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Longview council candidates talk economic development, infrastructure

Attracting, retaining and re-developing businesses, workforce development programs, improving transportation and infrastructure. These are the goals of candidates seeking seats on the Longview City Council.

The Longview Chamber of Commerce partnered with the News-Journal and Longview-Kilgore Cable TV to host a City Council candidate forum Tuesday. The forum was moderated by John Anderson, an editor with M. Roberts Media, the parent company of the News-Journal.

District 1 council candidates are Temple Carpenter III and Jeremiah Hunter. John Sims, whose name will appear on the May 1 ballot, withdrew from the race Tuesday. Carpenter and Hunter are seeking to fill a position that will be left vacant as incumbent Councilman Ed Moore chose not to seek re-election.

District 2 council candidates are incumbent Councilwoman Nona Snoddy and challenger Marisa Ward. Snoddy will complete her second three-year term of office in May and is seeking re-election to a third and final three-year term.

District 1

In District 1, which encompasses much of Pine Tree in West Longview, Carpenter said he would work with Longview Economic Development Corp. (LEDCO) and the Chamber of Commerce to attract potential businesses. He noted there are hundreds of acres, mostly residential, in District 1 that could be developed through a “concentrated effort.” Hunter echoed those sentiments saying that he often drives on Fisher Road, where there are many vacancies that could attract warehouses and manufacturing facilities with easy access to major corridors such as U.S. 80 and Interstate 20.

Both men said they believe the City Council should serve in a “support position” in economic development, rather than “dictating” economic development.

“The best thing the government can do to develop the economy is to get out of the way,” Hunter said, adding that government should support policies that encourage development.

When asked about the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hunter said he was “disappointed in how the city handled the pandemic.” He noted that he has always been opposed to face masks, and he said the city continued to impose restrictions on businesses even after it “became clear that shutdowns and masks were not the solution.” Hunter said the city should have removed the restrictions and encouraged businesses to open.

Carpenter, who serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, said he appreciated Mayor Andy Mack, Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, Christus Good Shepherd Health System, Police Chief Mike Bishop, Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman and a multitude of first responders for diligently working to bring a vaccine hub to the city. He noted that he’s been vaccinated at the hub and described it as an “amazing experience.”

"That was an amazing experience spearheaded by what happens when all of those in government work together," Carpenter said.

Both men said they’d like to see improved workforce development programs, though Carpenter noted Kilgore College and Texas State Technical College in Marshall are “good resources” as they train potential employees. With regard to transportation, Carpenter also noted that with distributions centers, such as Dollar General’s warehouse, already in town and more distribution centers, such as Gap Inc., on the horizon, he’d like to see the city be mindful of its roads and infrastructure.

When asked if they supported the $104 million bond package in 2018, Carpenter said he supported the public safety piece of the bond but had some issues with the other components, which were parks and streets. However, Carpenter noted that if elected, he would work to ensure bond projects are completed as presented to voters and that they are completed within budget.

Hunter, who has been active in attending City Council meetings, recalled that he was among the biggest opponents of all three pieces to the bond. He explained that he isn’t against the police department or other recipients of bond money; he said he felt there could have been different avenues explored before calling upon taxpayers.

When asked specifically about a desire for more neighborhood parks in District 1, both men noted the density of the Pine Tree community which is largely landlocked. Hunter noted the city could purchase vacant lots to preserve them. Carpenter noted the improvements being made to McWhorter Park, thanks to the passage of the 2018 bond, and said the South Loop quickly transports residents to Lear Park and the Jack Mann Splash Pad. Though Lear Park isn’t in the district, it’s nearby, he said.

District 2

In District 2, which largely encompasses a portion of South Longview, Snoddy said she’s been part of a number of transitions and tough decisions in the past six years on the council, but with a servant’s spirit, she remains committed to working with residents in her district to move the community forward.

“Together we can accomplish so much,” she said. “This journey is ours, not mine.”

Ward, a wife and mother who attends Zion Hill Baptist Church, said she is seeking election because she wants to see safer, strong, sustainable neighborhoods in the community. She said she wants to work with police and those involved in economic development to improve the area.

“We all want to see District 2 become stronger,” she said.

When asked about workforce development, Snoddy said any time there is new development in her district, she encourages employers to hire from those who live there. When there was a consideration to move the Texas Workforce Commission out of District 2, Snoddy played a key role in keeping it there.

Regarding infrastructure, Ward said she’d like to see the city improve some streets, such as Sabine Street, which she described as being in such bad condition that people’s cars get torn up as they drive to and from work.

“I feel like we need to do more as far as infrastructure in South Longview,” Ward said.

Snoddy said she believes Longview is doing an adequate job, as was exemplified during the recent winter storm in which the city — unlike several neighboring cities — retained such services as water. Snoddy noted that infrastructure can always be improved and said the city should continually work to improve its roads, bridges, water and sewer systems where it can. She noted that “everyone” wants clean air and water and adequate roads.

