This story was written as part of a collaboration among InsideClimate News and nine media outlets in the Southeast.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin promised in December to pivot toward prioritizing sustainability during the remaining two years of his term in office, moving toward fulfilling a pledge he made during his 2017 campaign.
“We’ve got a whole lot more environmental justice and sustainability issues to address within the next two years,” he said, “but we’ve laid the groundwork and foundation to address these environmental issues in our city.”
But for some, Woodfin’s administration — and Birmingham’s municipal government as a whole — has been frustratingly inert when it comes to environmental issues.
“The bottom line is, the city doesn’t have a strategy for addressing sustainability or environmental justice or climate change or anything related to those issues,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, a Birmingham-based nonprofit focused on environmental justice advocacy. “The mayor campaigned on all of those issues, and several of the councilors talk about them from the daïs, but they don’t ever actually do anything about them.”
Birmingham’s lack of a clear sustainability plan has placed the city at a disadvantage compared to other cities nationwide. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s 2019 city clean energy scorecard, for instance, ranked Birmingham as 72nd among 75 major cities in terms of sustainability efforts, saying the city “has substantial room to improve across the board” and should push toward codifying goals for clean and renewable energy “to jump-start its efforts.” Read more.
Reporters from Southeastern newsrooms hold leaders in their communities accountable for reducing carbon emissions and preparing for climate change-related emergencies. Read more.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham will offer full tuition scholarships to some graduates of Birmingham City Schools as part of a new partnership with the City of Birmingham.
The city and UAB announced the scholarship program Thursday morning at a press conference.
“It makes a down payment on our city’s economic competitiveness,” Mayor Randall Woodfin says.
The Birmingham Promise Scholarship is part of a city initiative that plans to offer graduates of Birmingham schools full tuition to all in-state public universities and colleges. UAB is the first academic partner to support the Birmingham Promise with a scholarship. UAB estimates it’ll contribute $250,000 the first year, according to a spokesperson for the city. The Birmingham Promise Incorporated does not yet have an estimate on how much it’ll contribute. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin delivered his State of the City address to the Kiwanis Club Tuesday afternoon. His speech focused largely on his administration’s neighborhood revitalization efforts and its nascent Birmingham Promise education initiative, though he also touched on race relations in the 74% black city. Read more.
Reading Birmingham: Peggy Kennedy Struggles With the Legacy of Her Father, George Wallace, in “The Broken Road”
George Wallace is one of the great enigmas of American history, an enigma that keeps pulling us back and begging us to render judgment. Wallace was the most successful racist demagogue of his time, but because of his late life mea culpa on all the terrible things he had done, we each get to decide whether Wallace deserves redemption. That is both maddening and satisfying. And it is a large part of what makes him so compelling.
This is not a biography of George Wallace. Those have been done and done well. “The Broken Road” is the story of a family struggling with an impossible legacy. Peggy Kennedy explores the impact of her father’s life and career on our nation and on the children and grandchildren he largely ignored. (On the day of Peggy’s birth, her father showed up late, kissed his new daughter on the forehead and left to go out politicking.)
White southerners who reject the racist teachings of their elders often feel a life-long need to understand and to explain. That need propels “The Broken Road.” Read more.
The Young Democrats of America wrapped up their national conference in Birmingham Sunday. More than 200 Democrats participated in training sessions to help organize in red states like Alabama. The conference left young Democrats across the state hopeful about the 2020 election.
Alabama Young Democrats were easy to spot at this weekend’s conference, which took place at the Sheraton Birmingham, many wearing U.S. Senator Doug Jones campaign buttons. Read more.
Cyber Monday took on new meaning for residents of Birmingham’s Titusville Community with the ribbon-cutting of a STEM lab at Memorial Park Recreation Center.
The six-computer lab is courtesy of a $10,000 contribution from DC Blox, which opened its data storage center across the street in July.
Jeff Uphues, CEO of DC Blox, said he wasn’t in charge of the scheduling of Monday’s event but is glad the day had finally arrived.
“So much of our lives are driven by technology,” Uphues said. “This is just an example and a testament to what’s going on in the community to Titusville, a testament to the city of Birmingham and then the county. Everything that’s going on here is wonderful.”
The STEM lab is the result of DC Blox’s desire to do something for the community. Access to computer hardware, software and instruction was determined to be what the area wanted to provide a boost to area youth. Uphues said more than 800 youth are estimated to live in the Titusville Community and as many as 4,500 are within walking distance.
While the STEM lab is aimed at aiding children, the vision is broader, providing instruction to prepare young adults for the job market, for example. Read more.
UPDATED – The Alabama Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the city of Birmingham had violated state law by covering a Confederate monument outside City Hall. The decision reverses a previous ruling by the Jefferson County Circuit Court and orders the city to pay $25,000 in penalties to the state of Alabama.
The monument in question, in Birmingham’s Linn Park, was ordered covered in August 2017 by then-Mayor William Bell following deadly riots surrounding a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia. The monument, then-City Council President Johnathan Austin contended, “celebrate(s) racism, bigotry, hate and all those things that the South has been known for.”
