ST. CLAIR COUNTY -- A Meet the Candidates event at Legacy Springs on Tuesday invited four candidates, but only three took part in answering questions.
The forum was set up for the two candidates running for St. Clair County sheriff, Billy Murray and Roy Mullins, and the two candidates running for St. Clair County Schools superintendent, Mike Howard and Greg Cobb.
But late in the afternoon, Mullins announced he would not participate in answering questions asked by moderator Jeff Thompson, executive director of CEPA Management in Pell City. Candidates were asked to submit questions, and Mullins said the questions he submitted had been altered.
“This event has been changed a few times since it was organized,” Mullins said during his opening five-minute introduction. “There were some questions that were going to be asked, and some of the questions were worded differently than I had originally written. I appreciate Jerry (Robertson) and Jeff (Thompson) for discussing this issue with me earlier today. I will not be participating in that portion of the event for that very reason. I thank you for your time, and I will answer any questions that you may have, one-on-one, after this event.”
Robertson, an investigator with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office, was responsible for organizing the event. He said each of the candidates submitted questions.
One of Mullin’s original questions was: Our current Sheriff is being sued over profits from the excess money from feeding inmates. Our municipalities are charged $32.50 each day per inmate to use the jail and they are only able to collect $20 a day from the incarcerated person by law. Will you continue to profit from the excess money and put it in your pocket? What would you do with these funds?
Thompson changed the question to read: 49 Alabama sheriffs, including St. Clair County’s have been named in a suit seeking the release of documents related to the cost of feeding inmates. These documents are not public record, which the suit is challenging. Alabama Code charges sheriffs to supply inmates with necessary food and authorizes them to keep anything they do not spend. Some residents have voiced disapproval of this practice locally. If you are elected Sheriff, how will you address this situation?
Thompson said he did not realize the candidates had submitted the questions, and he did not know which candidates submitted what questions when he made the changes.
“I am the sole person who changed the questions,” Thompson said. “The changes were due to verbiage and possible accusations, because they didn’t have facts to back them up. I wanted to make sure both candidates could be asked the questions in a fair way.”
Robertson and Thompson both said candidates had the new revised questions on Monday before the forum Tuesday night.
“What I do know is that when I asked about the questions remaining the original way, I was told by Mr. Thompson the questions were going to remain the same way he changed them,” Mullins said. “I declined to go any further because my questions had been altered. I do not know why the questions were altered. Some information I had in the questions had been left out completely. I was asked to do something. I did it, and it all got changed.”
“Murray even agreed to answer Mullins’ original questions, but Mullins still refused to participate,” Robertson said.
“Moments before the forum started, Mullins told me he did not feel comfortable with the questions,” Thompson said.
For his part, Murray said he first decided he wanted to be sheriff when he was 8 years old.
He answered questions concerning the importance of the sheriff being involved in communities throughout the county and serving on various boards and organizations.
When told there were only two narcotics deputies for the entire county, Murray said that was not accurate.
“We all work to get narcotics off the street,” he said.
As for issues with a K-9 unit, Murray said the sheriff's office will have them.
“Sheriff Terry Surles has spent thousands of dollars for maintenance of a K-9 unit,” Murray said. "That will continue.”
Murray also answered questions concerning difficulties in communicating with dispatch due to inoperable radios; having a good working relationship with the different municipal police departments; managing a multi-million-dollar budget; and managing large operations.
As far as the superintendent’s race, Cobb and Howard both answered questions concerning experience they bring to the table; motivation; the state report cards that were just released; minority and economically disadvantaged students; audits; changes they would make as superintendent; the property tax vote that recently failed; an information disconnect that exists between the Central Office and county residents; and academic improvement.
In his opening statement, Cobb said he knew how to improve schools.
“And I know how to be your superintendent,” he said. “I know how to budget large amounts of money, and I know how to find resources. Even though the property tax increase failed, St. Clair children are still here begging for your help. I’m running for superintendent because I feel God has called me to do that.”
As principal at St. Clair County High School, Howard said discipline problems are down 88 percent in his second year there while grade-point averages are up from 2.87 to 3.13.
“Our graduation rate is up, and every single student walked across the stage last year to get their diploma,” he said. “As superintendent, I will know where our money is spent. Our teachers will work together and realize we are all on the same team. I want every student in St. Clair County to graduate from high school. I will outwork you. I want to bring communities together.”
Reach Gary Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.