A1 A1
Election bill advances

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill authored in part by state Reps. Travis Clardy and Trent Ashby that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 outlaws the practice, which has been common in Nacogdoches County for about a decade because voters older than 65 do not automatically receive applications for absentee ballots after voting by mail in previous elections, Nacogdoches County Elections Administrator Todd Stalling said.

Previously, major political parties sent out vote-by-mail applications but they were fraught with problems and would often be returned filled with errors.

“They were not getting the most current information,” Stallings said. “As it was growing it really became a headache for our office to the point where I got permission from the Secretary of State’s Office to do my own mail out.”

The county wound up footing the bill to contact voters and get the applications corrected. Stallings and other elections officials would face jail time for distributing mail-in ballot applications without being asked but political candidates and parties could continue to do so legally, meaning errors would likely return.

“I hope they’ll really monitor mail-outs coming from parties or candidates. There should really be an approval process through the state because it can cost the county a lot of money when they’re not done right,” Stallings said.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it. Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, serves on that committee.

“There’s not a more important issue than I can think of than protecting the integrity of our elections,” Clardy said in a video chat with constituents. “I feel very confident how we run our elections in East Texas, particularly the three counties I represent.”

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote. It’s already drawn sharp condemnation from voting rights advocates and Democrats.

“House Bill 6, and the equally problematic Senate Bill 7, would increase election costs for counties and make it almost impossible to attract election judges and clerks. They would take authority and responsibilities away from the county where they belong. They would create more problems than they solve. Everyone wants election integrity but the authors of these bills have not even presented facts that prove that these changes are needed,” Nacogdoches County Democratic Party chairman Mike Strong said.

The House’s consideration of the measure has been slowed down by Cain’s management of the committee. Last month, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the elections committee abruptly shut down a hearing on the bill after refusing to take questions on the legislation from state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, who asked to participate in the hearing. In rushing to recess the committee, Cain failed to announce a time the committee would reconvene — a procedural error that meant the hearing could not continue. More than 100 members of the public who had traveled to the Capitol to testify on the bill were sent home.

The committee returned a week later and heard 17 hours of divided testimony on the bill. Several partisan poll watchers, who are appointed by candidates and political parties to observe voting at polling places, endorsed the bill because of the enhanced protections it creates for them, including criminal liability for election workers for their treatment of watchers.

Senate Bill 7, the companion piece to the House legislation, includes a provision to allow poll watchers to record voters they suspect of wrongdoing. Stallings called that part of the proposal problematic but has no objection to members of the public watching votes being counted.

“We need to protect the voters too and not cause situations that are going to lead to people getting into fist fights in polling places,” Stallings said.

Cain has offered the measure as one meant to “restore trust in the electoral process.” Last year, Cain volunteered with the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania as it unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the outcome of the election and toss that state’s votes.

“When people do not have confidence in our electoral institutions, when political legitimacy is questioned, liberty is threatened,” Cain said in presenting the bill in committee. “Therefore it is incumbent on the Texas Legislature this session to ensure that elections, the bedrock of our republic, are free and secure.”

The legislation is also among the Republican proposals corporate giants have come out against. Last week, Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell declared his company’s opposition to HB 6, arguing it works against ensuring “citizens have their voices heard.”

The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.

Candidates disagree on zoning change

An August rezoning of a lot on Logansport Street continues to add fuel to the City of Nacogdoches’ only contested council race.

In the May 1 election, Northeast Ward incumbent Garth Hinze will face challenger Kathleen Belanger, who is among a group of Logansport Street residents trying, thus far unsuccessfully, to get the city to reconsider an Aug. 18 rezoning of a lot on their street from single family to high-density multifamily use.

Nearby property owners say they didn’t find out until after a public hearing and final approval that the lot at 1102 Logansport is now zoned for high- density residences — known as R-4 zoning.

During a meeting held at the public library after the fact, neighbors argued that those receiving mailed notices were either out of town or didn’t get them in time, while others were outside the city’s 200-foot notification radius.

The council in January agreed to add signage, social media posts and more mailed notices to its notification process beginning in March, but the rezone on Logansport has remained a done deal.

Near the north end of the street, the site is just less than an acre and backs up to Pecan Park. A stone’s throw away is the home of Pat Castella, who has visited City Hall several times in person, most recently at the council’s regular Tuesday meeting.

“This inappropriate and ethically challenged zoning was opposed by more than 300 residents who have called and asked, mainly because of the precedent it is setting for our city and our cherished neighborhoods,” she told the council during public forum.

“We would be delighted if those lots were filled with single family housing — not a duplex development that the owner stated he will rent out to students to make a profit for his retirement. We need more single family housing, not rental properties built by speculators.”

Belanger says she chose to run May 1 to give her neighbors and others in the Northeast Ward a voice on the council.

Hinze says the Logansport issue has been both weaponized and misrepresented.

“Several individuals claim the local Realtor’s desire is to build a large apartment complex, when that is not practically feasible due to the size of the lot, water detention requirements, parking requirements and financial restraints,” he said in an email. “The proposed development would include construction of three duplexes — six units — on the lot.”

