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Smith County Commissioners Court addresses jail population, personnel changes and, yes, watermelon

“Dear Dalila ... I’m probably going to die here.”

Tuesday’s Smith County Commissioners Court meeting saw a flurry of public comment, including Bob Brewer’s questioning of “what the (mask) emergency is,” DeAnn Fox’s assurance that she will “continue to fight for justice, no matter what (the) zip code” and Precinct 1 Constable Bobby Garmon’s vow to no longer “sit back and get bashed” amid election controversy.

But it was Dalila Reynoso’s presentation – the reading of a letter from an inmate who has Stage III breast cancer – that caught the attention of Commissioner JoAnn Hampton, Precinct 4, later on Tuesday morning.

“Just one more question ... are we taking the necessary precautions for her?” Hampton asked during a report on the Smith County Jail status.

Sheriff Larry Smith, who delivered Tuesday’s report, assured that he’d look into the situation and how it had been handled.

“Thanks to Dalila,” he explained, “she is out now (on bond).”

The concerns regarding inmate safety do not begin and end with the unnamed woman, however.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the jail has struggled with a swelling population – one that has increased by nearly 100 inmates in less than a month.

In an Aug. 25 commissioners court meeting, concerns were raised over the staggering inmate population of 1,026. By Sept. 15, that number had increased to 1,121.

“We’re basically just maxed out, aren’t we?” said Commissioner Jeff Warr, of Precinct 1.

Smith said that they were, “completely,” in response.

The county has 201 inmates classified as “ready to be moved,” – which would provide much-needed relief – but there are currently no planned pickups from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Smith explained.

Commissioners asked about the possibility of obtaining a waiver to utilize the courthouse to help with population issues, but Smith said it would require “quite a bit of work” to meet jail inspection standards.

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran acknowledged the population struggles, and said Smith County is “caught in the pandemic by state mandates.”

“I know that everybody is trying to do what they can,” Moran said. “It’s a delicate situation because we certainly want to protect the community … We don’t have the wheels of justice moving to actually conduct the jury trials and have the adjudication of those crimes.”

Moran said the interim solution is to utilize funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to renovate the low-risk facility so that it can house medium-risk inmates and better help with distribution “across the board.”

He, along with the commissioners, also recommended that Smith consider looking into pricing for additional transport vans to help mitigate any future conflicts.

“This (struggle) could go on for awhile,” Warr said. “... The judicial system is going to be backed up for a long time.”

In other action on Tuesday, the court:

• Adopted a resolution celebrating the 2020 National Watermelon Queen, Paige Huntington, and recognizing Wiggins Farms, of Center, for its donation of watermelons to the East Texas Food Bank;

• Gave notice for a pipe and utility installation request on County Road 291;

• Appointed Keith Buckner as new Record Services Director effective Oct. 1;

• Approved a temporary, 90-day contract for inmate medical services as a “stop-gap measure” until a new medical services provider can be established based on bids and committee review later this year.

The next court meeting will take place Sept. 22 at 9:30 a.m. in the Smith County Annex Building.

The (Watermelon) Queen comes to East Texas Food Bank, area farm donates 100 watermelons

Royalty came to the East Texas Food Bank on Tuesday to celebrate the watermelon industry and the generosity of an area farm donating fresh produce to help those in need.

Wiggins Farms, based in Center, donated about 100 watermelons to the food bank to raise awareness about September being Hunger Action Month and in honor of National Watermelon Queen Paige Huntington, of Tyler.

Huntington was crowned in February in Orlando, Florida. As queen, she represents the watermelon industry on a national level.

“This is the biggest honor that I’ve ever had,” she said.

Wiggins Farms began in 1999 and has grown to include watermelon fields in Rio Grande Valley, Dilley and Center. The farms distribute 40 million pounds of watermelons to grocery stores around the United States and Canada. Kerry Wiggins runs the farm with her husband, Darren, their two sons, Jesse and Jared, and her daughter-in-law Ashlyn.

Ashlyn Wiggins, marketing director for Wiggins Farms, said the donation was made to celebrate the national watermelon queen being from Tyler and Hunger Action Month.

