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Election
Aaron Franco wants to see change, long term success for Victoria
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Growing up in Corpus Christi, Aaron Franco often came to Victoria for baseball games with his family. He never thought one day he’d live here.

But not only does he live in Victoria now, he is also one of five candidates running to represent District 3 at City Council. Franco first ran against incumbent Jeff Bauknight during the May election. After winning reelection, however, Bauknight announced he would be running for mayor, forfeiting his seat on Council. A special election to fill the position will be held July 3.

Franco studied business at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, but always had a love for baseball. His first job was with the Corpus Christi Hooks, a minor league baseball team. He was eventually offered a job as the retail operations supervisor for the Houston Astros.

“That’s when I really learned what it meant to be a manager and what it meant to be responsible,” said Franco, crediting his career now as the financial center manager at Frost Bank to that time with the Astros.

Despite his love for baseball, he said his work with the Astros was demanding and not sustainable for him, and he eventually moved back to Corpus Christi.

He began working part-time at Frost Bank, and within a few years was promoted to manager and moved to Victoria to open their new branch here. He quickly fell in love with the city and the community in Victoria.

“I moved here in September 2019, and it’s probably been the best decision I could have made,” he said.

Why did you decide to run for City Council?

“In City Council if no one runs against an incumbent, they’re guaranteed their position again,” said Franco.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said, but his goal in running against Bauknight in May had been to both encourage people to get out and vote and show people that there are options.

“There was nothing against anybody that was running at the time,” said Franco. “It was just for the fact that we have an election, let’s actually get out and vote, so that when we have big elections, like a presidential election, we’re in that routine of voting already.”

If elected, what will you prioritize as a councilman?

As the youngest candidate, Franco thinks he offers a unique resource to the city with his ability to bridge the generational gap and advocate for the interests of the younger community.

He said he’d also like to address the issue of homelessness that he sees in the city, especially in District 3.

“I feel like it’s kind of just being pushed further and further down the road, but I feel like we need to address that now,” said Franco. “These are our neighbors. Whatever the reasons for it, we as a community should come together to try to help them and get them back on track, so that we as a whole are successful.”

How would you prioritize communicating with residents and receiving citizen input?

“I’ve said it a couple times through my first campaign, and this one, that we need to communicate with the citizens of Victoria,” said Franco.

He said he’d like to see the city do a better job informing citizens about what it’s doing and especially about why projects or other efforts are delayed.

“Sometimes you have to get out into the neighborhoods and really talk to people,” he said. “During the campaign time, people go out and knock on doors. And I think we should continue doing that after being elected.”

How do you think we should prioritize spending in next year’s budget?

“A mass majority of our general fund goes to our safety, which I think is a good thing. I think it benefits our community long term to have that type of funding,” said Franco.

He said he’d like to see a little more money go toward long term projects that benefit the community.

The city can’t be afraid to rethink things, he said. He said Boot Fest is an example of something that hasn’t always been successful and might need to change.

“We have to reevaluate things that aren’t successful and try to change them, otherwise we’re just going to be stagnant.”

The city of Victoria is set to receive $14.5 million through the American Rescue Plan. How would you like to see that stimulus money spent?

He said he still would like a better understanding of what the restrictions on the money are, but he’d like to see it used to benefit the community directly.

Getting community input on how they would like to see the money spent is also important to him.

“I think we need to do another survey. Ask the community what they want that money for and really listen to them instead of just making a decision that may not benefit anybody long term,” he said.


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Education
Bloomington hosts COVID-19 vaccine clinic, children get immunized
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Monica Soto, 15, covered her face as she anticipated the prick of the needle nearing her left arm.

The National Guard member urged Monica to relax her arm. Her mother talked about anything other than the needle as she received her first Pfizer immunization against COVID-19.

With the first of two vaccines done, Monica is one step closer to post-pandemic life.

Bloomington school district hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic Thursday. The clinic was open to all, but it was focused on immunizing children 12 years and older in the rural community. A vaccine clinic will be held later this summer to administer the second dose of the vaccine.

About 20 people registered for Thursday’s clinic, but walks in arrived as well.

“It’s mostly kids today,” said Stacey Greer, Bloomington school district nurse and clinic organizer.

