Gardendale Resident Files Class-Action Lawsuit Seeking Return of Property Taxes Meant for City School System
A resident of Gardendale has filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and Jefferson County alleging that property taxes are being collected illegally for the city’s efforts to form its own school system.
The suit was filed Friday on behalf of Jay Campbell and others who have paid property taxes in Gardendale since the city school tax began to be collected in 2014. It alleges that the 10 mills of property taxes collected by the city to fund the proposed system are now illegal, since a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the city’s effort to form the system earlier this month.
Alternatively, if the court finds no fault with the Gardendale school tax, the suit asserts that the county’s 8.8-mill property tax for schools has been collected from Gardendale property owners illegally, since Alabama law prohibits double taxation for schools.
The suit asks that the tax revenues collected so far and held in escrow be paid back to taxpayers. Read more.
Democrats See Surge in Candidates Running for Office; Party Official Credits Jones Win for Boosting Interest
The Democratic Party is having a surge in interest from candidates this year, particularly for seats in the Legislature.
As the deadline for candidates to qualify for races on the 2018 ballot passed Friday, Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley reported a big turnout of qualifying candidates. “We had a very strong group of people qualify for federal and state seats,” she said.
She said county chairmen also reported strong results.
“We are going to see a very interesting primary with a strong field of nominees,” she said.
Worley said Doug Jones’ win in the race for U.S. Senate in December probably energized Democratic candidates to run this year.
“We’ve got a lot of strong active women running, a lot of young people running, and a lot who haven’t ever run before,” Worley said.
In fact, the party has seen a 45 percent jump in candidates qualifying to run for the state House of Representatives compared to the 2014 election. That year, the Democrats fielded 80 candidates in 62 House races. This year, it has 116 candidates in 75 races. In the Senate, the Democrats ran 28 candidates in 2014, compared to 31 this year.
The party has seen similar growth at the top of the ticket. In 2014, it had two candidates for governor and one each for attorney general, commissioner of agriculture and industries, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and auditor.
This year, it has six candidates running for governor alone. Another two are running for attorney general, two for secretary of state and one for auditor. Read more.
JeffCo Approves Contracts With Community Health Care Providers, Will Continue Conversation About Cooper Green System
Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens described the Cooper Green Mercy Health Services as “ever evolving but always moving for the better,” after Thursday’s County Commission meeting.
“What we want to do is we want to have a best practices health care (system) for our citizens,” Stephens said. “That’s our intention and that’s our goal.”
Commissioners today moved forward with a plan to extend the hub-and-spoke model of county health care by adding partners to the network that would be providing care out in the communities. Read more.
Grand jury subpoenas arriving last week for Alabama legislators put the spotlight on how the officeholders spend contributions and whether their reports and expenditures comply with the state’s campaign finance law.
State Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, one of the few legislators to acknowledge getting a subpoena, said it was from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. Todd said she’s not the only legislator to receive a subpoena. House Speaker Mac McCutcheon also verified that subpoenas had been delivered.
“They seem to believe we are putting things on the Visa that are for personal use, but I don’t have anything to hide,” Todd said.
Other legislators were being close-lipped about the investigation, most of them either not returning calls or saying they had no comment.
Alabama election laws specify that candidates and officials must disclose the identification of each person or entity that has been paid more than $100 in a calendar year from their campaign accounts, along with the amount, date and purpose of each expenditure.
BirminghamWatch looked up financial records on Jefferson County’s 26 legislators and found several who had listed expenditures on their campaign finance reports without providing details about where the money went. Read more.
Candidates and independent committees raised more than $49 million last year for Alabama’s U.S. Senate special election, won by Democrat Doug Jones.
Financial reports posted this week by the Federal Election Commission show Jones with $22.05 million in contributions to his campaign during 2017, compared to $6.15 million for Republican Roy Moore. Those reports include money raised by Jones for the Democratic primary in August and the general election on Dec. 5, and by Moore for the Republican primary, GOP runoff and general election.
In addition, independent committees, known as Super PACs, reported spending $2.37 million in support of Jones and $1.24 million in opposition to him. Super PACs spent $158,464 in support of Moore and $5.19 million in efforts to defeat him. Read more.
President Trump today imposed a stiff tariff on cheap solar cells and panels imported from China and other countries, a move industry experts said may decimate the growth of solar energy in Alabama and stunt it elsewhere in the country.
The tariff starts at 30 percent for the first year.
“That level would squash Alabama business for us and similar businesses that operate in Alabama to provide turnkey solar systems to residential and small commercial customers,” said Larry Bradford, of north Alabama’s Southern Solar Systems.
