By Dale Liesch and Gabriel Tynes
No single story can possibly eclipse the COVID-19 pandemic as defining the past 12 months, a story that — depending on the results of vaccinations being rolled out now — may continue to dominate headlines for months to come. But in Mobile and Baldwin counties, the year was also marked with damaging tropical weather, disruptive protests about racial and economic inequality, discussions about the removal of Confederate symbolism and local and national elections, the effects of which are yet to be seen.
Yet, for all the negativity and divisiveness, there were also stories that brought us together. Notably, the effort to study and preserve the Clotilda, America’s “last slave ship,” which was discovered under the mud of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta last year. Also, the city of Mobile’s purchase of property adjacent to the Brookley Aeroplex, which will ensure the public has access to the bay for generations.
Below is a list of other stories we believe have highlighted 2020 in South Alabama, for better or for worse. Find this list on lagniappemobile.com for links to stories and related materials.
The city of Fairhope and the Fairhope Single Tax Colony paid $525,000 to purchase a few hundred square feet of property at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street to preserve public space around its landmark clock. Last year, a developer’s plan to build a boutique hotel on the site was approved, but it has been mothballed. The city has since spent thousands more on environmental remediation of the site.
In an assault on the First Amendment, Baldwin County Judge Clark Stankoski ruled Lagniappe must disclose privileged communications with sources in regards to a civil lawsuit involving Fairhope restaurant owner Ronan McSharry, who is being sued for pushing a woman off a barstool in 2018. Stankoski prohibited defense attorney James Pittman from requesting material relating to stories that were already published, but left the door open for discovery on stories that were yet to be written. Separately in 2020, the Alabama Supreme Court denied a writ of mandamus, without issuing an opinion on the matter, regarding other procedural issues in the case unrelated to the subpoenas issued to Lagniappe. The civil case, and a criminal charge of public intoxication against McSharry, remains pending.
A federal indictment against Meoshi Nelson Williams shut down several group homes she operated in Mobile County, where disabled residents documented substandard living conditions and mistreatment. Williams pleaded guilty to defrauding the Social Security Administration in May but has yet to be sentenced, as she was already serving a 24-month sentence for a probation violation related to fraudulently claiming lost income after the BP oil spill. Earlier this month, she filed for release from the Baldwin County Corrections Center under the First Step Act, telling a federal judge she had contracted COVID-19. She remains in jail.
The Mobile City Council gave a total of $250,000 in discretionary funds to the renovation effort at Barton Academy. Once completed the school will be run by the Mobile County Public School System as a magnet middle school focusing on international studies. The school has accepted its first students and will open in the fall.
After a push to annex portions of West Mobile failed in 2019 due to a lack of a supermajority of five votes in the Mobile City Council to support Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s initiative, the mayor made a second push to add population in February. The effort was in conjunction with a city plan to roll back fire and police protection within a three-mile radius of the police jurisdiction. The council delayed the vote before ultimately dismissing the issue.
Months after the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (ESMPO) effectively killed Gov. Kay Ivey’s $2.1 billion plan to build a bridge over the Mobile River and pay for it with local tolls, the Eastern Shore cities of Daphne, Fairhope and Spanish Fort endorsed a scaled-back proposal for a smaller span and expansion of the Bayway in Interstate 10’s existing footprint. Funding remains undefined for the new, $1.2 billion plan, but ESMPO is expected to discuss the project again in January 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in South Alabama, impacting business, education, personal affairs and life itself. The virus has claimed thousands of lives in the state and hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide. The state is still under a face-covering mandate from Gov. Kay Ivey, and Mobile restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues are still making arrangements to help keep people safe. It has impacted holiday travel and travel in general, the way sports are played and the way people interact with one another. It also seems to be on the cusp of dealing a death blow to Mardi Gras as we know it in 2021, with a number of organizations canceling or postponing parades, which were set to begin in Mobile Jan. 29, 2021.
