When Pigs Fly!

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It seems that every time Tuscaloosa’s Mayor Maddox has said anything since 2017 he has bemoaned Tuscaloosa’s loss of sales tax revenues because of online sales. He said that sales taxes had increased but not at a rate commensurate with population growth. In spite of that he had justified spending increases in the 2019 budget because there were “steady increases in property tax revenues” that offset the decline in sales tax revenues.

In January 2019, he proposed a one cent sales tax increase that would generate $250 million to move Tuscaloosa from a retail economy to an “experience-based, technology-driven city.” He called his plan Elevate Tuscaloosa.

In March 2019 the Council voted down the sales tax increase which would have raised the inflated figure of $500 million for Elevate Tuscaloosa over the next ten years. By April the Council voted to reconsider the tax increase, providing that the state approved its request to exempt grocery items from sales taxes. After the state failed to approve the grocery tax reduction, the Council, with a divided vote, in July approved the sales tax increase anyway. Maddox claimed that a reduction in garbage tax fees would compensate for people having to pay more for groceries.

In June the Elevate Tuscaloosa Advisory Council first met. Maddox told its members, “You are where the rubber meets the road.” On many occasions since that first meeting Maddox has said that the Council did not serve as a “rubber stamp” for the city. However when the Advisory Council first voted unanimously in August on its subcommittee’s recommendations its members did not have a synopsis of the subcommittees’ deliberations.

At that first meeting in June of the Advisory Council, Co-chair State Representative Chris England said that he considered himself a pig not a chicken. He said that when eggs and bacon are served for breakfast, it was the result of a pig being “committed” and the chicken merely being “involved.” Another member immediately said that he too was “honored to be a pig.” The members of the Advisory Council all seem to be very committed to Elevate Tuscaloosa.

When Mayor Maddox pitched Elevate Tuscaloosa, he emphasized projects that involved education, parks and recreation and support of an “experience-based” economy. But, according to a knowledgeable source, in the $503 million Elevate budget the actual amount allocated for these sorts of projects is just over $250 million. The mayor has also proposed bond issues totaling $143.5 million for 11 of the largest projects.  That will result in $138 million of the $503 million budget being spent not on actual projects but on debt finance charges.  There is also another $65 million in the Elevate Tuscaloosa Fund and Operations and Maintenance expenses that would have previously come out of the General Fund.

One of those projects involves paving the airport runway at a cost of about $14 million. The runway is not certified to handle the weight of larger aircraft, such as the 737s that are used to transport the University of Alabama’s football team. A waiver is required from the airline charter company to schedule those flights. One of the charter companies involved has purportedly told airport management that it will no longer grant such waivers. Upgrading the 28 year old runway will require not only paving but also reinforcing the runway’s subsurface.

The City has applied for an FAA grant to upgrade the runway but the FAA has not yet approved it. (In September 2019, an FAA grant for $450,000 was awarded, but its purpose was to cover only the design work.) If the full upgrade grant is approved, it will provide 80-90% in matching funds, with the city only making up the balance. If the final work on the runway begins before the grant is approved, which could take over a year to secure, it is unlikely that federal funds will be available retroactively. Maddox has said that he expects the runway work to proceed this year.

At the September 17th meeting of the Council City Projects Committee preliminary design contracts were approved for projects, including the Riverwalk, Bama Theater and Parks and Recreation. Maddox said that the Council had already recommended a large percentage of the projects.

Any costs associated with them are estimates. The final, actual costs won’t be known until the full scope of the projects are known. Upon completion those contracted will receive a percentage of the construction costs.

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On September 24th the City Council approved its combined $235.9 million fiscal 2019 budget. It also passed the first two resolutions that allocated money to Elevate projects. One authorized a funding agreement for $500,000 with PARA for Phase I of the All Inclusive Playground. The other authorized a payment of $18,000 for a transit study. The money which came from the General Fund will be reimbursed from Elevate funds when they become available.

