From gay marriage to ‘Oakpocalypse,’ the year that was 2015

By Gabriel Tynes

Another year has passed on the Alabama Gulf Coast and with it, another year of growth at Lagniappe, the Mobile area’s largest independent weekly newspaper. Now in our 13th year of publication, our small but dedicated staff produced more than 2,470 uniquely local stories in print and online over the past 12 months, each hopefully enriching our readers with “a little something extra for free.”

In Mobile, City Hall reporter Dale Liesch extensively covered a busy year of breaking news, including the cancellation of BayFest, the return of Carnival Cruise Lines, the debate over the demolition of the Civic Center and more. He also explored ongoing issues such as changes at the Mobile Housing Board, the development of downtown entertainment districts and waterfront industrial proposals, and the approval and introduction of ridesharing service Uber.

Liesch was the only reporter in the city to cover an $8.5 million judgment against the city of Mobile’s Solid Waste Authority for breaching terms of its contract with Waste Management. The judgment has since been halved as the Authority continues to appeal, while racking up more than $100,000 in outside legal fees.
Reporter Jason Johnson, who covers Mobile County, was the only journalist anywhere with information about the investigation leading to a sprawling federal corruption indictment against then-Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie and one of her deputy commissioners. He attended the entire two-week trial resulting in Hastie’s acquittal on all but one charge, and produced a comprehensive body of work about the case, which continues to have implications.

Johnson also produced the only consistent local coverage of embattled Bayou La Batre Mayor Brett Dungan, who was elected after his predecessor was convicted on corruption charges, only to resign in controversy himself less than two years later.

No other local news reporter has conducted a more complete investigation than Johnson into the Mobile County Communications District’s controversial $40 million radio enhancement project, a hastily assembled deal that has resulted in board resignations and an internal investigation.    

In 2015, for the first time Lagniappe had a dedicated reporter in Baldwin County. Since joining us in April, Eric Mann has provided insight into the continued fallout over the Baldwin County school system’s failed tax referendum, and has steadily covered municipal government at the County Commission and on the Eastern Shore.

Mann also churned out several stories as part of our ongoing effort to document how BP oil money is allocated and spent, and further, pried into more exclusive subjects like the dubious mission of the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation and the dormancy of the county’s $32 million “Mega Site.”

In another exclusive, Lagniappe uncovered a series of lawsuits against local restaurateurs for requiring front-of-house employees to contribute to invalid “tip pools,” a violation of the Fair Standards Labor Act. Those lawsuits, which continue today, have resulted in six-figure damages against the defendants.

We also published the only interview with former Alabama death row inmate William Ziegler the day of his release after serving more than 15 years behind bars. Ziegler was released after pleading guilty to murder in a deal with prosecutors who opted not to retry the case against new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective defense in his original trial.

Lagniappe’s “DiverseCity” project analyzed Mobile’s socioeconomics and idle population growth in the scope of racial divisiveness locally and nationwide. The product of an H.F. Guggenheim journalism fellowship, the project also featured a GIS mapping and data visualization element the newspaper intends to employ for other projects in the future.

From breaking news, like the weather-related tragedy at the 57th annual Dauphin Island Race, to ongoing stories like the merits of Confederate symbolism or same-sex marriage, Lagniappe was there. We were there to provide unique coverage and commentary on “slice of life” local stories too, from “Oakpocalypse” near Bienville Square to the infamous Fairhope beach feces incident and the Baldwin County district attorney’s pot brownies.

In all respects, Lagniappe continues to adhere to the Declaration of Principles established by co-publishers Ashley Trice and Rob Holbert when they founded the paper in 2002.

“Lagniappe will offer cutting-edge, articulate, smartly written articles on a wide array of issues. Lagniappe will not be clichéd, Lagniappe will not be boring … We want Lagniappe to be the place [readers] come when they want to read exciting commentary about national or local issues, or if they want to find out about the latest restaurant or music hall. And we want to cover issues that are either swept under the rug or left lying in the weeds by the city’s other media. Some of what we do will be fun and frivolity; some will be deadly serious. We won’t run from controversy. In fact, if our phones aren’t ringing, we probably won’t be doing our jobs properly.”

I like to think the Nappie Awards are indicative of the credibility we’ve since established in the community. Far from “boring,” Lagniappe’s annual readers’ choice contest has developed a very competitive but well-received reputation. We had such an overwhelming response to our online ballot this year — nearly one million votes were cast both in print and online — that our website crashed twice.
In spite of the hiccups, the voter engagement and resulting award banners prominently displayed by so many businesses and institutions in both Mobile and Baldwin counties are characteristic of a community immeasurably supportive of everything that makes it unique.

