Top 10 Stories of 2018


1. Elvis is alive and his devotees in The Land of Grace are deadly serious

Elvis may be dead but audiences still clamor for the king pushing the tale of rising author Mike Burrell to the top story of the year for his hidden gem, Land of Grace – the humorous yet grim tale of Doyle Brisendine an Elvis impersonator.

In his fictional work members of a religious cult, Our Lady of TCB, believe Elvis is alive. In fact, he performs in their sanctuary every Sunday morning. When one Elvis passes away, they need a resurrection. Enter Doyle.

But first, they have to convince him that he is, in fact, Elvis.

For inspiration, Burrell said he turned to the 1974 kidnapping and subsequent brain washing of Patty Hearst by a group of armed radicals.

His first novel, The Land of Grace, had a hard time finding a publisher because the story didn’t fit neatly into one genre. Publishers were leery of the swift dark turn from light humor to deadly serious.

 “I thought about that and how people would take this but the central driving force of the story is, what does the character want,” he said. “When it got down to it, Doyle has to make the decision.”

How badly does Doyle want to be Elvis? Check out The Land of Grace and find out.

2. Fairhope police chief shares concerns about new hire with Mayor Wilson

In March 2018, then Fairhope Police Chief Joseph Petties emailed Mayor Karin Wilson expressing his thoughts and concerns about the proposed hire of Tony Goubil as the city’s new police sergeant/public safety director.

Wilson announced Goubil’s hiring at the Feb. 26 council meeting, surprising both the council and Petties who were not informed of the hiring prior to her announcing the decision.

In the email dated March 6 obtained by our staff, Petties wrote the following:

“I wanted to inform you of the conditions of my department.

“My Department has been in an uproar ever since Monday, February 26, the night you announced the hiring of Tony Goubil. I was inundated with phone calls that night about something that I had no knowledge of. I am not understanding how someone can be hired under my Department without my knowledge and without any input from me. This has been handled totally different than any hires in the past. I have been a police officer with Fairhope for 27 years and a Sergeant has never been brought in from outside.

“My officers feel as though they weren’t given an opportunity to apply for the promotion and those that have gone through the process for promotion feel slighted. They feel that it’s not what you do, but who you know. Where’s their motivation to work hard knowing that they do not have an opportunity for promotion. This has caused not one, but all 35 officers to be upset, not to mention my non-sworn employees. The chain-of-command has been completely undermined, thus making it nonexistent.

“We’ve had two officer involved shootings within the last 6 months. My officers need to be focused on their safety and training and not concerned about which channel their command comes from. I need my employees to stand behind me and support me and in return, I support them. This can’t happen if I am being undermined. I understand that you are authorized to hire and fire, but these decisions need to be carefully considered. The morale and motivation within my Department is the lowest I’ve ever seen at a time when they need to be galvanized behind their leader. I do not need their focus misplaced with worry as to the state of our Department.

“We’ve got officers that have been off probation for over a year and a half and have not received the standard increase. I am in danger of losing these officers. Due to the lack of qualified applications being received it would be hard to replace these officers. We used to be able to attract officers from surrounding agencies, but with the perceived turmoil within the City, we are no longer attracting those applicants. I’m not sure how we have the money in the budget to award such a position that has been given to Mr. Goubil.”

3. Buc-ee’s building begins in Baldwin

In mid-January 2018, construction began on the Buc-ee’s Travel Center, located off of County Road 68 and the Baldwin Beach Express.

Birmingham-based Stewart Perry is in charge of construction for the 50,000-square foot facility, which will also include 120 fueling stations. Public relations officials with Buc-ee’s, based in Lake Jackson, Texas, near Houston have confirmed plans are to complete construction in the fourth quarter of 2018, expecting to employ between 200 and 250.

There are also plans to expand County Road 68 to allow access to the store, according to reports.

The Baldwin location is the first to be built outside the state of Texas. Two other stores, located in Daytona Beach and Fort Myers, Florida, are also in the works for 2018.

4. Questions arise about new police hire made by Fairhope mayor

Questions arose about the announced hiring of Alabama Ethics Commission Chief Special Agent Tony Goubil by Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson for the city’s police department, after it was discovered by The Courier that Goubil had met with multiple local sources regarding ethics claims filed with the commission against Wilson.

