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Government
editor's pick
Election judge tells commissioners of nightmares about last year's election
 Mike Copeland  / 
 07.31.19

Anita Phillips thought she had seen it all, working elections 14 years in McLennan County. She learned otherwise last November, when she served as election judge at the Waco Multipurpose Center on Elm Avenue, which became ground zero for allegations of intimidation tactics and rule breaking.

Emotional races included one that pitted Democrat Pat Chisolm-Miller against Republican Donis “D.L.” Wilson in the Precinct 2 McLennan County Commissioners’ race. Chisolm-Miller won to succeed her longtime boss, Lester Gibson, and become the first woman elected to serve on the court.

Phillips addressed commissioners on Tuesday, sharing her thoughts about the turnout in East Waco and her uneasiness about daily incidents that, in her opinion, threatened the sanctity of the polling place and disrupted the sense of security voters of every stripe should feel in exercising their right and duty.

She pointed no fingers at any person or party, just the process in general.

She recalled having to be escorted to her vehicle at night, and asking the Waco Police Department to visit the site “multiple days” to restore order when she felt the badgering and electioneering had crossed the line.

“I had candidates and poll watchers making voters feel uncomfortable and intimidated as they voted, both curbside and inside the vote center,” Phillips said, reading from a prepared statement. “Candidates and poll watchers acted outside their scope to intimidate staff and attempt to intimidate me. My vehicle and license plate were aired on the news as unfounded accusations of voter fraud were reported (and) left me questioning the safety of my family and myself. … In a community I grew up in and always felt safe, I was now having to be escorted to my car at night. After the election and even as late as last night, I suffered nightmares about what occurred at the vote center.”

Phillips appeared before commissioners as the court voted on a proposed list of judges, alternates and clerks to work the Nov. 5 election. After postponing a decision on at least two occasions, commissioners agreed to send Phillips back to the Multipurpose Center when election season returns. The vote was not unanimous. Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones voted against the list as presented, and Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell abstained. McLennan County Judge Scott Felton, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry and District 2 Commissioner Chisolm-Miller formed the majority.

Jones, reached later for comment, said his vote reflects his concern about assigning Phillips again to the Elm Avenue location, which McLennan County Republican Party Chairman Jon Ker said he opposed during a commissioners meeting July 16. Ker did not attend Tuesday’s meeting and could not be reached later for comment.

Jones said he would have preferred Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe’s initial proposal to reassign Phillips to Waco First Assembly of God Church on Bosque Boulevard, where she would assist an election judge. Van Wolfe reportedly prepared a list sending Phillips back to the Multipurpose Center on Elm after meetings with Chisolm-Miller and McLennan County Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Duty. Commissioners rejected that list July 16 but approved it Tuesday.

Jones said acknowledging Ker’s misgivings and agreeing to reassign Phillips “would be the appropriate thing to do, would have been good policy, following all the controversy that happened at the Multipurpose Center last time.”

Van Wolfe did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Ker said July 16 that accusations of inappropriate activity at the Multipurpose Center were rampant.

“There were accusations back and forth, and there were things that went on that, frankly, if not illegal were highly inappropriate,” he said. “Electioneering was allowed within the 100-foot limit. People were talking with voters. A couple of women came in and shot a video and put it on Facebook. Anita Phillips was the election judge. Kathy (Van Wolfe) has moved her to First Assembly. All I wanted was for her not to run the location on Elm Street. I do not think the lady knew enough about election laws to have run a voting location.

“I want to make it clear. I’m not trying to remove anybody. That’s not even an issue. I do believe there is an argument to be made that more training and experience is needed before a person is appointed to serve as an election judge.”

In talking with commissioners, Phillips said she has attended “countless” training sessions sponsored by the McLennan County elections office, studies the Texas Election Code in her spare time and regularly visits the Secretary of State’s website to read updates and changes to election law.

