Year in review

Gonzales County’s top stories and storylines of 2019


Many municipal elections

The city of Gonzales underwent several contentious elections in early 2019. In January, Gonzales City Council validated a tax rollback election after a judge ruled the rollback rate the city adopted had been calculated incorrectly and should have been lower. Two months later, the tax recall failed with 422 votes in favor of the city keeping its then rate, 315 votes seeking the adjusted lower rate.

Gonzales Mayor Connie Kacir narrowly escaped a runoff election in May, staving off challenges from Rob Brown and Bob Burchard and securing a second term. The initial election day total placed Kacir with exactly 50% of the vote lining her up for a runoff with the second place Brown. However, Kacir received four additional votes after election day from eligible provisional and mail-in ballots that pushed her over majority threshold. A recount petitioned by Brown several days sealed the results as Kacir finished with 566 votes (50.3 %), Brown with 490 votes (43.5%) and Burchard with 70 votes (6.2%).

Gonzales voters also approved 10 of 11 proposed changes to the city’s home rule charter in May. Proposition G, the one struck down amendment, would’ve allowed the city to extend utilities and services to subdivisions outside of city limits.

Elsewhere in county, incumbents mostly reigned in the May elections as there was only minor compositional change to Nixon and Smiley City Councils. Esteven “Steve” Aguirre ascended to the Nixon City Council as the top vote getter in the May election. Aguirre replaced Joseph "Joey" Bjorgaard on council. Justin La Fleur and Mary Ann Fatheree both retain their seats.

Diana Pena Moreno filled the vacancy left on the Smiley City Council after H. Wayne South opted to not seek reelection. Elisa Douglas and Linda Warzecha both retained their seats.

There was no city council election in Waelder last May due to a lack of candidates. Instead, Michael Harris and Valentino “Tino” Hernandez retain their positions and Curtis Hadnot Jr. took over Samuel “Rocky” Quintero’s spot as Quintero chose to not seek reelection and Hadnot Jr. was the only applicant.

Year one of Judge Davis

Gonzales County Judge Pat Davis has had an—at times—explosive first year in office. Since taking over as county judge from David Bird in January, Davis has twice permitted a major music festival to happen in Gonzales, took part in the purchasing of new hybrid voting machines for the county and verbally spared with members of commissioners court over such issues as clerk pay and the county’s use of budget amendments.

Filming in Gonzales

Several times in 2019, a major film crew has set up shop in Gonzales County to produce a show rumored to be AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.” Over summer the crews took over the Edwards Community Center and a house near Ottine for filming.

Most recently they shut down Saint Francis St. in late November with burned-out cars and simulated smoke. Opportunities like this arise for Gonzales because of the city’s Film Friendly Texas certification. The distinction is granted by the Texas Film Commission and, among other benefits, streamlines the permitting process for production studios. Gonzales becoming film friendly certified was driven by a joint project between the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture and the city itself.

Mariachi on patrol

In January, the Gonzales Police Department posted a video to Facebook of Patrol Officer Marisol Sanchez, in full uniform, adding impressive vocals to an accompanying mariachi band performing. The video went viral and is currently at 3.8 million views on Facebook and another 1.9 million views on YouTube.

Sanchez has years of experience in music as she sang and played violin in her high school’s mariachi band. Though Sanchez is less experienced in law enforcement, she graduated from Victoria College’s police academy in May 2018 and was hired by GPD shortly after, she has taken to it quickly.

“I honestly don't know what drove me to it, but I am really glad that I chose this, because there is nothing I could possibly be doing that makes me happier,” Sanchez told “The Inquirer” last January. “I love my job here. And I think a lot has to do with who I work with, who I work for — this is an amazing city to work for. I'm really happy to work here.”

Another dam failure for GBRA

The Lake Dunlap dam near New Braunfels experienced a massive spill gate failure the morning of Tuesday, May 14. The Dunlap dam is the second major Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) dam failure in three years and set off a chain of events that led to the GBRA board announcing in August it would drain its remaining four lakes. GBRA owns and operates six dams along the Guadalupe River, including two—Lake Wood and Lake Gonzales—located in Gonzales County.

