• Government

    Moore, Strange Advance to Republican Senate Election Runoff, While Jones Wins Democratic Primary Outright

    Given his famous 6-foot-9 height, it’s not surprising that Sen. Luther Strange has an affinity for basketball, which he played in his younger days.

    So when it came time to address his supporters in Homewood after winning a berth in a Republican primary runoff election for the Senate seat he was appointed to earlier this year, Strange used an analogy with roots in hoops.

    “Eight on one has kind of been the game so far,” the incumbent said. “Now it will be one on one. And I like the odds in a one-on-one basketball game.”

    But there won’t be a wooden court or squeaking sneakers in his next contest.

    Strange finished second in Tuesday’s GOP primary behind Roy Moore, the two-time chief justice of Alabama who was removed from office both times after defying state laws and judicial regulations. Read more.

  • Environment

    Return to Muddy Waters? Uncertainty Reigns as EPA Tries to Roll Back Obama Administration Waters of the US Rule

    Water runs downhill and, if polluted, it carries contamination with it to larger waterways. Pollution in small bodies of water – or even in dry gullies that flow only when it rains – impacts the quality of water in larger bodies downstream.

    Many clean water advocates, including those trying to protect Alabama’s 132,000 miles of waterways, think that rationale ought to be enough reason to include small river tributaries, headwaters and wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. That act protects the nation’s “navigable waters.”

    The definition of navigable waters, however, has always been up in the air. In 2015, after a years-long rulemaking process, the EPA under President Barack Obama came up with what’s called the waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, covering not just waters navigable by ship or boat, but also upstream tributaries, headwaters and wetlands.

    Large businesses and other interests opposed that rule, saying only major streams should be regulated by the federal government, with jurisdiction over intermittent, ephemeral, seasonal waters left to the states.

    The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent years compiling scientific evidence and public opinion in an attempt to clarify how far the federal government’s regulatory jurisdiction extended.

    President Donald Trump, less than two months into office, issued an executive order starting the process to rescind the WOTUS rule. The rule had been tied up in court since 2015. Now it could be overturned as the result of a directive EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed June 27, which allowed 30 days for public comment. Read more.

  • Environment

    Jefferson County Gets Extra Time to Comment on Rule Limiting Phosphorus in Black Warrior River Tributaries

    Jefferson County will get more time to comment on proposed standards for the level of phosphorus that can be dumped into Locust Fork and Village Creek by its wastewater treatment plants.

    Phosphorus levels in the two water bodies are linked to algae blooms, weeds and slimes in the water and may impair their use for such things as public drinking water, swimming and other recreational activities. Algae blooms are a nuisance primarily during the summer.

    Commissioners said on June 21 that they had not been notified by the county’s Environmental Services Department in time to meet a July 10 deadline to comment on the proposal. In part, they are worried about the financial hit the rule could have on Jefferson County’s sewer costs, and its ratepayers, and wanted more time to study the situation. Read more.

  • Environment

    If National Climate Goals Disappear, What Happens in Alabama?

    President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement thrilled his backers in solid red Alabama and alarmed the state’s environmentalists, who say Alabama is less prepared than other places to handle on its own the effects of a warming planet.

    Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan called the Paris accord ineffective, too-costly, toothless and “not in our best interests.” Both of Alabama’s U.S. senators signed letters backing the nation’s withdrawal from the pact.

    Nationally, environmentalists called for states and cities to continue to work to solve problems, especially the impact carbon dioxide emissions have on global warming. But those solutions “are virtually nonexistent in Alabama,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, a health advocacy organization headquartered in Birmingham. “There are no plans to reduce climate risks, nor have we implemented any adaptation strategies.” Read more.

  • General

    PARCA Survey: Most Alabamians Say State Officials Don’t Care What They Think

    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.

  • Education

    Federal Judge Nixes Plan to Adjust Attendance Zones for Two Elementary Schools in Gardendale

    A federal judge has denied a request by Jefferson County Schools to change attendance zones for Gardendale and Snow Rogers elementary schools.

    U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ruled against the request in a hearing Thursday morning. JefCoEd officials wanted to shift the boundaries between the two schools’ zones to move students away from Gardendale Elementary — which has suffered from crowding in recent years — and send them to Snow Rogers Elementary, which has available space.