Hinze added that anyone interested in the project may email him at hinzeg@nactx.us.

Both candidates plan to attend a forum hosted Monday by the Nacogdoches County Republican Women. The 11:45 p.m. event at the Fredonia Hotel is open to the public with lunch available for $18 with reservations. Text reservation requests to 936-615-5349 or email rhondaward74@gmail.com.

Early voting in the May 1 election begins April 19 at the Courthouse Annex, 203 W. Main St.

Himes retiring as dean of SFA College of Fine Arts

Dr. A.C. “Buddy” Himes, dean of the College of Fine Arts at Stephen F. Austin State University, will retire effective May 31 after 47 years of service in both secondary and higher education.

In notifying the dean’s staff and fine arts faculty members last fall of his intended retirement, Himes wrote: “I am grateful to Stephen F. Austin State University for allowing me the honor and privilege to serve as dean of the College of Fine Arts for the past 14 years. I feel that coming together in unity, the university, the faculty and staff, and the community have allowed the college to be taken to the next level multiple times over.

“Reflecting upon my career it is obvious (to me) that every challenge has been met, every goal accomplished, every expectation exceeded, and every vision realized,” he said. “And, now, after 47 years in the profession, this is clearly the ideal time for me to retire.”

SFA President Scott Gordon praised Dr. Himes’ commitment, hard work and vision, noting the thriving and vibrant community created within the SFA College of Fine Arts.

“The leadership he has provided will continue to impact SFA students for years to come, and we are grateful for his accomplishments as dean,” Gordon said. “Dr. Himes has been an asset to our campus and the Nacogdoches community, and we wish him all the best in his retirement.”

Himes came to SFA to serve as the fine arts dean in 2007, moving from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he was director of the School of Music and head of the Department of Performing Arts in the College of the Arts. There, he was recognized for his oversight of a construction project, doubling the fine arts endowment base, producing a community-based organization dedicated to enhancing scholarships, and attracting nearly $1 million in grants.

Following the same pattern for success, Himes has guided the schools of art, music and theater at SFA to higher levels of achievement during his 14-year leadership.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment at SFA is currently being realized and taking shape today before the public eye, its daily evolution apparent at the corner of North Street and East College Street. In 2015, Himes released “The Transformative 2020 Vision,” a five-year plan for a multi-million-dollar project designed to “transform the College of Fine Arts into the best fine arts program in Texas.” The plan led to the approval by the SFA Board of Regents for the $50-million renovation and expansion of the Griffith Fine Arts Building currently underway. Funding was obtained through the issuance of bonds in 2019, and proceeds must be used, in accordance with the bond documents, for construction, renovation and other project-related purposes.

“With these new facilities, the College of Fine Arts will be able to fully alleviate concerns for space, grow to its potential in enrollment, be competitive with similar programs in Texas, and fully capitalize upon student markets for new programs,” Himes said. “As much as the college has grown in enrollment over the past decade, I predict an explosion of new enrollment in fine arts in the next decade, notwithstanding the immediate effects of a pandemic.”

More than two decades in the making, the $50-million Fine Arts Expansion Initiative will include complete renovations to the existing Griffith Fine Arts Building and add accessible parking, a patron drop-off zone (off East College Street) and new construction which will extend the building along North Street nearly to the corner of East College Street. The renovated and expanded state-of-the-art building will include two dance studios, two theaters, an auditorium, recording studio, sound stage, audio and video editing rooms, an art gallery, multiple classrooms, rehearsal facilities, faculty offices and the offices of the dean. The facilities will house the CFA’s sound recording technology, filmmaking, theater, dance and musical theater programs.

Following his arrival at SFA, Himes in 2008 established the Dean’s Circle, an external support organization of community members dedicated, in part, to nurturing potential young artists within the College of Fine Arts. The Dean’s Awards include monetary rewards to students to further their educational pursuits. Since 2008, the Dean’s Circle has presented $174,000 in student awards. Additionally, the organization established the first-ever community-established endowed professorship at SFA in 2016.

Himes was instrumental in establishing the Sound Recording Technology program within the School of Music. “I can trace this program back to April of 2007 when I came to interview,” he said. “It began as nothing more than what was known to be a good idea, and a whole lot of faith – no curriculum, no facilities, no equipment and no students. Today, the SRT program is certainly the fastest growing program in the School of Music, and is one of, if not the, fastest growing programs at the entire university.”

Among his other SFA accomplishments are involvement in the restoration of SFA’s bell carillon, creation of three endowed professorships, a permanent endowment for the College of Fine Arts’ generation of $125,000 in unrestricted monies annually, a 23% increase in enrollment within the college, successful advocacy for the new $50-million fine arts expansion underway, construction of 16 new music practice rooms, involvement in the production of the Nacogdoches 1938 documentary film project, and bringing the dance program into the College of Fine Arts.

Throughout his career, Himes has been a sought-after conference presenter and panelist. He is a published author on topics of administrative leadership and teaching effectiveness, and he has served in leadership roles in academic organizations at the national and international levels.

