By Landan Kuhlmann
For most of us, 2020 has been different than other years. We had become accustomed to waking up in the morning, grabbing a cup of coffee and heading to work – though for the last nine months, that may have simply meant heading back to the bedroom or kitchen table or home office. And wearing a mask in public has become as commonplace as brushing our teeth or putting on shoes when we leave home.
That’s the reality of 2020 and living in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. How we’ve coped with the coronavirus has been a major storyline that has dominated the Star’s headlines, but it’s not the only one.
Below are the top stories, as selected by our staff, that defined an unprecedented year that brought tragedy, triumph and everything in between.
Pandemic pummels, everyday heroes provide light
Few stories about 2020 can be told without mentioning the profound impact the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted around the globe, including our slice of it here in Fort Bend County.
Fort Bend had the Houston region’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 in early March, and there had been more than 30,000 cases in the county as of Monday. At least 344 county residents have died from the virus, including 19 as the result of an outbreak at a Missouri City nursing home in August. More than 23,500 patients have recovered.
But the disease’s local impact goes way beyond the case numbers.
It has forced us to change how we live our lives and do our jobs, driving many businesses to alter the way they operate and causing some to close because of the prolonged economic downturn. Restaurants are now surviving largely on takeout and delivery, having to limit dine-in seating capacities, while some of the area’s grocers struggled to meet spikes in demand upon the onset of the pandemic.
Fort Bend ISD and Stafford MSD underwent swift transitions to mostly remote, online learning until October – with mixed reactions – while many of the area’s faith institutions have joined in holding a significant portion of activities virtually. The Fort Bend County Fair, originally slated to take place Sept. 25-Oct. 4, was canceled for the first time since World War II due to the pandemic.
However, not every story about the pandemic was a sad tale as many area residents reconnected to the outdoors, grew closer to their families and tapped in to their creativity. And in April, The Star shined a light on several of the everyday heroes working on the frontlines of the pandemic to help Fort Bend residents maintain peace of mind.
Among those who rose to the challenge were Kabir Rezvankhoo, an emergency care specialist at Houston Methodist Sugar Land and Texas Medical Center; Jonathon Sabrsula with the Stafford Fire Department; Sgt. Gregory Suter of the Sugar Land Police Department; and Betty Granados, an employee at the H-E-B grocery store in Sienna.
“We’re problem solvers … this pandemic is no different,” Suter said in April. “Resources are always going to be limited and time is going to be scarce. Yet, the job still needs to get done.”
Residents stand up for social justice
The May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who grew up in Houston and died in police custody in Minneapolis, sparked protests and demonstrations across the country – including in Fort Bend. A June 8 protest in front of Sugar Land City Hall drew dozens of residents from Missouri City, Rosenberg and other municipalities around the county, with many of the attendees being young adults.
“It’s important for me to be out here not just for myself – because I am a Black man – but because I have a younger brother,” Richmond resident Kristian Smith said at the protest. “I want to show him it’s OK to protest for what you believe in. I want it to be safer for him.”
In August, State Rep. Ron Reynolds and a group of activists also called for the removal of the Jaybird “Our Heroes” monument outside Richmond City Hall, which had long been the subject of controversy in the county. The Fort Bend County Commissioners Court voted in late October to relocate the monument honoring the Jaybirds, a former local political group with a history of racism and discrimination.
Scarcella leaves legacy in Stafford
Much of what Stafford is today, its residents attribute to the leadership of Mayor Leonard Scarcella, who died in June at age 79. He had served as Stafford’s mayor since 1969 and held the distinction of being the United States’ longest-serving mayor.
Under his leadership, Stafford abolished city property taxes in 1995. Another of the most notable achievements came in 1977, when Stafford became the only Texas city with a municipal school district. There were also numerous infrastructure improvements under his watch as well as the construction of the Stafford Centre, an entertainment and cultural complex with a 1,100-seat performing arts theatre, 25,000 square feet of convention center space and four festival fields on 43 acres of land near the intersection of Murphy Road and Cash Road.
“We’ve done things and accomplished things in Stafford that others would not even dare to dream of,” Scarcella said in a 2019 interview for the Fort Bend Business Journal.
There also are many who will be left with the impression of Scarcella the man. Upon his passing, residents noted daily interactions around the city in which he irradiated kindness, compassion and a genuine love for the people of Stafford.
“He was an amazing man, so kind and caring,” resident Patricia Braud Bishop wrote on Facebook after Scarcella’s death.
He was a lifelong resident of the city, attending middle and high school in Missouri City before Texas A&M and the University of Houston Law School. Scarcella practiced law for 53 years in Stafford and was also a member of Holy Family Catholic Church in Missouri City while living across from City Hall.
In the eyes of many, Stafford will always be ‘His city,’ even though a special election was held to determine Scarcella’s successor as mayor. Cecil Willis, a city council member in Stafford, was elected as Stafford’s new mayor in a Dec. 12 runoff against AJ Honore.
Tension in local governments
Shortly before the start of 2020, the Rosenberg City Council voted to censure councilman Isaac Davila, citing his proposal to make random drug and alcohol testing mandatory for the mayor and council members after he suggested some of them had been under the influence at meetings. The proposal was struck down twice before being passed with a caveat – that Davila would have to pay for the tests.