‘Very heated’

“Anita Phillips can do the job. We wouldn’t have suggested her otherwise,” Duty said in an interview after the commissioners’ vote Tuesday. “The election in November became very heated. There were a lot of accusations flying both directions. We did our due diligence, took sworn statements from our people and forwarded them to the Secretary of State’s Office. As Anita mentioned, at one point, one of the news stations put her car on the news, with the license plate visible. It was a tough two weeks for her, but she held her own.”

Chisolm-Miller said Wednesday that she thought reassigning Phillips would serve to unfairly sully her reputation.

“Kathy (Van Wolfe) was comfortable enough to revise her initial recommendation,” Chisolm-Miller said. “We didn’t want there to be a perception in the community that Anita Phillips did anything wrong. I think these incidents were an outlier, and moving forward we may not see the situations surface again. I think putting Anita back at the Multipurpose Center can be part of the healing.”

State election rules stipulate that the respective county party chairs, either Democrat or Republican, have an advisory role in choosing election judges. Voting history comes into play, meaning in the case of the Multipurpose Center, Duty, as Democratic chairwoman, could voice her preferences.

Chisolm-Miller said she sees room for improving the training of election workers, “so they will be able to see things coming before they escalate.”

After the meeting, Phillips said remembering basic standards of behavior during election season is critical.

“Everyone, including the candidates, need to learn there is a certain decorum, a certain professionalism and a way to behave,” Phillips said. “Your conduct must not disrupt the voting process. It’s not about providing more security. It’s about understanding that everyone involved in the process should be treated with dignity and respect. We have to learn to treat each other better.”


Local
editor's pick
Safety officials pleased with EMS provider's 1st year, despite problems in early months
 Kristin Hoppa  / 
 07.31.19

Local police and fire officials are pleased with their year-old partnership with American Medical Response, saying slow response times during the emergency medical service provider’s first three months in McLennan County appear to be a thing of the past.

AMR took over from East Texas Medical Center on Aug. 1 last year, after receiving a five-year exclusive contract to serve seven local cities and unincorporated areas of the county. Other local first responders started raising concerns with AMR’s performance shortly after the transition, and response times to emergency calls did not meet officials’ expectations for the first three months. For the past eight months, however, AMR has met its requirements for response times, communication with other first responders has improved, and local officials said they are happy with the critical work AMR has been doing.

“I haven’t had to take any pregnant ladies to the hospital recently,” Beverly Hills Police Chief Thomas Schmidt said. “Any time we’ve needed them, they have been right there, and it’s been working well.”

Not long after the transition to AMR, Thomas Schmidt responded to a 911 call from a woman in labor who had first called for an ambulance. With the wait time growing, Schmidt relied on his own training as an emergency medical technician in deciding to put the woman in his patrol car and take her to the hospital himself, he said at the time.

Staffing and scheduling changes have driven part of the improvement, and more streamlined communication has also contributed, AMR operations manager Heather Schmidt said.

“Smaller cities may have different problems or concerns than bigger cities have, so we’ve really made it individualized to each city within the last year,” Heather Schmidt said. “We did change some staffing, started with the times our trucks come in and looked at historical data to better serve our areas.”

An Emergency Medical Services Committee oversees AMR’s compliance with its contract with local cities and started meeting monthly after hearing complaints and seeing long delays during calls for service. An internal database was created to allow first-responders to log concerns. Between Aug. 21 and Oct. 27, 54 complaints had been filed in the system.

“When we had those 54 complaints we knew we all needed to come together to address these in a timely manner,” said Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum, who serves as chairman of the committee. “We created a new way of reporting and immediately addressing issues with the right person in a call tree to get issues corrected.”

AMR responses to cities are mandated to be less than nine minutes about 90 percent of the time for priority 1 calls, where immediate response is needed. For less dire priority 2 calls, an ambulance must arrive in less than 13 minutes about 90 percent of the time, according to AMR’s contract.

