BySam Prickett and Cody Owens, Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper |
Mayor William Bell last week revealed his proposed operating budget for the fiscal year 2018. At $428 million, the budget is Birmingham’s largest ever, which appeared to be a point of pride for the mayor.
But what is in the proposed budget? How is the growth the mayor spoke of reflected in spending choices? And what are the points of contention that will likely influence not only the budget talks but the upcoming municipal elections? Read more
Ten Republicans and eight Democrats are running for the open U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he took the U.S. attorney general job. Wednesday was the deadline to file papers qualifying to run for the office. See the list.
An incident involving students at Gardendale High School has taken social media by storm and once again raised the issue of race as the city seeks to separate from the Jefferson County Schools and form its own system. Read more.
Birmingham City Councilor Marcus Lundy announced Tuesday he will not be seeking re-election, leading to an outpouring of verbal — and at times emotional — support from his fellow councilors, with some indicating they believe he was forced out. A majority of the council members, speaking on the record and anonymously after the meeting, allege that Lundy was pressured to not seek re-election by Mayor William Bell or else potentially lose his job at Regions Bank. Read more.
Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and for the Gardendale Board of Education agree on something.
They both want Gardendale’s takeover of two elementary schools in the city to be delayed by federal courts.
The Gardendale board filed two motions Tuesday. One informed the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it intends to cross-appeal a federal judge’s decision allowed the new system to take over operation of the two schools for the coming academic year. The other asked the original judge to stay her own ruling, delaying the order’s implementation until the board’s appeal and that of the NAACP are handled by the appellate court.
Gardendale is appealing Haikala’s late April ruling because it feels she should have ruled entirely in its favor, allowing it to take control of all four JefCoEd schools inside the city’s limits, including Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools.
The NAACP, on the other hand, is asking for a stay so it can argue that Gardendale shouldn’t be able allowed to take control of any of the schools. Read more.
Legislators checked off everything on their must-do list and adjourned for the year Friday, passing redistricting plans mandated by the court on their final day and finishing off the last of the budgets earlier in the week.
But not everything on the priority list made it through the gauntlet, and Gov. Kay Ivey said she might have to call legislators back into session later this year to address conditions in the state’s prisons. A bill to finance construction of new prisons was debated in the regular session but died for lack of consensus.
Other bills did squeeze through in the waning days of the session, including one to renew a tax credit program to encourage renovation of historic buildings. Jefferson County legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, had listed that bill as their top priority for the session.
Here is a sampling of legislative action of interest in the Birmingham area and statewide:
ByHanno van der Bijl and Virginia Martin, BirminghamWatch |
Briarwood Presbyterian Church will not be ranking among an elite group of churches with their own police departments, at least not this year.
A bill that would have allowed the megachurch to hire certified peace officers died when the Legislature adjourned Friday, the second year in a row the measure has died.
Briarwood’s proposal to establish its own police force has been a controversial one. Critics said the move was unconstitutional. But Briarwood representatives cited the increasing rate of mass shootings at churches, schools and commercial venues as reasons for bringing police officers on staff. Read more.
ByHanno van der Bijl and Virginia Martin, BirminghamWatch |
The Alabama Legislature this morning gave final approval to redistricting plans, finishing off one of its most contentious jobs on the last day of the regular session.
The plan to rewrite the House districts now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk. The redistricting plan for the Senate was approved and sent to the governor Thursday.
Legislators redrew the districts after a federal court said 12 of them were the unconstitutional results of racial gerrymandering. Democrats, angry that the redistricting plan backed by Republicans had not changed enough on the map, threatened to lock down the Legislature by asking that the bills be read at length – a task that took eight hours in the House and most of the night in the Senate.
The Senate redistricting plan proposes to redraw 25 of the 35 districts, and the House redistricting plan would redraw 70 of the 105 districts.
Jefferson County has been one of the key sticking points in the plans throughout the process. Several districts cross into Jefferson County although the bulk of the population is in another county. The inclusion of those legislators on the Jefferson County delegations creates Republican majorities.
Democratic leaders had wanted district lines redrawn to respect county lines, thereby balancing power evenly between Democrats and Republicans on the delegations. The plans before the Legislature did not do that, leaving Republicans with a one-vote majority in both the House and the Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh told the Associated Press on Thursday that the major dispute was “all about Jefferson County and the makeup of the delegation. … I get it. But based upon what I’ve seen I do believe that these will hold up in court.”
Democrats disagreed. “It seems like we are going to end up in court again,” said Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “It’s clear. You can look at the map. There is racial gerrymandering.” Read more.
Jefferson County commissioners’ concerns that a state Senate bill requiring new election technology would cost the county money proved to be unfounded.
The Alabama County Commission Association had fired off a red alert to county commissions about the possibility that Senate Bill 108 might cost counties.
“It turns out there is some federal money for this that the ACCA was not aware of,” Jefferson County Registrar Barry Stephenson said. “So as far as affecting the general fund of Jefferson County, it doesn’t. It all got worked out.” Read more.
May 16, 2017 – For residents of Gardendale, most of whom supported the city’s efforts to break away from the Jefferson County Schools and form a new municipal system, the question is, “What’s next?”
Many of those residents filled the council chambers of City Hall on Tuesday night to pose their questions or voice their concerns to the Gardendale Board of Education. It was the board’s first meeting since U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala issued a lengthy ruling that gave the board control of the city’s two elementary schools, with the possibility of taking over the middle and high schools in three years, if racial and financial issues are settled to Haikala’s satisfaction.
That’s far less than the full, immediate control that Gardendale officials sought. Moreover, the ruling also required that the city reimburse JefCoEd for the Gardendale High School property, or else allow the county to keep that facility and build a new school for itself. Gardendale attorneys had argued that Alabama law gave them a loophole to take over GHS for nothing, since JefCoEd issued no debt to pay for it; the debt was instead taken on by Jefferson County government.
