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Frustrated by officials’ inaction, activists in Huntsville are strategizing for police reforms

While small demonstrations continue, something else has grown more quietly: A coalition of more than 2,000 Madison County residents who aim to change local government if it is unresponsive.

Micah Danney

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Police respond to a protest in Huntsville in June. (PHOTO VIA DAVID CAPO)

In the weeks after police and sheriff’s deputies fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters in Huntsville on June 3, people who had been at the protests or who supported them started showing up at city council meetings. They called for the police chief to be fired, for an investigation and for deep reforms, but at minimum, they wanted to see their outrage reflected by city leaders.

Instead, many say, they have been met by passive listeners who seem more concerned with maintaining decorum in the meetings than taking any decisive action. The council ordered a review by a board of appointed citizens, but it meets behind closed doors and has been tight-lipped about its fact-finding process and deliberations.

Small protests have continued, including outside the home of Mayor Tommy Battle. While the demonstrations sustain some level of noise, something else has grown more quietly: A coalition of more than 2,000 Madison County residents who aim to change local government if it is unresponsive to their concerns.

A grassroots effort

Angela Curry, 48, founded the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, a network of individuals and small specialized groups, in early June. She had noticed that many of the Huntsville residents protesting the killing of George Floyd did not know each other, she said. Many were demonstrating for the first time. 

Curry started a Facebook group on June 2 to help people stay connected, hoping it would keep some of their energy going after the protests died down. Police fired on protesters the next day.

Nearly 2,000 people have joined the Facebook group. Of those, 244 are volunteers working on a five-year plan for criminal justice reform that can be implemented at all eight local law enforcement agencies in Madison County. Among them are attorneys, former law enforcement officers, educators and others whose career expertise adds to the holistic nature of the coalition’s approach.

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That includes considering the well-being of officers, Curry said. The group is examining how they’re being represented in terms of benefits, mental and behavioral health and job expectations. Curry noted the high rate of suicide among police nationally. It was more than double the number of deaths in the line of duty in 2019, according to the organization Blue H.E.L.P.

Understanding the unique pressures of police work and their effects on officers, and how leaders handle those effects, is key to the conversation that CCCRJ is trying to start, Curry said. There shouldn’t be a wall between police and citizens, she said — officers are part of the community.

“Fear is the common ground that officers and citizens are currently functioning from, and if we can replace that with empathy and humanization then we’ll have a community police force because there’ll be mutual respect,” she said.

Also key is an understanding of what systemic racism is, Curry said. It isn’t the personal beliefs of individual people. It is how rules were written historically to prevent Black people from achieving the wealth, social status and political power that white people had access to, policies that were either never changed or evolved to appear reformed yet have the same result. Without a proper understanding of that, Curry said, meaningful criminal justice reform is not possible.

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Curry has doubts that this understanding is achievable with some of the people in power, particularly Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray.

“With his use of the term ‘Oriental’ and things of that nature, it is clear that he’s not in 2020 as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion, so that’s concerning,” she said.

Neither does she have faith in Mayor Battle’s appetite for change. He was running for reelection in the months after protesters were injured and was often silent during public meetings as angry residents criticized the city council’s perceived apathy at their outrage. Battle was reelected by an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote on Aug. 25.

“He’s planning for whatever his future is, and he’s catering to a conservative base who is all about law and order and that kind of ‘comply and die’ mindset, without introducing an alternative,” Curry said.

In response to a list of 10 reforms that CCCJR asked for and more than a dozen others proposed by different groups, McMurray released a 73-page document outlining what his department has done and can do to address the issues raised.

“Huntsville police strive to maintain a culture of continuous improvement,” McMurray said in a statement. “We recognize this can only be accomplished through routine engagement with citizens and organizations concerned with the manner of law enforcement employed throughout the community. We welcome this opportunity to address concerns and suggestions and look forward to ongoing change and conversation.”

The release included a statement from Battle: “Huntsville police hold themselves to the highest law enforcement standards, and they hold themselves accountable to our community. This includes listening and working with residents, embracing and enacting progressive police procedures, and holding officers accountable for their actions. I am proud of this police department and their commitment to Huntsville.”

