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Gloves come off as election nears

Touting nine years of prosecutorial experience, incumbent Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Freshour said his office has no problems and does not need fixing. His opponent, Tracy Quackenbush Martin, disagrees and says she is the person committed to bringing justice and service to that office after hearing the community call for a change.

The two candidates seeking election to the prosecutor’s post in Tuesday’s election faced off before an audience of approximately 100 people attending Tuesday night’s Candidates Forum held in the South Boston-Halifax County Fine Arts Museum.

The event was the last of four forums sponsored by the Halifax County Chamber of Commerce and the county Farm Bureau.

By far the largest attendance of the four forums, the crowd listened attentively as Freshour, the Republican incumbent, and Martin, the Independent challenger, were joined by South Boston Mayor Ed Owens and South Boston Council candidate Margaret Coleman in the election-centered discussions.

Council candidate Jim Debiec was unable to attend the forum due to a prior family commitment leaving Coleman and Owens at the table in the first round fielding questions about what they plan to do if elected to enhance economic growth and vitality in South Boston.

Owens, who has served as mayor since February and been on council for more than 15 years, faces no opposition in his bid for the mayoral post. He pledged continued service for the public good saying he loves this country and wants to make “my hometown the best it can be” by bringing about “meaningful and positive changes.”

Coleman, an educator and minister, sees South Boston as a town of “opportunities and challenges,” and in order to effect change she told the audience she knew she had to offer herself as a candidate citing her expertise in areas of community building and working with young people.

For Coleman, her hot button issue if elected will be to focus on economic growth and attracting businesses to the area to invest in the economy and to provide a future for young people.

Owen agrees job creation needs to be number one pointing to the town’s comprehensive plan that sets into place a strategy for the next five to seven years to initiate economic development.

As part of his economic development focus, Owens said town council must be supportive of the two Industrial Development Authority boards in the county and town and help augment their efforts.

Owens pointed to the town’s revitalization efforts including Taylor Lofts and the New Brick Project which is restoring old warehouses into livable spaces that will help the town generate revenue and increase the tax base while at the same time provide much needed living space for town residents.

While continuing as mayor, Owens said he along with council will begin the search for a new town manager in the months to come now that Town Manager Ted Daniel has announced his pending retirement. 

In addition, Owens said future efforts include working within the constraints of the budget to continue providing police protection, garbage pickup, well-maintained streets and promoting school safety.

Saying a budget is a public statement of the town’s priorities, Owens said he will work with council and staff to continue a focus on being as efficient as possible with taxpayers’ money.

Because the Dillon Rule limits the town’s efforts in raising additional tax revenue, Owens and Coleman agreed they will continue to explore other avenues for raising revenue without raising taxes on the town’s citizens.

At the conclusion of the first round of the Candidates Forum, Coleman told the audience she was “glad that was over” and thanked the large turnout of people for attending.

“When you vote, remember I was here. I love my community. I left the great state of New York to come back to my birthplace, the great state of Virginia. I am vested in what goes on here,” she said in her closing remarks.

Owens closed by describing his town as “a fantastic place to live” and pledged to continue practicing fiscal responsibility by providing the maximum services possible for residents along with “effective representation.”

The forum heated up in the second half as the two commonwealth’s attorney candidates took turns trying to convince the audience each one is the best person for the prosecutor’s job.

Martin is challenging Freshour for a post he has held for 14 months since being appointed to the post after former commonwealth’s attorney Kim White earned a judgeship.

Citing her 16 years as a lawyer, with 15 years of trial law practice and eight years operating her own private law practice, Martin said she has seen justice delayed in the county commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

“When cases are compromised, justice is denied,” she said citing a need for fundamental changes in the office that will hold people accountable for their wrongs and the prosecutor responsible to the constituents.

Offering a differing view, Freshour said over the past 14 months he has served as commonwealth’s attorney, he has made “great strides” in prosecuting more cases, holding more trials and reaching fewer plea agreements.

He said the prosecutor’s race is between two people with varying abilities declaring his opponent has never prosecuted a case and never received any prosecution training.

