LIVINGSTON -- As 2017 winds to a close, it’s time to look back on some of the major news stories that filled the pages of the Polk County Enterprise during the past 12 months.
During the first third 2017, the news began on a positive note with a number of awards being handed out and included the death of an official from one city and the court-ordered removal of another city’s mayor.
Some of the top stories during this four-month period included:
JANUARY Goodrich buys land The City of Goodrich purchased property for its new community center. The center will be placed on the property, located on Loop 393 with 150 feet of frontage to the road. On the property’s south side, it will adjoin the General Dollar store that was opened in August 2016. The property was purchased at a cost of $22,500 for just under an acre of land. In their February 2014 meeting, the Goodrich City Council decided on a community center for its 2015-2016 Texas Community Development Block Grant application to the Texas Department of Agriculture. The $275,000 grant was approved for construction of a center, which at some point is expected to include a parking lot, picnic tables, grills and playground equipment. Law enforcement history A ceremony was held at the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ reservation on Jan. 11 to honor Sergeant Brandon Frazier as he was presented with special certification that made Texas law enforcement history. The Special Law Enforcement Certification (SLEC) through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) made Frazier the first officer in Texas history to hold concurrent jurisdiction in federal, state and tribal law. The new certification will give Frazier federal authority in law enforcement matters concerning the tribe, which is a sovereign nation with its own criminal jurisdiction on certain offenses. Polk Countian of the Year John D. Clifton of Corrigan was named Polk Countian of the Year on Jan. 26 during the 81st Annual Livingston-Polk County Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. Clifton was recognized for the commitment he has made not only to people in need, but service to the community. He served on the Corrigan City Council for 16 years and for 19 years, he has supported fundraising efforts for St. Jude’s Children’s hospital. He has organized cooking teams and fundraisers for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Scholarship fund. Community service award also were presented to retired DPS Sgt. Nita Bowen and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8568 Honor Guard. Miss Polk County Livingston High School senior Riley Dunson was crowned as the 2017 Miss Polk County on Jan. 28 during the annual scholarship pageant. She is the 18-year-old daughter of Jay and Jennifer Dunson. Winning the 2017 Junior Miss Polk County title was LHS freshman Caroline Harrison, 15-year-old daughter of Lauren and Tres Harrison.
FEBRUARY Tribe expands gaming The Naskila Gaming was set to begin installing temporary buildings to expand its operation, according to an announcement issued Feb. 10 by Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council Chairperson Jo Ann Battise. “First of all, we are grateful to everyone in the county – and the entire Big Thicket Region– who have been so supportive of our operations,” Battise said. “The facility has enjoyed great success in the first eight months of operation, and the Tribe will continue to operate within our rights granted by the National Indian Gaming Commission.” Battise said they chose to use temporary buildings due to the Texas Attorney Generals’ federal lawsuit challenging the gaming license issued under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. She said that since the suit had been filed, they had “been in discussions” with the AG but the state had elected to move forward with their lawsuit. The AG’s challenge is still pending before the court. New Center of Hope The Center of Hope -- also known as the Polk County Mission -- held grand opening ceremonies on Feb. 11 for their new facility, located in the old Big Star Grocery building located at 600 S. Washington in Livingston. Originally launched by local pastors and churches, the Center provided food each month to low income families but expanded to offer education in various areas to help those in need find jobs, make lifestyle changes and break the destructive cycles in which many were trapped.
