Current county and city office holders seeking county offices met with media questions

By Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor

As the end of the campaign season for the May 24 Primary closes several locations have held political forums for candidates. In Sharp County, the last one of the season was held at Cave City’s newest venue, The Meadows. The Sharp County Republican Party and Justice of the Peace Brianna Diorio hosted the well attended event. Republican Party President Joey Barnes served as the evening’s master of ceremonies. 

Early voting began May 9 with several contested national, state, county and city races. 

Justice of the Peace Candidates spoke first with Everett McQuire and Buelle Wilkes taking the stage asking for support for their race. 

As the evening progressed and attendees enjoyed the free barbecue meal. Arkansas District Two House of Representatives candidate Hazel Whited spoke of her experience and education and how they will lend to her being a voice for all candidates in her district. Whited and her husband Joey run a tractor business in Ash Flat. She  spoke on the importance of keeping Arkansas Highways in the forefront to promote industry to the area as well as helping rural school districts gain the resources they need to properly educate our youth. Candidates Trey Steimel had a previous engagement and was not present and Marsh Davis had appeared recently at other forums and was also not present as he said Cave City was not a part of his coverage area and he opted to spend more time campaigning in areas where prospective voters could be reached. 

Ethan Barnes was the first of three candidates for State Senate District 22. Barnes told attendees of the experience he feels makes him the best candidate Barnes explained he and his fiancé are business owners and a member of several area clubs and organizations and on boards within the county. He said he is a common guy and said he has never been a legislator but plans to work to abolish the state’s income tax. He is not for new taxes and explained he plans to be an advocate for rural communities in Sharp County and agriculture as well as small business. 

John Payton is from Pleasant Plains was next to speak as a candidate for State Senate District 22. 

He lives and farms on his great, great grandfather’s homestead. He and his family have a laying house and raise vegetables for truck patches. He has two sons who work in the family auto dealership businesses and a daughter and her husband who are full time Christian servants. Payton explained he has experienced things, like meeting a payroll, and learning the ups and downs of business. His public service of being a State Representative for District 64 where he has served for 9 and half years further lend to the experience required to be a good state senator. 

Payton is an auctioneer by trade and recently opened a new auto auction in Jonesboro. Payton said his experience in life and serving as a State Representative to an area he has always called home make him the best candidate for the position of State Senator for District 22.

James Sturch, who is the current who has served for the last four years Senator for District 22. was next to speak. Sturch is a civics and economics teacher to juniors at Southside High School.  He grew up in Batesville and is the son, brother and grandson of Baptist preachers. He said he learned the value of giving of one’s self is important and that it is irrelevant how much money one has. He said he feels politics need to be removed from teaching and it needs to stick to facts. Sturch said he feels we have to do a better job at how students are treated, regardless if they wish to go to college or into a trade. HE said regardless they are filling much needed jobs. Sturch said over the last four years the average $330 million average has been returned to the Arkansas tax payers due to a Republican governor and the ability to conservatively budget the state’s budget. 

Next to speak was Constable Dave Gruger who is running for Constable in District 3 in Cherokee Village. Gruger spoke of the financial issues the city and counties get that they do not get enough funding back in regard to law enforcement. Gruger asked for the public’s support in his election. 

Candidate for District 28, Arkansas State Representative  Bart Schulz, was next to the podium. Shultz who is a fifth generation farmer. He is also the General Manager of Spring River Paramedic Ambulance Service, Justice of the Peace for District since 2020 and has been county budget coordinator for the last three and half years. He is also on the Sidney Fire Department. He was one of the founding members of the Sharp County Economic Research Committee that morphed into Sharp County having a presence on the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority who were responsible for obtaining Emerson Electric to the area. Schulz feels strongly that vocational education is vital to rural America to give them a leg up in the future. His work with the police, ambulance and fire departments he sees daily the drug epidemic in rural Arkansas. He said these entities are struggling and need more officers to try to combat the epidemic without raising taxes, he plans to help if he can. Schulz is the only candidate to be endorsed by the Arkansas Right for Life Coalition. He is also an A 2 Rating with the NRA and is endorsed with the Three Rivers Firefighters Association. 

