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2009: A Year in Review

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- For many in Albany, 2009 will be remembered as a year of discontent that included a government scandal that set downtown development back several years.

A six-month scandal that included the misuse of at least $100,000 in public money, along with charges of kickbacks and philandering by the downtown manager, resulted in four guilty pleas before Christmas.

Former downtown manager Don Buie; his wife, Shanon; his former romantic interest, Nicole Brown, who also was a former ADICA contractor, and a former downtown business owner, Tim Washington, were each indicted in connection with what City Manager Alfred Lott said was Buie's gross negligence in handling finances and paperwork for the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority.

After Brown charged -- and then recanted -- that she had paid Buie a kickback, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into Buie's activities as downtown manager. Meanwhile, a city audit revealed that Buie had written checks from ADICA's account to both Shanon Buie and Brown for work that was either never done or overpriced. Lott fired Buie after seeing the results of the audit. Washington was implicated when he agreed to sign a bogus $700 per month lease for his Jackson Street Dollar Square store while he and Buie had a secret, undocumented two-year lease agreement at $1 a month.

Of the four, Buie was the only one to receive jail time, agreeing to an 11th-hour plea deal as jurors in his trial were deliberating his fate, to serve 12 months in jail followed by nine on probation and to pay restitution of $5,000 to ADICA. He was also ordered to stay away from Brown, barred from having any government job and banned from Dougherty County.

The ripple effects of the Buie debacle continue. The City Commission is considering local legislation that would give it the ability to remove ADICA board members. As many as four of the ADICA board seats could change this month. Chair Jane Willson said in 2009 she would not seek a new term and board member Lajuana Woods resigned in December as part of an agreement the district attorney to avoid indictment. Woods is also required to pay back a $50,000 facade grant she received from ADICA as part of her agreement.

The Buie scandal erupted after the Dougherty County Taxpayers Association had already engaged in a high-profile court fight to keep ADICA from accessing a $6 million city bond to help fund downtown redevelopment. A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the city and the bonds are available to ADICA, though the board agreed not to expend any of them until new spending controls are in place.

The taxpayers association vowed to challenge each of the three Albany city commissioners who were up for election in November 2009, but was unable to field a slate of candidates. The group's one challenger for the Ward 5 commission seat withdrew before the election because of personal reasons.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT

As a result, city commissioners Dorothy Hubbard and Bob Langstaff had no opposition and return for new four-year terms this month. Commissioner Morris Gurr, meanwhile, decided not to run for a second term.

Two of the candidates Gurr defeated in 2005 ran for his seat. Arthur Williams, who Gurr unseated in a runoff in 2005, tried to reclaim the seat he held for 22 years against the challenge of Christopher Pike, who had made his first political run in that race four years earlier. Pike easily defeated Williams in an election with weak voter turnout as only 12 percent of the eligible voters in Ward 3 went to the polls. Pike will be sworn in this week as commissioner and mayor pro-tem of the commission.

The question of consolidating Albany and Dougherty County governments rose in early 2009 after years of neglect when state Reps. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, and Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, signed off on local legislation based on a local Charter Commission's work from several years ago. The bill passed the House, but stalled in the Senate when Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Albany, did not ask for it to come out for a vote.

The bill wasn't popular with some local elected officials, but the City Commission and County Commission did review the charter proposal and each board made changes with the idea that a single charter from the two commissions would be sent to the Legislature for consideration. The City Commission approved its version 5-2, but the County Commission, where the original charter died years ago, again voted it down, this time 4-3.

As a result, only the city version will be sent to the Legislature, where Sims could substitute it for the 2008 House bill. If either of the two consolidation plans makes it to the governor for his signature, Albany and Dougherty County voters will get the final say on consolidation later this year in a referendum.

The city government also approved a measure that would allow new owners to provide arena football in Albany for 2010. The Albany Panthers will replace the South Georgia Wildcats as the city's indoor football team after the a tumultuous year for the Wildcats and the now defunct AF2 league.

Late in 2009, the County Commission reached an agreement with the U.S. Navy to provide gas from the county landfill to the Marine Corps Logistics Base for use as a source of "green" energy in what has been billed as the first-of-its-kind arrangement for the military.

In addition to the Buie scandal, two other public officials ran into problems in 2009. Former assistant Albany fire chief Roderick Jolivette was suspended, then reinstated and demoted and suspended without pay. Originally, he was recommended for termination for using fire department equipment and personnel to help clean up a relatives home that flooded. later in the year, he was arrested on charges that he impersonated a sheriff's deputy in an attempt to get out of a speeding ticket in Chattahoochee County. Jolivette has maintained his innocence and is awaiting trial.

And former Southwest Georgia Regional Airport Deputy Director Kevin Harper was arrested at his part-time job at Dillard's last year, charged with stealing expensive designer shirts in what investigators said was a scheme to resale them on the street. Harper was fired by City Manager Alfred Lott after confessing the incident to Airport Director Yvette Aehle. He, too, is awaiting trial.