By covering the monument, Bell said he intended to “challenge” state law, specifically the just-passed Alabama Memorial Preservation Act of 2017, which prohibits local governments from moving or altering historically significant buildings or monuments that are more than 40 years old without permission from the state. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument was first placed in Linn Park by the Pelham chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1905. Read more.
Walter Gonsoulin, who has served as interim superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools since the departure last month of Craig Pouncey, now holds the position for good.
Gonsoulin was selected unanimously by the JefCoEd Board of Education in its regular monthly meeting Thursday morning. Unlike previous searches for a new superintendent, this search was over and done almost as quickly as legally allowed — just four days after the deadline for submitting applications had passed.
While other African American educators have served briefly as interim superintendents for JefCoEd in the past, Gonsoulin is the first in the system’s history to hold the job on a permanent basis.
“It’s a great honor and a great privilege to be a part of history,” he said. “I’m thankful that the board had confidence in me to appoint me. We’re just ready to get to work to serve our 36,000 students.” Read more.
Some Alabamians and the politicians they elect traditionally have denied global warming. But many people in coastal Alabama are preparing now for what they fear will be inevitable consequences of increased warming of the air and oceans. They see Mobile Bay and the Alabama coast as uniquely susceptible in the state to harm from forces of nature.
Money for their programs comes from a variety of public, private and institutional sources. Some dollars are being generated from a man-made disaster in the past – the BP Horizon oil spill. It’s being spent to help prepare the shoreline and bay for man-made disasters ahead as scientists say temperatures and sea level will rise, storms intensify, and the state will be slammed with more torrential rain alternating with periods of severe drought.
Here are two examples of those efforts.
Bayou la Batre’s Lightning Point
Judy Haner heads the Alabama chapter of nonprofit The Nature Conservancy, part of a collaboration of entities using oil spill money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to restore 40 acres of marsh, tidal creeks and other habitat for fish, shellfish and birds in Bayou la Batre. That small fishing and seafood processing town has not fully recovered from the twin hits of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the BP Horizon oil spill five years later. Read more.
Over the next year, BirminghamWatch will visit places in Alabama where ways of life have been affected as climate changes and look at what’s being done to mitigate or avoid the effects. This is the fourth in a series of four stories from Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Read the earlier stories: Alabama Sees Heat, Storms, Drought and Turtles, Cloudy Future for Dauphin Island, a Canary in the Coal Mine of Climate Change , In Pursuit of the Disappearing Alabama Oyster. Will They Ever Return?
Groups Petition Regions Bank to Withdraw From Business with Private Prisons and Immigrant Detention Centers
A coalition of about 100 organizations nationwide delivered petitions to Regions Bank headquarters in Birmingham on Thursday asking the bank to not do business with companies that run private prisons and immigrant detention centers.
Also Thursday, the group, functioning under the banner of Families Belong Together, delivered similar petitions to Citizens Bank in Providence, Rhodes Island, and to Pinnacle and Synovus Banks in Nashville.
Families Belong Together along with shareholders, policymakers and investors already have been the catalysts in persuading the banks to withhold about $2.4 billion in lines of credit and loans to private prison businesses. Read more.
The Jefferson County Commission voted 3-2 for a resolution that executes an amended master agreement to establish the framework for UAB to form an authority to operate Cooper Green Mercy Health System.
Commissioners Jimmie Stephens, Joe Knight and Steve Ammons voted for the measure. Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson voted no.
“I think this is really a defining moment for our indigent health care system,” Stephens, the commission president, said immediately following the vote. “Moving forward, I believe our indigents will be able to see a noticeable difference. I believe we’ll improve the quality of our health care and our efficiencies.”
Whether current Cooper Green employees who are hired to continue to work with the health care authority may remain in the county retirement system has been a point of concern for Tyson, the chair of the commission’s committee governing Cooper Green, and Scales. Stephens said those employees will have the option to remain in the county’s retirement system or go under a retirement system offered by the authority.
Scales said she voted no because all of the commissioners have not been given information during the negotiations.
“In my opinion, (that) did not occur,” she said. “Because it did not occur, it made me very uncomfortable with voting on a master agreement. I asked several questions I believe went unanswered.” Read more.
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on national television tonight that he will seek election to the U.S. Senate seat that he held for two decades.
Appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight on the Fox News channel, Sessions told the host that he will file his papers to run for his former seat on Friday.
Carlson called Sessions the most popular person in the state after the University of Alabama football coach at the time he stepped away from the Senate. But the Selma native said he has no regrets about leaving the seat.
“I had a great tenure at the Department of Justice in so many different ways,” he said. “I don’t ever worry about regret and things like that.” Read more.
The Trump Administration is seeking changes in federal coal ash rules that could allow power producers to store toxic coal ash in unlined basins for up to eight more years and ease rules on temporary storage of ash for use in construction projects as filler material.
