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Late ruling on Green Party will delay mail ballots


The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered three Green Party candidates to be restored to the November ballot after Democrats successfully sued to remove them in a move that will delay the roll-out of mail-in ballots and has already disrupted the voting process for military and overseas voters.

The move comes more than two weeks after the Texas Secretary of State’s Office formally finalized ballots on Aug. 31.

“The state did not give us any warning at all that something was in the works that could potentially change the ballot weeks after certification,” said Nacogdoches County Elections Administrator Todd Stallings. “I would have never dreamed of it.”

Stallings said his office was on track to send out mail ballots to more than 2,000 local voters this week, but the plans have been scrapped because of the court decision. Republicans and Democrats have both launched initiatives to get voters over 65 to use mail-in ballots and avoid going to the polls in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“My best guess now is it may be closer to Oct. 1 before mail ballots go out to local voters,” Stallings said. He later added, “I want people to know that your county government hasn’t failed you. This is a state-level problem. Locally, we were ready to go and did everything correct.”

The ruling leaves election administrators like Stallings scrambling to update overseas and military ballots by the Saturday mailing deadline and sending new, corrected ballots to replace any that had already been mailed.

“I already sent them ballots last week. They can receive ballots via email. And I contacted them today to let them know I’d have to send them new, corrected ballots. Several have expressed frustration, understandably,” Stallings said.

Last month, a state appeals court sided with the Democrats, who were seeking to kick the candidates off the ballot because they had not paid filing fees. The three candidates are David Collins for U.S. Senate, Katija “Kat” Gruene for Railroad Commission and Tom Wakely for the 21st Congressional District.

The Texas Green Party appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that the secretary of state “shall immediately take all necessary actions to ensure these candidates appear on the” November ballot. The Supreme Court did not give its rationale, but said a full opinion was forthcoming.

“We’re really thrilled and we applaud the court for honoring equal treatment and voter choice. We just really feel like the right of the people to access the ballot and build a political party for that purpose should be a nonpartisan issue in a democracy,” said Green Party of Texas co-chair Laura Palmer said.

A law that went into effect in 2019 began requiring Libertarian and Green Party candidates to start paying filing fees or submitting petitions like Democratic of Republican candidates. Neither Libertarians or Greens hold primaries and nominate candidates through local, county and national conventions.

While the Democrats were initially successful in booting the three Green Party candidates off the ballot, Republicans more recently failed in their bid to remove 44 Libertarians from the ticket for a similar reason. In rejecting the GOP effort earlier this month, the Supreme Court said the party waited too long to raise the issue.

Ballot access has been a struggle for both parties in a political landscape dominated by Republicans and Democrats. Each state has its own ballot regulations.

“Every state that we can secure ballots access in is one more step forward,” Palmer said.

The Green Party focuses on issues such as climate change and social justice, regularly leading to complaints that it siphons votes away from Democrats. Libertarians, who promote limiting the scope of government, are often believed to draw votes from Republicans. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president in 2016, received 159 votes in Nacogdoches County, finishing fourth. In the same election, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received 702 votes.

A person responding to a message sent to the Nacogdoches County Green Party’s Facebook page said the organization “is no longer active” here. The group’s page has not been updated since 2016.

The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.

Long-term care visitation has complex rules

Texas long-term care facilities — even those with active COVID-19 cases — can allow visitors beginning Sept. 24, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday.

Eligible facilities include nursing homes and intermediate care centers that serve residents without COVID-19, but that also have an isolation wing reserved for those who test positive for the virus. Visitation also will be allowed at state supported living centers, which house residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Visitors previously were allowed only into long-term care facilities where there were no active cases of the virus among residents and no confirmed cases among staff members in the past two weeks, based on state guidelines released Aug. 6. And before that, all visitation was strictly banned beginning March 15.

“It is critical to the health of residents that we provide opportunities wherever possible for families to reunite, while continuing to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of disease,” said Cecile Erwin Young, head of the state Health and Human Services Commission. “Safely visiting with family and friends is the best medicine and most reassuring act we can provide for our most fragile Texans during these challenging times.”

Under the revised guidelines, residents of long-term care facilities can designate two “essential family caregivers” who will be allowed into a resident’s room. Caregivers are not required to maintain physical distancing, but only one person can visit at a time. Essential family caregivers will be trained on the proper use of protective gear and other infection control practices, according to state rules. They must also test negative for the virus within the previous two weeks.

Visitors not named as essential will still be allowed inside facilities, but will not be allowed to touch residents and must remain behind plexiglass barriers in an area of the home free from the coronavirus.

Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, have been among the hardest hit by the deadly novel coronavirus. In Texas, more than 4,200 people in those facilities have died since March, and more than 800 facilities reported at least one active case as of Wednesday.

Families and advocates have repeatedly urged state officials to ease limitations for visitors. Only a handful of facilities were able to reopen under the previous guidelines.

But nursing home reform advocates worry that relaxing visitation restrictions could lead to another spike in cases among an already vulnerable population. Nursing homes are chronically understaffed and have struggled to maintain an adequate supply of protective equipment and testing supplies during the pandemic.

Brian Lee, executive director of the nonprofit Families for Better Care, voiced particular concern with the requirement that visitors be tested within the past 14 days, which he called “the Grand Canyon of time.” He worried asymptomatic family members could unknowingly transmit the virus to residents. Instead, Lee said visitors should receive rapid COVID-19 tests at the facilities’ doors.

