While our readers may feel as if few major headlines make the front page of their local newspaper in any given year, such was certainly not the case in 2018 as selecting the annual Top 10 list proved as difficult as ever.
1) Republicans claim
every office up for grabs
The dominate top story for 2018 was the sweeping takeover by the Marion County Republican Party in local elected offices.
Marion County resides in what has been coined as the most “Trumpy” congressional district—Alabama’s 4th Congressional District—in the nation for its overwhelming support of President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
According to election data, during the 2018 general election an impressive 87.7 percent of straight-ticket votes were cast in favor of the GOP, leaving just 12.3 percent for the Democratic Party.
The local GOP was able to flip a large number of positions from blue to red during last year’s election cycle, including notable victories in the traditional Democratic “strongholds,” the Marion County Commission and the coroner position.
Marion County now only has one serving Democrat official, Marion County Precinct 15 Constable Joe Vasquez of Guin, who was elected in 2016.
Three former Democrats—Marion County District 5 Commissioner Bobby E. Burleson, Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams and Marion County Revenue Commissioner Barbara Cooper—switched parties in September 2017 before the election and were re-elected as Republicans.
Williams ran unopposed for county sheriff and continues to make history as the longest-serving sheriff. His election this year marks his fifth term in office.
Winning the Republican nomination and without opposition, Burleson is also expanding his legacy as he returns to the commission for his seventh term.
Commissioners Eddie Byrd (District 2) and Kenny Jackson (District 1), who were both elected as Democrats, did not seek re-election this time around, accounting for other seats lost for Democrats.
Republican candidate Keith Nichols was elected to fill Jackson’s position. Meanwhile, in his fourth attempt, Republican candidate Kenneth Cochran at last secured the District 2 commissioner seat, filling the seat vacated by Byrd.
Cochran defeated Independent candidate and Marion County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Jimmy Mills with 58 percent of the vote to finally secure his long-sought position. Mills will return to his position as EMA director in January.
District 4 Commissioner Mike “Sac” Davis chose not to seek re-election to the commission in order to run for Marion County probate judge.
Davis was rejected in his attempt to join the Republican Party in 2017, however, and ran as an Independent instead. He was overwhelming defeated by the Republican candidate, former Marion County Deputy District Attorney Paige Nichols Vick, who took 77 percent of the November vote.
Democratic Coroner Randy Jackson, who has held his position for the last 34 years, was also toppled by a Republican, Glinda Cochran, who carried 63 percent of the county vote to win the election.
The Marion County Probate Judge’s seat was a hotly contested race in 2018.
Most of the fighting took place in the Republican primary election in June, where the party saw three hopefuls jump into the ring to challenge Ridings.
Vick and Ridings pulled ahead of Melody Lacy and Jimmy Pendley in the party primaries and entered a runoff. Vick unseated the incumbent in the July runoff with an overwhelming 60 percent of the vote.
During his re-election campaign, Ridings found himself in a cloud of controversy over the special legislation he had passed in 2017 to place the local probate office under the Marion County Commission.
Without a vote of the people, Ridings pushed the effort forward with the help of the local legislative delegation to fulfill the campaign promise he had made when he was elected in 2012.
But Ridings’ claims about how much the measure would cost the county were continually found to be problematic and understated.
Ridings’ continually claimed throughout his campaign that the commission would end up benefitting from the structure. However, the most recent budget data shows that running the probate office and paying for their will cost the county commission’s general fund at least $183,000 annually.
Ridings went as far as to claim that he would be taking a pay cut under the new structure. His gross salary in 2017 was roughly $96,000.
However, the real worth of the new salary and commission-paid benefit package given him a $112,000 income.
House District 17
During this last election season, three Republican candidates vied to fill the House District 17 Representative seat, which was open due to the retirement of seven-term Rep. Mike Millican, R-Hamilton.
With no Democratic or Independent opposition to surface, the race was fought for in the primary and runoff elections in an iconic three-way, Hamilton- Winfield-Guin match-up.
