Britain Says Moscow Is Plotting to Install a Pro-Russian Leader in Ukraine
In a highly unusual public statement, backed by U.S. officials, London named the putative head of a potential puppet government but few other details.
Rapid Inflation Fuels Debate Over What’s to Blame: Pandemic or Policy
The White House is emphasizing that inflation is worldwide. Economists say that’s true — but stimulus-spurred consumer buying is also to blame.
Vancouver eyes more affordable housing
City staff presented nine proposed updates to zoning codes during a virtual open house Tuesday that would allow more development of affordable housing.
Vancouver is rapidly expanding, which is increasing the need for more affordable housing. The city says increasing housing options near existing services and in accordance with demographic needs will improve Vancouver’s future growth and overall livability.
Bryan Snodgrass, Vancouver’s long-range principal planner, said current zoning codes restrict these housing options from coming into fruition.
“This work is trying to chip away and improvise some useful tools” for affordable housing, he said.
The updates being considered include implementing new zoning categories.
Specifically, a single-family R-17 zoning district standard would allow subdivisions with lots between 2,500 and 5,000 square feet. There would be flexibility for lot coverage and parking strategies.
It would also incorporate function requirements for street fronts. Reduced garage door size would allow space for on-site utilities and street parking; visible front doors would increase neighborhood security; rear alley parking would support street front activity; and limited building repetition would foster visual interest in neighborhoods, Snodgrass said.
Updated multi-family R-50 zoning would permit up to 50 units per acre, rather than the current limit of 35 units, and increase lot coverage and building height.
Proposed standards would also allow 1,600-square-foot cottage cluster housing to be built in lower-density residential spaces. City staff based the proposed code on what other local jurisdictions were doing, Snodgrass said.
There are pre-existing cottage clusters in Battle Ground, and other communities such as Ridgefield have approved the building standards.
Apartments with a shared kitchen and bathroom would be allowed in multi-family zones under the proposed code changes. These facilities are currently allowed only in medical or recovery environments.
Micro housing in higher-density areas, the expansion of accessory dwelling units, and building incentives for accessible housing are also addressed in the changes. The latter would require buildings to have wide doorways, no-step entries and bathrooms on the first floor.
Those present at the meeting voiced concerns regarding how new developments would affect historic neighborhood integrity and suggested that city staff consult with the Clark County Historical Preservation Commission. They also urged staff to be specific in code language to avoid homes getting rezoned in the future.
“Developments don’t typically result in the tear-down of existing homes in any number,” Snodgrass said.
Most of the updates were previously recommended in a 2016 Affordable Housing Task Force report. Many of the proposed changes are in effect throughout the county and state.
To comply with state laws, the city is proposing to allow additional density for affordable housing developments on property owned by religious organizations. State law also requires reduced minimum parking standards near busy transit stops for market rate, affordable, senior or disabled housing.
Vancouver’s Planning Commission will draft codes Tuesday for updated standards for new apartments next to existing homes, faith-based affordable housing and reduced parking for apartments near transit. Oral or written feedback can be submitted to the planning commission before the meeting.
The Vancouver City Council must approve and adopt the code updates for them to take effect. Afterward, developers would go through a site-specific review process and notify nearby properties before building. If developers want to use the new zoning district standards, they will go through public hearings before the city council and planning commission.
Witnesses: Extremists abduct 17 girls in northeast Nigeria
ABUJA, Nigeria — Islamic extremists have abducted 17 girls in northeast Nigeria, witnesses said Saturday as the West African nation’s military said it “remains resolute in decisively countering the terrorists.”
Members of the Boko Haram jihadi group attacked Pemi, a village in the Chibok local government area of Borno state, on Thursday, two residents told The Associated Press. The state is where Boko Haram’s decade-long insurgency against the Nigeria government has been concentrated.
In a statement late Friday, the Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for killing “many Christians” and setting fire to two churches and several houses during an attack on the Borno town of Bimi.
Authorities blame Boko Haram for the killing of tens of thousands of people in Nigeria and neighboring countries in West Africa.
The abduction of the girls from Pemi recalled the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, a remote town situated 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. More than 100 of the abducted students remain missing.
The militants targeted a church and Christians when they stormed Pemi on Thursday, according to local leader Hassan Chibok.
