The following are, in The Blount Countian’s
judgment, the most significant news
stories of the past year, based on the number
of articles devoted to the subject, or in a
few cases, based on the significance to the
public of breaking news events.
The number of topics selected is somewhat
arbitrary; the top 10 wasn’t quite
broad enough to cover the diversity of
news developments during the year, so we
ended up with 12.
The summaries of the subjects given
extensive coverage during the year aren’t
comprehensive; they’re intended to serve
mainly as reminders.
1. The 2010 elections, state and local. At more than 30 articles, political races and profiles of political candidates were the most extensive category of news coverage in 2010. Ten stories addressed state elections – for governor and for both state Senate seats covering Blount County. Blount County gubernatorial favorate Robert Bentley, who kicked off his campaign with a 2009 interview in The Blount
was the big winner. Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, representing the southern two-thirds of the county, won re-election against challenger Jim Murphree of Oneonta. And political newcomer Clay Scofield of Summit won the District 9 seat of retiring Sen. Hinton Mitchem in northern Blount County in a primary and runoff shootout with a handful of candidates from Marshall County. State Reps. Jeremy Oden and Elwyn Thomas both returned to the Legislature, Oden by handily defeating a challenger, and Thomas without opposition.
Locally, the district attorney’s race kept things lively, with nearly a dozen articles devoted to the primary, runoff, and aftermath. Pamela Casey and Scott McPherson emerged as primary winners, with Casey prevailing in the runoff.
Two sitting county commissioners, District 1’s David Cochran and District 3’s Tom Ryan, fell victim to the antiincumbent sentiment that swept state and national politics, with newcomers Allen Armstrong and Dean Calvert assuming those positions. Sheriff Loyd Arrington was easily elected to his first term following his appointment in 2009, and John Mark Vaughn was re-elected coroner without opposition.
Blount County is now 100-percent Republican in its representation in both state and local offices. Only one Democrat ran for local office in 2010: Chris Chambless, who lost the District 1 commissioner’s election to Armstrong.
2. The chronicles of Cleveland, year two With 35 news articles and and letters to the editor, The Chronicles of Cleveland was the No. 1 news story in 2009
in number of articles that appeared. The tally this year was 30 items, enough to qualify as the No. 2 story for frequency in 2010. Many reports covered court filings and rulings that followed the controversy over former mayor Larry Longshore’s 2009 resignation, and the council’s rescision of that resignation and reinstatement of Longshore as mayor, an act subsequently ruled null and void by Circuit Judge Steven King. King ordered a special election held to elect a new mayor. Then followed an agonizing period of delays as the town council struggled to set a date for the election, with factions seeming to boycott special meetings called to schedule the election. Other sidelights included a suit filed by the town against water department superintendent Steve Pass and Pass’s countersuit against the town. Both actions revolved around the council’s restructuring of Pass’s job in early 2009, resulting in a reduction of job responsibility and compensation. The matter was resolved by the court in Pass’s favor.
The Cleveland mayoral election was held on June 22, with Jerry Jones defeating council members Kandy Little and David Grigsby and park and street superintendent Wayne Owens for the job.
Following the election, Jones took the reins as mayor, with the same town council in place that had served throughout the period of Cleveland’s civic travail, but with major changes in tone and process. Meetings for the most part became a model of decorum, with town business conducted primarily in public session, without resort to repeated adjournments for executive sessions characterized by the previous administration. Council members Doug Hill and Glenn Puckett, who had boycotted town meetings for months, returned to their duties and now participate routinely and fully in decision-making. From all indications, civic normalcy – or a convincing approximation of it – has returned to Cleveland public life since the installation of the new administration.
In a late-breaking related development, former mayor Larry Longshore and former park and street superintendent Wayne Owens were arrested in early November in connection with payment to Owens of a sum of money for back pay at the time he was reinstated as a city employee in early 2009. Both men made bond and were released pending trial.
3. The war with Warrior The troubles between Warrior and citizens in the western section of Blount County near I- 65 accounted for 19 articles this year. Problems began when Warrior passed an ordinance in December 2009 imposing a 1.5 percent sales tax on businesses operating within Warrior’s police jurisdiction. When the Warrior Town Council failed to rescind the ordinance after their protests, Blount County citizens in the area began a boycott of Warrior merchants in an attempt to persuade the council to repeal the ordinance.