About $5.6 billion in projects in just four Sunbelt states – Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas – could be jeopardized by a tariff, according to E&E News, which follows energy and environmental matters.
The tariff could have been worse, though. It drops by 5 percent each of the four succeeding years. It also exempts a substantial portion of initial imports each year.
Alabama is particularly vulnerable to the added cost of a tariff, experts in the field say, because policies of investor-owned utility Alabama Power Co. already limit solar energy penetration in a variety of ways that make solar installations more expensive here. Read more.
In a case that touches Alabama, a federal court ruled this week that a government regulatory agency has to estimate the probable effect energy use has on climate change.
Environmentalists in Alabama and elsewhere are applauding this “surprising” victory. The 6th District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled Monday that, when licensing natural gas pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission did not fully consider the potential greenhouse gas effects of burning natural gas.
The court ordered a new environmental impact study of the Southeast Market Pipelines Project — a network that includes the new Sabal Trail pipeline. The 515-mile line carries fracked gas from a point near Alexander City through southwestern Georgia to central Florida, where it fuels generators for electricity there. Read more.
With protestors rallying outside and a packed house inside, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments over the legality of “extreme” partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts.
The court has taken up a suit, Gill v. Whitford, that alleges partisan gerrymandering in the redrawing of legislative districts in Wisconsin. The court is mulling whether enforceable standards can be set limiting political influence over the drawing of districts. Conservatives on the court are unsure that can be done, while liberals argued that not doing it undercuts the theory of democracy.
Much of Tuesday’s arguments were aimed at Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely considered the swing vote in the case.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have ramifications for legislative districts in Alabama and 20 other states.
In Alabama, legislators drew new House and Senate districts after the 2010 Census, but a court ordered them to redraw 12 districts deemed to be the result of racial gerrymandering.
The issue is whether the redistricting packed too many minority voters in too few districts. Opponents of the plan argue that if fewer black voters – just enough to influence the election – were assigned to more districts, they would have a strong voice in the selection of more legislators.
The Legislature adopted new districting maps this spring that redraw 25 of the 35 Senate districts and 70 of the 105 House districts. Unsatisfied, the Legislative Black Caucus has challenged the plans.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in the spring.
Race and the Alabama Legislature, Volatile Mix in Redrawing Political Map
A Fix for Racial Gerrymandering? Legislators to Debate Whether New Plan Cures Voting District Problems
Legislature OKs Redistricting Plan on Last Day of the Session
National Coverage of U.S. Supreme Court Case
Kennedy’s Vote Is in Play on Voting Maps Warped by Politics (New York Times)
Kennedy is Key to Supreme Court Outcome on Partisan Maps (Associated Press)
What is Gerrymandering? A guide to Understanding the Case Before the Supreme Court (Quartz)
With Wisconsin case, Supreme Court Takes up Partisan Gerrymandering (Christian Science Monitor)
Supreme Court Appears Divided Over Gerrymandering (Wall Street Journal)
Transcript of the Arguments (Wall Street Journal)
Partisan Gerrymandering: How Much Is Too Much? (NPR)
When Cooper Green Mercy Hospital closed its doors in 2013, Jefferson County officials were reeling from health care costs that had spun out of control. At that time, the $50 million indigent care fund – generated by a percentage of sales tax revenue – was not enough to cover costs and officials were dipping into the county’s general fund to cover the shortage.
Cooper Green was reborn as an urgent care and primary care clinic. The move has reduced costs over the past four years, but some commissioners recently expressed concern at the amount the county was paying UAB, which provides in-patient, emergency and specialty care to Cooper Green’s poor patients. The payments to UAB are projected to reach about $24 million this fiscal year – nearly half of the county’s indigent care fund.
Jefferson County Manager Tony Petelos said the county is not in danger of exceeding the money set aside for indigent care this year, but that does not mean it is as cost effective as it could be. Because it is costly operating the aging building designed to be a hospital, Petelos and Cooper Green Mercy CEO Roger McCollough are pushing an effort to replace Cooper Green Mercy.
They’re also looking for ways to channel patients to less-expensive preventative care, treating them before they’re so sick they require treatment in an emergency room or hospitalization. Read more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the wake of the latest deadly school shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., school officials, law enforcement and parents across the country are asking what can be done to prevent the next one. That’s true in Alabama and Birmingham, as elsewhere.
In Alabama, there isn’t one standard set of practices used by schools to identify and monitor students, like the shooter Nikolas Cruz in Parkland, who might be prone to violence.
