ALBANY — Residents of Albany and Southwest Georgia no doubt stored up a treasure chest full of memories from the year 2011, but there were a number of news stories during the year that demanded the entire region’s attention.
From the woes of the Dougherty County School System — which is reeling from a pair of scandals — to the end of the rivalry between Albany’s primary health care providers to the election of the city’s first female mayor to the tragic losses of life from 12 murders, 2011 offered plenty that will remain an everlasting part of the area’s history.
As The Albany Herald and Southwest Georgia begin the annual celebration of and preparation for the new year, we take a final look back at the 2011 stories that will no doubt continue to impact the region for the year to come and beyond.
1. DOUGHERTY COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM WOES
The system, which saw new Superintendent Joshua Murfree’s tenure get off to a rocky start in 2010 when questions surrounding the selection process surfaced and persisted, is still reeling from the one-two gut punch of scandals that involved systemwide cheating on the Critrion-Referenced Competency Tests administered to Georgia elementary school students and free or reduced-cost lunch fraud charges leveled at one of the system’s elected School Board members and one of its elementary school principals.
State investigators completed a five-month probe of the local school system in October and sent Gov. Nathan Deal a 293-page report in December that accuses 11 elementary school principals, an assistant principal and 37 educators of cheating, misconduct or failure of duty in the administration of the CRCT exams. Some of the accused invoked their Fifth Amendment right during the investigation, which concluded with the report that noted: “The disgraceful situation we found in the Dougherty County School System is a tragedy sadly illustrated by a comment made by a teacher who said her fifth-grade students could not read, yet did well on the CRCT.”
System officials have warned that employees who don’t resign or retire will face administrative tribunals in January.
While school system officials were dealing with the anger and possible system-altering fallout from the CRCT scandal, system police announced in October that Morningside Elementary School Principal Gloria Baker, whose salary surpasses $90,000 a year, and her husband had been charged with three misdemeanor counts of falsifying information on free or reduced lunch applications for their middle school-aged daughter.
Shortly after Baker, who was suspended for 15 days by the county’s school board, returned to her job, School Board member Velvet Riggins was charged with two misdemeanor counts of falsifying school lunch applications and an additional felony count of offense by a public official.
Charges are pending against both Baker and Riggins, whose case is being handled by a prosecutor from outside Dougherty County.
2. HOSPITAL AUTHORITY OF ALBANY-DOUGHERTY COUNTY BUYS PALMYRA MEDICAL CENTER
Since December 2010, the future of Hospital Corporation of America-owned Palmyra Medical Center had hung in limbo as the planned $195 million purchase of the hospital by Phoebe Putney Health System was held up in the court system.
Finally, on last Dec. 15, the final court challenge was dismissed, opening the way for Palmyra to become Phoebe North. The often acrimonious rivalry between the two health care facilities ended with the purchase, leaving some in the community to worry what the effect would be on already spiraling health care costs.
The Phoebe-Palmyra deal was scheduled to be closed in January 2011, but the process of bringing the 248 beds in the Palmyra facility into the Phoebe fold ran into delays. In April, the Federal Trade Commission and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens sought and obtained an injunction to temporarily stop the merger, citing the need for a federal review to determine whether federal antitrust laws were violated.
U.S. District Court Judge Louis Sands ruled in June that the purchase of Palmyra by the Hospital Authority was immune to federal intervention and lifted the injunction. Olens’ office chose to abide by Sands’ ruling, but the FTC appealed the ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Dec. 9, the federal court affirmed Sands’ decision, and three days later a temporary restraining order request filed by Dr. Corleen Thompson was denied in Dougherty County Superior Court, opening the way for the purchase to go through and Phoebe North to open for business.
3. ALBANY VOTERS ELECT FIRST FEMALE MAYOR
After finishing second during the general election to businesswoman B.J. Fletcher, former Albany City Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard collected 53 percent of the vote in a Dec. 6 runoff to become the city’s first female mayor.
Hubbard succeeds two-term Mayor Willie Adams, who was the first African American to hold the position.
