Water access, health care, and county finances dominate discussion at Presidio County candidate forum
Candidates for office in Presidio County gathered in the city of Presidio this weekend to answer questions from voters at a forum hosted by the Big Bend Sentinel. With no GOP candidates running in the county this year, next month’s Democratic primary election will decide all the local races.
Nine candidates took part in the forum — including both candidates for county attorney, incumbent Rod Ponton and challenger Blair Park; and both candidates for tax assessor-collector, Norma Valenzuela and Nancy Valdez Arevalo.
Incumbent Jose Cabezuela and fellow Presidio residents Franky Ortiz and Irma Carrasco Sanchez each made their case for the Precinct 3 seat on the county commissioners court, while Tiburcio “Butch” Acosta did not attend the event. In the race to represent Precinct 1, which includes parts of both Marfa and Presidio, the crowd heard from Presidio resident Ruben Armendariz and Marfa resident Deirdre Hisler. Samuel Sanchez of Presidio did not participate.
Early voting starts Feb. 20 and runs through March 1. Election Day is March 5.
Below are highlights from the forum.
County attorney race puts focus on candidates’ legal backgrounds
In the race for Presidio County Attorney, Ponton and Park each fielded questions about their legal experience. Ponton has a long history in public office in West Texas — now finishing his second term as county attorney, he’s previously represented the cities of Presidio, Alpine, and Pecos. Park spent several years as a commercial lawyer in the Dallas area before her recent return to her hometown of Marfa.
On Saturday, moderator Trey Gerfers asked Ponton about his role in multiple lawsuits against Presidio County during his tenure as county attorney: a 2021 suit in which the county settled with a former employee, and a more recent controversial case that Ponton had to drop when it involved both his private client and the county.
Asked whether the county attorney should “do whatever is necessary to prevent this type of liability,” Ponton objected to the framing of the question, saying in both cases he’d done his best to keep the county out of court.
In the first case, he said, “That person sued the county because the commissioners wouldn’t take my advice to try to keep the county out of the lawsuit.”
Ponton also responded to questions from the audience about his time as attorney for the city of Presidio. In 2022, the city council opted to hire outside counsel after expressing frustration with Ponton’s communication around a proposal to bring hazardous materials through the city.
Ponton said that situation also resulted from local officials’ hesitance to take his advice — and that the outside firm offered similar guidance.
Park, meanwhile, has not previously held public office or worked as a prosecutor. When asked to explain her qualifications for the county attorney position, she pointed to her years of experience in contract law. To prepare for prosecutorial work, she said she’d spoken with multiple former county attorneys.
“Every single person said, the background that you have in commercial litigation, the high level litigation that you did in DFW, is leagues above the level of litigation work that needs to be done here. You're already, experience-wise in litigation, way above what is necessary to handle the prosecutions and misdemeanors for the county,” she said.
Both candidates were asked to explain how they’d balance work in private practice and other offices with the obligations of the county attorney position. Ponton told the crowd he’d decided to stop representing cities to focus on the county role. Park said her work in real estate law offered flexibility, and that she could cut down on her caseload as needed to make time for county business.
County commissioner candidates weigh in on top issues
During the second half of the forum, candidates for county commissioner answered questions on a number of issues, from access to health care and clean water to how they’d engage with constituents and approach the county’s financial challenges.
Access to healthcare in Presidio County
Incumbent Precinct 3 Commissioner Cabezuela, who uses a wheelchair, drew from his own experience to talk about the challenges of accessing health care in Presidio, which is nearly 90 miles from the closest hospital.
“With an elderly population in our location, in our rural towns, health care has always been a struggle to obtain. I'm living proof of it,” he said.
But the candidates agreed there’s more work to be done. Carrasco said she’d prioritize making sure low-income residents and those with children are insured — while Armendariz highlighted the necessity of shoring up emergency services in Presidio.
“We have one ambulance that sometimes is not here. And as a parent or as a daughter of an elderly person or whatever, the helplessness that you feel when you don't have someone there to help them — I just think it needs to be one of our top priorities,” he said.
Access to clean water in Presidio County
Water access has become a growing priority in the county over the last few years, particularly as the small town of Shafter faces ongoing uncertainty over the future of its supply.
Candidates all stressed the importance of making sure the county’s most remote communities can access clean drinking water — including the colonia of Las Pampas, whose residents have not had running water for decades.
“Let's not just think about Shafter, there's Las Pampas, there's Redford, there’s Candelaria, there's Ruidosa. They deserve our attention and our help as well,” said Hisler.
The county recently received $4.6 million for water infrastructure projects, including developing plans to bring water to Las Pampas and stabilize Shafter’s supply. It’s also been pre-approved for millions more in state funds.
Cabezuela said he was encouraged by those developments, as well as the recent creation of a state water fund. Hisler agreed, noting that a recent conference on water in the desert at Sul Ross State University had included a panel on advancements in statewide water policy and potential funding opportunities.
“If we do not stay abreast of that as commissioners, then we're gonna miss out on what we need to do to provide good drinking water for the people in Presidio County,” she said.
Shoring up the county’s finances
Noting that Presidio County faces a budget deficit and shrinking tax revenue, Gerfers asked candidates to share their proposals to improve the county’s long-term financial stability.
Armendariz said he’d focus on building up infrastructure to attract new economic activity, and look for ways to reduce county spending without cutting services.
Hisler pointed to a current county effort to crack down on homeowners doubling up on their homestead exemptions, and said she’d support an effort to increase revenue from the county jail by housing out-of-county prisoners.
Candidates agreed that recent progress on both health care and water access demonstrates the importance of grants to county functions. Cabezuela pointed out that local governments rely on state and federal funding for basic operations, including policing.
When asked how they’d ensure that the county took advantage of grant opportunities, multiple candidates said they’d focus on keeping a clean house — balancing the county’s books to make sure it continues to receive a clean audit.
“Being one of the poorest counties in Texas, you could say that we have to rely almost 100% on grants to do anything, any new projects,” said Armendariz. “If we don’t have money in fund balance to be able to meet their 50% or 20%, whatever percent we have to provide, we can’t go after the grants.”