In terms of economic development, Snoddy noted that while it may seem like most growth has been on Longview’s north side — as Ward suggested — there has been significant growth on the southside as well. She named several businesses, such as Zippy J’s, Southern Classic Chicken and the Reo Starplex that have opened in District 2 in the last six years. She also noted that companies such as Komatsu and Nucor Steel, which are in District 2, have made multi-million-dollar investments into their facilities.

When asked if they supported the 2018 bond package, Snoddy said she did because it addressed many of the city’s needs including parks, streets and public safety. Ward said she didn’t “know a lot about what’s included in the bond” but that she believed there were several positive projects, but she believed most were in North Longview.

Snoddy noted that many of the bond projects are in South Longview. Such projects include a new police station, a new fire training center, improvements to Stamper Park and Womack Field, fire station improvements, the Mobberly Avenue street project, the Cotton Street streetscape project and the Mobberly Avenue, High Street and Estes Parkway entryway reconfiguration.

Early voting in the May 1 election begins April 19.

Gohmert urges bipartisan approach to debt, infrastructure

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert says he believes reining in the national debt as well as improving infrastructure shouldn’t be partisan or even political issues.

Gohmert, R-Tyler, spoke Tuesday during the Longview Rotary Club meeting at Pinecrest Country Club.

“It’s great to be back here and, actually, it’s good to be anywhere,” he said, referencing being able to attend events in-person.

Gohmert said he would avoid getting “too political” during his presentation, telling attendees that “our debt” must be addressed.

“We haven’t done a whole lot with the debt,” he said, adding that he wants more investment in the country rather than “bailouts.”

“That opened the door to this out-of-control spending, and it has consequences,” Gohmert said.

He also criticized the approval of bailouts by leadership before the Trump Administration.

“(Former President Donald Trump) did a marvelous job with the U.S. economy,” Gohmert said, adding that Trump did not, however, do much to address the national debt.

Gohmert believes infrastructure also should be a bipartisan issue.

“We do need a lot of help with infrastructure,” he told the News-Journal after his speech. “I was hoping that would be a bill that would be bipartisan.”

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, with a price tag of about $2 trillion, is focused on job creation as well as more traditional infrastructure spending.

“During the Trump administration, I thought, well, that’s certainly something both sides of the aisle agree we need, but the feeling of Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi was that she didn’t want Trump getting credit for a big infrastructure package that would help America,” Gohmert said. “I felt like that’s something that could be bipartisan back then, and I still think so, but what we’re seeing is anything that has infrastructure has so much other stuff.”

Biden’s plan also would include investments in other areas, such as childcare provision in the workplace and more.

“The infrastructure bill that’s been proposed is more for other pet projects and bailouts and is more social programs, more socialized government, than it is for infrastructure,” Gohmert said. “I would prefer we just do a clean infrastructure bill.”

He referenced Biden’s plan to increase taxes for corporations in order to offset spending from the bill over 15 years.

“It’s bad enough we’re giving future generations all this debt — we at least can give them good infrastructure,” Gohmert said. “I don’t want to be part of the generation that does that to them.”

He also talked about taking a trip to the border and the issue of children being detained.

Gohmert said he believes something much be done to address the issue, adding it was more under control under the Trump Administration.

The eight-term Congressman also discussed being attacked and the importance of defending himself from criticism.

“In politics, when somebody keeps attacking your honor, and you continue to choose not to defend it, eventually people will think you have no honor,” Gohmert said.

He said he believes the biggest mistakes of former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush include a mentality that they would not go out of their way to defend themselves from criticism, calling the latter “one of the most likable guys in the world.”

“Former President (George H.W.) Bush had a policy that he was not going to respond to outrageous attacks, and he was, in his words, not going to dignify crazy allegations with a response,” Gohmert said, adding, “I think it’s important for history’s sake to defend yourself when you’re in the right.”

With the recent death of his father, Gohmert said he had been in a time of reflection. He said God has been faithful to his family and that he is proud to serve East Texas.

“I’m just thrilled to get out and go to stuff again,” he said.

Gohmert represents Texas’ 1st Congressional District, which covers more than 12 counties.

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Technical problems halt STAAR testing across state, in Longview area
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Online STAAR testing was abandoned within the first hours Tuesday after students across the state and in the Longview area experienced technical issues preventing them from completing the exams.

The Texas Education Agency released a statement that said districts experienced connectivity issues with the online standardized testing program. At 10:17 a.m., the agency advised districts having issues to stop testing for the day while the vendor works on the problems.

Online testing is set to resume today.

“We posted updates to the STAAR Assessment Management System dashboard every 10 minutes to keep districts apprised of the progress in resolving the issue,” the TEA said in its statement. “The three STAAR tests affected were grade four writing, grade seven writing, and English I. This was the first of five days that students were eligible to take one of these three tests online.”

The agency said there are four issues students could have experienced — not being able to submit the test without disruption; unusually slow response time to answers submitted; inability to log on; or being prevented from continuing to answer questions.

