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2018 in review: The Tribune-Herald’s top stories of the year

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Editor’s note: As we wrap up 2018, Tribune-Herald staff writers have been reflecting on Greater Waco’s biggest stories of this memorable year — good, bad and sometimes cringeworthy. Some stories brought a quick flash of national attention. Others will have a long, slow-burning impact on our community’s history. Most of these stories are still unfolding.

Here are the top stories of the year, singled out by reporters and editors here at the Trib.

[ Previous years: 20172016 • 2015201420132012201120102009 ]

     

1. DA's office

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Barry Johnson

Barry Johnson stands in front of the McLennan County Courthouse, where he will take office as district attorney in January.

The coming year will usher in a new era in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office, ending the turbulent tenure of Abel Reyna, which was marred by his handling of the 2015 Twin Peaks shootout.

Reyna unceremoniously was swept out of office by Republican challenger Barry Johnson, whose 30-year law career in Dallas focused primarily on civil litigation before he moved back to McLennan County, where his father was a longtime state district judge and justice of the peace.

Before Reyna lost the confidence of the voting public, he lost the support of many in his own office and local law enforcement and was reported to be under FBI investigation for showing favoritism to his political donors and friends. Although nothing has come from that reported investigation, Reyna soon drew the ire of lawyers representing the 200 or so bikers who were arrested en masse on identical charges in the Twin Peaks shootout that left nine dead and 20 injured.

As Reyna’s second term draws to a close, only one Twin Peaks case has gone to trial. It ended in a mistrial and was close to being an outright acquittal. Reyna ultimately dismissed the cases against all but 27 of the 154 indicted bikers.

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Abel Reyna

Reyna

While Reyna will be out of office in January, he and others in law enforcement, the city of Waco and McLennan County remain defendants in federal civil rights lawsuits filed by 133 bikers, who allege they lost jobs, lost marriages and lost life savings as a result of their wrongful arrests.

Those lawsuits also remain pending.

Johnson, 62, who already has hired longtime Bell County prosecutor Nelson Barnes as his first assistant, said he is ready to hit the ground running.

“I have been working on a to-do list,” Johnson said. “I have got to finish assembling a staff and moving everybody around. I pretty much know who is there, so the first thing is to make sure all the courts are covered, that everybody knows which way they are going. I also need to get the nerves calmed down and out of the way to let them know that they are here and I want to work with them. I know there has been a lot of apprehension with the change in administrations.”

The next order of business is to assemble a team to review the remaining Twin Peaks cases, the majority of which allege the bikers engaged in a riot, Johnson said. While police shot and killed at least four of the bikers who posed threats to others, no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the other five bikers or the injuries to the others.

Johnson said he hopes to have a decision on those cases and others within 90 days.

In the past few months since Reyna’s defeat, prosecutors, wondering if they will have a job once Johnson takes office, and judges, to a certain extent, have taken a wait-and-let-Barry-see attitude about longtime pending cases, including a number of capital murder cases.

“Number 3 is going to be just the other major cases that are waiting for us,” Johnson said. “The ones that have been postponed, like the (Shawn) Oakman (sexual assault) trial, capital cases like Albert Love. I want to look at those and determine are we still going to seek the death penalty in those capital cases since they have been reversed. We have sexual assault cases coming up, ones I certainly am going to be involved in immediately to make sure decisions are correct.”

Johnson will inherit a staff of 31 lawyers and 31 staff members, including five investigators, victims’ assistance coordinators and legal assistants.

— Tommy Witherspoon

     

2. Landfill fight shifts

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Top stories landfill

Axtell residents hold up a sign representing their school mascot, the Longhorn, during a Waco City Council meeting in late July. The group was showing opposition to a plan to place a new landfill near Axtell.

After backlash from neighbors over a proposed new city of Waco landfill adjacent to the existing Waco Regional Landfill, the city bought land near Axtell and is pursuing a permit to build a landfill there, also over protests of neighbors.

After a monthslong search, the city announced plans in July to buy 502 acres near the intersection of State Highway 31 and TK Parkway for use as a landfill.

The plan for the new site drew immediate backlash from residents of nearby Axtell, who filled the Waco City Council chambers on the night of the unanimous vote to approve the land buy.