“Alabama State Department of Education does not have policies on identifying/monitoring troubled youth in schools,” said Michael Sibley, director of communications for the department. Read more
Four Democratic candidates for Alabama governor gathered at the Birmingham Crossplex Monday night for a forum mostly focused on economic issues facing the state.
Sue Bell Cobb, James Fields, Walt Maddox and Anthony White each discussed their stances on a potential lottery, infrastructure funding and minimum wage, among other issues. Christopher A. Countryman and Doug “New Blue” Smith, who also qualified to run for governor as Democrats, did not attend the forum.
The forum, sponsored by the podcast “Not Necessarily Political with James Williams and Lonnie Malone” and moderated by former Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Smoot, didn’t showcase much disagreement among its four participants. Instead, the candidates spent most of their time highlighting their backgrounds and qualifications. If there were any disagreements, they stemmed largely from the finer points of the candidates’ platforms. Read more.
Eleven people have lined up to run for governor this year.
Among the candidates are some of the state’s best-known names, including the governor herself, and some that are more obscure.
With a lineup like that in politics, as the adage goes for another great American spectator sport, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
So let’s take a quick look at just who are all of these people who soon will be stalking you on social media, via email, with flyers and on your TV screens asking for your vote.
Feb. 6, 2018 — The Birmingham City Council voted today to support the construction of a new multi-purpose facility at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
The vote followed a lengthy back-and-forth among the council, Mayor Randall Woodfin and members of the public, with proponents arguing that the development will bring much-needed revenue into the city and opponents expressing skepticism about the necessity of the proposed 30-year, $90 million investment.
The BJCC expansion and renovation, which would include the construction of a new open-air stadium, would be funded by a mix of public and private sources. The city is slated to contribute $3 million a year for 30 years to the stadium; the BJCC Authority will pay $10.7 in annual debt service; UAB and private entities will contribute $4 million a year for 10 years; the Jefferson County government will pay $1 million a year for 30 years; and a proposed increase to the city’s rental car tax, still pending in the state Legislature, would account for $3.5 million in annual funding for 30 years.
Woodfin and Council President Valerie Abbott both emphasized that Tuesday’s vote was not for a specific contract or to allocate any funds, but rather a general statement of willingness to negotiate a specific plan. A Q-and-A between District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and Woodfin, published online Monday, highlighted that many of the details have yet to be set in concrete.
Woodfin compared the resolution to a marriage proposal. “A person asking you to marry (them) is very different from the process of a prenuptial agreement,” he said. Read more.
Some School Officials Protest as Birmingham Metro Schools Get As to Ds on First Letter Grade Report Cards
The first letter grade report card day for Alabama’s schools and school systems – much like report card days for school students – brought celebration, disappointment and some strong reactions.
Alabama schools’ report cards were released Thursday morning by the Alabama State Department of Education and, for the first time, gave letter grades to Alabama’s 1,247 public schools and 137 school systems.
Jefferson County Schools, the second-largest school system in the state with 56 schools, scored a C, the same letter grade as the state school system. But, that C and the whole idea of a letter grade didn’t sit well with Dr. Craig Pouncey, county school superintendent, and other school leaders.
Superintendents across the state have criticized the letter grade report cards as too narrow and too reliant on one standardized test, the ACT Aspire, which is not even being used by the state going forward. They also have complained that the one letter grade is not a full or accurate measure of school performance. Marion, Chambers County and some other systems have voted no confidence in the report cards, and more system officials have criticized them. Read more.
Jan. 25, 2018 – The Jefferson County Commission today authorized the county manager to begin discussions with the University of Alabama at Birmingham about establishing a health care authority to operate Cooper Green Mercy Health Services.
The move came in response to a consultant’s report that recommended building a new building for multispecialty outpatient service clinics, selling the current Cooper Green building and entering a partnership with a healthcare authority to make more decisions about how indigent care is handled in the county.
“The challenges are we have an old building and we have an operating model that is still essentially a remnant of an in-patient facility,” said Tony Fiori, managing director of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips. Read more and watch video of Fiori’s briefing.
A list of 75 “failing” schools in Alabama includes 22 schools in the Birmingham metro area – 14 Birmingham city schools, two in the Jefferson County school system, and two each in Bessemer, Fairfield and Midfield.
Based on 2017 test results in math and reading on the ACT Aspire standardized tests, failing schools are defined as those with students scoring in the lowest 6 percent of state schools. The failing designation and definition is defined by the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 that was modified in 2015 to exclude schools that serve special populations of students with disabilities.