Electric utilities in Alabama are using a decreasing supply of coal. Alabama Power uses coal to produce power at locations in Jefferson, Shelby and Mobile counties, but it has inactive plants where coal ash is still stored. PowerSouth Electric Cooperative announced it would close its coal burning facility in Washington County within a year and cap-in-place its coal ash waste, and the Tennessee Valley Authority stores coal ash at its inactive coal plant in Colbert County.
The Southern Environment Law Center, with offices in Birmingham, along with EarthJustice and several other “green” organizations, is opposing the proposed rules that govern one of the nation’s largest industrial waste products. Read more.
The state Department of Education released its annual list of failing schools Friday and Birmingham-area schools make up 30% of the schools on the statewide list.
Six of the area districts, Birmingham City Schools, Jefferson County Schools, Bessemer City Schools, Fairfield Schools, Tarrant Schools and Midfield Schools had schools on the list.
The list is composed of the bottom 6% of schools based on students’ standardized test scores.
Although Birmingham City Schools had 16 schools on the list, Superintendent Lisa Herring said: “We are not a failing school system. We recognize there is work to be done. We are a turnaround district, and we will not be satisfied until every scholar in our district is highly successful.” Read more.
Two Birmingham-area school systems scored better than last year on the 2018-2019 annual Education Report Card issued by the Alabama State Department of Education.
Jefferson County Schools and Birmingham City Schools each improved overall by one letter grade. Jefferson County received a B and Birmingham City Schools scored a C. The statewide grade was a B, with 84 points.
The department has revamped presentation of the report card on its website to make viewing and searching for information easier. The enhanced site allows side-by-side comparison of up to four schools and uses colorful graphs and illustrations to make detailed information on student demographics, teacher credentials and school performance easier to read and understand. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council today took a big step toward fulfilling the promise of Birmingham Promise by funding apprenticeships and scholarships for students of Birmingham city high schools.
By unanimous consent, council members authorized the mayor to execute a project agreement between the city and Birmingham Promise in which Birmingham Promise will administer a program to, among other things, increase postsecondary opportunities and economic prosperity of graduates of Birmingham schools.
The city will provide $10 million during the next five years – $2 million per year – subject to extension in accordance with the terms of the agreement. Students must be enrolled in city schools now in order to qualify for the apprenticeships.
Raisa Eady never saw it coming — which was by design.
The biology teacher at Pinson Valley High School knew something big was happening when officials from the Alabama State Department of Education, Jefferson County Schools, local governments and the Milken Family Foundation showed up for an assembly in the school auditorium. Some teacher was about to receive a big award.
But when her name was announced as the winner of the Milken Educator Award, she sat in disbelief.
“When it (the announcement) happened, everyone looked around and I said, ‘Oh, it is me?’ They said yes and I said, ‘No way!’” Eady told reporters afterward. “I’m so honored and overwhelmed today. I definitely had no idea this was happening. … I have not even grasped what’s happened yet. I feel extremely blessed, grateful — and overwhelmed.”
She did have a literal grasp on a big check, though. The award, given by the Milken Family Foundation, comes with a prize of $25,000, and no restrictions on how it may be used. Read more.
Blame for the opioid crisis in the U.S. often falls squarely on pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies or rogue prescribers — like the Virginia doctor who prescribed more than half a million opioid doses in two years.
But the whole story is more complicated, and it implicates a large portion of health care providers. Research shows that many doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants across the nation have oversupplied patients with opioids, spurring a national crisis that each year claims tens of thousands of lives.
“This isn’t just a story about rogue prescribers and pill mills,” says Caleb Alexander, co-Director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. “A much broader swath of the medical profession is responsible for the oversupply of opioids in clinical practice.” Read more.
On a recent sunny Saturday, Dwight Cooley and some friends spent four hours at north Alabama’s Swan Creek Wildlife Management Area looking for different kinds of what an online dictionary defines as “a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate distinguished by the possession of feathers, wings, and a beak and (typically) by being able to fly.”
In other words, they were birding.
Cooley, the former manager of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, has been bird-watching and doing bird counts since the 1970s, and what he and the others saw on that recent Saturday was not encouraging. In their four hours in the field, they saw dozens of birds, including 16 representing five species of warblers. Four decades ago, under similar conditions, Cooley said, the group not only would have seen more warblers, but also more species of them.
“You just don’t see the number of birds that we used to see, and you don’t see the diversity of birds out there,” Cooley said. Read more.
Jefferson County Board of Education Makes History With Appointment of First African American as Interim Superintendent
It was a history-making moment for the Jefferson County Board of Education.
The board on Wednesday unanimously selected Dr. Walter Gonsoulin Jr. as interim superintendent, making him the first African American to head the system in its 200 years of existence. Gonsoulin is temporarily replacing the departing Dr. Craig Pouncey.
“I feel humbled and honored to be chosen by the board,” Gonsoulin said after the meeting.
Gonsoulin joined JefCoEd as a deputy superintendent of school and community support in 2017. One of six deputies currently on the JefCoEd staff, he has had oversight over half of the system’s schools. Before that, Gonsoulin served as superintendent of Fairfield City Schools, a job he took in 2012 after moving from an assistant superintendent’s post in Starkville, Mississippi’s city school system. Read more.