A week later, consultants told the city council the TK Parkway landfill would cost the city almost $2 million more in infrastructure and another $2.4 million in annual hauling costs than it would cost at the original site off Old Lorena Road. Those figures do not include the $1.8 million to buy the first 502 acres or the $3.2 million to buy another 702 acres in September, also for the landfill. The city already owned the Old Lorena site.

The consultant projected monthly residential garbage fees, now at $14.20, would increase to $14.79 for the Old Lorena Road site, or to $17.43 for the TK Parkway site.

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Landfill (copy)

TK Parkway is seen heading toward Highway 31, near the site the city of Waco is seeking to use as a landfill.

The proposed TK Parkway landfill site stretches well into Limestone and Hill counties, and residents there have also spoken out against the city’s plan.

The city council has taken no action to officially declare the TK Parkway land its preferred landfill site. However, the city has submitted a permit application for that site to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. It has not submitted a permit application for the Old Lorena site, but officials have said staff has done some of the preliminary work that would be needed to submit an application for that site.

To quell the concerns of Axtell-area residents, leaders said the TK Parkway landfill would include an enlarged buffer zone around the active landfill area, and traffic safety improvements would be made in the area.

The state permitting process is expected to take years, and the city is expected to take further action on the issue next year.

— Phillip Ericksen

     

3. Transforming Waco ISD

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State of Public Education (copy) (copy)

Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson (from left), Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, La Vega ISD Superintendent Sharon Shields and Midway ISD Superintendent George Kazanas meet before a public education seminar in Waco in November. Morath praised Waco’s in-district charter system as a model for struggling schools.

The eyes of Texas educators were on Waco Independent School District this year as it pioneered the state’s first transformation zone aimed at turning around schools threatened with closure by the state.

The Texas Education Agency approved a new in-district charter school system in July that would provide extra state money for education and social services at five Waco ISD schools.

Those schools reopened in August under the supervision of a new nonprofit called Transformation Waco, which contracted with Waco ISD to staff the schools.

The five schools were at risk of closure under a 2015 state law because they had failed to meet testing standards for at least five years. Another new law allowed districts to create transformation zones to shield schools from closure, though it meant ceding much of their direct control over the schools.

By the time school started, results from state standardized tests revealed four of the five at-risk schools finally met state standards: Indian Spring Middle School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, Alta Vista Elementary School and G.W. Carver Middle School. Only Brook Avenue Elementary remained on the state’s improvement required list and could have been subject to closure without the transformation protection.

By then, the Transformation Waco system was already in place, with former Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. heading the nonprofit board and former Waco ISD Assistant Superintendent Robin McDurham as executive director.

Under a contract lasting through the 2019-20 academic year, Transformation Waco schools will receive $5.4 million in state grants as well as additional per-pupil funding of $1,000 a year.

The money is being used for everything from additional staffing to social services, enrichment programs, eyeglasses and a “Spring Break Academy” to help students catch up.

By November, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath was hailing the Transformation Waco project as a model for other troubled campuses around the state. Other districts pursuing transformation zones included Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, San Antonio and Spring Branch.

The jury is still out on the success of transformation zones in transforming education. In the meantime, the concept has proven controversial. Teacher groups have sued Morath and the TEA, saying the zones deprive teachers of rights and protections.

Some school district boards across the state have balked at giving up control over taxpayer-supported schools to unelected nonprofit boards, and a proposal for Houston ISD was derailed by a public outcry.

Waco ISD trustees and Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson have echoed concerns about local control and the complexity of setting up a school district within a school district. Trustees have also questioned the cost of a state-required consultant to Transformation Waco, called Empower Schools.

“But one thing is for sure,” Nelson told the board last month. “Dr. McDurham and I are committed to keeping local control of our schools. It has required us to jump some hoops, bend but not break on some of our beliefs about taxpayer dollars.”

— J.B. Smith

     

4. Baylor scandal revelations

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Baylor

More than two years after Baylor University fired its president and head football coach at the height of its sexual assault scandal, related lawsuits are continuing to offer piecemeal insights into conditions that led to the scandal and into how officials reacted as it unfolded.

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Jim Dunnam

Dunnam

Though Baylor University has replaced its administrative and athletics leadership in the wake of a tragic sexual assault scandal and made far-reaching improvements in its policies and practices surrounding sexual violence and student discipline in the past two years, one lawsuit the school faces continues to bring revelations.

