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Longview council appoints new city manager, splits on reorganization
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The Longview City Council split Thursday on a plan to reorganize city departments and leadership, with concerns about diversity and salaries factoring heavily into the 4-3 vote approving the plan.

The sometimes tense discussion followed the council’s unanimous decision to name longtime city employee Rolin McPhee to replace retiring City Manager Keith Bonds, effective Jan. 31. McPhee has been serving as interim assistant city manager since June and previously was the city’s public works director.

“Longview has been very fortunate regarding the quality of our staff,” Mayor Andy Mack said in support of the reorganization plan, which moves existing, longtime city employees into new leadership positions in the city.

Mack said there is often a question of whether to promote from within or search outside the organization to fill jobs in the city, but the city has had “great success” growing and developing employees. He said he prefers to promote from within when possible.

“We invest in them, and they’ve invested in the city,” he said, noting the people moving into new positions have spent the bulk of their careers working for the city.

District 2 Councilwoman Nona Snoddy asked the council to table the vote to allow for more discussion about the changes.

“When we’re looking at this reorganization chart, there is no diversity, or if it is it’s very limited ...” she said. “If we were to put a face with all of those names, it’s not going to paint a true picture of who Longview is.”

In a discussion about “growing your own,” “the own is always the same,” Snoddy said.

Mack said diversity should be a concern for all of them, but suggested if that’s a concern for her then she needs to make that issue a priority for McPhee.

The City Council is directly responsible for hiring and firing four city employees — the city manager, city secretary, city attorney and municipal judge. City charter, however, also requires the city manager to seek approval for the appointment of department heads. The plan the council approved Thursday created or reorganized city departments and appointed the following directors, all of whom are existing employees and all but one of whom are white.

MaryAnn Hagenbucher was named assistant city manager; Laura Hill was named director of the new Grant Services department; Shawn Hara is the director of the newly created Community Destinations department; Dwayne Archer, who has been interim public works director, was named public works director; Dietrich Johnson is the new Community Services director, a job Hill previously held; and Bonnie Hubbard is the new director of administration, a job that Hagenbucher previously filled.

The decision to keep the assistant city manager position, which had been created on an interim basis this past summer, concerned District 1 Councilman Tem Carpenter.

“I really believe from what we were led to believe that the assistant city manager position would not be filled,” he said. “I also question if this was indeed coming, but this is coming from Keith, and Rolin takes over on the 1st. I think there should have been some additional council input.”

He also took issue with figures Bonds provided that said the reorganization would save $140,000 in the city’s general fund budget and $12,000 in the overall budget.

“I can’t see exactly where the savings are coming from,” Carpenter said, adding that the plan came with salary increases for many of the affected employees.

Bonds said the savings come because there will be one less employee, with his salary spread over the remaining affected employees.

“I’m the one leaving,” he said.

District 3 Councilman Wray Wade said he would have liked to have seen a competitive hiring process, even if the ultimate decision was to promote from within. He represents one of the city’s most diverse districts, he said.

“We feel like our city employees should look like the rest of the city of Longview on every level,” he said.

In the decision to make the assistant city manager position permanent, Mack and District 4 Councilwoman Kristen Ishihara said the city has typically had an assistant city manager in the past. Bonds was the last assistant city manager, serving in that position from 2014-17. Mack said the city eliminated the position at that point amid budget concerns, and Bonds said that of 16 cities Longview normally compares itself to, 15 have at least one assistant city manager.

The council approved the appointments by a vote of 4-3, with Snoddy, Carpenter and District 6 Councilman Steve Pirtle voting against it and Mack, Ishihara, Wade and District 5 Councilman David Wright voting in favor.

McPhee’s appointment as city manager also set his base salary at $205,000, with a $700 monthly vehicle allowance.


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Applicants seek public safety jobs at Longview hiring event
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From staff reports

Victor Holman wanted to put his new degree in criminal justice to use, and he might have found the answer at Thursday’s public safety job fair in Longview.

