Gravell, Conklin, Kelberlau hope to be next County Judge
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
One of three new faces will take a seat at the center of the dais in the Williamson County Commissioners Court room in January, with current County Judge Dan Gattis retiring.
Republican Bill Gravell defeated Frank Leffingwell in a tight battle in the March primary with 52 percent of the vote. Gravell will face Democrat Blane Conklin, who was unopposed in the primary, and Independent candidate Bill Kelberlau in the November General Election.
Democratic candidate Blane Conklin watched the 2016 election from the sideline, and felt a growing call to become more involved as it played out.
“I’ve never run for office before and never thought about running,” Conklin said. “It was the election of 2016 that led me down this path, not so much to run for office, but to engage more with local government. No matter which way that election had gone, it had really revealed that division in our society and culture to me.”
Conklin has lived in Round Rock for 15 years, after growing up in the Dakotas and attending college in Missouri. He works in programming and project management, coordinating insurance and benefits for employees at all 15 University of Texas campuses around the state, representing 125,000 employees.
“I went to bible college, leaning toward the ministry, but pursued ancient languages, and ended up with a PhD in ancient near-eastern languages,” he said.
Based on his roots and beliefs, Conklin said he feels like he has a foot planted in each side of American politics and said serving locally is a good way to bring people together.
“I feel like this is a way I can serve my community and do my part to be a better citizen and hopefully start to – all of us – pull together and treat each other like neighbors,” he said. “Local government is a good opportunity for us to work together in a nonpartisan matter. Things that impact the county are nonpartisan issues. It’s about quality of life for everybody, so as a Democrat running in a solid Republican county I know it’s a big challenge, but I know the county is changing.”
The current political tension in Williamson County is a place Conklin would like to be able to make a difference.
“I think there are personalities and there are people new to public life, and their approach to it takes some adjustments,” he said. “I think there is also some tension within county government over the growth we are seeing and that’s the number one issue facing the county. The department heads and elected officials don’t feel like they are getting the funding to keep up with that growth, and the commissioners court is doing what it can, but not enough.”
Interjecting some new ideas and new faces into the political landscape would make a difference, but he primarily wants to give voters a choice in a positive campaign.
“Another factor is we have had one party rule in the county,” Conklin said. “People get comfortable with that and I think a fresh perspective would be good. I think competitive elections would be good to give people a real choice rather than having officials be comfortable they can win reelection.”
For Conklin, growth is the issue that impacts all areas of county government.
“That’s the overarching issue that’s facing us,” he said. “How to keep up with it,” he said. “In the western part of the county it is about regional mobility. Everyone complains about traffic. We need to do a better job of cooperating regionally.”
At the same time, Conklin realizes the county is diverse between fast-growth urban areas and areas still deep in their rural roots.
While some areas are embracing the large-scale transportation plans, there is some resistance on the eastern side of the county.
“I’ve really gotten their support and they see me as a genuine person who genuinely listens to them,” Conklin said of voters in East Williamson County. “That’s a constituency that is typically going to vote Republican, but they don’t see commissioners court or (U.S. Rep.) John Carter listening to the people, and that’s all I’m doing.”
With growth comes heightened need for some services, and addressing mental health issues in the county is high on Conklin’s list of priorities.
“I’ve ridden out with the Mobile Outreach Team, they save people’s lives, help prevent them from escalating to something that would put them in the emergency room or jail, which would cost the county money,” he said. “Whatever the county can do to help nonprofits and private partnerships to deal with mental health issues is a big issue. It’s one I’d like to make an impact in if I am elected.”
Conklin emphasizes to those he meets that being a Democrat is not about higher taxes and free spending, but about priorities and spending money the right way, with an eye on the tax burden.
“Sometimes that point of view that you can’t just throw money at it to solve it, leads in practice to not spending what you should on something,” he said, using as an example the state’s tendency to regularly cut education spending, which puts a higher burden on local taxpayers.
The county has done an admirable job, according to Conklin, when it comes to budgeting, pointing out that both parties on the court tend to focus on similar things.
“We have one Democrat on the court and she is probably as fiscally conservative as her counterparts,” he said. “I think it is more about priorities. We can do the things that are important, without raising the tax rate.”