Jim Dunnam, a local lawyer and a former state representative, joined forces with Houston attorney Chad Dunn in June 2016 and has not let up in his pursuit of justice for the 15 women he represents suing Baylor under Title IX. The month before, the school announced results of an independent investigation into its handling of sexual assault reports, fired football coach Art Briles and demoted President Ken Starr, who later resigned from his diminished role.

In a deposition taken in June, former athletics director Ian McCaw, who now holds the same role at Liberty University, accused Baylor regents of displaying racism and favoring a misleading report of the 2016 Pepper Hamilton investigation. He resigned because he did not want to participate in “some Enron cover-up scheme,” he said in the deposition.

The university denied McCaw’s claims, calling them “bizarre, blatantly false and nothing more than speculation and gossip of which he has no firsthand knowledge.”

In July, Baylor settled a separate Title IX lawsuit filed by a former volleyball player who alleged four to eight football players drugged and gang raped her in 2012.

Less than two weeks later, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman allowed Dolores Lozano, a former student who has alleged the university failed to respond when she accused a football player of physical abuse, to again pursue her claims.

Baylor, McCaw, Briles and the city of Waco are defendants in Lozano’s lawsuit, which Dunnam and Dunn are not involved in. In another legal matter separate from Dunnam and Dunn’s efforts, former football player Jeremy Faulk sued Baylor last month in state court, saying the school mishandled a Title IX case against him in 2016 and denied him educational rights. Baylor has consistently rebutted Faulk’s claims.

In the fall, the Tribune-Herald reported on IRS tax forms showing Baylor’s legal fees had skyrocketed as the university faced investigations and lawsuits related to the scandal.

It was then revealed that Baylor regent Phil Stewart told Dunnam in a deposition that the results of the Pepper Hamilton investigation were “orchestrated” and “staged” to punish Starr, McCaw and Briles. He said he offered his resignation in October 2016 but that the board did not accept it, fearing bad publicity.

Stewart, who remains a regent, also said Baylor “lost its soul” during that time.

Stewart’s comments showed internal disagreements among regents before, during and after the board made its decisions in May 2016.

After a 21-month review, the Big 12 Conference in October fined Baylor $2 million and announced it will withhold millions more in revenue distribution payments.

President Linda Livingstone said at the time she was pleased with the results because the probe verified the progress the school has made. The NCAA is conducting an investigation that started in 2016, and the Texas Rangers also launched an investigation in 2017.

Another bombshell produced by Dunnam’s lawsuit this year is the allegation that former board chairman Richard Willis, who is no longer a regent, made racist, lewd and anti-Semitic comments during a 2014 meeting in Mexico. Willis and local pastor Ramiro Peña, who was also a regent at the time, denied the claims.

Two businessmen, Greg Klepper and Alejandro Urdaneta, signed affidavits claiming Willis made the comments.

Lawyers for all parties, including Baylor, have negotiated, with some trouble, over a tape that may have captured Willis’ comments. It has not been released publicly, but Klepper agreed to hand it over for the lawsuit.

Head football coach Matt Rhule said he discussed the allegations with some of his players.

“They were sort of, ‘Coach, we’ve been through this for so long we’re numb to it,’ ” Rhule said at the time. “For me, that’s sad but it’s real, and they’ll leave here more prepared for life.”

There are no indications Baylor will settle the lawsuits filed by Dunnam and Dunn.

— Phillip Ericksen

     

5. Trafficking awareness

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vegas

This van was used to transport some of the 19 workers rescued from Vegas Buffet after a raid on June 1. Two operators of the business were arrested.

McLennan County law enforcement and local activists continued to bring the issue of human trafficking to light early this year with the arrest of dozens of men suspected of paying for sex, including a police officer, well-known restaurateurs, a pastor and a teacher.

But by summer, the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office had shifted its focus to labor trafficking with a raid on a Chinese restaurant whose owners were accused of holding workers against their will.

Detectives spent three months investigating Vegas Buffet, 505 N. Valley Mills Drive, before a raid on June 1 that led to the arrest of two operators and the rescue of 19 workers from Guatemala and China.

