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A new state superintendent, more controversy

Josh Moon

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Board of Education member Mary Scott Hunter speaks to reporters after a board meeting that saw former state Superintendent Michael Sentance receive low marks on his evaluation. (Samuel Mattison/APR)

If the State Board of Education is picking a new superintendent, count on controversy.

Eric Mackey, the head of the Superintendents of Alabama group, was selected as the state’s newest superintendent on Friday, and almost immediately there was controversy. There are also currently at least two groups considering lawsuits to challenge Friday’s vote.

According to sources familiar with the process, there are two main complaints about Friday’s vote: That board member Mary Scott Hunter was allowed to participate despite an obvious conflict of interest, and Mackey’s various conflicts from serving as a lobbyist for the Superintendents of Alabama.

“There are some serious questions being raised the more people find about some of this stuff,” said a source.

In what was a very odd selection process, which included zero discussion by board members of the candidates, and ended with Mackey earning five votes and Jefferson County superintendent Craig Pouncey receiving four.

As such, the vote of Hunter became critical, which many see as a problem. That’s because Pouncey currently has an active lawsuit against Hunter, claiming that she defamed him by participating in a smear campaign prior to the last superintendent selection process.

Through the course of the lawsuit and a parallel legislative committee inquiry into the matter, it became fairly obvious that Hunter and others at ALSDE were working to prevent Pouncey from obtaining the job. They pushed an anonymous ethics complaint, which turned out to be well outside of the statute of limitations and 100 percent false, and Hunter was spreading the rumors of a Pouncey ethics issue at a legislative retreat.

Pouncey’s lawsuit has cleared a number of hurdles, including having the judge dismiss several parties because they enjoyed immunity in their state jobs. But Hunter has remained, as has another ALSDE attorney, James Ward.

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And yet, there was Hunter voting against Pouncey again, with her vote swinging the results.

“Why was (Hunter) allowed to vote?” school board member Ella Bell asked after the vote was announced.

More questions have followed — mostly concerning Mackey’s position as a registered lobbyist and Gov. Kay Ivey’s potential conflict of interest.

As the head of the Superintendents of Alabama group, Mackey was required to register as a lobbyist, since he was a lobbyist for that group. Last July, Ivey went after lobbyists, signing an executive order that prevents lobbyists from being appointed to boards or to lead executive agencies.

In that executive order, Ivey went to great lengths to explain why appointing lobbyists to those lofty  positions was wrong: “it is essential to the proper operation of a Democratic government that government servants be independent and impartial….”

Ivey, who voted for Mackey, had an apparent change of heart.

Dr. Mackey is the most qualified candidate to lead the State Department of Education in a new direction, which will focus on student achievement at high levels,” Ivey’s office wrote in an response to questions from APR. “His selection by the State Board of Education, through a independent competitive process, is not a gubernatorial appointment as referenced in Executive Order 706. Dr. Mackey’s previous position with School Superintendents of Alabama required him to register as a lobbyist, it also provided him with experience working closely with legislators, a vital part of the State Superintendent’s job. Also, his appointment is not effective until a contract is executed and once that happens, he will no longer be a registered lobbyist.”

However, there was also one other matter: In August, Mackey personally donated $4,000 to the Alabama Group PAC — a PAC that is used by the Superintendents of Alabama to make donations.

Five days after Mackey’s contribution, $2,000 was sent from that PAC to Ivey’s campaign account.

In response to a question about her potential conflict of interest because of the donation, Ivey’s office said: “Governor Ivey remains committed to the highest ethical standards and she expects nothing less from the newly selected state superintendent.”

 

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Health

Alabama nursing homes struggle to get COVID-19 tests, results

Eddie Burkhalter

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There are more than 1,000 outstanding COVID-19 tests among Alabama nursing home residents and staff, and many homes are having difficulty getting the tests, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association. 

John Matson, communications director for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told APR on Friday that the association is asking the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to move nursing up from Priority 2 to Priority 1 for COVID-19 testing.

Currently, the CDC only classifies hospitalized patients and symptomatic healthcare workers as Priority 1. 

“We want to be moved up that priority list,” Matson said. ”We feel like we’re caring for the most vulnerable population to COVID-19.”

Matson said moving nursing homes up a level would both increase access to tests and speed up processing time to get results. 

Beyond the CDC classification matter, there’s also likely a lack of test availability in general across the state. Matson said. 

“I can’t speak to hard numbers on availability, but it’s phone call after phone call from our member saying we’re having trouble getting tests here,” Matson said. 

There have been at least eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in six Alabama nursing homes across the state.

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Birmingham extends shelter-in-place until end of April

Chip Brownlee

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The city of Birmingham has extended its shelter in place order until April 30.

The Birmingham City Council voted unanimously to implement the order, which requires residents to stay home except for essential activities like getting food, seeking medical care or performing critical work functions. It was set to expire at midnight.

Mayor Randall Woodfin and the city council agreed Friday to extend the order.

Solitary outdoor exercise is also allowed.

Woodfin is holding a press conference at 12:15 p.m. to discuss the extension.

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DOJ makes $14 million available to public safety agencies to respond to COVID-19

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town announced that the Department of Justice is making $850 million available to help public safety agencies respond to the challenges posed by the outbreak of COVID-19, which has already killed over 6,000 Americans, including 32 Alabamians.

The Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program was authorized in the recent stimulus legislation signed by President Donald J. Trump (R). The program will allow eligible state, local and tribal governments to apply immediately for these critical funds. The department is moving quickly to make awards, with the goal of having funds available for drawdown within days of the award.