CCCJR released a response that criticized the report for lacking measurable steps and a timeline for implementation. 

“The CCCJR repeats its request for a commencement of periodic small group conversations amongst citizens, law enforcement and other community stakeholders. The humanity and future of Huntsville is at stake. We will not stop until our streets are truly safe for everyone,” the release stated.

McMurray has not met with anyone from CCCJR. Neither has Battle. Many of its members participated in listening sessions held by the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council, which is conducting a review of police actions on June 1 and 3. HPCAC member David Little said the review is ongoing with the help of its independent counsel, Birmingham attorneys Liz Huntley and Jack Sharman. He declined to comment on a timeline for completion.

An informed perspective

Charles Miller, a retired law enforcement officer who is advising CCCJR, holds a dim view of the situation. The general public thinks police exist to protect and serve the public, he said, but Huntsville’s police have demonstrated that they are there to protect and serve the city’s power structure. 

“That’s another way to put why Tommy Battle picked McMurray, who is a dumb, head-breaking cop,” Miller said. “That’s what he is. He’ll never be any more than that.”

Miller moved to Huntsville 16 years ago from Florida, where he worked for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an investigative agency. His primary role was to come up with ways to track officer certification and decertification, which included sitting in on decertification hearings. That provided him a lot of insight into officer misconduct, he said.

Curry said Miller has been especially useful in helping CCCJR’s leaders understand how police departments work and what reasoning they use to make their decisions. 

Miller said that his experience taught him what things make a police department work well or not work well. The best policing is apolitical, he said. Good commanders shouldn’t appear to support any political party or ideology beyond public safety. Many police forces around the country have regressed into displays of political allegiance, Miller said, and based on McMurray’s public comments, that includes Huntsville’s.

In his after-action report to the Huntsville City Council, McMurray said that social media posts indicated that antifa sympathizers sought to turn the peaceful protests violent, necessitating the widespread use of tear gas and kinetic impact rounds by at least two of the agencies under his command on June 3. 

A member of the antifa network in Alabama told APR that none of its members participated in Huntsville’s protests.

Miller said McMurray’s claims constituted the sort of partisanship that erodes the department’s role as a public service.

“To put it indelicately, he’s a Republican bootlicker, and that’s why he got appointed,” Miller said. “My wife could tell you, the day that was announced in the news, I had to be pulled off the ceiling. He was the worst guy, the worst commander, to be put in that position. They passed over a couple of really good captains that would have been much better — would have been much less political. But that’s what our mayor wants and that’s what he got, and that’s what we’re living with.”

Battle appointed McMurray in 2015. The mayor has backed the chief through several serious use-of-force controversies, including the killing of a suicidal man by officer William Darby in 2018. Darby was cleared by an internal department review, then indicted for murder by a grand jury. His trial is pending.

Responding to continued calls for McMurray to be replaced, Battle said last month that he has not lost confidence in the chief.

Miller said that as an officer, he always had “a distaste for the idea that police be used as a militia.” He called the militarization of police a disaster.

“It’s the kind of thing where if you have a tool, you’re gonna use it,” he said. “And being deployed with the heavy riot gear, the tear gas and all that, and being positioned right up next to the crowd, was a tactical mistake. Very cynically, I’m going to say whoever was in charge at the scene of that action was looking for a fight and they created one. That’s why I say it’s a police riot.” 

Miller called the issue a political problem that will require a political solution. In his advisory role with CCCJR, he’s helping them focus on what is practical. He expects Battle to toe the Republican party line on policing but be a bit more moderate, willing to reevaluate public safety but unwilling to do any fundamental restructuring. Miller is advising that they must gain political leverage for any hope of long-term changes or to have leverage with powerful stakeholders like the police union. He is looking for viable candidates to run in future elections.

Political solutions

Curry has experience in grassroots organizing. She has worked in community outreach on issues like homelessness and on political campaigns. In 2008, she ran unsuccessfully for the District 5 seat on the city council, coming in third out of seven candidates.