The Alabama State Department of Education posted the list of failing schools, 75 out of Alabama’s 1,325 public schools, online Jan. 24,
Funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program was extended for six years in the compromise budget bill passed by Congress and signed by the president Monday.
Alabama and many other states had been particularly concerned about funding for the program, which was in danger of running out next month.
BirminghamWatch focused on the insurance program, known in Alabama as All Kids, in the first of a planned series exploring the connections between Alabama and Washington.
Read the story about the effect the federal funding has in the state:
Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them
On a warm fall afternoon, 30 men and six women, all wearing charcoal gray T-shirts and navy blue trousers, stood at attention outside a dormitory building on the Wallace Community College campus in Selma. Chanting in a military-style cadence, they trotted to another nearby building where, outside the entrance, one of their members slam-jammed into the ground a pole from which hung a flag bearing the emblem of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
This group of 36 made up the most recent class of students at the Alabama Corrections Academy, preparing for a job that most Alabamians would not want, in a workplace most would shun. That job is working as a correctional officer in an often overcrowded Alabama prison. The Department of Corrections has too many inmates and not enough officers, and in recent years more officers have left the prison system than new ones have joined.
In early December, the population in the state prison system, ranging from those locked down in death row cells to those soon to be set free from work release centers, was 21,213, about 8,000 more than the system originally was built to hold. The number of correctional officers staffing system facilities was 1,569, which is only 44 percent of the number the corrections department says it is supposed to have.
Depending on where they were assigned, the new class of recruits could be working 12-hour days or even longer because of staff shortages. Every day, inmates would be watching them, looking to befriend them or ask them for a favor. Some days, inmates might curse at them, throw feces and urine, use dinner trays as weapons or fight to keep illegal contraband such as cell phones.
For working in this closed society, in which they can feel just as confined as the inmates, the officers’ entry-level pay is less than $29,000, slightly higher if they have a college degree. Read more.
2018 promises to be an interesting time, as the Chinese blessing (or curse) goes. Alabama and Birmingham, specifically, will be tackling many issues involving education and school management, jobs and the economy, the environment, crime and, of course, party politics and political leadership, to name a few.
BirminghamWatch asked community leaders and contributors for insight on important issues that are likely to be demanding attention this year. Read what they had to say. Read more.
What news are you watching for in 2018? Visit our Facebook post and tell us in a comment, or send us an email at email@example.com, and and we might watch it, too. We always want to know what’s important to people in the community.
Martin Luther King Jr. holds a special place in the history of Birmingham. It was here that he wrote the Letter from Birmingham Jail after being arrested during a civil rights march.
King, in conjunction with local civil rights activists, organized the Birmingham campaign, which led to a brutal crackdown by law enforcement, captured the nation’s attention and contributed to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That history will be commemorated Monday with a list of events marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
At the King statue in Kelly Ingram Park – near sculptures depicting the lunging, snarling dogs released on civil rights marchers praying ministers, children who took part in the protests and many others – a wreath-laying ceremony will be held at 10 a.m.
A march in tribute to King follows at 11 a.m., beginning at the park. Read more.
Alabama’s House of Representatives members will be getting mandatory sexual harassment training beginning in 2019, even though House and Senate officials say neither body has had a sexual harassment complaint filed in decades or longer.
The House also posts detailed sexual harassment policies online for open viewing.
These moves put Alabama lawmakers and staff in solid company. The majority of the nation’s legislative chambers are intensifying efforts to prevent sexual harassment after a wave of sexual harassment claims made against prominent figures gained momentum in the fall, the Associated Press found in a 50-state review.released Thursday.
AP found that more than three-fourths of the states have at least one legislative chamber that has updated its sexual harassment policy during the past several months, developed specific proposals to do so or undertaken a review of whether changes are needed. Read more.
Gov. Kay Ivey began her first State of the State address by claiming victory in the primary focus of her brief governorship: getting state government in order after the resignation of her predecessor, Robert Bentley.
Speaking in the old House Chamber of the state capitol, Ivey made the most of her moment, raising her hands as she told legislators she had achieved the promise she made to voters in her short-notice swearing in in April.
“Our ship of state was adrift,” Ivey said. “It’s my pleasure to report that we have successfully steadied the ship of state, and I declare that the state of the state is strong, and our future is as bright as the sun over the Gulf.” Read more.
Jan. 8, 2018 – Alabama’s state Legislature begins its 2018 regular session Tuesday, but legislators already have prefiled a slate of bills to be considered, some of which will likely attract significant debate.
