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Decision coming soon on possible May bond election for zoo
 Mike Copeland  / 

Waco and McLennan County leaders have until next month if they want to call a $12.5 million bond election in May to expand Cameron Park Zoo, they learned at an intergovernmental relations committee meeting Monday at Waco City Hall.

County and city leaders appeared open to considering the countywide bond election that would add educational and animal treatment facilities and more exhibits.

But first, Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said he and other staffers will dive into data on how such an expansion would impact operating costs, which the city of Waco underwrites. The city already spends $2.7 million annually to subsidize operations in addition to gate and concession revenue.

Though a record 353,691 people visited the zoo in 2018, an 8 percent increase from the previous year, “there appears to be a disconnect,” said District 5 Councilman Jim Holmes, a member of the committee. “Record attendance is not translating to record revenue.”

Ford, during an interview following the meeting, said he believes creating a larger zoo would prove “neutral to the subsidy,” in that it would create new employment positions but could also boost interest and ticket sales.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, while not explicitly endorsing a bond election, said he and county commissioners are in a mood to listen.

Ford noted that talks continue over increasing the city’s oversight of Cameron Park Zoo, as well as shifts in staffing and the leadership structure.

The Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society would handle fundraising, marketing, memberships, facility rentals and the pursuit of corporate sponsorship. The city, meanwhile, would oversee animal care, facility upkeep, grounds maintenance, the gift shop and educational efforts, according to Ford and a report from the botanical society. The proposal includes a shift from one director under the zoological society to a director employed by the city and an executive director overseeing the society. About 10 full-time-equivalent staff positions would be transferred from the society to the city.

Both the city and the society would communicate with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the city manager’s office would have a nonvoting member on the society’s executive committee and board, according to the plan. The Zoo Commission, inactive since 2008, would be reactivated as an advisory committee over zoo operations, with members from the city council, zoological society and McLennan County who would meet at least quarterly.

The plan comes in the wake of an accounting firm inquiry into cash-handling practices at the zoo and the departure of former director Jim Fleshman in April. Fleshman was asked to resign during the inquiry and faced a sexual harassment allegation from a former employee.

In other matters Monday, the joint committee heard a report from Prosper Waco executive director Matthew Polk on efforts to address local health, education and financial security issues. He said work continues among several agencies wanting to create a venue for treating those with mental health emergencies “without having to call the police.”

He said Prosper Waco, working with the Waco Independent School District, continues to pursue making child care and college more accessible to the poor. He also cited a study showing McLennan County has the eighth-highest concentration of incarcerated individuals among 254 counties in Texas.

“McLennan County is the most populous county in the top eight. The others are so small that a change involving one or two people would make a difference in the percentages,” Polk said. “We don’t mention this as being a problem or to point fingers. We do believe it merits discussion.”

He added, “We have much to do in 2019 to move the needle along. We have been asked by you our elected leaders to become more specific about our goals and in our feedback, and that’s what we are attempting to do.”

The committee also heard a report showing that 3,522 passengers used services provided by the McLennan County Rural Transit District in November, including 1,744 people living in rural areas and 340 served by Central Texas Senior Ministry. Ridership in the fledgling service is growing, said Allen Hunter, general manager of Waco Transit System.

He said Waco Transit is considering “shuffling” the schedules of employees to ensure maximum staffing when it receives the most inquiries about service. He said there have been complaints about 30-to-45-minute phone waits.

The committee heard from Ashley Nystrom, executive coordinator for the city of Waco, that Waco will join other communities in backing legislation to control the use of eight-liner gambling machines within the county limits. Felton said McLennan County is poised to join Waco in supporting the measure.

“We want our efforts to parallel those of the city’s,” Felton said.

“These devices are creating problems everywhere,” added Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver. “We hope the Legislature takes some action this session.”

Antioch Community Church team ministers to migrants at Tijuana
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

After being deported from his longtime Texas home, Joe, a Mexican national, lay sick in his tent among dozens of other deportees in Tijuana, Mexico when he heard commotion outside of his tent.