Candidate Chris Beller for  Arkansas State Representative for District 28 then took the podium as the second District 1 House of Representatives candidate. Beller who has spent over 20 years in public service to his community. He began as a paramedic, fire fighter and supporter of local charities. He then went to dental school and came back to continue serving his community. Beller served on the Lyon College Board of Trustees, Independence County Economic Development Commission, a member of the Independence Parks and Recreation. He said he feels a need to give back to the community that has given him so much. He said he doesn’t have an agenda on what he plans to do if elected because he doesn’t feel like that is what a representative should do. Beller feels a representative should represent the people of their district with a strong voice, honesty and integrity. 

He is a proud supporter of small business, the number one employer in the United States. Beller said he feels regulations that are impending that could pose issues and stifle  small business. He is also Pro Life and Pro-Police and emergency services. He backs the blue. He promises to do everything he can at the state level for  law enforcement and emergency workers to have the training and equipment  they have to go to work and come home safely. Belleer is an undying supporter of the Second Amendment and believes it is the most important amendment and without it other freedoms will be taken away Americans. Beller humbly asked for the vote from the people of his District. 

Candidates for Third Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney were next to take the stage. 

First, candidate Devon Holder, who was unable to attend due to being held up in a trial, had a spokesperson, Judi Heath, read a speech he had prepared. 

Holder has served as the Chairman of the Randolph County Republican Committed from 20-21, and endorsed by the Gun Owners of Arkansas. He was raised in church and teaches  Sunday school for youth, children and adults. He is pro-police, pro-Second Amendment and Pro-Constitution. He has more than twice the years of experience in more challenging criminal law than his opponent as he works as a defense attorney.  Holder said he has a specific plan to keep communities safer, including clamping down on violent crime and ending the revolving door for repeat offenders who are only sentenced minimal sentences by making them accountable for their crimes. Holder  invites anyone with questions about specific violent offenders being released without having served any significant time within the Third Judicial District to contact him and he will be happy to provide names and case numbers of these offenders. Holder asks for the opportunity to show that a defense attorney can make a very powerful prosecutor by voting for him in the May 24 primary. 

John Pettie, candidate for Third Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney, spoke about wrapping up the campaign season where it began at Cave City with the Cave City Watermelon Festival last July. He spoke highly of the qualifications of candidates in the race. Pettie  has been a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney since March 1, 2017. A few months after taking the job, friend and police Lieutenant Patrick Weatherford was killed in the line of duty in Jackson County. Pettie said explained, he “cut his teeth on the capital murder of a police officer.” He has prosecuted a lot of violent crime and child sex crimes during his tenure. Pettie countered Holder’s stats of having done his job for 11 years versus Pettie’s five. Pettie explained that “while 11 years is more than 5, 100 is more than three.” This statement was  in regard to the number of cases he has worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney versus that of his opponent. Pettie  explained the vital importance of the job and that it entails dealing with victims of violent crime, things that require experience.  He said he wishes to continue doing the job he feels he has been doing well and to asked for the support of his constituents with their vote on May 24. 

Sharp County Treasurer Wanda Girtman, who has served as treasurer for 17 years is seeking re-election. She was present with her son Aaron Hunter, daughter in law Kim and two grandchildren. She went on to tell how she loves her courthouse friends and co-workers are her family and how she couldn’t have made it without them. She went on to say she loves her job and that it is her responsibility to anticipate revenues. Girtman said she is very conservative with her numbers and said she is responsible for 18 bank accounts that represent 100 different funds for the county and she writes about 7100 checks a year and takes in about 1000 receipts a year. As treasurer, she anticipates revenues for 35  different county budgets with the county general covering 33 departments. She said is running her campaign for re-election on experience. Girtman asked, “Would you want to hand your personal income tax over to someone who has never done income tax before?” She asked for the support of voters to allow her to continue doing her job. 

Aaron Presser, a candidate for Sharp County Sheriff, who is the current Sharp County Chief Deputy, from Cave City gave a history of Sharp County as being a “loyal community”. Presser  was raised in the area where his mother was a teacher and his father an employee at White Rogers and on the Fire Department. He said he has taken service to the community to heart and a value instilled by his parents. He began his law enforcement officer in 2003. He has worked as a jailer, parole officer, chief of police, worked at the sheriff’s department as a deputy and chief deputy and has worked on a lot of cases. From $4 million cattle theft cases across many states to rape cases and feels provides him the best experience makes to become sheriff. 

