After instituting cybersecurity measures to protect the state’s voting system, the secretary of state said there were no attempts to hack into or otherwise tamper with Alabama’s June 5 primary elections.
In fact, despite worries about cybersecurity and implementation of e-poll books and on-line registration for voters, election officials said the voting came off with no major glitches.
The state’s top voting official, Secretary of State John Merrill, said there have been no attempts to hack into the state electoral system since 2017. Alabama was one of 21 states notified by the Department of Homeland Security last year that hackers had attempted to infiltrate and manipulate the electoral system. Suspicious IP addresses and the attempted scanning of voting records were noticed, and the hacking attempts were blocked for the most part. The hackers were successful in only one state, Illinois.
Some election observers have said the hackers can be traced back to Russia, but DHS did not identify their whereabouts. Concerns about future cyberattacks have persisted nationwide.
Merrill said that, since Jan. 19, 2017, his staff and all voter registrars statewide have been trained in cybersecurity, and the training continues.
“It is our position that all people with access to voter information be trained and equipped to function in the ‘new normal,’” Merrill said. Read more.
The city of Bessemer on Tuesday put the final two local pieces in place as incentives for Amazon to build an advanced robotics fulfillment center on Powder Plant Road in Bessemer.
The City Council passed three resolutions to stamp its approval on the move early in the afternoon. Later, the Bessemer Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a variance of the city’s height requirements to allow Amazon to build a facility that is as much as 60 feet in height.
Those were the last local hurdles for the company. The State of Alabama must now sign off on incentives for the company.
“Amazon saw what we’ve consistently said, that Bessemer’s a great place to live and do business,” Mayor Kenneth Gulley said. “Obviously God has shown favor on the city of Bessemer because this is tremendously huge.” Read more.
Spending the most money does not always get you the most votes, but the biggest spenders were the big winners in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary elections.
Kay Ivey, the sitting governor and former lieutenant governor who has reported spending more than $4 million in her bid to win a full term in the top job, easily won the Republican nomination in Tuesday’s primary. Ivey handily defeated three challengers, each of whom spent less than she did.
Walt Maddox, Tuscaloosa’s mayor since 2005, bested five other contenders in Tuesday’s primary to win the Democratic nomination without a runoff. He has reported spending more than $827,000, the highest amount in the Democratic gubernatorial primary field.
In all, about $10 million has been spent on the governor’s race so far.
Ivey’s support came from far and wide. She led the GOP field in 61 counties, while Maddox took a deep dive in the state’s most populous counties on the Democratic side. Read more.
BirminghamWatch covered results of this week’s primary elections from the top of the ballot to the bottom. Read the stories:
Ivey and Maddox Win Nominations, Will Go Head-to-Head in November
Two Jefferson County Commissioners Going to a Runoff in Fight to Keep Their Posts
Merrill Snags SOS Nomination, AG Race Going to a Runoff After Day of Light Voting
With Superintendent’s Help, JefCoEd President Re-Elected in Hotly Contested Race
Incumbents Prevail in Legislative Primaries; Others Face Opposition in General Election
Jefferson County Court Races
Shelby County Vote Results
An ad that appeared in Wednesday’s edition of The Birmingham News said what several politicians can’t – that Jefferson County, the city of Bessemer and the state of Alabama are considering an incentive package to lure an Amazon customer fulfillment facility to Bessemer.
“I tell people this is the best unkept secret in Jefferson County and the state of Alabama right now,” Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley said. “We’re still under that non-disclosure agreement. Everybody can talk about it and say the name of it except those of us who signed that. We’re looking forward to making sure that we lock down the deal.”
According to the legal ad, the Jefferson County Commission during its June 7 meeting will consider a resolution to enter a project development agreement with Amazon.com Services Inc. That agreement calls for the county to pay no more than $3.3 million for certain roadway improvements and/or reimburse Amazon for a portion of its capital investment.
The company is looking to develop about 133 acres on Powder Plant Road in Bessemer, on which it will build an 855,000-square-foot facility. The project could employ more than 1,500 people. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin addressed concerns about his proposed FY 2018 budget’s funding for neighborhoods during a press conference Thursday, arguing that his administration was actively working to address neighborhood associations’ complaints about bureaucratic red tape.
Earlier this month, Woodfin announced that he would be moving the $500,000 typically allocated to neighborhood associations “to directly invest in revitalization,” saying that neighborhoods already have unspent funds “sitting here” in their accounts.
“We challenge the neighborhood associations to work with us with the existing funds they have to address weed abatement, demolition and other neighborhood improvements,” he said then.
But during May 14’s budget hearing, neighborhood officers argued that they had been unable to spend their money for years due to a lengthy and often interminable approval process. “[Woodfin] never asked us why we have so much money in our accounts,” Central Park Neighborhood Association President Susan Palmer told a sympathetic city council.
Carrie Hill, a juvenile probation officer at Jefferson County Family Court, says that central Alabama may be supplanting Atlanta as a hub for child trafficking.
Traffickers “are slowly starting to move to Birmingham,” Hill said.
Against that backdrop, nearly 40 people gathered for the Child Trafficking Solutions Project Summit Tuesday at Family Court.
“We have been trying to find solutions to the problem of human trafficking of our kids in this state,” said Hill. She said entities have come at the problem from different angles, “doing their own thing. We’re trying to get everybody together and corral everyone so we can have a single focus and mission.” Read more.