Citing years of prosecuting experience, Freshour told the audience that the commonwealth’s attorney job requires someone with knowledge, training and experience. He also promised he would not use the office as a stepping stone.

“I do not want to be a judge. I will not use this job to round out my resume. I achieved my career goal 14 months ago when I became commonwealth’s attorney,” he said.

Martin said she too is dedicated to serving as a commonwealth’s attorney and did not plan to use the job as a stepping stone.

“My primary reason for becoming a lawyer was to serve my community,” she said. “I have chosen to run for commonwealth’s attorney rather than seek a judgeship. I have simply made my choice to serve Halifax County as long as you will have me.”

The evening’s line of questioning grew heated when the focus turned to the recent raffle that Freshour attempted to conduct as a fundraiser using race tickets a supporter had provided his campaign.

“I made a mistake,” he admitted. 

After it was brought to his attention the raffle did not comply with State Board of Election practices, Freshour said he fully disclosed every aspect of it to the State Election Board and gave the money back.

“The State Board of Elections says we are all good,” he added.

However, his challenger said although it may have been an honest mistake, the public “is not getting the whole story.”

“The State Board of Elections does not regulate this activity. The General Gaming Commission does. So to turn yourself in to the State Board of Elections is not really telling anything about the accountability issue,” Martin said describing it as “a clear failure of accountability on his part.”

She said ignorance of the law cannot be used as an excuse in this case.

“When defendants in court say that, the prosecutor stands up and says ignorance of the law is no excuse. So it’s not just an accountability problem, but a credibility problem for the office,” she maintained.

She asked, “Who can the public trust to enforce the laws now?”

Martin said she realizes she is not perfect, but she pledged to be fully accountable to the public if elected to the position.

In a rebuttal to the challenger’s accusation, Freshour questioned Martin’s accountability citing a recent press release she had published in the newspaper about endorsements she had received.

“That article was prepared by her campaign. That article was submitted to the papers by her campaign. I called the State Board of Elections because I wanted to do the same thing, and I wanted to check and see if we had to have a disclaimer in there. And what do you know, the State Board of Elections said he if you get an article because you pay for an ad, you have to have a disclaimer saying it was paid for and authorized by your campaign. But that did not appear in my opponent’s articles.”

Freshour conceded both candidates are running their first campaigns.

“We make mistakes, but this is not a campaign about ‘gotcha politics’ and trying to embarrass the other person,” he said. 

He suggested the campaigns should “stick to the issues about who is most qualified, trained and knowledgeable and who can be an effective prosecutor.

“We can point fingers, but people don’t like politicians because of these reasons, so let’s stick to the issues,” he concluded.

When asked why she chose to become a lawyer and to expound upon her experiences, Martin reiterated her desire to serve her community.

“I have prosecuted cases,” she said responding to the incumbent’s claim she had no prosecutorial experience. “I have worked in the U. S. Attorney’s office before.”

She said her entire life she has always worked “very hard,” in high school, college, law school and beyond.

“I have simply worked very hard to be the best lawyer I could be. I work hard to do my best, and I will bring this same work ethic to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office,” she said.

Freshour said he chose his career path because he aspired to be a commonwealth’s attorney.

However, he said he realized before one could lead, one needs to learn how to follow, and that is why he joined the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in 2004.

“I clearly set out my goals and got training, experience and knowledge to become the prosecutor,” he said.

Martin responded that although she has not worked in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, she has “enormous trial experience” and pointed to five former assistant commonwealth’s attorneys with 40 years of prosecution experience who had worked with her opponent but who had endorsed her for the job.

She also referred to the 44 law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who endorsed her.

“If insiders in the criminal justice system see my performance, see my experience, see the quality of what I have to offer this population, then I would ask you to cast your vote for me,” Martin said.

Next during the forum, candidates were asked if the county has “a  continuance problem” since it takes so long to resolve court cases.

The two candidates had very differing opinions on the question with the incumbent responding, “There is no continuance problem.” And the challenger saying, “We do have a continuance problem.”

