While living in Juneau, Alaska, in 2010-2013, I wrote freelance features for The Juneau Empire.
I have won the following awards from the Virginia Press Association for 2009 coverage: First Place, Investigative Reporting; Third Place, Editorial Writing; Third Place, Education Writing.
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Note: these articles were recently migrated to the richmond.com site, and all comments were lost in the process.
The Juneau Empire
What makes bluegrass different from, say, a standard country song?
Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.
“People ask me, does it have to be so fast? Well it does for us to get the point across that we’re bluegrass music,” said Jeremy “Junior” Kane, vocalist and banjo-player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (TGABB). “Without the high tenor, the mandolin, the banjo, then it’s bluegrass style… but it’s not bluegrass.”
When Ishmael Hope’s grandfather died, his family and friends gathered to pay tribute.
As they stood to share their stories, they spoke in a language that had, for thousands of years, served Alaska’s Native people: They spoke in Tlingit.
“My dad said, ‘Man, when an Elder gets up, and speaks from the heart, that is like soul food,’” said Hope.
Alaska attracts adventurers, people who come for the tall mountains and the deep rivers, who envision themselves discovering something new even as they lose themselves in an ancient wilderness.
Among these dreamers from down south are the artists who want to capture the less tangible aspects of the quest: An image, a rhythm, a phrase, that will evoke what it means to be here.
But for writers, describing a place so larger-than-the-usual-life can be hard to do; too often, the words and phrases used to convey Alaska’s vastness can dwindle into small stereotypes.
Fruits and flowers ripen into lush, succulent shades, bodies of water, gleaming and still, trees swaying rhythmically across a sultry twilight — such images are the stuff of holiday brochures and postcards.
These scenes also depict an environment in which most of the world’s 1,000 species of bats live and thrive, where they have everything they need: Seeds, insects and a variety of places to roost.
Although 70 percent of bat species choose to live in tropical climates, there are five species that call Southeast home: Keen’s long-eared bat, long-legged myotis, California bat, the silver-haired bat and the little brown bat.
“It’s definitely a stretch for bats to survive and reproduce in this climate,” said Karen Blejwas, a regional biologist based in Juneau. “But obviously, some bat populations have done it.”
How do you coax out the crowds on a chilly Friday evening in Juneau?
Laurie Craig, an interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, cites one topic that tends to pack the house: Animals.
“I call it ‘charismatic fauna,’” said Craig, who has been organizing the center’s Fireside Lectures for seven years. “Furry animals bring in more visitors than anything else!”
This week’s scheduled presentation, “Alaskan Bears: Coats of Many Colors,” is aimed at easing the curiosity of those among us, and there are clearly many, who want to know more about these animals that share our world.
Coverage of fiscal mishaps in the Goochland County Utilities Department
Lax handling of funds led to departmental reorganization — The Goochland Gazette
This week an audit report of Goochland County’s Department of Public Utilities revealed what several county employees already knew— checks for connection fees were not being deposited on time.
In fact, the director of the department discovered undeposited checks on his office manager’s desk.
As part of an administrative investigation into the utility department’s operations, the report, obtained by The Gazette on Dec. 18, recommended that the county develop a better system of recording and billing utilities customers.
Public utilities director no longer employed by Goochland County — The Goochland Gazette
The director of Goochland County’s Public Utilities Department—a department that has been the target of a recent administrative investigation—lost his job last week after an audit revealed that at least $150,000 in utility connection fees were not deposited over the past two years.
The county will not disclose the exact reason for the departure of Doug Harvey, former County Engineer and Director of Public Utilities, but mismanagement of the county’s assets appears to be a primary factor in the decision.
According to District 4 Supervisor Rudy Butler, more uncashed checks, possibly totaling as much as $15,000, might have been discovered after the audit was completed.
“I think they found some after the audit, stuck into files,” he said. “That’s why I don’t think the audit was a good audit.”
Goochland tries to recoup funds after utilities department screw-up —The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Goochland County is working to recoup the final $22,000 of $157,000 in undeposited checks found in the county utilities office.