May 14, 2018 – Mayor Randall Woodfin was not present Monday night at the public hearing on his proposed FY 2019 budget. If he had been, he would have faced complaints from a handful of organizations unhappy that their city funding had been cut or eliminated entirely.
The members of the City Council who were there — all but District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales — appeared sympathetic to almost all of the parties who spoke at the hearing, and they even pledged to some organizations that they would advocate for them during the upcoming budget negotiations with Woodfin’s office.
Eliciting the most sympathy from the council were several neighborhood association officers, led by Central Park Neighborhood Association President Susan Palmer, who expressed anger that the new budget would cut funding to neighborhoods. Read more.
Members of the Birmingham Public Library board of trustees told embattled Executive Director Floyd Council that he has their support during Tuesday evening’s board meeting.
Board members have met several times in the past few weeks to discuss Council’s performance after employee complaints about his leadership went public. Board members met in closed session for an hour Tuesday evening, the third time they’ve done so in the past month.
“Mr. Council has gone above and beyond during the last weeks and months,” trustee Kimberly Richardson said after the executive session. “He lost his mother recently and yet he’s been here through it all. He has our support.” Read more.
Birmingham Library Trustees Expected to Discuss Executive Director’s Performance in Executive Session Tuesday
Birmingham Public Library’s board of trustees is expected to go into executive session during its meeting Tuesday afternoon as members are set to discuss a six-month performance review of new library leader Floyd Council.
If the executive session is called as expected by board attorney Veronica Merritt, it will be the third executive session conducted to discuss issues surrounding Council since complaints about his leadership went public last month.
A survey of employees conducted the week of April 6 showed continuing low morale, concern about internal communications, concern about security and a lack of knowledge about the library’s complaint and grievance process. Highlights were discussed during a meeting last week. The library board’s Personnel Committee also devised a list of recommendations and action items to be taken to the full board Tuesday. Read more.
Read more of BirminghamWatch’s continuing coverage of the issues.
In January, Alabama’s Department of Labor reported online help-wanted ads for 2,089 openings for registered nurses in the state. Only truck drivers were more highly sought.
In metro Birmingham, the help-wanted website indeed.com listed more than 600 openings for jobs with the keyword “nurse” in early April.
Still, with the unemployment rate at a low 3.5 percent, 18,711 people in the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Area were officially unemployed in March of this year, according to estimates from the state Labor Department.
That kind of mismatch between jobs available and people seeking work is typically the kind of workforce issue addressed by Burning Glass Technologies, according to its website.
In Birmingham, a group of influential organizations is focusing on findings about the local economy from a Burning Glass data-based study. The study is complete but has not yet been released for the public to see.
Ronald McDowell was excited – and nervous – as a crowd gathered to see his latest handiwork – a mural that brings an up-to-date picture of Jefferson County to the courthouse lobby where two other murals have been displayed for more than 80 years.
“I’m just hoping and praying that the public will appreciate what I’ve done and that I’ve done something that represents them,” said McDowell, the artist commissioned by the county to create the work.
Dozens of people crammed into the westside lobby of the Jefferson County Courthouse for the unveiling of the new mural, which was met with applause and cheers. It complements the Old South and New South murals done by John Warner Norton when the courthouse was constructed in 1932.
Those murals “reflect a different time and a different place in our history,” said Commissioner Joe Knight. “They were created in the Jim Crow Era where the reasoning was such that it is no longer prevalent or acceptable in our society today.” Read more.
National Rifle Association Dominates Gun Votes in 115th Congress. How Alabama Representatives and Senators Voted.
Florida students rallied hundreds of thousands of protestors near the U.S. Capitol in late March to advocate tougher gun-safety laws after a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland high school. They called on Congress to enact measures ranging from bans on bump stocks and semi-automatic assault weapons to raising to 21 the minimum age for gun purchases. But for all their youthful passion, the students fared no better than the adults who have been carrying the banner for decades.
Seven gun-related votes have been taken during the first 15 months of the 115th Congress – six in the House and one in the Senate. In none of them did the gun-control side prevail. Among Alabama’s senators and representatives, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, is the only one who voted in favor of increasing gun-control measures. Sen. Doug Jones, R-Alabama, was not in office for any of the votes. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, and Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, each did not cast votes on one measure.
Birmingham Students See Connection With Holocaust: ‘I Thought About How They Want to Build a Border and Kick Us Out’
High schoolers from five Birmingham City Schools arrived at Temple Emanu-el on Thursday to present artwork that interpreted their studies of the Holocaust.
The event, the culmination of a six-week program of art and social studies launched by Violins of Hope, included a day of seminars, guest speakers and a musical concert played on violins once played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.
Violins of Hope is a national organization founded by Amnon Weinstein. Weinstein, a renowned violin maker, began restoring violins that Jewish musicians were forced to play while captive in the Nazi concentration camps. Amid death and despair, the song of those violins was often the last thing Jewish victims heard before they were killed in the gas chambers. Weinstein, decided to seek out and restore those instruments as a way to honor those who died.
The violins were in Birmingham for a series of events last week, including the session with the Birmingham students at Temple Emanu-el.
“This is such a deep topic for me, being African American, and for other groups going through struggles every day, so I knew there was a lot that I could work with,” one Huffman High School student said. Read more.
State Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills, and lobbyist Martin J. “Marty” Connors of Alabaster recently were indicted on public corruption chargesalong with G. Ford Gilbert of Carmichael, California. The charges concern allegations of a scheme to require Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama to cover diabetes treatments provided by a company Gilbert owns. inewsource has spent months investigating Gilbert and his practices in promoting what he calls a “miraculous” procedure for reversing the complications of diabetes. These are the first two stories from that investigation.