Some of 2017’s most controversial stories — the 2017 election of Democratic U.S Sen. Doug Jones and the debate over Confederate monuments, for example — will continue on into the new year. Read more.
WASHINGTON – Doug Jones took the oath of office as Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. senator in a quarter-century Wednesday, narrowing the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49.
“I am humbled and honored to stand here today, chosen by the people of Alabama to represent our state in this historic institution,” Jones said. “I will work every day to make sure I hear their voices and that their voices are heard in Washington. It is time to come together and rebuild the trust we need to find common ground and expand opportunity for all.”
Jones is widely seen as a Democrat who will challenge President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans in their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, fight increases in the minimum wage and oppose abortion rights.
With Jones in the Senate, GOP success in repealing Obamacare becomes much less likely, and if just two Republicans vote with Democrats, Trump nominees or budget measures would be defeated. Read more.
Doug Jones’ Search for Common Ground: Jones Talks About His Intentions, His Opponent and His Route to the U.S. Senate
In his first press conference since being elected senator, Doug Jones reiterated his desire to find “common ground” on both sides of the political aisle and dismissed his opponent’s refusal to concede the election.
Jones defeated the twice-deposed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore by roughly 20,000 votes Tuesday night, a surprise Democratic win in a state that for decades has been considered a Republican stronghold. However, Moore has not conceded the race, telling supporters that “when the vote is this close … it’s not over.”
For the most part, Jones’ responses to reporters’ questions were conciliatory, stressing the need to find “common ground” — a phrase he repeated 12 times during the press conference — in the midst of a divisive political climate.
“I know I’m just sounding like a broken record (when I) talk about that,” Jones said, “but I just think it is so important that we try to sit down at a table and talk about issues and talk about the things that matter in the big picture … . I want to try to find those issues more and more that we can find common ground on, and let’s just agree to disagree on those issues that are so divisive that it’s hard to even talk to people about them.” Read more.
BirminghamWatch stepped out of the mainstream in 2017 to give you stories that didn’t just recap the news, but also explained how the news was affecting our culture and the people in it.
BW has followed, and continues to follow, arguments for and against Gardendale’s attempts to break away from the county and form its own school system. It has brought you stories of immigrants who have made Alabama their home, of the state’s attempts to improve student performance regardless of high poverty rates in schools, and of the effect the state’s budget decisions are having on the environment.
2017 also was a year of elections, from the culmination of the presidential election with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, to the Birmingham city elections, to the U.S. Senate special election that attracted national attention. BirminghamWatch worked to give voters the information they needed before going to the polls, in addition to delivering that something extra that helped explain the issues, the politics and the ramifications of the elections.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading BirminghamWatch in 2017, and please continue reading to see what we have in store for 2018! Read more.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program Is Saved for Now. What Happens Next in Alabama Remains in Hands of Congress.
Advocates for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, popularly known as CHIP, took heart when Congress and the president authorized temporary funding measures that would keep the government from shutting down and keep CHIP going through the first of 2018.
This was no Christmas miracle – just a temporary reprieve. Nevertheless, for the beneficiaries of ALL Kids, the Alabama Department of Public Health unit that administers CHIP funds to provide insurance for 83,000 Alabama kids, it was a welcome reprieve.
“I don’t know specifically, I don’t know dollar amounts,” said Cathy Caldwell, executive director of ALL Kids, “but I have had some preliminary conversations with CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and it appears that it will give us an additional three-four weeks’ worth of funding.”
Besides the ALL Kids funding, about 77,000 children are insured by CHIP funding through Alabama’s Medicaid system. Those children would still have insurance even if Congress fails to act – although the state would have to pick up the cost for insuring them.
Because ALL Kids was expected to run out of funding in February, that would appear to give the children it covers a reprieve until March – unless Congress turns the situation around first.
But Caldwell was cautious. Read more.
The Hoover Board of Education this week settled a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Trace Crossings Elementary School principal, the Hoover Sun reported.
The lawsuit filed by Robin Litaker not only alleged gender discrimination, court documents and testimony given in the case also gave the public a glimpse into the school’s dysfunctional culture at a time when parents were withdrawing their children, leaving the school with a poorer and blacker student body than it otherwise would have had.
Teachers bickered among themselves, refused to follow administrative direction and were not following the state-mandated curriculum, according to statements made in the case. Children were assigned to classes based on whether they lived in houses or apartments and whether they lived in single- or two-parent families.
At times, the students were assigned to classes by race, BirminghamWatch reported in a story last year.