In the last scenario, answers were saved every 30 minutes so students will be able to pick up where they left off, according to the TEA.

“We understand the frustration this has caused students, parents, teachers, and administrators. What happened today is completely unacceptable. ETS, the testing vendor, experienced problems with their database system, which are in the process of being corrected,” the agency said. “The 2021 online administration of STAAR will be ETS’s last for the state of Texas. Beginning next school year, Cambium Assessment will be taking over these critical testing functions to ensure that users have a seamless online testing experience moving forward.”

TEA plans to move to all STAAR testing online by the 2022-23 school year, according to the Texas Tribune. Because of this, many districts, such as Union Grove ISD, used Tuesday as a practice run.

Superintendent Kelly Moore said all tests Tuesday except at the high school were online.

“The kids started at 8 a.m., and we had a large amount that could never access the platform and several continually getting knocked off the platform,” she said. “After a couple of hours, we made the decision to take everyone off .”

She said the district plans to use online testing again in May, so she is concerned for that round of exams, as well.

Thirteen students in seventh grade and in high school at White Oak ISD took the online STAAR on Tuesday, Superintendent Brian Gray said.

He said they experienced issues with being logged on and then getting kicked out of the test multiple times. By about 10:30 a.m., the students stopped attempting to take the test.

“It just got to the point where it was not conducive to them taking a test,” Gray said. “We have logged off, and they will not be completing the test today.”

Longview ISD did not have any students taking the STAAR online Tuesday, district spokesman Francisco Rojas said in a statement.

Spring Hill and Pine Tree ISDs, however, both experienced the same issues as other districts in the state.

“We were utilizing the paper test (Tuesday) for the most part. However we did have a very small percentage of students who were taking the test online,” Spring Hill ISD spokeswoman Sarah Robinson said in a statement.

Pine Tree ISD spokeswoman Mary Whitton said in a statement the district also had to cease online testing after TEA issued a statement advising districts to stop if they were not able to complete the exams.

About 360 Pine Tree ISD students Tuesday attempted to take the online STAAR.

According to the Texas Tribune, this is not the first year online testing has had technical issues. In 2018, software kicked thousands of students out of the exam while it was still going and didn’t let them log back on. And in 2016, computer problems statewide affected more than 14,000 tests.

Abbott bans mandated COVID-19 'vaccine passports'

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that he banned state agencies, political subdivisions and organizations receiving public funds from creating “vaccine passports” or otherwise requiring someone to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to receive services.

This comes as vaccine credentials, often referred to as vaccine passports, are being developed around the world as a way to quickly prove someone’s vaccination status. It has become a fierce debate, with Republicans largely opposing the move, saying it is an infringement on individual freedoms and privacy. Supporters, including a number of private companies, point to the passports as a way to confidently return to activities and ensure safety at workplaces.

A handful of GOP-backed bills have been introduced in states across the U.S. aiming to restrict entities from requiring vaccines for their employees, including in Texas. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also prohibited state agencies from using vaccine passports but went a step further and said no business can require their customers to display them.

Businesses can require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Texans are returning to normal life as more people get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. But as I’ve said all along, these vaccines are always voluntary and never forced,” Abbott said in a video announcing the executive order. “Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal health information just to go about their daily lives. That is why I have issued an executive order that prohibits government-mandated vaccine passports in Texas. We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health — and we will do so without treading on Texans’ personal freedoms.”

Most plans for vaccine passports take the form of a smartphone app, although some are in a paper form and are seen as a way to ensure COVID-19-free spaces for a variety of situations, including concerts, restaurants and sporting events. New York became the first state to unveil this measure in its Excelsior Pass — which can be used to quickly show proof of a vaccination or a negative test.

Israel, which has fully vaccinated over half of its population, also introduced a vaccine passport for anyone in the country. Vaccine passports are being developed and debated for use in the European Union.

Abbott’s order is consistent with his messaging on vaccinations. Although he was vaccinated live on TV, he also stresses that vaccines are “always voluntary” in his public statements.

Republicans, especially white Republicans, have emerged as the most consistently hesitant group in Texas and in the country to getting COVID-19 vaccines. Most Republicans in the state say they are hesitant to get a COVID-19 shot, while 41% say they would refuse one altogether, according to the February University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Meanwhile, Texas has fully vaccinated over 16% of its population. Hospitalizations and deaths in the state have significantly dropped. And last week, all Texans over the age of 16 became eligible to receive a vaccine — although the demand outweighs the supply, making it difficult for some to get an appointment.

People of color, those with disabilities and lower-income workers face the largest barriers to getting vaccinated despite disproportionately suffering the virus’ worst outcomes: death or hospitalization.

Larger cities are seeing the most demand, while rural areas are more likely to have surpluses of doses.

For some, it has become a race to get vaccinated before another wave of infections can spread as variants take hold in the country.

Nearly a month ago, Abbott ended the state’s mask mandate and COVID-19 restrictions on businesses — although many people still choose to wear masks and many businesses choose to require them. Hospitalizations in the state have continued to decline since peaking in January.