Fletcher, who was making her first foray into politics, proved to be a formidable opponent, using her “jobs-first” platform to garner support among business leaders in the community and earn a leading 39.5 percent of the vote in the general election. Former state Rep. John White was the third candidate in the race, but he trailed Hubbard and Fletcher, garnering only 24.1 percent of the November vote. Hubbard collected 36.2 percent in that first election.
Hubbard’s pledge to tackle such issues as crime, poverty and the education woes that plague the community resonated with voters, who gave the former educator the victory in the runoff.
Albany City Commissioners Jon Howard and Tommie Postell, who was himself forced into a runoff with former Dougherty County Commissioner Victor Edwards, returned to their respective ward seats, while the Rev. Ivey Hines currently sits in the Ward II seat vacated by Hubbard. Hines’ position on the board is tentative, though, pending a court challenge by Melissa Strother.
Hines earned 567 votes to Strother’s 523 during the election, but announced candidate Cheryl Calhoun’s disqualification left the outcome of the race open to Strother’s challenge. Calhoun sought to qualify to run against Howard in Ward I, but Elections officials told her she was in Ward II. After she qualified in that ward, however, her eligibility based on residency was challenged. Elections officials admitted they had erred in placing Calhoun in Ward II, and she was disqualified a week before the election.
The votes that Calhoun received kept Hines from collecting a simple majority of all the ballots cast, though he did have the simple majority once Calhoun’s votes were disqualified from consideration. Calhoun announced her support for Strother and her challenge.
4. TWELVE ALBANY RESIDENTS ARE 2011 MURDER VICTIMS
Despite statistics that show a decrease in major crime in Albany, 12 citizens’ lives were taken in the city during 2011.
- Contravious Holman, 29, who suffered fatal stab wounds during a Jan. 16 argument with his live-in girlfriend, Ladiedra Judge;
- Robert Purvis, 19, who died of gunshot wounds during the robbery of an Albany carwash Feb. 20. Brian Alexander Beasley is charged in the case with malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery and other counts;
- Janaysia Stevenson, 19 months old, who authorities say was beaten to death March 28 when her mother, Chaitia Stevenson, left the child in the care of her boyfriend, Gregory Keith Evans, who faces a possible death penalty on felony murder, cruelty and other charges;
- Antonio Hartsfield, 41, who was stabbed to death June 11 during what police said was a domestic dispute. Leslie Ballard is charged with murder in the case;
- Michael Montelle Williams, 30, who was shot to death by Marissa Lynette Nisbett on June 26. Nisbett then committed suicide;
- Marissa Lynette Nisbett, 28, who fatally shot herself on June 26 after shooting and killing Michael Montelle Nisbett;
- Bruce Mullen, 20, who was gunned down June 30. Joshua Johns and Stephen Lewis have been charged in the crime;
- Jerome Walden, 45, who was brutally beaten June 24 and died from his wounds on June 29. Tracy Smith, Demarcus Lewis and Calvin Brooks await trials in the case;
- DeAndre Williams, 25, who was shot to death Aug. 28 in the parking lot of the Sand Trap Club & Lounge. The case remains under investigation;
- James Anderson, 14, who was shot in the back of the head on Sept. 30. Taiun Davis is charged with murder in the case;
- Melvin Jerome Green, 35, who was shot to death on Oct. 26. Timothy O’Neal Bell is charged with murder in the case, while Marcus Price and Shongrievious Morgan have been arrested in connection with the murder;
- Terry Lewis-Flemming, 36, an Albany Police Department officer, who died Oct. 28 when her patrol car collided with another patrol car in pursuit of alleged armed robbers Kentrell Bernard Butler and Wesley Martavi Wilkerson, who both have been charged with felony murder in the case.
5. ALBANY STATE UNIVERSITY GRANTS DEGREES TO 32 CIVIL RIGHTS-ERA STUDENTS
After wrangling with the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents over rules governing the awarding of honorary degrees in the system, 32 ASU students who had been expelled for taking part in protests during the formative days of the Albany Movement in 1961 were awarded honorary degrees during commencement exercises Dec. 10.