Seeing the emphasis Georgetown has put on renewable energy, Conklin would like to see the county approach energy issues with a focus on the renewable energy industry.
“I’d like to explore ways to participate in the clean energy economy,” he said. “(Georgetown) has a utility, so the county is different in that respect. But I’d like to explore that and see ways to be on the cutting edge of participating in that.”
As he has spent time meeting residents from across the county, he has found that many view themselves as independent voters and he believes his message will resonate with them on election day.
“I’ve really enjoyed it and gotten support from across the county from folks who call themselves independents,” Conklin said. “I want to represent everyone in the county, as impossible as that sounds. I want to at least listen. This county is diverse in terms of rural versus urban and my background in the rural areas in the Dakotas really resonates. I feel at home in the small town and rural parts of the county.”
The message is simple and focused on similarities, not differences.
“We need to rediscover we are all neighbors and we are all in this together, whether you’ve voted Republican or Democrat in the past,” he said. “We are at a critical time in our country and our county because our county is growing so fast. This is a time where we need to come together and work to solve these problems and manage this growth in a smart way and do it together.”
Judge Bill Gravell is in his sixth year as Williamson County Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace, and he takes pride in what his office and staff has accomplished in that time.
Based on caseload, Gravell’s court is the 22nd busiest judicial court in Texas, and he said managing that workload and staff has prepared him to lead the county as County Judge.
“When I’m not on the bench doing court stuff, off the bench I have to manage staff, and I have the largest judicial staff in Williamson County.”
In his time on the bench, Gravell says Precinct 3 has cleared 68,000 cases, issued 18,512 arrest warrants and managed a $1.4 million annual budget while collecting millions of dollars in fines.
Gravell has been recognized by his peers in the state and nationally, winning a national award for creating innovative business processes in courts in America.
When Gravell looks at the current state of politics in Williamson County, he agrees there has been a lot of tension among county leaders and elected officials. The solution, he said, is as simple as listening and finding common ground.
“I do think it is the primary role of the county judge to be a leader,” he said. “Being a leader means you learn how to work with all sides. I’m not talking about Republican or Democrat, I’m just talking about different views on issues. Leadership also means you bring people to the table, you listen to both sides, you listen to the differences they have, then you point out to them where they may have shortcomings and where the other side may have shortcomings. Then you point out to them what a compromise might be. That is exactly what I do every day on the bench sitting in court.”
Citing support from county elected officials, Gravell said he is uniquely qualified to bridge recent divides and keep debate civil.
“I expect to have the ability to bring them together in the same room,” he said. “I expect them to listen to me, and they will, but I’m going to treat them with respect. I also think we shouldn’t have our confrontations in public. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think we should have difficult conversations in private and if we can’t resolve it, then we can have it in public.”
None of this is to say Gravell wants to stifle debate on critical issues.
“We don’t want the lockstep, we want the conversations,” he said. “What I want, though, is to do it respectfully and we’re going to do it kind. We’re not going to belittle or demean people.”
Public safety is the primary responsibility of county government, according to Gravell, and has been the centerpiece of his campaign.
“I don’t think there’s ever a cap when it comes to public safety,” he said. “Public safety has to be the number one priority of our next county judge. As the next county judge, we have to provide the resources for that to happen. I do believe that this county budget made great strides toward our law enforcement community’s and correction community’s needs. We’re going to brag about how much they’ve been given, but the reality is we’re still far short compared to Austin Police Department or Travis County Sheriff’s Department.”
The place to start evaluating needs and providing resources for law enforcement is to develop a master plan.
“If you really look at it from the big picture perspective, what’s interesting to me is as a county, we have a master plan for our roads and road system,” Gravell said. “ I do believe our current court and county judge have done an amazing job in following through on that master plan. But when it comes to the public safety side of our county, and I’m talking from constables to justices of the peace, to all of the courts, even to our jail and correctional employees, we don’t have a master plan. One of the initiatives you will see that I would lead come Jan. 1 is that we create a master plan for the public safety side.”
Providing quality services for veterans and focusing on the mental health crisis are two other areas Gravell said he plans to emphasize if he is elected.