Shane Russell, a candidate for Sharp County Sheriff, is also the Highland Police Chief. Russell is a lifelong Sharp County resident who is now enjoying watching his grandchildren grow up in the area. Russell has over 20 years experience in law enforcement, serving the last seven as chief at Highland. He recalled a 1999 ride along with an Ash Flat Officer in the winter where he got to a home on a call of underage drinking . He recalls looking into a room where numerous dogs stayed with a bed with a sheet pulled over and a bundle with a malnourished cold young boy. After calling DHS, he took the toddler outside and gave the young man a coat and a candy bar and coke and his heart was opened to the need to protect and serve the community. He said every day he sees the effects of drugs on our youth due to their home life. He said as sheriff he hopes he can educate them with compassion about this epidemic. He has already made strides and connected with the Arkansas Sheriff’s Association who will put on age appropriate programs with students in Cave City and Highland School Districts to implement these vital educational programs. Russell said he has also plans to work with the District Court to re-establish the work program and increase patrol even in rural areas as well as be tough on crime. Russell said he has visited with many in the county and heard their many concerns and promises to address the concerns. 

Candidates for both county judge and sheriff were asked a few questions by the media.

 As the main law enforcement officer in the county, your job as sheriff will be very important including the management of a staff, vehicles, repairs, equipment, budgeting, managing 911 and the jail. Your office requires you  to do this while insuring the county is up to state standards in all operations.  You will have a lot of weight on your shoulders and numerous employees to manage. What do you feel is the most important thing or things you can do to ensure that criminals are brought to justice while also promoting a safer Sharp County? How do you plan to implement these ideas?

Presser “With the experience I’ve had, I have worked with budgets. I have worked budgets as a city and the county. I understand the importance of staying within a budget. One thing I have always strived for, even at the sheriff’s office today, is when something needs fixed, a lot of times, I fix it. Putting stuff together for police cars, I am the one who installs a lot of that. It saves money so we can better use that money, better utilize that money for whatever other goals we have to have. To your question about how we are going to manage our budget to how we are going to protect our communities. Every time  we can save a dollar in our budgets, that is more money we can put forth for other programs. Our department has a been stagnant for a number of years on the number of deputies we have had. That is something that has got to change. We have got to find some way of funding that so we can have more deputies on the road to give better patrol. We have got six deputies on patrol right now and that is something that I look forward to trying to change.”

Russell. “Over the last seven in a half years, I have worked on my own budgets. I have stayed within, at or under my budget. I have got $36,000 in grants so far this year. That is for our department. This year I have been blessed to be able to hire another officer because of the money we have saved. When I started on November 20, 2014, our vehicles were in bad shape. Since then, I have worked on budgets or grants to offset that to where now we got our oldest one is 2015. Our new units are 18s to 22s. I know how to save money, I have got grants to offset our budget that has helped our city provide for our officers. In return, we get to get out and patrol. Safety for the officers is a big concern to me. Transparency is a big concern for me. All this stuff including body cams and car cams. To save money is by getting grants to offset the budgets. That is the only way to save money. To implement that we would have to get more deputies on patrol. 

As a sheriff, the media plays a vital role in your day to day operations in relation to publishing items on our various media outlets to assist your department when residents go missing, when traffic accidents cause safety hazards,  when  suspects are sought, or to keep the public informed of the day to day activities the sheriff’s department is conducting as a taxpayer funded government entity.  As sheriff, what are some of the things you plan to implement or have already done while working in law enforcement to keep the public informed?

Russell: How to you keep the public informed. Do you have an active Facebook page or how to you keep the media informed of your department’s activities as a chief at Highland. 

Russell “I am very transparent on things, we have our body cams and in car cams. We are always open. Any affidavit, I give to the reporters. Anything that is open to the public, I don’t really ever have a problem. I am always transparent. “

Chief Presser. You are the only candidate who is currently employed by the Sheriff’s Department as chief deputy. When did the sheriff’s department social media Facebook page become active? When did you begin voluntarily issuing local press releases and arrest records without a media request for those documents?