Elevate Tuscaloosa has been criticized as only being a scheme to pay for the costs of projects which could not be funded by the General Fund. The sales tax increase to fund Elevate Tuscaloosa was not welcomed by many taxpayers in Tuscaloosa. It was only imposed after the Council had at first rejected it. Then, it was approved by a split Council vote. Since it will be necessary for the city to issue bonds to pay for many Elevate projects, a significant amount of the additional sales tax revenue will be used to defray the financial costs of the bonds.

As one person who has also followed the history of Elevate Tuscaloosa put it: “The mayor advocated for the new sales tax using an argument that the revenue would be a new, unique source of revenue available for projects now out of reach with current revenues (Elevate projects), but is now being used to supplement routine activities that should be funded from the general fund.  Additionally, by borrowing future revenues to pay for projects now with revenues that will be collected over the next decade or so, we are incurring additional costs for interest on debt.”

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District 4 & the Machine

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Since 1997 twenty year olds have run successfully for the Tuscaloosa City Council District Four seat, mostly unopposed. They have all been thought to have been associated with the University of Alabama’s Machine in some way.

According to the Business Insider exposé written by Peter Jacobs in 2013:

The Machine’s influence is not just limited to the UA campus. The New York Times reported last month that a losing candidate for the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education filed a lawsuit after a SGA president and Machine candidate was elected on a wave of Greek voting.

UA sorority members were offered free drinks and limo rides if they voted in the City Board of Education elections, according to an email sent out to at least one sorority. Members were encouraged to vote for former SGA president Cason Kirby and fellow UA alumnus Lee Garrison, both of whom ended up winning their respective district.

Local news reported that some Greeks listed their fraternity house as their residence to vote in Kirby’s district, even though they no longer lived there.

 In 2013 WVUA also reported: “More than 10 unrelated people are registered to vote in a single house, and if some residents are not residing there, they could be guilty of perjury.”

In 1997 Lee Garrison was the first student elected as a District Four Council member. A December 28, 1997 Tuscaloosa News article “Election Contested” described the election challenge that Garrison’s opponent filed:

What is a resident? That has become the central issue that could decide whether Councilman Lee Garrison retains the Tuscaloosa City Council District 4 seat he won by 84 votes in the August election. Opponent Don Brown contested the election claiming Garrison benefited from the illegal votes, largely cast by students who don’t need residency requirements.

A University of Alabama senior and former Inter-fraternity Council President, Garrison and his forces registered hundreds of college students to vote. One of the issues became whether students or permanent residents could control the district election. 

While Brown’s forces did not challenge enough votes to make up the difference in Garrison’s margin of victory, his attorneys have been successful in putting voters, mostly students, on the witness stand. They were questioned about where they consider their primary residence and some were required to reveal who they voted for.  

Virtually nonexistent residency requirements leave the outcome completely in doubt. Should circuit Judge Bernard Harwood overturn Garrisons victory, a lengthy appeal is expected.

Garrison’s victory was not overturned. He went on to serve four terms on the Council until he successfully ran for the local school board Chair in 2013.

He was followed in the District Four Council seat by Matt Calderone, who had been the President of the University of Alabama’s Student Government Association (SGA) in 2012. Calderone had no challenger in the election.

There has been a record of SGA Presidents being  members of fraternities affiliated with The Machine. Calderone belonged to Sigma Nu. Due to the highly secretive nature of The Machine, what Greek organizations are members of The Machine cannot be verified.

The students who were registered to vote in a single house in University Circle in 2013 were all reportedly Sigma Nu members.

Calderone in 2019 announced that he would step down from his position as Council member for District Four. In the specially called election for the position there were initially three candidates. Lee Busby was a retired Marine infantry officer. John Earl was a retired photographer. And thirty-seven year-old Craig Williams owned the downtown restaurants Central Mesa and the Avenue Pub.

