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Sparks fly over abuse of power allegations at Tatum Council meeting
  • Updated

Tempers flared at Tuesday night’s Tatum City Council meeting as recently resigned City Secretary, Stormy Rodriguez, addressed the council about an agenda item alleging criminal behavior.

The business item in question called for discussion and motion regarding “issues with the previous City Secretary of Abusing her position for paying herself vacation and etc.,” a topic considered in multiple previous meetings. No clear resolution was made in earlier discussions, but it was determined that the wording of the Employee Handbook should and would be addressed as parts were confusing to readers. No such changes or updates to the handbook have been made public or placed on subsequent agendas, but the argument still stands as to whether Rodriguez’s approved vacation time was applicable.

“We’re all aware of what’s been going on as far as where we were left,” said Council member Wendell Moore, referring to the resignation of Rodriguez two meetings prior. “It’s been on my mind because it wasn’t taken care of. It just bothers me because we basically allowed it. There might not be anything we can do, we’ve just got to be a little more in tune with what’s going on.”

Rodriguez responded asking, “So what’s the point in having me on the agenda? What is the point of putting it the way you did on the agenda?”

After a moment of verbal sparring, Moore reiterated his belief that the city’s policies clearly state that she was not entitled to vacation pay until she had surpassed a year of employment with Rodriguez questioning why Mayor Don Hall had signed and approved her vacation requests if the policy was clearly stated.

“I signed for days off. Look at it and see,” Mayor Hall stated, defending the position that Rodriguez’s paid hours were unapproved.

Rodriguez responded, referring to a photocopy of a January Employee Vacation/Days Off Request form marked approved and signed by Hall. “Vacation days off requested, you signed and approved. At what point was I told this is not a paid vacation?” She continued, questioning the consistent and unchallenged Mayor and Council approval of payroll documents within the time frame of the allegations of criminal behavior.

As tensions from the gallery grew, Nakita Hall, Tatum resident and wife of Mayor Hall responded, asking, “Who is supposed to approve payroll every single week,” Moore responded that all approvals are to come from the Mayor, as stated in the bylaws, which also define the terms for vacation time accrual. Rodriguez again questioned the fact that payroll documents, many of which included vacation time that she had requested approval to utilize, were approved on a weekly basis.

Seeing no end to the growing circle of questions and responses, Mayor Hall attempted to end the discussion of the contentious agenda item stating, “From now on we’ve moved past it. Do you agree to this? Now we’re done with this and I give you my word you will not be back on the agenda again.”

No action was taken on the agenda item.

Results from the May 6 election for Places 3, 4, and 5 Council seats were canvassed with Gregory Cole taking Kim R. Smith’s Place 5 seat while Tate Smith retained his position on the Council. Departing council member Dana Buddecke took a moment to thank Kim Smith for his more than 30 years of service to the Tatum community.

The 97/97 tied vote in the Place 4 Council seat race between Robin Palmer and Amy Keller, led to a bit of scurrying as time was ticking on the necessary recount and assignments of dates for a run-off election.

Elections official, Rayford Gibson agreed to conduct the recount after the night’s meeting adjourned to allow for election dates to be set. Appointed vote counters were hurriedly called and the Mayor, Elections Official, City Secretary, and candidates Palmer and Keller were allowed to sit in as ballots were recounted. The tie did remain and election dates were set.

Early voting will be held from June 5 through June 13 at City Hall, with the final election on June 17.

With requests to repair city streets mounting, especially after recent torrential rains and flash flooding, Mayor Don Hall hoped to discuss a way to quickly attain council approval for necessary city work without calling special meetings throughout the month. The idea to informally gather to quickly express opinions on needed work, or to utilize text messaging to vote for or against needed city work. Again, Nakita Hall stepped in to inform the council and Mayor that these would be considered illegal meetings and all discussions and decisions regarding city affairs must be held in a posted meeting or they violate the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“If you are voicing an opinion that is a vote,” she said. “You have to have a meeting if you are voting and it has to have public notice and it has to be 72 hours ahead of time.”

The council eventually approved a motion stating that work done outside of normal circumstances, costing more than $500 should be brought before the council for approval.

Cost quotes are being sought to replace city computer systems as the City Secretary stated that her computer is about to crash and the Police Department computers are more than eight years old and were purchased used. Tatum Police Chief James Smith added that while the computers are old a larger concern is the need for storage capacity.