Warrior Mayor Johnny Ragland is like a child looking forward to Christmas as he envisions Warrior’s Hallmark Farms development coming to fruition.
Considering the floating Christmas tree and decorated barn with which passersby had become familiar, that is understandable.
“Myself, I would love to have it next month,” Ragland said. “Two businesses over here. Five over here. But it takes time.”
Members of the Hallmark Cooperative announced today that it has officially taken control of the property just off Interstate 65 and nearly surrounded by Locust Fork, one of three major tributaries of the Black Warrior River.
Along with revealing the logo for the cooperative, which features the iconic barn on the property, cooperative members talked about what is to come to the area in north Jefferson County.
“We can bring as much as 720 jobs to just this property,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Ammons, who is president of the cooperative. “That is a huge influx of daytime folks.” Read more.
Birmingham city employees spent $258,387.96 of taxpayer money on travel between Oct. 24, 2017, and July 19, 2019, an analysis of City Council meeting agendas reveals.
Close to three-fourths of that money, $186,011.87, was spent by the Birmingham City Council and its employees; the remaining $71,276.09 was spent by Mayor Randall Woodfin and his employees.
That amount does not include trips for which a final total has not yet been approved. Estimated costs for city-funded trips are approved beforehand by the council; after the trip, the council votes again to approve the actual amount spent. Approximately $40,000 in travel funds have been preliminarily approved, without follow-up, since January. Read more.
The Jefferson County district attorney’s office is looking to ramp up its efforts to deal with the county’s massive backlog of untested sexual assault kits. A pending expansion to a 2016 federal grant would allow the office to increase the rate at which old kits are tested — and would allow for the appointment of a new prosecutor who would focus on those backlogged cases.
The office originally received a federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant in 2016. An inventory that was finished in September 2017 found that 3,876 sexual assault kits — which law enforcement use to collect DNA evidence after a sexual assault — had not been submitted for testing. Since then, 275 kits have been sent to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for testing, at a rate of 25 per month. But a new expansion to the county’s grant would allow the county to double that rate, sending 50 kits per month to the state lab for testing. Read more.
1. The Birmingham City Schools system has a high number of failing schools as determined by the Alabama Accountability Act.
2. The Birmingham City Schools system is below average, based on a “D” grade on the Alabama Education Report Card for the 2016-2017 school year.
3. The Birmingham City Schools system is doing better, on the upswing.
4. All of the above.
If you chose “4” you may understand how complex it can be to determine the exact state of the city’s school system. Read more.
Read the rest of BirminghamWatch’s special report on Birmingham schools:
Many Questions About Birmingham City Schools Remain After Three Months of Trying to Understand the State of Education
The History of the Birmingham City Schools
Shooting for the A — Birmingham Schools principal succeeded at one school. Now he’s aiming to redirect another that is facing significant challenges
Current members of Birmingham’s City Council spent a total of $78,555 on travel between November 2017, when the bulk of councilors took office, and May 2019, a look at the council’s meeting agendas reveals.
That amount does not include trips for which a final total has not yet been approved. Estimated costs for city-funded trips are approved beforehand by the council; after the trip, the council votes again to approve the actual amount spent.
District 4 Councilor William Parker tops the list of the city’s most-traveled councilors, having spent $30,334.15 on 41 trips since November 2017. He’s followed by District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn, who has spent $21,554.04 on 13 trips, and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt, who has spent $16,136.80 on five trips.
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, with $12,719.07 for 13 trips; District 7 Councilor Wardine Alexander, with $3,174.65 for two trips; and Council President Valerie Abbott, with $346.70 for one trip round out the list.
The remaining councilors — District 1 Councilor Clinton Woods, District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams and District 6 Councilor Crystal Smitherman — each have no confirmed travel expenses since they took office, although Woods and Smitherman have each taken one trip, the expenses for which are pending final council approval. Read more.
BirminghamWatch Graphic: Clay Carey
The Oliver Robinson bribery trial, in which guilty verdicts were issued for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm, Balch & Bingham, revealed a gritty episode about avoiding environmental cleanup in North Birmingham. But there’s a bigger dirty picture.
The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.
The findings show 71 percent of the major pollution sources are in areas with incomes below the median income for the county.
Only one primary source of pollution is in a neighborhood with a median household income greater than 110 percent of the county median.
Residents of the same low-income areas also often are largely African American. Research has shown that economically depressed populations can be more heavily affected by the negative health effects of air pollution.
Poor air does not equally strike everyone in the Birmingham area, raising issues of environmental justice. Read more.
The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.
In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.
Big-box retailers come in several types and brand names. The biggest of them all, though, is Walmart. The largest private employer in the world, Walmart grew from its roots in Arkansas to be a major force in virtually every part of the United States. In Alabama alone, 38,000 people are employed by Walmart.
Tens of millions of customers across America walk through the doors of the company’s stores every day. In Alabama, cities that have a Walmart get taxes on sales to those customers, which helps pay for services such as police and fire protection. Walmart’s website states the company collected $684.6 million in sales taxes and fees in Alabama for the fiscal year ending in 2017 and paid another $92.1 million in its own additional taxes and fees.