“I think we are in the midst of a mental health crisis in America,” he said. “We as a county are figuring out how we respond to the mental health crisis. As a justice of the peace, I see the final outcome of failures in the mental health arena by suicides. I have to tell you, I’m tired of going to suicides, and I’m tired of seeing people take their lives for whatever reason and I’m wondering what more can we do in the arena of mental health. We have to stop talking about suicide as though it is some dirty thing that happens. We’ve got to stop talking about mental health issues as being something wrong or broken because that’s not true. It is an illness and we need to treat that illness with sincerity.”
With needs in mind, Gravell has also made it a focus of his campaign to keep the financial needs of voters in mind, saying the level of debt in the county and tax burden on citizens needs to be addressed as well.
“I want to say that property taxes are a concern, because when I get my property tax bill, regardless of where we set the tax rate, the assessed value continues to escalate,” he said. “That’s because of the economy and where we live, in one of the fastest growing counties in America. As the next county judge, I’m not going to raise our taxes. I’m not in favor of raising our taxes. I’m in favor of living within our means.”
On the campaign, speaking to voters, Gravell said he is energized by the response.
“The response we are seeing is staggering,” he said. “I’m excited about the enthusiasm I see and pretty excited about the future.”
Bill Kelberlau decided that an independent run for Williamson County Judge was the right option for him, and something he felt was the right thing to do for local voters.
“The main reason was to give the citizens in Williamson County a choice on Election Day,” he said. “We have some significant financial burdens and challenges that are impacting everyone out there who owns a home and pays property tax in some form.”
Fiscal responsibility is the key issue for Kelberlau, who has 30 years of military service on his resume including active and reserve duty, as well as a long career with companies such as Texas Instruments, Raytheon and GTE.
“I think my business industry experience far exceeds the military experience,” he said. “The military experience was early active duty and the rest in the reserve world. I’ve been involved in the business world since a very early age, from retail to wholesale to many other categories like production, customer service. That was one of the big programs I put together for Texas Instruments Business Computers many years ago, addressing the issue of higher-quality service to all our customers. That program was implemented U.S.-wide to satisfy those needs.”
For Kelberlau, it is as simple as elected officials seeing voters as customers.
“The focus is on the customer, and our customer here in Williamson County is the citizens out there, so when you focus on the customer you come up with the right solutions,” he said.
Better fiscal management, according to Kelberlau, would help ease the tax burden without sacrificing needed services.
“In talking to many of the citizens, there are quite a few of them that are saying they will have to move now or in the near future because they can’t afford the continuing tax hikes,” he said. “Basically we need better decision-making on how much debt to take on and what the citizens can actually bear. There are many out there who feel right now it is unbearable.”
Without diving into any particular issues, he said the complex matter of making the right public decisions must be done thoroughly, on a case-by-case basis.
“I’ve seen many decisions I would have done differently,” he said. “Basically, my 40-plus years of working in the business, military and government world, there are lots of small factors that have to be addressed on any one issue that have to be addressed in how to spend the taxpayers’ dollars.
“A lot of times it comes down to being in the basic job and not being in a spend mode. It is actually a daily decision-making process to keep focused on the long-term goal and the affordability of what those decisions mean.”
Resources for first responders is high on the list of real needs Kelberau sees in the county.
“You have to satisfy needs first, and I think we need a better coordinated long-range emergency services plan,” he said. “We have many areas in the county that are significantly lacking in adequate response time for emergencies because the resources are located so far away.”
As a self-identified “Independent Republican”, Kelberlau said he is getting great response when out campaigning.
“I’m getting a very positive response about running as an Independent. I think the citizens are looking for somebody who is going to put them first and respond to them,” he said. “There are quite a few people who are registered to vote who haven’t voted because they haven’t felt they had an adequate choice to address their concerns and get their taxes down so they can afford to stay in Williamson County.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman. I’ve been retired since 2007 and I’ve done a lot of consulting and I’m not going to be taking the job of County Judge because I want to be in politics. We have some serious issues our community needs to address and finances are the number one thing, and that’s what I’ve been good at for 40-plus years.”