“He said he hadn’t come out of his tent in days and he looked real sick,” said Kevin Vranich, who was one of nearly 30 members of Antioch Community Church who traveled to Tijuana this winter.

“There was just a lot of hopelessness, but he said hearing us talking to others drew him out of his tent for the first time,” he said.

Joe was greeted by members of the large Waco-based evangelical church’s Day and Night International Discipleship School as they worked to spread a message of God’s love among dozens of deportees and would-be migrants from Mexico and Central America.

The border city has become a focal point in news stories recently as debate rages over immigration policy and border security. But the Antioch team, partnering with a sister church in Tijuana, looked beyond political controversy to serve human needs.

“When you see hopelessness in the eyes of people who have no hope and people who have lost faith in humanity, it is just a dark place,” said Tim Sapp, a freelance broadcaster and Waco Tours employee who was part of the team. “We just tried to love them, listen to them, and try to give them a reason to continue on, and just try to give them back hope.”

Sapp and his wife, Midway school teacher Lorri Sapp, joined Vranich, a Waco fire marshal, along with 24 other members of Antioch’s discipleship school. The group traveled to Tijuana on the nine-day mission trip from Dec. 13 to Dec. 22 as their ending mark of the school’s semester.

“The school is a foundations of faith, immersive course for anyone of any age and of any vocation who wants to deepen their faith,” Mick Murray, director of the night school, said. “It is specifically faith-based, but it has a lot of practical community engagement international trip that is the capstone of the school.”

The group, plus six children, worked with in downtown Tijuana where members of a migrant caravan and deportees were camped out, Murray said. The group also helped Antioch’s sister church, All Peoples Church, host a Christmas party for church members, handed out blankets, and listened to the stories of deportees and migrants, many of whom were separated from their families.

“Jesus breaks down the ultimate dividing wall between people and God, between one another and it cuts down all the politics. For us, something that was more universally applicable is empathy,” Murray said. “Aside from all the soundbites in politics and everything in the news, the point is that every one involved is human. We need to remember humanity and Jesus makes a way for peace and reconciliation.”

Many of the migrants and deportees were seeking entry or re-entry into the United States from Mexico or Central American countries like Honduras and Guatemala. Murray said the group did not engage in political conversations, but they saw the troubles of migrants first hand.

“We did see a family getting arrested along the border, but we never brought up the idea of the wall in any of our conversations,” Murray said. “Many of them agreed with border security, but they just wanted to be back with their families and we were there to focus on people and to serve the people.”

After uniting migrants and deportees with local resources at All Peoples Church in their nine-day mission, the group saw a familiar face leaving Tijuana. Vranich said out the of line of cars, Joe appeared and yelled an appreciative message.

“He looked like a completely different person when we saw him in the line where vehicles were waiting to re-enter the United States,” Vranich said. “He looked happy, smiling, he wasn’t sick and full of life. He said he still had his Bible in his pocket and he was going to read it every day. He had hope again.”

Hewitt residents demand report from law firm that investigated council
 Cassie L Smith  / 

Hewitt residents Monday demanded a public report from the law firm the city council hired to investigate employee complaints against council members, rather than a summary of the issues by the city attorney.

The Hewitt City Council on Dec. 17 authorized City Attorney Mike Dixon to compile a report for public inspection detailing the events that have unfolded since May that have resulted in a Texas Rangers investigation and Texas Workforce Commission investigation. That report was not complete as of Monday.

However, residents used the public comment portion of the meeting Monday to question that decision.

Several residents echoed thoughts included in a column penned by Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry which ran in the Tribune-Herald on Sunday.

Fortenberry said in his column he would personally pay to have Julia Gannaway of Lynn Ross & Gannaway LLP, out of Fort Worth publicly present her closed-door report on the investigation of city employee claims against council members. The move would be necessary because the firm never presented a written report to the council.

The city council called for the investigation May 21 after several complaints by city employees were filed against elected officials. The council then met with the firm June 21 behind closed doors.