It did not provide a compliance report during an initial 90-day grace period, but AMR sat at 86% compliance with contractual obligations to the cities in November. By December, AMR reached full compliance at 91.2%.

Since December, issues have subsided and have been addressed quickly when they arise, Tatum said.

“Sometimes now we don’t even have those monthly meetings, because there is nothing to be addressed,” he said. “If anyone has an issue, AMR has been real receptive to listening and figuring out the root of the problem so it is addressed right away.”

Shortly after the transition to AMR, Hewitt Fire Chief Lance Bracco described excessive wait times for emergency medical crews, including one response requested by firefighters that took about an hour and 40 minutes.

He said at the time that firefighters understood the transition would take time. This week, he said the city is pleased with the partnership.

“This call we just ran (on Tuesday), AMR showed up at the same time we did,” Bracco said. “We have absolutely no complaints. I think they have more people on the streets, but we aren’t seeing the wait times at all.”

AMR brought in a new dispatching system stationed at the Waco Police Department, which has contributed to the improvements, officials said.

Woodway Public Safety Director Bret Crook, who is co-chair of the Emergency Medical Services Committee, said he is pleased with the response of AMR in the last nine months. Crook said he expects the cooperation with the regional cities to continue to grow.

“I think they did get off to a rocky start, but we haven’t heard any complaints for quite a while,” Crook said. “I think everyone has adapted to everything and it has been working well.”

AMR’s local service area includes Waco, Woodway, Bellmead, Hewitt, Lacy Lakeview, Beverly Hills, Robinson and the county’s unincorporated areas.

A total of about 75 full-time EMTs and paramedics provide service from 12 to 13 ambulances that run during daytime hours, with six running during evenings and overnights, said Heather Schmidt, AMR’s operations manager. Four supervisors also can now respond to calls for service when call volumes are heavy, which is a change made in response to initial concerns, Schmidt said.

“I wish I could say it’s a well-oiled machine, but I’ve been in EMS for 20 years and it never gets that way, because EMS is a beast that always changes all the time,” she said. “I think we all really like the Waco area, and our leadership chain is really cohesive and works really well together with excellent staff that makes sure we take care of them so we can take care of our cities.”


Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Children attending the seventh annual Hewitt Public Library end of summer splash day cool off under spray from a Hewitt fire truck. Wednesday’s high temperature hit 99 with a heat index of 104, according to the National Weather Service.


AP
Debate puts Biden's long legislative record in the hot seat
 
 07.31.19

DETROIT — The ideological divisions gripping the Democratic Party intensified on Wednesday as presidential candidates waged an acrimonious battle over health care, immigration and race.

Biden, who found himself the target of criticism from nearly half the candidates on the debate stage, was forced to defend his decades-old political record on multiple fronts as other White House hopefuls sought to tear him down. One of his chief rivals, California Sen. Kamala Harris, charged that Biden’s past work with segregationists in the Senate could have prevented Barack Obama from becoming the nation’s first black president, and stopped her and fellow presidential candidate Cory Booker, both of whom are black, from becoming senators.

“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate, and Barack Obama would not have been in a position to nominate” Biden to become vice president.

When pressed, Biden repeatedly leaned on his relationship with Obama.

“We’re talking about things that occurred a long, long time ago,” Biden said. He added: “Everybody’s talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew who I was.”

Biden and Harris also had a spirited exchange over health care, with Harris saying Biden’s plan was too timid and the former vice president saying that the senator’s plan was vague and far too expensive. But it was the discussion of race that marked an escalating rift in the Democratic primary just two weeks after President Donald Trump issued racist calls for four female congresswomen of color to leave the country, even though all of them are American citizens. Over the weekend, Trump again took aim at a prominent congressman of color, charging that “no human being would want to live” in his “rat-infested” Baltimore district, which has a large black community.