Presser: “I think your question was when we started our Facebook page at the sheriff’s office and how we are implementing it in the future. I never had social media until I started running for office. I didn’t know anything about Facebook. I stayed off of it. It is not something my personality was a big fan of. January or December of last year that’s when we started our Facebook page for the sheriff’s office. During my campaign talking to people  a lot of people said, ‘hey we want to see more from the sheriff’s office. We want the sheriff’s office to be more open.’  The best way I could be able to do that was posting those arrest warrants on Facebook. I have got a lot of backed from that. People like it. News releases in the past, if you go to the sheriff’s department technology wise. If you wanted your computer worked on, or you wanted technology… me or Mark Counts were probably not the two people you want working on it. We are kind of outdated. We always did our press releases and gave them to the media that asked for them. We try to send to all media outlets we could think of, sometimes we missed a few and sometimes we didn’t. In the future I want to see that posted on Facebook to get it out there faster. Since I have got my Facebook, I see the city of Cave City use theirs for street blockages and gas outages. It is something I want to keep up.”

Presser began his personal and Sheriff’s Office Facebook page the day and day after he announced his candidacy, on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. This was not after he had been running for the office and spoke with his constituents, as he stated. From March 2014- Oct. 2018 there were no press releases on the county website where there is a page delegated for those public items. Four and a half years during Mark Counts administration-with Presser as both an investigator and chief deputy,  nothing was posted for the public and there was no active Facebook page. 

When Presser was named Sharp County Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 2018, finally a press release surfaced and someone within the department quickly learned how to post on the county website. There were two more in 2018 – both for the for Shop with a Cop to ask for monetary support. 

There were three in 2019, three in 2020  and six in 2021, two of which were requested by this news agency and two Shop with a Cop releases – none of which were posted or credited to Presser. In 2022 there were zero on the county website and since Nov. 1, when Presser announced his candidacy, all 17 press releases are credited to him. It is easy to see how his statements about transparency to the public only began after he announced his candidacy and at no time during the last 11 years was it vital to him, as either an investigator or a chief deputy. 

The last candidates to speak were those seeking the judges seat. 

Sheriff Mark Counts was first to speak. Counts explained he was a Sharp County native and Highland graduate whose mother was a teacher and father ran the Boy Scout Camp. He and his wife, Sonia Counts, who he hired as Sharp County 911 coordinator. have five children and three grandchildren. He said he was raised in a Christian home and has been in law enforcement for 25 years. Counts said he has driven every back road from “Tick Ridge to Wildcat Corner” thousands of times. He said when he decided to run for county judge he knew they have more responsibility than just the gravel roads. “That is one of the main things that came from my heart, is the gravel roads and trying to get them prepared and fixed up.” He spoke about Emerson coming to Sharp County and how the county needs to work on infrastructure to bring more jobs to the county. He said the county has natural gas line that stops at Red Barn Road and it would be nice to get that all the way through the county. 

He said started off making $12,500 a year when he was single and after he got married he realized he didn’t make much money and raised up farming with his father and started building roads with a dozer and hauling gravel for people. He said he has worked on budgets over his years at sheriff and realizes the importance of staying within a budget as he has always remained in the black. He said “Aaron Presser worked many times on grants for us.” He explained he’s the tightest person at the courthouse and hates to spend money.  He explained it has been an honor to work in law enforcement and asks for the support of the people. 

Candidate Steve Stauffer has lived in Cave City for 41 years, moving to the area when he began ninth grade. He and his wife Paula have been married for 37 years and they have four children and three graduated there with five grandchildren. He has served on the Cave City School Board for 12 years where he has helped oversee a $12 million budget. As a Sharp County candidate he said the county has many gravel roads. He said it was the least of his worries if he takes office because he said one function of a roads is to drain water, not hold gravel. “If we get our ditches and roads straight we can put some material on the road that will actually stay so we don’t have to replace it three or four times a year and I am going to try it with the crew we have already got.”  Stauffer’s second passion is education and as judge he said he plans to work with any educational entity. “I think that any kid who wants to stay in Sharp County and earn a living is going to have that opportunity.”  He said that is his main objective. Stauffer said he will be assessable. He said one of the biggest complaints he is hearing about people currently in office is that elected officials do not get back with them. He said while he is forgetful, he will carry a notepad with him and ensure his constituents he is serving are given that respect and 

Malcom Thomas: Thomas has worked for 29 years for the county road department under five different judges and has learned what works and what doesn’t He ensured voters he will work well with the quorum court and have an open door policy for his constituents. He asked for the voters support in electing him as Sharp County Judge. 