Dependence on sales taxes is unusual compared to most other states and harkens back to Alabama’s early days as a state that was almost entirely rural and dependent on the production of cotton and timber. Property taxes are lower than in other states, in some cases much lower, especially on agricultural and forest lands. Read more.
A Tale of Two Jefferson County Cities: Sales Tax Comes and Sometimes Goes
By Robert Carter
Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland is one of the city officials who work to attract retailers of all shapes and sizes – and their sales taxes.
He said he spends time trying to bring in retailers “every single day.” According to figures provided by City Clerk Melissa Honeycutt, Gardendale derives 70 percent of its tax receipts from sales taxes.
It’s a different story in Fairfield, about 20 miles away. Fairfield was once a thriving city and home to a massive U.S. Steel factory complex and numerous shopping centers. After the factory closed, the stores followed. When the Walmart there closed, it took about a third of what was left of the city’s tax revenues, according to the mayor. Read more.
BW Expands Economic Development Coverage
Robert Carter covers economic development in Birmingham and Alabama, a new assignment in 2018. He is a veteran journalist, both with newspapers and in radio. A Kentucky native, Carter began working at his hometown Glasgow Daily Times straight out of high school. He also worked with Christian Family Radio in Bowling Green and with Western Kentucky University’s public radio service. In Alabama, Carter has worked at The Birmingham News and The North Jefferson News in Gardendale.
In West Alabama, Life Is Hard. Warmer Weather Forecasts Worse Problems. How Bad Could It Get and What Can Be Done?
The Black Belt already has more than its own share of problems, and warming temperatures aren’t making things easier for the residents.
Disease-causing organisms thrive in standing water during warmer weather, and in the Black Belt there’s plenty of that. The area’s soil doesn’t drain well because of the heavy clay, and the region has been beset with more extreme weather, flooding and sewer system overflows.
Scientists now are even predicting that the weather in the Black Belt, and in much of the state, will be too hot for the state bird — the Northern Flicker, or yellowhammer — to continue living here during the hottest months of the year.
The wood pellet factory trend is coming to the Black Belt, with promises of supplying much-needed jobs and helping to stabilize emissions of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide, but there are questions about whether either of those benefits will come to pass.
Farmers are taking many steps to make their operations consume fewer resources and create fewer environmental problems, but even many of them fear their efforts are too little too late.
BirminghamWatch recently probed problems caused in the Black Belt by the warming weather patterns and efforts to work on those problems. Read the full series:
— In West Alabama, Life Is Hard. Warmer Weather Forecasts Worse Problems
— Audubon Study Finds Warming Climate May Be Inhospitable to Alabama State Bird
— Wood Pellet Plants in Job-Hungry Southern Towns Prompt Environmentalists’ Warnings
— Cattle, Catfish and Cover Crops: Alabama Farms Play Role in Slowing Climate Change
Travis Hulsey was a bit late for the Jefferson County Commission meeting this morning at the courthouse in Bessemer.
“I got caught up in some traffic,” he said later.
Upon arrival, Hulsey learned that his request for convenience fees on credit and debit card use for over-the-counter payments to the county’s Revenue Department didn’t face the traffic jam it did two weeks ago. It passed on unanimous consent along with 49 other resolutions.
The resolution that passed was Hulsey’s original request of a 1 percent convenience fee, with a $1.95 minimum.
A group of about 21 people gathered for about an hour in front of the Robert S. Vance Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse on Tuesday to call for a full trial of impeached President Donald Trump. With video. Read more.
UPDATED MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group held its last public session Tuesday, with lawmakers on the body calling for more resources to keep potential inmates out of the state’s overcrowded, understaffed and violence-plagued prison system, as well as other steps to reduce the existing population and better equip those who leave the system to never return.
“I’ve got to come up with a report that says, ‘This is where we have unanimity, this is where we have differences of opinion,” said former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons. At Ivey’s request, Lyons has chaired the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. He was scheduled to meet with Ivey on Tuesday afternoon. Lyons said the group’s report should be complete and made public in a week or 10 days.
The study group, whose members also included state Finance Director Kelly Butler, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and a stand-in for Attorney Gen. Steve Marshall, began its work last summer. Charged with helping the state better address the prison system’s problems, it has reviewed major litigation facing the system, visited some of the state’s prisons and discussed the shortage of correctional officers. Read more.
The Jefferson County Commission today took the first steps toward acknowledging and preserving remnants of the jail where Martin Luther King Jr. was held.
History often refers to King’s Birmingham incarceration in 1963, during which he penned his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. But months before his 1968 assassination, King was again jailed in Jefferson County, first in Bessemer and a day later on the seventh floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Birmingham.
Mark Pettway, the first black elected sheriff of the county, said he is proud to be part of this memorial to King.
“We have an opportunity to tell the full story about someone who came to Jefferson County to change the lives of all those who lived here,” Pettway said. “We want to make sure that that hidden treasure that is here in this building … is memorialized to make sure that the full story does not end in Bessemer but continues here in this part of Jefferson County.”
