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►   ‘Affluenza’ Teen Found in Mexico With Darkened Hair

“Affluenza” teen Ethan Couch is a fugitive no more. The 18-year-old and his mother were detained near the Mexican beach town of Puerto Vallarta on Monday after weeks on the run, reports CNN. Few details were released about their capture, but the prosecutor’s office in Jalisco state says the Couches were picked up when they couldn’t prove they were in Mexico legally, reports CBS News. Authorities there had been working with US officials on the case since Saturday, reports AP. The Couches—Ethan appears to have dyed his hair black—have been handed over to immigration authorities for deportation to the US, specifically to Tarrant County, Texas.

The pair disappeared weeks ago after a video surfaced that allegedly shows Ethan Couch at a party and in possible violation of his probation in the fatal drunk-driving case that featured his unusual but successful defense; such a violation could result in a 10-year sentence. The Dallas Morning News notes Couch failed to check in with his probation officer on December 10. A ruling is pending on whether Couch’s case will be moved from juvenile to adult court when he turns 19 in April, though authorities already have warned that he might face big-boy jail.“ It remains unclear whether his mother, 48-year-old Tonya Couch, will face charges.


►   Bakery Owners Pay $135K Over Gay Wedding Cake

An Oregon bakery that refused to make a cake for a lesbian couple and then refused to pay the $135,000 damages award that ensued has decided to finally pay up. A spokesman for the state Bureau of Labor and Industries tells KOIN that Aaron Klein, co-owner of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, paid $136,927.07 on Monday to settle the damages and interest. The spokesman says that with the help of a private collections agency, the bureau had already recovered around $7,000 from a garnished bank account belonging to Aaron and Melissa Klein, who closed their bakery in 2013 and now run the business from home.

The couple was ordered to pay damages after authorities decided they had violated the civil rights of the two women who ordered a wedding cake. The Kleins’ lawyer tells the Oregonian that they still plan to appeal the ruling, but they decided it didn’t make sense to rack up interest charges while the case was pending. “The prudent thing to do, given the generosity of people who have contributed funds, was to take care of it and continue the fight,“ he says. And supporters have definitely been generous: The Kleins have received more than $515,000 from supporters since their case became national news, including at least $400,000 from a Continue to Give campaign that’s still receiving a steady stream of donations.


►   Tamir’s Family Has Strong Words for Prosecutor

A grand jury on Monday declined to indict a white police officer in the killing of Tamir Rice, and now his family has a few words about the case. In a statement, Tamir’s family says it was “saddened and disappointed by this outcome—but not surprised.“ It accused Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty of “abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment.“ Among other things, the family charged that McGinty improperly hired use-of-force experts to tell the grand jury that Loehmann’s actions were reasonable. The family renewed its request for the Department of Justice to step in and conduct “a real investigation.“ Federal prosecutors in Cleveland noted Monday that a civil rights investigation into the shooting is already underway.

Also, Mayor Frank Jackson says the city and the police department will conduct an internal review that could result in disciplinary action against the two officers, who were removed from street duty and have been on restricted duty since the shooting. Tamir’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two officers and the city. McGinty says it was a “tough conversation” with Tamir’s mother when she was told there would be no charges. “She was broken up, and it was very hard,“ the prosecutor says. While condemning the decision, Tamir’s family echoed the prosecutor in urging people to express themselves “peacefully and democratically.“ Barricades were set up outside the county courthouse in Cleveland, and about two dozen people gathered to protest.


►   Man Drives His Tesla Into Pool, Dies

An 85-year-old Texas man with a friend in the car drove his Tesla into a neighbor’s swimming pool Sunday afternoon and ended up dead, the Houston Chronicle reports. The driver and his female passenger were in his garage when, somehow, he crashed the car through a brick wall and into the pool. “He and my sister were together coming back from Bellville,“ the passenger’s sister tells KPRC, adding that her sister thinks the man might have hit the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.

Once it hit the water, the sister says, the car sunk slowly enough that her sister was able to escape out a window. The driver “said, ‘Get out of the car.‘ She got out of the car, trying to get him out of the car, but the way they’re made with the console and the seat belts and everything, it just didn’t happen,“ the sister says. Unable to escape from the car, the man was pronounced dead at a local hospital; an autopsy is pending.


►   Daring Suspect Hops Fence, Steals Police SUV

A suspect in Washington state arrived at the Auburn Police Department’s secured city lot on a bicycle Sunday evening and left in a police SUV that had a full tank of gas and a fully loaded rifle inside, KIRO 7 reports. A police commander tells Q13 Fox that the suspect shimmied up and over the fence—which a KIRO 7 reporter notes on Twitter is only about 3 to 4 feet tall—into the lot, then smashed the 2012 Chevy Tahoe right through the lot’s locked front gate. Police say there may have been a spare key located somewhere in the vehicle, per KIRO 7.

The SUV, which would have been obvious with its Auburn PD logos and police lights, was recovered Monday morning in Mercer Island, the News Tribune reports. It was found on a lot where a home is under construction after a construction worker called it in, per KIRO 7. The police-issued rifle, which had been locked into a cage, was still inside the SUV, as was the pricey gear used for traffic investigations, the station notes. The suspect is still at large.


►   345-Mile Boat Chase ‘Out of a Mission Impossible Movie’

Some Christmas Eve: Members of the US Coast Guard spent it in high-speed pursuit of three suspected boat thieves across the Gulf of Mexico, NBC News reports. The chase began when a sheriff’s marine unit in Fort Myers, Fla., responded to a tip about a 36-foot powerboat being stolen. Incredibly, the 300-horsepower boat rammed them at full throttle, bouncing off the hull and damaging the vessel: “It was like something out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie,“ Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott tells the News-Press. The stolen boat, capable of hitting 75mph, outran the marine unit into the Gulf but was soon tracked by three Coast Guard aircraft and two boats.

The pursuit lasted nearly 20 hours as the boat made evasive maneuvers and stopped several times to refuel (the thieves apparently brought their own gas). It came to an end about 125 miles east of Cancun, Mexico, and 65 miles west of Cuba, where the Coast Guard arrested David Llanes Vasquez, 33, of Miami, Raul De La Vega Sauri, 25, of Homestead, and Vidal Farfan-Ramirez, 23, of Mexico, on several charges. Officials say the alleged thieves may have targeted the $350,000 boat for parts, smuggling, or other illegal activities. “They weren’t going to quit, neither were we,“ says Commander Randy Brown, who noted the many pleasure boats cruising in the area. “It clearly could have had a more tragic outcome.“

In The World….

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►   Boko Haram attacks northeast Nigerian city, town, 80 killed

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Boko Haram Islamic extremists struck a city and a town in northeastern Nigeria with rocket-propelled grenades and multiple suicide bombers Monday, killing at least 80 people, witnesses said.

In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, at least 30 were killed and more than 90 wounded in overnight blasts and shootouts, and another 20 died in a bombing outside a mosque at dawn Monday, said Muhammed Kanar, area coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency.

A twin suicide bombing also killed at least 30 people in Madagali, a town 150 kilometers (95 miles) southeast of Maiduguri, witnesses said. Danladi Buba said two women blew themselves up at a market near a busy bus station at about 9 a.m. Brig. Gen. Victor Ezugwu, the officer commanding in northeast Adamawa State, confirmed the attack but said casualties have yet to be established.

The attacks appear to be a challenge to President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration last week that Nigerian security forces have “technically won the war” against Boko Haram and that it is now capable of no more than suicide bombings on soft targets.

Maiduguri, with a population of about 1 million people, now hosts almost as many refugees — among the 2.5 million people driven from their homes in the 6-year-old Islamic uprising. About 20,000 people have been killed in Nigeria and hundreds others elsewhere as the insurgents have carried their conflict across its borders into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The military said there had been multiple attacks at four southwestern entry points to Maiduguri.

In another blast, two girls blew themselves up in the Buraburin neighborhood, killing several people, according to civil servant Yunusa Abdullahi.

“We are under siege,“ Abdullahi said. “We don’t know how many of these bombs or these female suicide bombers were sneaked into Maiduguri last night.“ He said some residents have found undetonated bombs.

Maiduguri is the birthplace of Boko Haram, which emerged as a much more radical entity after Nigerian security forces launched an all-out assault on their compound in the city, killing 700 people in 2009.