Six confidential sources from within the City of Fairhope told the Courier they met with Goubil regarding investigations into claims made against her to the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The city also sent out a press release March 2 which further clarified Goubil’s new position, which includes assessing the functionality of several city departments, according to Goubil himself.

“The position encompasses a lot,” Goubil said in the city’s press release. “That means the community itself is safe: Police Department, Fire Department, Emergency Management, the school system. I will assess the functionality of all those departments and make sure the programs the mayor wants implemented are working as they should. I’m not saying that it’s not functioning already; but you can always better things. We’ll make sure the community feels safe.”

The role described is not a normal job function of the sergeant position, according to sources familiar with the department.

A Feb. 8 letter from the Alabama Ethics Commission to one confidential source clearly said Goubil investigated a complaint made to the commission against Wilson.

The letter reads:

“The complaint which you filed against Karin Wilson has been investigated by Commission investigator Tony Goubil,” the letter read. “The results of that investigation were presented to the members of the Alabama Ethics Commission at their meeting held February 7, 2018. The Commission concluded, upon review of evidence from the investigation , that there was not probable cause to believe that Karin Wilson committed a violation of the Alabama Ethics Act. Accordingly, your complaint has been dismissed. Should you provide any additional information that would warrant a reopening of this case, a new investigation would be conducted.”

Those who filed the claims questioned how Goubil’s investigations into those claims could be trusted in the light of his hiring by Wilson.

The Alabama Ethics Commission has stated policies regarding public employees being hired following the departure from their jobs.

In a 2017 memo released by Alabama Ethics Commission Executive Director Thomas Albritton, wrote:

“Some other basic rules to remember based on the cases we saw come through the office last year are related to the ‘revolving door’ provision of the Ethics Act.

“Simply put, once you leave your public employer, for two years you may not go to work for a private business or an individual you audited or investigated while you were a public employee.

“You may not represent your new employer before your old public sector employer for two years. You cannot use confidential information learned through your public position to benefit anyone.” 

On Feb. 27, the Courier sent a list of questions to Wilson and each member of the city council about the Goubil hiring, as well as a set to Fairhope Police Chief Joseph Petties.

The questions sent to the mayor and council were as follows:

“1. How long was the job officially posted? Were all internal hiring policies and procedures followed before a job offer was made?

“2. Were internal candidates given an opportunity to apply?

“3. Goubil was the ethics investigator who came to investigate claims against Mayor Wilson on several occasions. What would you think about the fact this individual was previously involved in such investigations?

“4. During the council meeting Monday night, Mayor Wilson described the position given to Goubil as a “hybrid position.” Is there a current job description that fits this position or has a new position been created for Goubil? If so, what are the hybrid elements? Can a position be created without council approval?

Wilson addressed only Question 3 in her response to The Courier.

“Your statement in #3 is not true,” Wilson wrote. “My attorney has already put you and GCN on notice for printing false information. I suggest you not even insinuate such a thing.”

When asked for clarification on her statement after being told multiple sources said they had spoken with Goubil regarding investigations into ethics claims made against her, Wilson responded with the following:

“May want to consider your sources,” Wilson said.

Several members of the Fairhope City Council who responded said they were not aware of the timeline followed for posting the position or if internal candidates were given opportunities to apply.

“No one on the council knew about this position or this hire until it was announced at the council meeting,” Councilman Kevin Boone said. “I don’t believe the position was actually posted correctly either, but we just don’t know. There are many questions surrounding this hire that need to be answered.”

Council President Jack Burrell said he spoke with members of the city’s police department who said official hiring policies were not followed.

“They said they follow those procedures to a t, and I was told those policies were not followed in this case,” Burrell said.

When questioned by The Courier about the hiring process used to bring in Goubil, Petties said Wilson “would be the best person to ask,” as he was made aware of the hiring after her decision to hire him.

“I found out around the same time as everyone else did,” Petties said.

Councilman Robert Brown said he felt it noteworthy that Wilson did not mention Goubil investigating ethics claims against her in her comments to the council and online.

