SUPREME COURT SHROUDS LAW ENFORCEMENT INVESTIGATIONS
In what was considered a blow to transparency and public accountability statewide, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in September that body-worn camera footage and other law enforcement investigative files are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, even after investigations have been closed.
The ruling was handed down about 14 months after the court heard arguments in an appeal of a civil lawsuit Lagniappe filed against Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack in 2019, after the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) denied our public records request for files related to the 2017 shooting death of 35-year-old Jonathan Victor, an unarmed Louisiana motorist.
While the case was pending, the newspaper obtained the BCSO’s camera footage and related records after they were filed as exhibits in a federal lawsuit against Mack and others. What it depicted was an incident far less cut-and-dry than portrayed by the BCSO, perhaps underscoring why the public should have access to the videos in the first place.
Even though the deputy who shot and killed Victor was cleared by a grand jury investigation within months, a federal judge determined enough evidence was available to strip the BCSO defendants of their qualified immunity. That decision is currently pending a review of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
MOBILE RIVER BRIDGE & BAYWAY PROJECT BACK ON TRACK
More than two years after the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) killed the state’s Interstate-10 bridge and Bayway project over concerns about tolls, the organization sent a plan for a new framework to the state in December. A letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Director John Cooper demanded a long-term, comprehensive solution now, instead of a piecemeal, phased-in approach; significant state and federal financial contributions, including at least $250 million from the state; no-toll options for passenger vehicles; toll restrictions; and a publicly owned project.
In a statement, a spokesman for ALDOT called the framework “a very positive effort” that includes “a number of important improvements,” adding the agency will develop the guidelines into a formal plan for local officials to consider. The project was last priced at some $2.1 billion.
DEVELOPMENT BOOM IN BALDWIN
The once-sleepy coastal agricultural communities in Baldwin County are grappling with a 25 percent population increase over the past decade, with some municipalities — Fairhope, Spanish Fort, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach — experiencing twice that. The influx of new residents has strained infrastructure, schools and other services, while residents in unzoned areas of the county are scrambling to implement use restrictions for previously unregulated tracts of land.
In the past two months, the Fairhope City Council approved a 12-month moratorium on subdivision and multiple-occupancy project applications within its planning jurisdiction, while the Daphne City Council approved a six-month moratorium on any new apartment, condo or townhouse application. Separately, voters in Point Clear formed the county’s first new zoning district in 10 years last year, but since, at least four other zoning districts have been proposed. Two outside of Fairhope are scheduled for a vote in February.
UPPER MOBILE BAY WETLAND CREATION PROJECT
A late-breaking-but-important story this year was the Alabama State Port Authority’s (ASPA) proposed Upper Mobile Bay Wetland Creation Project, which is a plan for the “beneficial use” of dredged sediments from the Port of Mobile to fill in 1,200 acres of marine habitat over a period of 20 years to create wetlands about a mile south of the Causeway. The proposal is currently the subject of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public comment period until Jan. 2, but it has drawn opposition from several people and organizations who are concerned about emerging aquatic grasses in the area, which is also productive for recreational and commercial fishing.
As Lagniappe reported last week, the Spanish Fort City Council passed a resolution asking for a 60-day extension of the public comment period for the project, while groups such as the Sierra Club and Mobile Baykeeper have asked for more details about alternative sites, environmental studies and the project’s resiliency to sea-level rise and tropical weather, among other things. ASPA and engineers on the project have said the location provides an economic incentive for the port and an environmental incentive for the community at large.
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