“They were shooting sporadically after they rounded the community,” Chibok said. “Some could not have access to escape, so they abducted 17 girls.” Eight of the girls came from one household, he said.
Nigeria’s military and government authorities did not immediately respond the AP’s request for comment on the abductions.
Another resident, Yana Galang, said the extremists razed a church building and targeted nearby houses.
“Some of them (the abducted girls) are 10, 11, 12 years,” Galang said. “They just parked their vehicle near the compounds. You know, as children, they just carried them and put them in the vehicle.”
A Nigerian army spokesperson, Onyema Nwachukwu, told AP on Friday that the insurgents were “desperate” to grow their influence. He was commenting on a video from a Boko Haram offshoot which purported to show child soldiers executing Nigerian army personnel.
“Having been depleted by our troops, the imbroglio in their ranks and the massive surrendering of Boko Haram, the terrorists, in a desperate move, are embarking on a recruitment drive to shore up their strength with child soldiers, who they could easily indoctrinate, manipulate and cheaply manage financially,” Nwachukwu said.
The Islamic extremist rebels in northeast Nigeria — comprising Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) — remain “very, very dangerous”, United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said this week.
The insurgency and its resultant humanitarian crisis, Griffiths told the AP, is “very difficult to deter (and) a grave and clear and present danger.”
Security analysts have told AP one of the challenges the Nigerian military usually faces in rooting out the rebels is their use of women and children as cover during airstrikes.
“They have also conscripted children, minors, who they engage as child soldiers and women, whom they use as sex slaves,” army spokesperson Nwachukwu said.
Berlusconi drops bid to be elected as Italy’s president
ROME — Former premier Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday bowed out of Italy’s presidential election set for next week, claiming he had the votes to win but the country could ill-afford political divisions during the pandemic.
Berlusconi also announced that he is opposing, along with his allies in a center-right bloc, any bid for the presidency by Premier Mario Draghi. Draghi, the former head of Europe’s central bank, is now leading a pandemic-unity government with wide political support.
Together, Berlusconi, anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and nationalist Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni could command some 400 of the 1,009 grand electors who are set to start casting written ballots for Italy’s next president on Monday.
The electors from the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Senate and special regional representatives are tasked with choosing a figure who could unite the country.
Berlusconi, 85, who founded the center-right Forza Italia party three decades ago and served as premier three times, long has been a lightning rod for protests. His past includes a tax fraud conviction and a slew of sex scandals linked to ‘’bunga bunga parties,” while his business empire that includes three private TV stations raised conflict-of-interest concerns.
He spent weeks sounding out his own conservative allies as well as lawmakers from centrist forces to see if he had sufficient support to add Italy’s highest office to his political resume.
The prospect of Berlusconi becoming president already prompted a protest earlier this month in Rome, and another had been set for Monday, when voting begins.
In dropping his presidential bid, Berlusconi said he had confirmed he would have had enough support to be elected to the seven-year term of president. He said he was “honored and moved” but didn’t want to be the cause of “polemics or lacerations” in a nation still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
With his characteristic lack of modesty, Berlusconi added that the presidency “represents the unity of the nation, of the country that I love and to whose service I placed myself for 30 years, with all my energies, my abilities, my competency.”
He noted he was one of the biggest backers last year of Draghi’s appointment to head a pandemic-unity coalition government of nearly all of Italy’s main parties, from right to left. The coalition emerged in 2021 after the pandemic economically ravaged Italy and confidence ebbed in the government of then-Premier Giuseppe Conte, a populist leader.
“In this spirit, I decided to take another step on the path of national responsibility” by asking all those who had pledged support for his presidential bid not to choose him. Instead, he and his fellow center-right leaders will work to “come to agreement on a name able to reap a vast consensus in Parliament.”
Italy’s recovery from the pandemic, “must go forward,” Berlusconi said. “That’s why I consider it necessary that the Draghi government complete its work until the end of the legislature to implement” some 200 billion euros ($230 billion) in European Union pandemic recovery funds, he said. The current Parliament’s term runs until spring 2023.
Draghi, who is held in high esteem by EU leaders, is largely viewed as the guarantor that the funds will be properly spent and reforms that are required for the assistance will be enacted.
