Growth, change and politics drove most of the news in 2016
By Gabriel Tynes
From political scandals to growth and change, there was no shortage of local news to report in 2016. Some of the new developments included negotiations to bring back passenger rail service to Mobile, the return of Carnival Cruise Lines, the intent to contruct a 264-unit apartment complex on Water Street known as the Meridian at The Port, the redevelopment of the Old Shell Road School and a new retail center anchored by Publix in midtown.
Along the beach, construction began on an at least $80 million conference center and lodge at Gulf State Park. In Foley, ground was broken on OWA, a $500 million amusment park and retail center being constructed by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. In Fairhope, officials placed a moratorium on new development while the city studies its capacity and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the first A320 built in America by Airbus took flight from Brookley Aeroplex, duck boat tours began quacking through city streets, and the ribbon was cut on a new public park in the heart of downtown Mobile. In June, it was announced Wal-Mart would be building a 2.9 million square foot distribution center in Mobile County, providing at least 550 full-time jobs.
New mayors took office in Fairhope, Prichard and Creola, while the state’s most powerful legislator, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, was convicted of felony ethics charges and sentenced to prison. Gov. Robert Bentley was embroiled in a sex scandal, and Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was removed from the bench for a second time for interferring with federal orders.
Downtown restraunts faced new enforcement of crawfish boil and alcohol regulations, Mobile City Councilman CJ Small was shot in the face during a robbery attempt in South Africa, Baldwin County Commissioner Chris Elliot was arrested for DUI, and a blogger named John Caylor became a “First Amendment fugitive” after being arrested for posting expunged records related to a clerk in U.S. District Judge Ginny Grenade’s courtroom.
There was uproar over the presidential campaign and election, the federal government’s short-lived plan to house refugee children on a Navy field in Baldwin County, and a racially-charged police shooting that left a 19-year-old Mobile man dead.
Also, with multiple arrests and indictments, there was a law enforcement crackdown on prescription opiate proliferation, while the city of Mobile’s murder rate increased to its highest level in years.
The TenSixtyFive music festival was embraced for a second year by an enthusiastic crowd, similar to the one that welcomed President-elect Donald Trump back to Mobile on his “thank you” tour earlier this month. Mobile’s own Sen. Jeff Sessions has been nominated as Trump’s attorney general, his confirmation hearing begins Jan. 10.
We’ve compiled a more comprehensive list of the top stories of 2016 on lagniappemobile.com, but below, our reporters share some that were particularly memorable to cover or impactful in the community.
The scandal of Gov. Robert Bentley
by Jason Johnson
Though there were whispers of a political affair in Montgomery before, the extramarital scandal that continues to engulf Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley grew into a full roar in 2016. In March, the state watched as former Alabama Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier made the first public claims that Bentley’s divorce from his wife of 50 years, Dianne, had been caused by an ongoing affair with his former communications officer, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
When Collier went public with the accusations of Bentley’s affair, he’d done so the day after being terminated for what the governor described as “a number of issues, including possible misuse of state funds” that had discovered within ALEA. However, a subsequent investigation by Attorney General Luther Strange’s office ultimately determined there was “no credible basis” for any of the governor’s claims.
Then, audio recordings — purportedly captured by Dianne herself — made their way into the press, allowing Alabama voters and the world to hear Bentley making “inappropriate comments” to Mason that seemed to describe a previous physical encounter.
What followed was a deluge reports the examining Bentley’s use of state funds and whether he’d used any to facilitate or cover-up his relationship with Mason. Stories of Bentley dispatching a state helicopter to retrieve a forgotten wallet or purchasing tickets to Las Vegas concerts for his staff members seemed to pop-up weekly in the spring.
Then in November, Bentley’s longtime security chief Wendell Ray Lewis filed an unlawful termination lawsuit against him — becoming the second member of the governor’s former inner circle to corroborate the rumored affair with Mason, adding even more sordid details to a long list of things Bentley has continued to deny.
Though there’s no way to understate the impact Bentley’s scandal had on Alabama politics, it had perhaps been further elevated because of its timing.
As the inquires and attempts to impeach the governor lurched forward over the past nine months, Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was convicted of felony ethics violations, removed from office and sentenced to prison. Chief Justice Roy Moore was also suspended — and effectively removed — from his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court for the second time in his controversial career.