This is an internal fight many Democrats do not want, fearing that it could alienate some white voters they would like to reclaim from Trump in 2020. For Biden’s struggling competitors, however, they see no better way to undermine his candidacy than raising questions about his commitment to black voters.

While Biden, who leads virtually all polls, took many hits on the stage, there were multiple opponents aiming for Harris as well. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard tore into Harris’ record as a prosecutor and attorney general in California.

Biden, who leads virtually all early polls, is considered the leading moderate onstage. In addition to Harris, Booker and Gabbard, his more progressive opponents include New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Obama administration housing chief Julián Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

The evening opened with a spirited exchange over the future of health care. Biden charged that Harris’ plan would cost taxpayers $3 trillion even after two terms in office and would force middle-class taxes to go up, not down. He said that would put Democrats at a disadvantage against Trump.

“You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan,” he said.

Harris slapped back that Biden was inaccurate.

“The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive,” Harris said. She added: “Your plan does not cover everyone in America.”

Immigration

There were also tense exchanges on immigration that pitted the 76-year-old Biden against a younger slate of more diverse candidates. There were no candidates of color onstage in the first wave Tuesday night. On Wednesday night, there were four.

Biden was flanked by Harris on one side and Booker on the other. As Biden greeted Harris onstage moments before the opening statements, he quipped, “Go easy on me, kid.”

Biden suggested that some of his rivals favor immigration laws that are far too forgiving. Castro, for example, would decriminalize illegal border crossings.

“People should have to get in line. That’s the problem,” Biden charged.

Castro shot back: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one has not.”

While the first primary votes won’t come for six more months, there is a sense of urgency for the lower-tier candidates to break out. More than half the field could be blocked from the next round of debates altogether — and possibly pushed out of the race — if they fail to reach new polling and fundraising thresholds implemented by the Democratic National Committee.

The dire stakes have forced many Democrats to turn against one another in recent weeks. But they also blasted the impact of the Trump administration on American life.

Biden said Trump was tearing at the “fabric of America” and highlighted the value of diversity in his opening statement.

“Mr. President, this is America,” Biden said of the diverse slate of candidates on stage.

Harris also referenced Trump’s divisive presidency.

“This becomes a moment we must fight for the best of who we are,” Harris said. “We are better than this.”


Crime
Police arrest suspect in Monday shooting death
 
 07.31.19

Police arrested a 17-year-old boy Wednesday on charges of murder and aggravated assault after they say he shot and killed a family member and left an 11-year-old boy with life-threatening injuries Monday.

Officers from multiple units found and arrested SirOcean Unique Calhoun without incident Wednesday evening, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton wrote in a press release.

Members of the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force and the McLennan County Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team received information Calhoun would be driving in a certain area and made a traffic stop on him near 33rd Street and Bosque Boulevard, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. Officers ordered him out of the vehicle at gunpoint, took him into custody and turned him over to Waco police, McNamara said.

Police have previously said Calhoun was involved in an argument over a bicycle with family members gathered in the 900 block of Houston Street and that the argument escalated to Calhoun firing multiple rounds from a handgun.

He shot Willie Steve Kiser, 31, in the arm and back, and Kiser died after being transported to a local hospital, Swanton said previously. Calhoun also shot an 11-year-old boy in the face, and the boy was transferred to a children’s hospital in Temple in critical condition after initially being taken to a local hospital, he said.

Police believe the child was hit inadvertently. Bond information for Calhoun was not available Wednesday.


Calhoun


AP
US to set up plan allowing prescription meds from Canada
 
 07.31.19

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said Wednesday it will create a way for Americans to legally and safely import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada for the first time, reversing years of refusals by health authorities amid a public outcry over high prices for life-sustaining medications.

The move is a step toward fulfilling a 2016 campaign promise by President Donald Trump. It weakens an import ban that has stood as a symbol of the political clout of the pharmaceutical industry.

