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Ways and Means Committee Debates Future of Examiner of Public Accounts

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Alabama has an elected State Auditor, but the Auditor does not actually do audits.  Instead, the Auditor’s office maintains an inventory of state assets, such as land, buildings, computers, vehicles, bulldozers, staplers, copying machines, desks, pencils, etc.  Actual audits of government finances in the state of Alabama are performed by the Public Examiner’s Office, which although clearly an executive branch function, is actually operated by and answerable only to the State legislature.

This very strange arrangement was not always this way.  Previously the elected independent State Auditor actually oversaw the audits, but a power hungry state legislature stole that power for itself in 1939, leaving the State Auditor with its current diminished role as maintainer of the state’s inventory.  Representative Ed Henry (R) from Decatur is seeking to restore the State Auditor’s Office to its original position by returning the responsibility for auditing to the elected Auditor.

Last week, Rep. Henry’s bill, HB 350, was debated in a public hearing before the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.  On Wednesday the members of the committee met to debate the wisdom of streamlining state government by merging the powers of the two offices.

Rep. Henry said that last week we heard from the County Commissioners Association and since then he has met with the commissioners and has put the language they wanted into a substitute bill.

Rep. Henry said that his legislation was keeping the Department of the Public Examiners intact, but was simply moving it under one umbrella.   Henry explained that he has changed the bill to add safeguards that give the Assistant Chief Examiner a more clearly defined role in the statute.

Rep. John Knight (D) from Montgomery said, “It is unfair to present us with a14 page substitute right before we are to vote on it.”  Knight asked that the bill be held over for another week to give the committee more time to study the substitute bill.

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Rep. Greg Wren (R) from Montgomery was the acting Chair because Chairman Steve Clouse (R) from Ozark had had to go home sick.  Rep. Wren said that it was the position of the chair that in the past substitute bills were held over so the actual vote was held over, but the Committee would allow Henry to explain his substitute.

Rep. Henry said that the County Commissioners wanted the role of the Assistant Chief Examiner to be better defined thus page 13 requires that that position be held by either a certified public accountant (CPA) or by someone with no less than 8 years of experience performing public audits.  This change insures that the person who is in charge can perform those kinds of audits themselves.

Rep. Richard Laird (R) from Roanoke said that under those terms a CPA straight out of school could fill the position and questioned why the post does not require that the Assistant Examiner not be CPA with eight years of experience.

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Rep. Henry said, “There are people in the Department now who have 8 years of experience but who are not CPAs.”

Rep. Laird suggested that the bill be amended to read, “8 years as a CPA or 8 years of experience as an examiner of public accounts.”  Henry agreed to make that change.

Rep. Knight asked, “What are the qualifications of the state auditor?”

Rep. Henry said they are the same as the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, or the Attorney General.  A degree or even a high school diploma is not required.

“I trust the wisdom of the people of the State of Alabama,” to make proper decisions on who they elect.

Rep. Knight asked, “What is the purpose of this legislation?

Rep. Henry said that the purpose is to streamline State government.  “We are putting things back where they were before the public examiner’s office was pulled out in 1939 and put under the legislature.”  Henry said it is time to put State government resources out in the field instead of in wasteful overhead in Montgomery.

Rep. Knight asked. “What is the real purpose of this bill?”

Rep. Henry replied, “How many times do you want me to repeat this.”  Henry said I was sent down here three and a half years ago to recognize problems and fix them.  “I am not going to hold off a year.  I was elected in 2010 and I don’t know whether or not I will be back.  I see a problem and I am here to fix a problem.”

State Representative Henry said that the Department of the Examiner of Public Accounts acts and behaves as they please.  They have a budget of $19 million and are two and a half years behind on their responsibilities. “You hear stories of people being attacked because of their political views.”  They are spending a lot of money.  “We waste millions of dollars in this state at the top here in Montgomery and if you don’t see that as a problem, I don’t understand what you are doing here in this legislature.”

Rep. Knight proposed an amendment saying that none of the functions of the examiner of public accounts can be contracted out to a third party.

Rep. Henry said that he could not support such an amendment.  “A third party might save money. The Examiners already do some work with third party contractors.”

Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans (D) from Birmingham thanked Henry for providing her with the substitute prior to this meeting.  She said that the committee has heard allegations that the people at the Department of Public Examiners do absolutely nothing.  In the last week people with the Public Examiner’s Office has contacted her to tell of the positive things that they do and that they should reach out to the other committee members.

Rep. Charles Newton (R after changing party affiliation last week) from Greenville asked, “Will the auditor become the chief examiner?”

Rep. Henry said that the Auditor will assume the authority of the chief examiner and will assume all of the Chief Examiner’s responsibilities.  Henry said, “We are not doing away with the Chief Examiner, the Auditor is assuming all of his responsibilities.”  There will be two departments under the Auditor.

Rep. Henry said that the Examiner of Public Accounts audits state agencies, school boards, and county commissions.  They can audit municipalities but right now the municipalities hire a third party auditor who submits the audit to the Public Examiner’s Office.