    Earlier this year, Haikala ruled that the two elementary schools could be put under the control of the new Gardendale Board of Education, as part of the city’s long-running effort to break away from JefCoEd and form its own municipal system. That decision has been appealed. Read more.

  • Government

    Birmingham’s Frequent Flyers: City officials have logged more than $300,000 in travel expenses. Where are they going — and what do they have to show for it?

    An analysis of Birmingham City Council agendas from fiscal year 2017 shows city officials — not including the mayor — have spent or been allocated more than $300,000 in travel expenses since July 2016.

    Officials using city money for travel include members of the City Council and its staff, mayor’s office staff, Police Chief A.C. Roper and two municipal court judges. A total of 73 individuals have received travel funds from the city during the past year. Read more.

  • Education

    Appeals Court Asks Whether It Can Legally Consider Gardendale School-Separation Case

    The appeal of a federal judge’s decision in the Gardendale school breakaway case may hit an unexpected roadblock.

    The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta has issued a “jurisdictional question” asking all parties in the case whether the ruling issued in April by U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala could be considered a final judgment, since the ruling did not give complete and final control of Gardendale’s four schools to the city right away.

    Instead, it allowed the city to take over Gardendale and Snow Rogers elementary schools in the coming academic year. The order laid out a process for the city to follow to ensure desegregation efforts over the next three years before she would hand over control of Gardendale High and Bragg Middle schools. Read more.

  • Education

    Alabama Ranks 44th in Nation for the Well-Being of Its Kids

    Alabama ranked in the bottom tier of states on each of the measures of child well-being assessed in the 2017 Kids Count Data Book. The report, released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked Alabama 44th in the country for overall child well-being, an improvement from the state’s 46th place ranking in last year’s report. Read more.

  • Government

    The Mayor and Your Money

    When the Mayor-Council Act was modified by the state Legislature last year amid continuous jockeying for power between the elected officials representing Birmingham’s legislative and executive branches, city councilors lamented that the changes would give too much power to Mayor William Bell.

    Today, even as the mayor and some councilors continue at odds over various issues, one thing is clear: how the mayor has used his broadened powers in the past year has not eased the tension.

    One example: Bell’s office has paid nearly half a million dollars to one lobbying firm, and at least $122,000 of that was done without the council’s approval as of January 2017. Read more.

  • General

    Former Rep. Oliver Robinson Agrees to Plead Guilty to Federal Bribery and Fraud Charges

    Former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson has been charged with having accepted bribes from a Birmingham lawyer and an Alabama coal company executive in exchange for advocating against EPA actions in North Birmingham, acting U.S. Attorney Robert O. Posey announced today.

    He also is charged with fraud in connection with campaign contributions made to him and contributions he solicited for events he sponsored. The final count in the information charges Robinson with tax evasion.

    Robinson agreed to plead guilty to the charges and to never again seek elected office, according to a plea agreement released by prosecutors. He also agreed to pay restitution and submit to a forfeiture judgment.
    Robinson, a 57-year-old Democrat, represented Alabama’s House District 58 from 1998 until he resigned Nov. 30, 2016.

    “Mr. Robinson is charged with conspiracy, bribery and defrauding the people of Alabama and his constituents his honest services,” Posey said at a press conference.

    “The gist of the charges is that Mr. Robinson accepted a valuable contract from a Birmingham law firm in exchange for using his position in the Alabama Legislature to advocate for the position of a coal company which was a client of the law firm.” Read more.

  • Government

    Alabama’s Political Corruption: Three Governors and One House Speaker Convicted of Crimes Give State a Reputation

    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.

  • This story is brought to you through a partnership between B-Metro and BirminghamWatch

    A Long Way From Aleppo: A Doctor and His Family Try to Rebuild Their Lives in Hoover After Fleeing the Ravages of War

    It has been a warm day in early August 2012, in Aleppo, the historic, cosmopolitan Syrian city where you work and live. This day is part of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in which the faithful fast from sunup to sunset. Now the sun is setting, and your oldest son, Fouad, and two of your daughters, Rama and Lydia, are out in the walled garden of your elegant, 14-room home getting ready for iftar, the meal that will break the day’s fast.