Himes has served his community through active engagement in the Rotary Club, was a founding member of the Nacogdoches Film Festival, and is a member of First United Methodist Church, where he actively engaged in the pipe organ restoration project.

After graduation from college in 1973, Himes began his career as a high school band director in Bluefield, West Virginia.

Himes and his wife, Cindy, plan to stay active in the Nacogdoches community and enjoy their children and grandchildren.

Outreach part of vaccine efforts

As the supply of COVID-19 vaccines catches up with demand, local efforts are shifting toward community outreach.

“Understand their point of view, but also explain that it can keep them from getting COVID,” internal medicine specialist Dr. James Otto told a group Friday at the Nacogdoches Senior Center, where some in attendance were concerned about relatives who refused vaccinations. “They’re not just doing it for themselves, but doing it for other people.”

As of Thursday, just over 22% of local residents 16 and older had been fully vaccinated, according to the Nacogdoches County Emergency Management Office. Community clinics held at the County Expo and Civic Center have been averaging 1,600 people a day.

But as the percentage of vaccinated people increases, “It won’t be 1,600 people a day,” said Nacogdoches Fire Chief Keith Kiplinger, who is in charge of logistics for vaccine clinics here.

“It might be 25 shots after church on Sunday or 100 during the week,” he said, adding that public outreach is an integral part of the plan.

Approved Tuesday by City Council, an interlocal agreement with Stephen F. Austin State University will provide not only nursing students to administer vaccines during the summer, but two social work students and a translator for community outreach. The city will provide up to $225,000 to fund the 15 student positions and faculty supervision. A similar agreement is in the works with the county to help reach residents outside city limits. City leaders say they plan to seek FEMA funding to reimburse those costs.

As of this week, the Civic Center has hosted six mass vaccination clinics, with another scheduled Wednesday, April 14. Vaccines can be scheduled by visiting tinyurl.com/VacNac or by calling 936-305-8488.

For those experiencing symptoms, Curative is offering free COVID-19 testing in the Brookshire Brothers parking lot, 1216 South St., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The testing is open to walk-ups, but appointments are recommended by visiting curative.com/covid-testing. The test is self-collected with an oral swab, and results are provided in 24 to 48 hours.

‘We can’t hate people,’ Holocaust survivor says

The world around Zsuzsanna Ozsváth was falling apart the summer before her 13th birthday.

In the late spring and early summer of 1944, Jewish families like hers in Hungary were carted off to the infamous Auschwitz extermination camp, killed on forced marches and lined up for mass executions by firing squads. Their only crime in the eyes of the Nazi government was being Jewish.

“There is nothing that can be compared to that. What we have to learn from it is … what can happen if we are not terribly cautious and know that we can’t hate people for their religion or their blood or their looks or their hair or whatever. If you don’t like someone’s behavior don’t be a friend of his or hers, but certainly don’t speculate on that person’s death,” Ozsváth said Thursday during the first-ever Holocaust Remembrance Day event at Stephen F. Austin State University.

The event marked Yom Hashoah, a national memorial day in Israel and in Jewish communities around the globe.

Millions of Jews were rounded up and murdered during the Nazis reign in Europe as were smaller numbers of Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, communists and homosexuals.

Ozsváth was 12 when Nazis officially occupied Hungary in 1944, but the Central European nation had been fighting alongside the Third Reich since 1941. Hungary by that time already had anti-Semitic laws and hatred toward Jews was engrained in its culture. For hundreds of years, rumors spread that Jews were eating non-Jewish children and that they secretly controlled the European financial markets. QAnon and other modern conspiracy theories share many of the same ideas as anti-Semitic traditions in Europe that lasted for almost a thousand years.

“I don’t think the anti-semitism that exists in America can be compared to the anti-semitism of the Europeans,” she said.

In 1941 Hungary began deporting Jewish refugees from Poland, Austria and Germany. When the Nazis formally took over, the country fully participated in the Holocaust.

“That complete deportation started in the Hungarian countryside at the end of May 1944 and by July 2 …. there were no more Jews in Hungary except in Budapest,” Ozsváth said.

All of Ozsváth’s classmates died at Auschwitz or on the way there. Her family lived in the countryside where her father ran a pharmacy. Their deportation date neared, but their housekeeper, Erzsebet Fajo, came up with a plan to smuggle them into Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

Ozsváth’s calls Fajo “our savior.” While in Budapest, Fajo helped smuggle the family from house to house and got them falsified passports. For her work, Fajo is listed among The Righteous Among the Nations, a list of non-Jews who went out of their way to aide Jews during the Holocaust.

Life in the city was safer but still incredibly dangerous for Jews. Ozsváth vividly recalls watching out a window as Nazis lined up Jews for execution on the banks of the Danube River at a time when she and her brother were separated from their parents.

“It was terrible and I was terribly afraid but I was saved and my brother was saved by Erzsi,” Ozsváth said.

The Soviet Army liberated Hungary from Nazi rule in early 1945, and the country remained under communism until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Ozsváth and her family came to the United States in the 1960s and she worked as a professor at the University of Texas-Dallas.