Acting on information provided by a captured insurgent, Nigerian troops “intercepted and destroyed” 13 suicide bombers and arrested one female suicide bomber in repelling the attackers, Maj. Gen. Lamidi Adeosun, the commander prosecuting Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, told reporters.

Defense Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Rabe Abubakar tweeted that “Boko Haram Terrorists On suicide bombing #mission during the Festive period were nabbed in #Kaduna & other areas.“ Soldiers arrested seven Boko Haram bomb specialists in the northern city on Sunday, according to PR Nigeria, which issues government statements.

Just outside Maiduguri, militants firing indiscriminately from the back of three trucks attacked the outlying village of Dawari, soldiers engaged them, and as people were fleeing, a woman ran into the area yelling “Boko Haram, Boko Haram.“ When people gathered, she detonated herself, according to village head Bulama Isa.

A rocket-propelled grenade then exploded, setting alight grass-thatched huts, and a second woman blew herself up, according to Isa. Among those killed was the village chief and 10 of his children, according to residents Ahmed Bala and Umar Ibrahim.

A soldier said the insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades into four residential areas on the outskirts of the city. Soldiers fired back, and many civilians were caught in the crossfire, according to the soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.

Three suicide bombers blew themselves up at a home near Bakassi Estate, killing 18 people Sunday evening, another soldier told The Associated Press.

A nurse at Maiduguri Specialist Hospital said dozens of critically wounded, mainly children and women, may not survive. A doctor at the hospital later said four of the wounded have died and the number of injured has risen to about 100. Like the nurse, he spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.

The nurse said the hospital was so overflowing with patients that some had to be cared for in the maternity ward. About 60 people had wounds from bullets and shrapnel from explosive devices, she said. Other wounded people had to be sent to other hospitals in the city.

Among them was a baby found dead, still tied to the back of her mother, who survived after being hit by shrapnel, the nurse said.

It was hard to do a body count because so many had been blown into pieces, she said, describing torsos and dismembered arms and legs.


►   Russia removes Iran’s enriched uranium as per nuke deal

VIENNA — A landmark nuclear deal with Tehran moved closer to implementation Monday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing that tons of enriched uranium that could potentially be turned to use in atomic arms were on a ship heading from Iran to Russia.

Kerry hailed the development as “one of the most significant steps Iran has taken toward fulfilling its commitments” under the July 14 nuclear agreement, in comments that expanded on information The Associated Press received from a senior Russian diplomat earlier in the day.

That envoy, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to be cited by name, said Iran had permitted Russia to take possession of and ship out most of its low-enriched uranium. Low-enriched uranium is suitable primarily to generate nuclear power and needs substantial further enrichment for use in the core of a nuclear warhead.

But Kerry said that the shipment also included the remaining stock of Iranian uranium that already had been enriched to higher levels, just a technical step away from what is needed to form the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

The July 14 deal aims to reduce Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons — something Tehran says it has no interest in.

Under the agreement, Iran committed to shipping out all except 300 kilograms (about 650 pounds) of its low-enriched uranium and to either export the uranium it has that is enriched to near 20 percent, process it into low-enriched uranium or turn it into fuel plates to power a research reactor.

Kerry indicated both steps were completed Monday, announcing that more than 25,000 pounds (12.5 tons) of enriched “uranium materials” were in the hold of a Russian ship steaming toward Russia. He said the shipment included the near-20 percent enriched uranium that had not yet been turned into fuel plates.

The nuclear deal aims at increasing the time Tehran would need to make a nuclear weapon from present U.S. estimates of a few months to at least a year. Kerry said the export of enriched uranium means a significant move toward that goal by more than tripling “our previous two-three month breakout timeline.“

The July agreement also commits Iran to sharply reduce the number of its centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, as well as to re-engineer a reactor to cut its output of plutonium — another pathway to nuclear weapons. The U.N.‘s International Atomic Energy Agency, which is monitoring the progress of the Iranian implementation, says both of those measures are well underway.

The Russia-Iran accord under the July deal foresees that Moscow ship Iran around 140 tons of raw uranium in exchange for Tehran’s low-enriched uranium, and Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads Iran’s atomic energy organization, recently said that his country already received the uranium ore.

In return for Tehran’s acceptance of more than a decade of constraints on programs that could be used to make nuclear arms, most international sanctions imposed over its nuclear programs will be lifted. Iran will have access to about $100 billion previously frozen assets and fully return to the oil market.

That will happen after the IAEA confirms that Iran has met all commitments. That stage of the Iran-six power deal, known as implementation day, is expected sometime next month.


►   South Korea, Japan reach landmark deal on WWII sex slaves

SEOUL, South Korea — An apology from Japan’s prime minister and a pledge of more than $8 million sealed a breakthrough deal Monday in a decades-long impasse with South Korea over Korean women forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II.

The accord, which aims to resolve the emotional core of South Korea’s grievances with its former colonial overlord, could begin to reverse decades of animosity and mistrust between the two thriving democracies, trade partners and staunch U.S. allies. It represents a shift for Tokyo’s conservative government and a new willingness to compromise by previously wary Seoul.

A statement by both countries’ foreign ministers said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,“ the euphemistic name given the women.

Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Abe would be issuing a separate written statement or if it would be directly delivered to the 46 surviving former Korean sex slaves, now in their 80s and 90s.

The language mirrored past expressions of remorse by other prime ministers, although it was seen by some in Seoul as an improvement on previous comments by Abe’s hawkish government, which has been accused of whitewashing wartime atrocities.

Another deciding factor was that the 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) — to create a foundation to help provide support for the victims — came from the government, not private sources, something Tokyo has resisted in the past.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Seoul considers the agreement “final and irreversible,“ as long as Japan faithfully follows through with its promises.

Later Monday, Abe called South Korean President Park Geun-hye and reiterated his apology. He said Tokyo would implement the deal and called the issue settled irreversibly. Park said she hoped the two countries will build mutual trust and open a new era in ties based on the agreement.

After phoning Park, Abe told reporters that the agreement was based on his commitment to stop future generations from having to repeatedly apologize.

“Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era,“ Abe said. “We should not drag this problem into the next generation.“

Park issued a separate statement saying the deal was the result of her government’s best efforts to resolve the sex slave issue, given its urgency. “Most of victims are at an advanced age and nine died this year alone,“ she said.

“I hope the mental pains of the elderly comfort women will be eased,“ Park said.

The initial reaction of former sex slaves was mixed. One woman said she would follow the government’s lead, while another vowed to ignore the accord because Tokyo didn’t consider the money to be formal compensation.

“Isn’t it natural to make legal compensation if they commit a crime?“ said Lee Yong-su, 88, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Some in Seoul saw the deal, while not perfect, as an important step forward.

“If we brushed aside this deal, the comfort women issue would remain unresolved forever,“ said Lee Won Deog, director of Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Elderly women would die one by one; South Korea and Japan would engage in history wars and find it harder to improve ties.“

Many South Koreans continue to feel bitterness over Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. But South Korean officials have also faced calls to improve ties with Japan, the world’s No. 3 economy and a regional powerhouse, not least from U.S. officials eager for a strong united front against a rising China and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles that could target the American mainland.

The U.S. welcomed the announcement, with Secretary of State John Kerry applauding the two leaders’ “courage and vision.“

“We believe this agreement will promote healing and help to improve relations between two of the United States’ most important allies,“ Kerry said in a statement.

The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general said Ban Ki-moon welcomed the agreement and appreciated the “leadership and vision” of Park and Abe.

Japan appeared emboldened to make the overture to Seoul after the first formal leaders’ meeting between the neighbors in 3½ years, in November, and after South Korean courts recently acquitted a Japanese reporter charged with defaming Park and refused to review a complaint by a South Korean seeking individual compensation for Japan’s forceful mobilization of workers during colonial days.

Seoul, meanwhile, said it will refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue, and will talk with “relevant organizations” — a reference to civic groups representing the former sex slaves — to try to resolve Japan’s grievance over a statue of a girl representing victims of Japanese sexual slavery that sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul. Yun said South Korea recognizes Japan’s worries about security over the statue, where anti-Tokyo protests take place weekly.