MARCH Goodrich accepts bid The Goodrich City Council accepted a bid for construction of a 1,600-square-foot community center during their meeting on March 9. After two years of planning, the council awarded the bid to Lufkin’s Timberline Construction. Under the $275,000 Texas Community Development Block Grant given to the city by the Department of Agriculture, a total of $210,000 was available for construction with the rest budgeted for land, architectural plans and administrative costs. The bidding process was completed Feb. 27 and produced four companies vying for the contract. The lowest bid was Timberline at a cost of $218,523, leaving the city to cover the additional $8,500. Services held for city official Flags in Livingston were lowered to half-mast following the death of longtime City Manager Marilyn Sutton. Sutton, 65, died at her home on March 12 following a lengthy battle with cancer. She was employed by the city for 42 years, starting in a part-time clerical position before moving up to accounts payable and payroll clerk, assistant city secretary, city secretary and finance officer. She was named as the city manager and finance officer in April 2005. Police Chief Dennis Clifton was subsequently named as the interim city manager while the city council began its search for Sutton’s replacement. Goodrich mayor removed On March 27, Goodrich Mayor Jeremy Harper was removed from office by order of visiting District Court Judge David Wilson following a hearing in the 411th District Court in Livingston. Harper, who had only weeks remaining in his second term, was removed due previous felony convictions in Louisiana. Under state law, those seeking elected office cannot have a felony conviction on their records. The charges in question from Louisiana included theft greater than $500 in Natchitoches Parish in June 1999 and issuing a worthless check in Rapides Parish in December 1994.
APRIL VFW Post sells building Officials with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8568 of Livingston reassured the community that while they had sold their building, the post would continue to operate out of a temporary home until a new site could be obtained. Post Commander Robert Dodd said that declining membership made the sale of the post necessary. “Rumors have it that the VFW Post 8568 of Livingston is no longer an active post,” Dodd said. “Although the facility has been sold in order to downsize and cut the cost of overhead, we have plans to move closer into the community. We as an organization are not closed or dissolved.” Relay for Life raises money More than $100,000 was raised for the American Cancer Society during the annual Relay for Life event held April 28 at Pedigo Park in Livingston. Over 30 teams took part in the annual fundraiser and more than 200 cancer survivors took part in the opening walk during the event.
CORRIGAN -- After 64 years of service to the Corrigan area, the Corrigan Times will cease publication at the end of the year, Publisher Alvin Holley has announced.
The Dec. 28 newspaper will be the final edition of the northern Polk County publication and its office will close. Starting Jan. 1, its staff will join the Polk County Enterprise.
Subscribers to the Corrigan Times will receive the Polk County Enterprise during the remainder of their subscription terms and those who have been receiving both publications will have the time left on their Times subscriptions added to the end of their current Enterprise subscription.
Coverage of Corrigan area news and sports will continue in the pages of the Enterprise, which is a county-wide publication. In addition to Corrigan, the Enterprise also serves Livingston, Onalaska, Goodrich, Big Sandy and Leggett as well as the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ reservation east of Livingston.
“It is with regret that we had to cease publication of the Corrigan Times, but declining subscriptions and advertising made it necessary,” said Holley. “I do want to assure the people of the Corrigan area that we will continue to cover their news, but in the future, it will be through the pages of the Polk County Enterprise.”
Founded in 1953 by Bill Perkins, the Corrigan Times was sold to P.M. Johnson in 1954 and was operated in conjunction with a printing company. Johnson also bought a printing company in Groveton that same year and operated both the Corrigan Times and the Groveton News. Both newspapers were printed in the Groveton press plant. Johnson sold the Times on Jan. 1, 1969 to Lee C. Smith, who continued to publish the newspaper until 1972 when he sold it to the East Texas Eye, a Livingston-based newspaper operated by the Barney Wiggins family.
The East Texas Eye ceased publication in 1976 and it sold the Times at about that time to the Diboll Free Press.
The current owners, Polk County Publishing Co., purchased the Times in 1979 and assumed ownership on Jan. 1, 1980.
In addition to the Times and the Enterprise, Polk County Publishing Co. also owns the Houston County Courier in Crockett, the Tyler County Booster in Woodville, the San Jacinto News-Times in Coldspring/Shepherd, the Trinity Standard and the Groveton News.
HERO AWARD -- Brian “Trip” Keith Teel III, 9, (front right) was presented with a Hero Certificate and medal during last week’s Onalaska City Council meeting. He is pictured with his older brother, mother and Aunt Kathy.