“If these computers go down we’ve got the capability to store up to three days worth of footage,” explained Smith. “Beyond that we won’t be able to use our cameras and that’s just not how this job works. We’re okay for now but I can’t say how long that will last.”

Councilwoman Buddecke recommended reaching out to the East Texas Council of Governments to see if the city qualifies for any assistance. The agenda item was tabled for later approval to allow the City Secretary to gather the requested information.

Old, but certainly not forgotten, city business was discussed after the adjournment of the official meeting with Councilman Moore acknowledging openly that training documents thought stolen had been located. Moore hoped to make the recovery of these documents public as city officials had, for nearly a year, accused previously terminated City Secretary Kay Dyer of stealing the documents.

“The notes were found, that they claimed you had stolen with your lights,” Moore stated, referring to bulbs taken from the City Secretary’s office that Dyer purchased without repayment from city funds, which have become a point of contention. “Yes, the were found.”

Dyer remains in active litigation against the city, with mediation expected to begin in the coming weeks.

Full Armor Christian Academy holds 2023 graduation
  • Updated

The seven members of Full Armor Christian Academy’s (FACA) graduating Class of 2023 officially collected their diplomas on Thursday evening.

Salutatorian Diana Canenquez shared with her classmates a verse from scripture, Matthew 6:34, which she keeps on her phone to read whenever she feels doubts about her life and future. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own...That is something that stuck with me these past few years at Full Armor. Knowing that [God] is in charge and has a plan for every single one of us. It gives me comfort for the life that’s ahead of me.”

Canenquez said she hoped her peers would also keep that verse in their hearts for whatever path they take after graduation.

For her speech, valedictorian Anna Norman voiced her deep appreciation for the love and loyalty of her family and the insights and perspectives her FACA teachers shared with her. To the younger classmen she said, “You can learn to fail or you can fail to learn. High school is a learning experience beyond your education. Take the risk. Always put one foot in front of the other to be your best. But understand this: you won’t ever be perfect. If you have to take a step back, don’t let fear of failure define you.”

And for the upperclassmen, Norman’s message was, “In the midst of your battles, never forget that God loves you and He has a plan for you. Have faith you are capable of great things. Tonight is more than a celebration of accomplishments. It is full circle.”

The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Kristen Threadgill, a former FACA student who returned to teach music there from 2014-2020 after earning degrees at Kilgore College and Texas State University. Threadgill performs on stage for the Henderson Civic Theatre and serves on the board of the Limelight Players Children’s Theatre.

Threadgill read passages from Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and related them to scripture to offer the graduates advice on making good choices now that they can “steer themselves in any direction they choose.”

“The first thing I want you to remember is that seeking God and His best for you has to come first. I’m still learning to see God’s wisdom. Growing and seeking doesn’t stop when you graduate high school, finish college, get your dream job and find what you think is the perfect relationship for you. You must continue to seek...Seek God’s wisdom so you can be your blessed pest, not just your personal best,” Threadgill said. “Today is your day Warrior Class of 2023, your mountain is waiting. It’s time to run your race. So get on your way.”

Before the diplomas were handed out, Norman and Canenquez conducted FACA’s time-honored tradition of the passing of the sword to the junior class representative, signaling the transfer of senior class leadership responsibilities.

Rusk County United Way Sock Hop a swinging success

Rusk County United Way kicked off its first ever Summer Sock Hop community-wide event and fundraiser. The Thursday evening event, sent the charitable crowd twisting their way back in time to an era of poodle skirts, saddle shoes, and muscle cars.

Time slipped before guests even entered the doors of the Henderson Civic Center. The line of pristine classic cars lining the venue portico as the old-school rock hits played by Henderson’s favorite band, the Brooze Brothers, burst through glass doors and dragged their saddle shoe and loafer clad listeners back into a bygone era. Event vendors and sponsors lined the outer limits of the packed reception hall, decked out in their 50s finest with treats available for passing partygoers.

Guests satiated rumbly tummies with a very 50s menu of Coke floats and burgers supplied by the Texas favorite, Whataburger. The Rusk County Extension Office brought out their pedal-operated smoothie maker for those who with healthier tastes, or just the young at heart who wanted to chance a bike ride for the evening.