Councilman Bill Kling offered her a seat on the HPCAC but she declined because members have to sign a confidentiality agreement. That contradicts the kind of transparency Curry and CCCJR have asked of police and the city council, she said.

Curry attributes Battle’s wide political support to the promotion of Huntsville’s image as an economically thriving city free of the backwardness that people in other regions associate with the Deep South. She was disappointed that more people didn’t turn out to vote against Battle. She said she thought that was because the protests happened too late in the election year to have more impact, and because CCCJR didn’t make a coordinated election effort.

Huntsville’s progressive image is false, Curry said, adding that the city is mostly segregated and leadership’s focus is economic development over everything else. The progressive tone is only meant to attract workers needed to fill jobs as the city expands, she said.

“Anybody that has moved here and become civically engaged, they quickly realize that that was just a puff of smoke that they were attracted to, and then the reality is this modern Jim Crow South kind of thing,” she said.

One such resident is Katie Lorenze, 33. She moved to Huntsville from Madison, Wisconsin, a year ago when her husband got a job there. She was initially terrified of moving to Alabama, she said, but was told that Huntsville is different. Then she saw videos of what police did on June 3, which “absolutely shattered the idea that I had of Huntsville.”

Lorenze balked at McMurray’s claim that police exercised patience and restraint by waiting 45 minutes after the protest’s permit expired to start shooting nonviolent protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. Back in Madison, with its progressive and politically engaged population, protests are common and police are always present, she said. The idea that they’d use mass violence against protesters never seemed like a possibility there.

When she organized a small local Women’s March to coincide with the national event on Oct. 17, the police department and County Commissioner’s office seemed to present more hurdles than help, she said. All of it has been enough that she wants to see significant action taken by the city. She noted that to fill the sort of technology and engineering jobs that Huntsville is known for, companies have to recruit well-educated people from all over the country.

“People who tend to come from more progressive places,” Lorenze said. “And what, they expect them to leave their ideas at the door? No, that’s not going to happen. So there’s going to have to be some sort of shift here or folks like us who come from more mainstream and less radical right-wing ideology, we’re not going to stay.” 

Curry and several members of CCCJR are working to create a public relations campaign to launch outside Huntsville to raise awareness about the gap they see between the city’s messaging and its reality. They want to avoid using inflammatory language, she said, but they want to bust what they see as a myth the city is using as a cover for regressive policies. 

If their effort is successful, it will be a model that other communities can replicate, Curry said. She just doesn’t see it happening without a shift in the balance of power. Nor does she think the city’s powerful understand the determination of her coalition of people who love what their city was supposed to be. Their outrage has turned into resolve.

“Their eyes were opened to the fact that, oh, we are not Mayberry,” Curry said. “We have a militarized police force here who doesn’t mind doing what took place.”

Micah Danney is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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“A tidal wave:” ICU beds scarce as Alabama breaks another hospitalization record

Infectious diseases experts worry if hospitals will have enough staff to handle “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.” 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(APR GRAPHIC/ADPH DATA)

There were no intensive care beds available in Mobile County on Tuesday, the second day in a row Alabama set a record for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and if models hold up, there could soon be the need to set up temporary medical facilities outside of hospitals, according to a UAB infectious disease expert. 

Dr. Jeanna Marrazzo, director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday that looking at some models that forecast what might happen in the three weeks after Thanksgiving “you could conceivably see a true need for setting up ancillary care places in three weeks.” 

“I hope that doesn’t happen. Are we looking at the kind of situation that New York City experienced in March? A lot depends on what happened over Thanksgiving weekend,” Marrazzo said, referring to the use of tent hospitals in New York City during the early spring surge there that overran hospitals. 

UAB had a record high 125 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Monday and Tuesday, and Huntsville Hospital also set a new record Tuesday, with 317 hospitalized. There was a record high 1,785 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide on Tuesday, and on Monday there had never been fewer intensive care beds available in the state. 

Marrazzo said the health care workforce continues to work valiantly and are “struggling very hard.” What keeps her up at night, she said, is worrying if hospitals will have enough staff to handle “what might be a tidal wave of patients in the next month.” 