    Then, overhead, without warning, without invitation, comes a whining, whooshing sound. Seconds later, the ground shudders as a projectile lands outside the wall and explodes. Sounds of gunfire follow. Your children run into the house. Lydia, who is 8, is crying and screaming for her mother, your wife, Latifa.

    Before the month is out, you, Latifa, Lydia, your other son, Khaldoun, and your baby daughter, Caroline will have left your bloodied, battered country. By September, Fouad will have left and Rama will have joined relatives, among them your mother and father, who have fled to Turkey.

    Your name is Ahmad Faris, you are now 52 years old, and you used to be a well-off, well-known and well-respected surgeon. Now you and your family are among the approximately 5 million Syrians who have left Syria since the civil war’s start in 2011, and you hope that one day, you will practice medicine again.

    In the meantime, you, Latifa, Khaldoun, Rama, Lydia and Caroline are now making your home in a place where, on the August day that brought the terror of war over the rooftop of your home in Aleppo, young, high-school-age men are getting ready to don helmets and shoulder pads and practice a war-like game that you still do not fully understand.

    This place is Hoover, Alabama. Read more.

  • Environment

    ADEM to Cities, Counties: ‘Don’t Depend on Us’ to Help After Budget Cuts

    If a tanker truck overturns and spills a load of petroleum on a roadside or into a creek, local governments likely will have to cover the cost of the clean-up.

    The Alabama Department of Environmental Management used to set aside $500,000 to help counties and municipalities with disaster response. That went away with state budget cuts last year, and ADEM expects the same this year, according to Director Lance LeFleur. They also are bracing for another financial whammy with the president’s proposed severe budget cuts to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

    “Don’t depend on us to be on-site” for anything other than major disasters such as the recent gasoline pipeline incidents in Shelby County, LeFleur said. “Don’t depend on us to be on-site” for anything other than major disasters such as the recent gasoline pipeline incidents in Shelby County, LeFleur said. Read more.

  • General

    Confederate Monument in Linn Park Covered in Wake of Virginia Protests

    Aug. 15, 2017 — Mayor William Bell had a Confederate monument outside Birmingham City Hall obscured by a wooden barrier Tuesday night while efforts are made to remove it.

    But the state’s attorney general quickly sued the city and the mayor, saying the move violated a state law passed in the spring that says monuments more than 40 years old cannot be altered without approval from a new commission.

    The topic of removing the statute was brought up during the Tuesday morning City Council meeting. Council President Johnathan Austin had called on Bell to remove the monument and others like it in Birmingham, calling them “offensive” and saying they “celebrate racism, bigotry, hate and all those things that the South has been known for. Read more.

  • Education

    Round Two: Gardendale Board, NAACP File Briefs With Appeals Court in School Breakaway Case

    The opposing sides in the ongoing Gardendale school-separation case have thrown their first punches in the second round of their fight.

    Attorneys for the Gardendale Board of Education and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund have filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, arguing from opposite sides why they think the ruling by District Judge Madeline Haikala to give Gardendale control of two elementary schools should be thrown out. Read more.

  • General

    JeffCo Commission Presses Pause on Cotswold Development

    Aug. 10, 2017 – Jay Morgan applauded as Commissioner David Carrington voiced his disapproval of an effort to get zoning in The Cotswolds subdivision amended to permit the construction of a pair of houses on land that was designated to be left undeveloped.

    “He said they need to play by the rules,” said Morgan, who lives in the subdivision on Sicard Hollow Road near Liberty Park. “These developers … they were not playing by the rules. They started building the driveway and didn’t even have a building permit. That’s why we have rules and regulations.”

    Carrington ultimately moved that the matter be carried over for no more than six months to allow, among other things, for all parties to be duly notified. Read more.

  • Government

    These Little Warrants Went to Market

    Aug. 8, 2017 – Jefferson County Commissioners were told at their committee meeting Tuesday that they’ll need to wear their best “Sunday go to meeting” attire Aug. 31 as they pose for a picture commemorating the recent sale of warrants for school systems in the county.