With a strong contingent — at least by Gardendale standards — of local police on hand, attendees came one by one to the front to have their say before the board. Most of them implored board members and Superintendent Patrick Martin to keep pressing toward a full breakaway. Read more.
Members of the community advocacy group the Outcast Voters League took to the floor during Tuesday’s Birmingham City Council meeting to castigate Mayor William Bell and the council for perceived inaction.
One activist, Iva Williams, alleged that Bell has violated state law by failing to regularly file finance reports for his reelection campaign. Williams announced that he has filed a formal ethics complaint against the mayor with the Alabama Secretary of State. Read more.
The Jefferson County Commission was jolted this morning with word of a possible $300,000 bill that could come via a change in election equipment. The expense would involve putting tablets at polling places to sign in voters more quickly, and issue being debated in the Legislature. Read more.
Jefferson County Presiding Judge Joseph Boohaker said today that he has been told something will come from the state grand jury investigating Birmingham Water Works Board and other aspects of Birmingham and Jefferson County government.
“There will be something coming,” he said. “I have been assured.”
Boohaker recently told BirminghamWatch and other media that he would speak with Deputy Attorney General Matt Hart to determine whether the grand jury should continue.
“It will press on,” the judge said. “I had a chance to speak with Matt Hart and he assured me they are making progress. As long as they’re making progress, they will continue on.” Read more
A federal district judge has declined to reconsider her ruling two weeks ago that allows Gardendale to break away from the Jefferson County Schools on a limited basis, even though she found that Gardendale’s motives for forming its own municipal school system were racially motivated.
In a 49-page supplemental memorandum opinion issued Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala turned down the request by attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, representing the original plaintiffs in the landmark Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education case. That case resulted in the forced desegregation of county schools nearly half a century ago. The attorneys contended Haikala’s finding of racial motivation did not match up with allowing Gardendale to proceed with its separation. Read more
An otherwise low-key meeting of the Birmingham City Council was marked by verbal sparring among councilors and Mayor William Bell over who was receiving, or should be receiving, credit for different city initiatives. Read more
The Jefferson County Commission Tuesday agreed to transfer $10,000 from its economic development fund to the Jefferson County Economic & Industrial Development Authority to acquire land for county development. Read more
U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala, who is drawing attention for her ruling in the Gardendale school case, has been no stranger to headlines in high-profile Alabama cases since she became a judge in 2013.
She is handling the Hoover City Schools’ attendance rezoning issue, which could affect school desegregation in that system. She was the judge in a 2014 Huntsville City Schools desegregation case. And in 2016, she threw out charges and acquitted a Madison police officer accused of using excessive force against an Indian grandfather injured while visiting his son; her actions came after two juries deadlocked on verdicts.
Sixty Titusville residents sat in the sweltering gymnasium of Memorial Park Recreation Center to consider giving their support for the old Trinity Steel property going to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society.
“It is so hot in here,” said Greater Birmingham Humane Society President and CEO Allison Black Cornelius, “but they stayed.”
When each side had made its case, 52 residents voted for the Humane Society to move to the long idle property from its Snow Drive location in Homewood. Eight voted no. Read more.
Most of the business addressed at the Birmingham City Council’s Tuesday meeting was fairly streamlined, until an extended discussion of a proposed zoning ordinance change led to a freewheeling conversation about parking. Specifically, the issue was how to prevent people from parking on their front lawns, the width of the city’s right-of-way, and the responsibility of the Birmingham Police Department to enforce parking ordinances.
“We have gotten far away from the topic that is before the council, which is just the amendment to the zoning ordinance,” said assistant city attorney Julie Bernard at one point. “The issue that is before the council … does not have much to do with the issue that we have diverted to.” Read more.
Updated May 7, 2017 – Briarwood Presbyterian Church may soon join the ranks of the Vatican and Washington National Cathedral as a religious institution with its own police department.
Critics of the bill to allow Briarwood to establish its own police department say the move is unconstitutional. But Briarwood representatives cite the increasing rate of mass shootings at churches, schools and commercial venues as reasons for bringing police officers on staff.
The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved the legislation April 19, and it is pending before the Alabama House of Representatives. The Senate passed it April 11 on a vote of 24-2, so it’s now up to the House, and possibly the governor, to decide whether to allow the Vestavia Hills church to establish its own police department. Read more.
The divide between state government and its people is wide, and there’s no bridge in sight.
In a recent survey conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, more than two-thirds of those surveyed said state government officials don’t care what they think, and slightly less than two-thirds said they feel they have no say in what government does. Read more.
Questions about budgets consistently being presented to the Birmingham City Council during the time of a vote took center stage in Tuesday’s meeting, including during the discussion of a three-year, $1,496,500 contract with Zoom Motorsports to manage Indy Grand Prix Racing at Barber Motorsports Park. Read more.
Jefferson County could someday come close to being a one-stop-shop when it comes to inspections, storm water and land development. Commissioners heard a report during their committee meeting Tuesday morning about merging those three departments, as called for by a federal receiver in charge of the county’s human resources. Read more.
The April 11 meeting of the Birmingham City Council was a relatively uneventful one, with nearly all of the ordinances and resolutions considered by the council relegated to the consent agenda, which the council quickly passed. Read more.
With Robert Bentley’s resignation as governor, Alabama’s history of top elected officials who have had their careers end because of scandal continues.
In the past 25 years, three governors have faced criminal charges during or soon after their terms of office, and a speaker of the House was forced out after convictions on a dozen ethics violations. The state’s chief justice was removed from office twice – not on criminal charges, but for willfully disobeying federal judges’ orders.
With four top elected officials now convicted criminals, is Alabama leading the nation in political corruption? Read more.
Alabama started Monday morning facing a week of impeachment hearings expected to center on sordid details of the governor’s relationship with an aide and his use of law enforcement to cover it up.
But by the end of the day, the state had a new chief executive who pledged to “steady the ship of state,” and former Gov. Robert Bentley had fingerprints and a mug shot on file at the Montgomery County jail.
