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Gregg County courthouse gathering shows support for domestic violence awareness

For Shannon Trest and her staff at the Women’s Center of East Texas, every month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, she said.

But October brings a special awareness to the cause, and on Friday, county employees, the Women’s Center and community members gathered at the steps of the Gregg County Courthouse to raise awareness to domestic violence.

Trest stood with District Attorney Tom Watson and spoke about domestic violence in the state before everyone stood together in purple for a photo.

The Texas Council on Family Violence produces an annual domestic violence report called Honoring Texas Victims, Trest said. The project offers a map of the state, and each county that has not had a fatality is shown in purple.

“The goal for the state of Texas — and obviously Gregg County — is to go purple,” she said. “We did have fatalities last year — and we continue to have these fatalities. That’s what we’re working on, is to make sure that with the services provided, with prevention efforts that we’re doing, with intervention efforts and with prosecution, we strive to go purple.”

Watson said when he took office, he made it a priority to be aggressive against domestic violence.

“If these situations remain left unchecked, we have it escalate to homicides,” he said. “And we’ve actually had a number of domestic-related homicides in Gregg County this year. We’re partnering with the Women’s Center, so we’re doing whatever we can to get the word out there that we’re not going to tolerate it in Gregg County.”

According to the Honoring Texas Victims report, 174 women were killed by a male intimate partner in Texas in 2018. Also, 32 men were killed by their female partners, and one woman and four men were killed by same-sex partners, according to the report.

In all, 211 Texans were killed by intimate partners in 2018, the report says.

Friday’s gathering helped raise awareness, Watson said.

“We just think it’s very important to know the cause, to get out to the people, the citizens of Gregg County and make sure they know there are alternatives to living in that cycle of violence,” Watson said. “That’s the main point, is educating the public, and at the same time letting those offenders be aware that if they continue to offend, they’re going to have to face the consequences. Because we’re not dismissing these cases.”

Trest said the 174 women killed is an increase from 136 in 2017.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We keep thinking we might be making strides and to have those numbers go up like that, it’s just heartbreaking.”

Anyone in need of assistance can call the Women’s Center’s 24-hour hotline at (800) 441-5555.

At GOP caucus meeting, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered resolution calling for his own resignation

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen addressed his fellow GOP members officially for the first time in months on Friday, offering, through an emotional speech, a motion for his colleagues to call for his resignation, three people in the room told The Texas Tribune.

“It is the will of the caucus that Dennis Bonnen should step down as Speaker of the House,” members in the closed-door meeting, shocked at the scene before them, read on a piece of paper.

At hand in the ballroom of an Austin resort, they realized, was the culmination of a monthslong political crisis for Bonnen, which reached a new pitch earlier this week. On Tuesday, hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan released secretly recorded audio of Bonnen that confirmed that in June the Republican leader had, among other things, offered Sullivan’s Empower Texans media access to the House floor and suggested the organization go after a list of 10 GOP members during the 2020 primaries.

Ultimately, Bonnen, who members there described as apologetic and remorseful, withdrew the motion Friday — and the caucus instead debated for the next few hours a statement to release to address the drama. What was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting turned into a roughly 4-hour one, and as members exited the room at the end of their annual caucus retreat, a statement was released condemning the speaker and one of his lieutenants, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, “in the strongest possible terms.”

Still, Friday’s meeting marked the tensest face-to-face exchange among House Republicans since the allegations against Bonnen — now largely proven true — were first aired in late July. And in the hours afterward, it was unclear whether Bonnen was on better political footing than he was before the meeting, as statements from members who attended the meeting were released to the public, including from some members who proclaimed they could no longer support the speaker moving forward.

Some members at that meeting considered the fact that a vote was never taken on the speaker’s resignation as a sign that things could soon begin to resolidify for Bonnen, who has now faced nearly 20 calls from Republicans and Democrats to step down. Others, however, suggested it was just the latest maneuver by a savvy student of the lower chamber who faces an inevitable reality that he’ll never be reelected again to lead the lower chamber.

Before long, the conversation inside the room quickly turned to discussion of whether a statement from the group should include a censure, which is effectively a slap on the wrist for an elected official. That motion failed considerably, according to the three people who were there and who requested anonymity to discuss the private proceedings.

“We, the members of the Texas House Republican Caucus, condemn in the strongest possible terms the offensive language used and the statements made by Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows during the secretly recorded meeting which occurred on June 12th,” the statement said. “Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members. Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

The statement went on to vaguely point to caucus rules for selecting a speaker within the party.

“Constitutionally, the Speaker can only be elected or removed when the House is in session,” the statement said. “A process in our Caucus bylaws presently exists to nominate a Caucus-endorsed Speaker candidate, and we intend to abide by those provisions accordingly.”

The statement also rebuked anti-local government sentiments expressed by Bonnen and Burrows in the recording, which captured the two House leaders boasting about making things difficult for city and county officials during the most recent legislative session and saying that they’d be “all in” for making the 2021 session even worse for that group. The caucus statement also made clear that the caucus backs the members who were said to be on the list for potential primary challengers.

“We completely and fully support the (House) members mentioned in the recording,” Friday’s statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

As the statement hit inboxes, members left the ballroom, with most declining to comment as they headed toward their vehicles.

But soon after, a host of statements were issued, including one from a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove ... that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“[And] if that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the lawmakers said.