Former Journal Record News Editor Tracy Estes of Winfield was able to emerge with the coveted seat in the July runoff against former Guin Mayor Phil Segraves.
Marion County Republican Party President David Hall was eliminated from the running during the June primary election.
Estes won surprisingly without carrying the Marion County vote—-which constitutes for roughly 80 percent of the district.
Estes’ performance in Lamar and Winston counties was enough to earn him 51-percent of the districtwide vote.
In what was considered “the race to watch” in the state Legislature, Senate District 6 incumbent Dr. Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, won a close race against Democratic candidate Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, who left his House District 18 seat to challenge Stutts.
Many political commentators believed if a Republican were going to lose his seat, Stutts would be the one.
In 2014, Stutts unseated long-time state Sen. Roger Bedford with just 50.1 percent of the vote, or 67 votes. Stutts was re-elected in November 2018 with 51 percent of the vote.
Stutts struggled neck-and-neck with Morrow for votes districtwide, but it was his performance in Marion County which was able to secure a victory for him.
In Marion County, Stutts was given an impressive 68 percent of the vote.
at BSCC-Hamilton Campus
Tabbed at the No. 2 spot is the attempted program cuts at the Bevill State Community College (BSCC)-Hamilton Campus.
Only weeks after being named president of BSCC, Dr. Kim Ennis sent Marion County into a tailspin with the announcement that the Hamilton Campus was losing three of its technical programs—Automotive Technician, Advanced Design Engineering and Machine Tool Technology.
The college also saw a number of positions cut or transferred, including Hamilton Campus Director of Campus Services Beth Roberts and theater director Japonica Brown.
After substantial public criticism and concern, BSCC and the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) announced that it would be allowing the programs to remain.
Ennis and the ACCS justified making the cuts by pointing to five years of deficit spending at the college system and a lack of enrollment.
The actions by Ennis and the ACCS led a group of public and private individuals to form the BSCC-Hamilton Campus Legislative Task Force for Education, which was aligned with Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow.
The task force has made a number of trips to Montgomery to discuss the state of the college as they remain skeptical about the system’s intention for the Hamilton Campus.
Members include Marion County Superintendent of Education Ann West, Hamilton Mayor Bob Page, Hackleburg High School Counselor Charlotte Howell, Journal Record General Manager Les Walters, CIS Home Loans President Paula Reeves, former Guin Mayor Phil Segraves, Winfield Mayor Randy Price, attorney Tony Glenn of Hamilton, NTN-Bower Human Resources Manager Mark Hankins and Tombigbee Electric Cooperative Chief Financial Officer Steve Foshee.
Several members travelled to the ACCS’ October board meeting to express their concerns. They were not allowed to speak.
The group currently has pending litigation against Ennis and ACCS Chancellor Jimmy Baker for what they believe to be violations of the Open Records Act.
In the midst of turbulent times for rural hospitals across the nation, the Winfield City Council decided to give $2.45 million dollars to the Winfield Healthcare Authority for the purchase of Northwest Medical Center.
The council sought to safeguard the hospital in Winfield from the financial struggles experienced by rural hospitals, including the Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville, which was owned by the same company as NWMC, Curae Health.
In order to sustain the healthcare facility and ongoing operations, Winfield Mayor Randy Price asked the council to commit to pass a one-cent sales tax.
The council passed the tax in April and it took effect in June.
4) Events lead
to hiring of two new superintendents
In an odd but unrelated course of events, both superintendent positions for the Marion County and Winfield City school systems became open in 2018.
Former Marion County School Superintendent of Education Ryan Hollingsworth stepped down in June 2018 to accept a position as the executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama in Montgomery.
The Marion County Board of Education unanimously voted to name Ann West to the position. She served as Hollingsworth’s assistant superintendent for nine years.
Meanwhile, the Winfield City Board of Education’s superintendent ordeal was nowhere as clean-cut or convenient.