Dissention in municipal government spread east to Missouri City this year. During a contentious special meeting Feb. 24 that necessitated multiple calls to order, many of the same council members who helped unanimously select former city manager Anthony Snipes to the position in 2015 were among those to oust him in a 4-3 vote.
In July, the city hired former Hutto city manager Odis Jones to replace Snipes by a 4-2 vote among its council. Anthony Maroulis abstained from the vote, while Jeffrey Boney and Floyd Emery voted against the appointment, with Boney claiming there was little advance notice and not enough of an opportunity to discuss Jones’ credentials.
Jones was investigated for possible misconduct while working in Hutto, according to a report from the Austin American-Statesman, although the allegations made against him were found to have no merit. The Missouri City council held an hour-long closed session July 6, and deliberated into the early morning hours July 7 before the motion to offer Jones the job passed.
Jones remains city manager in Missouri City. But two elected officials who voted to hire him, Mayor Yolanda Ford and at-large council member Chris Preston, were voted out by residents in December.
Dupre’s planned exit puzzles parents
On Nov. 16, Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre announced his plans to resign from the position by December of 2021. Just weeks earlier, the board of trustees voted 6-0 in favor of extending Dupre’s contract through 2024.
News of his impending exit prompted a mixed bag of reactions from parents around the district. Some were apprehensive of the announcement’s timing during COVID-19, while others believed the Nov. 3 election – which replaced three incumbents on the board – may have played a role as well.
“God has made very clear to (my family) that the upcoming transition of the board presented the right opportunity to also begin a transition in our life,” Dupre said during a special meeting.
Constable’s deputy fatally shot by fellow officer
In May, local authorities announced that Fort Bend County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office deputy Caleb Rule was shot and killed by another law enforcement officer while responding to a possible burglary of a residence in the Sienna subdivision. He had been with the constable’s office since September 2019 and previously served 14 years with the Missouri City Police Department.
Rule and three Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office deputies had all responded to a home in the 3900 block of Walnut Bend in Missouri City the afternoon of May 29. FBCSO deputy Chadwick McRae was later indicted by a Fort Bend County grand jury on a charge of criminally negligent homicide for his alleged role in Rule’s death, and was relieved from his duties with the FBCSO for violating the department’s “Use of Force” policy.
Plight of Citgo 6 continues
Sugar Land resident Jorge Toledo, an executive for Houston-based Citgo, was called to what he thought was a business meeting in Venezuela a few days before Thanksgiving in 2017. He and five other Citgo executives who were on the same plane were instead arrested by the regime of Nicolas Maduro and accused of treason for allegedly trying to make a deal that would financially inhibit PDVSA, the state-run oil and gas company of which Citgo is a subsidiary.
Toledo and the rest of the so-called Citgo 6 – Katy residents Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira and Jose Luis Zambrano along with Tomeu Vadell and Zambrano’s brother, Alirio – have remained jailed in Venezuela ever since. And on Thanksgiving Day this year, the men were convicted on corruption charges by a Venezuelan judge and sentenced to at least eight more years in prison.
However, the men’s families in Fort Bend say they are innocent and being held as political hostages. The convictions also were denounced by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The men and their families continue to call for their release and are hopeful they can soon be reunited.
New sheriff in Washington
In one of the area’s most high-profile and contested political races, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, a Republican, defeated Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni for the right to succeed U.S. Rep. Pete Olson in Texas’ 22nd Congressional District, which includes Fort Bend County and parts of Harris County and Brazoria County.
Nehls won by about five percentage points over Kulkarni, who dropped his second straight bid for the seat after losing to Olson two years ago. It was a seat Democrats had targeted, but Republicans again held onto it.
Skeeters break from Atlantic League
It was an eventful year for the Sugar Land Skeeters, the minor league baseball franchise that went from independent league outlier to Triple-A affiliate.
In June, the Skeeters announced they were going to break from the Atlantic League and form the four-team Constellation Energy League, which ran from July 3-Aug. 23. The Atlantic League did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Then, just months after the conclusion of the Constellation Energy League season, the Skeeters became the new Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros on Nov. 13. The organization is the first independent league baseball team to ever become the Triple-A affiliate of an MLB team. Sugar Land will begin play in the Pacific Coast League in 2021, joining Corpus Christi (Double-A) and Fayetteville (Single-A) as the Astros’ minor league affiliates.
Hightower, Stafford boys return to state basketball tournament
Before the pandemic took hold, the Hightower and Stafford boys basketball teams were in the midst of historic seasons. Both qualified for the UIL state tournament before COVID-19 forced its cancellation.
Led by sophomore sensation Bryce Griggs, Hightower won a school-record 33 games during the 2019-20 season in making a return to state for the first time since the 2011-12 campaign. COVID-19 denied the Hurricanes a shot at their first basketball state title in the school’s 22-year history.
Stafford made it to state for the sixth time in school history and first time since 2009-10. The Spartans had won a school-record 32 games under head coach David Montano and were seeking the program’s first state title since 1992.