That same support has allowed Lagniappe to stick to its traditional principles and comfortably grow at a time when the media industry at large is evolving. Two weeks ago, we announced our intention to increase circulation by 20 percent in 2016, a strategy flying in the face of the notion “print is dead.” We also recently introduced Lagniappe HD, a home-delivery service providing postal subscriptions for $1 per week.

In July, co-publisher Ashley Trice took first place in the general column category at the 2015 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Awards for columns she published in 2014, while a former reporter was recognized for coverage of the Hiawayi Robinson murder investigation. Commentary from Trice and Holbert continue to represent some of our most widely shared content on social media.

Below, our reporters share the stories that were particularly memorable to cover or impactful in the community.

Writing BayFest’s obituary,

By Dale Liesch

Of all the stories I covered in 2015, the series detailing the eventual cancellation of BayFest probably garnered the most attention. Perhaps it can be credited to the fond memories shared by regular attendees, including yours truly, who counted on it to return year after year. There was a sense of community pride associated with BayFest, and it was really sad to see it go.

But the curtain finally fell after what was a turbulent 2015 for Alabama’s largest music festival, when in late September — roughly two weeks before its 21st installment was scheduled to begin — BayFest organizers announced they were pulling the plug.

Over the years, the festival attracted big-name acts to the Port City, but board members told me one determining factor in its cancellation was what appeared to be a lack of community interest.

The festival’s founder, Bobby Bostwick, and board member Michael Dewberry said pre-festival ticket sales were weak, making organizers anxious as to whether there would be enough money in the coffers to hold the event in October.

The cancellation followed strong negative reactions to a board decision in mid-March to move the festival from its signature location downtown to the fairgrounds in West Mobile. After only a few weeks, however, citing budget restrictions, Bostwick announced in a news conference that BayFest would be staying put after all.

A new narrative from The Grounds Executive Director Scott Tindle emerged later, as news of the cancellation made headlines. Tindle told me it was The Grounds and not BayFest that pulled out of the relocation deal, after BayFest organizers admitted they planned to lose money on the festival.

“We didn’t want to get tagged as the place where you’re not going to be successful,” Tindle said in a September story. “We weren’t willing to damage our brand with an event planning to lose money. We weren’t willing to let them come here and die.”

The festival’s finances had been the subject of speculation in 2015. According to IRS disclosures, the nonprofit’s total revenue for the festival in 2013 was $5.8 million with $3.5 million in expenses, but that year was buoyed by nearly $3.4 million in BP oil spill grants. Without the infusion, BayFest would have lost roughly $1.1 million in 2013, putting the festival’s cash reserves severely in the red.

Under previous mayors, Bostwick managed the festival as a city employee. But in an administrative shakeup, he was fired by Mayor Sandy Stimpson in 2014 while earning a salary of $91,832. Subsequently, the BayFest board voted to hire him as an organizational employee.

The sudden hole left by BayFest was partially filled by Ten Sixty Five. The smaller, two-day music festival was largely supported by sponsors and free to the public. It even featured some of the same acts slated to perform at BayFest, like George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Other acts were offered stage space at other local venues, like Soul Kitchen downtown.

Due to the large number of fans who supported it in such a short amount of time, there is an expectation that Ten Sixty Five will return next year, or even become a twice-per-year event. I, like all of you guys, can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Baldwin tax rejection leaves many questions unanswered

By Eric Mann

Perhaps no story was as important in Baldwin County this year as when voters overwhelmingly defeated a March ballot initiative to raise property taxes to fund a $350 capital campaign for the county’s schools.

Nearly 70 percent of Baldwin voters rejected an 8-mill increase, which was divided into separate 3-mill and 5-mill tax items on the ballot, while also voting against separate 1-mill and 3-mill tax renewal items. Just one of the county’s 48 precincts — in Spanish Fort — voted in favor of the increase.

With the vote, the school system lost a total of 4 mills, or approximately $14 million per year, decreasing its acquired millage from 12 mills to 8 mills. According to county officials, 1 mill of property tax equates to about $3.5 million; however, state law requires the commission keep the system’s millage at 10 mill, leaving the Baldwin County Public School System’s final loss at $7 million.

Since March, BCPS has scrambled to recuperate from the loss. In May, State Auditor Jim Zeigler filed suit against the Baldwin County Board of Education and then-Superintendent Robbie Owen, claiming the BCBE misused taxpayer funds when it used approximately $250,000 in public money to fund its failed pro-tax campaign.

Later in the summer, a judge in Montgomery dismissed the complaint, but not before Owen and board member Norm Moore resigned. Both said the resignations were unrelated to the referendum’s defeat or Zeigler’s lawsuit.