“Most of the checks couldn’t be submitted because they were stale,” said Director of Finance Myrtis Quarles, whose department took over utility billing on Jan. 5. “To my knowledge most were reissued.”
The checks for utility-connection fees were as much as two years old and were found during an independent audit in November of the county utilities office’s operations in 2007 and 2008.
More checks found in Goochland – The Richmond Times Dispatch
The investigation of Goochland County’s utilities department continues, and officials are finding more problems. After an audit revealed more than $150,000 in undeposited checks for connection fees late last year, two more checks, totaling $33,000, were found in a utilities storage room safe on Jan. 9.
Don Charles, director of community development, was given responsibility last month for oversight of the utilities department as part of a county departmental reorganization and is trying to build a paper trail of accountability.
Former utilities director speaks out — The Goochland Gazette
Doug Harvey, former County Engineer and Director of Public Utilities, was fired last December. The decision to dismiss Harvey was apparently made by former county administrator Gregory K. Wolfrey, after an audit report revealed that the utility department’s office manager, Sharon Swift, had repeatedly failed to submit received checks to the county treasurer for deposit.
By the time this report was made public, Harvey had already fired Swift. He says that she was dismissed for reasons unrelated to the undeposited checks, which were not discovered until after her departure. Even after Swift and Harvey left, problems, including unaddressed elevated methane levels at Hidden Rock Park, water odor issues in the Kinloch neighborhood and disputed water bills in West Creek, continued to afflict the utilities department, attracting attention from the public and the Board of Supervisors.
In January the Board of Supervisors turned down a motion to dismiss the county administrator by a 3-2 vote. But by the end of the month, Wolfrey, who was scheduled to step down in August after 23 years as Goochland’s county administrator, resigned. Last month, Director of Community Development Don Charles released a report that indicates that the utilities department is not yet operating smoothly.
Harvey recently spoke with The Gazette about utilities issues that continue to affect the county.
Goochland utilities department still facing challenges — The Goochland Gazette
As a forensic audit of Goochland County’s Department of Utilities begins this month, a report by Director of Community Development Don Charles indicates that problems continue to plague utilities operations.
The Board of Supervisors requested the audit after an investigation last winter of Goochland County’s utilities department revealed almost $200,000 in undeposited checks.
Other problems in the department include water odor issues in the Kinloch neighborhood and elevated methane levels at Hidden Rock Park.
In a Feb. 23 memo to Interim County Administrator Lane Ramsey, Charles, who was given responsibility for the utilities department as part of a county departmental reorganization last December, recommends that the county advertise a county engineer position “sooner rather than later.”
Right now the county is still trying to determine its utility assets, including their management and maintenance. The report states that the county has never before analyzed these assets, and this task will be significant.
No charges likely after forensic audit of Goochland’s utilities department — The Goochland Gazette
County Administrator Becky Dickson says that a $50,000 forensic audit of Goochland’s public utilities department is not expected to result in criminal charges.
Although this audit may not have uncovered criminal activity, such as embezzlement or fraud, Dickson said the county will likely receive advice on how to set up better financial controls in a department that has been plagued with problems.
Mismanagement key to Goochland’s utility woes — The Goochland Gazette
A forensic audit has revealed the culprit behind Goochland’s beleaguered utilities department: Mismanagement.
After a separate audit of the utilities department last fall revealed almost $200,000 in undeposited checks from fiscal years 2007 and 2008, a subsequent investigation revealed that unremitted payments, as well as past-due invoices, had been an ongoing problem in the department since 2003.
Supervisors requested a forensic audit, to cover a timeframe of five years, in January.
“No one in the county, it appears, gained financially from these checks,” said Stokes at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “Does that mean everything was done correctly? No.”
“Things can be wrong and not be criminal,” he added.
The Goochland Gazette
Math scores fell among all students at GMS, from an overall pass rate of 89 in 2006 – 2007 to 87 in 2008 – 2009.Â According to the VDOE, GMS also fails in one crucial AYP objective: Math proficiency among black students.
Statewide tests show that achievement gaps between white and black students have been steadily narrowing over the past three years.