MORE POLITICS

The consolidation charter wasn't the only Albany controversy that came from the Gold Dome. As the state Legislature wrapped up its work in April, it adopted an $18.6 billion spending plan that included money for a $2 million public library in south Lee County and a $1.6 million purchase of the current Albany Museum of Art by Darton College, but funding for a $1.8 million project with the long-awaiting Ray Charles Fine Arts Center at Albany State University was taken out in conference committee.

The Darton inclusion had some scratching their head, since the museum had delayed plans to construct a new downtown facility until at least 2011. Then, Gov. Sonny Perdue killed the museum purchase with a line-item veto.

The Charles Center issue revealed the political nature of such appropriations as fingers were pointed and the public got a rare glimpse of the rift between members of Dougherty County legislation delegation. Sims accused Rynders of working to kill the center funding, a charge Rynders refuted. Former state Rep. Richard Royal, a Camilla Republican, laid the blame at the feet of state Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, who reneged on an agreement to support a tax cuts package that was being pushed by Republican House leadership.

PUBLIC SAFETY

Chief John Proctor was hired in 2009 to lead the Albany Police Department. Following the resignation of former chief James Younger in 2008, Proctor took control of the department from interim chief Wilma Griffin, who accepted a position as deputy chief of the department.

For the first time in more than two decades a new sheriff was sworn in in Dougherty County. Former Sheriff's Department Capt. Kevin Sproul edged out longtime Albany Police Officer James Williams in 2008 and officially replaced retiring Sheriff Jamil Saba in 2009.

Capping 2009, the Albany Fire Department learned that it had improved the rating with the Insurance Services Organization following a decennial audit of services to become in the top 98 percentile of departments nationwide. The improved ISO rating save property owners in parts of Dougherty County and commercial property owners in the city on annual insurance costs.

A $1 million investment by city commissioners into thwarting a growing gang problem hit the streets in full force in 2009. The 12-member APD Gang Unit worked alongside the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit and other agencies to put pressure on local street gangs.

Gangs dominated the public safety headlines in 2009 and were highlighted by the murder of Reginald Richardson, who police believe was killed as part of a gang initiation ritual. At least seven people were arrested in connection with Richardson's death or gang participation relating to it, officials said.

In total, police investigated eight homicides in 2009, beginning with Mabel Berry who was killed May 5, and ending with Johnny Williams who was killed December 8.

That number does not include the death of Sarah Riggins, who was fatally shot by an Albany police officer during a domestic violence call. That case remains under investigation.

EDUCATION

The biggest story to come out of the Dougherty County School System in 2009 was the announcement of the 2010 retirement of Superintendent Sally Whatley, who after eight years on the job, announced during an Aug. 26 board meeting that she would retire at the end of the school year or when the board found a replacement.

The announcement prompted the board to conduct a nationwide search which attracted 30 applicants -- a number the board continues to whittle down.

The board changed its hiring procedures after a teacher accused of inappropriately texting a student -- Abraham Wesley -- was later found to have lied on his application materials. The incident prompted a full review of hiring procedures and landed Wesley in jail.

In other education news, Alice Coachman Elementary School garnered statewide acclaim and earned a visit from state school Superintendent Kathy Cox after being named a national Blue Ribbon Award winning school.

Additionally, each of the area's post-secondary schools, which include Albany State University, Darton College, Albany Technical College, Troy University, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and Lagrange College had record enrollments in 2009.

HEALTH CARE

In 2009, Phoebe Putney Health System continued its expansion of Phoebe Putney Hospital by opening Medical Tower II, a state-of-the-art, 170,000-square-foot cancer treatment and recovery center. Phoebe also opened a pedestrian sky bridge over Second Avenue that connects a parking deck to the tower and purchased 272 acres of land and performed site clearing for a $110 million hospital in Americus -- Phoebe Sumter.

The expansion branched out to the construction of the Willson Hospice House and the Medical College of Georgia's educational investment in Albany with their campus at Phoebe.

Phoebe and Albany's private hospital, Palmyra Medical Center, met in court. Phoebe appealed the state's ruling to give Palmyra a Certificate of Need for a birthing center, then went to court to stop the development when the state denied Phoebe's appeal of the ruling. Palmyra, meanwhile, is appealing an unfavorable ruling in U.S. District Court in its ongoing antitrust suit against Phoebe.

The Phoebe Factoid controversy of yesteryears resurfaced in 2009 when a documentary titled "Do No Harm." The film, which focused on the work of Dr. John Bagnato and Charles Rehberg that was critical of Phoebe's business practices and the reactions to their underground criticism, was at screened in Albany last fall after a previous screening was canceled over a copyright complaint by an Albany TV station.

The spread of the H1N1 virus, which began the year known as the "Swine Flu," prompted major efforts on behalf of the health departments and local hospitals to secure vaccinations and promote healthy living techniques.