The county judge’s office is essentially that of the chief financial officer for the county and with it comes many responsibilities.  What type of experience do you have in regard to preparing budgets and realizing the fiscal and maintenance needs of the county? 

Counts: “ For the past 12 years I have had the great opportunity to work on budgets as your county sheriff. Just to give you a little tidbit. The County general for Sharp County is  $3,332,000, county road is $2,662,000 and $1.267 million for the sheriff’s department. During the past 12 years I have been blessed to prepare budgets. For the last 12 years I have been doing my own budgets and I have stayed in the black. 

Stauffer: “Like I said, I have worked on the school board budgets. Of course there is always expense costs you are going to have and you have to prepare for fuel and stuff like that. I have been self employed and knew exactly what I had to spend. I think the budget will not be a problem.”

Thomas: “Me and may dad ran a gas station in Evening Shade. I learned how to take care of  and manage money there. I think that is a good way to get started.  As far as the county is concerned, I will just have to go there and learn.”

I understand you are running for one of the most important offices in county government. With that comes great responsibilities in regard to management. You will be responsible for overseeing numerous employees. Sometimes as a manager, you have to make tough decisions regarding their employment status because of their illegal or ethically questionable actions. An example of this happened several years ago and the county judge handled it. How would you plan handle potential ethical or criminal allegations that could result in legal ramifications against the county if one of your employees were involved and you were made aware of the circumstances?

Sheriff Counts: You are the only one of my candidates who has held a public office. Have you ever went to the Prosecuting Attorney on your own after being made aware of possible or probable criminal or ethical violations by any employee who was under your direct supervision while serving in this public office?

Counts. “Three years ago, I  was trying to think which year that was.” The media interrupted him to repeat the question about the sheriff’s department. Counts became rude and continued with answering the question to which t the answer was already cited in the original question, not the one being asked of him.  “ I had a gentleman steal fuel out at the county yard. I found out about it, I filed charges against him, and I arrested him and brought him to the county judge. One thing that we did after that was to put cameras out at the county shop so we could watch everybody that got fuel out there. As far as what happened to him after that, it was up to the prosecutor’s office. As far as anything after that, you can ask the county judge, I always brought it to him. 

The question posed to Counts was not if he took illegal or ethical concerns within his department to the county judge… it was whether or not he had taken the matters to the prosecuting attorney, the entity who has the power to instigate a non-biased investigation by an outside agency like the State Police. 

Currently, Counts forgot to mention, there is an ongoing Arkansas State Police Criminal investigation into the Sharp County Detention Center’s former Jail administrator, Serena Martin, who was not only Count’s pastor’s wife, but also held no qualifications for the job at the time he hired her. The investigation into Martin is for alleged sexual assault for having an ongoing relationship with an inmate who she also tried unsuccessfully as jail administrator to get Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Cooper not to file charges against him after he allegedly assaulted a female. 

At least two county deputies, one employee of the city and one county employee had direct knowledge of not only the relationship between Martin and the male inmate, but also video evidence of her checking him out of the jail for what they called unauthorized furloughs for weekends in which she took him fishing. Counts had direct knowledge of the incidents through the woman’s husband, his pastor, yet chose not to turn the obvious malfeasance of office and ethical and criminal issues over to the prosecutor for the integrity of the sheriff’s department.  

In fact, this news agency was given direct evidence by the employees mentioned when Counts did not act on the matter an, in turn,  reported the allegations  to the Prosecuting Attorney. The case is still an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by Arkansas State Police Special Agent Mike McNeil. 

This was not the only sexual scandal during Counts administration, in fact there have been several, with two of the suspects having been fired by the previous jail administrator Stan Haney, not Counts. 

It is easy to see how integrity within the department is much less than transparent and has been for many years. 

Stauffer: “I can assure you I don’t care a bit to turn it over and I have employees who are not treating people right, we are going to get sideways. I am definitely going to turn people over to the right authorities, because there is no room for that.”

Thomas. “I will have to agree with Steve. If somebody is caught stealing, they need to be turned over to the sheriff and then prosecuting attorney and let the law handle it that way.”