There has long been resistance in South Korea to past Japanese apologies because many here wanted Japan to acknowledge that it has a legal responsibility to the women.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida later emphasized in a closed-door briefing with Japanese reporters that Tokyo doesn’t consider the 1 billion yen as compensation, but “a project to relieve emotional scars and provide healing for the victims.“ It will include medical services, health checks and other support for the women, he said. All compensation issues between the countries were settled by a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul, he said.

But Kishida said the comfort women system “deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women under the involvement of the Japanese military at the time, and Japan strongly feels responsibility.“


►   Belgium Arrests 2 It Says Plotted ‘End-of-Year’ Terror

Two people have been arrested in Belgium on suspicion of planning attacks in Brussels during the holidays, the federal prosecutor’s office said Tuesday. The investigation revealed “the threat of serious attacks that would target several emblematic places in Brussels and be committed during the end-of-year holidays,“ the prosecutor’s office said. A source close to the investigation says the Belgian capital’s main square, thronged this time of year with holiday shoppers and strollers, was one of the suspected targets. “On the Grand Place, there are a lot of people, as well as soldiers and police who are patrolling, as well as a police station nearby,“ the source says.

The two suspects were arrested following searches Sunday and Monday in the Brussels area, the Liege region, and Flemish Brabant, the prosecutor’s office said. It did not disclose their names or further information about them. One was charged with acting as the leader and recruiter of a terrorist group planning to commit terrorist offenses, the other with participating in a terrorist group’s activities as a principal actor or co-actor, the prosecutor’s office said. During the searches, military-type training uniforms, ISIS propaganda, and computer materials were seized and are being examined. However, no weapons or explosives were found, according to the prosecutor’s office, which says the probe was not connected to the November 13 attacks in Paris.


►   Whoops: Malaysia Airlines Plane Flies the Wrong Way

Searchers are still looking for the rest of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, while the airline’s Flight 17 downed in Ukraine remains the subject of a criminal investigation. Now a new incident has come to light, and it isn’t likely to help the airline’s reputation: A Christmas Day flight from New Zealand’s Auckland airport to Kuala Lumpur started off its journey flying in the wrong direction, the Independent reports. Flight MH132 usually shoots northwest over Australia on its way toward the Malaysian capital, but this time FlightRadar24.com shows a path that took the plane south instead. “The flight plan the airline filed with us was going to Kuala Lumpur but via a slightly different route than the pilot was expecting,“ says a spokeswoman for Airways, the company that manages New Zealand’s air traffic control. And the pilot was indeed alarmed, noticing the different path just eight minutes into the flight and asking air traffic controllers why the plane was headed that way.

“The pilot [did] a very good job by noticing it, querying it and not just blindly flying off and ending up in the Southern Ocean,“ aviation expert Peter Clark tells the New Zealand Herald. Clark explained that while flights headed to Kuala Lumpur sometimes take a more southern route when there’s bad weather or strong headwinds, it appears in this case there was simply an error. A statement posted Sunday on the Malaysia Airlines website notes that “on December 24th 2015 our flight MH132 from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur was given the latest flight plan by the airline’s Operations Dispatch Centre (ODC) whilst Auckland’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) was inadvertently given an earlier flight plan. Both routes were following an approved flight path and the aircraft had enough fuel for both routes.“ It adds that the airline would investigate, per the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Forest Enhancement Information Meeting Set for January 05, 2016

The Free Press WV

GLENVILLE, WV — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the National Wild Turkey Federation will co-host a forest enhancement information meeting in early January.

As part of the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program, NRCS and partner agencies have developed the Cerulean Warbler Appalachian Forestland Enhancement project. Its goal: To enhance 4,000 acres of forest habitat on private lands over the next five years. Restoration of 75 acres of mineland is also a component.

Residents in Doddridge, Gilmer, Harrison, and Lewis Counties are encouraged to attend as parts of all four counties may be eligible for technical and, in some cases, financial, assistance.

The meeting is free and open to the public.

It will be held at 6:30 PM January 05, 2015 at the Leading Creek Elementary School, 15300 US Highway 33 West, Linn, West Virginia.

For more information click H E R E.

Investor Groups: Fracking Companies Need More Public Disclosure

CHARLESTON, WV - Companies fracking for gas do a poor job of informing the public, according to investor groups. Their just-released scorecard faults Chesapeake Energy for secrecy.

The third annual “Disclosing The Facts” scorecard graded the largest gas producers on disclosure in areas such as water pollution, methane leakage, the use of toxic chemicals and community impacts. Chesapeake scored only four out of a possible 39.

Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow, one of the groups behind the scorecard, said they found more than two-thirds of the companies were not properly informing investors or local communities.

“Leaks, spills and explosions continue to make headlines,“ she said, “even as 70 percent of the energy companies continue to get failing marks.“

The Free Press WV
A scorecard assembled by investor groups faults
gas producers for secrecy about fracking risks
.

The investor groups argue that public disclosure will encourage voluntary use of well-established best industry practices - in areas such as water use, waste disposal, leak detection, and traffic and road impacts.

Without proper disclosure, said Steven Heim, managing director of Boston Common Asset Management, problems in those areas can be like sailing around hidden rocks for investors. He said this is going to be increasingly important, with low gas prices putting pressure on producers to cut corners.

“To what degree that they can be a low-cost operator, particularly with the low prices for gas, now, and oil,“ he said. “Our concern is how well that they can also be responsible environmentally and to their local communities.“

The industry often will cite its economic importance when arguing against government regulation, but Richard Liroff, executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network, said they stay out of that debate. He said they argue to the companies that voluntary disclosure and good corporate citizenship are good for long-term profitability.

“We hold shares in the companies. We have access to senior management,“ he said. “We can say, ‘Look, here is the business case for doing all these good things that will position the company well competitively and also be good for the environment and local communities.‘ “

Chesapeake did not immediately return a call requesting comment. The scorecard praises CONSOL Energy for dramatic improvement. EQT is a bit above the middle of the pack.

~~  Dan Heyman ~~

WV Secretary of State Predicts Strong Online Voter Registration Numbers Heading into 2016

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CHARLESTON, WV — More West Virginians are expected to register to vote online as the new year approaches, according to West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

“I just anticipate even more usage,” Tennant said. “It’ll be even more successful than it is now.”

Tennant predicted the more candidates that announce their campaigns, the more people will become engaged in their new online voter registration (OVR) application system announced earlier this fall.

Last month, over 1,000 submissions were received via the Secretary of State’s website. Over 400 submissions were from new online voters. Tennant predicted the same numbers for the end of December.

“As I look at these numbers, it remains consistent that about 40 percent of those are brand new voter registration applications, which then tells me that the other 60 percent is split between address change, party change or name change,” Tennant said.

West Virginians from 54 out of 55 counties have used the new system. Pendleton County still remains without a single submission this month, Tennant noted.

As the holiday season continues into the new year with family gatherings this week, the Secretary of State’s Office is encouraging people to register online.

“Folks are registering at the same time. We’re seeing same last names, same addresses and we see the same time stamp when they’re coming through and applying to register to vote, so this is a great opportunity for families,” she said.

With West Virginia now being one of 26 states to offer online voter registration, Tennant said the new system goes “above and beyond” the paper application.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment and more importantly it’s a sense for the voters to say ‘this makes it easier for me to get registered,‘” she said.

The deadline to register to vote in the Primary Election is April 19, 2016.

Primary Election Day in West Virginia is May 10, 2016.

WV Standardized Testing Discussions Won’t Be Made Public

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CHARLESTON, WV — A new West Virginia commission’s discussions of possibly changing standardized testing won’t be public.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail Reports that State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has formed a commission to study and suggest changes to end-of-year standardized testing.

State education officials say the meetings of the 25-member commission won’t be open to the media or to the wider public.

The commission is composed of unidentified parents, teachers, superintendents and lawmakers, among others.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to give annual standardized tests to practically all students in reading and math for grades three through eight in addition to one grade in high school.

West Virginia currently goes beyond the requirement by testing grades nine, 10 and 11 in high school.

DHHR: More Than $50 Million of Savings by Privatizing Medicaid Disbursements

The Free Press WV

CHARLESTON, WV — The state Department of Health and Human Resources last week estimated more than $50 million in state and federal taxpayer savings in the 2016 fiscal year by privatizing Medicaid disbursements.

