• 2017 Birmingham Mayor Elections

    The Next 100: Woodfin Outlines Recommendations Committees Made on Neighborhoods, Economic Development and Schools, Among Others

    Mayor Randall Woodfin in his “The First One Hundred” event Thursday evening presented the findings of his transition committees and vowed to make several changes to the structure of Birmingham’s city government based on the reports.

    Woodfin gave his presentation during an event at the Alabama Theatre. Though the event’s title ostensibly referred to Woodfin’s first 100 days in office – a benchmark reached March 8 – Woodfin mostly ceded the spotlight to the heads of his transition team’s five citizen-led committees. He responded briefly to their suggestions at the end of each committee’s presentation.

    Among the changes he said would be coming, Woodfin said he’s willing to form a formal partnership with the city school system. He also said he will reshape the mayor’s office’s division of economic development to the Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, and he said he would create the Mayor’s Office of Social Justice during his next 100 days.

    A 35-page booklet titled “The Woodfin Way: A Citizen-Led Transition for Progress in Birmingham” summarized the transition team’s findings and Woodfin’s resulting plans. The booklet was handed out during the event and is available online.

    Transition committees reporting during the event were on neighborhood revitalization and public safety, education and workforce development, entrepreneurship and economic development, transparent and efficient government and social justice. Read more.
    Read the full version of “The Woodfin Way: A Citizen-Led Transition for Progress in Birmingham.”

  • Alabama Legislature

    Ethics Law, School Safety, Monuments: Issues Remain As Legislators Try To Hurry Home in Election Year

    Alabama legislators have been hoping to end the legislative session by the end of March this year so they can hit the campaign trail, but if they’re going to meet that deadline, they have a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.

    It’s not just the state budgets, which traditionally are not passed until the waning days of the session. Legislators have yet to reach agreement on several of the issues they said were important going into the session. Among them were issues related to the state’s ethics laws, guns in schools and management of special elections.

    Legislators return to work Tuesday. Technically, they could meet until April 24, but if they want to meet their own deadline and turn their attention to re-election, they’d have about two weeks to wrap up their legislative work.
    Read more.

  • 2018 Elections

    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.

  • Government

    JeffCo Approves Contracts With Community Health Care Providers, Will Continue Conversation About Cooper Green System

    Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens described the Cooper Green Mercy Health Services as “ever evolving but always moving for the better,” after Thursday’s County Commission meeting.

    “What we want to do is we want to have a best practices health care (system) for our citizens,” Stephens said. “That’s our intention and that’s our goal.”

    Commissioners today moved forward with a plan to extend the hub-and-spoke model of county health care by adding partners to the network that would be providing care out in the communities. Read more.

  • Alabama Legislature

    Attorney General Looking Into Legislators’ Campaign Spending Reports

    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.

  • 2017 U.S. Senate Race

    Almost $50 Million Spent in Alabama’s U.S. Special Senate Election

    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.

  • Government

    Steadying the Ship of State: Ivey Claims Victory in Her First State of the State

    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.

  • Economy

    New Tariff on Solar Panels May Give Companies Second Thoughts About Doing Business in Alabama

    President Trump today imposed a stiff tariff on cheap solar cells and panels imported from China and other countries, a move industry experts said may decimate the growth of solar energy in Alabama and stunt it elsewhere in the country.

    The tariff starts at 30 percent for the first year.

    “That level would squash Alabama business for us and similar businesses that operate in Alabama to provide turnkey solar systems to residential and small commercial customers,” said Larry Bradford, of north Alabama’s Southern Solar Systems.

    About $5.6 billion in projects in just four Sunbelt states – Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas – could be jeopardized by a tariff, according to E&E News, which follows energy and environmental matters.

    The tariff could have been worse, though. It drops by 5 percent each of the four succeeding years. It also exempts a substantial portion of initial imports each year.

    Alabama is particularly vulnerable to the added cost of a tariff, experts in the field say, because policies of investor-owned utility Alabama Power Co. already limit solar energy penetration in a variety of ways that make solar installations more expensive here. Read more.

  • Government

    U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Whether “Extreme” Partisan Gerrymandering Can, or Should, be Curbed

    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.

    BirminghamWatch Coverage
    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)

    Virginia Martin,
  • Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • General

    Confederate Monument in Linn Park Covered in Wake of Virginia Protests

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

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

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

  • Economy

    Update: Federal Funding for Children’s Insurance Program Approved in Budget Bill

    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:

    What Happens If CHIP Goes Away? Congress’ Failure to Fund Popular Health Program for Kids Could Leave Thousands in Alabama Uninsured

  • Alabama Prisons

    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.

    Listen to WBHM report, Working in Alabama’s Prisons, featuring Tom Gordon

  • Environment

    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.

  • Environment

    If National Climate Goals Disappear, What Happens in Alabama?

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

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

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

  • Government

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

    With Robert Bentley’s resignation as governor, Alabama’s history of top elected officials who have had their careers end because of scandal continues.

