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Two Republicans compete for the party’s nomination in contentious Ector County Judge race

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The Republican primary for the Ector County Judge election has gotten divisive as incumbent Debi Hays has had to defend her first term as judge against criticisms leveled by her opponent Dustin Fawcett. 

The two candidates have debated a range of topics including how officials communicate with the public and management of COVID-19 relief funds. 

By Mitch Borden

Republicans are all but assured to hold onto the office of Ector County Judge with no democrat running this election season. The biggest question however is who voters will pick between current Ector County Judge Debi Hays and challenger Dustin Fawcett.

The primary has been contentious as Hays has had to defend her tenure as the county’s top official during some of the hardest years the Odessa area has faced. Over her first term in office, she’s had to lead the county’s response to a mass shooting, a global pandemic, a historic oil bust and last year’s blackouts.

The question Fawcett is asking is how well did Hays and her fellow county commissioners meet some of those challenges and, specifically, how the county communicates with the public and local organizations.

The candidates

Hays was first elected as Ector County Judge in 2018. She’s mostly been running on her business experience, character and her ability to manage the county’s budget, which she says has allowed raises to be distributed to county employees and helped her increase the local sheriff’s budget without raising taxes.

Fawcett, 31, has been involved in local and state politics as well as working the region’s infrastructure needs at the Midland Odessa Transportation Alliance for years. He’s running on being a “solution-oriented Republican” and said he’d work to govern more transparently. 

The need for more communication

Fawcett hasn’t minced words around his feelings that Hays, and county officials, don’t communicate with locals enough — especially throughout the pandemic. He says this is an issue many have brought up to him as he’s campaigned.

“I think that the communication with the public was poor. I think that the communication between the county government and the hospitals…and the cities were not up to the standard citizens deserved,” he explained in an interview with Marfa Public Radio. “I’m a big communication person. I think government exists to do a few things and one of those things is a constant dialogue with the public.”

Hays did not respond to Marfa Public Radio’s requests for an interview but she has defended herself against Fawcett’s criticisms in the local press. She told the Odessa American that the county needs a public information officer to field communication with the public.

“I can’t be on TV and I can’t be trying to figure out how to solve day-to-day problems plus COVID problems and be a voice 24/7 to everyone wanting something,” Hays stated to the Odessa American. “I can’t do that and you can’t expect me to.”

Throughout the pandemic, the judge was rarely heard from directly and absent for most of the COVID-19 updates held on social media where local leaders in Odessa gave updates on the pandemic.

Distributing COVID-19 relief funds?

One of the most debated topics of this race has been Ector County's reluctance to distribute federal COVID relief funds to Odessa’s primary healthcare provider Medical Center Hospital.

The county received around $16 million last year from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, and is currently set to receive millions more this year. In September, during a terrible surge of COVID, officials from MCH requested $7 million of ARPA funds from the county to help it pay its staff hazard pay and keep its facilities properly staffed.

Hays and her fellow commissioners did not grant the request even though hospital officials stated they could eventually reimburse the county. Since then, the county has not granted any funding to the hospital. Instead, the county commissioner's court recently voted to hire a consultant to help distribute the ARPA funds.

Hays explained the decision to wait and hire a consultant on her website.

“$16 million is a lot of money and with it came a lot of rules and regulations,” Hays said in an audio message. “It is the county’s responsibility to make sure we abide by those rules and the people we give that money to abide by those rules as well.”

While Ector County officials hesitated to distribute the federal funds, other local governments in the region used the  ARPA funds to support healthcare facilities, including the City of Odessa which gave millions to MCH and another nearby hospital.

Fawcett, who works for MCH, believes the hospital deserved to receive support from the county, especially since it has been the local facility on the front lines of the pandemic for the past two years.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.