Freshour explained he and the assistant commonwealth’s attorneys only agree to continue cases when “there is a good cause.”

A myriad of reasons exist for continuances, but Freshour laid the blame for continuances at the foot of the judge’s bench.

“The only time there is a continuance is if the judge finds there is a good reason for the continuance,” he said. “Ultimately, there is no continuance unless a judge says there’s a good cause for it.”

Martin,  on the other hand, pointed out the Supreme Court calls for all cases to be judicated within six months.

“That number for Halifax the last year was 40 percent,” she said.

She compared statistics of surrounding counties with Mecklenburg solving 80 percent of their cases within this time frame, Pittsylvania solved 75 percent, and Henry County solved 74 percent.

“Why is it that of the eight counties in the entire 10th circuit, 60 percent of the cases that took more than 12 months to get there are from Halifax County?” she asked. “We do have a continuance problem.”

She said the commonwealth’s attorney’s office should “be the filter, and they are in the best position to fix this problem.”

Freshour rebutted his challenger saying she “conveniently forgot to tell you about the rules of the Supreme Court is that the judge is responsible for clearing these cases, not the commonwealth’s attorney. 

“When the man in the black robe says your objection (to a continuance) is overruled, the case gets continued,” Freshour said, adding the challenger nor he has any control over these continuances.

The next question centered around each candidate’s jury trial experience with Martin citing participation in 12 to 15 jury trials and Freshour pointing to 17 jury trials he has tried.

Freshour admitted both he and his opponent have tried cases in court, but domestic relations and traffic cases that his opponent cites on her website do not give her the credentials to be commonwealth’s attorney.

“I have tried and prosecuted over 3,000 cases,” he said. “All I have done for the past nine and a half years is prosecute cases.”

Martin rebutted Freshour’s comparison of her experience to his asking, “If you are full-time prosecutor, I am wondering why there aren’t more jury trials. With the community expressing dissatisfaction with the jail time received by offenders, I have to wonder why we don’t see more jury trials.”

She pledged to afford the community an opportunity to see more jury trials if she is elected commonwealth’s attorney.

Freshour said no one has ever been denied justice since he’s been in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, and he has set out to make it a more aggressive office working hard for increased prosecution and to reduce the number of plea agreements. He also pointed to eight jury trials that have been set on the most recent docket.

Martin jumped on that point saying, “It’s unbelievable for me my opponent would say there’s no problem.”

In the first two quarters of this year, Martin said zero jury trials were held.

“All of a sudden my opponent has set eight jury trials in the last half of the year. He has set eight jury trials when we have had none in the first six months of this year, and four last year and six the year before,” she said.

The final question of the evening concerned high turnover in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.

Freshour responded that he has high expectations of himself and the people who work in the office.

Referring to turnover, he explained that prosecutors’ offices and public defenders’ offices are often the very first job for people coming out of law school.

He said they get valuable trial experience while working for about half the amount of pay they would get working in a private law practice.

“That’s just how it is. There aren’t any pay raises in this job, and there are no big bonuses at the end of the year. They get their experience, and they move on,” he explained.

However, Halifax County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has experienced less turnover than neighboring prosecutors’ offices, he added.

Martin, on the other hand, pointed to five experienced prosecutors who had left the commonwealth’s attorney’s office in the last six years who are endorsing her for the job.

“We need to fix some problems around here. I have to wonder, if management had been as such that those five people had stayed, we would have 40 more years of experience on our side. High turnover creates all kinds of problems. I would fix that problem by being a good protective manager that leads by example,” she added.

Freshour pointed out that these same five assistant commonwealth’s attorneys with the 40 years of experience were in the office during a time when Martin claims there were too many continuances.

“Since I have taken over, the plea agreements have been reduced by 52 percent, we have gained harsher sentences, and we’re working hard to put criminals away,” the incumbent said. 

In closing, both candidates said they are committed to being commonwealth’s attorney in the next four years and asked those attending to go to the polls on Tuesday to vote for them.