By Cheryl Clark, inewsource
Just imagine: A nonsurgical treatment that helps millions of people with complications from diabetes restore vision, repair damaged kidneys, and reverse heart disease and cognitive decline. A treatment that heals wounds in their legs and feet, repairs damage from stroke, and eliminates a common type of diabetic nerve pain called neuropathy.
That’s what lawyer G. Ford Gilbert and his network of Trina Health clinics have been promising with his IV insulin infusions offered through his Sacramento-based company. The Trina CEO calls the procedure “miraculous,” and the first “real change” in treatment for people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes since the 1921 discovery of insulin.
Gilbert has not been deterred by the nation’s top experts in diabetes who aggressively debunk his procedure, calling it outright fraud and a scam. Nor has he seemed daunted by Medicare and some private insurance companies, which have refused to pay for outpatient insulin infusion procedures because they lack sufficient evidence of medical benefit.
The American Diabetes Association dissuades patients from seeking Gilbert’s branded Artificial Pancreas Treatment, saying people with diabetes are a particularly vulnerable population.
Despite these obstacles, Gilbert has openly marketed his infusion protocols for years, expanding across 17 states, even as investigations, audits and payment denials have shut down many of his clinics.
Now his Trina Health operation faces a new threat. A federal grand jury in Alabama indicted Gilbert on charges of fraud and bribery in a failed scheme that prosecutors said was intended to get a state law passed to force coverage of Trina infusions. Since the indictment was unsealed, the clinic in the Bronx has taken the Trina logo off its website and the Las Vegas clinic stopped offering the treatments.
Over the years, Gilbert and his clinics have billed Medicare and private insurers untold millions of dollars using a method that regulators and health plans said was incorrect and played a role in the Alabama criminal charges.
Battles over coverage of new treatments and drugs are not uncommon, but what makes the Trina Health conflict unusual is how its network of clinics has thrived despite disagreements over their worth.
By Cheryl Clark, inewsource
Just about every Tuesday morning around 7:30, John McCreary of Poway can be found waiting for Dr. James Novak’s office to open. Almost always, McCreary said, he’s the first one there.
Novak’s practice is listed as the only one in the San Diego area offering Trina Health’s “Artificial Pancreas Treatment,” a four-hour IV insulin infusion procedure for people with diabetes. Some people like McCreary, 69, who has wrestled with diabetic nerve pain for years, said they think the procedure is working for them.
Since he started going to Novak for the infusions last summer, he said the infusions have been effective. They have made the painful tingling in his hands — “like I was just constantly grabbing on to a barrel cactus” — almost disappear, McCreary said. He said his Medicare coverage and his supplemental plan from Colonial Penn Life Insurance Co. have paid for everything.
McCreary said he is supposed to go today for his infusion. He hasn’t heard that anything will change at the clinic since the news last week that Trina founder and CEO G. Ford Gilbert was indicted on fraud and bribery charges in Alabama.
“I guess it’s going to be a wait and see situation,” he said.
Gilbert is accused of bribery, health care fraud and wire fraud, among other charges, in what federal prosecutors call a “public corruption scheme.” He is accused of paying an Alabama politician to try to get legislation passed that would have required an insurance plan there to pay for his infusions. The plan and Medicare had previously denied coverage, based on the lack of scientific proof that IV insulin infusions actually benefit patients. The legislation never passed. Gilbert and two other defendants are due in court on April 18. 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.
March 8 marked the 100th day of Randall Woodfin’s first term as mayor of Birmingham — a major benchmark for any newly elected politician. Woodfin spent much of last year’s campaign laying out his plan for this first stretch of his tenure in office, in opinion columns, on his website and along the campaign trail.
It was an ambitious slate of objectives to accomplish in just more than three months: conduct an audit, eliminate nepotism, increase neighborhoods’ input in the budgeting process and assess a wide variety of issues facing the city through a citizen-led transition team, among many others.
Now, nearly two weeks after the 100-day benchmark, those goals remain in various stages of realization. Some of them, such as the audit and the appointment of a LGBT liaison to the mayor’s staff, are nearing completion, with announcements, Woodfin said, coming soon. But others remain farther down the road, some dependent on the results of the audit, which is slated to be completed in early April, and others dependent on the slow-turning wheels of city government.
Woodfin spoke with BirminghamWatch on Wednesday about which campaign promises his administration has been able to meet, which ones it hasn’t, and his outlook on his term so far.
Read the Q&A.
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 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.
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.
President Trump 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Former state Rep. Oliver L. Robinson pleaded guilty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Court Documents Describe Longstanding Turmoil in Hoover’s Trace Crossings Elementary, at least among Teachers and Staff
Court documents and testimony in a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit are now providing an inside, public look at the dysfunction inside Hoover’s Trace Crossings elementary school during the years parents were leaving in droves for private-and home-school opportunities. Those parents’ decisions changed the school’s demographic mix, emptied out the school, and ultimately led district officials to propose geographically rezoning much of the 13,800-student district.
The Hoover school community is not unlike most in buying the idea that if a school has more poor kids, more kids of color, that school is more likely to have low test scores.
“The notion of blaming the kids is unfortunately very, very common,” Dr. James Spillane, Olin Professor of Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in Illinois, said in a recent interview. Read more.