As the New Year begins, Bentley seems to be only one of the state’s embattled political leaders who made it through 2016 in one piece, though hanging over his head are ongoing ethics investigations, two civil lawsuits and possibly a loss of confidence among the voters who twice put him in office.
White officer’s shooting of black teen raises tension
by Jason Johnson
From the initial incident in July through the month of November, the death of 19-year-old Michael Moore was one of the most controversial stories of 2016. Moore was shot by Mobile police officer Harold Hurst on June 13, after a traffic stop that escalated into violence.
The incident divided the city almost immediately and in some cases along racial lines because Moore was black and Hurst is white.
The MPD maintained that Moore had a gun, was driving a vehicle that had been reported stolen and was in possession of items connected to a number of vehicle burglaries when he was stopped by Hurst for a minor traffic violation.
Ultimately, on Nov. 1, a Mobile County grand jury determined Hurst would not face criminal charges for Moore’s death, though a federal investigation by the Department of Justice is still “active,” according to a spokesperson for U.S. Attorney General Kenyen Brown’s office.
While Moore’s death prompted some small protests, vigils and marches, it did not lead to the type of civil unrest that’s been seen after recent officer-involved shootings in other cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Ferguson, Missouri. Nationwide scrutiny commonly given police violence today was perhaps overshadowed the day before when a terrorist killed 49 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the most deadly mass shooting in American history.
But what the case accomplished was examination and change to some MPD policies and operations, including the department’s body camera policy and the creation of a Police Citizens Community Relations Advisory Council in August.
Immediately after the local grand jury cleared hurst of wrongdoing, Moore’s family said they were “extremely disappointed” by the decision and would be bringing “a civil lawsuit against the city of Mobile and its police department.”
However, as of the publication of this report, no such civil action has been brought by Moore’s family in state or federal court.
The quick fall of GulfQuest
By Dale Liesch
Among the biggest local stories of 2016 was the city of Mobile’s perhaps inevitable takeover in November of the $60 million GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, temporarily closing it to the public.
The year began just four months after the museum opened, culminating years of project delays and cost overruns. After an initial surge in paying guests, visitation gradually declined. In September, officials disclosed that only 76,343 visitors had passed through, less than half of the estimated 200,000 required each year for the museum to operate in the black.
Officials placed responsibility on a lack of a marketing budget, the fact that the Carnival cruise ship did not return until November, and a strained relationship with the public and potential investors.
By the time the city stepped in — laying off staff, curbing operating hours — it was also discovered the museum owed debtors, including the city, nearly $2 million. But former Executive Director Tony Zodrow later claimed the city actually owed the facility’s nonprofit board more than $1 million, a claim members of both former Mayor Sam Jones’ and current Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administrations deny.
GulfQuest is currently only open on days the Carnival Fantasy is in port, for special events and for previously scheduled school field trips. The city is still on the hook for the more than $2 million per year the museum eats up in debt service and while Stimpson has said parts of the facility can be repurposed, most of the exhibits must remain because they are tied to tax credits through 2021.
Several third-party operators have toured the facility before and since Stimpson’s announcement. Stimpson has said the museum will reopen to the public after a transition period. Plans weren’t completely clear by year’s end, but the city tasked the museum’s nonprofit board with raising $1 million over the next two years to help fund the facility.
Shakeups at the Mobile Housing Board
By Dale Liesch
Revelations about the Mobile Housing Board’s relationship with its nonprofit partner and accusations of financial mismanagement on each’s behalf was also among the most consequential local dramas of the past year.
Following a year with a strained budget, MHB entered 2016 enthusiastically after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved it for a portfolio-wide conversion to the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program. The program, which allows MHB to operate more like a traditional developer, gives the board a better opportunity to renovate and reconstruct many of its aging properties. However, it also gives private developers more control over some of the housing, including privatizing some of the maintenance.
Citing concerns over the RAD transformation, 30-year MHB commissioner and Chairman Donald Langham resigned from the board. He was replaced by Reid Cummings, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s third appointment to the board.
But after the RAD program’s inclusion of MHB, the board was hit with a scathing audit report from the HUD Office of Inspector General in August, tearing into its relationship with its nonprofit, Mobile Development Enterprises.