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“It may not look like we can affect what’s going to happen in two to three weeks, post-Thanksgiving, but we can impact what happens around Christmas time and after that,” Marrazzo said. 

The death toll from COVID-19 continues to increase across most of the country, Marrazzo said. On average, the U.S. is seeing between 1,400 and 1,600 people lose their lives to coronavirus each day, she said. In Alabama, at least 3,638 people have died from COVID-19.

Alabama reported an additional 60 deaths on Tuesday and has averaged at least 24 deaths reported each day over the last two weeks.

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Each morning, Marrazzo gets a list of those admitted to UAB for COVID-19, those discharged and those coronavirus patients who have died. Not a day goes by when there isn’t one name on that list of someone who didn’t make it, she said. 

“And I think about that person, and I think about their family,” Marrazzo said. “And unfortunately those numbers, as I mentioned before, are going up, and the balance of people being admitted is higher than the number of people who are being discharged.” 

Alabama added 3,376 cases on Tuesday, which was the largest single-day case increase, excluding when on Oct. 23 ADPH added older backlogged test results. Tuesday’s high number was the product of a delay in reporting to ADPH due to the holiday weekend, the department said in a data note. 

Still, Alabama’s case count continues to increase alarmingly and testing is still down, Marrazzo explained. The state’s 14-day average of new daily cases on Tuesday was at 2,289. That’s a 28 percent increase from just two weeks ago. 

“This is a really, really scary inflection point, “Marrazzo said, “and I don’t think that we are going to be able to turn it around without experiencing some more stress and some more pain.” 

The positivity rate in Alabama over the last week has been an average of 32 percent, more than five times as high as public health experts say it should be to ensure there are enough tests and cases aren’t going undetected. 

“If we would test more we would probably find more, so I think these numbers are an underestimate,” Marrazzo said. 

Asked what has gone wrong, that even with the knowledge of how people can protect themselves — wearing masks, practicing social distancing and staying home as much as possible — we’re still seeing huge spikes, Marrazzo described a complicated set of circumstances. 

“Is it because they don’t believe it’s going to affect them?” she asked. 

At first, COVID-19 was something happening in China, and then it moved closer to home, Marrazzo explained. Next, it became a question of “well, it’s older people who are getting sick,” and there was a sense of invulnerability among the young, who thought they’d be fine and that they wouldn’t infect others, she said. 

“And then I think even for people who have been trying to be good there’s a huge amount of fatigue,” Marrazzo said. Even health care workers become worn down, and may take risks they know they shouldn’t and become infected in their own communities, she said. 

“I think we’ve been hammering it home, but I also think in some ways, we need to do it in a way that’s sympathetic and not angry,” she said. “Because yeah, I’m pretty upset about what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks, but getting angry with people and shaming them is not the answer at this point, so I think all we can do is to continue to report on the facts.”

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National

Last Conversations: Dr. Frank Lockwood

At the time of those texts, I had no clue that I’d never speak with my brother again.

Robert Lockwood

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Photos of Dr. Frank Lockwood (CONTRIBUTED/APR GRAPHIC)

My brother, Frank Lockwood, was a family practice doctor with an office in McDonough, Georgia. Frank was a great doctor, who used his intelligence, compassion and humor to improve the lives of his patients. And, even though he was great at his job, the practice of medicine, in many ways, just paid the bills.

Above all else, Frank wanted to be an entertainer. He submitted video applications to participate on “Survivor” and even got a call-back for “The Mole.” The highlight of his 15 minutes of fame was his disastrous appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (Google: Worst. Audience. Ever. On. Millionaire.)

Locally, Frank was a founding member of Atlanta’s Village Theatre, an improv comedy group.

In short, Frank was highly intelligent and wickedly funny. So, I was dismayed when he called me in early July, and I couldn’t recognize his voice. Frank told me that he’d contracted coronavirus from one of his patients and had been sick for several days. The cadence and rhythm of his voice were clearly Frank, but the pitch was all wrong. I assume the coughing had wreaked havoc on his vocal cords.