There’s a reason Pat Koch is better known as “The General.”
It’s more than just the role she plays in television commercials with her son Dan for their family-run park, Alabama Splash Adventure. If you see her zoom about the grounds of the Bessemer attraction on her motorized chair, you’ll see her command troops of young workers as if they were soldiers on an army post. She orders, and off they march.
Unlike most military generals, though, if she sees a problem that needs to be fixed quickly, she’s apt to take on the task herself.
On a recent tour of the park, Koch (pronounced “cook”) stopped in mid-sentence when she saw one of their free soft drink dispensers that was in a bit of disarray.
“Just look at this,” she said with a sigh. She pulled up to the dispenser, grabbed some trash and threw it into a garbage bin, then used paper towels to soak up some spills.
“I like things to be nice and neat. I can’t understand people who just leave trash lying around!” she exclaimed, and then was back into tour-guide mode.
Not bad for someone aged north of 80, but who’s been in the theme park business for most of her life.
It’s an attitude she tries to impart to the rest of the employees as her family continues its effort to put the long-troubled attraction on solid footing.
The park that started life as VisionLand in 1998 — the product of a plan by then-Fairfield Mayor Larry Langford and a consortium of other local governments — has seen as many ups and downs as its famous Rampage roller coaster. But since 2014, the facility has seen a turnabout under the Koch family, which has been in the business since before the term “theme park” was even in use. Read more.
Security in Birmingham City Schools will be getting a boost this fall, after the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to allocate $3,665,000 in funding to the city Board of Education.
According to the agreement, which was passed unanimously, that funding will be divided among school security, academic and athletic support, and after-school care and summer enrichment programs.
Of that $3,665,000 — which comes from the city’s general fund — $1,362,000 will go toward the purchase of 14 walk-through metal detectors, 20 handheld scanners, door alarms, security officers, and crossing guards and substitutes.
Federal District Judge Lynwood Smith ended the federal receivership in Jefferson County in a move county commissioners hailed as a sign of the county’s improvements in employee and hiring practices.
The receiver was put in place in response to a consent decree over employment practices in 1982.
“Today, we are one step closer with the ending of this receivership as being in compliance with the court’s order,” Commissioner Sandra Little Brown said at a press conference.
The long-standing case now moves into a monitoring period, during which the court will systematically review the continued progress of the county’s hiring and promoting practices. Read more.
Metro Birmingham is falling behind economically, compared to other large Southern cities and the nation in general, and needs a major effort to refocus industrial recruiting and workforce training.
That’s the essence of findings by a report from a Boston consulting and analysis company, which was commissioned by Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama. The study indicates that the metro area is considerably behind booming Southern cities such as Nashville, Charlotte and Atlanta and has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession of the previous decade.
Birmingham-area industries are too heavily reliant on workers without a college education or higher, and those workers are vulnerable to losing their jobs to automation, according to the 40-page report. Meanwhile, there’s a shortfall in industries specializing in high technology, especially life sciences, and local workers who are trained for such employment often leave the area to find work.
The numbers were a bit of a surprise for Bill Jones, the co-chair of the Bold Goals education steering committee, who presided over the public release of the report Tuesday morning.
“It was eye-opening to see how much we trail other cities that are not far away from us,” Jones said. Read more.
Jefferson County Commissioners took their latest step away from bankruptcy Thursday as they refinanced about $138 million in debt at lower interest rates, a move that saves the county $14.24 million over the next eight years.
In requesting a resolution to refinance the general obligation warrants, Chief Financial Officer John Henry said the county has raised its credit rating with national finance agencies which translates to lower debt service on money it borrows.
Commissioner David Carrington said that the warrants were refinanced without extending the length or amount of the debt.
Not one single day was added to the debt,” he said. “… We’re paying off the debt in 2026. There will be no more general obligation debt of the county unless a future commission decides, for instance, that they want to build a jail, which is probably coming in the next decade or two.” Read more.
The Birmingham City Council Tuesday approved funding for computer coding “boot camps” at Lawson State Community College this summer.
The funding, which according to the resolution is not to exceed $85,000, will fund four weeks of four-day camps for Birmingham City School students, running from June 18 to July 19. Up to 100 students of the city’s school system — 50 middle schoolers and 50 high schoolers — will get to participate.
Lawson State President Dr. Perry Ward said that the program would be similar to Chicago’s Apple-sponsored “Everyone Can Code” initiative, which teaches city school students an easy-to-learn coding language called Swift which can be used in developing mobile applications. Read more.
Jefferson County Commissioners Tuesday disputed comments about sewer rates that they said candidates in the June 5 primary election are making.
Commissioner David Carrington, the lone commissioner not seeking reelection, cited the claim of a candidate that sewer rates will increase 40 percent.
“Don’t confuse me with the truth when lies sound better,” he said during the commission’s committee meeting Tuesday morning.
Birmingham’s controversial PACE Board is back in action after being defunct for nearly a year.
The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to appoint new members to the board in order to secure approval for a new restaurant at the Negro Southern League Museum, despite deep reservations by some council members over the board’s accountability.
The Public Athletic, Cultural, and Entertainment Facilities Board — PACE, for short — is a five-member board created by the city in 2011 to oversee development of Regions Field and the Negro Southern League Museum.
But the board drew ire from the council after construction costs for Regions Field went over budget by roughly $8 million, $4.1 million of which the council is paying off in installments through 2021. The rest of those costs were taken on by development companies Robins & Morton and A.G. Gaston Construction.