As 2020 rolls in, BirminghamWatch looks back at its biggest stories of 2019, highlighting a different one each day. This story is part of a yearlong project in which BirminghamWatch will visit places in Alabama where ways of life have been affected as climate changes and look at what’s being done to mitigate or avoid the effects.
Along coastal Alabama lies Dauphin Island, a narrow, shifting strip of sand inhabited by a laid-back vacation town that is becoming more endangered with every passing storm and every incremental rise in the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Dauphin is one of perhaps 2,200 barrier islands that make up 10% to 12% of the globe’s coastline. They help absorb the blows of nature and suffer greatly for it, either eroding dramatically from catastrophic hurricane forces or gradually, almost imperceptibly, from constant wave action.
These sandy, offshore bodies are potent poster children for our planet’s warming, part of a natural, 100,000-year cycle that, according to most scientists, has greatly accelerated since the birth of the Industrial Age.
That transformative age was and largely continues to be powered by the burning of carbon-based fuels, principally coal. Almost 60 percent of emissions from such fossil fuels remain in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for global warming. That coal is to blame lends irony to the view that fragile Dauphin Island is a canary in the coal mine of climate change.
No doubt there remains a veneer of resistance to this scientific consensus – few political leaders of red-state Alabama voice agreement with the voice of science on this matter. Yet, on Dauphin Island, realpolitik is at work as the town begins to consider how to respond to the question of its own survival. Read more.
Read the rest of BirminghamWatch’s special report on climate change effects on the coast:
In Pursuit of the Disappearing Alabama Oyster. Will They Ever Return?
Changing Climate: Many in Coastal Alabama Act Now to Rebuild Shorelines, Prepare for Storms
More of BirminghamWatch’s Best in 2019
Making the Grade? How Birmingham City Schools Are Doing Depends on Which Measure You Choose. A Special Report
Birmingham‘s Technology, Start-up Scene Thrives, ‘Innovation District’ in Development Spotlight
First Class in More Than Name Only: Why Alabama’s Preschool Program Is Best in the Country on National Standards
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund got an early Christmas present this week, at the expense of the city of Gardendale.
In what may be the last act in the six-year-long saga of the city’s abortive attempt to break away from the Jefferson County Schools, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala ruled on Monday that Gardendale must reimburse the LDF and attorney U.W. Clemon for costs and legal fees incurred in their effort to stop the breakaway. That effort was victorious for Clemon and his team when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Gardendale could not split from JefCoEd because the proposed split was motivated by racial animosity.
Haikala ruled that Gardendale must pay almost $850,000 in fees and expenses because their effort was in bad faith, and that awarding those fees to the LDF and Clemon “…hopefully will prompt more respectful arguments in the future.”
Local journalism in America is in “crisis,” according to a report last month from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy and research organization in Washington, D.C. Pen America, a nonprofit free-speech advocacy group in New York, followed a week later with its report that local news across the country faces “decimation.”
I’d like to offer some optimism, please. Read more.
WASHINGTON – The U.S. House of Representatives on the evening of Dec. 18 adopted two articles of impeachment against President Trump. The articles now go to a trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote for conviction on either article would remove Trump from office.
The votes were largely along party lines, and Alabama’s representatives followed that pattern. The state’s lone Democrat, Rep. Terry Sewell, voted for both articles; and the other members of the delegation, all Republicans, voted no. Read more.
A Florida-based group that is among four teams of developers that will submit proposals for a massive project to build and maintain three new Alabama prisons gave $67,500 to Gov. Kay Ivey, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and 26 legislators during the 2018 election cycle.
Companies or individuals associated with all four of the development teams contributed to candidates during the 2018 elections, but the Geo Group Inc., based in Boca Raton, Florida, and its political action committee were by far the biggest donors.
After the Geo Group’s $67,500, the second-largest total of contributions to statewide and legislative officeholders from companies or individuals associated with the prison-development teams was $28,250. That money was given by John White-Spunner of Mobile, president of White-Spunner Construction Inc., a partner in the development team led by Corvias LLC of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections announced last month that the teams of builders, architects, designers and other specialists had qualified to make proposals for upgrading the state’s aging, crowded prison system. Read more.
Birmingham’s school superintendent has “met expectations and goals for improvement” according to an evaluation presented at Tuesday’s board meeting.
On a 1 to 5 scale, Superintendent Lisa Herring received a 3.55 rating.
Two metrics were used in the evaluation: a rating based on benchmarks set out by the district’s strategic plan (3.36) and a cumulative score from board members (3.75). Those two scores were averaged to produce the final number. Read more.
Woodfin Touts Neighborhood Revitalization Work, Cuts in Crime Rates in Update on his Administration’s Progress
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin marked the halfway point of his first term in office Tuesday evening with a presentation highlighting his administration’s accomplishments and broadly gesturing toward his plans for the next two years.