Among those arrested were a married couple that ran the restaurant: Zi “Jimmy” Lin, 31, and Yali Yang, 30. Additional investigation also prompted officers to arrest Zhi Lin’s brother, Peng Li, 36, and Sheng Weng, 41, by the end of July.

A McLennan County grand jury indicted all four in September. Detectives stated the couple brought the workers from Guatemala to the country illegally and forced them to work and pay off their smuggling debt by working in the restaurant.

Sheriff Parnell McNamara said that before the buffet investigation, detectives over the last four years had focused efforts on the commercial sex buying business. He said the Vegas Buffet investigation brought attention to suspected indentured servitude in Central Texas.

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Vegas Buffet raid (copy) (copy)

McLennan County Sheriff’s deputies exit the Vegas Buffet on Valley Mills Drive during a labor trafficking raid June 1.

Detective Joseph Scaramucci, the sheriff’s office human trafficking specialist, said labor trafficking cases can be more difficult to investigate than sex trafficking.

“Human trafficking is exploiting people for forced labor and sex slavery for commercial exploitation,” Scaramucci said. “Although labor trafficking is much more prevalent than sex trafficking, sex trafficking seems to be more easily identifiable. Labor cases are a lot more complex, and typically most victims do not self-identify.

“The Vegas Buffet was unique to us, in that we had a victim who was willing to come forward and participate in the investigation.”

In the meantime, local human trafficking activists watched with concern this fall as the misdemeanor prostitution cases from earlier in the year gathered dust in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. Susan Peters, founder and executive director of the UnBound ministry, said in September that inaction on those cases could set back the progress Greater Waco has made in the fight against human trafficking.

UnBound, along with local courts and law enforcement, won recognition as Waco Today magazine’s Persons of the Year for their teamwork in fighting human trafficking.

— Kristin Hoppa

     

6. Hewitt

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Hewitt City Council

New city attorney Mike Dixon (right) and Hewitt Mayor Ed Passalugo speak before a meeting. Passalugo has leveled multiple accusations against fellow council members.

The city of Hewitt began the year known as a sleepy, stable suburb where few paid attention to city politics and where city council incumbents rarely feared a challenge.

But halfway into the year, Hewitt politics had turned to a food fight. Mayor Ed Passalugo and his allies on the council got hit with complaints from other council members and top city staffers, who accused them of harassment and violations of open meeting laws.

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Kurt Krakowian

In this May file photo Hewitt councilman Kurt Krakowian speaks. 

Lawsuits were threatened, the Texas Rangers launched an investigation, and elected officials lawyered up. In recent months, newly appointed Councilman Kurt Krakowian quit, followed by the departure under pressure of longtime City Attorney Charles Buenger and City Manager Adam Miles.

Meanwhile, the council hired a Fort Worth law firm to review the complaints, but so far it has not released the results of that review to the public. But starting this summer, the public began packing city council meetings, with residents demanding to know what was going on.

When the council announced it would call a November election to fill Krakowian’s seat, eight people filed for the position, leading to a runoff that swept a vocal critic of the council’s leadership into office. Erica Bruce, a toxicologist and Baylor University medical researcher, will be sworn in come January.

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Hewitt City Council

Adam Miles

The storms that shook Hewitt began in May, when City Manager Adam Miles released a press release stating Mayor Ed Passalugo was facing two complaints from city employees, along with an official misconduct complaint from a council member, later revealed to be Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry.

Fortenberry alleged the mayor tried to circumvent Texas open meetings laws by polling the council members outside of a posted meeting. Passalugo has denied the complaint, which has led to a Texas Rangers investigation.

The employees who complained turned out to be Cassie Rose Muske, the parks and media coordinator who has since left her job with the city; and Belinda Kay (Katie) Allgood, the city’s managing director of administration. The complaints alleged the mayor engaged in defamation of character, gender bias, workplace bullying, and created a hostile work environment.

After her complaint, Allgood came under attack from Krakowian for her romantic relationship with Miles, which had been previously disclosed.

Employee-filed complaints were also made against council member James Vidrine, and former council member Kurt Krakowian.

City council members, originally promising transparency and a quick end to the scrutiny, have instead clammed up, at least until recently. The council this month authorized its newly hired city attorney Mike Dixon to compile a report detailing previously withheld information to help shed light on the past seven months and hopefully bring closure to the city. That report is expected to be presented at the first meeting of the new year.