    “It was a very successful warrant issue,” Commission President Jimmie Stephens said after the meeting. “We actually had orders for $1.7 billion worth of warrants, of which there were only $338 million to sell. It drove the interest rate down, which benefits the citizens of Jefferson County, puts more money in our coffers to be able to utilize for the citizens of Jefferson County.”
    Stephens said the county continues to advance from its dark days of bankruptcy.

    “We’re more proactive in what we’re doing,” he said. “We have the resources in place now – whether they be human resources or whether they be capital resources – in order to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Jefferson County.” Read more.

  • Government

    Funding for Titusville Day Event Raises Questions at Birmingham Council Meeting

    Aug. 8, 2017 — Tuesday’s mostly placid meeting of the Birmingham City Council was marked by questions over funding for community events in District 6. A resolution appropriating $10,000 for the 33rd Annual Titusville Day — a gathering organized by Councilor Sheila Tyson that took place Aug. 5, — appeared on Tuesday’s agenda.

    Councilor Valerie Abbott expressed concern that money was being spent on the Titusville Day item despite lack of an approved FY 2018 budget. Council President Johnathan Austin responded that the council was spending based on the previous fiscal year’s budget until the new one passed.

    Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt added that approval of expenditures before a budget was passed “just depends on who it is and what it is,” drawing chuckles from the dais.

    “I got it now,” Abbott laughed. “At least you spoke truth to power, as you’re always saying.”
    Despite questions about whether the item had been approved by the city’s law department, which it hadn’t, the item passed. Read more.

  • Government

    JeffCo Commissioners Say Indigent Care Not as Expensive as Previously Thought, but Needs to be Watched

    Commissioner David Carrington acknowledged feeling better about the financial state of indigent care in Jefferson County during Tuesday’s commission committee meeting. He said last week he’d be told the county’s cost for inpatient indigent care at UAB Hospital was up to $25 million, well over the commission’s cap of $16 million to $17 million.

    County Manager Tony Petelos said Tuesday the county actually has spent just less than $12 million for inpatient indigent care so far this year.

    “I feel better than I did two weeks ago,” Carrington said. “My initial concern was it appeared as if the inpatient portion of the indigent care fund was out of control. I received some new data and it appears the inpatient data is in control.” Read more.

  • 2017 Birmingham Mayor Elections

    Top Three Candidates for Mayor Square Off During Debate

    Aug. 10, 2017 – On Thursday morning, WBHM and the Birmingham Business Journal held a mayoral debate that featured three of the 12 candidates in the race – incumbent William Bell and challengers Chris Woods and Randall Woodfin – a restriction that drew criticism from the candidates who were not invited to take part.

    According to WBHM, the candidates were selected to participate in the debate based on polling data, specifically, a WBRC Fox 6 News poll that sampled 214 registered Birmingham voters. In the poll, 54 percent of likely voters cited Bell as their first choice, with Woods at 17 percent and Woodfin at 14 percent.

    Some candidates who were not included in the debate took to social media to express their frustration. “They use the same flawed data polling that FOX 6 use don’t waste your time!” (sic) wrote candidate Frank Matthews on the event’s Facebook page.
    Philemon Hill, another candidate, wrote on Facebook that the debate was skewed in Bell’s favor, calling it “a bought event” that was “a controlled environment so Bell can feel comfortable.” He also took issue with the event’s scheduling – at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of school for Birmingham City Schools. “Holding a mayoral forum at the same time … education can’t be a priority for any involved party,” he wrote.

    Gigi Douban, the news director at WBHM, called such claims “ridiculous,” noting that “setting benchmarks for participants is common practice,” and saying that focusing on candidates who had polled at over 10 percent allowed for a “more substantive discussion of the issues.” Read more.

  • Government

    Bham Council Turns on Itself Over Issues of Favoritism and Skirting of Council Rules

    Questions of protocol dominated a somewhat chaotic meeting of the Birmingham City Council on Tuesday, during which councilors argued over whether some agenda items had gone through appropriate channels – and, in some cases, accused each other of attempting to circumvent proper procedure.

    “This is trickery,” Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt said at one point, and that sense of confusion and distrust hung over the entire meeting.

    Hoyt was referring to a proposed resolution that would have rescinded roughly $22,000 in funding for the council’s discretionary contracts that had not been approved before June 30. Read more.

  • Government

    Grand Jury Investigating Local Government to Continue

    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