At a meeting of the Original City Association Williams said that he had never been in a fraternity at the University of Alabama and was not part of The Machine. He also said that he knew Calderone well and had been encouraged by him to run. It seemed as if there would be no “Machine candidate” for the first time in over twenty years.

Then Williams dropped out of the race, citing his commitment to his family, business and employees. On the same day that Williams withdrew his candidacy Frank Fleming entered the race. Jason Morton in the Tuscaloosa News reported:

Fleming’s announcement came within hours of Craig Williams, owner of The Avenue Pub and Central Mesa, saying Monday that he was exiting the race over “unforeseen circumstances.”

Fleming said this was a deciding factor in his joining the race.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while pretty seriously,” Fleming said. “I was actually really close with Matt Calderone and saw the hard work he did and I want to just build on that.”

Fleming, 28, joins Lee Busby, 62, and John Earl, 72, in vying for the District 4 seat that represents the University of Alabama campus, the neighboring historic districts and parts of downtown Tuscaloosa.

Sidney Frank Fleming was sometimes known as Sidney at the University of Alabama. He was a fellow member of Sigma Nu along with Calderone. He had registered to vote in 2013 but didn’t cast a ballot. Many of his frat brothers of course who did vote were part of a court case.

The case which was ultimately heard by the Alabama Supreme Court dealt with what would constitute a “domicile.” The legal requirements to be considered a resident involved such things as where people register their cars, where they file taxes, where their grades are sent, etc.  Student residency doesn’t just mean living in a place for 30 days, but is supposed to involve the long-term intent of residents. Enforcement of such requirements is another thing entirely.

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Merely having been in a fraternity at the University that was associated with The Machine certainly doesn’t mean that Sidney is this year’s version of a “Machine candidate” running for the District Four seat.

During Garrison’s time serving on the Council, District Four was redrawn to exclude neighborhoods that had traditionally been occupied by permanent residents.

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The redrawing of the district map made the student vote even more significant.

Many students at the University don’t care about voting. The bloc of voters orchestrated by The Machine has been the deciding factor in elections.

Will the 2019 City Council election be a repeat of the School Board election in 2013?

The District 4 polling place was swamped by students, many of whom were wearing tee-shirts commemorating the Greek Fest, the Old Row or displaying other Greek themes. They came from Tennessee, Oregon, Georgia, California and other states to vote for candidates who were running in a local school board race in Alabama. The students more than likely were required to return to their Houses wearing the “I voted” stickers that they were given after voting. One person sympathetic to Horwitz said that she wished she could have stood outside the polling place with a roll of stickers and handed them out to students to save them the trouble of casting ballots.

According to a poll worker some students were so unfamiliar with the voting process that, once they were checked off the list of registered voters, they forgot to pick up their ballots. Others left their drivers license, which many had used as an ID, on the tables where they marked their ballot. Some showed up not knowing if they were registered in Tuscaloosa or in another city. There were an unusually large number of “provisional ballots” cast due to uncertainties about voter eligibility.

That’s not likely. But will another twenty year old be elected to the District Four seat with a little help from his friends, some of whom may be students who belong to fraternities associated with The Machine?

 

 

 

 

 

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Teens Drinking in the Movies & TV

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Cristel Antonia Russell (American University Kogod School of Business) has written an intriguing article about the prevalence of teenagers drinking in movies and television. In her article From ‘Pretty Little Liars’ to ‘The OC,’ television producers need to stop encouraging teen drinking – here’s how they can Russell writes, “you don’t have to look hard to find 16-year-olds sneaking a drink from a flask or getting drunk at a party.”

She explained this phenomena:

The majority of TV shows teens watch depict characters drinking alcohol, often heavily, with few negative consequences. Sometimes, alcohol brands that appear are placed there purposefully by alcohol companies.

Alcohol companies are prohibited from advertising their products to teenagers on billboard near schools or buying commercial time during programs in which the majority of the audience is under 21. But there isn’t an explicit ban on paying to have their brand appear in a television show. This practice is called product placement.