Fortenberry used the Sunday column to question Dixon’s “personal and professional integrity” and alleged he sided with Passalugo over everyone else. Fortenberry said he couldn’t trust Dixon’s version of the events that have occurred.

Dixon, who was unanimously hired by the council Sept. 17, said he could not comment on the column.

Dixon was selected after the council in a 4-2 vote fired its longtime city attorney Charles Buenger and Buenger & Associates. Fortenberry and councilman Bill Fuller opposed dismissing Buenger.

Dixon on Monday suggested holding a special called meeting Jan. 14 to present the information.

Fortenberry asked the report be presented during a regularly scheduled meeting so as not to incur additional costs on the city.

Hewitt resident Michael Bancale said having Dixon compile a report of the complaints would be a duplication of effort. Hewitt residents already paid for one investigation, and the results of that one should just be shared, Bancale said.

Resident Mike Field, a retired attorney, went so far as to tell Dixon to reflect “on whether you’re a positive or negative influence on this city.”

Field said the city looks like it’s being run by Moe, Larry and Curly from “The Three Stooges.”

Resident Ann Schiltz said everyone needs to learn to apologize, accept responsibility and allow the city to move forward.

“We live in the U.S. of A. and what’s important here is freedom and the right to make choices,” Schiltz said. “We are the ones that live in this town. Listen to us. Listen to us.”

Resident Elli Mevis said there has been no transparency in the matter.

“Summaries are inherently biased because you are picking what you say and what you leave out,” she said. “You don’t believe me, turn on MSNBC and then switch to Fox News and then see if they are saying the same thing about the same news item.”

Hewitt resident Betty Orton said her heart aches for the council members.

“I feel like we’re in Washington almost with what we’re going through,” said Orton, who was a candidate in the November council election. “I think of all of us here have made mistakes. We’ve all said things we wish we’d have never said.”

Also during the meeting, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, swore in the newest council member.

Staff photo — Cassie L. Smith  

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, swears in Erica Bruce as a new Hewitt City Council member.

Erica Bruce won the December runoff election with almost 66 percent of votes cast for the at-large seat. Bruce fills the seat after the vacancy created by Kurt Krakowian when he stepped down in July. The term for the seat ends in May, and Bruce has said she’ll run again for the position. The at-large position is one of four council seats that will be on the May ballot if races are challenged. Incumbents’ terms ending include seats currently represented by Travis Bailey, James Vidrine and Passalugo.

Flores said he’s sworn in about a dozen people over the years. Flores and Bruce recently crossed paths at a December Advocacy Center charity event. Flores said Bruce asked him to swear her in and since he had available time he agreed.

“It’s a special event,” Flores said before the council meeting. “I like to support anyone that’s running for public service. I think that it’s probably a cool thing for them to have their congressperson swear them in and I’m glad to help them out with that.”

Flores said he’s heard there has been some conflict on the city council in recent months but he didn’t know anything about the matter. Flores said he’s seen some chatter on social media about him attending the meeting, and one person even sent his wife a message warning that he’d be swearing in a Democrat. Flores said whether his constituents are Republicans or Democrats he will accommodate requests as possible regardless of party affiliation. Hewitt City Council elections are non-partisan.

Bruce said Flores has always been a supporter of the Advocacy Center, where she is an immediate response advocate for crime victims.

“I’m honored that he would take the time out of his schedule,” she said.

Burleson judge named to Waco's 10th Court of Appeals
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that he appointed Judge John Neill of Burleson to replace Justice Al Scoggins on Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals.

Neill, 58, has served the past 20 years as judge of the 18th Judicial District Court in Johnson and Somervell Counties. He is expected to start his new job on the three-judge intermediate appellate court in Waco on Feb. 20, joining Chief Justice Tom Gray and Justice Rex Davis on the court. He will succeed Scoggins, who announced his retirement in September.

