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2013,Abbott head coach Terry Crawford, left, with Tyler Russell, right.

New District 4 Waco council representative wants community involvement, transparency

Five years ago, Darius Ewing paid no attention to city government. Now, he wants everyone to.

The newly appointed 26-year-old city council member is the first person of color to hold the District 4 seat and one of the city’s youngest council members to date. His first few days on the council have been filled with congratulatory texts and calls for repairs on streets and sidewalks, Ewing said.

“I think for a long time, when you look at the demographics of this district for the most part it’s been white guys that live on this side of Waco Drive that have the seat,” Ewing said from his office in Rydell Real Estate near Austin Avenue and 23rd Street. “There’s an entire other section of the district, the majority of the district, that isn’t in this bubble, that has been unrepresented in this seat specifically.”

In 2011, District 4 was 23% white, 29% Black and 47% Hispanic. Between the 2000 census and that year, District 4 shrank by 1,345 people, or 6%, losing more than 3,000 Black and white residents while gaining more than 2,000 Hispanic residents. The district spans roughly from Franklin Avenue in the central city to Reuter Avenue in North Waco and from New Road to the Brazos River.

Ewing said he hopes he will be a visible reminder to people in his district that they can get involved in city government, instead of living parallel to it, and a reminder in general that local government is supposed to be for everyone, making the city more approachable to the average resident.

“Generally community involvement increases transparency, just because you become someone people know to go to,” Ewing said. “This may be a far fetched dream, but I would love to poll people in the districts and have 80% be able to tell you ‘My councilman is X.’ I think that’s the level of involvement that would be ideal. Maybe that’s me being the youngest council member and being naive, but I think that would be phenomenal.”

Ewing ended up on the path to Waco City Council partially by chance. He decided to attend Baylor University, where he studied corporate communication, with friends from his high school in Belton. While he was working as a manager at the Common Grounds coffee shop, he became roommates with Evan Hebert. Hebert coordinated Prosper Waco’s Campustown initiative, an effort to retain young professionals by connecting them to well-paying jobs, where then-District 4 city council member Dillon Meek sat on the steering committee. When Meek told Hebert about an opening at Rydell Real Estate, where Meek worked at the time, Hebert recommended Ewing.

Ewing said his work at Rydell introduced him to the inner workings of the city, and conversations with Meek taught him that there was almost always someone at the city to call to ask questions or raise concerns.

“Learning that, as a random constituent, I had access to someone like the city manager or assistant city manager, who could send someone to fix a problem, was mind-blowing to me,” Ewing said. “I had no idea four years ago that there was a chain of command that could resolve issues.”

He said while the role of the city council member is already about being approachable and entails directing residents to the person or department that can help them, creating positions at City Hall solely dedicated to directing people might help bridge the gap.

“Even if it’s to apply for a grant from the city to fix your house that’s caving in, those things exist,” Ewing said.

Ewing said his main priorities are job training, improving public transit and housing, which are especially tied together in District 4, which is far from the city’s industrial park and manufacturing hubs.

“Prosper Waco is taking huge steps to do that,” Ewing said. “I do think a lot of it comes down to, again, that ease of access, making sure people that need the job training know where to go and how to get plugged into it. … Just in my life, I’ve seen the difference it makes when you are sacrificing to pay rent, sacrificing to eat food, and then those things can be taken off the top of the list.”

Ewing was born into a military family. After his parents divorced when he was 5, he and his brothers lived primarily with his mother in Killeen. He said when he was between the ages of 6 and 8, his mother worked, but always struggled financially.

“I vividly remember nights when she would cook dinner for us to eat and then have either nothing or very little for herself,” Ewing said. “Syrup sandwiches are a very real thing. That was probably my favorite snack at that point in my life.”

He said their situation changed overnight when she found work at a government contract agency. His mother remarried when he was 10.

“Going through that has informed most of the way I go through life, the empathy I feel for people in that situation,” Ewing said.

Ewing said neighborhood associations could be another avenue to increased involvement. He said the year he lived in Dean Highland, its neighborhood association ceased to exist when no one could pick up where previous leadership left off.