Among those who voted for the creation of the report: Mayor Ed Passalugo, who suggested the results will surprise a lot of people and clear his name.

“I tell everybody just think what (President Donald) Trump’s going through,” Passalugo said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done and if people aren’t, well, next election vote me out.”

— Cassie L. Smith

     

7. Anderson case

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Top 10 Jacob Anderson.

Jacob Anderson (center) leaves 19th State District Court after accepting a plea agreement. The former Baylor fraternity president received no jail time, and did not have to register as a sex offender.

Since Baylor University has been embroiled in scandal over the way school officials have handled sexual assault complaints, there is no such thing any more as a routine sexual assault complaint involving a Baylor student.

Still, the social media outrage, petition drives, email-writing campaigns and national news stories generated in the wake of the Jacob Anderson sexual assault case late in the year reached unexpected and towering levels on a number of fronts.

Protests were lodged against the plea agreement the former Baylor University fraternity president reached with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. The judge who decided to accept it was bombarded with petitions, emails, letters and calls to his office from people from all over the country who urged him to kick the offer back and set a trial date.

The victim and her family wrote scathing emails to the judge, saying the DA’s office broke promises to them regarding her fight for justice and also urging the judge to reject the plea agreement and give her her day in court.

Ultimately, 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, after reviewing an extensive presentence report and other information, accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Anderson to deferred probation for three years after his no contest plea to a reduced charge of unlawful restraint. As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped four counts of sexual assault, Anderson will not have to register as a sex offender and won’t serve any jail time.

Following the sentencing hearing, Strother again was flooded with phone calls, emails and letters, many of them profane and threatening to him and his family. A petition drive was started to remove the judge from office. Some groups promised he would have an opponent next election, despite the fact that the judge, at 75, can’t run again after completing the last two years of his current term.

A student at the University of Texas at Dallas who said she was outraged after learning Anderson enrolled there after leaving Baylor, sponsored an online petition that called for school officials to kick him out of school. Two days later, they did, informing Anderson, who graduated this month with a finance degree, that he could not walk across the stage to get his diploma, set foot on campus again or attend graduate school there.

“We were completely caught off-guard by all of this,” said Fort Worth attorney Tim Moore, one of Anderson’s attorneys. “We had no earthly idea that it would get blown up like it did. It was just pure social media, the ability to reach out. Everybody has a voice now, but I could not have anticipated that any of this would happen.”

The former Baylor student who said Anderson raped her at a fraternity party in 2016 told the judge in an emotional victim-impact statement that she was devastated by the plea bargain and his decision to accept it.

“When I was completely unconscious, he dumped me face down in the dirt and left me there to die,” she said. “He had taken what he wanted, had proven his power over my body. He then walked home and went to bed without a second thought to the ravaged, half-dead woman he had left behind.”

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Top 10 Jacob Anderson

Jacob Anderson in court with his attorney, Tim Moore.

Moore and his co-counsel, Mark Daniel, declined comment as they left the courthouse that day. However, after the petition drive to remove Anderson from UT-Dallas gained momentum, they pushed back, saying that the woman’s statement was “riddled with distortions and misrepresentations.”

They said there was no evidence to support her initial claim that she was drugged at the party or that Anderson choked her. They said she made statements to two students that the incident “may have been consensual” and seemed “calm and collected” immediately afterward.

The woman, who sought medical treatment at the hospital that night, has a civil lawsuit pending against Anderson, the Baylor chapter of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and the elderly owner of the home where the party was held.

— Tommy Witherspoon

     

8. Property values

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Appraisal District

As the deadline approached, the McLennan County Appraisal District had received more than 5,400 protests of property values this year, compared to fewer than 1,000 protests received by that time last year.

With property tax appraisals up sharply over last year, property owners flooded the McLennan County Appraisal District with protests. As the deadline approached, the district had received more than 5,400 protests, compared to fewer than 1,000 at that point the year before.

Some lamented the “Fixer Upper” impact, believing the hit TV show starring Chip and Joanna Gaines cast Waco in such a positive light that fans could not resist visiting, and that enough paid a premium to put down roots that they drove up home prices. Whatever the case, some owners of older homes in the central city reported skyrocketing values they believed defied credibility.