Just when CHIP recipients thought the health insurance program for children was safe, President Donald Trump cast its future in doubt.
The White House, which has previously signaled support for the program that provides funding to insure about 150,000 Alabama kids and millions nationwide, proposed cutting $7 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
News reports indicate that $2 billion of the cuts would come from a contingency fund originally designed to backstop shortfalls in state funding. That contingency fund was left standing after Congress authorized funding for CHIP.
The other $5 billion would come from funding that Congress authorized for CHIP but that states haven’t spent yet. CNN quoted one administration official as saying, “This is money that was never going to be spent.”
While the White House is not proposing cuts that would eliminate CHIP, parents and others who support the program have long held that CHIP is too important to endanger or use as a political football.
Read BirminghamWatch’s previous coverage:
The U.S. Justice Department announced its presence on the Alabama violent-crime-fighting scene this week with a report on a two-month operation in North Alabama that resulted in charges against 71 defendants and 140 guns seized.
U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town has said the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. senator from Alabama, had made priorities clear: “It’s guns, it’s dope, it’s illegal immigration, it’s opioids,” he said in an earlier interview.
“The Department of Justice has reserved space in federal prison for gang members, trigger-pullers, violent offenders and felons with guns … and we plan on filling it,” Town said in a press release this week. “We must shift our prosecutorial philosophy more towards Capone rather than Soprano, not conflating the level of crime with the level of criminal.”
Town, U.S. Attorney Richard Moore of Alabama’s Southern District based in Mobile, and U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin of Alabama’s Middle District in Montgomery, all newly appointed by President Donald Trump, earlier discussed their goals for federal law enforcement in the state. Here’s what they had to say. Read more.
Jefferson County and the cities therein will benefit from some nifty shopping when it comes to maintenance of weather sirens.
Weeks ago, Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Coker estimated it would cost $400 annually to maintain each of the 254 sirens in the county. Some sound shopping and deft negotiating yielded a cost that was much lower than that estimate, one that also will provide residents with better targeted warnings.
“We are now able to afford the polygon warning system and still save $53 per siren,” Coker told commissioners at their Tuesday committee meeting. Read more.
Mayor Randall Woodfin revealed his proposal for the city’s FY 2019 budget during Tuesday’s meeting of the Birmingham City Council.
At just more than $436 million, it’s the city’s largest budget to date, clocking in at nearly $7 million more than that of the previous year. As the first budget proposal created entirely during Woodfin’s time as mayor, it is the clearest representation of his nascent administration’s economic goals to date.
“It’s a new day in Birmingham,” Woodfin told the council, “not just through the budget process, but with the way we spend and oversee the tax dollars entrusted to us.” The budget, he added, “represents some difficult and responsible decisions that must be made to support our priorities,” most significantly neighborhood revitalization. Read more.
Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison (Duke University Press, 2018)
By James L. Baggett
UPDATED: Victim’s daughter challenges book’s view.
Willie Peterson just wanted to pick up some cornbread for supper. On a hot September afternoon in 1931, Peterson boarded a streetcar near his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham and rode to Southside.
After visiting his mother-in-law, Peterson walked up Avenue G (now Seventh Avenue South) toward Beamon’s Café. A slightly built African-American man, Peterson suffered from tuberculous and followed his wife’s instructions not to overexert himself. Before Peterson reached the café, three white people in a car — a man and woman in their 20s and an older woman — stopped and began to question him. As the young man held Peterson at gun point, the young woman said, “Yes, it’s him. I know it’s him.”
When three police officers arrived, they beat and handcuffed Peterson and drove him to jail.
“You’ve got the wrong Negro,” Peterson told the officers. Willie Peterson lived in a time when being the “wrong Negro,” or just any black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be deadly.
In this new book, Melanie S. Morrison, a United Church of Christ minister and self-described social justice educator, researches and retells a story she heard as a child in Michigan from her Birmingham-born father. Read more.
Reading Birmingham: An Introduction
Today, BirminghamWatch begins a new feature spotlighting books about Birmingham and Alabama. Read more.
Last month, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management levied fines of $250,000 on each of six power-generating facilities in the state for excessive groundwater contamination from their coal ash ponds.
On Friday, ADEM’s oversight board unanimously approved new rules that environmental advocacy groups say open “significant loopholes” in the regulations for disposal of coal ash.
The Southern Environmental Law Center contended in a statement that, under the new rules, ADEM could allow utilities to halt groundwater monitoring around coal ash disposal sites, although coal ash contains arsenic, lead, radium and many other toxic substances. ADEM also could decide that a utility doesn’t have to clean up the coal ash ponds in certain circumstances. And ADEM could shorten the length of time a utility must care for the ash after it is covered and closed, which now is 30 years. Read more.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s transition report, “The Woodfin Way,” features assessments of most major issues facing the city’s nascent administration. But during the March 15 presentation of those findings, one issue in particular drew murmurs of alarm from the crowd: the Transparent and Efficient Government Committee’s finding that the city has been underfunding its city employee pension plan for more than 15 years, leaving a pension liability of $750 million.
“On the surface, the (city’s) finances don’t seem so bad,” said the committee’s co-chair, Daniel Coleman, during the presentation. “We’re close to a balanced budget, we’ve had small deficits, but we’re able to cover those. But if you look back at the next level, we’re creating new deficits, big deficits that won’t go away — holes in our balance sheet.”