The thrill of the night’s events took hold as even the consummate professional, Bonnie Geddie, Henderson Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director took to the stage in her purple poodle skirt and ponytail to join the band. Mayor Buzz Fullen and his favorite Pink Lady, Carol, danced the night away while Rusk County Treasurer Andy Vinson tested out his new knee with a giddy spin in the Hula Hoop contest. The twist contest was a blur of colored petticoats and cuffed jeans as cool cats and groovy chicks took to the dance floor.

Contests were also held for the Best Costume, Best overall Costume, Best Agency decoration, and Best Classic Car. Door prizes were drawn throughout the evening with incredible prize baskets provided by event sponsors. A silent auction was held with 50s memorabilia, a most coveted prize.

Thanks went out to all event sponsors for their generous donations, without which an event of this skirt-swinging magnitude couldn’t exist. Whataburger, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Texas Bank, Angel Care Hospice, Wallace and Sons Wrecker Service, Henderson Discount Tire and Brake, ABC Auto, Rusk County Electric Cooperative, Inc., Origin Bank, Gaston Museum, Phenix & Crump, and Brooze Brothers assisted in making this an unforgettable and hopefully recurring event.

Kara Washington with her family after signing her letter of intent to play volleyball at Richland College.

A century worth celebrating

Henderson Mayor Buzz Fullen joined extended members of the community in celebrating the special day of one Pine Lodge resident.

Mrs. Wilma Bennett celebrated her 100th birthday surrounding by those she loves most in the cozy dining area of the Pine Lodge Assisted Living Community in Henderson. Complete with a live band singing some old-time favorites, Bennett’s friends, family, and Pine Lodge neighbors were treated to a buffet-style dinner, and a beautiful double-layer pink floral cake.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” said Bennett. “I’ve got all my favorite people here, my pink cake is so pretty with all these flowers, and I am so comfortable and happy here in my home.”

In awe of the incredible things she’s witnessed within her joyous century, Mayor Fullen visited with Bennett about her family history within Henderson and Rusk County, the passing invention Model Ts and her spry, silly and clearly fun-loving demeanor. Another surprise on her special day, Fullen read out loud a document making the official proclamation that Thursday, May 18, 2023, be known as Wilma Warren Bennett Day!

“Whereas, Wilma Warren Bennett has seen many wonderful changes, miraculous inventions and world-altering events in her lifetime,” Fullen said, quoting her official proclamation. “And whereas, Wilma Warren Bennett is beloved by both family and friends alike; and whereas Wilma Warren Bennett is a very special person held in high esteem by all those who know her.”

Along with Mayor Fullen, Chief Chad Taylor and Lt. Charles Helton of the Henderson Police Department were on hand to congratulate Bennett on her special day. Rusk County Sheriff John Wayne Valdez made his rounds visiting with familiar faces while 50s-styled social butterfly Kelli West Potts flitted around the common areas hugging necks, shaking hands, and sharing stories.

American Lawyers Alliance honors HHS Teacher Suellen Perry

Suellen Perry, a Henderson High School teacher as well as a practicing attorney, has been named one of three Teachers of the Year by the American Lawyers Alliance (ALA). A panel of three judges with the ALA reviewed Perry’s body of work, calling it “exemplary, creative and dedicated.” The ALA honors three high school teachers each year who have made significant contributions in the area of law-related education and who have developed programs that have:

n Furthered the understanding of the role of the courts, law enforcement agencies and the legal profession

n Helped students recognize their responsibilities as well as their rights

n Encouraged effective law-related education programs in their schools and communities

n Increased communication among students, educators and those involved professionally in the legal system

Perry currently teaches law-related classes including courts, business law, and dual credit criminal justice at Henderson High School as well as sponsors the high school mock trial team. Perry led this year’s team to a first-place victory in the regional rounds earning a trip to the prestigious state-level competition. Perry will be honored in a formal ceremony in Denver, Colorado on August 4, 2023.

“Thank you to everyone who has continued to support our [Henderson High School] Law Program,” said Perry, “I could not have qualified for this award without it! I am incredibly honored.”

“This is truly an honor for Ms. Perry and HHS,” said Superintendent Dr. Thurston Lamb. “The field of law already offers a wide variety of opportunities for our students. From litigation to business law and law enforcement, there are any number of career choices for students who want to do something that can honestly be described as public service. But then to have a teacher like Ms. Perry, who brings her own real-world experiences to the classroom and is deeply committed to challenging students–that makes a good program great.”