Litaker, a former Alabama Teacher of the Year, was removed from her post as principal after she had been in the job for two years because the school did not meet annual yearly progress standards. Litaker contended in her suit that male school administrators in similar situations were given time to remedy the problems at their schools.
The board this week agreed to pay Litaker $97,000, equal to a year’s salary, plus legal fees in the settlement of the federal lawsuit, the Hoover Sun reported. She is no longer working for the system.
Read the full BirminghamWatch story about the situation at the school.
Dec. 19, 2017 — One Birmingham city councilor called Tuesday for a reevaluation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act, the state law requiring governmental meetings to be accessible to the public.
John Hilliard, the newly elected councilor for District 9, made his remarks at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting during discussion of an item that would allow members of council committees to appoint proxies when they are unable to attend a committee meeting.
The text of the resolution was not made available even to members of the council, and its sponsor, Councilor Lashunda Scales, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
But before the council voted to delay the item, it became the springboard for a freewheeling discussion about the legalities involved with committee meetings. Read more.
ATLANTA — Both sides in the Gardendale school separation court case faced a panel of three federal judges at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, and those judges weren’t always buying what the attorneys were selling.
The oral arguments were part of the latest step in the legal process of Gardendale’s proposed separation from the Jefferson County School System, which would result in a municipally operated system with four schools. The plan is opposed by JefCoEd and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Both fear the separation would harm the county system’s efforts to achieve full and final legal racial desegregation and end federal court supervision that began in the 1970s.
Last April, U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala ruled that Gardendale could go on with the formation of its system but could take control of only two elementary schools at first and would gain complete control when she was satisfied that desegregation issues had made sufficient progress. She also found that the reason the city wanted to separate was racially motivated.
That partial decision didn’t satisfy either party. Gardendale appealed to the 11th Circuit, asking that they rule in favor of a full takeover right away. The NAACP wasn’t happy, either, arguing in their cross-appeal that the racial-motivation finding should have disqualified the city from breaking away.
The three-judge panel peppered attorney Aaron Gavin McLeod, representing Gardendale, with numerous questions about how the split would affect not only JefCoEd’s efforts to achieve complete desegregation, but also its finances. Justice William Pryor, in particular, seemed visibly dismayed at why Haikala’s “split decision” came to be.
“What law empowers a district judge to impose a partial separation that no party asked for?” he asked McLeod. Read more.
Alabama Faces Another Drought Season With No Plan for Water Use; Governor Shifts Direction in Who Will Produce One
Memories of Alabama’s devastating 2016 drought must be short.
A reminder: The Cahaba and other rivers stopped flowing in places, and water utilities were slow to place restrictions on their customers when reservoirs ran almost dry. The worst of the eight-month drought didn’t end until spring 2017.
Now, as Alabama’s climatologist predicts dryer months ahead, Gov. Kay Ivey has disbanded a broad panel charged with developing a comprehensive water use plan for the state.
Environmental groups are voicing surprise and dismay. The leader of one says disruption in the planning process delays a plan that is needed quickly.
The action puts future water plan efforts in the hands of an appointed commission that has no public members and has not produced an actionable water management plan in its 27 years of existence. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has tapped television news reporter Rick Journey to serve as his director of communications. Former Birmingham City Schools spokeswoman Chanda Temple also has taken the position of public information officer.
“Our administration’s focus on servant leadership by putting people first starts with transparency and providing a clear message to our citizens and our employees that we will serve with the public’s best interest at the core of our work,” Woodfin said in a statement. “I am pleased to have Rick and Chanda be part of providing that clear message and joining an administration committed to core values of transparency, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability and customer service.” Read more.
Dec. 12, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council Tuesday approved a budget for the 2018 fiscal year, more than five months after that fiscal year actually started.
“We have a budget!” proclaimed Council President Valerie Abbott after the unanimous vote, drawing a standing ovation from many who had gathered in the council chambers.
The delay was the result, at first, of an apparent breakdown in communications between former Mayor William Bell and the council. After the Oct. 3 municipal elections, the council further delayed passing the budget until newly elected officials — Mayor Randall Woodfin and the three new councilors — could have their input on the budget.
Two weeks into Woodfin’s administration, his office delivered his budget “compromise,” which trimmed significant amounts earmarked for city departments and culture and recreation funding.
While most councilors expressed a sense of relief about the passage of a budget, the specifics of the budget drew a more measured response.
President Pro Tem Jay Roberson described himself as “elated” that the budget had passed and praised Woodfin for his influence.