    In the past 25 years, three governors have faced criminal charges during or soon after their terms of office, and a speaker of the House was forced out after convictions on a dozen ethics violations. The state’s chief justice was removed from office twice – not on criminal charges, but for willfully disobeying federal judges’ orders.

    With four top elected officials now convicted criminals, is Alabama leading the nation in political corruption? Read more.

  • Government

    Former State Rep. Oliver Robinson Pleads Guilty in Corruption Probe

    Former state Rep. Oliver L. Robinson pleaded guilty today in federal court to accepting bribes from a Birmingham lawyer and an Alabama coal company executive in exchange for advocating against an environmental cleanup in north Birmingham.

    The 57-year-old Democrat from Birmingham entered his guilty pleas before U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon to conspiracy, bribery, honest services wire fraud and tax evasion. Robinson’s plea agreement required that he cooperate in further investigations in exchange for prosecutors’ recommending a lighter sentence, pay restitution and forfeiture in an amounts to be determined, and to never again seek elected office. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 7. Robinson is free on bond.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Robinson in June for accepting a contract between Birmingham law firm Balch & Bingham and the Oliver Robinson Foundation to use his influence to oppose the EPA’s prioritization and expansion of a north Birmingham Superfund site. Read more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This place is Hoover, Alabama. Read more.

  • Environment

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

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

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

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

  • Government

    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.

  • Education

    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.

  • Education

    Hoover BOE Settles Discrimination Lawsuit That Described Turmoil at Trace Crossings

    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.

  • 2017 Birmingham Mayor Elections

    As He Takes Office, Mayor Randall Woodfin Looks to Hard Decisions Ahead

    Randall Woodfin was officially sworn in as the 30th mayor of Birmingham today, beginning a four-year term that he has promised will bring major changes to the organization and operation of city government, including pushes to increase transparency and reduce crime.

    He’ll start his tenure with an audit of city finances and reassessment of the structures of all city departments — which, he says, is going to lead to some “heavy” decisions. There are other challenges ahead as well, he said, in working to reduce the city’s rampant gun violence, advocating for an increased minimum wage, and improving the quality of life for Birmingham citizens.
    Read the Q&A with the new mayor.

  • Birmingham City Council

    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.

  • Environment

    Regulators Discount Climate Effects, OK Sabal Trail Pipeline

    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.

  • Education

    Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

    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.

    Read more.

  • Environment

    Coal Ash Ponds Leach Toxins into Alabama Groundwater, Waterways, Analysis Finds. ADEM Fines Power Companies, but Route to Remedy Uncertain.

    Significant levels of toxic materials are leaching into the state’s groundwater and waterways from the millions of cubic yards of coal ash stored in massive, unlined storage ponds adjacent to six electrical power generating plants, including plants in Shelby, Jefferson and Walker counties.

    On Friday, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management proposed fines of $250,000 for each case. Five of the plants are owned by Alabama Power Company.

    Groundwater tests were required of utilities by the Environmental Protection Agency last year, and the utilities’ analyses of results were announced Friday. A “statistically significant increase” over background levels of pollutants was found seeping into groundwater at each plant, the analyses found. The utilities were cited by ADEM for causing or allowing the unpermitted discharge of pollutants from the power plants to “waters of the state.”

    Alabama Power spokeswoman Amoi Geter said, “We have taken reasonable and responsible actions at every step of the way and do not believe the amount of the penalty is warranted.” Read more.

  • Education

    The End: Gardendale Drops Fight to Form Its Own School System

    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.

  • 2017 U.S. Senate Race

    Staking Out Common Ground: A Q&A With Sen. Doug Jones

    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.

  • Education

    School Officials Watch for Troubled Students to Avoid School Violence

    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

  • 2018 Elections

    Democratic Candidates for Governor Debate Lottery, Infrastructure, Minimum Wage

    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.

  • 2018 Elections

    The Governor’s Race: The Candidate Lineup

    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.

    The Candidate Lineup

  • 2018 Elections

    Seven Things You Should Know About the 2018 Election

    Sen. Slade Blackwell is not running for governor.

    Roy Moore is not on the list.

    This year’s election could change the face of the Birmingham City Council, even though there’s no city election.

    Patricia Todd might be leaving the Legislature at the end of the term, but the House might not lose its gay voice.

    A Siegelman is back on the ballot.

    Bob Vance qualifies for chief justice.

    Democrats are fielding 45 percent more state House candidates this year than four years ago.

  • Education

    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.

    You can look up the detailed report cards for the schools, school systems and the state.

    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.

  • Education

    Alabama Failing Schools List Includes 22 Metro Schools

    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,
    Read more.

    See the list of Alabama schools on the 2018 Alabama Accountability Act failing schools list.

  • BirminghamWatch

    What to Watch in 2018

    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 editor@birminghamwatch.org, and and we might watch it, too. We always want to know what’s important to people in the community.

  • 2017 Birmingham Elections

    From Gardendale to Syria: BirminghamWatch Reprises Its Most Interesting Stories of 2017

    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.

  • Government

    Three Indictments Handed Down in Investigation of Birmingham Water Works

    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.

  • Government

    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.