“Mayor Wilson forgot to mention that in her comments and I did not know this at the time of the meeting,” Brown said. “Can you imagine the cries of corruption if someone else hired the person that investigated them?”

Boone said he also took issue with the hiring based on Goubil’s investigations into Wilson.

“This stinks to high heaven,” Boone said. “To me, this seems almost the same as Gov. Bentley offering Luther Strange the Senate seat to end the investigation into him. This just seems incredibly wrong.”

Burrell agreed.

“This doesn’t pass the smell test,” Burrell said. “It’s highly disheartening that our city is once again in the news for missteps taken by the mayor.”

The Courier also confirmed that a well-placed confidential source has made an ethics claim against Goubil for accepting the Fairhope police position.

Goubil was contacted by The Courier to respond to questions, but did not contact The Courier back.

5. County schools get report cards from state

In Feb. 2018, Baldwin County’s public schools faired well in the round of report card grades released by the Alabama State Department of Education this week, with the system earning an overall B average.

Dr. Joyce Woodburn, academic dean for Baldwin County Schools, said the system was pleased with the results overall, especially considering the state average was a C. In fact, Baldwin County ranked in the top 25 percent of schools in the state, according to a recent study done by Niche.

Eight schools earned A’s: Daphne East Elementary, Fairhope Middle, Gulf Shores Elementary, Gulf Shores Middle, Orange Beach Elementary, Rockwell Elementary, Spanish Fort Elementary and Spanish Fort Middle.

20 schools earned Bs: Daphne Elementary, Daphne High, Daphne Middle, Delta Elementary, Elberta Elementary, Elberta High, Elsanor, Fairhope Elementary, Fairhope High, Fairhope Intermediate, Foley Elementary, Foley Intermediate, J. Larry Newton, Loxley Elementary, Perdido School, Robertsdale Elementary, Rosinton, Spanish Fort High, Stapleton Elementary, and W.J. Carroll.

Eight schools received Cs: Baldwin County High, Central Baldwin Middle, Foley Middle, Gulf Shores High, Magnolia School, Summerdale School, Silverhill Elementary and Swift School.

Four schools received Ds: Bay Minette Middle, Foley High, Pine Grove Elementary and Robertsdale High and Bay Minette Elementary received the county’s only F grade.

“Nationally, schools that have a high degree of impoverished students typically score lower than schools that are more affluent,” Woodburn said. “This really plays out in our data.”

Woodburn said the county has already undertaken programs to help raise scores and bolster learning in many of the areas that saw lower scores.

To see this year’s report card grades, check out our front page story.

6. Coastal Alabama Business Chamber Executive Director Ed Rodriguez dies

Ed Rodriguez, executive director of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, died Jan. 7 after falling into a diabetic coma on Thursday, Jan. 4.

Rodriguez was 56.

Rodriguez was named executive director of the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber in 2011. Before that, he had been director of the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce in Warner Robins, Ga.

Orange Beach Councilman Jerry Johnson said Rodriguez was an integral part of the community and offered prayers for his family.

“He leaves a legacy of success and passion for our island like no other,” Johnson said. “He will be missed and never replaced.”

7. Robertsdale teacher arrested on eight charges involving sexual contact with Central Baldwin Middle student

On Feb. 20, John Daniel Hamilton, a teacher at Central Baldwin Middle School, was arrested for inappropriate contact with a student.

Hamilton was arrested on two counts of second degree sodomy, two counts of second degree sexual abuse, two counts of a school employee engaging in a sex act with a student under 19 and two counts of a school employee having sexual contact with a student under 19.

Hamilton is a history teacher and bus driver who had been employed with the Baldwin County School System since 2003, but was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 5.

Law enforcement officials said they became aware of a potential issue with Hamilton on Feb. 5, when the Baldwin County School System reported the issue to the Robertsdale Police Department.

“The Robertsdale Police Department was notified of a situation and some allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student at Central Baldwin Middle School,” Lt. Rex Bishop said. “We began our investigation, which is still ongoing, and that investigation did turn up and develop into probable cause for an arrest.”

8. New Foley elementary school to bear name of veteran black educator

Former educator and principal Florence Mathis helped change so many lives in Baldwin County during her nearly 50 years in education, so it’s only fitting Foley’s newest elementary school will soon bear her name.