The district nurse felt good Thursday, she said. It was the second clinic the district hosted at the middle school, and she was eager to get students protected against the virus.

Bloomington experienced fluctuating COVID-19 cases with an outbreak sending students home during a portion of the spring semester.

Greer hopes those closures will be a thing of the past with vaccines now available to children 12 years and older. Previously, the vaccine was only available to adults and later children 16 years and older.

About 43.4% of Victoria County residents, who are 12 years or older, have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine. About 37.78% are considered fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

The state has about 44.82% of people who are 12 years or older that are fully vaccinated.

Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two injections before a person can be considered fully vaccinated unlike the one dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Placedo mother Laura De La Rosa brought her two older sons to get vaccinated at the clinic. She had already been vaccinated, but she wanted her sons protected from the virus, as well.

“It’s a relief everyone is getting vaccinated,” she said.

The thought of removing her mask is still “scary,” but she knows getting the vaccine is the best way to prevent the virus.

The De La Rosa family is no stranger to COVID-19.

Her husband, 15-year-old son and herself contracted the virus. Her 13-year-old son and 7-year-old did not.

Getting vaccinated is not just a benefit to her family but also the community, De La Rosa said.

Her son Blizal De La Rosa, 13, was nervous to get the vaccine. He worried it would hurt.

“I just wanted to get it over with,” he said.

Before the National Guard member injected the vaccine, each child was asked if they wanted the vaccine and they were not forced to receive it.

Blizal just finished his seventh grade year at Bloomington Middle School, and he is ready to stop the remote learning.

“I couldn’t see my friends at school,” he said. “That was really hard.”

The vaccine is the first step to getting back in the classroom.


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Special report from the border
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Coming Sunday, a special report from Texas’ southern border. The Advocate looks at life in a shelter for migrants in Harlingen and an immigrant processing facility in Donna.

Also watch for:

  • Interviews with area state troopers who are helping patrol the Rio Grande and the border.
  • Interviews with property owners in the Valley and Crossroads who are impacted by immigration.

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State rests, defense calls first witnesses in Victoria capital murder trial
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A former inmate said a key witness in a 2018 double homicide “bragged” about committing the crimes while in jail in the months following the shootings.

The key witness, Kimberly Hoff, testified Tuesday that the defendant Jesus Martinez, 32, was the triggerman. Hoff was originally charged with capital murder after the double homicide in September 2018, but a Victoria County grand jury declined to indict her on those charges.

The state rested its case Thursday afternoon, the fourth day of the trial. The defense began calling its witnesses, including Hoff, shortly thereafter.

Alexandria Garcia, 39, of Victoria, who was called by the defense, testified Hoff said she committed the homicides herself while in custody at the Victoria County Jail in 2018.

Hoff said on the stand she was in an adjacent room of the house when the shootings occurred.

Martinez is on trial for the deaths of Victoria residents Michelle Johnson, 31, and Dward Kitchens, 34, who were found dead inside a dilapidated home on North Jecker Street in Victoria in September 2018. Martinez is facing two counts of capital murder, which, if convicted, would be punishable by life in prison.

Defense attorney Merri Nichols said she and fellow defense attorney Keith Weiser would demonstrate that there is reasonable doubt about the shooter’s identity during her opening statement on Tuesday. Assistant District Attorney Jordan Fries, who is prosecuting the case, said the state would demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Martinez committed the homicides.

Questions posed by the defense centered around Garcia’s account of several conversations she said she had with Hoff. Garcia testified that Hoff bragged about committing the homicides and Hoff admitted to her that Martinez was actually her boyfriend.

Hoff testified on Tuesday she had met Martinez two days before the shooting and that he was stalking her.

Garcia said she knew Hoff “from the streets,” but it is not clear from her testimony how long she has known Hoff.

Before Garcia’s testimony, the defense recalled Hoff to the stand for further questions. Asked about Garcia’s account of their conversations, Hoff denied everything, saying that “none of the it” was true.

District Judge Eli Garza recessed the proceedings until Friday morning before the state began questioning Garcia.

Garcia was convicted of possession of a controlled substance of more than 28 grams and manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance of less than 1 gram in 2012, according to court records. In addition, she testified that she was in jail in 2018, when she said the conversations with Hoff took place, on an unlawful possession of a firearm charge.

