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An interview with PSC commissioner Dunn

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—The Public Service Commission of Alabama is empowered with some very important responsibilities. However, it has generally worked in quiet anonymity.

This all changed with the January PSC meeting when Commissioner Terry Dunn called for formal hearings on the rates of Alabama’s utilities.

The motion by Dunn was rejected by Commissioners Cavanaugh and Jeremy Oden who favored keeping to the original unanimous vote in December to hold public hearings.

Since January, a tumultuous cloud of suspicion, accusation and nastiness has been played out in the press, in emails and in the halls of the PSC.

This action by Dunn has generated some very robust press for the once unknown republican commissioner. It has brought him a certain celebrity on the political left, among environmentalist and those who believe Alabama utility companies are making too much money. Among others, Dunn is being scorned as playing politics with the utility companies to raises his reelection hopes.

As with PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, “The Alabama Political Reporter” sat down with Commissioner Dunn to give him a opportunity to tell his side of the story.

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However, Commissioner Dunn is a man of very few words and almost without exception, questions asked of Dunn were answered by his chief of staff David Roundtree. Roundtree for years was a reporter for the “Montgomery Advertiser,” he is also a holdover from the days when democrats controlled the PSC Commission. He served as spokesperson for Dr. Susan Parker, democrat who was considered one of the best commissioner to have ever served at the PSC.

Recently, Cavanaugh has said that public hearings were preferred over formal hearings because it gave the public more input into the process.

When asking Dunn about the reason for formal hearing and not the public ones that the commission had agreed on in December, Roundtree said, “A formal hearing is a public hearing, it doesn’t get more public than that. Everybody comes to the table with an idea, and we don’t discriminate.”

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Dunn nodded his head in agreement with Roundtree’s statement.

Roundtree said that “the parties in the proceedings are most likely going to want to be represented by council so you are going to have lawyers representing some of the main parties, but in a formal proceeding a single customer can be a party, if they intervene all they have to do is request to intervene.”

Critics of the formal hearing process say that it is the very presence of legal council and sworn testimony that makes formal hearing less desirable than an informal one. Roundtree, however, indicated that this is the best method for getting to the heart of how rate increases or decreases should be considered. He said, “A formal proceeding is tantamount to a court proceeding, it is very much like a court proceeding.”

He says that in the formal proceeding there would be sworn testimony and written testimony presented with attorneys representing the parties. “It will be part of the record and all the other parties will look at it and they will then respond to it,” said Roundtree. “There will be a part of the proceedings where the staff can ask questions of the various parties and there will be opportunities for the parties to cross examine one another about the testimony that has been submitted.”

He did not seemed worried that environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center would highjack the proceedings as some have suggested.

Roundtree dismisses Cavanaugh’s and Oden’s call for informal hearing even though Dunn agreed with it earlier.

Roundtree said that he is concerned about there not being a formal record of the hearings.

At this point, Commissioner Dunn did more than nod agreement or say he agreed, with Roundtree.

He said, “That’s what we are concerned about. To get at the ROE [Return on Equity] and get down to what makes the ROE work.”

Dunn said that the formal hearing with sworn testimony would allow all present to “get into it” determine what the ROE should be. “If you have no record then you have no way to break it down and see how the mechanism works, and see if it’s fair,” said Dunn.

Recently, newspapers, editorials and blogs have erroneously reported that companies like Alabama Power receive 13 to 14.5 percent return on investment. This is not the case, and its reported incorrectly because of ignorance or worse. What the utility companies are given is a Return On Equity, ROE, which is greatly different than Return On Investment, ROI.

According to online research group Zacks.com, “Knowing the percentage of income a company makes on its equity helps you understand whether the company is profitable. Equity includes the original investment plus any money borrowed to fund company activities. A healthy company will show a rate of 20 percent ROE or more. This positive return indicates the company uses its money wisely.” ROE is what investors like Warren Buffett use to evaluated companies worth and stability. According to the formula used by the PSC, Alabama Power is allowed, not guaranteed, to make 13 to 14.5 percent on ROE (45 percent equity to 55 percent debt). When the 13 to 14.5 percent is applied to the 44 percent equity it returns 8 percent on ROE.

Roundtree says that Commissioner Dunn wants to “looks at the high points and makes sure the main criteria that come into play are still valid and good.” He says, “Maybe we adjust that equity ceiling a little and a little of the capital structure. It’s just big picture sort of stuff.”

According to Roundtree, in 1983, Alabama Power was put under the formula for the first time, and the next year Alagasco and then Mobile Gas.

He contends that Alabama Power has not been reviewed since that time. Yet, it is the job of the commission to constantly evaluate the companies, which has just recently fallen under GOP jurisdiction.

Roundtree agrees that he and Dunn do not want to go back to the days before 1983 when every rate evaluation was handled by the courts. However, he says he and Dunn want court-style hearings going forward.