The nature of the presentation meant that Coleman was unable to address the pension liability issue with any real depth, drawing cries of frustration from the audience, a large portion of which consisted of city employees.
“You want to break that down?” yelled an audience member at the end of Coleman’s presentation. But by that point, Woodfin was moving on to the findings of the next transition committee, leaving open the question of just how dire the pension issue is and what can be done to fix it.
Questions Raised About Legal Protections for Historic Monuments in Court Hearing Over Linn Park’s Plywood Screen
After nearly three hours of debate, lawyers for the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama left court Friday with homework instead of a ruling on the matter of the Confederate monument in Linn Park.
The city erected a plywood screen around the monument and sought to challenge a state law signed in May 2017 that protects monuments. But in court Friday, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Graffeo raised questions related to older laws dealing with Confederate monuments. He asked lawyers for the city to address his questions by May 4. Attorneys for the state will then respond.
Lawyers also argued over whether, if the judge does decide to fine the city, that find should be a flat $25,000 or $25,000 a day, which would be more than $6 million. Read more.
A survey asking the Birmingham Public Library’s 285 employees about staff morale was conducted last week amid growing concerns over employee dissatisfaction and public criticism of the library’s new executive director.
James Sullivan, president of the BPL board of trustees, said the staff survey was prompted in part by concern about unfavorable comments from BPL employees in response to an online article about the library’s new executive director, Floyd Council.
“We’ve seen the comments, and we are taking everyone’s concerns seriously. We are doing the survey to see what people are saying and to gauge morale. Whatever they say, we are going to address and take appropriate action,” said Sullivan, who has served on the board since 2016 and was reappointed in 2018.
Comments posted by people who identified themselves as BPL employees detailed concerns about Council’s treatment of employees, his management style and the loss of key personnel who resigned in recent months. Read more.
From the dismantling of multistate crime rings to prosecution of corrupt officials, from pursuit of drug conspirators, human traffickers and terrorists to enforcement of civil rights laws, a U.S. Attorney’s Office is the local arm of the U.S. Justice Department.
Over the decades in Alabama, U.S. attorneys have taken on traditional crime fighting and high-profile cases, including prosecution of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombers. They’ve tackled cases that challenged Alabama government, including abuses in state prisons, restrictions on voting rights and the constitutionality of a state immigration law. U.S. Attorney’s Offices also have provided connective tissue between federal, state and local law enforcement departments on challenging issues such as the opioid crisis.
With the broad span of federal law, U.S. attorneys have an array of priorities they can pursue.
U.S. attorneys in Alabama have been among the appointees made early in the transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump and with the appointment of Alabamian Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
BirminghamWatch talked with the state’s three U.S. attorneys appointed by Trump to find out their operational priorities.
“The United States attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer in any given district and therefore should be the leading law enforcement agency in setting priorities and the tone for the district,” said U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “They should be leading the way with not only other federal agencies, but also supporting as best they can the state and local ones, whether it is through their task forces, joint efforts or training. State and local law agencies can often look to the federal level to help lead the way, and I think the U.S. Attorney’s Offices should be at the forefront of that.”
U.S. Attorney Richard Moore, who presides over the Southern District of Alabama, based in Mobile, said listening to his community is a big part of tackling the hardest problems in South Alabama.
“You know, first we have tried to start with making sure that we listen to the community, meaning the community leaders – the people who have the most interest in their streets, their neighborhoods – to see what the will is of the community and to talk about possibilities with them,” Moore said.
Listening to community leaders might not be what some would expect from a federal prosecutor appointed by President Donald Trump and working in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department.
Moore said his priorities are the same as those of all U.S. attorney’s around the country. At the same time, his jurisdiction is facing some particular issues, he said. Read more.
In Birmingham, U.S. Attorney Town Says, “It’s Guns, It’s Dope, It’s Illegal Immigration, It Is Opioids”
Jay Town, one of the three Trump administration-appointed U.S. attorneys for Alabama, indicates there should be no mystery about his priorities in the Northern District of Alabama. They closely align with those outlined by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he said.
“I think that General Sessions and the department made it very clear before I was sworn what the priorities of the department and, especially the criminal division, were,” Town said. “So, it’s guns, it’s dope, it’s illegal immigration, it is opioids. And we are executing those priorities very well.
“We recently released our fiscal ’17 numbers, and in all of those areas we had very robust numbers in terms of our prosecutions last year in comparison to the previous year and years.”
Town’s jurisdiction is centered in Birmingham, the state’s most populous city in its largest metro area, and encompasses the Huntsville-Madison County area, a hub of U.S. government work.
His office’s priorities reflect some of the problems endemic to this part of the state. Town said that, while priorities are shared among the 93 U.S. attorneys, “The way we are executing them, perhaps, is a little different.”
U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin: Beyond Public Corruption Cases, He and Sessions Focus on Violent Crime, Opioid Abuse and Terrorism
On Monday, April 2, U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin, the chief federal prosecutor in the Middle District of Alabama, dropped a bombshell. Alabama Rep. Jack Williams of Vestavia Hills and longtime state lobbyist Marty Connors have been indicted on bribery charges along with the California-based owner of a string of diabetes clinics.
Bringing charges of public corruption against high-ranking state officials is part of the work of U.S. attorneys such as Franklin, the U.S. Justice Department’s number one law enforcer for Montgomery County and the 22 other counties that make up Alabama’s Middle District.