The city of Fairhope unveiled a controversial $6.2 million redesign of its public pier and surrounding parklands, a project funded by grants available after the BP oil spill. Outgoing Mayor Karin Wilson reopened the public comment period after a public outcry, and new Mayor Sherry Sullivan extended it upon taking office. Any resulting changes from those efforts are pending.
An officer from the Daphne Police Department fatally shot 29-year-old Derick Lamar Powe after the victim was reportedly behaving erratically and carrying a gun. A swift-but-secret investigation by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit found no wrongdoing by law enforcement, and the Baldwin County District Attorney’s Office announced it would present the case to a grand jury. The judicial system has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is not certain whether the case has been cleared. According to his family and friends, Powe had a history of mental problems but was not known to be violent.
President Donald Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to inject funds into an economy left sputtering by the COVID-19 pandemic. It included provisions for direct payments to individuals and low-interest or forgivable loans to businesses, but as the pandemic wore on, funds were quickly exhausted. Late in December, Trump signed a second package worth another $900 billion.
The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office arrested Donny Owens and his wife, Tilena Kim Owens, on six counts of elder abuse, claiming a group home they operated for veterans was in “deplorable condition.” The pair pleaded not guilty in August and the case has since been bound over to a grand jury.
A lawsuit was filed against several deputies in the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office over the deadly forced eviction of Robert Lewis Yates in Fairhope in 2018. Yates allegedly fired a gun when deputies and his landlord attempted to remove him from rented property. The deputies have denied the allegations in the complaint and the plaintiff, Yates’ daughter, is currently seeking a new attorney to represent her in the case.
Calls for racial justice in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd made headlines in Mobile in June. Protesters showed up in solidarity with Floyd and others killed by police. More than 1,000 protesters took the streets during one rally downtown. Another near Airport Boulevard followed in the next few days. Among other demands, protesters wanted to remove the statue of Confederate Adm. Raphael Semmes from public display downtown.
The statue of Adm. Semmes was defaced by a vandal amid a national trend of hostility toward Confederate imagery and symbolism. Later in the month, the city of Mobile removed the statue to a storage space at the History Museum of Mobile and paid a $25,000 fine to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office for violating the 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act.
While the wreckage of the schooner Clotilda — the last known ship to transport enslaved Africans to the U.S. — was found in 2019, the city and state worked together in 2020 to help create a plan to better tell the story of the ship, its passengers and their descendants. While the Clotilda has made headlines throughout 2020, arguably the biggest impact in the progress of the mission was the $1 million contributed by the state to help preserve the wreck. The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) announced in July a plan to excavate artifacts and possibly to erect a memorial on the site, if it’s feasible.
Louis and Melinda Mapp donated an 8-acre property in Fairhope, valued at $2 million, to USA Health, where the organization intends to develop a new campus for primary and specialty care providers and eventually include an educational component. Months later, after USA Health filed an application for the proposed surgical center to the state’s Certificate of Need Review (CON) Board, Infirmary Health disputed the proposal.
Dr. Jonathan Nakhla, 36, a Mobile-based neurosurgeon, was arrested and charged with manslaughter after investigators claimed he was driving more than 130 mph in a 45 mph zone before crashing and killing his passenger, 24-year-old Samantha Alison Thomas, a medical student at the University of South Alabama. Nakhla is out on bond while the charge is considered by a grand jury. Thomas’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the doctor for wrongful death.
Municipal elections were held in Baldwin County, where new mayors were elected in Fairhope and Foley, as incumbents in other cities in Baldwin County held onto their seats. The candidates in Spanish Fort and Daphne were forced into runoffs, with councilman Robin LeJeune ultimately winning in Daphne and incumbent Mike McMillan re-elected to a third term in Spanish Fort.
Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson announced his intention to run for mayor in 2021. An interesting plank in his platform is to bring back BayFest. The decision signals the end of Richardson’s time on the council, which began in 1997.
A turnover on the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority uncovered a scheme to liquidate the authority’s 99-home Safe Harbor housing development to fund multimillion-dollar retirement accounts for former Executive Director Virginia Huddleston and her husband, former Facilities Manager Darryl Wilson. In December, the pair were implicated in a civil lawsuit alongside five former board members and a criminal investigation is reportedly still underway.