In spite of impassioned appeals from its own business community, the Warrior Council failed after at least two deadlocked attempts to repeal the ordinance, and several Warrior merchants, already suffering the effects of a beleaguered economy, laid off employees and began to consider whether they could continue operating in the strife-torn community.
The conflict developed along three fronts:
•Constitutional amendment. State legislators drafted a statewide constitutional amendment that prohibited municipalities located outside Blount County from extending their taxing or other regulatory authority into Blount County. Two forms of the amendment passed in the Nov. 2 election: one form applied to towns located entirely outside Blount County; the other applied to towns located partially outisde Blount County. Both passed. The amendment applying to ciities located entirely outside Blount County has been certified by Gov. Bob Riley, giving it the force of law. The town of County Line has filed suit asking the similar amendment applying to towns located partially inside Blount County be declared null and void. A hearing on that suit was set for mid- December in Montgomery Circuit Court.
•Annexation of Blount County property into Hayden Since Warrior could not impose its taxing authority on property lying within another municipality, a bill was proposed in the Legislature allowing citizens to request their property be annexed into Hayden, whether or not it was contiguous to existing town boundaries. The bill passed and signed into law by Gov. Bob Riley in early April, allowing the annexation of some 500 parcels of outlying property into Hayden’s city limits, thus defeating the effects of Warrior’s ordinance on all annexed property, in the process making Hayden the county’s second largest municipality.
•Blount County civil suit against Warrior Blount County District Attorney Tommy Rountree filed suit against Warrior in January contesting the town’s right to extend its taxing authority across the Blount County line. On April 2, Blount County Circuit Judge Steven King transferred the case to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, with deferred tax collection remaining in effect from a previous order. In September, the two parties agreed in jointly requesting the court to stay the proceeding pending the outcome of the Nov. 2 general election. The parties agreed that if the constitutional amendments pass, they would jointly petition the court to dismiss the case. If the amendment did not pass, the parties agreed to petition the court to reinstate the case to its active trial docket. See above for status of constitutional amendments.
4. The 2010 chamber breakfast political debates The Chamber of Commerce breakfast series of civic gatherings reached a high point this year with a series of live debates involving key figures in local and state elections. Featured were debates between candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination Robert Bentley and Bradley Byrne preceeding the June 1 primary, a four-way debate with the candidates for Blount County district attorney also preceeding the primary, and a culminating September gubernatorial debate between the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor, Ron Sparks and Robert Bentley. The gubernatorial debate marked the 100th event in the Chamber breakfast series and set an attendance record of an estimated 350 citizens. It was Charles Carr’s greatest breakfast series success, and a lasting tribute to his memory.
5. Downtown revitalization. Seven articles formed a series on downtown revitalization that grew out of an initial photo feature on empty buildings, many of them located downtown. One article featured a survey that attempted to sample opinions and gauge the extent of citizen concern with the subject. Oneonta Public Library joined the dialogue by adding two reference books on the subject for those wishing to acquaint themselves with approaches and techniques used successfully in other cities. The Blount Countian
sent a reporter to Montgomery to cover a statewide seminar on the subject. The article reported that the breakthrough that made Montgomery the outstanding state example of a revitalization initiative that worked resulted from a rare convergence of expertise and a public/private leadership group that was willing to take reasonable political and economic risks to reap exceptional rewards in downtown energy and resurgence. A town hall meeting aimed at generating interest and ideas on the subject was held Oct. 25 at Oneonta City Hall, attended by about 70 merchants and a number of city officials. An ad hoc group of downtown merchants association presented a proposal of a dozen or more ideas aimed toward enlivening and increasing citizen interest in the downtown area. A centerpiece of the proposals was a suggestion to create a town square roughly in the middle of the downtown shopping strip. A downtown committee was to have been appointed to follow up with other merchants and with city leaders to explore the ideas further. The final article on revitalization focused on following a process that has been used in many other towns that have mounted successful revitalization programs. Key elements include:
•creating a downtown strategic plan.
•addressing the need for building code changes to rehabilitate older buildings.
•forming a downtown improvement district as a legal entity to manage and develop downtown.
•setting up a “catalytic development company” to initiate projects that private developers and lenders will not consider because of the degree of risk involved.
•developing and pursuing a downtown real estate strategy with two major objectives: creating a downtown entertainment district and fostering a significant increase in rental housing within walking distance of the downtown area, to ensure the economic resurgence and viability of the downtown business community.