The savings allow the DHHR to offset some of the inflationary increases in health care experienced by other public and private payers.

“Under the current model a managed care company has all of the data available, and is able to coordinate that individual’s care to make sure one, they’re never prescribed or over-treated, but also they’re utilizing the healthcare system efficiently and effectively,” said DHHR Deputy Secretary for Public Health and Insurance Jeremiah Samples.

Samples said that the traditional Medicaid model allowed for patients to see multiple doctors and obtain multiple prescriptions.

“We’re trying to leverage the efficiency and effectiveness of the private sector to provide for these consumers,” Samples said.

With the state in tough economic times, Samples said the DHHR is trying to do everything it can to save costs.

“Given the state’s fiscal situation, we’re more or less in a budget crisis,” Samples said. “Everything that we can do to stretch taxpayer dollars as much as possible, and to be as effective and prudent in expenditure of those funds, we have to look at those options. Managed care happens to be one of those tools that we have.”

The DHHR is currently planning to move the Supplemental Security Income population into managed care in the 2017 fiscal year, which they say could save $30 million in state and federal dollars annually once fully implemented.

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►   Ketchum to serve as West Virginia chief justice in 2016

CHARLESTON, WV — Menis Ketchum will serve as the chief justice on West Virginia’s highest court in 2016.

The West Virginia Supreme Court announced Ketchum’s selection on Monday in a news release. The position of chief justice is determined annually by a vote of the court.

Ketchum previously served as chief justice in 2012. He was elected to a 12-year term on the court in 2008.


►   Group donates teddy bears to sheriff’s office for kids

BARDANE, WV — A Free Mason affiliate group delivered teddy bears to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department to give to children during traumatic events.

Virginia Widows Sons Brazen Pillars Chapter Masonic Riders Association delivered about 50 bears to Sheriff Pete Dougherty at the department’s headquarters in Bardane Christmas Eve.

Mason Chip Bennett tells the newspaper the project was started in 2002 by the Winchester Hiram Lodge No. 21. He says it was started to give first-responders bears to hand out to children after fires, car accidents and crimes.

Sheriff Dougherty says a teddy bear can often help keep a child’s mind off a recent traumatic event. He added the department is also rolling out a new system to alert schools about a child’s potentially traumatic event.


►   West Virginia dance festival to be held in April

HUNTINGTON, WV — Application deadlines are approaching for the 2016 West Virginia State Dance Festival.

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History says January 4 is the deadline for dance director applications. The deadline for dance directors to submit student applications is January 11. Scholarship applications are due January 15.

The division says it will only accept student applications from directors affiliated with full-time dance establishments in the state.

Dancers must be at least 12 years old. They also must have at least one year of training in classical ballet with two lessons per week.

Adjudication DVDS must be submitted by February 12. Adjudications are scheduled for February 26-28.

The festival will be held April 15-17 at the Culture Center at the Capitol Complex in Charleston.


►   New River Gorge hiking challenge celebrates NPS centennial

GLEN JEAN, WV — New River Gorge National River is offering a 100-mile hiking challenge to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial.

To complete the challenge, visitors must hike at least 100 miles on trails in New River Gorge National River and Bluestone National Scenic River in 2016.

Park visitors can register for the challenge online by sending their name and email address to

Prizes will be awarded to participants who hike at least 100 miles between January and December 01. An additional prize will be given to the first 100 participants who complete the challenge.

The park will officially kick off the challenge on January 02 with a hike of about 3 miles on the Grandview Rim Trail.


►   President and CEO of West Virginia Hospital Association says numbers only tell part of the story

CHARLESTON, WV — The president and CEO of West Virginia Hospital Association wrote an editorial last week explaining how the Affordable Care Act has presented many challenges for hospitals.

“The reductions that we’ve felt in the Medicare program to pay for Medicaid expansion and to pay for the exchanges has totally wiped out any increased revenue; in fact it’s put us into a negative,” said Joe Letnaunchyn.

Letnaunchyn said that far from experiencing a “windfall of savings”, as some have suggested, the ACA has hurt state hospitals more than anticipated.

“When the ACA was first passed, we estimated that over the first 10 year period, we would take cuts of over $1.3 billion,” he said. “Those estimates have grown significantly. We’re going to be over $2 billion in payment reductions for Medicare over that 10-year period.”

He explained that despite hospitals have seeing about a 47 percent reduction in uncompensated care, the numbers only tell part of the story.

“The problem is we’re still providing about $490 million in uncompensated care, and that’s at cost. That’s not an inflated charge; that’s a cost number for (care) that we’re still providing,” he said. “The numbers just don’t add up. You’re getting paid for these patients, yes, but everything you get in one pocket is being emptied out in the other pocket out of Medicare.”

Letnaunchyn also pointed out that many of hospitals’ expenses can’t be controlled.

“Over 55 to 60 percent of our costs are people costs,” he said. “We have other costs that we don’t control, like insurance; like utilities; like cost of supplies; drugs. All those costs we’re not a part where we can just cut back on things. People like to get paid, we have to have services, we have to have utilities; we have to have insurance.”


►   Audit of Harrison County questions remibursement policy related to county-sponsored trips involving commssioner

CLARKSBURG, WV — An audit conducted by the state for the fiscal year that ended in June 2014 is recommending that Harrison County develop adequate policies when it comes to reimbursing county employees and constitutional officers in order to be more transparent with taxpayer money.

Commission President Ron Watson said after Thursday’s meeting he believes his fellow constitutional officers share his desire to be open to the public and they will be able to follow the suggestions.

“When I am shown that I haven’t been accountable or that I erred somewhere, it’s not premeditated,” he said. “It’s because I either didn’t know or wasn’t sure. Whatever comes up out of that, then I’ll act accordingly based on that.”

Three of the four reimbursements questioned by the audit involved county-sponsored travel taken by Commissioner Bernie Fazzini, in which he either provided a summary statement rather than an itemized receipts or deducted funds spent on a family member from his claim so that the county would not pay for it rather than requesting split bills.

“Proper controls dictate that the County Commission should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that all expenditures made are for county business only,” the auditor wrote in a draft of their findings.

Fazzini is currently under indictment in Harrison County Circuit Court on felony fraud charges related to alleged improper reimbursements received while on county-sponsored trips.

An arraignment for that case was scheduled for January 11 after two county prosecutors recused themselves from the case due to conflict of interest.

The state Ethics Commission took up similar charges against the commissioner and resolved them in May with a conciliation agreement which stated that there was no finding of intent, but he would still be subject to training on the West Virginia Ethics Act, pay a fine of $3,500 and reimburse the county $298.08–the amount the Ethics Commission determined he improperly received.

Findings in the audit related to Fazzini have been brought up either in the criminal case or in the Ethics Commission proceedings, according to County Administrator Willie Parker.

Fazzini at Thursday’s meeting asked if a more detailed policy needed to be put in place and whether the current one applies to constitutional officers the same way it does to county employees.

If a new policy were to be put in place, it would aim to stay the current course when dealing with reimbursements, according to Watson.

“This board has the final approval on approving the expenses for anything that a commissioner has done, or another constitutional officer, to make sure that it’s accountable and that the costs are all legitimate costs, and so on.”

The commission did not finalize their response to the finding involving Expenditures, as Commissioner Frank “Chunki” Angotti wanted to look over the reimbursements in question (Angotti has repeatedly brought up Fazzini’s travel and called for his resignation after the conciliation agreement and indictment).

The reimbursements were one of eight findings that also included:

-Not properly including taxable fringe benefits for county employees on Form W-2

-Reporting on mileage on Gasoline Logs for two county vehicles

-One former temporary, part-time employee within the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office did not submit sufficient timesheets

-A lack of adequate policies and procedures regarding bank errors, deposits in transit and outstanding checks in the Sheriff’s tax office

-A lack of monthly financial statements from the Sheriff’s Department in a timely manner

-A lack of monthly financial statements from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in a timely manner

-A lack of controls to ensure the proper approval of expenditures.

On the last point, the auditor claimed the County Commission “was not approving a detailed listing of invoices during regularly scheduled meetings with them being voted on as a singular item on the weekly Consent Agenda.

The county quickly put a policy in place to remedy this issue.

