the previous sheriff reportedly did.

Hernandez

Hernandez said he attempted to oust Treviño in 2012, running a campaign against him knowing there was corruption in the office. He said it’s important for the new sheriff to be out in the community, not just behind a desk.

“You’ve got to listen to the community members,” he said. “Without community members, actually, there is no sheriff.”

Hernandez said he also plans to restructure the department, and the top personnel need to be assessed. He also said he would not expect employees to help fund his campaign, calling the practice unethical.

Hernandez said he was not for privatizing the jail, but he might be for expanding it if it is as overcrowded as it was when he was a young detention officer.

Hernandez started his law enforcement career as a detention officer for the county when he was about 20. He then moved to the Alamo Police Department, and then to the Pharr Police Department.

In 2003, Hernandez signed up with the Department of State for police training with the United Nations International Police Task Force in Eastern Europe. As a government contractor, he worked in places in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Haiti.

Hernandez has a master’s degree in psychology from Capella University, and he’s working on a Ph.D. in psychology from Capella University.

Gonzalez

There are three issues Gonzalez said he would focus on as sheriff: gangs, juvenile crime and home invasions. He said he wants to help other law enforcement agencies around the county and he plans to bring better training, education and benefits to the sheriff’s office.

He’s already addressed the issues in San Juan, Hernandez said, creating a gang unit and targeting juvenile crime. As sheriff, he’d also like to create the Police Athletic League, to give children something to do.

“I’ve lived by three things my whole life: attendance, performance and conduct,” Hernandez said. “Hidalgo County is the eighth largest county in the state of Texas, but we’re the county that’s known for corruption in the state of Texas, and I want to change that.”

The first thing he would do in office is change the command staff.

He also wants to put an early warning system similar to one he has in place in San Juan to sniff out possible corrupt officers. Through the system, internal affairs officers keep an eye on income tax returns and give random polygraphs.

Hernandez said he is not for expanding the jail because more space means more prisoners. Instead, he’d like to see more programs in place to decrease recidivism and help people with mental health issues.

He vowed to allow employees to make their own decision on whom to support in elections and said he would not force them to raise money.

“I’ll tell you one thing, that department is not a county department. That department became a political organization the minute they started selling all this stuff,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez has a sister who works as a deputy in the sheriff’s office, another who’s a dispatcher, a brother who is chief of La Joya ISD police and brother-in-law who’s a deputy constable.

Guerrero

Guerrero said he’s grown a business from zero to 750 employees and managed a jail similar to Hidalgo County’s facility.

“We really need a sheriff that’s going to move us from that dark cloud and reconnect with the public, and reestablish that trust with the public,” Guerrero said, adding that the county needs to be proactive, not reactive.

“We need to find new ways of being innovative and move the office forward, rebrand ourselves, maintaining the history of Hidalgo County, but forgetting the last 30 years of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.”

On day one, Guerrero said he’d restructure and change the administration.

“There’s no reason that administration is still there,” he said, taking a shot at Guerra, currently serving as sheriff. “I would do it with dignity. I would do it with respect, but it’s what the public deserves and it’s what the public demands.”

Also, he said the restructuring would put more boots on the ground and increase the sheriff’s office’s presence in the rural areas of the county.

On privatizing the jail, Guerrero said there is a place for private jails due to federal prisoners, immigration and overpopulation, but the county jail should not be run as a for-profit facility.

And it’s the sheriff’s job to run a political campaign, Guerrero said.

“I’ve been very clear, one of my first standing orders as sheriff come Jan. 1 when I raise my right hand is going to be no sheriff’s office personnel will have a direct financial impact on my campaign.”

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