Others, including state Rep. Dewayne Burns R-Cleburne, stated they could no longer support the speaker amid the latest development in the political drama.

As House lawmakers were huddled behind closed doors Friday afternoon, an investigation instigated by the House General Investigating Committee continues. The committee previously asked the Texas Rangers to review the June 12 meeting, and announced Friday that it had retained three legal advisers — former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, Democratic former state Rep. Patricia Gray and Republican former state Rep. Will Hartnett —to advise the committee on the next steps once the Rangers report their findings.

“My colleagues on the committee and I have consistently said that any investigation must follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political consideration,” said committee Chairman Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas.

By Friday night, over half the 64-member State Republican Executive Committee, including the party’s vice-chair, had signed onto a statement saying that Bonnen “should now resign as Speaker.” Chairman James Dickey didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, though he seemed to downplay the situation to a radio host Thursday while in Dallas for President Donald Trump’s rally.

On Friday evening, Dickey on Twitter retweeted an SREC member who said “the chair is obligated to support and promote the position of the Executive body over which he presides” and that Dickey “consistently and religiously holds to this standard.”

Billboard company submits new applications for digital facings

Lamar Cos. wasted little time seeking to put up digital billboard sign facings in Longview.

The firm from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, submitted applications for three Longview locations one day after the Longview City Council amended its ordinances governing digital signs.

The city’s Planning Division staff is reviewing those applications while at the same time reforming its review and permitting process as it implements changes under the amendments.

All three applications from Lamar were submitted Oct. 11 and are for the same three locations that the company has sought to convert its existing static billboard facings into digital facings. Those locations are next to a Cefco convenience store at 611 E. Marshall Ave., beside Swimming Pool Superstore at 1621 W. Loop 281 and outside Medshop Pharmacy at 427 E. Loop 281.

The applications also call for for the digital facing and the static facing on the other side of each billboard to match in size at 378 square feet.

Each of the signs is valued at $125,000, with each municipal application fee costing Lamar $613, according to a city activity data report released Thursday.

On Oct. 10, the City Council unanimously passed amendments that require billboard companies to remove at least four existing billboard facings for every digital sign that it installs in Longview.

Also, a digital facing can’t be larger than 400 square feet, and any sign on the back side of that same billboard pole must be a maximum of 400 square feet.

The city sought the amendments to aid developers who want to replace a vacant restaurant at 717 W. Marshall Ave. with an estimated $2 million new investment believed to be a Starbucks coffeehouse.

Developers have said that the deal hinges on the removal of a three-sided billboard at the site, but Lamar — which owns the billboard — wants to take it down only if it can make digital conversions elsewhere in the city. After about two years of negotiations that became public earlier this summer, Mayor Andy Mack met with developers, Lamar and city administrators to agree to amendments that, now approved, are expected to move the deal forward.

Bringing down the three-sided billboard would allow Lamar to convert one static facing into a digital facing. Development Services Director Michael Shirley said it was unclear Friday whether Lamar would choose one application on which to move forward because the company hasn’t submitted demolition permit applications.

Staff is determining what technicalities the company will have to work through under the new city process, he said, “and through this review process, we’ll be asking them to submit demo permits at their other three sign faces in order to get sign credits for this.”

Shirley said Lamar likely submitted the applications as quickly as it did for at least two reasons — to get ahead of competing billboard companies that might potentially seek digital conversions under the new local laws and because Lamar also must get permits from the Texas Department of Transportation, which can take 60 to 90 days.

The amendments require that the digital conversions must be on either Loop 281 or Marshall Avenue, which are state-maintained highways.

“From a location standpoint, these locations all look good,” Shirley said.

City Planner Angela Choy is creating a checklist form for applicants to know the city’s new requirements, Shirley said, adding, “It will help us create all of the formal forms and processes to help the next step go smoother.”

Whiskey Myers to headline 43rd Great Texas Balloon Race

From Staff Reports

Great Texas Balloon Race officials on Friday announced the 2020 concert lineup, featuring a band with deep roots in the red dirt of East Texas and an act that embodies the traditional Nashville sound of country music.

Whiskey Myers, fresh off a No. 1 showing on the Billboard Top Country Album charts, will headline the Saturday night show on June 20, culminating the Great Texas Balloon Race’s 43rd year.

The Friday night entertainment on June 19 will feature country rock superstars Little Texas as the headliner.

Whiskey Myers, which got its start in nearby Palestine, has been steadily building a devoted following with what has been described as a “gritty authenticity.” The band, with inspiration ranging from Nirvana to Waylon Jennings, has taken its live show across the United States and the United Kingdom, sharing stages with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr. and Jamey Johnson, while racking up more than 300 million streams for their songs.

By playing more than 300 shows a year, Little Texas has come to be known as “The Hardest Working Band in Country.” Since their debut album in 1992, the band has sold more than 7 million albums, earned three Grammy nominations and won Country Music Awards Album of the Year.

Kicking off the show Saturday night will be a crowd favorite — Cody Wayne.

In 2018, Wayne was the Big Star Music Awards’ Entertainer of the Year and Texas Country Music Awards’ New Male Vocalist of the Year.

And opening the show Friday night at the festival will be Georgia native Faren Rachels. According to her Facebook, Rachels sounds like “if Trisha Yearwood and Miranda Lambert had a baby.”

In 2018, Rolling Stone named Rachels one of 2018’s new Country Artists to Watch.

For information, go to facebook.com/greattexasballoonrace .