Homeowners seemingly are following the lead of downtown merchants and property owners who were up in arms in 2017 over what they considered inflated values that threatened the inner-city renaissance.

After this year’s protest dust settled, the taxable value of homes in the county was up more than 9 percent compared to last year, though some of that increase is attributable to new construction rather than appraisal bumps.

MCAD appraisers said their hands are tied by state law. They have to set appraisals at market value, regardless of whether they think market value is fair.

Local real estate agents indeed have reported receiving multiple offers on properties within days, even hours of their arrival on the market, sometimes even before they appear on the Waco Multiple Listing Service.

Still, protests can be effective. Mike Stone, executive director of Waco Community Development, told the Tribune-Herald he was assisting with about 50 protests this year and that in past years, every protest he was familiar with resulted in at least some reduction in value.

In one extreme example, Phillip and Barbara Bridgewater, who own a home in the 1800 block of Morrow Avenue, saw their preliminary appraisal more than double, from $140,000 to $331,410. They bought the place for $80,000 in the late 1990s.

After the Bridgewaters filed a protest, the appraisal was cut to $170,000, still enough to add about $800 to their annual tax bill.

Karr Ingham, a West Texas economist who tracks local economic trends, has watched sales prices for homes in Greater Waco rise to record levels.

In October, for example, the average sales price of homes in the area reached $210,815, a 6.2 percent increase from a year earlier. Through October, home sales had soared to almost 2,500 transactions, an increase over last year approaching 9 percent, Ingham reported in his Greater Waco Economic Index.

In the index’s base year of 2000, the average home sales price was $98,677.

— Mike Copeland

     

9. Precinct 2

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Pat Miller Election Top 10

Pat Chisolm-Miller celebrates after looking at election returns in November. She won the Precinct 2 commissioners court seat long held by her boss, Lester Gibson.

Pat Chisolm-Miller will officially take office Jan. 1 representing Precinct 2 as its first new commissioner in almost three decades and the first woman ever elected to the McLennan County Commissioners Court.

Chisolm-Miller, 60, will not have far to move when she packs up the office she has occupied for 23 years as administrative assistant to her predecessor, Commissioner Lester Gibson. Her victory in November keeps the seat in Democratic hands. It has long been the only position on the commissioners court held by a Democrat.

The precinct covers portions of downtown and East Waco, Bellmead and the eastern parts of the county encompassing Riesel, Mart, Hallsburg and Axtell.

Chisolm-Miller’s won 58.3 percent of the vote in November, giving her a comfortable margin over Republican D.L. Wilson, a former Department of Public Safety sergeant. She relied on a core of support from the more urban areas of Precinct 2, while the more rural areas went heavily in Wilson’s favor.

For the first time in at least a generation, more Precinct 2 voters cast Republican primary ballots than Democratic primary ballots, 1,734 to 1,433.

In the primaries, Chisolm-Miller defeated Waco ISD Trustee Norman Manning, and Wilson defeated Gina Ford, a project manager for Waco’s Animal Birth Control Clinic, and Vernon Davis, a real estate investor, insurance adjuster and rancher.

Chisolm-Miller repeatedly said she was running as her own person, but was often the target of questions about Gibson’s lack of attendance at commissioners court meetings. In April, Gibson attended a county commissioners meeting for the first time after 22 consecutive absences, almost seven months. While there is no attendance requirements for county commissioners who make about $100,000 a year, leaders from small towns in his precinct raised concerns that the absences impeded work in their communities.

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McLennan County Commissioners Court (copy)

Outgoing Precinct 2 County Commissioner Lester Gibson, a graduate of A.J. Moore High School and Baylor University, was first elected commissioner in 1990.

By August, the city of Waco’s consideration of an eastern McLennan County site for a new landfill, over protests from residents of the area, added fuel to the race.

While county officials said there was nothing commissioners could do regarding the city’s plan for a landfill, both candidates spoke out on the issue.

The city of Waco is pursuing a permit to place a landfill near the intersection of State Highway 31 and TK Parkway, in Precinct 2.

— Cassie L. Smith

     

10. Weather

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Top 10 weather

Fall rains caused Lake Waco to swamp a playground at Twin Bridges Park, along with many other facilities.