While we found Commissioner Dunn, polite and attentive during our meeting, he had very little to say but agree with his chief of staff.

Hear audio…

 

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Legislature

Medical marijuana bill “is not about getting high” — it’s “about getting well.”

Bill Britt

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More than half of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form. Last week, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee passed SB165 on an 8 to 1 vote. If the measure becomes law, it will allow Alabama residents to obtain medical marijuana under rigorously imposed conditions.

Known as the Compassion Act, SB165 would authorize certain individuals to access medical marijuana only after a comprehensive evaluation process performed by a medical doctor who has received specific training.

“I care for people who are ill, and I try to reduce their suffering to the best of my ability, using the tools at my disposal that are the safest and most effective,” said Dr. Alan Shackleford, a Colorado physician who spoke before the Judiciary Committee. “Cannabis is one of those tools.”

Shackleford, a Harvard trained physician, has treated more than 25,000 patients at his medical practice over the last ten years, he says a large number of his patients have benefited from medical cannabis.

While there are detractors, the Compassion Act is not a hastily composed bill but is, in fact, the result of a year-long study by the Alabama Medical Cannabis Study Commission that voted to approve the legislation by an overwhelming majority.

“It’s a strong showing that two-thirds [of the commission] thought the legislation was reasonable and well-thought-out,” said Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, after the commission vote.

Melson, who chaired the commission, is a medical researcher and is the lead sponsor of SB165.

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Two-thirds of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be legal, according to a Pew Research Center survey. “The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today” according to Pew. The study also shows that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (91 percent) say marijuana should be legal either for medical and recreational use (59 percent) or that it should be licensed just for medical use (32 percent).

These numbers are also reflected in surveys conducted by Fox News, Gallup, Investor’s Business Daily and others.

“This bill is not about getting high. This bill is about getting well,” says Shackleford.

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Cristi Cain, the mother of a young boy with epilepsy that suffers hundreds of seizures a day, pleaded with lawmakers to make medical cannabis legal.

“This body has said so many times that your zip code should not affect your education,” Cain told the committee. “Well, I don’t believe that your area code should affect your doctor’s ability to prescribe you medication. If we were in another state, my son could be seizure-free.”

SB165 will strictly regulate a network of state-licensed marijuana growers, dispensaries, transporters, and processors.

There will be no smokable products permitted under the legislation and consumer possession of marijuana in its raw form would remain illegal.

“The people of Alabama deserve the same access to treatment as people in 33 other states,” said Shackelford.

 

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Education

Opinion | Instead of fixing a school for military kids, how about just fixing the schools for all kids?

Josh Moon

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The education of police officers’ kids isn’t worth any extra effort. 

Same for the kids of nurses and firefighters. Ditto for the kids of preachers and social workers. 

No, in the eyes of the Republican-led Alabama Legislature, the children of this state get what they get and lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to make sure any of them get a particularly good public education. 

Except, that is, for the kids of active duty military members stationed at bases in this state. 

They matter more. 

So much so that the Alabama Senate last week passed a bill that would create a special school to serve those kids — and only those kids. To provide those kids — and only those kids — with a quality education. 

An education better than the one available right now to the thousands of children who attend troubled school systems, such as the one in Montgomery. 

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The charter school bill pushed by Sen. Will Barfoot at the request of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth carves out a narrow exception in the Alabama Charter School law, and it gives the right to start a charter school located at or near a military base — a school that will be populated almost exclusively (and in some cases, absolutely exclusively) by the kids of military members. 

The explanation for this bill from Barfoot was surprisingly straightforward. On Tuesday, Ainsworth’s office sent information packets around to House members to explain the necessity of the bill. 

In each case, the explanation was essentially this: the Maxwell Air Force Base folks don’t like the schools in Montgomery and it’s costing the state additional federal dollars because top-level personnel and programs don’t want to be in Montgomery. 

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And in what has to be the most Alabama response to a public education problem, the solution our lawmakers came up with was to suck millions of dollars out of the budget of the State Education Department budget and hundreds of thousands out of the budget of a struggling district and use it to build a special school that will provide a better level of education to a small group of kids simply because it might generate more federal tax dollars. 

And because having your name attached to a bill that supposedly aids the military looks good, so long as no one thinks about it too hard. 

But in the meantime, as this special school is being built, the hardworking, good people of Montgomery — some of them veterans and Reservists themselves — are left with a school district that is so recognizably bad that the Legislature is about to build a special school to accommodate these kids. 

Seriously, wrap your head around that. 

Look, this will come as a shock to many people, but I like Will Ainsworth. While we disagree on many, many things, I think he’s a genuine person who believes he’s helping people. 

The problem is that he is too often surrounded by conservatives who think every issue can be solved with a bumper sticker slogan and screaming “free market!” And who too often worry too much about the political optics and too little about the real life effects. 