ECONOMY

In the wake of what has been deemed the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, the metro Albany unemployment rate hit a high of 10.4 percent in October, before improving to 10.2 percent in November -- matching the statewide jobless rate for Georgia. Labor officials say metro Albany lost 1,500 payroll jobs between November 2008 and November 2009.

The jobless rate for Dougherty County in November was worse than the five-county area it anchors, reaching 11.1 percent. Lee County had the best rate of the metro area with 7.8 percent unemployment.

Part of the metro area's job woes were caused when one of Albany's largest employers officially shut its doors in 2009, throwing more than 1,500 people out of work. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s Albany plant closed its doors after the Ohio-based company made the decision to close it in 2008.

In February, Procter & Gamble announced it was cutting about 37 percent of its contract workers -- 150 total -- leaving it with about 250 contractors. The plant's 1,200 P&G employees weren't affected, though in the late spring P&G offered as many as 300 of its employees at the plant early retirement.

Additionally, golf giant MacGregor, which was founded in Albany, packed up and left its plant near Newton Road in the middle of the night, leaving local government and economic development entities startled and in the lurch for more than $1 million in debt still owed by the company.

The economy even impacted MCLB-Albany, forcing the layoff of hundreds of contracted employees at the Maintenance and Supply Depot, when projected demand for repairs on equipment fell short.

But despite the downturn, the busy Christmas shopping season gave some glimmers of hope for revival.

In the downtown area My Downtown Bistro and Chill Bar and Lounge opened and Elements Coffee is moving to a storefront on Jackson Street.

CHANGES OF THE GUARD

Marine Corps Logistics Command bid farewell to Gen. Willie Williams, who departed for a Pentagon post, where he was promoted to his third star in 2009. Gen. James Kessler, a longtime logistician, assumed command shortly thereafter.

Col. Terry Williams replaced former MCLB-Albany Commanding Officer Col. Christian Haliday.

P&G Plant Manager Trey Bloodworth left the plant in July to work at the company's corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. He was replaced in Albany by Plant Manager Bella Lewis.

Tim Dill took over as plant manager at MillerCoors.

OTHER NOTABLES

n The chances of Albany ever being included on the Interstate Highway System took a fatal hit when a state Department of Transportation study determined various proposed routes weren't cost effective. The project to widen Georgia Highway 133 to connect Albany to Valdosta through Moutrie with a four-lane route, however, picked up support from state officials and the Legislature.

n In February, transportation officials closed the Broad Avenue bridge to both auto and pedestrian traffic. Transportation officials plan to replace the structure with a new bridge, which is expected to cost $7 million-$8 million. Work on the new bridge is expected to start sometime in 2011.

n A batch of salmonella-contaminated peanut butter tracked back to a Blakely Peanut Butter plant killed at least nine people and sickened hundreds nationwide, prompting federal authorities to investigate Peanut Corp. of America. After a congressional inquiry, company officials were forced to close at least two facilities and issue one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history with more than 1,000 products. The incident led to PCA's bankruptcy in 2009 and the closure of the Blakely plant.

n U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, got an earful through a series of townhall meetings and protests organized by conservative activists who oppose health care reform and federal bailouts and who made their displeasure known by organizing "tea parties." Bishop voted in favor the health reform legislation in the House.

n Sherwood Baptist Church announced plans to continue its filmmaking ways this year with the production of a new movie. "Courageous," church officials said, will focus on the challenges and responsibilities associated with fatherhood.

n The area witnessed the death of two public servants who left lasting impressions on an international scale in 2009. Habitat for Humanity founder and philanthropist Millard Fuller died unexpectedly in Americus in February, generating a worldwide show of sympathy and respect for the man who spent his life providing low-cost housing for the world's poor.

n In January, former U.S. Attorney General and Federal Court Judge Griffin Bell died at age 90. The Americus native was hand-selected by President Jimmy Carter to restore the public's trust in a Justice Department plagued by scandal in the late 1970's.

n Comedians Steve Harvey and Larry the Cable Guy performed in Albany in 2009, with Ron White on tap to perform this month. Other 2009 performers included controversial rapper Gucci Mane, Frank Sinatra Jr., and the wrestlers of WWE. The Albany Symphony Orchestra's Peppermint Pops Christmas concert returned to the Albany Municipal Auditorium.

n Lee County native and country music star Luke Bryan treated his hometown crowd to a concert signaling the release of his most recent album "Doin' My Thing" after Leesburg beat out other larger cities in an online voting competition.

n And the year ended sadly for two area families whose loved-ones went missing over the holiday period. Fannie Corley, a 77-year-old Leesburg woman, went missing after her car was found on the Old Leesburg Road bridge overlooking Lake Chehaw. Exhaustive searches using K9's and high-tech sonar equipment yielded no results going into 2010. A second person, Albany-native John Mark Slappey, went missing before Christmas as he was hunting ducks on Lake Seminole. While searchers have recovered various items they believe he had with him, no remains have been found.

Editor Jim Hendricks, Managing Editor Danny Carter and Librarian Mary Braswell contributed to this report.