In questionable tactics, the majority of the board of education seemingly coordinated the resignation of Winfield Superintendent of Education Dr. Keith Davis out of the public’s view.
Under pressure, Davis resigned from his post in July and was placed in the specially-formed “administrative officer” position with a two-year $100,000 contract.
Not even board member Brenda Taylor knew about the arrangement when it was abruptly announced.
Without a moment needed to consider, the majority of the board elected Winfield City High School Principal Benji Parrish to serve as interim superintendent in Davis’ stead.
Parrish would also be included among the possible candidates to fill the superintendent’s post, along with Winfield Board of Education Assistant Superintendent Randy Thomley.
After a many-months superintendent search, Marion County Board of Education Central Office Supervisor Chris Cook was named Winfield superintendent in October.
In December, Davis accepted the position as superintendent of Sheffield schools and officially left the Winfield system.
Per the school board’s July agreement, Davis received the full $100,000 upon his exit.
becoming all too frequent with jail, funding situation
Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams says that he has had five escapes during his 16-year tenure. Three of those escapes, however, have occurred over the last year and a half.
Williams, who is Marion County’s longest-serving sheriff, now entering his fifth term, faced his most recent escape in July, where three inmates escaped overnight from the Marion County Jail in Hamilton after stealing a lone jailors Taser, subduing him with it and locking him inside a cell.
Marion County Sheriff Kevin Williams released surveillance footage of the incident. The jailor only sustained minor injuries.
Among the three who escaped on July 26, two of them, Thomas Joe Green, 31, Joiner, Ark., and Christopher Cole Spain, 19, Jasper, were involved in previous escapes over the last year.
Spain escaped from the Walker County Jail in Jasper in July 2017 in the infamous “peanut butter” breakout, where 12 inmates tricked a recently-hired correctional officer to open an exit door by hiding cell numbers with peanut butter. All were recaptured.
Spain has been in custody at the county jail since September 2017.
He is facing local charges of first- and second-degree theft of property, first-degree criminal mischief and breaking and entering a vehicle.
In May 2018, Green was arrested in April for first-degree rape of a minor. He is also facing second-degree escape charges for an escape attempt only two months ago on May 21.
Green escaped custody after claiming to feel sick and requesting for the shift officer to check his blood sugar.
After the officer checked Green’s blood sugar, Green allegedly ran out of his cell and out the back door and over the fence.
The backdoor was reportedly left open to allow more air to circulate in the building.
He was captured about 10 hours later behind the Bedford Industrial Park in Hamilton.
Coincidently, the same night Green escaped, a state inmate, David Curtis Wood, 61, escaped from the Hamilton Aged and Infirmed Correctional Facility.
Wood reportedly escaped in only his state-issued boxer underwear and stole the 1994 blue Mercury Grand Marquis courtesy car from the adjacent Marion County Rankin-Fite Airport. The car was later recovered in D’Iberville, Miss., in June.
Wood’s whereabouts remain unknown.
The recent escapes are seemingly directly related to Williams’ being short-handed with staff during the overnight third-shift, where he has been occasionally left with only one jailor to man the facility due to lack of funding.
Williams wants to add three more positions to his jail roster, a new fence around the perimeter of the jail and, ultimately, a new jail facility in the near future.
loses hospital tax lawsuit, pays out nearly $900k
In September 2018, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a December 2017 ruling by former 25th Judicial Circuit Court Judge John Bentley against the Marion County Commission concerning the manner in which the commission began redistributing the county’s two-cent hospital tax to local municipalities.
The ordeal climaxed in December with the Marion County Commission conceding and agreeing to pay out a total of $884,517.76 in owed taxes as their legal representation has run out of options for them.
Of that total, $714,505.21 went to the local municipalities and $114,321.08 to the Marion County Health Department. The commission also owed interest to be paid on those amounts totaling $55,691.47.
The dispute began when five municipalities sued the county in 2016 for the portions they believed they were owed.
The lawsuit concerned a two-cent county sales tax, commonly referred to as the hospital tax that was levied in 1949 for the building of hospitals and clinics in Marion County.