“What the Clerk and our Administrator worked out is that they will attach with the minutes a computerized copy of all the expenditures,” Watson said. “Companies, whoever received it as well as the check and all that and I think that’s what the auditor was looking for.”

In the next few weeks, the commission will work to address and put policies in place for the remaining recommendations.

“Everybody has a right to know what we’re doing,” Watson said. “If a flaw has been recognized by the auditor, then we’re going to take care of it and move forward. Hopefully, during our time on the bench we’ll not repeat that.”

The commission will have to approve their response to each item before sending it back to the State Auditor’s Office, which could be done during its first meeting of the new year.


►   Blankenship Bond Reduced, Travel Restrictions Lifted

A judge has reduced ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s bond and dropped his travel restrictions after his conviction.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Clarke VanDervort in Beckley reduced Blankenship’s $5 million bond to $1 million Monday.

VanDervort also dropped restrictions limiting Blankenship’s travel to southern West Virginia, Pike County, Kentucky and Washington, D.C.

VanDervort says Blankenship can live at home in Las Vegas and travel throughout the continental United States.

VanDervort ruled Blankenship isn’t prohibited anymore from talking to certain people related to the case.

Blankenship was convicted December 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch, where an explosion killed 29 men in 2010. He faces a year in prison at most.

He was acquitted of felonies that could’ve stretched his sentence to 30 years.

Did You Know?

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WHITE OFFICER WON’T FACE CHARGES IN KILLING OF CLEVELAND BOY

Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor says it is “indisputable” that Tamir Rice was drawing a pistol from his waistband when he was gunned down.


TEXAS CLEANS UP AFTER TWISTERS, SNOW AND ICE PELT MIDWEST

At least 11 people died in the tornadoes that swept through the Dallas area, bringing the death toll from storms and floods to about four dozen in the last week.


IRAQI TROOPS ADVANCE IN RAMADI

However, Islamic State insurgents are still dug into pockets of the city west of Baghdad.


ADVOCATES SAY CHICAGO POLICE CRISIS TRAINING HAS LANGUISHED

Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls for a review of how officers are trained to respond to calls involving people in crisis or with mental health problems.


WHO STRIKES LANDMARK DEAL

South Korea and Japan agree to resolve a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II.


WHERE RELATIVES OF DROWNED SYRIAN BOY ARE

Mohammed Kurdi, his wife and their five children arrive in Canada as refugees, sponsored by Mohammed’s sister Tima Kurdi.


WHY WHOLE FOODS MARKET AGREES TO PAY $500,000 TO NYC

The move is intended to settle allegations the grocery chain overcharged customers for prepackaged foods.


FITBIT LIKELY A HOT SELLER FOR CHRISTMAS

The company’s app was the most downloaded on Apple’s app store Christmas Day, a sign that many people couldn’t wait to set up their fitness-tracking devices after unwrapping them.


MOTORHEAD FRONTMAN “LEMMY” DEAD

Agent Andrew Goodfriend tells The AP that Ian Kilmister died on Monday in Los Angeles after a brief battle with aggressive cancer.


BENGALS, BRONCOS BRACE FOR CHILLY NIGHT IN DENVER

The temperature at kickoff was 16 degrees. The chilliest contest in Denver was 9 degrees on Dec 10, 1972, when the Broncos played San Diego.

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In USA….

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►   Mall Erupts Into ‘Crazy’ Brawls With Up to 2K People

One of Kentucky’s biggest shopping malls erupted into multiple brawls Saturday night involving as many as 2,000 people, NBC News reports. Six officers working at Mall St. Matthews in suburban Louisville responded to fights at around 7pm and saw them chain-react into other disturbances. “As they were responding to those disturbances, others were breaking out. ... Disturbances started to feed on themselves,“ says Officer Dennis McDonald. “They were just overwhelmed with a number of calls for service and reports of disorder.“ Soon five agencies sent a total of 50 officers to handle the brawlers, who were aged 13 to their early 20s, McDonald says. “This was a riot,“ he adds. “It was crazy.“

Mall management decided to close the mall at 8pm, but brawlers tried to keep store gates open and soon poured into the parking lot, the Courier-Journal reports. “Was just out there and cop cars everywhere,“ tweeted Steve Jones. “Groups of kids at every corner.“ Traffic was slowed as the ruffians dispersed into nearby streets and businesses, like a Whole Foods parking lot and restaurants on Shelbyville Road; there were also unconfirmed reports of shots fired. Officers stayed until 1am (“We’re all tired,“ McDonald says) but the mall reopened Sunday with extra police officers and no further incident, CBS News reports. The fights didn’t appear organized, but McDonald believes juveniles used social media to come together in other areas of the mall after being dispersed.


►   ‘Miracle Baby’ Born After Mom Killed in Hit-And-Run

A tragedy was followed quickly by a miracle on Christmas Eve when a hit-and-run driver plowed into a pregnant woman as she crossed a Chicago street. Karla Y. Leanos, 26, the mother of three and seven months pregnant, was killed in the incident, which happened just before 10pm in the 4200 block of West Ogden Avenue. Emergency responders, however, were able to deliver her baby boy, whose condition reportedly stabilized on Christmas Day and who is expected to survive. “That is a miracle baby,“ Rick Page tells NBC Chicago; surveillance cameras at Page’s nearby bike shop captured the accident. “It was really gruesome,“ he tells ABC Chicago, which reports video shows Leanos saw the car coming but couldn’t get out of its path. The impact, Page says, knocked her out of her boots.

Video shows the driver did have a green light, but police say he was traveling fast and didn’t stop at the scene. On Sunday, Silvestre Garcia, 22, was charged with two felonies—DUI and leaving the scene of an accident causing death—and two misdemeanor DUI counts, along with being cited for driving with an open alcohol container and having a defective windshield, the Chicago Tribune reports. “I’m heartbroken for her kids, her family,“ a friend of Leanos’ tells NBC. Meanwhile, Garcia’s bond has been set at $750,000, per the Tribune.


►   Santa’s ‘Sleigh’ Breaks Down, Firefighters Pitch in

A stranded Santa Claus whose car caught fire Christmas morning is sure to put one Utah fire department on his nice list next year. Steven Macey, a Santa-for-hire dressed in a red suit and beard, was on his way to deliver presents at a home when his car overheated and caught fire around 6:30am Friday, according to Lone Peak Fire Battalion Chief Joseph McRae. Macey, 66, was not injured. After making appearances at Christmas Eve parties until 1am, he headed to an early Christmas morning appointment at a home about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. Macey says his older car began smoking after he climbed a snowy hill. He got out of the car and retrieved his St. Nick coat, belt, and bells before moving away and calling 911. A passing driver stopped and let him wait in their vehicle until firefighters arrived. “They were stunned when I came walking down the road—a Santa,“ Macey says. “They all wanted pictures.“

Fire crews extinguished the blaze, but the car was destroyed. “He’s going to have to go back to using his sleigh,“ McRae says. The battalion chief gave Macey a ride to the nearby home so he could make his appointment. “You can’t leave Santa stranded on the side of the road,“ McRae says. After the Santa suit-clad Macey delivered presents to the child, the family at the Alpine home offered to let Macey borrow one of their vehicles, which had been left at a friends’ house. Someone gave him a ride and he borrowed the car to get home. Macey says he was touched by all the kindness, including that of the firefighters. “It’s not a disastrous Christmas for me. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the greatest Christmas I’ve ever had in my entire life—to see people care and put their arms around me.“


►   Jahi McMath’s Family Wants Her Declared Alive

It’s been two years since Jahi McMath’s tonsil surgery went wrong, she suffered brain death, and was declared dead, and now her family wants that death certificate revoked for the now-15-year-old who remains on life support. Jahi’s mom, Nailah Winkfield, is suing in federal court various entities that include the state of California to have her daughter declared legally alive, reports Courthouse News Service. She “wishes to have her daughter’s basic human right, to life, restored to her so that she can return to California” from New Jersey. Jahi is currently under care in the latter state, which allows a religious exemption to rulings about brain death, notes CBS News.