In September, the BCBE hired longtime Baldwin educator Eddie Tyler to replace Owen after a months-long nationwide search and interview process. Tyler spent 25 years as an educator in Baldwin County before he was hired as superintendent of Eufaula City Schools in 2012. He was one of three finalists for Baldwin County’s superintendent position.

Another development since the referendum was the creation of the Community Advisory Task Force, a group of board-appointed residents charged with studying the system’s communication, curriculum, facilities, funding and leadership. Formed over the summer, the task force already released a report noting the system needs to improve its “communication packaging” and needs better leadership in curriculum.

The waves were also felt in the upcoming BCBE races for seats in Districts 4 and 7 in the 2016 presidential primary election. Norm Moore will be succeeded by Janay Dawson, who is running unopposed in District 4. District 7 representative Shannon Cauley was selected to replace Moore as board president, but will face a challenge from Spanish Fort businessman Chris Francis, owner of Chris Francis Tree Care, who is running on a platform that includes his opposition to raising taxes.

The failed March referendum also made waves at the state level, as tax opponent Matthew Brown was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley to the vacant District 1 seat on the state board of education. Brown has four challengers for the seat in the March primary: Chickasaw City Councilman Adam Bourne, Robertsdale resident Carl Myrick, Jackie Zeigler and Harry Brown.

Meanwhile, the school board intends to place the renewal of its existing 1-mill and 3-mill tax back on the presidential primary ballot in March. In Fairhope, an advisory committee is recommending a consultant update a study about the feasibility of an independent school system. For taxpayers or parents of Baldwin County’s public school students, both issues will be worth watching in 2016.

911 Board: A reporter’s best friend

By Jason Johnson

Admittedly, the Mobile County Communications District — or 911 board — seems boring. Mired in technical detail, the radio system used by first responders doesn’t usually get papers flying off the racks.

However, in May of this year, things got interesting when board member Trey Oliver began to raise questions over a $40 million contract that flew mostly under the radar. In 2013, when the board borrowed millions to pay for the project, Gabriel Tynes was the only reporter in the room.

That project was awarded to Harris Corporation the same year, but it was only in 2015 that Oliver and other board members brought to light several details about how the contract came to be finalized.

At the same time this $40 million project was being ironed out, the creation of a state 911 agency was threatening to drastically reduce local funding unless the MCCD found a way to raise the rates paid by phone users in Mobile County.
They managed to do that, but current law requires these districts not take in more funding than they need to operate. So, with rates more than doubled, the 911 board found itself in the unusual predicament of needing to spend a lot of money quickly. To do otherwise would have meant losing $15 million per year for the foreseeable future — money that would have still been taken from you and me but redistributed to other counties.

Back to the contract. This radio upgrade had been planned with help from Harris for some time. With only a few months to encumber millions of dollars, the MCCD originally attempted to let Harris take on the project without bidding it competitively.

While that seems nefarious, a lot of the components for this project are available through pre-bid state contracts. However, the board’s lawyers did not think that would pass the smell test, and so the project was rushed to bid, with only two companies responding to the opportunity.

Motorola responded, but asked for an extension of time because two weeks wasn’t adequate to prepare a project this size — a request that was denied. With at least some previous knowledge of the project, Harris’ was the only proposal that met the tight schedule the MCCD was facing.

This year, the board felt compelled to investigate the matter further, and in June voted to halt the project and pay more than $17,000 for an independent panel to review everything.

Ultimately, Harris agreed to reduce its price by about $5 million, but the results of the internal investigation still have not been disclosed because of two long-standing vacancies on the board.

One of those seats was vacated by former board chairman Joe Ruffer, who worked closely with Eric Linsley, a county employee, both before and during the Harris project. During the review of the contract, Ruffer and Linsley refused to be interviewed separately and ultimately never spoke to investigators. Ruffer is also the county engineer.

Despite that, with unwanted components removed and a large drop in the price, the project resumed in September.

Heading into 2016, almost half the faces on the board have changed now that three vacancies have been filled, and Oliver said he hopes to keep working for financial accountability at MCCD.

“We’re going to review the independent panel’s report, and we’re going to make any necessary internal control changes,” Oliver said. “I can only speak for myself, but if the board feels like there needs to be some accountability or we need to hold some people responsible, the majority of the board will speak to those issues.”

This story stood out to me this past year because the news coverage put this massive contract in the public eye for the first time, and some believe it had at least some influence on price reduction.

However, once again, Lagniappe is the only media regularly attending these meetings.

Just last month, a consultant revealed a separate contract awarded to Harris by the county may have wasted a $2.5 million grant on a radio system that was “never used by anybody.” In its first meeting in January, that will be one of the issues taken up by the board.

The 911 board is far from boring, and its murky relationship with the county is one of the things that keeps reporters like me employed.