Mathis started her teaching career at 16, serving as the second teacher for black children in the Miflin community in 1939. Mathis lived in Mobile, so her father drove her daily to and from the school until she became acquainted with Willie and Rosena Porter, whom she lived with for 29 years.

Mathis was the first teacher at the Aaronville School, located where the present day Foley Intermediate School sits. Mathis served not just as teacher, but bus monitor, truant officer and disciplinarian when needed.

During the school’s early years, there was no cafeteria for the students, so Mathis, with the help of older children, would cook large pots of tomato soup or beans so that the students could have a hot meal.

She also tried to find old and used books to be donated to the school so students could have opportunities to read more.

Mathis eventually became principal of the school, becoming Baldwin County’s first black female principal before her retirement in 1971 and her death in 1979 - she continued to be a role model and guiding light for the students who learned at her school.

The Baldwin County Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 7 to name the soon to be built new elementary school in Foley after Mathis.

“This has been discussed in many corners of our city and across our community, and everyone is supportive and feels very strongly about this,” Foley board member JaNay Dawson said. “She was a fascinating lady and to be able to honor her and the contributions she made to her students and to the Foley community is a proud moment.”

9. Fairhope mayor withdraws controversial police hire

In March 2018, Mayor Karin Wilson announced she would be withdrawing the hire of new police sergeant/public safety director Tony Goubil.

There had been pushback against Goubil’s hiring since Wilson announced it at a February city council meeting, including feedback from the council saying they had not been consulted on the hire and an email published by The Courier from Fairhope Police Chief Joseph Petties to Wilson that said “My Department has been in an uproar ever since Monday, February 26, the night you announced the hiring of Tony Goubil” and that he had also not been consulted about the hire.

Wilson cited positive meetings with some council members and Petties as a way of moving forward with the position.

“I believe there is a need for a public safety director, and Tony Goubil is a great choice for this position,” Wilson said. “But, I do understand other people would like to have input and I want to hear them out and come to a mutually agreed upon decision. I am withdrawing Mr. Goubil’s name until a new organizational chart can be developed and approved with council.”

Council President Jack Burrell said he was glad Wilson came to the conclusion to withdraw Goubil’s hire.

“I also had concerns over whether or not the hiring procedures of the city were being followed,” Burrell said. “The council also wanted to make sure it was in the budget.”

Burrell said he also wanted to see the council take on a review of job descriptions within the city to make sure job duties for employees were matching what the descriptions said they were doing.

“I think it’s something the council needs to take on,” Burrell said. “I do question whether you had the authority to create a hybrid position. I’m not aware that position exists within the city of Fairhope and the council would need to approve and fund such a position before it was filled.”

10. Foley High School looks to help with Hamburg building renovation

During the March 19 Foley city council meeting, Board of Education member JaNay Dawson and Foley High School teacher Ronna Sanford attended to present to the council a future plan in which Foley High teachers and students could help to renovate the Hamburg building located on Rose Avenue. The Hamburg family recently donated the building to the city, which was nominated to receive a Places in Peril grant from the state of Alabama.

“Upon learning of the donation of the Hamburg building and what that could do in terms of showcasing farming history in our area, we started work on a small grant,” said Dawson. “Ronna [Sanford] and her students have been working on that, and they have one ready to go.”

Sanford presented her plan earlier in March to the Historical Commission, who all agreed that it would be a great move for the city.

“Russ Moore, our principal at Foley High School, approached me about the bicentennial school grant that was available through the state,” said Sanford. “He mentioned the building had been donated to the city by the Hamburg family and asked what could we come up with to honor that, so we all got together and came up with an idea called Hamburg and Sons AGES, and it would be Ag Education Services.”

The Hamburg and Sons building is in rough shape, but Sanford is positive with a lot of care the building can be turned into a place that honors the farmers in the area. Being over 100 years old, the building holds a long legacy for the local farming community. In its prime, the location was a potato grater, and the city has previously discussed their desire to keep the building as such in order to highlight the area’s vast farming heritage. With the state the building is in currently, it will take time and work to restore the building, which is where Sanford and the Foley High students come in.