He also is considered a strong contender for the presidency, but for months has coyly sidestepped journalists’ questions on whether he wants the job. However, Draghi made clear his interest by saying he offers himself to the service of his country.
Berlusconi taking himself out of contention brought reactions of relief, including from former premier Conte, whose 5-Star Movement had been branded by Berlusconi as a danger to the nation.
“We had said it clearly — the candidacy of Berlusconi was unacceptable,” Conte tweeted. ”With his withdrawal we can take a step forward and begin a serious comparison among political forces to offer to the country a figure of high profile, authoritative, widely shared.”
Despite Berlusconi’s claim that he had secured the needed votes, League leader Salvini recently had sounded unconvinced that the media mogul was a shoe-in for the presidency.
A two-thirds majority is required in the first three rounds, making it unlikely a winner could emerge early on, given no one political bloc accounts for such a big margin. The fourth round requires a simple majority.
Past presidential elections have gone for days before yielding a victor.
The term of the current president, Sergio Mattarella, term expires on Feb. 3.
Omicron wave leaves U.S. food banks scrambling for volunteers
WASHINGTON — Food banks across the country are experiencing a critical shortage of volunteers as the omicron variant frightens people away from their usual shifts, and companies and schools that regularly supply large groups of volunteers are canceling their participation over virus fears.
The end result in many cases has been a serious increase in spending by the food banks at a time when they are already dealing with higher food costs due to inflation and supply chain issues.
“Food banks rely on volunteers. That’s how we keep the costs low,” said Shirley Schofield, CEO of the Food Bank of North Alabama. “The work still gets done but at a much higher expense.”
The extent of the problem was highlighted this past week during the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when many food banks have traditionally organized mass volunteer drives as part of a day of service.
Michael Altfest, director of community engagement for the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, California, called it “without fail, our biggest volunteer event of the year.”
But many food banks chose to cancel their plans this year or continued with radically lower numbers than pre-pandemic years.
Altfest said his food bank’s King Day event drew 73 people spread out over two shifts, when previous years had drawn more than 200 people with all volunteer slots booked up before New Year’s Day. The food bank did not attempt an event last year.
In Tallahassee, Florida, plans for a volunteer-driven event on the holiday were abruptly canceled when all the volunteers dropped out. Schofield said executives at her food bank in Huntsville, Alabama, are debating whether to cut back on their mobile food pantry distributions because they simply do not have enough volunteer-packed food boxes to hand out.
The shortage of volunteers is not universal.
Michael Manning of the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank in Louisiana said his volunteer numbers have remained strong and his MLK Day event proceeded normally with two shifts of more than 50 people.
But several food banks have reported a similar dynamic: minimal volunteers for most of 2021, then a surge last fall through November and December before falling off a cliff in January.
Food banks generally use volunteers to sort through donations and to pack ready-made boxes of goods for distribution. It is common practice to arrange for local companies or schools to send over large groups of volunteers, but that has left the system vulnerable to those institutions pulling out all at once.
At the Second Harvest of the Big Bend food bank in Tallahassee, Florida, the volunteer numbers have remained solid through the omicron surge. But CEO Monique Van Pelt said she was forced to cancel her MLK Day plans because the volunteers all came from a single corporate partner that “didn’t think it was safe for them to gathering as a group in such tight quarters.”
Jamie Sizemore had planned for 54 volunteers from three corporate groups at the Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland food bank in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. But two groups canceled and the third sent less than half its promised number.
“We did manage to pick up some last minute individuals for a total of 12 volunteers for the day,” said Sizemore, the executive director. She added that a long-term contingent of eight assigned Kentucky National Guardsmen frequently help fill the volunteer gaps.
Even outdoor volunteer work, with seemingly less exposure risk than warehouse work, has suffered.
In Irvine, California, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County has launched an ambitious farm project on 45 acres of land provided by University of California. So far, 22 acres have been planted with cabbage and broccoli, and it’s harvest time. The plan was conceived with the intention of using up to 300 volunteers per week, organized in groups from corporate partners such as Disney. But most of the partnering organizations have suspended their volunteer drives amid the omicron surge.
“It’s a bummer because it’s a great outdoor experience,” said Claudia Keller, the food bank’s CEO . “We’re crossing our fingers that this is a short-term thing. We know many of the volunteers are chomping at the bit to get out there.”