“I know he was ready to get this behind him, too, and ready to move forward to his next fiscal year for consideration,” he said. “There are some areas that I think need some work, but you can still make adjustments in that process as needed.”
Speaking from the dais, District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales thanked the mayor, but with muted praise. “The mayor knows that all of our expectations are very high with this incoming (2019) budget, and I think mine are probably superlative above,” she said, adding that, “in the spirit of willingness to work with everyone, I didn’t get all the things (I wanted).” But, she said, she was “looking forward” to the next set of budget discussions.
“It was six months overdue,” Abbott said after the meeting, calling the delay “embarrassing.”
“I would have agreed to almost anything to get our departments back functioning correctly and getting our employees their salary treatments that they desperately need at this time of year,” she added. “Not all of us like the budget, but we never all get what we want. That’s part of life. We’re used to that idea. We have to prioritize; my priority was to get the budget passed. Next year, things might be different.” Read more.
The state grand jury investigating Birmingham Water Works Board and other aspects of Birmingham and Jefferson County government yielded three indictments Wednesday.
The attorney general and FBI officials announced the arrests of Sherry Lewis, the chairwoman of the Birmingham Water Works’ board of directors, Jerry Jones, a former vice president at Arcadis, and Terry Williams, the owner of Global Solutions International, Inc., on felony state ethics charges.
All three surrendered Wednesday at the Jefferson County Jail.
The charges stem from allegations Lewis used her office for personal gain of herself, a relative or companies with which she is associated, took part in decisions that could benefit her or a relative, and solicited or received something of value to influence her official action. Jones and Williams are accused of aiding and abetting Lewis and offering something of value to influence official action. Read more.
Dec. 5, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council discussed a proposed five-year, $30 million renovation to Legion Field during Tuesday’s meeting.
Though parks and recreation committee Chairman William Parker eventually elected to withdraw the measure from consideration, members of the council indicated that discussions of the proposed plan would continue.
Parker’s plan, which he said was “in the infancy stage,” would spend just less than $30 million dollars on improvements to the stadium, which opened in 1927. Though 2015 renovations to the stadium improved its scoreboard and sound system, Parker’s proposal would take a more holistic approach over the course of five years, starting with the 2018 fiscal year and ending in 2022.
“I really applaud Councilor Parker … for coming up with this plan, because whatever revitalization is employed with respect to Legion Field, then it needs to be a comprehensive plan,” Councilor Steven Hoyt said. “We’ve still got some things to figure out, but at least we have a starting point, and we have a facility that can be transformed to something even greater and better.” Read more.
Dec. 1, 2017 — Mayor Randall Woodfin oversaw the demolition of a dilapidated house in Rising-West Princeton on Friday morning, an event that he said would exemplify his administration’s more aggressive approach to combating blight.
Woodfin said the issue of abandoned structures was “easily” one of the top two complaints he had received during the course of his mayoral campaign.
“People want their property value protected. They want to feel safe where they live,” he said. “The minimum we can do is getting more aggressive about getting rid of these dilapidated structures.”
Woodfin said his administration was beginning to inventory dilapidated structures across the city and then determine which should have their demolition prioritized. Read more.
Nov. 29, 2017 — Less than 24 hours after Mayor Randall Woodfin took office, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper announced his retirement.
Roper, who has been chief since 2007, said in a statement that he’d informed Woodfin of his decision on Nov. 8. He said he had decided not to reapply for his position “after a considerable amount of prayer.” Roper said he’d stay on for the next few months as the search process begins for a new chief.
Roper’s future with the department had been in question since Woodfin’s election, though Woodfin stressed Monday that Roper’s resignation was voluntary. Throughout his campaign, Woodfin expressed concern over the increase of crime in the city. The city logged its 100th homicide of 2017 on Monday — roughly on track to tie 2016’s homicide count of 109, the highest number since 2006’s 110.
Woodfin when he spoke with BirminghamWatch on Monday described gun violence in Birmingham as an “epidemic” and said the city would have to combat crime “in a different way” than it had been.
Nov. 28, 2017 — “Truthfully, this is not my inauguration,” Randall Woodfin said shortly after he was sworn in as Birmingham’s 30th mayor. “This is our inauguration.”
That sentiment — that Woodfin’s administration will be a collective effort to improve the city — extended throughout most of the inauguration ceremony Tuesday afternoon. Before Woodfin took the oath of office, political commentator and motivational speaker Jeff Johnson urged attendees to ask themselves what they could do to improve the city. Singer-songwriter Sebastian Cole performed a cover version of John Legend’s “If You’re Out There,” a call-to-action anthem that quotes Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see.”