OIG accused MHB of mislabeling MDE as a third-party entity when it should have been considered part of the organization. If ultimately found to be true, this could cost MHB some of the non-federalized funds it had received over the years, OIG stated.
The report found MDE used MHB phones and office space. MHB administration members also told commissioners near the end of the year that some of MHB budget pays for MDE. Commissioners also questioned why it appeared some MDE staff were listed among MHB employees in organizational charts.
In our own investigation into to the story, Lagniappe found that MDE is used differently by MHB than other nonprofits are used by similarly sized housing authorities. We also found other questionable connections involving State Rep. Adline Clarke, MDE president, and other contractors as well as between former MHB chairman Clarence Ball and developers of tax-credit housing in the city. Clarke defended her relationships, but Ball never commented publicly.
It was also announced this year that some of the employees laid off from MHB in 2014 received a settlement in a lawsuit for back pay. Each of the six employees received between $18,500 and $25,600 in damages and the board was also forced to pay $40,000 in legal fees. The settlement was expected to cost the board a total of $165,000, including attorneys’ fees.
In another story, the paper examined the board’s vacancy reduction program. While Executive Director Dwayne Vaughn praised the program, other sources close to it said it was a mismanaged waste of money. At least one said the program would’ve worked if the staffing numbers had been sufficient. Vaughn did admit in an email the program suffered do to frequent move outs.
The OIG report confirmed, stating that the board hadn’t done enough to make apartments move-in ready.
New mayor, development boom keep Fairhope hopping
By Jane Nicholes
Like it or not, change overtook Fairhope in 2016.
Alabama’s fastest-growing city got a new mayor in Karin Wilson and enough applications for new subdivisions and apartments to overwhelm the Planning and Zoning Department. A proposed luxury apartment complex became the focal point of debate about how to manage growth while maintaining the eclectic character that draws people to the bayside city.
Tim Kant was seeking his fifth term as mayor and had no opposition until the last day of qualifying, when Wilson jumped into the race. The owner of Page & Palette bookstore and an accompanying coffee shop and bar was well-known as a businesswoman but new to politics.
Wilson spoke of transparency in government and the need to control growth but not stop it. She questioned some longstanding issues in city government such as whether Fairhope spends too much money on legal fees and how it uses revenue from the city-owned utilities system that Kant also supervised. Still, Kant remained the favorite right up until the results came in.
Playing a role in the results of the mayor’s and some council races was the project commonly known as the “Fly Creek apartments.” Properly known as the The Retreat at Fairhope Village, the complex, to be located behind Publix, would consist of 240 luxury units with rents ranging from $1,000 to $1,600.
Public hearings went on for hours, and residents packed Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Objections ranged from the potential for environmental damage to the Fly Creek watershed to the impact on neighboring upscale subdivisions.
Of the three council members who voted to approve the project in April, two, Diana Brewer and Rich Mueller, were not re-elected. Four residents filed a lawsuit against the project that remains pending in Baldwin County Circuit Court. Shortly before year’s end, Wilson told the council her administration is studying the legalities of repealing the decision.
Since taking office in early November, Wilson has wasted no time implementing change and generating controversy. Council work sessions in addition to regular meetings are now streamed over the internet, and Wilson uses her Facebook page to lay out her stands on issues and urge supporters to come to public meetings.
Saying the mayor’s job is full-time, Wilson declined Kant’s other role as utilities superintendent, which brought his salary to $90,000 a year. Instead, Wilson is making $32,400 and has convinced the council to let her hire both a utilities superintendent and an economic and community development director at salary ranges in six figures.
Wilson has also convinced the council to authorize an analysis of pending litigation and legal fees, and is seeking a study of the utilities system needs and capacity.
At the council’s last meeting on Dec. 22, it turned down Wilson’s proposal to take back much of the land owned by the municipal airport using a clause in a bond issue agreement in which the city was paying debt service. The council lowered the amount being paid from more than $400,000 a year to $320,000, but agreed that the Airport Authority should retain control of the land.
Also at year’s end, the council placed a six-month moratorium on new subdivisions or and multi-family developments, as applications continued to flood the Planning and Zoning Department. The moratorium does not affect existing lots. The moratorium allows the city time to study overall growth issues such as sewer capacity and various regulations.