Bentley resigned Monday afternoon and took a deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges stemming from information the state Ethics Commission handed over to the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office last week. Read more.
Kay Ivey made history in 2002 when she became the first Republican elected state treasurer since Reconstruction.
She made history again Monday when she became the second woman to hold the office of governor in Alabama. Ivey succeeded Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned from the office amid threats of impeachment and looming criminal charges tied to his relationship with adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Read more.
Fifteen members of the House Judiciary Committee are set to begin hearing testimony Monday morning to determine whether to impeach Gov. Robert Bentley.
If the committee votes for impeachment, the issue would go before the full House. If members there voted for impeachment, Bentley would be suspended from his job as governor and face trial by the state Senate. If two-third of senators voted to convict Bentley, he would be removed from office.
It all starts with the Judiciary Committee. Read more.
Gov. Robert Bentley used law enforcement personnel to benefit himself personally and to protect his reputation, according to conclusions of the House Judiciary Committee’s special counsel in a report released Friday.
The 131-page report and about 3,000 pages of exhibits detail multiple incidents in which Bentley is alleged to have used officers to stifle rumors he was having an affair with a staffer. Read more.
Jimmy Moore’s hometown is Bessemer but for three years, the U.S. Air Force veteran’s home was his 2007 Ford Explorer.
Moore, a 1974 McAdory High School grad, worried that his possessions might be stolen when he was homeless. He feared someone might stab him to take what he had.
“You were always having to be awake, 24-7, sleep lightly,” the 61-year-old said, “trying to figure out where you’re going next.”
But Moore can rest easy. He doesn’t fear for his safety or his possessions. He has a roof over his head, thanks to Operation Reveille, a one-day one-stop-shop that took chronically homeless veterans off the street and into their own homes. Read more.
A Jefferson County Commission member called the old Trinity Steel property in North Titusville “a hot potato.” Thursday, the commission decided on a 3-2 vote to gift the property to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. Read more.
April 4, 2017 – The Birmingham City Council approved a $220,000 appropriation to pay for services associated with the management of Railroad Park after a prolonged discussion about a lack of invoices for the services. Some council members questioned the amounts the city pays for Railroad Park while it struggles to fund other parks in the city. Read more.
Four of five commissioners seem set to give Jefferson County’s share of the old Trinity Steel property to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. But one commissioner wants to hear more before possibly voting on the move. Read more.
March 28, 2017 – The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday approved a resolution to amend licensing regulations for “taxicabs and vehicles for hire,” in an effort to allow “low speed” services.
Ostensibly, this move opens the door for companies such as Birmingham Pedal Tours to begin the process of obtaining permits to allow their vehicles – oblong carts that are powered by groups of people pedaling and are electrically assisted – to begin operating in Birmingham.
The resolution also will allow for golf cart cab companies to be able to obtain permits. Read more.
Updated May 7, 2017 – How old must buildings be before they are considered historic? Should tax credits for their preservation be split evenly across the state or allowed to cluster in the cities?
Both are questions still in play as the Alabama Legislature considers restoring a program that supported renewal efforts, most notably in Birmingham and Mobile.
A version of the historic preservation tax credit, which has helped fund restoration of 51 buildings across the state so far, has been passed by the House, and a version was passed by the Senate on Tuesday. Because the Senate-passed bill was revised to address several issues that had been raised, it now must go back to the House to be voted up or down or be changed again.
Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile, sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, said the important thing is to get the money flowing to the program again. Gaston said that not only do the tax credits help pay to restore often dilapidated buildings, but those projects create jobs for the construction workers and craftsmen employed to do the work. Read more.
March 23, 2017 – Sandra Little Brown called Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting at Cahaba Medical Center “a crying moment.”
The District 7 Jefferson County Commission member said she had to defend herself against false claims that she had voted to end in-patient care at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital.
“We went through so much stress with the closing of in-patient care at Cooper Green,” Brown said during Thursday’s commission meeting. “So many people were against us. Now the people can say, ‘They took lemons and made lemonade.’”
Brown said she has worked since in-patient care at Cooper Green ended to create a hub-and-spoke system to take healthcare closer to where many people live.
March 21, 2017 – The Birmingham City Council, mostly showing up on time this week, debated several contentious issues.
It delayed votes on whether to apply for World Trade Center designation and whether to conduct a study on the long-term placement of i-20/59. And after some discussion, it approved the sale of land in the Oxmoor Valley to a developer who wants to build a subdivision there. Read more.
Jefferson County Commission members were still giddy at their committee meeting this morning after last Friday’s ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court concerning a 1 cent sales tax.
“For the first time, this commission can be proactive,” Commission President Jimmie Stephens said. “We can go to purchase property that will be needed and necessary for economic development. We can go to municipalities and say, ‘Let’s partner together to build and restructure our roads and our bridges. Let’s build new highways that will go throughout Jefferson County and create more avenues for economic development.
“For the first time, we can give people a reason to move into Jefferson County instead of moving out of Jefferson County,” the commission president continued. Read more.
Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens summed up an Alabama Supreme Court ruling during a press conference Friday afternoon.
“What’s it mean? It means it’s a great day for the citizens of Jefferson County, for all citizens of Jefferson County,” he said. “It enables Jefferson County to proceed in refinancing the county school tax warrants that is guaranteed by the 1 cent county sales tax.”
Commissioners sought a state law revising that county sales tax law so they could refinance the warrants at a lower price and divide the remaining money from the tax more broadly. A circuit judge struck down that law, but Friday the Alabama Supreme Court upheld it. Read more.
The newly renovated Pizitz Building sits on 19th Street North in downtown Birmingham, its pristine, wedding cake white façade belying its 94 years.
It’s the latest among dozens of historic downtown Birmingham buildings that have been renovated in recent years. But many more of them haven’t been. They stand nearby, vacant or sparsely populated, with fading signs and sagging woodwork.
Three such buildings in Birmingham – a total of seven from around the state – are on a list at the Alabama Historic Commission, waiting to see whether the Legislature will renew tax credits for historic renovation.