I am an employment lawyer. I defend employers who are getting sued by their employees. In my younger days, I defended plenty of employers who were sued for workers’ compensation benefits — monetary and medical benefits provided to employees who are injured on-the-job.

Thus, in my role as the Lockwood Family Consigliere, Frank wanted to know if he could receive workers’ compensation benefits from his employer because he caught coronavirus at work. We discussed the intricacies of a workers’ compensation claim, and Frank hung-up, promising to think about the issue further.

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My next communications with my brother were my last. On July 3, 2020, at 5:36 a.m., I received this text from him: Wanna work comp these folks to death. I’m in micu now.

MICU is the intensive care unit.  I was asleep at 5:36 a.m., but I texted back at 7:40: Glad to see the ‘rona has not dampened your spirit. Want me to get you a lawyer?

His response: Yep.

At the time of those texts, I had no clue that I’d never speak with my brother again. He was 52 and in good physical shape with no co-morbidities. He was a patient in a hospital where he knew all of the physicians treating him. I knew a few people who contracted the disease and recovered. Everything I read led me to believe that my brother would have a fight but would recover.

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It didn’t work out that way. Frank was sedated, placed on a ventilator and temporarily rallied. The greatest tragedy is that he was removed from the ventilator and briefly conscious on July 13, but his husband, Bernie, did not get a chance to speak with him.

Frank’s immune system turned on him with a “cytokine storm.” He was returned to the ventilator and struggled for the next three weeks. I am thankful that I was able to be present, along with Bernie and our brother, Chris, when he passed away on Aug. 5.

As we walked out of the hospital that day, an announcement was made over the facility intercom that a patient was leaving for home. And then they played Pharrell’s “Happy.” In hindsight, I’m pretty sure that song was for somebody else. But at that moment Bernie, Chris and I simultaneously bawled and laughed. To us, it was like Frank Lockwood, the entertainer, had chosen his own exit music.

I’ve got a lot of regrets about my relationship with my brother and my last words with him. But, I promise you this: We have retained counsel in Georgia, and we are gonna work comp those folks to death.

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Elections

Kirk Hatcher’s (potential) problem with the Hatch Act

Hatcher is set to face former Rep. John Knight in a special election runoff on Dec. 15.

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Is Kirk Hatcher eligible to run for public office? That might seem like an easy question to answer, given that Hatcher has represented Alabama’s 78th House District since 2018 and is currently the overwhelming favorite to win a special election for the District 26 state Senate seat.

But on Monday, a question about Hatcher’s eligibility — specifically, whether the Hatch Act would prohibit him from holding public office because of his employment as director of Head Start in Montgomery — sent Hatcher’s staff scrambling.

While assuring APR that Hatcher is “absolutely eligible” to run, his spokesperson, Ashley Roseboro, forwarded a redacted opinion that Roseboro said the campaign requested and received from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Roseboro said the opinion stated that “Rep. Hatcher is in full compliance with the Hatch Act.”

However, that opinion, after the redactions were removed by APR, turned out to be from 2014 and for a nonprofit named Opportunities for Otsego, located in upstate New York. It did not address Hatcher’s specific situation, and it obviously did not find him in “full compliance.”

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The Hatch Act is a federal law in place to prevent federally funded programs from engaging in political activities and to restrict the political activities of federal employees and employees whose salaries are funded by federal grants. In Hatch Act guidance issued by various agencies online, Head Start programs and their employees are specifically mentioned as examples of workers who cannot participate in political activities during working hours or run for or hold partisan public office.

As the director of Montgomery’s Head Start program within the Montgomery Community Action Partnership, Hatcher would seem to fall under that limitation. However, there are a few exceptions to that general rule, mostly based on how federal funds are distributed and controlled at the state and local level.

According to the Otsego opinion, which outlines the general funding setup for Otsego County’s Head Start programs, it seems likely that the Head Start program in Montgomery also operates on federal grant dollars and has local control of how that money is spent.

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In that case, according to the Office of Special Counsel in the Otsego opinion, Hatcher, as the Head Start director, would be ineligible to hold partisan public office if his salary was fully funded by federal money.