Sammy Smith, president of the Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the city. Every month for the past 20 or more years, the group has met.

“The membership rolls fluctuate from year to year,” Smith said. “We might not have 20 members that show up monthly, it may go down to 10, but it depends on what the agenda is.”

Smith said hot topics tend to attract more attention and drive people to get involved. Development of the Barron’s Branch apartment complex and demolition of the old Parkside Village complex in 2013 garnered a lot of engagement.

“It’s got to really affect them personally, or affect their neighbor,” Smith said.

Smith said regular members are racially diverse and range from young adults to older, longtime members like himself.

“I’m very proud of our group of people. They’re committed,” Smith said. “I’m so very proud of our diversity. That’s one of the biggest pluses that we have in the boundaries of Brook Oaks.”

Ewing was one of eight applicants the Waco City Council interviewed for the District 4 seat last week. As the appointee, he will have to run for election during local November elections. Of the eight who applied to be appointed, only Kelly Palmer, a social worker with the Communities in Schools of the Heart of Texas organization and a Baylor University social work lecturer, has confirmed she plans to run against Ewing in November.

“I believe in Waco and the residents of District 4, and believe that they deserve leaders who are committed to meeting their neighbors where they’re at and listening to their concerns and ideas, leaders who understand the complexity and history of some of these big issues that are facing our city right now, and are armed with the tools for how to address them,” Palmer said. “And Wacoans deserve leaders who will fight for equity and equality of all its residents, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, their race, their gender, their sexual orientation or their income level.”

Editor's note: A review of city records shows that for 15 of the past 20 years, the District 4 seat has been held by residents on the north side of Waco Drive and that four of the six representatives before Ewing were female.

Inheriting the wind: Mart area catching boost from renewable energy development

Almost overnight, the prairie farmland between Mart and Groesbeck is being transformed into a forest of wind towers nearly as tall as the ALICO Building.

And by the end of the year, 100 turbines will be spinning and providing more than 300 megawatts of power to Walmart and other customers, project officials said.

The $330 million Prairie Hill wind project, created by Engie North America, sprawls over 32,000 acres in McLennan and Limestone counties, and its towers can be seen from more than 10 miles away.

They are an unaccustomed sight here in the Heart of Texas region, far away from the windy plains of the Panhandle and the Gulf Coast.

But they may not be the last to emerge around here.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

The $330 million Prairie Hill wind farm between Mart and Groesbeck is expected to start generating power late this year.

As wind continues its ascendancy from a bit player to a leading actor in the Texas energy market, it is expanding into new regions.

Limestone County commissioners approved a deal last week with another company, NextEra Energy, that plans to build a similar project split between that county and Hill County near Hubbard, Limestone County Judge Richard Duncan said.

This region has some advantages over windier parts of the state, including a solid electric transmission infrastructure and proximity to Texas’ largest cities, said Laura Beane, Engie North America’s chief renewables officer.

“I think when you have existing growth and infrastructure that’s tested, all those things are huge,” Beane said.

And technological improvements have helped make wind power more efficient and financially viable in areas with relatively lower wind speeds, she said.

Beane said aging coal-fired power plants are being phased out across the state, and wind is taking up the slack.

“Demand is remarkably strong,” she said. “We don’t see that slowing down. … We are definitely exploring other opportunities in the area, and other developers are active in the area.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

A farmer works a field near Mart against a new horizon of wind turbines.

Texas leads the country in installed wind capacity, accounting for 24,824 MW of electricity, or about 21% of the state’s power supply, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid serving most of the state.

Wind capacity has doubled since 2014, pulling ahead of coal power.

Industry advocates see room for growth, especially if large-scale storage can be developed to even out the peaks in wind-powered supply. Engie is among companies working on battery storage projects in Texas.

Beane said a “tremendous amount” of wind construction is underway because federal tax credits were expected to be rolled back at the end of this year. But the federal government has extended that deadline because of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown, which has also caused energy prices to tank.