Announcing that a politician is under indictment put a spotlight on the Montgomery-based U.S. Attorney’s Office this week, but the fact is that all USAOs share a set of operational priorities handed down by the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Those areas are violent crime, opioid abuse, health care and financial fraud, terrorism and national security, and protecting vulnerable populations, he said.
Sine Die, Ciao, Adios: Legislators Wrapped up the Session After Passing Budgets, an Ethics Exemption and Little Else
Legislators did what they had to do last week and then went home, finishing the annual regular session a couple of weeks early so they could shift their attention to the 2018 election season.
They adopted the $2 billion General Fund budget and the $6.6 billion Education Trust Fund budget. Both are the largest budgets passed in a decade, and both include pay raises for employees.
They also passed a controversial bill that exempts economic development professionals from lobbying registration requirements.
Arguments over a racial profiling bill threatened to derail the Legislature’s planned departure, but ultimately it failed. Other highly touted bills also died with the end of the session, including a package of bills introduced in reaction to the school shooting in Florida and a substantial rewrite of the ethics law. Read more.
March 27, 2018 — After more than four hours of debate, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve funding for expansions and renovations to the BJCC, including the construction of an open-air stadium.
Mayor Randall Woodfin pushed for the council to approve the project, which will require the city to contribute $3 million a year for 30 years. But the project received major pushback from critics — most vocally District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales — who questioned the city’s return on the investment as well as the necessity of a new stadium.
Other councilors said they had been given the detailed agreement just hours before the meeting and did not feel comfortable voting on it without more time to study it.
The council voted 6-3 to approve the project. Construction could start by the beginning of the year. Read more.
Sen. Doug Jones Calls for Compromise to Lessen Gun Violence, Points to Youth Protests as the Tipping Point in the Debate
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones delivered his first speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, calling for a pragmatic conversation and compromise on the hot button issues surrounding gun control.
“We must acknowledge the deadly consequences that can follow when a gun is in the wrong hands, but also recognize and respect the freedom to own and enjoy guns by law-abiding citizens as guarantees by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Those two concepts are not mutually exclusive,” said Jones, who won a special election against Roy Moore in December to become the first Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama in more than 20 years.
Jones pointed to the youth-led outcry for an end to gun violence in schools, sparked by last month’s deadly shooting at a Parkland, Florida, school, as the catalyst that could move conversations forward. He compared the current movement to the Children’s March in Birmingham in 1963 — a protest that became a turning point in the fight for desegregation in Birmingham.
In his speech, the senator called for a ban on manufacturing or possessing bump stocks, which are devices that enable semi-automatic weapons to fire more rapidly. He also called for passing legislation to close loopholes in the federal background check system currently in place, widen requirements for background checks and waiting periods to purchase guns, and raise the minimum age requirement for purchasing semi-automatic weapons. Read more.
Birmingham Council Rejects License for Scrap Metal Processor, Cites Pollution of Black Neighborhoods
March 20, 2018 — Citing a need to change historical disenfranchisement and pollution of Birmingham’s black neighborhoods, the Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to deny a scrap metal processors license to a company attempting to establish a scrap-processing yard in the Acipco-Finley neighborhood.
A group of citizens from that neighborhood appeared at the meeting’s public hearing to speak against the proposal from Jordan Industrial Services.
Jordan’s attorney, Mike Brown, argued that Jordan had worked to clean up the property, alleging that its previous tenant, Kimmerling Truck Parts and Equipment, had left “a pretty bad eyesore for the community.”
But residents argued that a new coat of paint and some cleaning wouldn’t address the larger issues of air pollution generated by the yard.
A 2012 report by the Houston Chronicle, found “dangerous levels” of hexavalent chromium — a highly carcinogenic pollutant also known as Chrome VI — in the areas surrounding five metal recycling operations in that city. Read more.
Conservationists trying to shut down a new natural gas pipeline that starts in Alabama failed to convince federal regulators that greenhouse gas emissions from burning natural gas for power would have a “significant” effect on climate change.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week voted three to two along party lines to reissue certification for the Sabal Trail and related pipelines. The Sabal Trail runs from near Alexander City to central Florida.
The pipeline has been in service for several months, but environmental attorneys had hoped it would be stopped after a federal appellate court last year ruled the commission, known as FERC, failed to adequately consider potential climate impacts before initial approval.
“It’s disappointing that federal regulators continue to move us backwards on issues of environmental protection and climate action at a time of such great urgency,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of the Birmingham-based clean-air advocacy group Gasp. Read more.
Lipscomb Elementary School, tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street, does not draw a lot of attention to itself. Its enrollment numbers, however, show a dramatic story of Alabama’s growing Hispanic population.
The school in the Jefferson County school system is a plain red-brick complex near Bessemer, Birmingham and Brighton and Midfield. It serves grades K-5, and is a Title I school. That means most of its students are from low-income families and need additional resources, primarily in math and English, so they can learn on the same level as their better-off counterparts elsewhere in the system.
Fifteen years ago, Lipscomb had 188 students, most of them black, with a handful of whites. Today it has 254 students, and the enrollment is almost evenly split among Hispanics and blacks. Most of the Hispanic students are U.S.-born, mostly of Mexican heritage, and about 80 of them are taking English as a Second Language classes.
Reflecting the growing Hispanic presence in its classrooms and hallways, Lipscomb held Hispanic heritage month from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 last year. During that month, the children danced and sampled food prepared by parents of some of their fellow students; each classroom did research on a Spanish-speaking country south of the border.
