Alpine City Council talks newspapers, jail admittance at heated city meeting

ALPINE — At an Alpine City Council meeting on Tuesday night, the conversation got heated as Alpine city leaders discussed a dispute around the Brewster County Jail.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson hasn’t been allowing Alpine police suspects into the jail prior to magistration, reportedly out of concerns that people were being arrested without probable cause. But Alpine city officials stressed they have a prior agreement with Brewster County allowing them to use the jail. And local District Attorney Sandy Wilson, who gave a presentation at the meeting, said the situation was jeopardizing public safety in Alpine. As a result of not allowing police detainees in the jail, she said a suspect was able to escape from Alpine Police Department before later being caught.

Wilson named other issues too, including that the sheriff’s office was using “encryption” to prevent communication with Alpine police and were refusing to “assist APD at all.” She said Sheriff Dodson was “abusing his office” and suggested he may have committed a crime but did not elaborate. Dodson was not present at the meeting to address these concerns himself.

The Big Bend Sentinel reported more fully on these controversies this week, in our story entitled “In sheriff’s race, bodycam video prompts controversy, possible investigation.” But that dispute was hardly the only big item on the agenda. Among the other matters city officials discussed were:

Coronavirus

As always, Ekta Escovar, the local health authority for Brewster County, attended the meeting to give updates on coronavirus. She did not have particularly good news.

“Texas has fallen to the ninth-worst [state] in testing,” she said. And while Brewster County hasn’t seen case counts like those from its big outbreak in late June and early July, the county “had still not hit [a] downward slope” of new cases.

In fact, Escovar said, the area was seeing “another surge” in cases, which The Big Bend Sentinel reported on last week. The most prominent increase in new cases was for the 10-19 year-old age group, though people in their 20s were also seeing new cases. As a result of all of the challenges, Escovar said the county was currently only meeting two out of its five coronavirus metrics, “which is not great.”

“We have about 16 active cases in Brewster County,” Escovar said. “About half those cases are coming from Sul Ross.” She also explained some of the issues around counting cases among college students, which the state counts at their permanent address (where their parents live) over their temporary address (where they’re living for college).

This logic made sense, Escovar said, because the state didn’t want to double-count cases — and because many college students across the state are currently taking remote classes, anyways. Still, she felt it was important for Brewster County to track cases at Sul Ross. After all, she said, those students typically live, eat and shop in Alpine.

Erik Zimmer, the city manager, asked Escovar whether she could help arrange more mobile testing in Alpine. Esovar said she’d try, and acknowledged the tri-county was a rural area without “a lot of that [healthcare] infrastructure built in if mobile testing doesn’t come through.”

Still, she stressed that state health officials were currently also dealing with coronavirus spikes elsewhere. “There are a lot of counties that are struggling a little bit more than we are,” she said.

Paper of record

Earlier this month, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, Alpine city leaders were considering whether to make The Big Bend Sentinel its new newspaper of record or to keep the Alpine Avalanche. In Texas, cities must have a “newspaper of record” in which they place public notices and other documents that they must, by law, allow the public to review.

City council members decided they wanted to know more about those technical qualifications and voted to table the measure until the next scheduled meeting on September 15. That paved the way for Tuesday’s meeting, where city council broached the topic again.

City council voted 3-2 to keep the Avalanche as its paper of record. Councilmembers Ramon Olivas, Betty Fitzgerald and Lucy Escovedo voted for that measure. Councilmembers Rick Stephens and Maria Curry voted against it, instead preferring to switch to The Big Bend Sentinel.

Ultimately, the decision seemed to come down to hometown pride. Mayor Andy Ramos described the Avalanche as a “homegrown newspaper” and a local school “booster” that was “very fair in their reporting” and had served the community since 1890. The owners live and shop in Alpine, he said.

“We always talk about shopping Alpine,” he said. “This is moving in the opposite direction.

“This is moving to another town,” he added. “I strongly recommend that since we’re always saying ‘shop Alpine,’ we need to stay with the Avalanche.”

Councilmember Rick Stephens agreed that “fundamentally, I do believe the Avalanche ought to be the paper.” But he said he was bothered that the Avalanche took a “combative” approach on the issue and said he thought the Avalanche felt they were “entitled” to be the city’s paper of record and had “taken it for granted.”

“I think the Avalanche needs to step up its game,” he said — calling coverage of Alpine City Council meetings “far better” in The Big Bend Sentinel. “We’re not served well when we have a paper that looks and says, ‘I’m entitled,’ as opposed to, ‘I’ve got to earn it.’”

Congratulations to First Christian Church

Mayor Andy Ramos read a resolution congratulating First Christan Church on its 130th anniversary. The congregation was founded all the way back in June 1890 and has served the “physical, emotional and spiritual needs of Alpine for more than 130 years.”

Ramos called the church a “vital part” of civic and cultural life in Alpine and said he wanted to “express the council’s appreciation” for the many years of service. “Congratulations,” he said, “and happy anniversary.”


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