“After 20 years of being a district judge, I am very excited about this new challenge,” Neill said Monday. “I am looking forward to getting started. I think very highly of Chief Justice Gray and Justice Davis and I am looking forward to working with them.”

Neill, a native of Ackerley in West Texas, moved to Burleson when he was a sixth-grader and graduated from high school there. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Baylor University and earned his law degree at St. Mary’s University. He is a founder of the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program in Johnson County, is an ordained Baptist deacon and coached youth sports for 13 years.

Neill said he was appointed to hear a case involving a contest of a special charter amendment election in Arlington involving term limits for council members that he must conclude before he starts his new job. He said he will be in Waco Wednesday to meet with Gray and Davis and to meet staff members of the court.

Gray said he looks forward to working with Neill, whom he met when they were running in the same election cycle in 1998.

“We very much appreciate Governor Abbott making a very quick appointment to the court to fill this vacancy and void created by Justice Scoggins leaving,” Gray said. “It will allow us to move forward quickly, not seamlessly, but we will be able to transition since we know who it is going to be and know that we are not going to be without a judge for an extended period of time. That will really help us keep our work moving and set our priorities about what can wait until he gets here versus getting a visiting judge for things that need to be disposed of before his arrival.”

By contrast, Gray said Abbott also announced the appointment of a new justice for the appellate court based in Eastland. That three-judge court has gone more than a year without a full panel of judges before Abbott’s Monday appointment.

The 10th Court of Appeals is one of 14 intermediate appellate courts in Texas. It hears both civil and criminal appeals from courts in an 18-county Central Texas region.

Neill will have to run for election in 2020 and again in 2022, when Scoggins’ term expires.

Gray, who has been on the court since 1999 and chief justice since December 2003, said Scoggins was a trial court judge for 26 years and brought that valuable experience to the court. Neither Gray nor Davis have served as trial court judges. He said Neill, with 20 years on the state district court bench, will ably replace Scoggins’ trial court experience on the court.

Others who sought the appointment were Vicki Menard, judge of Waco’s 414th State District Court for the past 13 years; Waco attorney and businesswoman Gina Parker; Rick Bradley, Scoggins’ staff attorney; and 361st State District Judge Steve Smith, of Brazos County, who challenged Gray in 2012.

Joanna Gaines' two books make nonfiction top 20 in 2018
 Mike Copeland  / 

“Magnolia Table,” Joanna Gaines’ ode to good cooking and old family recipes, was the nation’s second most popular nonfiction print book published in 2018, behind only Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” according to a ranking released this week by NPD BookScan, an organization of independent book publishers.

There were 1.3 million hardback copies of “Magnolia Table” sold last year, well below the 3.4 million in sales enjoyed by the former first lady’s book, but just ahead of the 1.28 million in sales for Rachel Hollis’ “Girl, Wash Your Face.”

Another Gaines’ book, “Homebody,” published in the spring, hit No. 20 on the annual list, with sales of 523,321, according to the listing.

Asked about the availability of the books, Magnolia publicist John Marsicano replied in an email: “In general, ‘Magnolia Table’ and ‘Homebody’ are available nationwide, wherever books are sold. Both books are sold in-store at Magnolia Market and Magnolia Table, and online at Locally, both books are available for purchase at nearby Barnes & Noble, Target, H-E-B and Walmart locations.”

Published by Harper Collins Publishers, “Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave,” the “Fixer Upper” star outlines the secrets to creating an environment that reflects the personalities and stories of the people who live there, according to promotional material.

“Magnolia Table,” named for the restaurant Chip and Joanna Gaines opened on Waco’s infamous traffic circle, in the historic Elite Cafe building, beat out such high-profile works as “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s scathing look at the Trump White House, which placed seventh with sales of 972,750.

Gaines’ book is filled with personal stories and the makings for dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and small plates, snacks and desserts, according to information provided by Magnolia and Marsicano, in an email message.

Among the “personal family favorites” are peach caprese, fried chicken with sticky poppy seed jam, lemon pie and asparagus and fortina quiche.


Steve Fortenberry