Hoff was originally charged with capital murder in the days after the shooting, but a grand jury declined to indict her on those charges. Instead, Hoff was charged on two counts, which are still pending, of tampering with physical evidence. She is accused of hiding evidence connected to the shooting, including a bag of ammunition, holster and boots.

David Reed, a former Victoria Police Department investigator who assisted with the investigation, testified earlier in the day that, now, knowing all of the facts of the case, he would not have charged Hoff with murder.

Jurors also heard two investigators and a forensic scientist with the Texas Department of Public Safety who assisted with the investigation.

During cross-examination of the investigators, the defense asked why a gunshot residue test was not conducted on Hoff or Martinez. That testing method can determine the presence of microscopic particles of lead, barium and other metals discharged during gunfire, which could indicate a firearm was fired by that person.

The investigators said the results of the test could have been compromised by the duration of time between their arrests and the shooting. Ultimately, the investigators said a gunshot residue test could have produced inconclusive results.


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Emergency Preparedness
Texas Zoo undertakes flood preparedness emergency plan
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A new cooperative effort has prepared the Texas Zoo in Victoria to better withstand flooding and securely evacuate dangerous animals during potential emergency conditions.

In 2017 during Hurricane Harvey, the zoo was inundated with more than 5 feet of floodwater. Since then, the facility’s leadership has collaborated with the city of Victoria and the Zoological Disaster Rescue, Response and Recovery network (ZDR3 USA) to develop a plan to secure the facility and safely evacuate animals during flooding events.

“We always want to err on the side of caution,” said Cari Wittenborn, manager of animal health and welfare at the Texas Zoo. “There’s a window of when we can safely get these animals out, but at the same time we also don’t want to jump the gun and evacuate too soon and put those animals through undue stress.”

ZDR3 USA is an industry-led effort that provides support to zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, and other exotic animal businesses before, during and after significant incidents. Previously, the zoo really only had a plan to shelter in place during emergencies, said Wittenborn. That works during a wind event, she said, but doesn’t during a flood.

Director of the Texas Zoo Liz Jensen conferred with the zoo’s board-certified veterinarian, City of Victoria officials, and ZDR3 USA to make a proactive plan for flooding events and evacuation. The biggest question the zoo was faced with answering was when they’d need to begin to evacuate their animals, and if so, where to.

“Predicting rainfall and river flood stage can be tricky and the Texas Zoo’s stance is to err on the side of caution and plan proactively,” Jensen said.

Any time the river is forecasted to reach 29.5 feet the zoo begins preparations for a potential evacuation, Wittenborn said.

Many of the Zoo’s animals can quickly be moved to temporary housing off zoo grounds during an emergency, but the Texas Zoo is home to a number of dangerous species, including bears, jaguars, spider monkeys and others, who require specialized enclosures to be housed safely. In the face of a flood event that might damage enclosure integrity, evacuating those dangerous animals is the zoo’s first priority.

ZDR3 USA was able to arrange for temporary housing for all of the Texas Zoo’s animals through their network of partner facilities. Eight zoos and sanctuaries throughout Texas volunteered to aid the Texas Zoo in the event an evacuation became necessary by providing personnel support, vehicles to transport animals, and holding space for the jaguars, black bears, red wolves, alligators, and more. Other zoological facilities were on standby ready to provide additional aid to zoo staff as needed.

These partnerships are for a year, said Wittenborn. Every January the Zoo will reach out to each of the partners to confirm that they can continue accepting the Zoo’s animals for another year.

During the May rain this year, the Guadalupe River’s water level remained low enough that it was determined an evacuation of the zoo was not necessary. However, the Texas Zoo leadership said the process of planning and preparing for potential flood conditions was incredibly valuable. The Director of ZDR3 USA, Julia Wagner, met with Texas Zoo leadership and City of Victoria Parks and Recreation Director Jason Alfaro to discuss how to best streamline and enhance the zoo’s existing contingency plans, and used the opportunity as a drill.

The Zoo is also working on acquiring a third pump to help mitigate flooding effects during disasters and sandbags to help protect Zoo buildings.


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