Lipscomb recently observed Black History Month, and principal Reta Hayes says its chief lesson was “that even though we may be all of different cultures, and (though) we may be of different colors overall, we are still one big happy family.”
Different cultures and colors have been a growing fact of life in Alabama public schools in recent decades. Enrollment figures from the state Department of Education for the current academic year show nearly 727,000 students in K-12, a decline of 11 percent over last year due to a drop in both white and black enrollment. Statewide Hispanic/Latino numbers, however, showed an increase, rising 6 percent over last year to total 57,817, or about 8 percent of the total K-12 enrollment. In 2000-01, the K-12 Hispanic total was 9,541, or about 16 percent of the current figure.
The city of Gardendale has waved the white flag.
City leaders have decided not to appeal a ruling by the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals that denied their effort to break away from the Jefferson County Schools and form their own municipal school system.
The end to the four-year battle came when Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland, one of the original proponents of the system, and Gardendale Board of Education President Michael Hogue notified JefCoEd by letter Wednesday that they were not going to continue the fight for a separate school system.
“We received a letter late this afternoon from Mayor Hogeland and President Hogue that notified the Jefferson County Board of Education that they intend to submit to the council their notification that they will not pursue an appeal,” JefCoEd Superintendent Craig Pouncey said Wednesday night.
Hogeland said there were several factors that led to their decision.
“The biggest determining factor was the ruling we received from the 11th Circuit,” he said. “All of the legal experts truly felt like that was our best chance to win. When that ruling came out so unfavorably to us, a lot of people in town felt like, ‘Hey, enough’s enough.’ … These are not anti-tax people; they are pro-Gardendale City Schools (people) who visited the courtroom of (U.S. District Judge Madeline) Haikala when they poured in arm-in-arm with the board and the city. They said, ‘We were with you and we supported this all along, but we’re tired.’” Read more.
It’s been almost two months since Doug Jones took office as Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. senator in more than 20 years, and the international spotlight that accompanied his surprising win has faded somewhat.
Jones’ December upset against far-right candidate Roy Moore, who had been the favorite to win before allegations of sexual misconduct derailed his campaign, was seen by many as a bellwether of America’s political future, both in 2018 and in 2020.
“If a Democrat can win in Alabama,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said after Jones’ victory, “a Democrat can win just about anywhere in the country.”
Now, the novelty of his victory has worn off, and with it Jones has shifted from a political symbol to a centrist lawmaker. As he promised during his campaign, he doesn’t follow the party line. Instead, he’s aligned himself with a bipartisan group of moderate senators, the Common Sense Coalition, which some commentators have credited with ending last month’s government shutdown. A less successful effort by the coalition, on which Jones worked, was a bipartisan immigration bill that failed earlier this month.
But Jones remains optimistic that “common ground” — a favorite phrase of his — can be found on that issue and others. He believes agreements can be made even on hot-button issues such as gun laws, in the wake of Feb. 14’s Parkland, Florida, shooting.
“If we continue to have dialogues, not monologues, and continue to find common ground,” he said at a rally on Sunday, “we can help empower the kids of Parkland, Florida, to lead the next tipping point.”
Jones, who has been visiting Alabama during the congressional break, spoke with BirminghamWatch about his first weeks as a senator, the viability of centrism in a polarized political landscape, and Alabama’s possible future as a two-party state.
BirminghamWatch: Because your election received so much nationwide attention, when you entered the Senate last month, you were already one of its most famous members. How has that dynamic played out? How have you been received by your fellow senators?
Doug Jones: I’ve been received very well. It’s been very nice. Everybody has been very cordial, very helpful, on both sides of the aisle. … Obviously people in the media, they see me as kind of like the unicorn up there, the Democrat from Alabama. (We) do exist! But it’s been great. We tried to (be) low-key and not do too much. I think we played it really good, to try to get my feet wet, let me find my voice, get to know some people. But my Democratic and Republican colleagues have just been great. That’s why I enjoyed working on this bipartisan bill (with the) Common Sense Coalition. I got to know some folks, and it’s been very, very good. 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.
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.
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and and we might watch it, too. We always want to know what’s important to people in the community.
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 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.
The Way Things Used to Be: Officials Recall Bessemer’s Heyday While Approving Incentives to Lure in Amazon
Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, recalled days gone by in Bessemer when he spoke to the Jefferson County Commission Thursday morning before commissioners approved their incentive package to lure Amazon to the area.
“I can remember walking through downtown Bessemer when we had a Loveman’s, Pizitz (department stores) and everybody was working,” he said, conjuring images of U.S. Steel, U.S. Pipe and Pullman Standard, then one of the nation’s largest producers of railway cars.
“Then things started shutting down and Bessemer started suffering.”
But Bessemer can see a brighter day on the horizon as commissioners signed off on Amendment 772, which is their part of the equation to bring an Amazon advanced robotics fulfillment center to Powder Plant Road in Bessemer.
“This is going to put Bessemer back like it was 50 years ago,” Farley said. “We’re going to have families that are going to be growing. We’re going to have families moving to Bessemer instead of moving away from Bessemer.
“This is huge.” 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.
March 7, 2017 – Commuters from Russet Woods and others in southwest Jefferson County may soon have a smoother commute because of action the Jefferson County Commission discussed during its committee meeting today.
Commissioners talked about making improvements to Morgan Road to ease traffic flow, including a turn lane and updated traffic lights.
The commission also discussed a mental health contract, community clean-ups and new voter information cards. The commission’s official meeting is Thursday.