In the United States, alcohol promotion is largely regulated through voluntary industry marketing codes. These codes forbid alcohol advertising in media, including digital media, where 28% of the projected audience is under 21.

In the absence of independent oversight, alcohol companies have long realized that product placement provides a relatively easy way to get around these regulations, to the increasing worry of consumer advocates.

Alcohol is one of the most actively placed product categories in Hollywood TV programs and movies. The growth of product placement consistently outpaces that of traditional advertising.

She produced trial programs that were funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Some of the episodes which included teen drinking had epilogues that featured the main character correcting the pro-drinking message in the story.

Half the participants saw the epilogue in which a main character talked directly to the camera to say: “What you see on TV is not real. You do not need to drink to look cool and fit in.” The other half saw the episode without an epilogue.

Though viewers who were immersed in the pro-alcohol story line reported more favorable attitudes toward drinkers and higher drinking intentions following the episode, we also found a hopeful outcome.

The epilogue was able to correct this influence, but only for viewers who were aware that they were being persuaded to buy a product. In other words, the epilogue had the most corrective power for those viewers who were both transported by the story and recognized someone was selling them something.

Is there any wonder that under-aged drinking is so prevalent at schools such as the University of Alabama, which has a strict policy about alcohol use? Just as the producers of mass entertainment profit from the promotion of under-aged drinking, the providers of alcohol in Tuscaloosa also find the temptation of “easy money” hard to resist.

The legacy of the 1978 movie Animal House has been eclipsed by the ubiquitous depiction of teen drinkers in popular media. Perhaps that is why the idea of free limo rides and booze for students that voted in the Tuscaloosa school board election in 2013 didn’t seem so far fetched?

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Making Anti-drinking Rules Stick

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Colleges Have Anti-Drinking Rules on the Books, but Which Ones Actually Work?” The conclusions of the study include:

Among strategies that work best, the researchers say, are prohibiting alcohol in public places on the campus (including sports arenas) and at student-organization recruitment events, as well as banning tailgating, drinking games, and alcohol delivery to the campus. Rules like that, the report’s authors say, not only restrict alcohol consumption but also are “likely to influence social norms around drinking.” Banning drinking at events like recruiting events in the fall “sets the normative tone for the school year.”

Also important, the study suggests: Make sure students know exactly what consequences will follow which infractions. And make sure they know that if they’re cited or arrested off campus by the local police, the college will be notified.

Penalties deemed to work best have a “strong, population-wide deterrent effect,” the report says. Those include “student-organization probation and loss of student-organization status.”

Less effective, but still useful as part of a “ ‘package’ of graduated sanctions,” are suspension and probation. “Because of their severity and the extended deliberative process often required to enforce them,” they “become less swift and certain.”

The University of Alabama’s alcohol policy, if strictly enforced, would certainly curtail illegal, under-aged drinking on campus.

Kafka’s article continues:

For students to heed colleges’ alcohol rules, they have to be able to find and understand them. That’s a problem. Alcohol policies for colleges in the Maryland group could generally be found by students within 30 seconds, although the rules were spread out across multiple locations instead of just one web page.

But colleges need to simplify the language in those policies. Even the clearest rules, the study found, “would be considered difficult, confusing, and best understood by someone with at least some college education.”

He points out that the success of enforcement strategies was “deemed beyond the scope of this study.”

This nationwide problem will only be successfully dealt with when individual educational institutions begin to access how they are enforcing their own policies. Alabama’s Capstone of higher education has an opportunity to be a vanguard by enforcing its own policies.

 

 

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Rape, Binge Drinking & Frats

 

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An Atlantic article “Why It Matters Where College Students Binge-Drink” by Ashley Fetters claims that “hot spots” where binge drinking occurs are associated with campus date rape.