The tax credit expired last year because of concerns about the cost of the program to the state. But bills to overhaul and reinstate the tax credit program have pulled much more support this year – at least in theory.
The tax credit this year has 87 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 29 co-sponsors in the Senate. “It’s huge for Birmingham,’’ said Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, who introduced the bill in the Senate this year. Read more.
March 14, 2017 – Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin slammed the gavel and the council session began at 10:53 am, nearly an hour and a half after the scheduled time, because there had not been enough members present to legally hold the meeting.
Mayor William Bell was among the absent, leaving councilors with questions on several items. Among the most contentious was an agreement between the city and the Birmingham Board of Education to appoint Bobby Benton to a full-time position “from the board to work with My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.” The job could pay up to $43,823, according to the resolution.
Benton has worked on political campaigns for Bell, and several councilors, including Austin, said they believed Benton had been named as the chairman to Bell’s re-election campaign.
The League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham is launching a new program to train citizens to observe local government bodies and report impartially on their actions.
The launch of the new Greater Birmingham Observer Corps coincides with this year’s national Sunshine Week, March 12-18. The purpose of the corps is to push for transparency in local government actions, and Sunshine Week is designed to highlight open government and freedom of information at the local, state and federal levels.
While Alabama’s House and Senate make headlines with debates over pistol permits, death sentences and sanctuary campuses, staff members and legislators are working largely unnoticed on a project that could affect the racial and political makeup of the Legislature.
A federal court in January ruled that some of Alabama’s legislative districts amounted to racial gerrymandering, putting too many predominantly black communities with little in common in the same district and diluting their influence. Since then, the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment has started to look at maps and redraw the boundaries of House and Senate districts. Perhaps 30 of the Alabama Legislature’s 140 districts might be affected.
The chairman of the committee said in a meeting recently that he was hoping for a quick and amicable process. But rarely in Alabama are conversations about race either quick or completely amicable, and this one is beginning against an already politically charged background. Read more.
Jefferson County voters approved extending more than $100 million in property taxes for schools Tuesday, most of them with a vote of more than 90 percent. Also on the ballot, Rolanda Hollis won the Democratic nomination to the House District 58 seat, vacated last year with the retirement of former Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham. Read more.
March 7, 2017 – Birmingham City Councilor William Parker doesn’t see any hidden meaning in HB 34, the proposed legislation that would create and fund a Jefferson County Cemetery Board through gun permit fees.
“The funding is funding that has already been collected,” said Parker, who supports the bill. He said the intent was not to send a message – grave maintenance being paid for by gun fees — in a city that is plagued by gun-related homicides. “This is the way that the legislators are supporting the issue about addressing the needs of the cemetery.”
But questions about whether that’s a stable source of funding, how the money would be allotted and whether it was enough stalled a resolution the council was debating to support the bill. Read more.
March 7, 2017 – Commuters from Russet Woods and others in southwest Jefferson County may soon have a smoother commute because of action the Jefferson County Commission discussed during its committee meeting today.
Commissioners talked about making improvements to Morgan Road to ease traffic flow, including a turn lane and updated traffic lights.
The commission also discussed a mental health contract, community clean-ups and new voter information cards. The commission’s official meeting is Thursday.
Jefferson County voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to extend a series of property taxes that fund local schools.
Also on the ballot is the Democratic primary race to fill the state House District 58 seat left vacant by the retirement of former Rep. Oliver Robinson.
School officials and advocates for weeks have been reminding people that there is an election March 7 and asking that they vote to extend the property taxes for schools. The taxes were enacted about 30 years ago but are set to expire in 2021. Voters will decide Tuesday whether to extend them for another 25 years, to 2046.
Jefferson County school Superintendent Craig Pouncy and other superintendents have said the property taxes help schools pay for things not funded through state and federal taxes. They provide a total of $100 million a year for academic programs, facility upgrades, textbooks, buses, computers and other education needs. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance Tuesday to make Birmingham the first Alabama city with a Healthy Food Incentive Program, but not before a nearly hour-long debate with members of the city’s law department.
The program will cost $2 million, which will be allocated from the city’s general fund budget for fiscal 2018, and it is slated to begin Aug. 1. Essentially, the ordinance would allow qualified recipients to receive a food incentive card to be used toward the purchase of eligible foods at participating stores. The cards would have a value of up to $150 annually and take the form of either a debit card or voucher.
Before the vote, Councilor Lashunda Scales objected to the city’s law department having “gone week to week discussing the same thing,” referring to changes in the language and the proposed launch date of the program.
“We make plenty of time for economic development. When do we make the time to help the poor people?” Scales asked. Read more
Lifelong friends and former neighbors in Birmingham’s “Dynamite Hill” community were honored by the Jefferson County Commission on Thursday after their retirement as judges of the 10th Circuit Court of Jefferson County.
Judge Helen Shores Lee, the first black woman to serve in the civil division of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, and Judge Houston Brown, the first black presiding judge in the circuit, were honored for their service to the community with a proclamation presented by District 2 Commissioner Sandra Little Brown.
February 21, 2017 — Jefferson County Commissioners discussed $105,400 in contracts for Cooper Green Mercy Hospital during a committee meeting Tuesday.
“That goes back to reallocating to make sure we have the funds necessary to have a positive impact on our indigent citizens,” Commission President Jimmie Stephens said after the meeting. “This commission is committed to doing that and we’re going to continue to do it.” Read more.
February 21, 2017 – The Birmingham City Council unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday for an intergovernmental agreement to list and transfer surplus city property to the Birmingham Land Bank Authority.
The resolution allows the authority to “dispose of the property in a manner consistent with its Mission Statement and Administrative Policies and Procedures.”
The city initially will present seven potential properties to the authority to be listed on its website “as being available for purchase by the general public,” the resolution reads. It does not indicate which properties will be considered. Read more.
A Birmingham City Council meeting consumed by debate over ads purchased by the council and the behavior of the Birmingham Water Works Board also entertained the suggestion that an investigation of city officials is underway.