Holman, 24, of Houston, said he recently graduated from Jarvis Christian College and is trying to find a job in law enforcement so school wouldn’t be a “waste of time.”

He came to Thursday’s job fair at the Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center to speak to Longview Police Department representatives and ended up with interest in a 911 dispatcher position.

“It’s been a great experience,” Holman said about the hiring event. “The ladies and gentlemen showed me and talked to me about the whole process.”

Longview Police Department spokesman Brandon Thornton said about noon Thursday that several people had put in applications.

He said previously that the city was trying to fill 11 dispatcher positions and had openings for 15 of 175 available police officer jobs.

“All agencies in our area and across Texas are struggling to find qualified candidates for the job,” Thornton said earlier this week. “These are stressful jobs and require an extensive background check along with working shift work.”

Meanwhile, Longview Fire Marshal Kevin May said turnout as of noon Thursday had been “marginal.”

He said previously that the department has two openings for firefighter/paramedic.

City of Longview job openings can be found at LongviewTexas.gov/Jobs .


Covid-19
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Data: More cases reported this month in Gregg County than past 3 months combined
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So far in January, there have been more new COVID-19 cases reported in 13 days in Gregg County than all the new cases reported in the three most recent months combined.

As of Thursday, Gregg County has seen 1,969 new cases since Jan. 1, according to the Northeast Public Health District. In October, November and December combined, data show 1,279 new cases reported during that time period.

The rise in cases is part of a surge happening across East Texas, as all seven-county’s in NET Health’s jurisdiction remain in “substantial” community transmission levels of the virus. A substantial rate means cities across each county are experiencing large-scale, uncontrolled community transmission of the virus in places such as grocery stores, schools, churches, workplaces, nursing homes, daycares and other congregate settings.

Additionally, active cases in the county have increased by 34% since Monday. In Thursday’s report, NET Health showed Gregg County’s total active cases were at 2,243.

Also on Thursday, Gregg County saw 589 new cases — 252 confirmed, 337 probable — reported since Monday. NET Health defines probable cases as those which are attributed to patients who have received positive antigen tests, until the individual has been administered a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. If a person’s PCR laboratory result is positive, that becomes a confirmed case.

The county’s seven-day rolling rate of infections decreased by more than 7% since Monday, according to NET Health. The county’s community transmission level remained “substantial” at 120.32 compared to 130.35 on Thursday.

The county’s rate of new infections remains the second-highest in NET Health’s seven-county jurisdiction, behind only Smith County’s rate of 129.19.

Seven-day rolling rates of infection at 35 or more cases are considered substantial, compared to moderate at 10 to 35 and minimal at zero to 10. According to NET Health, the rate calculates the average number of all COVID-positive cases from the previous seven days. That number is divided by the population of the county and multiplied by 100,000.

On Monday, the line for drive-thru COVID-19 testing at Christus Good Shepherd’s NorthPark facility in Longview stretched onto Hawkins Parkway. Last week, Gregg County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne said half of the people who have presented in the county for testing and receiving a positive result.

He also said the demand for COVID-19 tests has been stressing local emergency rooms.

On Thursday, NET Health reported there were 195 East Texans being treated for COVID-19 at Tyler hospitals. The county’s hospitalization rates now trend similar to data last seen in late October.

The number of COVID-19 patients in the state’s 19-county Trauma Region G continues to increase. On Thursday, there were 308 patients hospitalized in the region. The hospitalization number includes 78 patients in intensive-care units and 58 patients on ventilators. In the first half of September, hospitalizations reached 822, the highest number of single-day COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region since the pandemic began. Similar trends were last seen late October.

As of Thursday in Gregg County, 55.28% of people age 5 and older had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 48.23% of people age 5 and older had been fully vaccinated, according to the state. State data shows 88.60% of people 65 and older in the county had been vaccinated with at least one dose on Thursday, while 81.02% of that population had been fully vaccinated. As of Nov. 4, children 5 to 11 years of age are included in vaccination numbers and rates.