The sudden absence of volunteer labor forces most food banks into more expensive choices. When the farm runs short of volunteers, paid laborers are employed.
At the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., CEO Radha Muthiah has to order truckloads of prepackaged boxes of mixed goods to distribute because there aren’t enough volunteers to pack.
“When it’s prepackaged, that tends to increase the price significantly,” Muthiah said.
A truckload of produce on pallets costs about $9,000, but a truckload of ready-to-distribute care packages can cost between $13,000 and $18,000, she said.
In addition to the financial costs, some executives point out a more subtle impact.
“Volunteerism is about more than just getting the boxes packed,” said Schofield, from the Alabama food bank. “It builds camaraderie and a sense of community. It’s a sign of a healthy community at large.”
Vince Hall, government relations officer for Feeding America, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks, said the volunteer numbers are partially a reflection of long-term emotional fatigue and burnout. As the nation endures a second pandemic winter and the omicron variant rolls back some of the progress people expected from the vaccine, long-time volunteers are wearing down.
“These people who are really part of the bedrock of our volunteer workforce, They’ve been doing this since March of 2020,” Hall said. “It takes an emotional toll on people.”
Jewish leaders renew antisemitism fight
Although the FBI initially said the man who held four people hostage at a Texas synagogue was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community,” the captor voiced beliefs that Jews controlled the world and had the power to arrange the release of a prisoner, survivors said after their escape.
The gunman’s words were all too familiar to Jewish leaders and terror experts, who saw the attack on Congregation Beth Israel as yet another in the rising number of antisemitic hate crimes, a sign of the continued need of vigilance and interfaith solidarity.
The hostage-taker — identified by authorities as Malik Faisal Akram — “thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told the Forward, a Jewish news site.
The hourslong standoff ended after the last hostage ran out of the Colleyville synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed, though authorities have declined to say who shot him.
The attack recalled recent deadly assaults on synagogues, including Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life in 2018 and California’s Chabad of Poway in 2019. Unlike those attacks, when assailants linked to white nationalist motives went on shooting rampages soon after entering, Akram took hostages to have them to use their influence to obtain the release of Aafia Siddiqui.
Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and was convicted of trying to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is serving a lengthy sentence in a prison in nearby Fort Worth.
Jeffrey Cohen, another of the synagogue hostages, said Akram “did not come there to kill Jews” but tried to use them in the belief they could get Siddiqui released.
Akram “had bought into the extremely dangerous, antisemitic trope that Jews control everything, that we could call President (Joe) Biden and have him release her,” Cohen told the Times of Israel.
Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said that while only Akram himself knew his motives, his words reflect “a misguided and conspiratorial mindset.”
“The idea that Jews are overwhelmingly, disproportionately powerful and control America is completely mainstream” in some politically Islamist factions, similar to tropes among white nationalists, he said.
And he said Siddiqui’s case is a “cause celebre” in those factions. Siddiqui herself voiced “chilling” words at her court proceedings, blaming her conviction on Israel and asking for genetic tests on jurors for possible Jewish connections, he said.
On Jan. 15, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office said the hostage-taker was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community.” But on Sunday, the FBI called the ordeal “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”
Akram “was looking for a Jewish target,” said Nachman Shai, Israel’s Cabinet minister for diaspora affairs. “If it’s not about Jews, why didn’t he walk into a church, a mosque or a supermarket there?”
The attack resonated in Jewish communities across the country, including those that had been attacked before.
“It’s upsetting to me whenever Jews are under attack, whenever human beings are under attack,” said Beth Kissileff, a Pittsburgh author and member of New Light Congregation. The congregation was one of three meeting in the Tree of Life building that lost members in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack that claimed 11 lives.
She hopes survivors of the Pittsburgh attack — who were consoled in 2018 by Muslim survivors of a deadly mosque attack in Quebec — can offer similar support to those in Colleyville. “People reached out to us, and we want to reach out,” she said.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the denomination Beth Israel is affiliated with, noted that Muslim, Christian and other faith leaders quickly gathered to support the congregants.
“While the uptick of antisemitism is clear, we’ve never lived in a community where there’s more solidarity,” he said.
Anna Eisen, the founding president of Beth Israel, experienced that first-hand, citing support “from neighbors, strangers, churches, the governor” and others.
