With an often-contentious atmosphere in meetings of the Letcher County Fiscal Court, political questions have been batted around the court and the county over the past four years.
Some criticisms have faded, while others haven’t. Among the questions raised are the structure of the court, the roles of the magistrates, and how the county judge/ executive should or should not spend his time. A Mountain Eagle survey of the 32 candidates for judge/executive and magistrates asked candidates about these three subjects. Twelve candidates responded.
Kentucky allows two different types of fiscal courts — the justice of the peace or magistrate system Letcher County now uses, and the commissioner system. Magistrates are elected from districts and are beholden only to the voters in those districts. Under state law, a county may have between three and nine districts. Commissioners are nominated by the political parties in each of three districts, or may run as an Independent in the district in which they live. But commissioners are elected by voters throughout the county. In other words, voters in a general election in Letcher County would choose one candidate from the nominees of each district, for a total of three commissioners.
The system can only be changed by a petition by voters, and cannot take effect until the sitting court’s term is complete. There has been some discussion of changing the system, but no petition has been brought forward. Letcher County had a commissioner system in the 1960s, but switched back to the magistrate system.
There is also a question of magistrates’ pay and whether the work done is worth the pay they receive. State law gives magistrates no authority outside of voting in fiscal court meetings, but some counties have given magistrates offices in the county courthouses where they keep office hours to take calls and visits from constituents.
Finally, the previous county judge/ executive was criticized for not attending enough regional meetings, and the current judge/executive has been criticized by some for attending too many. The Mountain Eagle wanted to know how the candidates feel about this issue.
The answers to these questions provided by the candidates who responded to the survey are below.
QUESTION: Should Letcher County switch to a judge and commissioner system of government rather than the judge and magistrate system?
Terry Adams (R) – (This candidate marked out the questions related to the commissioner system and did not answer.)
Mica Smith Johnston (R) – (This candidate filled in “These are not yes or no questions” in the space provided for yes or no answers.) We have tried a commissioner system and it did not work.
Jack Banks (R) – No. The commissioner system would reduce our representation by two. This system would not be a good solution due to the geography of our county. It would create a much larger area for one person to keep in contact with in his or her community/district.
Curt King (D) – No. I believe the magistrate system is best because it provides better separation of power and more representation to more parts of the county. In a commissioner system, it’s not fair to all parts of the county because commissioners are appointed and not elected. Also, with there being fewer of them, more parts of the county are left without representation. (Editor’s note: Commissioner is an elected office, not appointed.)
Don McCall (D) – With magistrates, we have one magistrate representing each of our five districts. My understanding of the commissioner system is that if 20 candidates run for office, the top three vote-getters are elected and could all three be from the same area of the county, potentially. (Editor’s note: Voters countywide would elect one commissioner from each district. All of the commissioners could not be from the same district.)
Sherry Sexton (D) – Yes. I don’t see a lot of difference in the responsibilities, but by changing to only three commissioners we could save the county some money, which I totally support. It would mean that the commissioners have a larger area to represent, but Letcher County is not so big that it cannot be done.
Codell Gibson (D) – No.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) – No. Our magistrates have almost always done a good job. Five magistrates and a county judge can always do better.
Roger Back (D) – (This candidate did not answer the question.)
Melody Coots (D) – No. Section 144 of the Kentucky Constitution demands that every county have a fiscal court with a county judge/executive and three to eight justices of the peace, or the county judge/executive and three county commissioners. The most significant importance in the difference in the two types of fiscal courts is the method of election of their members. Justices of the peace (magistrates) are elected in districts, but commissioners are elected by the county at large. The legislature has enacted procedures for allowing the voters of a county to choose their form of fiscal court (KRS 67.050). Only 14 counties out of 120 counties in Kentucky have went with the choice of commissioners. (2016 US Census) Office of justice of the peace or magistrate, unlike that of county commissioner, is a constitutionally required office that must be filled regardless of the form of the fiscal court. Although the constitution mandates their election, justices in counties with a commissioner form of fiscal court have few duties …I feel that the county Letcher needs magistrates because in each district, it helps people feel and know the person that he or she voted in and are more comfortable with. The more a county has for them the better, all the voices become one in a situation and gain strength in a given critical area.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) – No. The commissioner system would limit the county to three county commissioners as opposed to the current system, which has five magistrates. Under a county commissioner, the areas of responsibility for one commissioner would be extended and would, in my opinion, reduce the effectiveness of the commissioner to adequately serve the needs of the people in the larger district. Under the current magistrate alignment, it is more manageable and allows for better interaction with constituents.