Tuesday’s event, which took place at the downtown Birmingham venue Haven, followed a similar presentation that took place in March, also titled “The Big Picture.” Both events were intended to provide an update on the Woodfin administration’s strategic initiatives. But while March’s event featured presentations from a slew of city officials, Tuesday night’s presentation centered on a half-hour speech from Woodfin. Read more.
As More-Powerful Hurricanes Batter the Country, Scientists Ask, ‘How Much Worse Did Climate Change Make It?’
Mexico Beach, Florida — When Hurricane Michael exploded in strength over the Gulf of Mexico in October 2018 and hit Florida with a devastating storm surge and 157 mile-per-hour winds, it marked the first Category 5 storm to reach the Panhandle and only the fifth to make landfall in the United States.
Michael reduced much of the Panhandle town of Mexico Beach to splinters and destroyed parts of other nearby communities. We saw the destruction firsthand while reporting here for The American Climate Project. It killed 16 people across the Southeast and is considered responsible for 43 other deaths in Florida, including from storm clean-up accidents and health issues worsened by the hurricane, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It inflicted about $25 billion of damage to the region, including about $5 billion alone at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City. The storm caused catastrophic damage in southeastern Alabama and southwestern Georgia, as well.
More than other weather disasters, hurricanes seem to prompt people to ask: Was climate change to blame?
That, climate scientists say, is the wrong question. People should, instead, be asking, “How much worse did climate change make it?” said Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. Read more.
Also from InsideClimate News’ American Climate Project:
The Sound of Rain, the Crackle of Fire Take Victims Back to the Moment of Their Nightmares
Birmingham City Council Approves Deal for AHSAA Football Championship Games, Will Consider Naming Five Points South an Entertainment District
During its brief Nov. 26 meeting, the Birmingham City Council turned its eye to the future of the city’s entertainment industry, approving a contract to host state high school football championships at the in-development Protective Stadium and setting a public hearing to designate one area of the city an entertainment district.
The council voted to approve an agreement with the Alabama High School Athletic Association to host its football championships at the city’s under-construction Protective Stadium in 2021, 2024, 2027 and 2030. The $175 million stadium, which will seat roughly 45,000 people, started construction last December.
As part of the agreement, the city will provide up to $125,000 in economic incentives to the AHSAA; in turn, the resolution states, the championship games will generate an estimated $10,000,000 in economic impact for the city. Read more.
The censorship of student newspapers has been a source of concern among journalists around the nation during 2019. One Alabama school, the University of North Alabama in Florence, became the focus of the issue of First Amendment rights of student journalists when it forced out its student media adviser following the campus newspaper’s publication of articles that drew the ire of some administrators. Here is the view of what happened at UNA from then-student media adviser Scott Morris, a former editor at the Decatur Daily and the TimesDaily in Florence.
Winning a national award and becoming a poster boy for a campaign against student-press censorship is small consolation for losing my job at the University of North Alabama.
The College Media Association recently presented me with its Noel Ross Strader Memorial Award, the Purple Heart of student media awards. The honor goes to a full-time teacher or student media adviser who upholds the principles of a free press at some risk to personal or professional life.
While I greatly appreciate the award, I would prefer to be using the last five years of my professional life by training students to become journalists and other types of media specialists. Instead, I am unemployed at age 60. I lost my job at UNA in May after I stood up for my students’ rights to report on sexual harassment, possible sexual abuse and other important issues that administrators preferred to keep behind closed doors. Read more.
Spectators – many wearing ‘Let It Shine’ stickers – packed a Public Service Commission hearing room this morning to hear testimony about the fees Alabama Power Company charges residents to use solar panels or other alternative means of power generation.
As the 2½-hour hearing concluded, Administrative Law Judge John A. Garner instructed both sides to prepare briefs to be delivered on or before Dec. 20. The matter will be taken under advisement, and the ruling will be made during an open meeting of the commission.
Two persons were escorted from today’s proceedings for failing to adhere to Garner’s order of no recordings. One woman was shooting video of the hearing while another was livestreaming the event. Read more.
Journalism standards need defending in this climate of assault and deterioration, but I never imagined that would include hordes of professional journalists going on social media to meanly bash the daylights out of some college students who work for a campus newspaper.
Such was the reaction to an editorial published Sunday in The Daily Northwestern, the news outlet for Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, that apologized for its coverage of student protests at a campus speech by Jeff Sessions, the former US attorney general and US senator from Alabama.
The protesters accused Sessions and the Trump administration of racism and fascism, manifested primarily in their anti-immigration policies. The Daily published photos of protesters climbing through windows and engaging with police, then followed that up by texting to some protesters to ask if they would consent to interviews. You waiting for the controversial part? For the mistake that required the apology? That was it. Read more.
Report: State Improved in Several Child Health Indicators but Still Struggles With Poverty, Racial Disparity
Updated — Alabama has made significant progress in infant mortality rates, teen pregnancies and child safety, but poverty and a racial disparity in indicators of wellbeing remain a problem for children in the state, according to a report released today.
The report, called the Alabama Kids Count Data Book, explores 70 key indicators across four issue areas: health, safety, education and economic security. The Montgomery-based nonprofit group Voices for Alabama’s Children has produced the data book every year since 1994.