“We feel very blessed to give back during this pandemic, and kind of what it stands for is to give when we can,” Wiggins said. “We just want people to be aware of Hunger Action Month and do what you can. If you feel led to give, give.”

East Texas Food Bank CEO Dennis Cullinane said it’s an honor to welcome the national watermelon queen and to celebrate one of the most popular produce items the food bank receives.

“I think it’s maybe in the top three with cabbage and onions and it’s really important because it’s a delicious commodity. Everybody loves watermelons,” Cullinane said. “We’re excited about this donation. They really fly out of our agencies really quickly. Everyone loves them, especially in the summertime and moving into the fall. So we couldn’t be more grateful.”

Cullinane said donations like the watermelons from Wiggins Farms are needed now more than ever.

“We’ve been really fortunate because we’ve gotten a lot of donations, and we’ve really been learning about how generous this community is, particularly with the donation of fresh produce like this,” Cullinane said. “We’re here for the long run. This is not going to be a sprint. It’s a marathon. We need to continue to get quality donations like this to help sustain the families here in East Texas.”

Huntington said the watermelon industry is still trucking along, and Texas ranks in the top four states of watermelon producers.

“We’ve had a great year despite our pandemic. We’ve really been able to still push our produce and everything,” Huntington said. “Watermelon is a very nutritious fruit. It contains vitamins A, B6 and C. It’s 92 percent water so it’s a great hydrater. It’s also full of wonderful antioxidants.”

Huntington, a Jefferson native, said she was born into the agriculture industry with her father being a second-generation rancher.

“When the opportunity arose for me to run for the Texas Watermelon Queen position, I jumped on it because I thought that was a really cool opportunity for me to learn just a little bit more about the produce side of the agriculture industry,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey. I’m so excited to help put East Texas on the map and our wonderful growers that live here.”

As National Watermelon Queen, Huntington would normally tour around the country spreading awareness about the watermelon industry. Due to COVID-19, several events are being held virtually.

She said one of the most important things to the watermelon industry is giving back and helping the local community.

In addition to her queenly duties, Huntington is a student at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

Janice Reid leads a chant as people gather at T.B. Butler Fountain Plaza on the downtown Tyler square on Tuesday, June 9, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. This was the tenth straight night people gathered in Tyler to demonstrate in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Bible Verse: 9.16.20

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Former Tyler ISD principal, trustee Therelee Washington dies at 86

A longtime educator and board trustee at Tyler ISD has passed way.

Therelee Washington, 86, died Monday. He served as an educator at the school for over 23 years and as a trustee for 19 years afterward.

“Our community has lost a leader and friend in Therelee Washington,” Tyler ISD Superintendent Dr. Marty Crawford said. “His heart for student success as an educator, board member, and community member impacted the lives of many, and he will be greatly missed.”

Washington first came to Tyler ISD in 1971 as a Douglas Elementary School math teacher. After six years of teaching, Washington then became a principal at Bonner Elementary School for six years and W.A. Peete Elementary School for 11 years, according to the Tyler ISD statement.

After his retirement, he went on to serve on the board of trustees until 2013. His wife, Jean, served in the seat through 2019.

“I had the pleasure of working with Therelee for many years as a school board member,” Tyler ISD Trustee Andy Bergfeld said. “He was a true servant to his community, but more than that, he was a genuine friend. His legacy will carry on in the many students and adults he had an influence on, including me. Our prayers are with Jean and the entire Washington family.”

While serving as a trustee, the Tyler ISD board was named the 2005 Region VII Board of the Year for several accomplishments, including passing a $96 million bond to improve and build new elementary campuses, increasing the district’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility and adding performance indicators to determine progress in testing scores, attendance and completion rates, according to the school district announcement.

“My heart is saddened today,” former Tyler ISD Trustee Rev. Orenthia Mason said. “It was my joy to sit beside Therelee at the Board of Trustees dais, and I am so happy he was able to see a dream of his come true in the Tyler ISD Career and Technology Center. Our Board of Trustees was a wonderful team, and Therelee kept us all laughing during challenging times and focused on academic excellence. His tenure speaks well for itself. Well done, my friend.”