But for black students at GMS, the pass rate fell from 83 in 2007-2008 to 75, or below the standard, in 2008-2009.
Last fall, Sekou Shabaka, who was then serving as the Education Chairman of the Goochland County NAACP, expressed concern that Goochland schools were not serving the needs of its black students. He approached the county school board and school administration to discuss ways of improving academic achievement and test scores.
A new active remediation system to reduce methane levels at the Goochland County Landfill at Hidden Rock Park is almost finished, but questions are still being raised.
And former Public Utilities Director Doug Harvey and County Administrator Gregory K. Wolfrey are no longer here to provide the answers.
Many citizens, and several county officials, are trying to find out why most people in the county never knew that elevated levels of methane have, since at least 2006, consistently been detected at a local park.
The resignation comes on the heels of an investigation of Goochland County’s utilities department that revealed more than $200,000 in undeposited checks for connection fees. Other recent problems in the department include water odor issues in the Kinloch neighborhood and disputed water bills in West Creek; both areas are served by the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.
District 4 Supervisor Malvery “Rudy” Butler, who has in recent weeks publicly sought Wolfrey’s resignation, said he wishes the county admininstrator well.
“This is probably good for him, and good for us, and good for the county,“ said Butler.
As the editor of The Goochland Gazette, I have provided county coverage to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a metro daily serving central Virginia.
Goochland County schools will have to cut staff because of budget reductions, school officials say. The cuts are in response to the county’s projected revenue shortfall of $2.5 million this year and $5.4 million next year.
Rebecca T. Dickson, deputy administrator for human services in Chesterfield County, is slated to take over as Goochland County administrator, according to county officials. If officially appointed at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Dickson would become the first female to take the county’s top administrative position.
At the Sorghum Mill, local farmers demonstrate how sorghum, grown in the Southeast as an alternative to sugar cane, is pressed and cooked down into syrup. “Back in the old days, wagons would go from farm to farm, sharing the press,” said Chester Brooks of Amherst County.
“But nobody really raises it anymore,” added Calvin Turner of Varina, noting that this year’s crop came from a school in Petersburg.
Many of the skills shown at Field Day have faded into obsolescence, as have many of its permanent structures…
Â Last year’s Big Read program for the Pamunkey Library system featured the novel Fahrenheit 451.
The story is a science fiction tale published in 1953, and describes a society in which books are burned, and people are indifferent.
The book’s author, Ray Bradbury, once wrote, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
More than 50 years later, the number of people that have stopped reading them is growing.
In fact, less than half of American adults are reading literature these days, according to Reading at Risk, a 2004 report released by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Gary Akseraylian leans across the brown counter, poised to share stories and opinions about friends and family, about the weather, about shoes.
According to the sign Akseraylian has prominently posted in his shop, a cobbler is “a mender of shoes and often of other leather goods.” Another sign adds, “I am a professional cobbler. I have been in this business for forty years.”
But he realizes that the business is no longer thriving.
Last week, as many of us were easing into the holiday swing of checking our lists and decking our halls, a story came out of Omaha. A 19-year-old man had walked into a mall and aimed a rifle into a crowd of Christmas shoppers, firing until eight people were dead, and up-to-the-minute details of the tragedy interrupted our regular broadcasting.
Hearing about such random acts of violence, seeing the photos in our newspapers and the videos on television broadcasts, can make the world seem like a relentlessly dangerous place. Sending kids out into that world can be scary.
Stan Jones, Principal of Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, believes that schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe. And, according to Hanover County Schools, part of staying safe is being prepared.
Hassan Shonekan wanted to reach out to at-risk youth in his community. So he started volunteering at the Dooley Center for Alternative Education at St. Joseph’s Villa. There, he served as a mentor to children, striving to help them, he said, “get back on the right path.”
At first he wasn’t sure if his efforts were making a difference.
“You might feel like you’re doing this and not getting anywhere,” said Shonekan. “But one girl we saw outside the school, and she remembered our names, and gave us hugs and thanked us. And she’s doing fine.”