She said the wind industry is becoming increasingly cost-effective and will eventually be able to flourish without government subsidies, but the tax credits have helped it develop to that point. Those tax credits require an identified customer, Walmart in the case of the Prairie Hill project. Walmart has pledged to work toward 100 percent renewable energy for its operations.

Beane said the pandemic has complicated supply lines and construction for projects such as Prairie Hill, but she expects the wind farm to open on time this year.

In Mart and Limestone County, local officials see the project as positive for the economy, though hardly on the scale of the labor-intensive oil, gas and coal industries that once dominated Limestone County. Mexia’s days as an early Texas oil boomtown are long gone, and the Jewett lignite coal mine that formerly fed an NRG power plant was recently shut down in favor of cleaner-burning Wyoming coal.

“There’s going to be a lot of landowners getting revenue (from the wind turbines), but nothing like they were getting when oil and gas were booming,” said Duncan, the Limestone County judge.

The turbines will eventually need only a handful of workers to maintain them, but in the meantime, an army of construction workers has helped boost retail in Limestone County and across the county line in Mart, at a time when the lockdown has put the pinch on many businesses.

“Our sales tax is up, so we do know people are out there shopping,” Duncan said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Downtown Mart has seen a temporary boom in business as workers erect 100 wind turbines in the area.

Henry Witt III, who co-owns a new downtown Mart restaurant called The Rail Yard BBQ, said the construction boom motivated the partners to open as quickly as possible.

“We’ve definitely seen a spike in sales from it,” Witt said. “We got an order of 17 hamburgers from one of the contractors working out there.”

Mart City Council member Trevor Baize said he sees the project as positive for Mart, though the city does not get direct property tax from it.

“All I’ve heard is really positive because of the tax dollars the school and county are getting,” Baize said. “I believe it’s helped our economy.”

Under a school tax abatement agreement with Engie, Mart Independent School District will receive $1.6 million in property tax revenue from turbines in the district while forfeiting $21 million of potential revenue as an incentive for the work to move ahead. But over 25 years, the project would yield $17.9 million.

McLennan County gave Engie a tax break of about 70% for the first 10 years, with the county getting about $49,356 a year for the first decade.

Most of the towers are in Limestone County, and the county judge said the county will receive payments in lieu of taxes worth about $500,000 a year, which will help with one-time purchases such as heavy equipment.

Duncan said he has heard some social media grousing about the effects of imposing turbines on the countryside, but most people seem to accept the change.

“Personally, I haven’t warmed up to it completely when I see a great big turbine, but if the landowners who own property are OK with it, that’s really their call.”

What to wear: Feds' mixed messages on masks sow confusion

Forgive the American people if they’re in a fog about face masks. President Donald Trump and the federal government have done a number on them.

First there was the don’t-do-it phase. Then the nice-but-not-for-me dissonance. Followed by the local-rules-don’t-apply exceptions. Topped off by Trump’s stated suspicion that some people wear masks just to troll him.

It has all added up to a murky message about one of the critical tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. And the politicization of the to-wear-or-not-to-wear debate is clear in recent public polling.

To be clear: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Some states and local communities require them, including Waco, Hewitt and Woodway. The McLennan County Commissioners Court also is scheduled to consider mask measures, along with a range of other COVID-19 issues, during an emergency meeting Monday.

Texas has been among several states dealing with recent spikes in new cases, and McLennan County has been no exception, reporting 394 new cases this past week. The week before, the county reported 145 new cases. Up to two weeks ago, the total stood at 158 since the first cases were reported in mid-March.

The past five days have seen the state’s highest single-day totals for new cases, and the rate of tests coming back positive had more than tripled to 13.2% by Friday, since bottoming out late last month at 4.3%.

McLennan County reported 73 new cases Saturday, bringing the total to 697, which includes 496 residents with active infections, 195 who have recovered and six who have died. Eleven COVID-19 patients are in local hospitals, including five on ventilators. The local testing positivity rate hit 14% by Wednesday, up from about 1% to start the month. In addition to enacting requirements for businesses in the past week, local officials have strongly urged residents to wear face coverings in any situation it would be difficult to stay 6 feet away from others, saying masks are proven to decrease the chances of spreading the virus.