When the county was releasing itself of ownership of the hospital in Hamilton (now North Mississippi Medical Center-Hamilton), an act was passed in the state Legislature in 1981 (Act 81-744) which allows for the revenue from the hospital tax to be distributed in a specific manner.
7) freedomFIBER rural broadband event draws giants, numbers
Marion County’s rural broadband high-speed internet service, freedomFIBER, made national headlines in May.
Three political giants and numerous other state officials and legislators all made a special stop in Hamilton for the announcement of a $2.98 million grant to help extend the freedomFIBER services.
The majority at these monies went to help expand the freedomFIBER service into the Brilliant area.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey all appeared in Hamilton for the event.
Perdue praised the efforts of Tombigbee, going as far as to say that Marion County is a forerunner for all of rural America.
The noteworthy day began in Guin with Perdue, Aderholt and Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture John McMillan gathering for a roundtable discussion at Spruell Cotton Farm, which is utilizing groundbreaking low-environmental-impact eradiation techniques.
National and state officials ate lunch at OH!Bryan’s Family Steakhouse in Hamilton for a luncheon with agricultural stakeholders.
The day ended at Tombigbee’s facility in Hamilton where it was estimated that over 500 people attended the event and at least 17 news outlets from across Alabama.
8) Hamilton council navigates school funding
The Hamilton City Council found itself in a proverbial corner when an organized citizens group approached the council in May, asking that a special election be called for the passage of a five-mill property tax to fund local education.
According to statewide school reports, the City of Hamilton is ranked 132 out of 137 for providing local dollars to local schools.
The citizens group argued that the five-mill tax would raise Hamilton’s local property tax comparably with other local municipalities and would provide a much-needed $230,000 boost to the local schools.
The proposition reportedly drew a line in the sand and residents began taking sides: Should the city raise the property tax or the sales tax?
According to both sides, the opposing option would ruin the city and the Hamilton council was being pressured on one side to answer its obligation to allow the matter to be a vote of the people and on the other side by those against raising taxes.
The Hamilton City Council, led by mayor Bob Page, was able to escape the controversy virtually unscathed as they ingeniously announced that they would not be raising taxes but would instead begin donating 100 percent of the city’s alcohol tax money to local education.
Alcohol sales in the city were permitted in 2012 under the banner of providing funds to local education. However, only 30 percent of taxes generated from alcohol sales were benefitting classrooms.
Now receiving 100 percent of the tax revenues, the schools are enjoying $270,000 in local funding over the next two years, whereupon the council will decide whether or not to continue the donations.
9) Need for school resource officers realized
The need for school resource officers became a major topic for Marion County and the State of Alabama during 2018.
Alarm swept nationwide after the tragic Valentine’s Day Parkland, Fla., high school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which left 17 students and teachers dead.
A number of local politicians and those campaigning for election were vocal about the need for school safety. However, the conversation has all but fizzled out as of the end of the year as tensions have relaxed and many are arguing that nothing should be done until the state Legislature has its chance of addressing options in the 2019 session.
The Marion County Board of Education announced a proactive effort in May, offering to match $10 per hour for municipalities who are willing to hire a school resource officer for their respective schools.
None of the municipalities served by the Marion County School System have taken up the offer.
The Winfield City School System was very aware of the need for added security for the its local schools.
Alarm was only intensified in Winfield with two threats to school safety in March, when a BB-gun was brought to Winfield Middle School and a terrorist threat was made concerning Winfield City High School’s prom.
Only weeks before both events, the Winfield Board of Education had voted to hire a security officer. However, the board did not pursue the option as a security guard could not be lawfully armed.
To have an armed officer, the board of education would have to have to hire a law enforcement officer.
Gov. Kay Ivey announced in May that she would be rolling out a new sentry program, which would allow school administrators to have a firearm on school grounds locked away in a safe.
The measure was met with local criticism by then-superintendent of education Ryan Hollingsworth, who said that in all practical purposes, the program was unrealistic and nothing more than a political stunt leading up to the state’s Republican primary election in June.