The references to a possible grand jury investigation – which has not been publicly revealed by any prosecutor’s office – seemed almost an aside in a discussion about the activities of the BWWB.
Councilor Valerie Abbott during Tuesday’s meeting said that not only is a grand jury investigating the utilities board, but also the Birmingham City Council and the mayor’s office.
“Lord knows what they’ll find,” Abbott said. Read more.
Alabama legislators kick-started their session last week, with committees approving bills on abortion, sanctuary campuses and death penalty sentences, among other topics. Those bills could go to the floor of the House or Senate this week.
The governor’s recommendations for the General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets also were introduced last week but have yet to come up for a vote. Read more.
The Jefferson County Commission OK’d paying $500,000 to the United Way at its meeting Thursday, but not before commissioners were assured senior citizens are receiving the “top notch” service they should be getting.
Commissioner Sandra Little Brown asked that approval of the funding be delayed so she could pose questions to United Way officials who were on hand. She said she had received numerous calls about people not getting services they had received before.
Alabama legislators convened their regular session Tuesday facing some of the same problems that consumed them last year.
“The main thing for all of us is going to be the budget,” said Allen Treadaway, R-Morris.
The governor is recommending a $1.9 billion General Fund budget that is almost flat funding from this year, though he has said he was considering proposing a pay raise for state employees. His $6.3 billion proposed Education Trust Fund budget does not include a raise for education employees, who did get a bump in pay this year.
But the two biggest elephants in the budget conference room will once again be Medicaid and prisons. Read more.
Baher Sabah, a plastic surgeon from the Iraqi city of Babylon, was looking forward to his trip to America. “He loves America,” said Sabah’s uncle, Safaa Al-Hamdani, a biology professor at Jacksonville State University. “When he has come to the United States for any reason, it was just like he won the lottery.”
On tap for Sabah was the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery’s annual scientific meeting on Feb. 9-11 in San Diego. He had his airline ticket. He had his visa and, at the scientific meeting, he would have access to workshops, live patient demonstrations, displays of the latest technologies and, of course, lots of networking opportunities. All in all, said Sabah’s uncle, “a golden opportunity to advance himself.”
Now, as a result of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order temporarily halting travel to the U.S. by citizens of seven Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Sabah has put his visa, his ticket and his golden advancement opportunity on the shelf. Read more.
BySolomon Crenshaw Jr., BirminghamWatch and Anita Debro, BirminghamWatch |
(In the early days of a new president, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the third of the stories.)
On face value, the political and cultural divide in the Birmingham metro area — and, in larger part, the country — appears to be an ever-widening gulf of competing ideals and values.
But if you take a closer look, you will see that supporters of President Donald Trump and of Hillary Clinton say they want many of the same things from government — fairness, safety and the support to achieve greater success. They value church and family, education and freedom. And they express feelings of disenchantment. Both sides complain of feeling left out, unheard and overlooked.
Birmingham residents, like many interviewed in the Sylvan Springs area for a recent story on Trump Country, said it is important for government to treat people fairly and justly. Many said they want the government to make safety a priority. Read more.
(The U.S. Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions as the next U.S. attorney general Wednesday on a vote of 52-47.)
In the early 1990s, children across Alabama’s large rural stretches still attended faltering public schools, some with exposed wiring and rainwater leaking into classrooms. The education was in disrepair, too. Teachers couldn’t assign homework for lack of textbooks. A steel mill announced it would no longer hire local high school graduates because most tested below the eighth grade level. In short, Alabama’s most economically disadvantaged students, primarily black children and those with disabilities, were missing out on a basic education. Then, for a moment, change seemed possible. A civil-rights lawsuit challenging the system for funding Alabama’s schools succeeded, and the state’s courts in 1993 declared the conditions in the poor schools a violation of Alabama’s Constitution.
(As a new president takes office, BirminghamWatch is looking at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the second of the stories.)
Driving 20 minutes west of downtown Birmingham and taking a short jog off the interstate lands you solidly in Trump Country.
It’s a world where trees outnumber people and hardware stores are still locally owned, where people believe in hard work and fair play, where voters believe entitlement programs should be cut back, and maybe taxes a bit, too. It’s a world where some people visit Birmingham, but mostly they try to avoid the crime and traffic they perceive in The City.
This is Sylvan Springs, population about 1,542 in the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 97 percent of it white. At the largest polling place in the area, 94.29 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump in November. That was one of 11 Jefferson County polling places where more than 90 percent of voters cast ballots for the candidate inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on Friday. Read more.
Both the accounts that pay for state government operations, the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund (ETF), ended the 2016 Fiscal Year basically flat when compared to the previous year, a sign that the state’s struggles to balance budgets will continue in the future. What would have been a moderately healthy year of receipts to the Education Trust Fund was dragged down by a drop in corporate income tax collections and the shifting of some revenue into the General Fund to cover anticipated shortfalls in that account. The perpetually struggling General Fund was buoyed by that revenue shift from the ETF and by the increase of tax rates on cigarettes, but was weighed down by a drop of non-recurring revenue sources and lagging collections of taxes on oil and gas production. For the Fiscal Year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, total receipts to the ETF were $6 billion, up only slightly from 2015.
(As the nation inaugurates a new president this month, BirminghamWatch will look at what divides us and connects us close to home. This is the first of the stories.)
Hillary Clinton was the clear winner in Jefferson County on election-day, besting Donald Trump in the race for president by more than 7 percentage points.
But that result doesn’t mean the county escaped the polarization of the 2016 presidential election nationwide or the potential for conflict over public policy in the county and the region.
Clinton won the county with 51.07 percent of the vote, or 156,873 votes, according to certified vote results from the Alabama Secretary of State. Trump took 43.87 percent of the vote, or 137,768 votes. Other candidates and write-in votes accounted for 12,550 votes, slightly more than 4 percent of the ballots cast in the county. Read more.