And Montgomery Public Schools is as real life as it gets.

Right now, there are nearly 30,000 kids in that system. And they need some real, actual help — not the window dressing, money pit BS they’ve been handed so far through LEAD Academy and the other destined-for-doom charters. And they sure as hell don’t need a special charter for military kids to remind them that the school system they attend isn’t good enough for the out-of-towners. 

Stop with the facade and fix the school system. 

You people literally have the power and the money to do this. Given the rollbacks of tenure laws and the passage of charter school laws and the Accountability Act, there is nothing that can’t be done. 

Listen to your colleagues on the other side, who took tours recently of charter schools in other states — charters that work with underprivileged students and that have remarkable success rates. Hell, visit those charters yourself. Or, even better, visit some states that have high performing public schools in high poverty areas, and steal their ideas. 

But the one thing you cannot do is leave children behind. Whatever your solution, it cannot exclude some segment of the population. It cannot sacrifice this many to save that many. 

That sort of illogical thinking is what landed Montgomery — and many other areas of the state — in their current predicaments. Carving out narrow pathways for a handful of students has never, ever worked. 

Let’s stop trying it.

 

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Crime

ADOC investigating possible suicide at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The death of a man serving in the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County on Sunday is being investigated as a possible suicide. 

Marquell Underwood

Marquell Underwood, 22, was found in his cell unresponsive at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, according to a statement by the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

Underwood was being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregation” cells in Alabama prisons. Suicides in such isolated cells is central to an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. 

“He was not on suicide watch. All attempts at life saving measures were unsuccessful,” The statement reads. “ADOC cannot release additional details of the incident at this time, pending an ongoing investigation and an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death.” 

Underwood pleaded guilty of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Gregorie Somerville in Tuscaloosa and was sentenced to life in prison. 

Underwood’s death is at least the second preventable death inside state prisons this year. 

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Antonio Bell’s death on Jan. 9 at Holman prison is being investigated as a possible drug overdose. 

Last year at least 6 people serving in Alabama prisons died as a result of suicide, according to news accounts. During 2019 there were 13 homicides in state prisons, and as many as 7 overdose deaths, according to news accounts and ADOC statements. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2014 lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over access to mental health care for incarcerated people is ongoing. 

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“The risk of suicide is so severe and imminent that the court must redress it immediately,” U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson wrote in a May 4, 2019, ruling. 

Judge Thompson in a 2017 ordered required ADOC to check on incarcerated people being held in segregation cells every 30 minutes, to increase mental health staffing and numerous other remedies to reduce the number of preventable deaths. 

“The skyrocketing number of suicides within ADOC, the majority of which occurred in segregation, reflects the combined effect of the lack of screening, monitoring, and treatment in segregation units and the dangerous conditions in segregation cells,” Thompson wrote in his order. “Because prisoners often remain in segregation for weeks, months, or even years at a time, their decompensation may not become evident until it is too late—after an actual or attempted suicide.” 

The SPLC in a Jan. 2019 filing wrote to the court that “the situation has become worse, not better, since the Liability Opinion. There have been twelve completed suicides since December 30, 2017…Defendants fail to provide the most basic monitoring of people in segregation. Defendants fail to do anything to learn from past suicides to prevent additional suicides.”

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Crime

Early morning contraband raid at Easterling Correctional Facility

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday raided the Easterling Correctional Facility in Barbour County to collect contraband. 

More than 200 officials from ADOC, state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Natural Resources, Game Warden Division, and Russel and Coffee County Sheriff’s departments conducted the early morning search, according to an ADOC press release. 

“Operation Restore Order is a critical initiative designed to create safer living and working conditions across Alabama’s correctional system,” ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “The presence of Illegal contraband including drugs, which undoubtedly is perpetuated by the presence of illegal cell phones, is a very real threat we must continue to address.” 

“Additionally, our aging and severely dilapidated facilities are constructed of increasingly breakable materials that ill-intentioned inmates can obtain and fashion into dangerous weapons. The presence of illegal contraband puts everyone at risk, and action – including Operation Restore Order raids – must regularly be taken to eliminate it,” Dunn’s statement reads. “We remain committed to doing everything in our power to root out the sources of contraband entry into our facilities, and will punish those who promote its presence to the full extent of the law.”

ADOC is developing plans to conduct more of these larger raids, in addition to smaller, unannounced searches, which prison officials hope will help the department “develop intelligence-based programs to identify contraband trends and provide necessary intelligence to identify corruption indicators.” 

“The public should contact ADOC’s Law Enforcement Service Division at 1-866-293-7799 with information that may lead to the arrest of anyone attempting to introduce illegal contraband into state prisons. The public may also report suspicious activity by going to the ADOC Website at http://www.doc.alabama.gov/investigationrequest.”

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