Johnathan Belcher (D) – No. Commissioners are picked by the judge and are bound by their views and goals. Magistrates are empowered by the people and answer to them. Magistrates also provide more diverse outlooks. (Editor’s note: Both commissioners and magistrates are elected by the people, not picked by the judge/executive.)
QUESTION: Should magistrates have offices and regular office hours when constituents can come to them with concerns?
COUNTY JUDGE/EXECUTIVE CANDIDATES
Terry Adams (R) – (This candidate marked out the questions related to the magistrate offices and office hours and did not answer.)
Mica Smith Johnston (R) – (This candidate filled in “These are not yes or no questions” in the space provided for yes or no answers.) Magistrates need to be available, however a magistrate does not have the authority to make decisions without the rest of the fiscal court, so an office wouldn’t be a necessity.
Jack Banks (R) – No. I feel the best and most efficient way for residents to get in contact with a magistrate is to have access to his personal cell phone. Besides, if we have offices, that would be more expense on the county. Plus a lot of magistrates have other jobs.
Curt King (D) – Yes, I believe the magistrate should have a regular office and regular office hours so that people know when and how to contact the magistrate. I believe this allows them to better connect with the public.
Don McCall (D) – No. Magistrates should be readily available with cell phones or home phones. The county can’t afford to rent office space in each of the five districts.
Sherry Sexton (D) – No. Magistrates should be available whenever a constituent needs them, not just during set hours.
Codell Gibson (D) – No. We are on call 24 hours. Citizens have our number, the judge has our number. They can reach us any time, even if they need to come to our homes.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) – No. Magistrates can do a better job not tied to office hours. We can be out in our districts.
Roger Back (D) – No. (Magistrates) should be available at all times by phone. No need to pay for office space the county can’t afford.
Melody Coots (D) – Yes, if additional office space did not cost the county any money to maintain.
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) – Yes. While it would be good if the magistrates could meet daily with constituents by riding around in their area, it’s not feasible. But one office in the courthouse could be provided to serve as a meeting point for magistrates/constituents. A magistrate could have a set day of the week where they would be in that office to meet with constituents. There are five days in a work week and five magistrates, so assign a day to each magistrate to be available.
Johnathan Belcher (D) – Yes. Magistrates are supposed to be the voice of the people. If they don’t set aside time to hear that voice, how can they effectively represent it?
QUESTION: Should the county judge/ executive attend regional meetings such as the Kentucky River Area Development District and the Kentucky River District Health Department?
Terry Adams (R) – Yes. The county judge should attend all regional meetings. Our current judge does not. For example, EKCEP, whose offices are in Perry County, allows for the Letcher County Judge/Executive to have a position on the board of directors. Our judge will not attend, so once again, we get no voice heard.
Mica Smith Johnston (R) – Yes, when necessary. We need regional support. It is a good way to network with other counties to work towards common goals.
Jack Banks (R) – Yes. By attending regional meetings, (it) keeps us informed of regional views, concerns and issues. It’s good regional interaction.
Curt King (D) – Yes, I believe the county judge/executive should attend those meetings. I believe they fall within the description for that role. I also believe it’s important for us to have representation at those meetings.
Don McCall (D) – Yes. I feel like it’s a good idea to meet with and touch base and share ideas with as many people as we can. A lot of places are facing the same problems as we are and we might learn something.
Sherry Sexton (D) – Yes, because we need to stay aware of what is happening in our region.
Codell Gibson (D) – Yes.
Emory “Fudge” Mullins (D) – Yes. Not all meetings. (The Judge would) be tied up and away too much.
Roger Back (D) – Yes, to ensure Letcher County is present in all projects and decisions affecting the region. It also helps represent our county.
Melody Coots (D) – Yes, if the judge/ executive can go without missing official county business or appointing a designated representative to go in his place. The KRADD has strong benefits for the county such as, the (Public Administration Specialist) acts as a liaison between local governments and various state and federal funding sources. The PAS assists local governments in obtaining state and federal funding such as Economic Development Agency, Appalachian Regional Commission, (Rural Development), Community Development Block Grant, Land and Water Grants, Cops Grants, etc. Assists the Regional Animal Shelter in accounting and personnel issues. (Editor’s note: Public Administration Specialist is the job title for one of the positions at the Kentucky River Area Development District.)
Robert “Sarge” Howard (R) – Yes. It would be beneficial for the judge to attend these regional meetings to aid in moving the county forward. It is a good opportunity to gather and share ideas with other counties, and what is helping them to thrive.
Johnathan Belcher (D) – Yes. Any meeting that could have repercussions for our county should have all members of the fiscal court in attendance.