Some might argue that individual students’ misconduct is more to blame for sexual assault than any frat house or party hot spot. But according to a new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, party locations do play a role in increasing the frequency of sexually aggressive behavior. The study followed the partying and hookup behaviors of more than 1,000 straight men over four semesters, from the beginning of their freshman year. It found that men’s attendance at “drinking venues”—that is, bars and parties—was a better predictor of their sexual aggression than simply binge-drinking or enthusiastic attitudes toward casual sex.

The study’s authors “point to the need for better supervision—and enforcement—on the parts of bar owners and university administrators.”

At the University of Alabama where most students are too young to legally drink and there is a strict alcohol policy you might expect that fraternities would not become “drinking venues.” The question would be: Is there any significant enforcement of the Capstone’s policy on under-aged drinking and alcohol on campus?

On other campuses quite often action has been taken by University administrations only when a death due to “hazing” has resulted from alcohol use. But sometimes sexual assaults are involved as well as in the case at the University of Texas where a moratorium on all social activities by fraternities and sororities was issued.

CNN‘s 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground” provided a harrowing look at campus sexual assaults. Indiana University’s Elizabeth Armstrong said, “Clearly there are men who think it is OK to have sex with a woman who is very intoxicated, even passed out.”

Banning fraternities outright would be one way to cope with the epidemic of college date rapes.  Swarthmore, after protests by its students over a “rape attic” and a “rape tunnel” at a fraternity on campus, has recently closed all of its fraternities. The Pennsylvania college has yet to end its leases with fraternities.

At the University of Alabama, where its Greek life is such an important campus tradition, such a ban would irreparably damage the school’s character. A better idea would be to increase enforcement of the University’s own policies and also the city codes on under-aged alcohol use.

 

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Safety first?

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Before the apartment that is now called University House on 15th Street and 10th Avenue was approved by the Tuscaloosa Planning and Zoning Commission there was a discussion of a sidewalk that crossed the railroad tracks being built. Much was made at the Commission meeting about the complex being accessible to the University of Alabama’s campus by students who choose to walk.

Apparently nothing had been done to establish the viability of constructing the sidewalk before the apartment was approved. A city official explained it in this way: “The walkway across the railroad tracks on 10th Avenue was not approved by the railroad – the Planning Commission didn’t have the authority to require them to construct that walkway across a private entity like the railroad.”

According to a  member of the Planning and Zoning Commission the $100,000 that had been provided to build the sidewalk was refunded to the developer.

There is an old narrow sidewalk on the other side of 10th Avenue from where the apartments are located. It winds its way across the tracks in a serpentine fashion around the railroad crossing signal.  Asphalt covers the area where the the railroad tracks are crossed.

Many students prefer to walk on the ground and in the street to get to the apartments rather than walk on the existing sidewalk and cross the street at the traffic signal. The railroad put a “No Trespassing” sign in the area.

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The phenomena of students preferring not to use sidewalks was commented on by a student leader. It was said that in one area near the campus students were known to “choose to cross the street and walk where there is no sidewalk rather than stay on the side with a sidewalk.” Hopefully a student who is paying more attention to a cellphone than traffic on the unlit path to the apartments will not be hit by a car.

Another dangerous place for pedestrians to cross the street was where the Hugh Thomas Bridge met University Boulevard  in Tuscaloosa’s downtown. For some inexplicable reason the speed limit on the bridge had been 55 MPH whereas the speed limit on either side of the bridge on Lurleen Wallace Boulevard was 45 MPH.

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Since there is a rise in the bridge as drivers approached University Boulevard, the traffic signal at the junction of the bridge and boulevard could not be seen until vehicles were near the end of the bridge. Since this was considered unsafe, the speed limit for the  bridge before the rise was been lowered to 45MPH. And the lower speed limit, which was previously not posted on the boulevard for over a block after crossing the bridge, is now posted at the end of the bridge. It is now less likely that pedestrians crossing with the signal will be hit by someone driving at a faster speed limit. Theoretically the driver who has slowed down will now be able to better observe the traffic signal and come to a stop. Why the speed limit on the rest of the bridge remains at 55MPH, when the speed limit before the bridge is ten miles per hour lower, has no reasonable explanation. In a letter to the editor in the Tuscaloosa News the former City Engineer suggested that some drivers might be expected to drive at 60MPH in a a 55MPH zone.