6. The Industrial Development Board debacle This story was short and sudden, appearing with little warning to those outside the immediate circle of participants. It began as a cloud on the horizon in November 2009 when board chairman Terry Lewis and vice chairman Bobby Lowe resigned as officers but remained on the board. On Feb. 9, board member Ken McMillian resigned following a tense meeting in which angry words were exchanged between director Cynthia Wingo and members of the board. At issue were the role of the director, bylaws and procedures for the organization, and especially confidentiality expectations between the director and members of the board. County commissioners attending the meeting warned board members to get their house in order and that “the infighting must stop.” On March 19 in a called meeting, the board voted to completely dismantle the agency which had been reactivated in the fall of 2008 to recruit retail and industrial prospects to the county. In a compact series of three transactions, carried out without discussion pro or con and directed by county attorney Tom Prickett, the board arranged to pay outstanding bills, made payroll through the end of March, and transferred approximately $157,000 in assets to the Blount County Commission. Then they resigned en masse, bringing to a close the commission’s 3-year effort to mount and project a professional economic development authority in the county.
7. New high school coming at Southeastern On Feb. 1, the Blount County Board of Education approved start of construction on the new Southeastern High School. It will be located adjacent to the current Southeastern Elementary School, currently serving grades 1-8. The $5.5 building will consist of a 16-classroom addition and a full-sized gymnasium. It will also include a suite of administrative offices and expansion of the existing lunchroom. The school will open in the fall of 2011, according to plans. It will convert to a full high school one grade at a time, with the addition of 9th grade in 2011-2012, 10th grade in 2012-2013, 11th grade in 2013-2014, and 12th grade in 2014-2015. Superintendent Jim Carr said the school will have about 700 students in K-12 when the first senior class in enrolled in 2014. Some students will be reassigned to the new school from Locust Fork, to relieve overcrowding there. Construction began earlier this summer and should be completed within 12 months.
8. City, county budgets The Oneonta town council approved a budget of $6,857,000 for the 2011 fiscal year, an increase of about $600,000 over the 2010 budget. The difference reflects the purchase of two new fire trucks. It includes a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for city employees. Departmental breakdown: police, $1.34 million; fire, $1.08 million; general government, $1.33 million; streets, $834,000.
The Blount County Commission approved a 2011 fiscal year budget of $18,049,376 on a 2-1 vote, with District 1 Commissioner Tom Ryan voting against the budget because of the 5.5 percent pay raise it contained for elected officials. Ryan favored pay raises for rankand file county employees, but not for elected officials. Other highlights:
•2011 fiscal year budget includes the last payment on the county’s bonded indebtedness, making it debt-free for the first time since 1997.
•district road budgets dropped by about 2.6 percent from last year.
•$500,000 was taken from the general fund reserve account to pay for employee raises and to make the last payment on the county debt; about 2.5 million remains in cash reserves.
•largest espenditure outlays:
•highways and roads $5.8 million
•public safety (primarily jail and sheriff’s department) $5.5 million
•general government $4.4 million
9. Changing of the guard at county commission. With two new elected commissioners and the appointment of a replacement commissioner to fill the unexpired term of Robert Bullard who died in November, the county commission will take on a substantially different character than at any time during the last several years. Only District 4’s Waymon Pitts remains to provide experience, continuity and a sense of history to commission deliberations. Depending on the new appointment, three of the four commissioners could be learning the ropes for a year or more to come. That could prove to be a source of new ideas from minds unburdened by shibboleths of the past. Too soon to tell at this point. 10. Dobson retires as district judge; organizes drug court. After nearly 22 years on the job, Judge John Dobson retired from the district court bench effective July 30. Following retirement, he moved immediately to a new job as judge and head of the Blount County adult drug court. The move to the new job was as significant as his departure from the old. His availability for the new job resolved a longstanding political standoff over who would head the drug court. Dobson’s availability in effect broke the deadlock and allowed the special court to be organized and conducted under his direction in Blount County, one of the few counties in the state not already having the institution in place by 2009.
11. Newspaper ownership changes. On Sept. 8, Rob Rice, editor of The Blount
bought the stock of the newspaper from former owner Molly Howard, who will retain her present duties, acting as publisher of the paper. Rice is a graduate of Andrew College in Cuthbert, Ga. which he attended on a baseball scholarship until transferring to UAB. He worked for WCRL-WKLD from 1993 to 2003, joining The Blount Countian
then as sportwriter, a job he still holds,subsequently becoming managing editor, then full editor early this year. The paper, dating its initial publication to October of 1894, is thought to be the oldest continuously operated business in the county.