“They’re going to allow folks to potentially [flood] these facilities with the virus,” Lee told The Texas Tribune. “There’s a real possibility that the virus could invade these facilities and see outbreaks.”

City offering free public WiFi spots

Free Wi-Fi has been set up for the public at city parks as well as the police station, City Hall parking lot, library and recreation center, the city announced this week.

Providing Wi-Fi through grants from the federal coronavirus relief package, city officials say they hope to assist students attending virtual classes as well as others affected by the pandemic. In assisting students, the city has partnered with Naogdoches ISD’s Dragon Connected program.

The city has received an estimated $370,000 in federal relief funding, the majority of which is being used for pandemic response such as protective equipment, overtime and chemical foggers. In addition to the public internet access, hand washing stations are also planned.

City facilities with public Wi-Fi include: C.L. Simon Recreation Center and the Judy McDonald Public Library, 1112 North St.; Nacogdoches Police Department, 312 W. Main St.; and the City Hall parking lot, 202 E. Pilar St.

Parks with Wi-Fi are: Banita Creek, 501 Pearl St.; Eugenia Sterne Park, 700 E. Main St.; Festival Park, 507 S. Pecan St.; Maroney Park, 2110 Maroney Drive; Mill Pond Park, 1628 John St.; Pecan Acres Park, 826 Starr Ave.; Pioneer Park, 501 Lenwood St.; Ritchie Street Park, 800 Ritchie St.; Robert McCrimmon Park, 2129 Woden Road; Clint Dempsey Soccer Complex, 600 Pilar St. and Liberty Hall, 805 E. Main St.

For more information, email recreation@nactx.us or call 936-559-2960.

Abbott eases business restrictions

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday eased restrictions for businesses, long-term care facilities and hospitals in most parts of the state but kept bars shuttered.

Starting Monday, businesses, museums, libraries and gyms that have been operating at 50% occupancy will be allowed to expand to 75% in regions of the state where coronavirus-related hospitalizations are below 15%.

Nacogdoches Chamber CEO C. Wayne Mitchell called the announcement “welcome news” for local businesses.

“I know some of our restaurants clearly were struggling at 50% capacity. This will certainly help them and others as they hopefully begin to expand their accessibility,” Mitchell said.

Abbott chose not to reopen bars, which have been shuttered for months. He said bars are “nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.” Some bars have skirted the regulations by applying for restaurant licenses and serving food. Abbott warned those establishments that they must follow restaurant regulations and patrons must wear a mask while not seated.

Within a strict set of guidelines, visitation at long-term care facilities in this region can begin Thursday, Abbott said.

“We know that we have had to safely protect these residents because of the damages of COVID-19, but there is a very real loneliness and isolation attached to this,” said Cecile Young, head of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Abbott halted visitation at long-term care facilities early in the pandemic because people older than 65 are especially susceptible to complications from the virus. Statewide, the majority of people killed by the virus are older than 70.

All but three of Texas’ 22 hospital regions — the Rio Grand Valley, Laredo and Victoria — fall below the 15% coronavirus-related hospitalization threshold. Nacogdoches County is in the Tyler region.

Abbott, a Republican, has faced criticism from from some in his own party for not fully opening the state.

“There are some Texans who want to fully reopen Texas 100% as if COVID no longer is a threat,” Abbott said. “If we fully reopen Texas without limits, without safe practices, it could lead to an unsustainable increase in COVID that would require the possibility of being required to ratchet back down,” he said.

‘Dark Web Cannibal’ to serve 40 years

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic content that some readers might find objectionable.

A Shelby County man who federal prosecutors are calling the “Dark Web Cannibal” after he posted an online ad seeking to abuse, kill and eat a child, will spend 40 years in federal prison for child exploitation violations.

Alexander Nathan Barter, 23, of Joaquin, was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Michael Turncale, more than two years after he posted an ad saying he wanted to “see how it feels to take a life.”

“As this chilling case demonstrates, online talk is not always just talk. The constant vigilance of our law enforcement partners has prevented an evildoer from finding a likeminded accomplice and bringing his grisly plan to fruition,” U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Cox said in a statement. “This case is a sobering reminder of how the brave men and women of law enforcement face down the worst of the worst in the scariest of scenarios.”

Barter pleaded guilty in late 2019, though the plea was not certified until January. As part of that deal, he admitted that he posted the ad on the dark web seeking to kill and eat a child. The dark web is a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network. It is frequently linked to illegal activity.

In the ad, Barter wrote that he would like to molest, kill and eat a child. An undercover Homeland Security investigator in Florida responded, claiming to have similar interests. The agent told Barter that he was the father of a 13-year-old daughter and the two arranged to meet Oct. 19, 2018, in Joaquin.

“In my 23-year-career in law enforcement, this is among the most morally depraved and appalling criminal conspiracies that I have come across,” said Mark Dawson, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigation in Houston. “Without the quick and decisive actions of special agents” from Cocoa Beach, Florida, and Beaumont “this disturbed predator would still be out there looking for potential victims to carry out his sick and demented fantasies.”

The plea brings to an end more than two-years of stops and starts in the federal case against Barter. Legal proceedings first came to a halt in November 2018 when a judge order a psychiatric evaluation.

The case was delayed again in June 2019 and once more in September 2019 as plea negotiations continued and prosecutors found new sentencing guidelines. Defense attorney John D. McElroy noted in several court filings leading up to the final plea agreement that was reached in December and agreed to in January that he and federal prosecutors had been working on a deal for months.

Sentencing was also delayed multiple times.