ONALASKA -- Brian “Trip” Keith Teel III, 9, was presented a certificate and medal Tuesday by the Onalaska City Council for his lifesaving efforts earlier this year when his grandmother fell ill.
During the council’s monthly meeting, Mayor Roy Newport presented young Trip to the council and explained that a couple of months ago, the nine-year-old had been visiting with relatives in Onalaska and was spending time alone with his “Memaw”.
During that visit, Trip suddenly realized that Memaw appeared to be sleeping but when he tried to rouse her she would not respond. The mayor asked him to explain what happened next. The young man said he dialed 911, told the lady who answered his grandmother’s name. The dispatcher recognized the name and he proceeded to give not only the address but the codes to the gate locks in that subdivision. When the EMT’s arrived, he was able to give them a very accurate report of what had occurred.
Newport congratulated Trip for his heroic efforts and presented him with a certificate and a medal to commemorate this occasion. In other business during the meeting, Police Chief Ron Gilbert reporting on the department’s activities in November, noting they had 500 calls, responded to 120 incidents, made 19 misdemeanor arrests, issued 66 citations and nine warnings and assisted the Polk County Sheriff’s Office four times. Officers drover a total of 3,734 miles, opened 20 new cases and there were no DWI or narcotic cases in the month. Fire Chief Jay Stutts reported the volunteer fire department responded to six calls for assistance due to motor vehicle accidents and one grass fire. With the colder weather arriving, there were no lake rescues, but the department did respond to 24 medical calls for a total of 33 calls during the month.
Lee Parrish, who serves as fire marshal, city building inspector and code enforcement officer, reported there were four citations for city ordinance violations issued during the month and eight warnings were issued to residences. There were no fire investigations during the month of November, but the fire marshal did assist the police department on six occasions and volunteer fire department one time. As building inspector, Parish said there were three building permits issued in the month of November, one for a manufactured home, one for a portable building and one for a new site built home. There were two certificates of occupancy issued. Fees collected for the month were $1,171, which added a value of $86,500 to the city. The total increase for the year is now $322,620 in value.
Librarian Sherry Beechen reported the library had a short month due to it being inventory time. They had 1,307 patrons which is two more than October. The inventory numbers indicated the library now has 9,990 items and holdings on their records. The library was only open 12 days during the month and only 835 books were circulated and only 799 patrons used the facility, including 87 computer users. The computers were moved during the remodeling and now people are able to use of computers even when the library is closed for inventory. Total income for the month was $326.05, volunteers spent 20 hours in helping to do the inventory.
Roy Epperson, who owns a company called BG Recovery, made a presentation to the council to perform skip searching on outstanding warrants that the city has not been able to collect. Epperson said he has two objectives in his business. First is to locate the absconding defendant, have them appear before court and take care of the fines and fees. Second is to keep the outstanding warrant list to a minimum.
Epperson said he knows that there are some cases in which a defendant will never be located, that does not mean that BG Recovery ever gives up they’ll continue to utilize whatever sources to try to attempt to locate the individuals and/or family members. Council asked several questions, and then made a motion to table it for further research. The item is set to come back to the agenda at the January meeting. The council accepted a letter of resignation from Police Officer Ryan Vasquez. Gilbert requested council approved Gabriel Moore to serve as a full-time officer with the standard six-month probationary period. Moore comes from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department having served as a deputy for 15 years, and is currently looking for a home in the Onalaska area. Council approved the request.
During public announcements Newport said that market days at the city park would be January 5-7.
The business decorating and subdivision decorating contest entries need to be in by Dec. 19. The judges will begin Dec. 20 and will judge for several days so all entries are asked to keep their lights on during that time.
Newport also said Monday, Dec. 18 will be an open house at the new Onalaska High School track at 6:30 p.m, and the public is welcome. They will have an opportunity to walk the track.
The consent agenda consisting of minutes, vouchers and bills was approved. Council entered into executive session and said there would be no action following their return.