“I feel safer,” she said. “I know now I’m a part of this community and this country.”
Some advocacy groups and lawmakers have cited the Texas hostage situation in calling on the Senate to take up Biden’s nomination of Deborah Lipstadt to serve as a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.
The Emory University professor’s nomination languished last year, forcing Biden to resubmit her name two weeks ago. The Anti-Defamation League called on the Senate to “act now” to show the urgency of confronting antisemitism.
“We need to treat antisemitism not as an aberration but an everyday reality,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the ADL.
Rabbi Noah Farkas, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said he has been speaking with rabbinic colleagues in the wake of the Texas incident and many have trepidations about leading services.
“To be a Jew in America today, to wear Jewish ritual garb like the yarmulke or a Star of David, is an act of courage, and I would say defiance as well,” Farkas said.
Omicron surge undermines other health care problems
Roger Strukhoff was being treated for intestinal bleeding at a hospital outside Chicago this month when he suffered a mild heart attack.
Normally, the 67-year-old would have been sent to the intensive care unit. But Strukhoff said it was overrun with COVID-19 patients, and the staff instead had to wheel a heart monitor into his room and quickly administer nitroglycerin and morphine.
“A doctor I know pretty well said, ‘Roger, we’re going to have to improvise right here,’” said Strukhoff, who lives in DeKalb, Ill.
The omicron surge this winter has not only swamped U.S. hospitals with record numbers of patients with COVID-19, it has also caused frightening moments and major headaches for people trying to get treatment for other ailments.
Less-urgent procedures have been put on hold around the country, such as cochlear implant surgeries and steroid injections for rheumatoid arthritis. And people with all sorts of medical complaints have had to wait in emergency rooms for hours longer than usual.
Mat Gleason said he wheeled his 92-year-old father, Eugene Gleason, into a Los Angeles-area emergency room last week for a transfusion to treat a blood disorder. It should have taken about seven to 10 hours, Gleason said, but his dad was there for 48 hours.
He said his father called him after 10 hours, asking for a blanket.
“He told me later, ‘I just assumed they forgot about me,” said Gleason, 57, who works as an art critic. “And yet he wasn’t the only person in that room. There were dozens of people” But Gleason added: “I’m not begrudging the hospital at all. They did a great job.”
An average of almost 144,000 people were in the hospital in the U.S. with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, the highest level on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in a few states such as New York and Connecticut that experienced early omicron surges are starting to see an easing of the patient load, but many other places are overwhelmed.
Hospitals say the COVID-19 patients aren’t as sick as those during the last surge. And many of them are being admitted for reasons other than COVID-19 and only incidentally testing positive for the virus.
Rick Pollack, CEO and president of the American Hospital Association, said the surge has had a widespread effect on the availability of care for people who have non-COVID-19 health problems. He said a number of factors are at play: More people are in the hospital, and a high number of health care workers are out with COVID-19, worsening staffing shortages that existed well before the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, roughly 23 percent of hospitals nationwide were reporting critical staff shortages, Pollack said.
Mike Bawden, a 59-year-old marketing consultant with a history of blood clots in his lungs, said he couldn’t get an appointment to see his doctor in Davenport, Iowa, because his coughing symptoms were too similar to COVID-19. The doctor’s office was concerned about the virus spreading to others.
After nearly two weeks, Bawden went to a walk-in clinic, which sent him to the emergency room at Genesis Medical Center-East in Davenport. He said he waited almost six hours in an overflowing ER before he was seen. A scan showed clots in his lungs, as he suspected, and he was prescribed blood thinners.
“It’s always so easy to Monday morning quarterback the ER, but everyone was really nice — even the other patients,” Bawden said. “I think it’s important for folks to realize that nobody’s the villain.”
Des Moines council member accused of domestic violence says he will resign
The resignation follows a pretrial diversion deal Anthony Martinelli reached with the prosecution and judge in his domestic violence case and calls from multiple political groups for him to step down.
Missing Trump? Democrats seem lost without him, while the local GOP surges back from the dead
A new survey found the largest jump in Washington state voters self-identifying as Republican in 30 years. Why? It could be because Donald Trump is gone (for now), making it safe to come back out of the closet in a blue state, Danny Westneat writes.