The ballots are stacked, pens gathered, poll workers trained and rolls of “I Voted” stickers ready to go.
Election workers this weekend were taking a “deep breath before the plunge,” as Barry Stephenson, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Registrars, described it. They’ve been working seven days a week since Labor Day to prepare for what could be historic turnout at the polls, he said.
The state has topped 3.3 million registered voters, Secretary of State John Merrill said last week, surpassing the state’s highest registration by 584,252 registered voters.
Likewise, Jefferson County has set a record for registered voters, with 456,000. Before this, the record was 435,000 for the 2012 election, when 302,000 people voted in the county. Stephenson said the county is expecting more than 300,000 voters to show up at the polls Tuesday.
In preparation, the Jefferson County has increased the number of precincts and added an extra 150 poll workers, bringing the total number to 1,900. There will be more voter sign-in books at the polls in an attempt to avoid long lines, but Stephenson warned, “It still may not be a quick process.” Read more.
Too little money for Medicaid? Not enough dollars to deal with overcrowded prisons? A fight over taking parks money for other purposes? Why does Alabama always face budget problems? The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama has looked behind the legislative battles to root causes of the recurrent problem.
Hoover band heads outside to find room to practice. Photo: Marvin Gentry
Hoover will have four new City Council members in November after voters Tuesday chose political newcomer Curt Posey over former Hoover City Councilman Trey Lott in the runoff election for City Council Place 1.
Posey won 2,555 votes, or 77.35 percent of the votes cast in the Oct. 4 runoff. Lott garnered 748 votes, or 22.65 percent.
The City Council Place 1 runoff wraps up a municipal election in which voters unseated the long-time mayor; elected four new council members; and returned three incumbent council members who faced stiff competition, with one winning by 24 votes.
In the Aug. 23 election, Posey won 41.21 percent of the votes; Lott won 40.59 percent; and incumbent Joe Rives, who was appointed to fill Lott’s seat when Lott moved to Alabaster in 2015, received 18.20 percent.
Many residents, school officials and city leaders say this hard-fought election was a referendum on issues inextricably tied to each other–school funding and growth management. Candidates also said voters were facing the reality that Hoover is Alabama’s sixth-largest city, no longer a typical suburb, and must define its identity going forward.
Alabama lawmakers reached agreement Wednesday on a plan for spending BP settlement money that will give $120 million to Medicaid over the next two years, $120 million to road projects near the coast and $400 million to pay back state debt. Legislators adjourned their special session after reaching that agreement and will return to Montgomery in February. During the brief session called mainly to consider ways to fund Medicaid, 98 bills were introduced, most of which died for lack of action. Status of select bills follows. For more information about the bills, see the state’s legislative site.
Voters across Alabama went to the polls Tuesday to select new mayors and council members. In the seven-county Birmingham metro area, 85 cities held elections, potentially changing the face of local government when new officials take office Nov. 7.
Aug. 8 is the last day to register to vote in the Aug. 23 municipal elections. Citizens interested in registering should contact the Board of Registrars in the counties where they live. Voter registration forms also are available and may be submitted at state or county offices that provide public assistance, such as Medicaid, WIC and Department of Human Resources offices, according to the Secretary of State’s website.
The Legislature is going into session Aug. 15 to consider Gov. Robert Bentley’s lottery proposal to raise money for the General Fund, but the plan is not a guaranteed quick fix for either of the state’s biggest budget dilemmas.
Medicaid and prisons together make up more than 60 percent of the state’s General Fund spending, according to budget documents. Both are in need of an infusion of cash, and the Legislature adjourned its regular session without making significant changes to funding for either the Medicaid Agency or the Department of Corrections.
The governor hasn’t released details of his lottery plan. He has said he believed it would raise $225 million a year, and he is proposing to allocate profits to the General Fund, which would let legislators determine each year where the money is most needed. Read more.
Alabama voters go to the polls March 1, and there’s a lot more on the ballot than the high-profile presidential race. In Democratic and Republican primaries, voters will nominate candidates for U.S. Senate and the state’s Public Service Commission president, Supreme Court and Board of Education, plus decide on an amendment. Voters in Jefferson and Shelby counties will pick nominees for judgeships, school board seats, district attorney and treasurer offices. BirminghamWatch and Weld For Birmingham, Public Radio WBHM 90.3 FM, Starnes Publishing, B-Metro and Kaleidoscope are collaborating to offer this one-stop, interactive, factual, non-partisan Voter Guide. Candidate profiles, sample ballots, answers about issues, campaign contributor lists, info on where to vote and more.
Voters go back to the polls April 12 to determine the nominees in several races that were undecided after the March 1 primary. For races in which no candidate got half of the votes or more, the top two candidates will compete for the nomination. There is no statewide race on the ballot. In Jefferson County, four races – three judgeships and the treasurer’s seat – are on the Democratic ballot and two races – a seat on the state Board of Education and one on the county Board of Education – are on the Republican ballot. In Shelby County, two races – a judgeship and a seat on the County Commission – are on the Republican ballot and there is no Democratic runoff.
When legislators adjourned sine die, they left the state in important ways as they found it at the beginning of the legislative session in March.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Bills that would have funded major prison construction, increased money for Medicaid, reduced payday loan interest rates and changed teacher tenure and evaluation laws all were introduced but died during the session.
That’s not to say legislators did nothing. Read More.
There’s a new player in town for the 2016 Alabama Medicaid budget battle. It brings to the table a game plan, years of friendly relations with the other players and a multi-million-dollar stake.
The question is whether a reform idea, even backed with that history and funding, is enough to influence the entrenched model of politicians and advocates arguing over too little money, too much need and no fundamental change.
The player is Alabama Medicaid’s regional care organization plan, a managed care-style approach intended to deal with illnesses before they are emergencies and designed to both slow the growth in costs and improve health outcomes.
A story in The New York Times reported an optimistic message from new research about American life spans: The right mix of steps to improve habits and public health could help people live longer, regardless of how much money they make.
One of the places this seems to be happening is Birmingham.