As a way to reduce the number of pedestrians who were walking on University Boulevard and crossing at the intersection of the bridge, there were discussions years ago at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings of there being a walkway that ran behind the residential buildings located on the boulevard.

A city official has given an update on this: “The ongoing Lurleen Wallace project includes a walkway under the bridges connecting the 4th Street / Greensboro Ave intersection to near the Home 2 Suites. Sidewalks that branch from that walkway will connect to the amphitheater and University Boulevard.  The City and ALDOT are sharing in the cost of this work.”

At some time in the future the walkway that was discussed at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting may come to pass. Someone who attended the meetings could well be forgiven for thinking that the walkway as well as the sidewalk on 10th Avenue were conditions for the approval of projects. Some of the ideas that are tossed out at the meetings are spontaneous. And the Commission is limited on making any conditions for approval of projects. In the end the City Council makes the decisions.

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Kavanaugh & the Keg City Club

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The nomination process for Brett Kavanaugh to become a member of the Supreme Court has been complicated by tales of his alleged bad behavior as a teenager under the influence of alcohol.

Matthew Yglesias’ Vox article “Brett Kavanaugh’s slippery answers about high school partying matter” addresses the inconsistency of Kavanaugh’s claims:

Dogged by an accusation of a sexual assault in high school and pressed to defend his character, Brett Kavanaugh went on Fox News with a curious strategy. Instead of owning up to his high school drinking habits, he told what appear to be lies.

Kavanaugh insinuated that he never drank when he was underage, saying on Fox that when he was a senior, the “drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there.”

Not only is this not true with regard to the legal drinking age in Maryland at the time, it’s also extremely hard to square with the portrait he otherwise paints of himself as a hard-partying kid. Thirty-five years ago he seemed to have joked in his yearbook about being the treasurer of the Keg City Club, and in 2015 he quipped that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep.”

Obviously if we disqualified people from high office for having engaged in underage drinking or some youthful drunken antics, we’d have a very hard time staffing the government. The mere fact that Kavanaugh drank to excess in high school is not relevant to whether he is fit to serve on the Supreme Court. And it certainly doesn’t prove that he sexually assaulted anyone.

Drinking to excess is unhealthy and sets the stage for potentially illegal activity, including unsafe driving and violence. However, it’s hardly unforgivable and certainly not proof that Kavanaugh committed any of the serious offenses against women that have been charged. The disparity between Kavanaugh’s statements about his high school activities and the apparent facts, however, does raise a serious question about his honesty.

Whether or not Kavanaugh sexually assaulted his accuser Christine Blasey Ford, the role of under-aged drinking has been brought to the forefront of national consciousnesses by media coverage of his nomination.

As bad as the problem of under-aged drinking in high school may be, such drinking in college seems to be a quantum step worse. As high as one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. The use of alcohol is integral to this kind of abusive behavior.

It has been alleged that an inebriated Kavanaugh was involved in a gang rape in high school and indecent exposure at his Yale fraternity.

The MeToo movement has brought out that there is a national problem with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  Time magazine’s 2017 “person of the year”  featured victims of sexual assault who “broke the silence.”

Will the publicity on under-aged drinking problems brought about by the Kavanaugh nomination result in a greater awareness of a societal problem as serious as sexual assault involving under-aged drinking?  Wouldn’t a campaign to tackle such under-aged drinking be one of the most effective ways to reduce sexual assault?

At institutions of higher education such as the University of Alabama under-aged drinking is strictly prohibited on campus. Such a recognition of the problems associated with under-aged drinking is one step in curtailing sexual assault and other alcohol related problems. More effective community enforcement of the laws that prohibit under-aged drinking in conjunction with the University’s policy is needed to enhance the health and safety of University students.

 

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