But it’s unclear how soon consumers will see benefits, as the plan has to go through time-consuming regulatory approval and later could face court challenges from drugmakers. And there’s no telling how Canada will react to becoming the drugstore for its much bigger neighbor, with potential consequences for policymakers and consumers there.

The U.S. drug industry is facing a crescendo of consumer complaints over prices, as well as legislation from both parties in Congress to rein in costs, not to mention proposals from the Democratic presidential contenders. Ahead of the 2020 election, Trump is feeling pressure to deliver on years of harsh rhetoric about pharmaceutical industry prices.

Making the announcement, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration recognizes that prescription drug manufacturing and distribution is now international.

“The landscape and the opportunities for safe linkage between drug supply chains has changed,” Azar said. “That is part of why, for the first time in HHS’s history, we are open to importation. We want to see proposals from states, distributors, and pharmacies that can help accomplish our shared goal of safe prescription drugs at lower prices.”

Stephen Ubl, president of the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America called the plan “far too dangerous” for American patients. “There is no way to guarantee the safety of drugs that come into the country from outside the United States’ gold-standard supply chain,” Ubl said in a statement. “Drugs coming through Canada could have originated from anywhere in the world.”

Most patients take affordable generic drugs to manage conditions such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol. But polls show concern about the prices of breakthrough medications for intractable illnesses like cancer or hepatitis C infection, whose annual costs can run to $100,000 or much more. And long-available drugs like insulin have seen serial price increases that forced some people with diabetes to ration their own doses.

Azar, a former drug company executive, said U.S. patients will be able to import medications safely and effectively, with oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. Azar used to be a skeptic of importation, and was once quoted dismissing it as a gimmick.

Import rules, biologics

One prong of the administration’s proposal would allow states, wholesalers and pharmacists to get FDA approval to import certain medications that are also available here. Trump had recently endorsed a new Florida law to allow importation.

Another part of the plan would allow drugmakers to seek approval for re-importation of their own drugs. This second provision would cover cutting-edge biologic drugs as well mainstays like insulin, and it could apply to drugs from other countries besides Canada.

Azar said complex regulations setting up the system could take “weeks and months.” He called on Congress to pass legislation that would lend its muscle to the effort, making it harder to overturn the policy in court.

“The FDA has the resources to do this,” said acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless. “The agency is interested in considering any reasonable proposal that maintains the bedrock of safety and efficacy for the American consumer.”

Political concerns

Importation has backers across the political spectrum.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the panel that oversees Medicare, is a longtime supporter. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have a bill to facilitate importation. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the health committee, welcomed the plan but said the key is whether importation can be done safely.

During Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, multiple candidates talked about the need to lower drug costs. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont Independent, noted the disparity in U.S. and Canadian prices. “I took 15 people with diabetes from Detroit a few miles into Canada and we bought insulin for one-tenth the price being charged by the crooks who run the pharmaceutical industry in America today,” he said.

The leading drug industry trade group, known as PhRMA, is a powerhouse that generally gets its way with lawmakers. It spent $128 million on lobbying in 2017, according to its most recent tax filings. But pressure on the industry is rising across many fronts.

In the Senate, Trump is supporting Grassley’s bipartisan bill to cap medication costs for Medicare recipients and require drugmakers to pay rebates to the program if price hikes exceed inflation. Democrats in the House are pressing for a vote on a bill allowing Medicare to directly negotiate prices on behalf of millions of seniors. Separately, the Trump administration is pursuing a regulation that would tie what Medicare pays for drugs administered in doctors’ offices to lower international prices.

Drug costs are lower in other economically advanced countries because governments take a leading role in setting prices. But in the U.S., Medicare is not permitted to negotiate.

Some experts have been skeptical of allowing imports from Canada, partly from concerns about whether Canadian suppliers have the capacity to meet the demands of the much larger U.S. market.

Backers argue that the prospect of competition will pressure U.S. drugmakers to reduce prices.