LOCAL JUDGES RECOGNIZED -- As part of its 50th anniversary, Deep East Texas Council of Governments officials recognized three former Polk County judges (L-R) Wayne Baker, Peyton Walters and John Thompson for their past service to the organization. The three were honored Thursday during the DETCOG board meeting hosted by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas near Livingston. ( Valerie Reddell photo.)
INDIAN VILLAGE -- The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas welcomed the Deep East Texas Council of Governments on Thursday for a meeting that included updates on economic development, hurricane recovery and solid waste programs.
Executive Director Lonnie Hunt reviewed initial numbers for the Temporary Direct Housing Program for residents displaced by Hurricane Harvey. DETCOG will administer the program under an interlocal agreement with the General Land Office.
Recent numbers from FEMA that Hunt shared with DETCOG members indicate that 10 Polk County families have been declared eligible for the temporary direct housing program.
Five other counties in DETCOG also will be in the program — 20 families in Jasper; 32 in Newton; 44 in San Jacinto and six in Tyler County.
The program has a budget of just over $6 million, Hunt said. That includes nearly $200,000 for direct lease; $91,446 for lease or rent in multi-family housing; $1.7 million for RVs; $3.4 million for mobile home units, just over a half million for permanent housing and $200,000 for administering the program.
The amount allocated to permanent housing in this short-term program is to cover repairs that return structures to safe, sanitary conditions, Hunt said. Those funds do not return homes to their prior condition.
Hunt also advised that the program seems to be moving a bit faster than similar programs following Hurricane Ike.
Hunt pointed out that this is one of many FEMA programs that helps with disaster recovery.
To qualify for the temporary direct housing program, applicants needed to have $17,000 in damage. “Somewhere shy of 500 applicants said they have over $17,000,” Hunt said. “Already our region has received almost $18 million in direct aid to victims. Of those, 245 initial applicants have said they are taken care of. The rest are still in the process.”
Many of those people who are helping themselves will be back to apply for assistance in a long-range program.
“That money takes longer to come,” Hunt said. “This (temporary) program makes sure that people have a decent place to lay their head at time.
“We finished the last Ike house in February 2017, that’s eight and a half years,” Hunt said. “Texas is cracking the whip to move this program along.”
DETCOG praised the Alabama Coushatta Tribe for its financial assistance immediately after the storm.
In Jasper and Newton Counties, 191 families were helped
DETCOG also took a moment to recognize former Polk County officials who helped launch the organization 50 years ago.
DETCOG President Lynn Torres announced that DETCOG was honoring former Polk County Judge Peyton Walters with a Founders Award.
Walters was a member of the charter board of directors and continued to support DETCOG after leaving office and joining the staff of former Congressman Charlie Wilson. Walters and his wife now live in Maryland, Torres said.
She also recognized the late Mickey Reily, a former mayor of Corrigan, for his service with DETCOG. The DETCOG president also recognized John Thompson, the former Polk County Judge who served as DETCOG president while Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Livingston. Thompson was unable to attend due to recent knee replacement surgery, Torres said.
In other business, • Jo Ann Battise, Chairman of the Alabama Coushatta Tribal Council will serve as a DETCOG director, and that Groveton City Councilman Ralph Bennett would join Trinity County Attorney Joe Warner Bell to represent Trinity County. • The Emergency Preparedness Take force will allocate $20,000 in uncommitted fund to the Sabine County Sheriff’s Office, as the highest scoring grant that did not receive funding. • Lonnie Hunt reported that DETCOG has selected an architect to design the new building for DETCOG headquarters which will be owned by the nonprofit Forest Country Development Corporation and located in Lufkin. The proposed contract with the architect is currently under review by the U.S. Economic Development Corporation.
LIVINGSTON -- Former Goodrich Mayor Jeremy Wayne Harper pled guilty Monday in the 411th District Court of Polk County to the state-jail felony offense of tampering with a government record.