“Law enforcement are – and always have been very best among us. They continue to solidify that fact during this pandemic,” Town said. “It is important that our state and local partners have the resources they need to ensure public safety during this time. These additional resources will allow that to continue.”

Katherine T. Sullivan is the Office of Justice Programs Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General.

“This is an unprecedented moment in our nation’s history and an especially dangerous one for our front-line law enforcement officers, corrections officials, and public safety professionals,” said Sullivan. “We are grateful to the Congress for making these resources available and for the show of support this program represents.”

The solicitation was posted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and will remain open for at least 60 days. The program can be extended as necessary. OJP will fund successful applicants as a top priority on a rolling basis as applications are received. The funds may be used to hire personnel, pay overtime costs, cover protective equipment and supplies, address correctional inmates’ medical needs and defray expenses related to the distribution of resources to hard-hit areas, among other activities.

The grant funds may be applied retroactively to January 20, 2020, subject to federal supplanting rules.

Agencies that were eligible for the fiscal year 2019 State and Local Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program are candidates for this emergency funding. A complete list of eligible jurisdictions and their allocations can be found here.

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For more information about the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program click here.

As of press time, there were 1,270 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alabama. 32 Alabamians have already died. There have been deaths in Jefferson, Shelby, Mobile, Lee, Madison, Chambers, Washington, Baldwin, Jackson, Tallapoosa, Lauderdale, Marion, Etowah, and Baldwin Counties.

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Opinion | Group-think voting is now literally killing us

Josh Moon

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I have many friends who can tell you the names of the offensive linemen who started last year for their favorite college football team. And most of them can also tell you who their backups are. 

Very few of these people can name off their state senator, their state representative, the city councilmen or their county commissioners. I’d bet an embarrassing percentage couldn’t tell you who their U.S. senators and congressmen are. 

And today, that disparity in knowledge is killing us. 

As the coronavirus rips through this country, and as it rips through this mostly hospital-less state, it is exposing the absolute buffoons who have been elected to public office. Folks who few of us would allow to walk our dogs are being forced to confront an unprecedented national crisis, and they are failing miserably. 

Nowhere is that more true than in the state of Alabama. 

Where our governor hasn’t taken a live question from media or scared-to-death voters in going on a month now. Where our House leader and Senate president have apparently been sheltering in place in a bunker in the hills. Where the only people with plans and ideas and straight talk are the powerless lieutenant governor and the super-minority party. 

And where we still — STILL! — are left without a shelter-in-place order. 

From one end of this state to the other, the people on the frontlines of this crisis are screaming for help. They’ve been sounding alarms for weeks now, and they’ve caught the attention of no one in state leadership, it seems. 

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If not for this state’s proactive mayors, God only knows what shape we’d be in right now. Behind the scenes, those mayors — Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Walt Maddox in Tuscaloosa, Steven Reed in Montgomery, Tommy Battle in Huntsville and Sandy Stimpson in Mobile, along with others — have been communicating with each other, bouncing ideas of one another and sharing plans. 

We will never know how many lives they’ve saved by taking proactive measures before their state government did — and in a couple of cases, in defiance of state leaders — but it will be many. 

As for our state leaders, hopefully this catastrophic failure will be a wake-up call for Alabama voters. But I have my doubts. 

And the reason I have my doubts is what I mentioned above — too many people simply don’t place a value on educated voting. 

Don’t get me wrong. These are not dumb people. It’s not that they’re too stupid to understand the issues that affect their lives and select a person who would best represent their interests. They’re absolutely smart enough to do that. 

But they don’t want to. 

They go to work. They take care of their kids and their house. They try to get some exercise in. And then they’d like to watch a ballgame and have a decent time. 

And so, voting — if they vote at all — becomes a group-think exercise in which most of these people just vote like their friends. They follow their lead and vote for the popular candidate, who is only popular for superficial reasons. 

They’re swayed by cheesy pandering using religious issues or guns or racism or some phony patriotism. Simple pitches work best, because they’re not really paying attention anyway. 

That’s why the guy who offers up a detailed explanation for how taking slightly more from you in tax dollars will actually put considerably more money in your pocket on the back side always loses out to the “conservative” who just says, “No new taxes; I’mma let you keep yo money.” 

This dumb pitch works on even people who aren’t dumb simply because they’re not interested enough to appropriately weigh the two arguments. 

The growth of social media has made things worse. Now, in a matter of 15 minutes, the average person in Alabama can scroll through 100 political memes about libtards and MAGA from their friends, and they’re not going to be on the outside of the circle looking in. They want to laugh too. They want to be part of the group. 

But very few are laughing now. 

Because inevitably, what that group-think voting does is remove the requirement that a candidate actually try. That a candidate present an understanding of the complicated issues and then present solutions to solve them. That a candidate demonstrate an ability to think on his/her feet. That a candidate demonstrate any aptitude for problem solving. 

You’ll do things like elect a woman governor who refused to debate any challenger.

When you know you’ve got the election in the bag simply because you’re running for the right party, who needs to try? 

And when you’re voting without demanding that effort — and Alabamians have been doing so for decades now — you’re assuring that incompetent, unprepared, useless politicians are going to be put into positions of power. 

On a good day, those sorts of politicians are a burden on all of us. On really bad days, like we’re experiencing now, they’re basically grim reapers. 

It would be nice if on the other side of this crisis we placed a higher premium on educated voting that produces better, more qualified public officials. 

But given our history, I have my doubts. 

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