The long-anticipated rewrite of Alabama’s tenure and job evaluation law for teachers and school administrators was introduced in the Legislature last week. It would require regular evaluations of teachers and tie part of their performance rating to student growth. But it does not include the controversial proposal to tie teacher bonuses to student test scores, which was in the first draft of the bill. Also last week, a House committee passed an Education Trust Fund budget that would give up to 4 percent raises to education workers and that includes money to hire 475 more teachers and expand the states pre-K program. The Legislature is now dealing with more than 40 education-related measures.
Across the country, national companies and causes, from Uber to pharmaceutical manufacturers, are turning their lobbying power onto state legislatures where they seek a better chance of influencing decisions than in Washington. The Alabama Legislature, now in session in Montgomery, is no stranger to this new attention.
From 2010 through 2014, Alabama’s 140 senators and representatives were the focus of six times that many entities pushing their messages and protecting their interests in Montgomery.
These are findings of a just-released study by the Center for Public Integrity, a national government watchdog group.
For nearly three decades, Jim Williams applied the force of factual, objective research to the partisan, political reality of Alabama state and local governments.
So did he move that boulder of problems that Alabama governments create, deal with – or avoid?
Until last month, Williams – officially James W. Williams Jr. – had been the first and only executive director of Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. PARCA, as it is known, was created by former Alabama Gov. Albert Brewer in 1988 with the mission of improving how the public’s business gets done. Williams retired at the end of September from the executive director job but will continue to do some research for the organization.
Alabama scored a D+ on its report card from the State Integrity Investigation, but the near-failing 67.3 grade was enough to rank the state seventh-best in the country on measures of transparency, accountability and ethics in its government.
The ranking is much higher than might have been expected as Alabama’s powerful speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Hubbard, faces 23 felony ethics charges alleging he used his office to benefit clients of one of his private companies and illegally lobbied the executive branch on their behalf. Not to mention the dozens of Alabama officials, employees, contractors and others convicted in state corruption-related cases in the past decade.
Jefferson County officials vowed not to make the same mistakes with a new financial software purchase that were made by a previous commission, which spent nearly $20 million for a system that was eventually scrapped.
But the current commission now faces problems with its $5 million-plus replacement — a system the county needs to help comply with a non-discrimination court decree.
What is the State Integrity Investigation? The State Integrity Investigation is a data-driven assessment of state laws and practices that deter corruption and promote accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. This is the second time the project has run; the first go-round was published in March 2012. For more information, visit the State Integrity Investigation project site. How did you conduct this investigation?
Virginia Martin is the Alabama reporter dispatched this year by the Center for Public Integrity to find answers to 245 questions about transparency, accountability and ethics in 13 areas of the state’s government. For Martin, it was a return to the scene where she spent many of her 30 years as a reporter and editor.
Martin was political editor and state editor for The Birmingham News and for several years coordinated legislative coverage by that Birmingham newspaper, The Huntsville Times and the (Mobile) Press-Register. Stories about accusations of wrongdoing against Gov. Don Siegelman and those about corruption in the state’s two-year college system were among those that came to her desk.
You’ll find Martin’s knowledge of Alabama politics and government, as well as findings of the new survey, in these close-up looks at the good, the fair and the ugly of the state’s performance in 13 important areas. Story links are presented in best to worst-grade order. You can take the full tour or check on one area that especially interests you. Either way you’ll get fresh, important information about how the public’s business gets done in our state, from an expert guide.
Alabama’s highest score in the Center for Public Integrity Report came in the Internal Auditing category. It scored 87, ranking it fourth-best in the country. The high score comes from the state’s having an office dedicated to auditing government agencies that is largely not dependent on political favor and that releases copies of its audits to the public. The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts regularly audits every state and county office, board and commission and all accounts that receive or disburse government money. It is overseen by the Legislative Committee on Public Accounts, which appoints the director and can influence the budget.
Alabama received its highest ranking in the Center for Public Integrity study on the category of Executive Accountability. It was ranked second-best in the country, with a score of 81.9. Ironically, Alabama got that high score in part because officials have been tried and convicted for corruption. The prosecutions show the state has laws prohibiting corruption and the political will to take the cases to court. There has been no shortage of prosecutions.
Alabama scored a 78.8 in the Pension Fund Management category of the Center for Public Integrity study, ranking it seventh in the country. The primary driver of the state’s relatively high ranking in this category is that the Retirement Systems of Alabama uses staff analysts to make investment decisions, with oversight from the boards of control for the Teachers’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System. The state does not contract with outside firms to manage the investments and does not procure investments through placement agents, a practice that has come under fire recently in several other states. The study did not take into account the return on investments achieved by the RSA or recent criticisms about the systems’ unfunded liabilities. The state did get a less-than-perfect score on the issue of whether politics played into investment decisions.
Alabama scored 75.2 in the Legislative Accountability category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth-best in the country in that regard. That is not to say Alabama hasn’t faced the prospect of corruption in the ranks of legislators in recent years; it has. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is set to go to trial in March on 23 felony ethics charges. Most of the charges allege that Hubbard used or attempted to use his legislative office to benefit clients of one of his private companies or used his position when he was chairman of the state Republican Party to secure business for his private companies. He also faces four charges that he lobbied the governor’s office and the Department of Commerce under the auspices of his private business for two clients.
Alabama was given a 73 score in the Ethics Enforcement Agency category in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it fourth in the country. A series of changes to the Ethics Law beginning in 2010 have heavily influenced that score. Since that time, the Ethics Commission has been given a guaranteed budget, which reduces the effect of political pressure on operations. It also has been given subpoena power, which allowed it to conduct more effective investigations. Some ethics rules have been tightened or more explicitly defined in the law, and public officials now are required to undergo ethics training regularly.