Slow-moving, Category 2 Hurricane Sally made landfall in South Baldwin County, uprooting trees, tearing roofs off of buildings and flooding low-lying areas with more than 30 inches of rain. Two deaths were attributed to the storm and relief supplies were slow to arrive, while some locations did not have power restored for nearly three weeks. The cleanup continues.
Robert Smith Jr., 38, of Grove Hill, was arrested after firing multiple rounds from a semi-automatic rifle into Bass Pro Shops in Spanish Fort. A police officer was slightly injured while taking Smith into custody but otherwise no one was hurt. Smith was charged with second-degree assault, discharging a firearm into an occupied dwelling, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest, and has since been held in the Baldwin County Corrections Center on $570,000 bond.
A copy of a 22-year contract between the state of Alabama and Valor Hospitality Partners for the management of Gulf State Park was leaked to Lagniappe. The state previously denied an official request for the contract, citing an exemption for “trade secrets.” The contract’s terms awarded Valor $9.24 million in base fees over the life of the contract, plus as much as five times that amount, depending on the amount of revenue generated and additional performance measures.
Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan was acquitted of a misdemeanor charge of harassment after a judge determined he did not “slap” former Magistrate Lindsay Cooper during an argument in City Hall in 2019. Retired Judge James Reid said the evidence was contradictory, and not clear beyond a reasonable doubt.
Hurricane Zeta came ashore and pounded areas north of Mobile. It left many in Mobile and Baldwin counties once again picking up debris. It was the second hurricane to make landfall near our area in about a six-week period.
Charlie McNichol, the director of the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD), was arrested on his second alcohol-related charge in as many years. MCCD, which controls the county’s 911 system and emergency radio communications, later suspended McNichol for 90 days without pay and revoked his district-issued vehicle privileges.
In another contract withheld by the state, Lagniappe uncovered the terms of a 15-year agreement between the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts and On-Line Information Systems for a line of products that digitize state court records and processes. The state claimed disclosure of the contract would threaten “critical infrastructure,” but the contract actually revealed favorable terms in which the business, partially owned by former Lt. Gov. Steve Windom, was entitled to retain as much as one-third of the revenue generated.
President Donald Trump carried Alabama but lost the presidential election nationwide. Voters also endorsed Republican Tommy Tuberville to replace Democrat Doug Jones in the U.S. Senate, while choosing Republican Jerry Carl to succeed Rep. Bradley Byrne in the House of Representatives.
The Mobile Bay area was intrigued by a wayward 40-foot sperm whale that appeared to be in ill health, swimming in shallow brackish water in the bay. Biologists tracked the animal for several days before euthanizing it and disposing of the carcass.
The city of Orange Beach voted to enter into a purchase agreement of 8.7 acres of beachfront property to preserve public access to the Gulf of Mexico. Under the public-private partnership, which also involves the construction of a “family-friendly” restaurant on the property, the city will pay $12 million over three years so the public may access the parking lot and 800 feet of beachfront.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and the University of South Alabama Foundation announced an agreement that allowed the city to purchase 300 acres of land adjacent to the Brookley Aeroplex. The city has plans to develop the land into a bayside park. The city will control about a third of the property purchased for $16 million through Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) funding. Two smaller chunks of the total 300 acres — 25 acres and 21 acres — will be purchased as wetlands, with no development allowed. This land will be purchased for $2 million with National Fish and Wildlife Foundation money reserved through the Restore Act. Another piece of property — almost 100 acres — will be operated by the Industrial Development Board and was purchased with $15 million from state economic development funds, and could serve future economic development interests.
Municipal Judge Karlos Finley announced his intention to run for Mobile mayor in 2021. Finley opposed incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s calls for annexation in late 2019 and early 2020.
City Chief of Staff and Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch died in a single-vehicle wreck on Sunday, Dec. 27. He was one of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s first appointees and was integral in much of the city’s success over the last seven years.
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