“I want her to have the same rights as any other disabled kid,“ says Winkfield, per the AP. Should Jahi leave New Jersey without such a declaration, per the suit, “she could be refused treatment, unplugged, even shot, without repercussion as she is legally dead in California.“ Getting the death certificate overturned would allow the family to move Jahi back to Oakland and have insurers cover her medical bills, the family attorney tells AP. Winkfield says in her lawsuit that Jahi shows signs of life, including what she calls “uncontroverted and overwhelming” evidence of brain function, and has begun to menstruate. A California state judge earlier this year upheld the death certificate; her family’s lawsuit against the hospital that performed the tonsillectomy brutally detailed the surgery gone wrong.

In The World….

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►   IS puts up heavy fight to slow Iraqi troop advance on Ramadi

BAGHDAD — Islamic State fighters are putting up a tough fight in the militant-held city of Ramadi, slowing down the advance of Iraqi forces, a senior Iraqi commander said Sunday.

Iraq launched the long-awaited operation to retake the Anbar provincial capital, which was captured by IS militants in May, but after an initial push across the Euphrates River, their progress stalled.

Gen. Ismail al-Mahlawi, head of the Anbar military operations, told The Associated Press that the advance was hampered by suicide bombers, snipers and booby traps.

Iraqi troops will “need days” to get to the city’s central government complex, said al-Mahlawi, adding that the troops were about one kilometer (half mile) from the complex on Sunday.

Al-Mahlawi said he could neither confirm nor deny media reports that IS fighters had pulled out of the government complex by nightfall Sunday. But he cited residents in the area as telling his troops that the IS militants had withdrawn from the neighborhood of Albu Alwan, adjacent to the complex.

Another officer said the Iraqi army has yet to gain full control of a single Ramadi neighborhood. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

On Tuesday, Iraqi security forces reported progress in recapturing some areas in the western city of Ramadi, 80 miles west of Baghdad, from IS militants.

The extremists control large swaths of land in western and northern Iraq and in neighboring Syria. The IS group has declared a self-styled caliphate on the territory under its control.

After overrunning Ramadi, IS destroyed all the bridges around the city. It also demolished the Anbar operations command center and fanned out into the city’s residential areas to set up less conspicuous centers of command.

A statement late Sunday from the Iraqi joint command said the operation in Anbar is going according to plans and that Iraqi forces continue to encircle the government complex in Ramadi. It made no mention of any pullout of IS militants from the area.


►   Russian officials get quirky holiday gift: a book of Putin’s one liners

Some of Vladimir Putin’s saltiest one liners have been turned into a book by his supporters who have sent a batch to the Kremlin touting it as the ideal holiday gift for patriotic Russian officials.

The tome, entitled “The Words that are changing the World,“ is the latest expression of admiration from fans who cast the president as the savior of modern Russia and will join an array of Putin-themed merchandise from perfume to vodka.

“We had begun to notice that everything which Putin says comes to pass to one degree or another,“ Anton Volodin, author of the 400-page book, which was published by a pro-Kremlin group called Network, said in a statement.

“In this book we traced his words and confirmed that idea.“

Among memorable quotes selected are Putin’s threat to “rub out” Chechen militants in the “out house”, his contested assertion that Crimea was always and remains an “inseparable” part of Russia, and a bizarre brush-off of Latvia in which he told Riga it could only expect to receive “the ears of a dead donkey” from Moscow, a Russian expression for nothing.

Blunt, barrack-room language is part of Putin’s stock in trade and helps him send signals to the state security elite which he, as a former intelligence agent, springs from.

Putin, in a quote too new to be included in the book, used that trademark vernacular this month to suggest Turkey’s political leadership may have “decided to lick the Americans in a particular place” by shooting down a Russian warplane.

Other quotes that are included center on Putin’s patriotism.

“For me Russia is my whole life,“ reads one, while others disparage Western-style democracy and same sex marriage.

Nikolai Svanidze, a historian, said the new book reminded him of the Little Red Book and its quotes from Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong published in the 1960s.

“It’s an Asian tradition,“ he told the RBK daily. “Countries with authoritarian regimes always try to publish their leader’s most sparkling expressions even if those expressions are not that sparkling.“

The pro-Putin group which published the book has in the past been awarded generous grants by the Kremlin. The tome should hit Russian bookstores in January priced at 800 rubles ($11.12).

The group, Network, said on Monday it had given 1,000 limited edition copies to the Kremlin, which in turn had handed them out to officials and politicians as a present ahead of Russia’s main New Year holiday.

RBK cited named officials as saying they had received the present and had been told by a top Putin aide that it should sit on their desks. The tome would help them understand the decisions underpinning Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, the aide was quoted as saying.

Putin’s personal rating remains above 80 percent despite a serious economic crisis thanks, say independent pollsters, to his decision to annex Crimea and launch air strikes in Syria.

With state TV devoting saturation coverage to the 63-year-old leader, he is rarely off the screen.

Aides say Putin, whose third term as president lasts until 2018, takes a dim view of the idea of a Soviet-style cult of personality around him even though his likeness is used to sell everything from fridge magnets to mobile phone covers.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, distanced the Kremlin from the new book. He said he had not seen it and that it was unlikely to have been a centralized Kremlin initiative but might have been prepared by another part of Putin’s executive office.


►   World’s ‘Busiest Airport’ Welcomes 100 Millionth Passenger

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport said it hit a major milestone Sunday. The airport that calls itself the world’s busiest announced on its social media sites says it served its 100 millionth passenger this year. That makes it the first single airport to serve that number of passengers in one calendar year. The passenger earning the distinction is Larry Kendrick of Gulfport, Mississippi, who will receive a Nissan Altima, two free Delta round trip plane tickets, and a $500 gift card. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed welcomed a surprised Kendrick, who walked down a red carpet as journalists and onlookers recorded the moment. Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell says the airport had a 5% increase in passenger counts this year.


►   Iraqi Forces Claim Huge Victory Against ISIS

Iraqi forces have reclaimed the central government compound in the city of Ramadi from ISIS, marking what a US commander says is the greatest achievement yet from a force that fled the city in May. The military says it’s now in complete control of the compound, which marks the defeat of ISIS in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, though there are still pockets of resistance, reports the BBC. “Yes, the city of Ramadi has been liberated,“ says a military spokesman, per Reuters. The Iraqi flag is now flying over the compound, he adds. Fierce fighting had taken place around the city for days, though suicide bombers, snipers, and booby traps had slowed the Iraqi military’s advance, reports AP.

Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US anti-ISIS effort, tells USA Today that it has been a great day for the Iraqi military. “What this shows is that the Iraqis have moved from an army that folded on initial contact in the summer of ‘14 to an army that has been able to conduct a complex operation in a large, built-up area,“ he says. “This is the biggest thing the Iraqi army has done. Period.“ He says ISIS is now “getting hit in multiple places simultaneously,“ having also lost control of the Tishrin Dam in Syria to US-backed fighters over the weekend, who cut off a key supply line to the group’s Raqqa stronghold when they seized the Euphrates River dam.


►   Nudists Save Sinking Boat at Yacht Race

Ah, a yacht race. Oh, we’re taking on water—and being rescued by nudists. Such was the experience of yacht-racing fans whose small wooden boat began sinking near the popular “Sydney to Hobart” race on Boxing Day in Australia, the Telegraph reports. Once yachts departed to start the race, a few of the event’s 600,000 spectators noticed the vessel approaching Lady Bay Beach, a common nudist site. “The boat came angling into the shore, which was a bit weird,“ says Chris Pearce, a Getty photographer. “I thought maybe they were dropping someone off.“ Then he heard “a guy with a kid” on the boat screaming expletives and “come help, come help” as the vessel took on water.

Among those who waded in, rescued a woman and child, and pulled the boat to shore were people in the buff, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. “Everyone basically just stopped and watched and looked as this happened,“ says Pearce. “When they were walking past everyone thought it was funny, because it was a nudist beach, and then this happened.“ In fact, one guy on board was seen grinning as nude guys surrounded the boat. A few hundred people watched the spectacle, which lasted for about five minutes.


