Flooding, jail, health care among priorities in county judge’s race


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Former El Paso Mayor John Cook has announced he’ll run for county judge next year. The four-year position is the top executive in county government. Keri Hensley/USA TODAY NETWORK
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The three Democrats competing in the March 6 primary to lead the El Paso County Commissioners Court as county judge have outlined their priorities.

Former Mayor John Cook, businessman Ricardo Samaniego and personal injury attorney Laura Enriquez are vying to fill the county judge seat that Veronica Escobar resigned from to seek the Democratic nomination for Texas’ 16th Congressional District. 

Among the issues all three candidates hope to address if elected is ongoing flooding in unincorporated areas of the county.

Ruben John Vogt, who was appointed by the El Paso County Commissioners Court to complete Escobar’s unexpired term, did not seek election to the position. 

Cook, 71, said the county could consider having a study done to see how much it would cost to mitigate stormwater in the affected areas. Another option, he said, is purchasing the properties and relocating property owners.

The county in recent years has grappled with finding solutions to the flooding problems outside El Paso’s city limits. One of the biggest hurdles the county has faced has been a lack of funding.

County officials have identified almost a dozen stormwater drainage projects that would cost between $1.5 million and $5.5 million. Those estimates do not include the $98 million estimate for fixing the flooding problem at Sparks Arroyo — an area south of Interstate 10 and Horizon Boulevard where the rainwater that falls north of Interstate 10 in the Sparks community and Horizon City flows downstream into the homes south of I-10 in Socorro.

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The county recently stopped funding for a study that was being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the Sparks Arroyo when the Commissioners Court was made aware that there likely would not be any federal funding to build the project.

But Cook said the county still should seek outside funding to find resolutions for flood-prone areas.

Cook said his experience in municipal government as the mayor of El Paso from 2005 to 2013, his six years as Northeast city representative and his background in business administration make him the best candidate to lead the Commissioners Court.

Cook made an unsuccessful Democratic bid for Texas land commissioner, losing to Republican George P. Bush in 2014. He currently runs a consulting company, Strategic Solutions Consulting.

Samaniego, 68, said part of the solution to addressing flood-prone areas could include partnering with the private sector.

“It’ll take a collaborative approach,” Samaniego said.

Samaniego said bringing in the private sector could prompt infrastructure improvements in high-risk areas.

Samaniego spent more than 25 years as a human resources director for various companies and was general manager for Rio Grande Materials, a concrete supplier. He also owns local Sports Clips Haircuts stores and has served as a juvenile probation officer.

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He is a cousin of late El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego.

Enriquez said she doesn’t think there is a quick solution to the stormwater problem and that the county needs to come up with a 10-year to 15-year plan, including seeking funding for any potential projects. 

“I think there are grants available there for water and basic necessities for some of those areas. That’s what we should be looking for,” Enriquez said.

Enriquez works as a personal injury attorney with the Mounce, Green, Myers, Safi, Paxson & Galatzan P.C. firm. She also is the former president of both the El Paso and Mexican American bar associations. She unsuccessfully ran for County Court at Law 7 judge about 12 years ago.

The candidates also said issues such as the future of the Downtown jail, health care for the uninsured and finding ways to increase revenue for the county should be prioritized.

Cook said he thinks the county needs to conduct a floor-by-floor assessment of the Downtown jail to determine changes that can be made to get the most use out of it. One idea the county could consider is remodeling the upper floors into office space, he said.

“It’s an old facility not up to modern standards,” Cook said. “It’s going to take a study in order for it to be done right.”

Cook also said the county needs to evaluate how to provide preventive health care to the uninsured.

Samaniego said he wants to strengthen community partnerships with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, the University of Texas at El Paso, Fort Bliss and El Paso Children’s Hospital to make the county the leading provider in health care services.

Enriquez said there are certain issues in the court system that need to be evaluated. Among them are the process by which public defenders are appointed to cases.

“There’s a conflict between people first hiring attorneys, then getting a court-appointed attorney,” Enriquez said. She added that it would be a matter of making sure procedures are in place that prevent any additional costs to the county.

She also said she wants to look into whether the court system should be issuing personal recognizance bonds. PR bonds allow a defendant to be released on bail without any deposit or collateral, with the expectation that he or she will appear in court.

“That is something that I have expertise with as an attorney,” Enriquez said. “It’s just a matter of laying out procedures that don’t cost the county money.”

Fundraising

The candidates also have been fundraising with various levels of success.

In the latest filing period that ended at the beginning of February, Samaniego had received the most political contributions, totaling $14,550. He had spent about $4,000 and still had about $17,000 left in his campaign coffers, according to the report.

Samaniego’s campaign finance report also shows he paid $1,500 for consulting services to Texico Communications, a firm founded by former Texas state Rep. Norma Chávez, who has joined the heated Democratic race in the 16th Congressional District to replace U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Cook’s campaign finance report filed in January shows he received about $5,500 in political contributions. He spent about $7,000 and has no remaining contributions, according to the finance report.

Enriquez had received a total of $3,350 in campaign contributions and spent about $540. She has about $12,200 left to spend, according to her report filed at the beginning of February.

Early voting begins Tuesday and runs through March 2.

Elida S. Perez may be reached at 546-6137; [email protected]; @ElidaSPerezEPT on Twitter.

Election information links:

Voter Guide

Early voting sites

Democratic Sample ballots

Republican Sample ballots

Candidate bios:

John Cook
Age: 71
Education: bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at El Paso
Professional experience: Mayor of El Paso from 2005 to 2013, six years as Northeast city representative and background in business administration. Runs a consulting company called Strategic Solutions Consulting.
Other political offices sought: unsuccessful Democratic bid for Texas Land Commissioner, losing to Republican George P. Bush in 2014

Ricardo Samaniego
Age: 68
Education: bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso, a master’s in bilingual bicultural education from New Mexico State University and a master’s in international economics and public policy from Notre Dame
Professional experience: Owner of two Sports Clips Haircuts franchises; 25 years experience as a human resources director for various companies and was general manager for Rio Grande Materials, a concrete supplier. Also was a juvenile probation officer and worked as a labor law professor at the University of Phoenix.
Other political offices sought: none

Laura Enriquez
Age: 47
Education: law degree from Baylor Law School in 1996, bachelor’s degree in history and Spanish from the University of Texas at Austin
Professional experience: personal injury attorney with the Mounce, Green, Myers, Safi, Paxson & Galatzan, P.C. firm.
Other political offices sought: unsuccessful bid for County Court at Law 7 judge in 2009
 

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