While nothing has been substantially accomplished locally or statewide to help secure schools, the desperate need for answers in this area had pushed the topic to a Top Story.
All eyes will be looking to the state Legislature in Spring 2019 to see how the state will be addressing the issue.
10) Run-down shopping center
In September, Hamilton’s old Town and Country Plaza Shopping Center, which has been deemed an eyesore and on the verge of condemnation for a number of years, was acquired by a locally-base youth ministry and church, The Ramp.
Over the last decade, the City of Hamilton has fruitlessly been at odds with property developer Tony Struyk of San Diego, Calif., attempting to coerce him to make repairs at the shopping center and repair the parking lot.
The shopping center is currently only home to Liberty Finance, Security Finance and a seasonal consignment shop.
A number of other major tenants in the 23,000-square-foot facility over the years, including TG&Y, Marvin’s, Winn-Dixie and the Dixie Cinema 3, have long since gone.
The issue re-emerged on the city’s plate in July 2018, and Hamilton City Attorney Scott Hunt was empowered to take the initial actions of condemnation on the property and put them on notice.
No further action was deem necessary, however, as Hamilton Mayor Bob Page was told by property manager Louise Jennings of Real Estate Southeast in Prattville, that Dirt Cheap and Farmers Home Furniture were considering moving in.
Jennings even had a confirmed agreement with Avery Landscape & Associates of Hamilton for the repairs of the parking lot.
However, in September, Jennings said that Struyk went over her head and offered the seven-acre property to the Ramp.
Ramp founder Karen Wheaton-Towe of Hamilton has noted that the ministry actually began in the shopping center more than 20 years ago.
The ministry purchased and renovated an old grocery store just down the road from the shopping center and has held monthly and quarterly conferences since, drawing thousands into the city every year.
The founder believes that the space available to the ministry by acquiring the shopping center will enable them to double their conference attendance.
• 25th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Robert Bentley - After 15 years on the bench and 22 years of practicing law, 25th Judicial Circuit Judge John Bentley retired from his position in January 2018.
Bentley was appointed as a circuit judge by former Gov. Don Seigleman. He took the oath of office on Nov. 15, 2002, replacing Carlton Mayhall, who had retired after 35 years in the position.
The now-former judge was elected three times following his appointment.
Winfield native Daryl Burt was selected by Gov. Kay Ivey to fill Bentley’s seat.
• Brilliant High School Principal Jack Hayes - After 38 years serving as principal at Brilliant High School, Jack Hayes retired from his position in July.
Hayes began teaching at Brilliant High School in 1980 and wore several hats, including teaching American history, physical science, government, economics and physics. He also coached several sports over the years, including baseball, football and basketball.
• Brilliant Police Chief David Oliver - David Oliver retired from his position as chief of police for the Town of Brilliant in January 2018, after serving in the position for 14 years.
• Dr. John Kerr II - Hamilton’s Dr. John Kerr II officially in June 2018, ending his 50-year career as a general practitioner physician. Of that total, 46 of those years were spent serving the Hamilton Community.
Kerr’s important influence has seen the hospital through changing owners multiple times and even nearing the brink of closure more than once.
• House District 17 Rep. Mike Millican - Seven-term state Rep. Mike Millican, R-Hamilton, official retired in 2018.
Having served in the state House of Representatives for 28 years, the Hamilton native chose not to seek election to an eighth term in office.
He entered the House as a Democrat and will be leaving as a Republican, having made the transition from one party to the other in 2010.
Millican served as the chairman of the House Health Committee for 12 years and held a seat on the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee and the Energy Council.
Prior to his tenure in the House, Millican was employed as the director of business and industry at Bevill State Community College in Hamilton, dating back to the time when it was known as Northwest Community College.
Millican’s seat was won by former Journal Record News Editor Tracy Estes of Winfield, who was sworn into office on Nov. 7.
See complete story in the Journal Record.