►   ISIS Chief to Israel: ‘We Are Getting Closer’

The Islamic State group on Saturday released a new message purportedly from its reclusive leader, claiming that his self-styled “caliphate” is doing well despite an unprecedented alliance against it, threatening Israel, and criticizing the recently announced Saudi-led Islamic military coalition against terrorism. In the 24-minute audio, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi says airstrikes by the international coalition only increase his group’s determination and resolve. The message was al-Baghdadi’s first since May, and comes amid battlefield setbacks that IS has recently faced. “It is unprecedented in the history of our Ummah (Islamic nation) that all the world came against it in one battle, as it is happening today,“ al-Baghdadi says. “It is the battle of all the disbelievers against all the Muslims.“

He threatened Israel by saying, “we haven’t forgotten you” and “we are getting closer to you” every day. To Israeli Jews, he said that they “will hide behind trees and stones” from the ISIS. Meanwhile, a US-backed coalition of rebels in Syria—including Syrian Kurdish, Arab and Christian groups—captured a major dam on the Euphrates River from the Islamic State group as part of the coalition’s march on IS-held areas in northern Syria. The coalition, known as Syria Democratic Forces, announced earlier this week a new offensive aimed at cutting supply lines between IS strongholds in the country’s north. The SDF said it seized the Tishrin Dam, which supplies much off northern Syria with electricity, on Saturday.


►   Issue of WWII Sex Slaves May Be ‘Finally Resolved’

South Korea and Japan say they’ve reached a deal to resolve a disturbing legacy of World War II—the issue of sex slaves, or “comfort women,“ forced to work in Japanese brothels for soldiers. An estimated 200,000 women, many of them Korean, were forced to take part, though only 46 remain alive today in South Korea, reports the BBC. Under the deal, Japan will pay $8.3 million to a fund to help victims, though the New York Times says the agreement has vague wording that doesn’t “clarify whether the responsibility that the Japanese government acknowledged was legal or moral.“ Still, the countries say that if Japan does what it has promised, the issue will be “finally and irreversibly resolved.“ But the newspaper quotes one survivor who says it does not go far enough.

“I will ignore it completely,” says 88-year-old Lee Yong-soo, who wants Japan to unequivocally admit legal responsibility. The deal doesn’t go that far, though it comes with an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: He “expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,“ says Japan’s foreign minister. South Korea says it will now consider removing a statue memorializing victims erected by activists outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011. The pact is expected to clear the way for stronger military relations between the two nations, a development that Reuters notes will be welcomed by the US because of an increasingly aggressive China.


►   Mine Owner Kills Himself After Deadly Accident

The owner of a mine in China’s Shandong province was apparently overcome by either remorse or a fear of authorities after a collapse killed at least one worker and left another 17 trapped. The gypsum mine owner jumped into a well and drowned in an apparent suicide Sunday while rescuers were still trying to reach the miners who had been trapped by the Friday collapse, according to state media.

The BBC notes that while the mine owner’s motive is unknown, authorities in China have started handing down harsher punishments to employers found guilty of negligence. That may explain another suicide in China on Sunday: The AP reports that the chief of the Urban Management Bureau in a district of Shenzhen jumped to his death from a building a week after a landslide buried an industrial park in the area. It’s not clear whether the official was facing any charges for the disaster, which left 75 people missing and presumed dead under a sea of mud and debris.

CommunityConcerns™: Leading Creek Elementary School and Gilmer County

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CommunityConcern™
With Disclosure Of The Leading Creek Elementary School Disaster
What Comes Out Next?

The Gazette-Mail’s 12.27.2015 bombshell article (read below) exposed underutilization of the Leading Creek Elementary School. The front page article was entitled State’s first Inter-county elementary only 60 percent full to be followed by reports of bureaucratic bungling contributing to the problem.

 

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When Gilmer County failed to pass a bond issue to fund school facilities swift intervention by the WV Board of Education followed. Soon afterwards the State decided to close four of our elementary schools to consolidate three of them into one, and to send Troy’s students to the Leading Creek School in Lewis County.

Citizens wanted another try at passing a school bond issue. The WVDOE refused to listen and it proceeded with its one elementary school decision for the County and the poorly conceived Leading Creek School.

When the unilateral decisions were made by the WVDOE there was no mentioning of a middle school in Gilmer County. After the Linn School was built and the new Gilmer County Elementary School was under construction the WVDOE announced through Mr. Gabriel Devono, the State’s appointed superintendent of our County’s school system, that there was going to be a middle school too.

Obtaining money from the WV School Building Authority (SBA) for the new Gilmer County Elementary School was sold on the premise that there would be only one facility in Gilmer County for Pre-K through sixth grade students. The square footage of the new school and dollars allocated by the SBA for it were based on that commitment.

Prior to Mr. Ron Blankenship’s departure it was the WVDOE’s stated plan to use the Glenville Elementary School building for the County’s central office. That changed when the WVDOE decided to install the office in the old Minnie Hamilton building. The move is generally perceived to have been politically motivated.

 

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  • What are the true implications for the middle school?

  • If we have a middle school would there be excess space at the new Gilmer County Elementary School to mean that public funds were wasted on excess space?

  • Some students would be moved from the Gilmer County High School to attend the middle school to make the CGHS’s space underutilized too. Are there additional implications being kept from public scrutiny?

  • When the County was initially informed by the State that it could not afford more than one elementary school what changed to mean that funds are suddenly available for a middle school?

Incidentally, the Gazette-Mail’s article on 12.27.2015 could be updated to include complete details about the total amount of funds Gilmer County contributed for the Leading Creek School.  Perhaps the State will release the secret information so Gilmer’s citizens will be fully informed.

Citizens have legitimate questions about the WVDOE’s competency in making decisions for local school systems with the State’s $800,000 shortfall mistake in providing funds to the County as one of several reasons for local concerns. Now we have the revelation about the enrollment shortfall at the Leading Creek Elementary School to worsen concerns.

The enrollment disaster in Lewis County was unjustly blamed on the Gilmer County School Board when all the decisions were made by the WVDOE, WVBOE, and the SBA. Governor Tomblin presides over the SBA.

Charleston’s secrecy and dictatorial decision-making must end! What are the justifications for the County’s middle school from the perspective of it being in the best interests of Gilmer County, why was the SBA informed that when public funds were sought they would be used to construct an elementary school for Pre-K up through the 6th grade, and what happened to cause the change of plans to have a middle school after construction funds for the new elementary school were granted?

  • Did the WVDOE purposely withhold its middle school intentions from the public and did the SBA err with its lack of oversight?

  • What was the WVBOE’s role?

No matter, it makes Charleston’s bureaucrats look bad. This erodes public trust more while the State is experiencing severe shortfalls in financing school facilities projects.

  • Also, how was the decision made to have a middle school and who were the specific individuals in the County and elsewhere involved in providing input for the WVDOE’s plan?

  • Mr. Devono reported widespread citizen support in Gilmer County for the middle school. Were public meeting held to justify his claim through meaningful citizen input, and are there official meeting minutes for all meeting to provide adequate proof of what occurred to support the WVDOE’s decision?

  • While at it, how can Mr. Gabriel Devono explain his claim that all Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP) records leading up to the selection of the Cedar Creek school site for a consolidated school and the decision to abandon the project to built at Hays City cannot be found? Who is responsible for the missing records and what is the WVDOE doing about it to disclose the facts? 

The middle school issue reeks of another one of Gilmer’s famous ruling class’ “behind closed doors decisions” routinely kept secret from common citizens. The difference this time is that the WVDOE is in control to be ultimately responsible for the middle school decision. As a member of the CEFP Committee, the question is when were all these decisions made? CEFP Committee NEVER was involved in any of these decision. Again, “behind closed doors decisions”!

The County’s intervention mess continues while Dr. Michael Martirano refers to WV citizens as necessary stakeholders for his ONE VOICE, ONE FOCUS vision. Most citizens interpret that stakeholders for an effective partnership must include a genuine cross section of a community. Apparently that interpretation does not apply to Gilmer County.  Mr. Devono stated that he has a small exclusive group of local people deciding where education is headed in the County. That exclusive group IS NOT the CEFP Committee on record. Actually ALL DECISIONS are made without any input from the CEFP Committee. The CEFP Committee was used only to decide on the NAME and MASCOT for the new Gilmer County Elementary School.

The quicker the WV Board of Education returns full control of Gilmer County’s schools to local control the better. That decision would unleash the ingenuity and common sense of Gilmer’s citizens to contribute to a better future for our children.