The announcement set off a storm of furor from lakefront property owners, drew the attention of State Rep. John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) who called for a delay on the drain and the ire of “The Inquirer’s” publisher Terence J. Fitzwater who called for the elimination of GBRA as an entity. Several landowners also sued GBRA to halt the drain and in September the two sides reached an agreement. The groups settled on a year-long injunction on the lakes being dewatered and a selection of independent panel of three experts to determine which areas on the river should close due to unsafe conditions posed by the dams. In November the independent panel determined the areas of around the H-4 Dam, also known as Lake Gonzales, and the M.A. Wade Dam, also known as, Oak Forest, to be unsafe and prohibited.

Changes abound for the EMS

After being rocked by scandal in 2018, the Gonzales County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) showed signs of improvement in 2019. In May, the EMS begun the process of merging under the Gonzales County Emergency Services District #1 (ESD). The decision to merge was done in large part to stabilize funding for the service. The ESD’s status as a governmental entity allows it access to income streams and discounts not available to the privately-owned EMS.

Since the merger began, the EMS board has restructured to three members, the ESD has earned a state-issued emergency services provider license and the ESD and EMS boards authorized the purchase of four new ambulances to replace some of the EMS’ aging fleet.

As of November, the EMS said it is up to date on its debts. With the EMS’ financial situation stabilized and the ESD securing its state provider license, only the ESD securing its Medicare and Medicaid provider numbers stand in the way of the merger. ESD Executive Director Eddie Callender Jr. said the ESD has a tentative target merger date of Feb. 1, 2020.

As for former EMS director James (Jim) Russell and former EMS book keeper Carla Russell, they were both indicted in November each on one count of misapplication of fiduciary property or property of a financial institution in the amount of $30,000 or more but less than $150,000 and one count of theft by public servant also in the amount of $30,000 or more but less than $150,000. The charges are graded as a third-degree felony and second-degree felony respectively. Both Jim and Carla Russell were initially arrested on June 4, 2018 following a lengthy investigation into allegations of misappropriation of Gonzales County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) funds.

Changes at Gonzales ISD

After nine years at Gonzales ISD as superintendent, Dr. Kim Strozier announced in mid-March her intentions to retire in August.

“As I approach the next phase in life, I am both excited and uncertain about what comes next in life,” Strozier wrote at the time. “I have been blessed and honored to work in such a wonderful community with such supportive and excellent educators, involved parents, and with many other people that I respect and care about. I have seen exemplary work and commitment from some of the best teachers in all of my experiences right here in Gonzales ISD. Support and auxiliary staff are amazing in flexibility and care for their role in supporting our classroom work. I have enjoyed our students tremendously. They are our sunshine. I am so proud of their accomplishments and of you and your commitment to them.”

After nearly two months of searching for a new superintendent, the GISD Board of Trustees named John Schumacher as their lone finalist in May. Schumacher was previously superintendent at Mason ISD.

“He has a passion for education, he cares for students and staff and a genuine desire to be in Gonzales and be a part of our GISD family and help us improve on our district which already has so much to offer,” GISD Board President Glenn Menking said at the board meeting.

In June, GISD officially named Schumacher the district’s superintendent. At the special-called meeting, Menking thanked Dr. Strozier for her service to Gonzales.

“I would like to briefly thank Dr. Strozier for her nine years of ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ as we say, through all we have done,” Menking said. “We appreciate all her efforts through these years, and we appreciate her time the next two months of aiding with the transition to the new regime. We wish you well.”

Schumacher sat down with the Inquirer and shared his vision of what GISD can be in the near future. Some goals he shared include establishing a connection between the community and the schools, creating a culture of excellence where everyone is committed to supporting the students and establishing a collaborative culture, with a growth-mindset focus.

“I’ve been blessed,” Schumacher said. “I have taught everywhere from kindergarten on up to coaching athletics and then an administrator. I’ve had good people working with all along the way, so it’s easier to accomplish great things when you have a good team behind you.”

Apaches athletic program shuffled around, Waelder ISD hires new AD

Two districts in Gonzales County saw some changes in their athletic program.

Waelder ISD hired a new athletic director in David Graves. Graves also serves as the head boys basketball coach. Knowing the expectations are always high in Waelder, Graves gave credit to coaches before him that have laid down the foundation for the Wildcats athletic program.

“I think any school that has that standard that they hold the bar or raise it to their student-athletes, that separates the average people of going one round to six rounds,” he said in June. “I think the tradition here has been set way before me, I would really give the foundation of it to Coach [Jarvin] Hall that was here, he really set that, and Coach [David] President took that and I’m good friends with Coach President and between both of them they really pushed Waelder to where it needed to be and I’m here to do what Coach Graves can do, not to fill their shoes, to see if I can take [expectations] and raise it.”