Rep. Henry said that by moving this office under the State auditor you are moving the office out from under the veil of secrecy that they are under while protected by the legislature.  “People behave better when not behind a veil.”

Rep. Newton asked that Henry amend HB 350 to put the position of Assistant Chief Examiner under the personnel board.

Henry agreed to make that change.

Rep. Lyn Greer (R) from Rogersville said I have been in this body (the legislature) off and on for 40 years and nobody ever explained to me how the Examiner’s Office became separate from the Auditor’s Office.  “I admire this young man here (Rep. Henry) for coming forward and identifying a problem we have had in this state for a very long time.

Rep. Wren said that it is interesting that this is the second week and we have nobody here representing the Examiner of Public Accounts.  Wren asked where in the substitute bill is the wording that transfers the funding for the Examiner’s Office to the Auditor’s office.

Rep. Henry said, “That is intentional.  We didn’t go and merge all of those budgets.”  The money stays where it is directed. “The only common denominator is that the auditor is in charge of both entities.”

Rep. Wren said that the legislation should include statutory authority to transfer those appropriations to the Auditor’s office.  Wren said that he had worked on major consolidation efforts in the past and dozens of statutory changes had to be made in the recent law enforcement consolidation alone.

Rep. Henry said that there are 6 or 7 major sources of funding including $6 million from the Education Trust Fund, $6 million from General Fund and other sources totaling $28 million.

Wren said, “If we transfer the duties we have to transfer the revenue streams or the examiners officer will be held hostage to the appropriations process.”

Rep. Henry said, “I am told this does it.  If it doesn’t would be open to amendment.”

Rep. Wren said, “I will tell you that legislatures in the past have a history of using appropriations to send a message.  They will approve an agencies existence and then completely defund them in the budget.”

Wren also questioned the timeline.  “You can not accomplish all of this by October 1.  I have been around here an awful long time.  The examiner’s office is a large office with a lot of people.  We are talking about transferring all the duties and responsibilities.  I have worked on the consolidation of five major agencies in the last five years and have never seen anything like this accomplished so fast.”

Rep. Henry said, “We are not moving a physical building we are just transferring duties from one person to another.”

Rep. Wren also said that he thought the legislation should include oversight from the legislative contract review committee.

Rep. Laird asked if the salaries of the Chief Examiner and his chief deputy automatically transfer over?

Rep. Henry said the salary for the chief examiner would go away.  The Assistant Chief Examiner is the one that is open right now and Rep. Newton said he would like to put that position under the regulatory authority of the Personnel Department.

Rep. Henry said that there was a raise given to the last Assistant Chief Examiner immediately after they were hired. “Everyone I have talked to was shocked by the amount given.  We asked the Chief Examiner to reexamine the decision in this time when we aren’t giving raises to state employees.  We asked them to review it and there was absolute disregard for the review.

Henry said that triggered something.  A 105% pay raise on day one to $205,000 a year was absurd.

Rep. Laird said, “DHR is another department that is crying for an investigation.”  Laird wanted to make sure that the $205,000 a year amount does not automatically cross over.

Rep. Henry said that on October 1 the salaries would be set by the chief auditor.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology

Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

John H. Glenn

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The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.

Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”

The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.

Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.

“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”

Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.

“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.

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Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.

“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”

Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.

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The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”

Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.

“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”

District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.

“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”

District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” 
Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”

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Elections

Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies

Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

Josh Moon

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Alabama Sen. Doug Jones speaks during the Democratic National Convention.

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C. 

Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.  

But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump. 

“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”

Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity. 

“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”

Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home. 

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“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat. 

“I rest my case.”

You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Economy

New unemployment claims decreased last week

Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.

Micah Danney

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There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor. 

Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.

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Elections

Trump to visit Pensacola tonight

Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy.

Brandon Moseley

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President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention

Neither presidential candidate is likely to visit Alabama before the general election, as both campaigns accept that Alabama will be certainly in President Donald Trump’s camp on election day no matter what else happens. While Alabama is not a swing state, Georgia and Florida are both in play, and both campaigns are devoting enormous resources there.

Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy. Trump will be just across the Florida-Alabama state line visiting Pensacola and is scheduled to address supporters at the ST Engineering hangar beginning at 7 p.m. CT.

The doors open at 4 p.m. and the event begins at 7:00 p.m.

The president’s rally tonight comes right after a visit to Pensacola last week by Second Lady Karen Pence and is one of many Florida campaign events planned for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump arrived in Florida after Thursday’s final presidential debate with Joe Biden. He is scheduled to hold a campaign event in The Villages before traveling to Pensacola. The president will spend the night at his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago and will vote early Saturday.

The vice president will hold rallies in Lakeland and Tallahassee on Saturday. Florida has 27 electoral college votes. It would be very difficult for Trump to get the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win without winning Florida.

Democrats warn that attending a Trump rally could be dangerous due to the coronavirus threat.

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“The last thing Floridians need is for Donald Trump to host more potential superspreader rallies across our state,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement on the rally in Pensacola. “What we do need, however, is a president capable of putting Floridians ahead of his own self-interest and get this pandemic under control.”

Most recent polls have Trump trailing Biden in Florida. Tickets are required to attend the rally.

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