One of the critically needed early actions to accompany the return of local control must be for Gilmer County to hire its superintendent who will be committed to taking care of the County’s needs instead of being committed to Charleston’s dictates.

Centralized control of the County’s schools from Charleston has been a colossal failure.

It should cease immediately to avoid additional damage and growing citizen discontent!

The Free Press WV
WV’s first inter-county elementary only 60 percent full

State School Building Authority officials say West Virginia’s first inter-county elementary school, built with $10.3 million in SBA money, has only about 60 percent of the students planned for it.

The school, Leading Creek Elementary, consolidated Troy Elementary, in Gilmer County and Alum Bridge Elementary, in Lewis County. It was built with 240 students in mind, and can hold as many as 280, said Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director.

But only about 150 students attend the new school, Raines said, because Gilmer school officials haven’t redistricted some students from another school, Sand Fork Elementary. Also, he said, Gilmer school buses are taking some students from the former Troy attendance area farther south to Glenville Elementary instead of to Leading Creek.

Leading Creek Principal Kim Freeland agreed with Raines. She finds it unusual that Gilmer County is providing buses to help their students attend the more distant Glenville Elementary.

The school opened this fall. Freeland said it’s beautiful, and students from both counties have come together as a family. But she said she believes the low enrollment is a financial hardship for Lewis County, which is responsible for the school’s finances and has to pay for its utilities and upkeep. The state school aid funding formula doles out money largely based on enrollment, and Leading Creek students are counted as Lewis students despite the building being on the county line.

Freeland said she has five rooms that were intended for classes, but are now being used for other purposes.

“One of them is storing all the extra furniture,” she said.

Raines said Gilmer County’s actions violate the county’s contracts with the SBA — not just for Leading Creek, but for a new school in Glenville that’s supposed to open next school year and consolidate students from Gilmer’s remaining elementary schools: Glenville, Normantown and Sand Fork.

“We feel like someone has tried to pull the wool over our eyes,” Raines said. “… We upheld our obligations, we feel like everyone else should uphold theirs, too.”

He said Gilmer Schools Superintendent Gabe Devono has expressed no intention to stop transporting the former Troy students to Glenville Elementary next year.

SBA Executive Director David Sneed said the SBA board — which distributes general revenue, bond proceeds and lottery money for school construction and renovation projects around West Virginia — could have saved $1 million constructing a smaller inter-county school. He said the board most likely would have declined to fund the project entirely because its already low enrollment is expected to further decline.

Compared to the SBA’s investment of more than $10 million, Lewis County put in about $300,000 in local money and Gilmer County only gave $100,000, Raines said.

Devono, who started his position in July 2014, after construction on Leading Creek began, said he can’t find the 240-student figure SBA officials are citing “anywhere in our documents.” He said, to his understanding, the idea to redistrict Sand Fork Elementary students was discarded early in the planning stages for Leading Creek.

“We’ve sent all the students out there that we have to send,” Devono said.

Raines, however, sent the Gazette-Mail documents from the county’s applications for SBA funding that show the 240-student figure, as well as the plan to redistrict current Sand Fork students.

Harrison County Schools Superintendent Mark Manchin, who led the SBA during Leading Creek’s development, said he remembers the Sand Fork redistricting detail.

Devono declined last week to provide the Gazette-Mail information on transfers from the Leading Creek attendance area, saying he wanted State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to see the data first. Martirano said at an SBA board meeting last week that he was “just now getting involved” in the issue at the level he needs to.

The state Board of Education took over the Gilmer school system in 2011 and still controls finance, personnel and facilities decisions there. Raines said the SBA hasn’t figured out yet who in the county is making the decisions about transfers.

Deputy State Schools Superintendent Cindy Daniel said transfers are still controlled by the county school board in Gilmer, and she’s working with Devono to ensure the students intended to go to Leading Creek actually do so. Daniel said Tuesday she didn’t know about students allegedly being bused to Glenville Elementary.

Norma Hurley, a member of Gilmer County’s school board, said any transfers were Devono’s sole decision. But she said many parents asked to keep their students in Gilmer County, and said the board should honor their wishes.

“How do you force someone to go from a district they pay taxes into another for education?” Hurley said.

Subject to lawmakers’ appropriations, part of state law can prevent school systems that lose students to inter-county schools from seeing their funds drop immediately in one year.

Devono noted the school has only been open for a few months, and said he supports the concept and will make it work. Raines said that with most counties losing students, inter-county schools may be the only answer in some areas.

SBA officials are also concerned about Gilmer’s request to amend its facilities plan to keep Glenville Elementary open as a middle school, by transferring seventh and eighth graders from Gilmer County High School and sixth graders from the new consolidated elementary school. The current plan includes shutting down the existing Glenville Elementary building when the consolidated elementary is finished, and later adding seventh- and eighth-graders to the school.

Devono said the plan amendment had been sent to SBA earlier than anticipated, but declined to elaborate why. He said he thinks the local facilities plan committee, which he leads, voted in either August or September to request the plan change.

He said there’s a lot of support in the county to create a “true middle school,” and though he didn’t have an estimate, he argued the cost would be minimal to turn the current Glenville Elementary into a middle school, noting it used to be a kindergarten- through eighth-grade school and already has a gym and water and gas hookups for a science lab.

But Sneed said the SBA put $12.2 million into building the new consolidated elementary, a cost that could have been $3 million less if it were only built to consolidate the Normantown and Sand Fork schools. He said he won’t take the amendment to his board for the approval for it to be considered for SBA funding.

“That’s a sizable amount of money we’ve spent there to help them be more efficient,” Sneed said. “And now they want to reopen that school.”

Documents the SBA provided also show part of Gilmer’s past argument for closing the elementary school was that it’s “adjacent to a plastics plant causing parent complaints about health and safety to become routine.”

Daniel said there’s still a “lot of discussion to take place” before the amendment to the plan is possibly presented to the state school board for its separate approval. She said Martirano would have to approve it first.

~~  Ryan Quinn - Gazette-Mail ~~

Great Ways to Do Good Before the Year End – Timing Matters!

The Free Press WV

Timing of a charitable gift is important as contributions are deductible for the year in which they are made.

Here’s some timing tips from the Parkersburg Area Community Foundation and Regional Affiliates:

Cash gifts—when delivering a gift in person, the receipt date is the actual point of the transfer date. Our staff will be in for most of the holidays but will leave by 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve day and New Years Eve day (we are closed Christmas Day). Gifts may be delivered after hours by depositing them in our mail slot on the Park Avenue side of our building at 1620 Park Avenue right up until midnight on December 31st.

Or, put your gift into the mail with a postmark that is on or before December 31st and we’ll count it as a 2015 gift.

Credit card gifts are easy – by making a credit card gift at our website and charging your gift to a credit card, even though you won’t receive the bill until 2016, your gift will be considered delivered in 2015, assuming you do so before midnight on December 31st (click the “Network for Good” icon to make a gift at www.pacfwv.com).

Stock gifts are also easy BUT the key thing with a stock gift is that the stock needs to be received into the Foundation’s stock account on or before December 31st. Since the stock market closes early on some days around the holidays, please act quickly if you wish to make a stock gift so that we can ensure you get credit for the year you desire. Gifts of appreciated long-term stock are particularly tax-smart to consider as you will get a charitable gift deduction for the market value of the stock while avoiding any capital gains tax on the gain – note that you cannot cash the stock first for this benefit – the stock must be gifted to the Foundation as stock. Then, we cash it and the gain vaporizes. If you cash it first, you’ll still owe tax on the gains.

Update on IRA Gifts - the House passed the PATH Act of 2015 to extend the Charitable IRA Act among other things. It is now pending Senate approval. Especially in West Virginia where there is no state income tax deduction for charitable gifts, donors 70.5 or older may want to make a gift of assets from their IRA to charity versus from their current cash. While there’s not a tax deduction for this privilege, you avoid having to take your minimum distribution and thus, reduce the income upon which you pay tax, while making a charitable gift at the same time. Gifts of up to $100,000 to eligible organizations may be made. VERY important–be sure the gift comes directly from your IRA plan administrator to the charity (if you handle the funds first, you may owe taxes). If you’re considering a charitable gift anyways before the end of 2015, we encourage you to talk to your professional tax advisor to see whether he or she suggests making it from your IRA instead of your present cash.

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