APR asked Roseboro if Hatcher’s salary was partially funded by sources other than federal funds. He declined to answer, saying only that “Rep. Hatcher is eligible to hold public office.”

Late Monday night, Roseboro sent a final email acknowledging that the initial opinion he sent APR was not prepared for the Hatcher campaign, as he previously stated. Instead, he said the campaign was directed to that opinion by the Office of Special Counsel when it called seeking guidance regarding Hatcher and the Hatch Act. Roseboro said the campaign also spoke with attorneys at the Special Counsel’s office, but specifics about those conversations or when they took place were not provided.

The email also contained a statement from Hatcher: “My candidacy for State Senate is not in violation of the Hatch Act and I am in compliance with all state and federal election laws. I am excited about finishing this race as people have shown that they are ready to move forward with new leadership and continue to maximize Montgomery’s opportunities and potential.”

The email did not offer an explanation of how Hatcher is in compliance with the Hatch Act or what specific exception he is relying on.

Hatcher is set to face former Rep. John Knight in a special election runoff on Dec. 15. The winner of that runoff is almost certain to become the District 26 state senator.

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Environment

Alabama Political Reporter partners with Covering Climate Now

We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of climate change that are within your spheres of influence.

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Covering Climate Now logo

Climate change is a complex and evolving subject. It is often difficult to comprehend on a personal and community level, yet its effects are already being felt on those levels, whether we realize it or not. Climate science researchers project catastrophic consequences for every place and organism on Earth if current trends continue, and most say that humanity is somewhere inside a critical window for action that may prevent the worst.

At Alabama Political Reporter, we believe that within this context, journalism’s role is to make sense of this topic as it relates to our state. Every person on the planet is doing something about climate change for better or for worse, intentionally or not. We’re making a commitment to inform you, our readers, about the parts of it that are within your spheres of influence. APR is excited to announce a partnership with Covering Climate Now (CCN), a global journalism initiative co-founded in 2019, by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, in association with The Guardian. In partnering with CCN, we join more than 400 news outlets globally with a combined audience approaching 2 billion people.

CCN will work with APR as we craft climate coverage stories that will show the real impact those changes are having on communities, as we hold businesses and politicians accountable for how they are addressing climate change — or aren’t — and how poor people and people of color are disproportionately impacted.

Through this partnership, APR‘s stories will be available to a wider audience, and APR will occasionally publish articles from other outlets that are relevant to our readers. Our focus will be projections for our region and prevention.

APR began a more concerted effort to cover climate change during the summer of 2019. Throughout the year, we talked with state experts, such as James McClintock, a professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has spent decades researching climate change. APR looked at how people communicate about climate change, how climate-change-induced heatwaves and stagnation are affecting air quality and how Auburn University planned to use a $3 million grant to fund climate change education.

With a new administration entering the White House in January will come changes in how the federal government addresses the threat of climate change. President-elect Joe Biden’s appointment of former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as special envoy on the climate crisis is a sign that a Biden administration plans to tackle climate change head-on.

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Kerry was instrumental in the international effort to craft the Paris climate agreement, and he will likely approach climate change as a foreign policy issue.

“America will soon have a government that treats the climate crisis as the urgent national security threat it is,” Kerry tweeted on Nov. 23.

Biden also recently appointed numerous climate advocates to senior economic leadership positions, including climate change advocate Neera Tanden, as White House budget director. Tandem is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“President-elect Joe Biden has committed to a government-wide strategy to combat the climate crisis — a plan that must start with investing in clean, renewable energy so we can put people back to work,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, a partnership of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. “This team of outspoken advocates for climate innovation and leadership will be meaningful allies for Biden’s vision of immediate and bold climate action on day one of the new administration.”

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With the incoming administration refocusing on the climate crisis, APR believes that it is critical to refocus coverage on a topic that will continue to impact Alabamians for decades, and generations, to come.

We hope that through factual reporting, with a focus on the human impact, APR will give our readers and state leaders better information with which to make decisions that can affect lives and our environment for the better.

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