THUNDERBIRD BAY - A debate between Brown County Sheriff Bobby Grubbs and challenger Kim Gilliam grew personal and spurred heated reactions from the audience as Gilliam referred to the incumbent as a “hard-headed” man with a department staffed by unhappy employees.

Grubbs and Gilliam took turns addressing an audience of about 125 — and at times, each other — at the North Lake Brownwood Volunteer Fire Department.

Grubbs, 63, is seeking a second term as sheriff as a Republican. Gilliam, 46, is a Democrat who worked as a deputy for three sheriffs including Grubbs. She resigned from the sheriff’s office in January 2006.

Several in the audience, including some of Grubbs’ employees — challenged Gilliam’s statements, and clamored for her to state her qualifications and her plans to improve the sheriff’s office.

From January 2005 to August 2008, the sheriff’s office “initiated or played a leading role” in seven major drug operations resulting in 165 arrests, Grubbs said. Those numbers don’t include additional arrests by deputies and investigators, he said. Investigators have presented 551 felony cases to grand juries, and have solved 39 cases against felony sex offenders, executed 63 narcotics search warrants and seized $131,369 and 16 vehicles from narcotics defendants, Grubbs said. He said the sheriff’s office made 672 arrests in 2004, the year before he took office, and 1,180 arrests in 2007.

Grubbs and Gilliam sparred over several topics, including Grubbs’ designation of a secretary as a criminal analyst and his decision to assign her a Volkswagen Jetta, seized two years ago from a drug defendant; his decision to fire three veteran employees after taking office; and over the sheriff’s office’s relationship with the Brownwood Police Department.

Gilliam said Grubbs has neglected rural areas. She said his deputies should patrol the county more and leave drug enforcement in Brownwood to Brownwood police.

Grubbs said his experience and integrity are among his qualifications for reelection. He said he believes he’s done a good job as sheriff and cited the numbers of arrests, and indictments his administration has initiated or taken a leading role.

The debate began civil as the candidates sat at a table, separated by moderator David Tessaro, and made opening remarks.

Gilliam said she worked in the sheriff’s office for 14 years, starting as a jailer and dispatcher. She said she is a commissioned peace officer and certified jailer and communications operator. “I do know that I have the experience to be Brown County sheriff,” she said.

Grubbs said he has nearly 39 years of law enforcement experience. “We’ve accomplished a lot in four years,” Grubbs said. “We’ve made some major strides in narcotics work.”

Gilliam said she isn’t discrediting Grubbs but said he hasn’t done “any more than the past two sheriffs.”

Gilliam, moving to another topic, said, “The (Brownwood) Police Department and your office do not communicate. Correct?”

“This is not correct,” Grubbs said.

Gilliam said deputies ran two search warrants recently in the city limits and did not involve the police department. She said the sheriff needs to worry about the county, not “the city limits of Brownwood.”

“Last time I checked, the city of Brownwood is part of Brown County,” Grubbs replied. “ … We work with (Brownwood) police. We work with Early (police). My career was comprised in the (Texas) Rangers with working with agencies. I’ve not lost the knack to do that. At times, we conduct these raids on our own …”

Gilliam said she’s heard complaints from citizens that when they call for help, deputies don’t show up and don’t act on citizens’ tips about drug activity.

Grubbs said his deputies do respond to calls for service, and, he said, deputies can’t arrest people if they follow up on tips but don’t find narcotics.

When Gilliam was asked repeatedly what she would do to improve the sheriff’s office, several audience members said she wasn’t answering the question as she continued to say deputies were neglecting rural areas.

“I would have more patrol,” Gilliam did say several times.

A woman said she had noticed more deputies patrolling in rural areas the past few months and asked Grubbs if that will continue after the election.

Grubbs said it will. “They’re not patrolling because of the election,” he said, adding that his department has officers “with fire in their eyes.”

Gilliam challenged Grubbs’ firing of then-Chief Deputy Mike McCoy, investigator Scott Martin and Jail Administrator Mary Barron shortly after he took office.

“I do stand by what I did,” Grubbs said. He said he fired them to make room to hire three employees of his own choice — Bobby Duvall, the current chief deputy, Ellis Johnson, who holds the rank of captain and T.J. Medart, as jail administrator. Medart later resigned.

“Why did you promise Mike McCoy he’d have a job?” a woman in the audience asked.

“I didn’t promise Mike McCoy a job,” Grubbs said.

“Grubbs is hard-headed. He does not have an open mind. He does not return phone calls to the public,” Gilliam said. “ … He plays favorites …”

Grubbs said he does return phone calls but acknowledged he may have missed returning a few. He said there were cliques in the sheriff’s office when he took office and he’d broken them up.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Jimmy Simpson was among sheriff’s employees who spoke up for Grubbs. “Don’t get me started … you’re lying to them,” Simpson told Gilliam. “ … All we’re hearing is slander and rock-throwing.”

Gilliam asked Grubbs if investigators still take turns being on call on weekends.

“Officers rotate being on call,” Grubbs said. “Sometimes they get called out when they’re not on call. It depends on the demand. … I think this is going the direction that we don’t respond to calls or something.

“We do respond to calls. If you’ve got one specific that wasn’t addressed, you need to bring it to our attention and we’ll look at it. I heard a piece of this the other day. You can go out and manufacture any rumor or innuendo you want to and I think a lot of this has happened.”

Gilliam said, “you can have a 3- or 4-year-old child in the (emergency room) that’s been sexually abused and he won’t even send (an investigator) out to talk to the victim’s family or the victim,” Gilliam said.

“I don’t know of any 3-year-old that was sexually assaulted and nobody responded. If you wanna give me a name, date and place, I’ll see if I can find out what happened … ”

Gilliam discussed her resignation from the sheriff’s office and her reaction to Grubbs’ earlier statements that she was a “disgruntled employee.”

She said she resigned because she was fed up with the “stupidity” of the sheriff’s office and over the way Duvall had spoken to her.

A woman said she’d come to hear both candidates. “Mrs. Gilliam, it sounds to me like you are a disgruntled employee … give us some definitive qualifications to assure us you can handle this job,” she said.

“I am not a disgruntled employee,” Gilliam said. “Most of his deputies and employees are unhappy.”

Gilliam said she knows what it is to dispatch a call and book someone into jail.

“You could be a dispatcher or a jailer. That’s not what we consider the sheriff’s job to be,” a woman said.

“ … I know I’m qualified,” Gilliam said.