Alabama scored a 71.2 in the State Budget Process, a number that ranked it 33rd in the country in the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. The state got high marks for having a relatively open budgeting process while the budget is being debated. The governor’s recommended budget is posted on the Executive Budget Office website, along with information about the state’s debts and projected revenues. Budget bills being debated by the Legislature are publicly available, and information about changes to those bills is posted to the Legislative Fiscal Office’s website during the process. The budgets also are discussed in open committee meetings.
Alabama got a 66.3 score in the Lobbying Disclosure category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 20th in the country on that measure. Alabama got high scores for requiring people who are paid to lobby any branch of government, including the executive branch, to register with the Ethics Commission. Those who are classified as lobbyists must file registration forms within 10 days of beginning lobbying activities. Otherwise the state got a lot of grades in the middle of the spectrum. For instance, all lobbyists are required to file with the Ethics Commission quarterly reports declaring any money spent on public officials, employees or their families over the amounts set in law, or any other business associations they have with public officials, candidates or their families.
Alabama scored a 66 on the Civil Service Management category of the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 11th in the country. Alabama got high marks for having a structured Merit System with set requirements for state positions and a State Personnel Board that, among other responsibilities, can investigate allegations of inequities. The state has a whistleblower law that protects employees from retaliation after they report corruption, abuse of power or other misdeeds by supervisors. Whistleblowers who feel they have been wronged may appeal to the Personnel Board or file suit in civil court. However, the state does not require employees to report corruption, nor does it have a separate, defined office for receiving employee complaints of such a nature.
Alabama scored a 66 in the Electoral Oversight category of the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 27th in the country on that measure. The state scored well on having an agency, the Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s Office, tasked with monitoring the state election process and for having good public access to election data. However, the Secretary of State’s Office does not have legal authority to formally investigate allegations of fraud or voting irregularities, and it has no authority to impose sanctions against violators. The office does operate a Voter Fraud Unit that solicits complaints from residents, assesses them and forwards any thought to have merit to the Attorney General’s Office, which does have authority to investigate. The office also on occasion has investigated allegations at the request of county officials or sent personnel to be at the polls on election day if concerns had been raised ahead of time.
Alabama was scored 65.4 in the Procurement category, ranking it 35th in the country in the State Integrity Investigation. Alabama got high marks for having a competitive bid law, which requires most contracts involving $15,000 or more be awarded through a competitive bid process. This includes contracts for labor, services, work, or purchase or lease of materials, equipment supplies or other personal property. But there are exceptions, including professional services contracts and contracts issued in cases of emergency involving public health, safety or convenience. The public can get information about contracts awarded in the past 60 days on the Purchasing Division website.
Alabama scored a 61.8 on the Judicial Accountability category in the State Integrity Investigation, but that was enough to rank it 12th-best among states across the country. The state’s low overall score is based in large part on the state having elected judges, an issue of frequent debate in Alabama. The only professional standard candidates must meet is being a lawyer, and there is no group legally charged with evaluating the qualifications of candidates or the performance of judges. Additionally, Alabama does not have a law requiring judges to explain their decisions in writing. Judges usually do give reasons for their decisions, especially for on bigger issues and especially appellate court justice.
Alabama scored 41.5 in the Political Financing category on the State Integrity Investigation, ranking it 42nd among states. The biggest reason for Alabama’s dismal showing in this category is that the state does not cap political contributions to political candidates from any source. The state had capped contributions from corporations, but it lifted that cap beginning in 2013. The only significant restriction the state places on political financing is a ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, which when approved in 2010 ended what had become an extensive shell game of moving money through multiple PACs so the source was obscured by the time it reached the candidate. People and corporations can – and do – still deflect attention from their donations by giving to multiple PACs, however.
Alabama chalked up its lowest score in the State Integrity Investigation in the category Access to Public Information. The state scored a 40.6 in that category, ranking it 33th in the country. The state’s low score in this category is almost entirely because it has no central office or defined mechanism for people to complain if they are denied access to public records or meetings, other than filing suit in court. Alabama does have laws that give the public access to most government records and meetings. The state’s open records law defines public records broadly as any written materials made or received by a public officer as part of the transaction of public business, and it applies to any subdivision of government, including cities, counties and boards.
Judicial Correction Services, the private probation company that charged Alabama’s poorest residents fees to collect municipal fines on a payment plan, announced it will no longer operate in the state. The company sent a statement to cities that continued to contract with JCS, despite a threat of lawsuits by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which led the push for cities to stop working with JCS.
About half of the 100 Alabama cities that once contracted with a private probation company, JCS, have cancelled their agreements for the company to collect city debts.
The cancellations come after the Southern Poverty Law Center in June settled a lawsuit with Clanton, Ala, which had used JCS. The SPLC told officials there, and in about 100 other municipalities, that JCS contracts are illegal and that the company’s fine-collection tactics can amount to extortion.
The quick reaction by local governments around the state makes less likely stories like that of Sakeena White, a single mother of three.
In room 716 of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, 12-year-old Hannah Pallas is motionless, but for an occasional turn of her head and the blink of her eyes, following a series of life-threatening seizures. On the same day, 5-year-old Sydney Michaels is down the hall in room 749, waiting to be discharged after 15 grand mal seizures within 36 hours.
By BARNETT WRIGHT, BIRMINGHAMWATCH:
More than 50 patients, including adults and children, are now enrolled in UAB studies to test the safety of a marijuana derivative that has shown promise as a treatment for severe epileptic seizures, according to university officials.
The Alabama Legislature passed a 2016 general fund budget, and Gov. Robert Bentley signed it. That long, hard-fought deal keeps state government running and juggles a lot of political interests. But the deal also seems in sync with budget reform ideas from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama: Set clear priorities and find more effective ways to handle state business. Want to dig deeper? Here are Parca’s reports on Alabama’s approaches to corrections and Medicaid.
Need to know how your representative voted? Want to know if he showed up for the vote? Who is your senator or representative, anyway? Alison has answers. Alison is a nickname for Alabama Information System Online, a state-sponsored website.Trisha Powell Crain, executive director of Alabama School Connection, spends a lot of time tracking down information about the Alabama legislature and its members.