In Gonzales, five-year athletic director and head football coach Kodi Crane gave his resignation to accept a job with the same title at Caddo Mills ISD.

“That job came open and he called and asked,” Crane told the Inquirer. “We went up there and looked at it, it’s a lot closer to my wife’s family, it’s closer to my family, not a ton, but hour, hour and a half. So, closer to family, and we decided after we went up there and looked around and interviewed it was great opportunity, not only now but in the future as well.”

Crane left Gonzales with a 27-31 overall record, making the playoffs all five seasons and the second round of the playoffs three times.

Weeks later, Gonzales ISD announced the hiring of Pearland ISD offensive coordinator Michael “Mike” Waldie as their new athletic director and head football coach.

The district’s hiring committee reviewed 84 applicants, then interviewed five candidates, with Waldie officially hired 19 days after Crane announced he was stepping down.

This season, Waldie led the Apaches football team to an impressive 8-3 overall record, 3-1 in District 14-4ADI. Their losses came against Navarro (13-1), Beeville (11-1) and Lampasas (13-2).

Trophy cases filled with state titles, medals

Gonzales area athletes had plenty to celebrate in 2019.

The Gonzales Apaches 2018-19 football team had three athletes named to the Texas Sports Writers Association Class 4A all-state team, including JT Esparza, Lion Williamson and Seth Gibson. Esparza, as well as Luling’s Jonathyn Murry, advanced to the state powerlifting meet earlier this year too.

Also advancing to their respective state competition was Apache golfer Mason Richter, the Shiner St. Paul boys and girls golf teams, Gonzales track stars Devon Williams and Antonio Hernandez, most of the Shiner St. Paul boys and girls track athletes, the Apaches offensive linemen in a summer linemen challenge and Lady Apache cross-country runner Veronica Moreno.

Williams took bronze in two events, both shot put and discus, at the UIL state track meet.

With all of their accomplishments in the 2018-19 school year, Shiner St. Paul won the Henderson Cup for the fourth year in a row, an award given to the school with the most points from arts, academics and athletics during the school year. Cole Brown and Grace Irvin were named TAPPS 2A athletes of the year.

In cross-country, the Lady Cardinals won their seventh straight championship in a row.

Later in the year, Shiner St. Paul found their way to another state football game, this time a 21-14 victory over their rivals, the Hallettsville Sacred Heart Indians.

To float or not to float

Since 2014, major music festival Float Fest resided at the Cool River Ranch near Martindale on the San Marcos. But with Guadalupe County commissioners denying the necessary permits for Float Fest to be held in their county, festival organizers looked toward Gonzales as a possible location for the 2019 concert.

Their first attempt at holding the festival in Gonzales was a plan where Float Fest would occupy parts of J.B. Wells Park and Independence Park on July 20-21. The plan was nixed by city council after a threat of a lawsuit from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary gave them enough reason to deflate the use of city parkland.

At the March city council meeting, those in favor of the festival spoke of the long-term benefits the city would reap including permanent improvements to the river and an economic boost to downtown establishments. Those opposed cited noise complaints, fear of a lawsuit and the “spiritual damage” an event like this could cause.

In late April, Gonzales County Judge Pat Davis approved a permit for the mass gathering of 25,000 individuals at Jim Cannan’s ranch, located off County Road 197 across from J.B. Wells Park and roughly two miles south of the city of Gonzales.

 “It’s going to be a drain somewhat on the sheriff’s department, because we don’t have a big sheriff’s department, but I believe that we can make that work,” Davis said at the meeting. “Having Float Fest here one time would give us an idea of what we have.”

Following hearing all the public comments and reviewing letters sent by local law enforcement and emergency services agencies, Davis approved the permit.

But in late June, Float Fest 2019 was officially canceled, due to construction setbacks at the site caused by an “extraordinary amount of rain in May and June.”

Despite the cancelation, Float Fest organizers announced they will be returning to Gonzales in 2020 and in October, Judge Davis again approved a mass gathering permit for the music festival. The permit will allow up to 25,000 individuals to gather at Jim Cannan’s property for a festival planned for July 24-26, 2020.

As of press time, no acts have been officially announced.