But the messaging disconnect from Washington regarding masks was evident as recently as Friday, when Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s decision to stage two big mask-scarce gatherings in the past week in states with big surges in infections and, in one case, local rules requiring masks.

“We just believe that what’s most important here is that people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance whether it has to do with facial coverings or whether it has to do with the size of gatherings,” Pence said.

Early on, the government’s no-mask message was unequivocal. As the first known COVID-19 infections were identified on U.S. soil, top public health officials insisted masks should be reserved for front-line workers.

Later, the CDC issued its recommendation for cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures were difficult to maintain. But Trump immediately undercut that guidance by flatly stating that he wouldn’t be following it.

He told The Wall Street Journal this month that some people wear masks simply to show that they disapprove of him.

Now, the mask debate is heating up in the South and West, where infections are surging to levels the country hasn’t seen since April, when the Northeast and Midwest were particularly hard-hit.

In Arizona, Florida, and Texas, with GOP governors and huge spikes in infections, there’s been a hesitance to require people to wear masks in public spaces.

But in California, Nevada and North Carolina,- with Democratic governors and increasing infection levels, rules requiring masks took effect this past week.

The divide on masks is stark even within Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, where some big city Democratic mayors have imposed their own mask rules.

Further complicating the messaging is that as Trump questions the effectiveness of masks and refuses to wear one in public, Surgeon General Jerome Adams has taken to Twitter to declare that “I show my patriotism by wearing a face covering in public!”

That would be the same surgeon general who tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

The dithering over face masks has unnerved public health experts as studies suggest that the coverings could have a dramatic impact on limiting the virus’ death toll.

“The public health community, I think, has been very clear that face masks can help reduce the spread of the virus,” said Ayaz Hyder, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University. “The problem is you send mixed messages when the person at the top of the federal government is saying, ‘Nah, I’m OK.’”

The political calculations of the debate are playing out all over the country, and evident in public polling.

While most other protective measures such as social distancing get broad bipartisan support, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they’re wearing a mask when leaving home, 76% to 59%, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott this month issued an executive order prohibiting municipalities from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who refuse to wear masks. But he has not opposed efforts by some Texas cities and counties to require businesses to impose face mask rules for their employees.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said mayors, not the state, would decide their own mask mandates. Richard Mack, president of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, declared at an anti-mask rally in Scottsdale this past week that mask mandates were government overreach and wouldn’t be enforced.

“We do have a pandemic in America and in Arizona,” Mack said. “But it’s not the coronavirus. The pandemic is one of universal corruption, the pandemic is one of the destruction of our Constitution.

In Florida, which reported nearly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has rejected Democrats’ pleas for a statewide mask order, saying “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

On Friday, Bruce Owens, 66, of Lakeland, Florida, wore a white surgical mask as he walked around downtown St. Petersburg. He said he’s been disappointed by the disparate responses of Florida’s elected officials to the outbreak.

In Lakeland, he says, officials opted against a face mask mandate, while the mayor of the larger St. Petersburg signed an ordinance Monday that requires masks inside public places.

“They’ve handled it extremely poorly,” Owens said of state officials. “They haven’t really listened to the experts.”

Charles Kyle Durr, of Groveland, Florida, said he would wear a mask if required, but questioned the need for a broad government mandate. “I don’t think everyone needs to wear a mask,” Durr wrote to the AP. ”Only a person with symptoms of Covid or someone who’s been diagnosed with Covid needs to wear a mask.”

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is eager to turn face masks into a campaign issue. He told a Pittsburgh television he “would do everything possible” to require Americans to wear face masks in public settings where social distance can’t be maintained.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, responded that “people should follow CDC guidelines.”

But on Tuesday, Trump was in Phoenix for a Students for Trump event at a megachurch, where few attendees wore masks. The president declined to wear one despite the Democratic mayor urging him to do so.

Appearing before a House committee that same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was asked about Trump’s refusal to wear a mask.

Fauci avoided taking direct aim at the president but said he personally wears a mask “not only because I want to protect others and to protect myself, but also to set an example.”