NET Health on Thursday reported no active cases of COVID-19 in the Gregg County Jail. In Smith County, 43 jail inmates had an active diagnosis of COVID-19 and the Smith County Jail last week announced it suspended visitation due to the recent uptick in cases.

From Dec. 1 to Dec. 30, there were 435 total new cases reported in Gregg County. In November, just 121 new cases were reported compared to October and September in which more than 723 and 4,099 new cases were reported each month, respectively.

There have been 21,853 total COVID-19 cases in Gregg County since the pandemic began and 19,325 total recoveries, according to NET Health.


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Longview councilman Wright not seeking reelection
  • Updated

Longview’s District 5 will have new City Council representation in May, with Councilman David Wright announcing Thursday that he will not seek reelection.

Wright first was elected to complete one year on an unexpired term when former District 5 Councilman Richard Manley resigned to run for mayor. Wright has been elected to two more three-year terms since that time, representing the north Longview area that includes Spring Hill.

“I just wanted to announce that for anybody considering running in District 5, I will not be running again, so feel free to pick up a packet,” Wright said at the end of Thursday’s City Council meeting. He was referring to the official filing period that begins Wednesday and runs through Feb. 18 in the city secretary’s office.

District 6 Councilman Steve Pirtle has said he will seek reelection for his third and final three-year term. The city has term limits for the mayor and council members.

Early voting for the May 7 election will take place April 25 through May 3 in the lobby of City Hall at 300 W. Cotton St.

District 3 Councilman Wray Wade joked with Wright after his announcement, describing him as a “great guy” and thanking him for all he’s done for the city.

“Wait, what was that? You’ve got to speak clearly if you’re going to remove yourself from a seat,” Wade said to Wright.

“It’s been a pleasure serving with you,” he said, but added, laughing, that he wouldn’t miss Wright “bullying” him around.


For subscribers
For subscribers

The professional edition of ETX View will be delivered Saturday to Longview News-Journal subscribers. Inside the January/February issue are stories about business professionals across the area who are making their mark in East Texas. You’ll find stories about “power couples” who balance family, work and community involvement, husbands and wives who work together in the restaurant industry, cardiologists who are caring for the hearts of East Texas and more.

ETX View is available to subscribers as well as available for free on racks across Longview, Tyler and Kilgore. To learn more about ETX View and how to find a copy, visit www.etxview.com.


Supreme Court halts COVID-19 vaccine rule for US businesses

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has stopped a major push by the Biden administration to boost the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate, a requirement that employees at large businesses get a vaccine or test regularly and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S. The court’s orders Thursday came during a spike in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant.

The court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected and OSHA had estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.

In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.

President Joe Biden said he was “disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law.”

Biden called on businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements, noting that a third of Fortune 100 companies already have done so.

When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harbored doubts that it could withstand them. The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and encouraging private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.

The OSHA regulation had initially been blocked by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, then allowed to take effect by a federal appellate panel in Cincinnati.

Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, called the Supreme Court’s decision “a significant victory for employers.”

The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority. The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It affects 10.4 million workers at 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.

Biden said that decision by the court “will save lives.”

In an unsigned opinion, the court wrote: “The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have.” It said the “latter principle governs” in the healthcare arena.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that the case was about whether the administration has the authority “to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo.” He said the administration hadn’t shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett signed onto Thomas’ opinion. Alito wrote a separate dissent that the other three conservatives also joined.

Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half the states. The administration already was taking steps to enforce it elsewhere.

More than 208 million Americans, 62.7% of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.

The courthouse remains closed to the public, and lawyers and reporters are asked for negative test results before being allowed inside the courtroom for arguments, though vaccinations are not required.

The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict that they issued Thursday.

A separate vaccine mandate for federal contractors, on hold after lower courts blocked it, has not been considered by the Supreme Court.


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