Harper was sentenced by Judge Tom Brown to serve two years in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice state jail facility. However, Harper’s sentence was suspended for a period of five years and Harper was placed on community supervision. Harper was also assessed a $2,000 fine and required to perform 120 hours of community service.
“I would have stayed and fought, but it takes money to take things to trial, and sometimes thousands of dollars,” Harper said. “If I had the money to fight it, I would have fought it and won. It’s an unfortunate situation, however, I accomplished the goal I set out to accomplish. That was to liberate the city of Goodrich from the handful of people that had run the city for more than a decade illegally. There was not a mayor, and that itself was illegal. I am very happy about the way things went, because I did accomplish that goal.”
According to Polk County Criminal District Attorney Lee Hon, the charge against Harper stemmed from a sworn representation that Harper made on his 2015 application for a place on the Goodrich Mayoral election ballot. On that application, Harper swore under oath he had never been convicted of a felony offense.
During a 2016 investigation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Department into a claim that Harper was using electricity from the Goodrich City Hall in conjunction with the construction of his own private residence, it was discovered that Harper had previously been convicted on felony charges of issuance of a worthless check in 1994 in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, and theft of greater than $500 in value in 1997 in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
“As far as transparency, the city is more transparent now than it ever has been,” Harper said. “We have signs on the building. Before I came, there wasn’t even a sign that marked city hall. That was because they didn’t want signs up and didn’t want you to know where city hall was. We had an open-door policy. I worked with the city council and we resolved a lot of issues the city had. One was the TCEQ issue with the pond. The other was street signs. We had stop signs that were not even up in the city and had two accidents right there near the school. We started resolving drainage issues. The city council did a tremendous job for the city and it’s evident. I really don’t have to say a lot about it, you can just drive through the city and see. We started the first Christmas festival in 2014 and this year will be the third annual (one was cancelled due to weather). We enacted garbage service and really tried to improve the quality of life.
“It was mentioned by the prosecutor’s office that there was theft of city services. I have never stolen anything from the city — and people know that. This is all politics. I have never considered myself a politician. But this is a good situation. The city will continue to be prosperous and will do well. My goal that I accomplished can never be undone.”
According to Hon, a subsequent investigation in December of last year also revealed that Harper had obtained City of Goodrich water and sewage services at his personal residence without paying a required installation fee. The sheriff’s department investigation also led to an allegation that Harper, in his official capacity as mayor, had caused road materials belonging to the City of Goodrich to be delivered to a private driveway.
“The takeaway from this unfortunate situation involving former Mayor Harper, is that we expect public servants to be transparent and accountable in their actions. The public has a right to expect honesty and integrity on the part of their elected officials. The citizens of Goodrich are certainly entitled to that,” Hon stated.
BLANCHARD – A rollover accident on FM 2457 early Sunday morning claimed the life of a 16-year-old Livingston High School student.
According to an initial report from Texas Highway Patrol, Mason Chandler Johnson, 16, of Livingston was driving west on FM 2457 in a red, older-model Chevy pickup truck shortly before 5 a.m. on Sunday.
The truck reportedly veered off-road to the right and struck a culvert near Blue XX West Road, sending it airborne and rolling over.
The driver was ejected from the vehicle during the rollover and was later pronounced dead at the scene by Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Sarah Arnett.
Troopers with the Texas Highway Patrol, along with deputies from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, were dispatched to the scene and blocked all traffic on FM 2457 during their investigation.
A first-call vehicle from Cochran Funeral Home later transported the victim from the scene.
As of press time, investigators were still waiting for an autopsy report.
The accident remains under the investigation of the Texas Highway Patrol.
A celebration of life service for Johnson is scheduled Saturday at 229 McBride Drive in Livingston.
Family and friends will gather at 11 a.m. and the service will be held at noon.
A candlelight vigil for the LHS student will follow at 5:30 p.m. at 432 Stevens Lane in Livingston.