After Woodfin was sworn into office by Judge Nakita Blocton — with his mother, Cynthia Woodfin-Kellum, holding the bible — he, too, emphasized the importance of community collaboration. He cited the “grassroots movement we built from scratch” as having propelled him into office.
For much of his speech, Woodfin referred to himself and the nine members of the City Council as a unit, at one point calling them up to join him at the podium.
“The 10 of us collectively not only represent you, are dedicated to fighting for you, but wholeheartedly we believe in you,” he said. Read more.
Randall Woodfin was officially sworn in as the 30th mayor of Birmingham today, beginning a four-year term that he has promised will bring major changes to the organization and operation of city government, including pushes to increase transparency and reduce crime.
He’ll start his tenure with an audit of city finances and reassessment of the structures of all city departments — which, he says, is going to lead to some “heavy” decisions. There are other challenges ahead as well, he said, in working to reduce the city’s rampant gun violence, advocating for an increased minimum wage, and improving the quality of life for Birmingham citizens.
Read the Q&A with the new mayor.
Calling for changes to state law governing a city’s ability to create its own school system, opponents of Gardendale’s breakaway effort say the issue isn’t simply about black and white, but a dilution of education resources and limitations on choices and chances for students.
“We’re not picking on Gardendale. We’re just trying to stop this train,” said Margaret Z. Beard, president of the Jefferson County Retired Teachers’ Association, one of the panelists at a Tuesday night Call to Action Forum at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church.
The north Jefferson County town of Gardendale’s effort to break away and form a new municipal system, which began five years ago and is now pending in the federal courts, was at the center of the discussion at the forum, titled “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.”
A petition circulated at the forum calls for an amendment to the Code of Alabama “to change from 5,000 to 25,000 the population a municipality must have before control of schools … shall be vested in a city board of education.” Read more.
Proposal to Build Bridge Over the Little Cahaba Open for Comments. Opponents Fear Danger to the Drinking Water Supply, ALDOT Points to Improved Traffic
The river runs through it – the “it” being the undeveloped areas adjacent to the Little Cahaba River. But will a new road also run through this pristine watershed that protects the quality of a major source of drinking water for most residents of Jefferson and Shelby counties?
The Alabama Department of Transportation is taking written comments from the public until Nov. 1 on whether to widen and extend Cahaba Beach Road from near U.S. 280 across a new bridge and connect it to Sicard Hollow Road.
ALDOT regional engineer DeJarvis Leonard said the cut-through project would take many years to complete but would improve access between roads on either side of the Little Cahaba River and reduce travel times.
Environmentalists’ concerns include potential degradation of drinking water by the construction, traffic and potential future commercial development. They also point out the river is a prime recreation area for canoeing, kayaking and hiking. Read more.
When organizers of an effort to separate Gardendale from the Jefferson County School System began their work, they had no idea it would attract so much attention from national news media — or that much of that attention would be unfavorable to their cause.
The effort to break away and form a new municipal system, which began five years ago and has since landed in the federal courts, has been covered by well-known media such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. The latter aroused the ire of parents of Gardendale High School students when a photographer was allowed to work inside the school. Additionally, reporters from online outlets that specialize in educational issues, racial issues or both have also focused on the city and the separation effort.
Last month alone, two stories were published nationally about the Gardendale breakaway, both casting the effort as part of a larger issue of resegregation in urban public schools. Read more.
Questions About Protection of the Drinking Water Supply Dominate Debate On Northeast Birmingham Zoning Plan
Sep. 19, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council approved Tuesday a measure to change zoning district lines in parts of northeast Birmingham despite criticism that some of the changes could endanger water quality in Lake Purdy and the Cahaba River, both essential drinking water sources.
City officials said they are taking steps to protect the watershed and are preparing conservation easements for that land. Read more.
Former state Rep. Oliver L. Robinson pleaded guilty today in federal court to accepting bribes from a Birmingham lawyer and an Alabama coal company executive in exchange for advocating against an environmental cleanup in north Birmingham.
The 57-year-old Democrat from Birmingham entered his guilty pleas before U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon to conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and tax evasion. Robinson’s plea agreement required that he cooperate in further investigations in exchange for prosecutors’ recommending a lighter sentence, pay restitution and forfeiture in an amounts to be determined, and to never again seek elected office. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7. Robinson is free on bond.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Robinson in June for accepting a contract between Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham and the Oliver Robinson Foundation to use his influence to oppose the EPA’s prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site. Read more.