On Friday, members of the White House coronavirus task force once again urged Americans to practice social distancing, frequently wash their hands, and wear face coverings in public spaces.

But Pence sidestepped questions about whether the president’s refusal to wear a mask and his large campaign gatherings were sending conflicting messages.

“Even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights,” Pence said.

Critics question `less lethal' force used during protests

AUSTIN — When a participant at a rally in Austin to protest police brutality threw a rock at a line of officers in the Texas capital, officers responded by firing beanbag rounds — ammunition that law enforcement deems “less lethal” than bullets.

A beanbag cracked 20-year-old Justin Howell’s skull and, according to his family, damaged his brain. Adding to the pain, police admit the Texas State University student wasn’t the intended target.

Protesters took to the streets in Austin and across the nation following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In some instances, police reacted with force so extreme that while their intent may not be to kill, the effects were devastating.

Pressure has mounted for a change in police tactics since Howell was injured. He was not accused of any crime. He was hospitalized in critical condition on May 31 and was discharged Wednesday to a long-term rehabilitation facility for intensive neurological, physical and occupational therapy. His brother has questioned why no one is talking about police use of less lethal but still dangerous munitions.

“If we only talk about policing in terms of policies and processes or the weapons that police use when someone dies or when they are ‘properly lethal’ and not less lethal, we’re missing a big portion of the conversation,” said Josh Howell, a computer science graduate student at Texas A&M University.

The Austin Police Department said in a news release that, before June 1, its officers used Def-Tec 12-gauge beanbag munitions on protesters. According to the manufacturer’s website, they have a velocity of 184 mph (296 kph)

The growing use of less lethal weapons is “cause for grave concern” and may sometimes violate international law, said Agnes Callamard, director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and a U.N. adviser.

From 1990 to 2014, projectiles caused 53 deaths and 300 permanent disabilities among 1,984 serious injuries recorded by medical workers in over a dozen countries, according to Rohini Haar, an emergency room doctor in Oakland, California, and primary author of the 2016 Physicians for Human Rights report.

Ishia Lynette, a spokeswoman for the Austin Justice Coalition, said her group had been organizing a rally with an expected 10,000 attendees, but that was canceled after Howell was shot. With anger flaring on both sides, the organization that advocates for racial justice feared confrontations could arise.

“I feel safe in some sense, but it is always in the back of my head, the what if? Other people can incite violence, whether that be other protesters or the police,” Lynette said.

The Austin City Council has since begun an overhaul of the Police Department, banning the use of less lethal munitions and tear gas in crowds participating in free speech, and prohibiting the use of chokeholds. The attack on Howell is one of more than 100 under investigation.

Lynette hailed the city’s efforts to change, but said more needs to be done. Her organization also has been calling for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to resign.

“They recently banned chokeholds, rubber bullets, beanbags,” she said. “These are small things, but we need them to take more actions to not hurt any more protesters. Since then, I have seen videos of them operating in the same way. If they would uphold what they said, it is not enough, but it is a start.”

David Foster, who captured on video the moments after Howell was shot, said he saw protesters throwing fist-sized rocks and water bottles at the line of police on an overpass. Then he saw Howell fall. He was bleeding heavily and went into a seizure, Foster said.

As medical volunteers with red crosses on their arms helped Foster to move Howell to a safe place, officers again opened fire. Foster’s video shows the police firing towards them.

Manley said at a news conference that Howell was not the intended target, insisting that the officer was aiming for the person who he said attacked the police line near the Austin Police Department headquarters.

“One of the officers fired their less lethal munition at that individual, apparently, but it struck this victim instead,” Manley said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and we hope his condition will improve quickly.”

Howell was not the first person at the Austin rallies to be injured by police. A day earlier, 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala, who was watching a protest from a distance, was also shot in the head with a beanbag.

“We can’t really take comfort in the phrase ‘less lethal,’” Josh Howell said. “Because if what we mean is less lethal than a bullet, that’s not a high bar to clear.”

He declined to comment on the changes the city and police chief said they are making because he doesn’t live in Austin.

Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.