Angela Thomas, communications manager for Voices, said that while the state’s child population has decreased, it has also become more ethnically diverse. And that trend follows national demographics.
Despite the diversity, African American children track below their white peers in every indicator covered in the data book, she said.
“Alabamians of color are overrepresented in measures of disadvantage,” she said. Read more.
The Partisan Divide Isn’t That Wide Between Alabama’s Two US Senators, Though It Still Is a Canyon Among House Members
Although they differ on many high-profile issues, Alabama’s two U.S. senators voted together about half the time on key issues during 2019.
Republican Richard Shelby, who has served in the Senate for 31 years, and freshman Democrat Doug Jones have voted together 11 times and on opposite sides on 10 occasions this year, according to weekly reports compiled by Voterama in Congress for BirminghamWatch.
The two have parted ways, however, over many of President Trump’s nominations for federal judgeships, cabinet posts and other positions, according to weekly reports by Voterama. Jones voted to confirm five of the president’s nominees and against nine. Shelby voted for all 14. Read more.
The EPA and Department of the Army announced Thursday that the EPA’s proposal to roll back protections under the Waters of the U.S. rule had been finalized.
The change eliminates federal jurisdiction over headwaters, ephemeral and some intermittently flowing streams, and wetlands that do not abut surface water, among other waters.
Environmentalists have warned that more than 80 percent of Alabamians receive their drinking water from such sources. Business owners, farmers and developers have said the change would save them money and allow them to complete projects more quickly.
The rule change has been discussed for months. Read Birmingham Watch’s earlier coverage of the proposal and its potential effects in Alabama:
Local and State Springs, Tributaries, Wetlands May Suffer From Pollution if Proposed Rule Is Finalized
Return to Muddy Waters? Uncertainty Reigns as EPA Tries to Roll Back Obama Administration Waters of the US Rule
Alabama Site for Detained Immigrants Has History of Abuse Charges, Efforts to Close It
As 2020 rolls in, BirminghamWatch looks back at its biggest stories of 2019, highlighting a different one each day.
After immigration officers detained Marcos Baltazar and his son, Juan, in Homewood one morning last week, the two men were in the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden by nightfall.
Their destination spotlights the Etowah center, a controversial facility adjoining the county jail in Gadsden where federal authorities detain immigrants.
The center has drawn critics’ protests and attempts to close it for years, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office itself tried to close the facility in 2010. That effort hit a maelstrom of resistance from local political officials and their supporters in Congress.
Reports on the center cited deficiencies and violations of federal standards in a number of areas, including crowding, discrimination, retaliation, a lack of adequate mental health care and in many cases no effective medical care, poor food and hygiene at the center and practices that curtailed inmates’ ability to communicate with the outside world. Read more.
Read more on the detention center and immigration:
More of BirminghamWatch’s Best in 2019
First Class in More Than Name Only: Why Alabama’s Preschool Program Is Best in the Country on National Standards
The recent news that political supporters of President Trump have been searching social media channels for offensive posts by journalists who work for certain national media brought understandable alarm and companion rhetoric from the targeted organizations. Media objections that such dirt digging intends to punish and discourage aggressive reporting are correct, but the better response would have been: “Have at it, and let us know if you find anything.” Read more.
While some electric utilities in some other southeastern U.S. states are moving millions of tons of toxic coal ash away from waterways and into lined landfills, those in Alabama are holding fast to plans to corral their toxic material in unlined pits at their present locations, an option labeled cap-in-place.
Four nonprofit environmental groups this week released a new ineractive map they say shows the potential danger of the cap-in-place strategy chosen in the state by Alabama Power Company, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The maps, based on results of the utilities’ federally required tests of groundwater pollution near the facilities, show where arsenic, molybdenum, and other chemicals persist at levels that exceed government-set standards.
While the information has been available on the utilities’ websites, it previously has not been aggregated graphically in map form.
The Alabama State Department of Education has posted its list of the state’s failing public schools, and 25 Birmingham metro-area public schools are on it. Statewide, 76 public schools are on the list.
The list is based on standardized test score performances and compiled yearly as a requirement of the Alabama Accountability Act. The law requires that schools with scores that fall into the lowest 6 percent be designated as failing schools.
Birmingham City Schools comprise 26 percent of the failing schools, with 20 schools on the list. That number is up from the lists released in 2018 and 2017, when 14 and 13 schools, respectively, were designated as failing. Read more.
Alabama School Report Card Shows Mostly Improvements, and Some Big Leaps, by Birmingham-Area Schools.
Several schools in the Birmingham metro area show significant improvements in achievement in this year’s Alabama State Report Card, which grades the performance of public schools.
In the report, issued by the Alabama State Department of Education on Dec. 28, far fewer area schools received failing grades, compared to last year.
The Bessemer, Midfield, Fairfield and Jefferson County school systems had no failing schools this year — an improvement over three failing schools each in Bessemer and Fairfield and one failing school in Jefferson County last year.
While the Birmingham City Schools maintained a grade of D, the system saw the number of failing schools drop from 22 last year to only five in the new report.