It was the coldest of times. It was the hottest of times. It was Waco weather in 2018.

For those keeping score, the year saw Waco’s coldest temperature in 27 years: 8 degrees on Jan. 9. And it saw the hottest temperature ever: 114 degrees on July 23. Waco also chalked up its fourth driest summer on record, with only 1.24 inches of precipitation from June through August.

Two months later, the Waco area was seeing too much rain, with October logging 12.56 inches, triple the monthly average, to become the second wettest October on record and part of the fourth-wettest fall on record for September through November. The Brazos River covered Waco’s river trails as upstream dams kept the river from more serious flooding. Lake Waco went 20 feet over its normal elevation in late October, submerging pavilions and casting logs and debris far inland.

The year’s weather disrupted a number of outdoor events. Cold, windy weather on April 7 shortened the Heart of Texas Airshow and the Navy precision flying Blue Angels’ first show in Waco in more than 30 years.

October rains and winds also dampened several days of the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo, leading fair administrators to use rain insurance to offset losses.

Flooding and road damage from heavy rains caused cancellation of the Oct. 20 Skittles Waco Wild West 100 bike ride, and strong currents in the Brazos River following heavy rains upstream led Ironman 70.3 organizers to scratch the swimming leg of the Oct. 28 triathlon.

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Storm clouds greet motorists on Highway 6 near Lake Waco on Sept. 20.

October rains shrank the crowds for this year’s Silobration at Magnolia Market at the Silos, an event that in the past had drawn upwards of 20,000 visitors, while the threat of cold and rain caused the first cancellation of the Nov. 12 Waco Veterans Day parade.

While most McLennan County residents were mildly affected by this year’s weather extremes, the fickle weather hit local farmers in the pocketbook.

Figures produced by Shane McLellan of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in McLennan County indicate the drought halved this year’s corn production and per-acre yield in the county, halved the yield of hay and cotton planted and cut the pecan harvest by 10 to 15 percent. October’s rain reduced the amount of wheat acreage planted.

The year’s drought also affected local beekeepers, who reported lost hives and lower honey production.

The worst part of this year’s weather was its unpredictability, said Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gary Joiner. Farmers can often compensate for weather effects through the crops planted and the amount of acreage devoted to them, but rains coming too early or too late in spring planting can throw off harvest schedules and yields.

Add fluctuating commodity prices this year, thanks in part to tariffs and trade negotiations, and more than a few farmers struggled to meet their projections, Joiner said.

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Top 10 Weather

A flooding Bosque River in October displaced cattle near State Highway 56 at Valley Mills.

Local farms weren’t alone in suffering from this year’s weather. Cities like Waco found the swing in temperatures and heavy rains stressed streets and roads more than usual, resulting in a bumper crop of bumper-bouncing potholes.

“Our street department does an excellent job of trying to keep on top of this, but we have been inundated this year,” said Jim Reed, the city’s capital improvement manager. He noted that a new street repair program starting next month aims to seal cracks before they widen and let water seepage undercut the pavement. “It’s not the prettiest thing to do,” he said, but added that sealed streets are less likely to develop potholes.

What’s behind this seesaw weather?

“There’s no explanation for simultaneous high and low extremes, but it’s a bit of oversimplification to say weather is becoming more erratic,” said Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

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Top 10 Weather

The Bosque River overflows its banks at Clifton after record-setting October rains.

High temperatures and drought, however, are becoming more commonplace as average global temperatures rise, Nielsen-Gammon said.

“Overall, in recent years the record high extremes have outnumbered the record low extremes. As long as temperatures continue to rise, we’ll see more of that,” he said.

Also on the increase is the intensity of heavy rainstorms, illustrated by four of the wettest months in Texas history occurring over the last four years. The upcoming year may be a wet one, too, with the strong prospect of an El Niño climate pattern bringing in more precipitation than usual. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center estimates there’s a 90 percent chance of an El Niño forming this winter, although how strong that effect will be is uncertain.

What is certain is that no one will be able to change the weather before it happens. Says the Farm Bureau’s Joiner, “Weather is just one of those things you cannot escape.”

— Carl Hoover

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Top 10 Weather

An October deluge was part of a 2018 weather year in Waco that saw extremes in temperature and rainfall.

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