In a ceremony that marked the 50th anniversary of the Albany movement, those honored were Bernice Johnson Reagon, Walter Armstrong, Marva Berry, Lillian Sue Bethel, Hosezell Blash, Ann Booyer, Bobby Burch, Henri Cohen, Janie Culbreth, Brenda Darton, Richard Gay Jr., Lula T. George, Larry Gibson, Bertha Gober, Blanton Hall, Gail Hall, Benjamin Humphries, Donchester Johnson, Opal Jones, Annnette Jones, James Jones, Nick Louketis, Harold Manning, Alton Moultrie, Wilda Person, Ola Mae Quartimon, Charles Ranson, Andrew Reid, Jeanette Sibley, Betty Slater Williams, Evelyn Toney and Andrew Williams.
6. ALBANY POLICE DEPARTMENT USES RICO STATUTE TO FIGHT GANGS
Dougherty County Judicial Circuit District Attorney Greg Edwards added a tool to the county’s fight against gang participation when he directed his office to bring charges under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute.
The first round of RICO arrests, dubbed “Operation Shock” and carried out by the Albany Police Department’s Gang Unit, resulted in nearly 400 warrants against Crips gang members.
Conviction under the racketeering law can add 25 years to a sentence on any underlying crime.
7. MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE-ALBANY CONVERTS TO GREEN ENERGY WITH GAS PROJECT
In September, 19 percent of MCLB-Albany’s power portfolio instantly became green energy with the implementation of the base’s gas-to-energy project, which was the longtime dream of late Dougherty County Commission Chairman Gil Barrett.
After months of development and construction, methane gas generated naturally at the Dougherty County Fleming/Gaissert Road landfill was converted to natural, renewable energy used to power a 1.9-megawatt combined heat and power generator.
Marine officials said the gas project gets them well on the way toward meeting a U.S. Navy mandate that 30 percent of all energy consumption be supplied through renewable sources by 2015.
8. ALBANY’S DOWNTOWN DISTRICT SHOWS RENEWED SIGNS OF LIFE
Following in the scandal-laden footsteps of former downtown manager Don Buie, Aaron Blair oversaw a budding renaissance in downtown Albany that included the opening of several new businesses in the district.
Among the new businesses were the D’Town Market (which has since closed and has been replaced by the Booters nightclub), Our Daily Bread, the LeVee, the Pizza Shop, My Sister’s Place, Grace’s Country Cooking and Verge.
Downtown merchants also drew new customers from attendees of the first RiverFest, a combined music and cultural festival started as a complement to the district’s successful annual Mardi Gras celebration.
9. ALBANY TECHNICAL COLLEGE OPENS ITS NEW LOGISTICS CENTER
Albany Tech’s footprint in south Albany grew even more significant during 2011 when, in June, officials cut the ribbon on the technical college’s new Logistics Education Center. The modern building will be home to Albany Tech’s new student center, culinary arts center and a new executive board room.
The logistics center, which will provide specified training for employers such as MCLB-Albany, was dedicated during the year that ATC celebrated its 50th anniversary. To cap the college’s big year, Albany Tech officials in December named the school’s new library and media center for longtime president Anthony Parker, who has served in that position for 16 years.
Parker is ATC’s fifth president.
10. VOTERS IN DOUGHERTY AND LEE COUNTIES RENEW SPECIAL-PURPOSE LOCAL-OPTION SALES TAX MEASURES
Albany and Dougherty County voters renewed a tax initiative that is projected to pump almost $100 million into local government coffers. The 1 percent tax, which was renewed for a sixth time, will fund projects that include everything from a new airport terminal to road improvements.
In Lee County, despite loosely organized efforts to defeat the SPLOST measure, voters approved the special tax by an almost 83 percent margin. In addition to general infrastructure improvements, the estimated $25 million will fund more than $10 million in road improvements and will finance a new 800-megahertz communication system in the county.
Albany Herald staff writers Terry Lewis, Jennifer Maddox Parks, J.D. Sumner, Pete Skiba and Jim West contributed to this report.