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Size Matters

Heavy metal: Make the Hummer your family wagon, and you may run afoul of the law.

photo: John Whipple

Most of the Capital Region’s SUVs are frequently breaking the law, just by driving down the street

Attention SUV owners: Those same laws that keep tractor-trailers from taking a short-cut through your neighborhood might also make the family wagon a trespasser, too.

It’s no secret that city and town officials are often faced with tough decisions when it comes to balancing the needs of the residential and commercial districts. Like chaperones at a high school dance, those charged with enforcing this separation often rely upon rules as flimsy as the old “keep enough space between you for a Bible” in order to prevent overmingling. (This, of course, would raise such questions as, “The pocket Bible or the massive, Gutenberg edition?”)

Take, for instance, a situation that developed last November in Guilderland that received little attention outside of the town’s local newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise, but may be indicative of things to come around the Capital Region.

The controversy first made headlines when a feud between neighbors resulted in Guilderland resident Wesley Staroba receiving a ticket for parking his Chevrolet Silverado truck in his home’s driveway. As Staroba—and even a few town officials—soon discovered, local zoning laws define a commercial vehicle as any vehicle “having a registered carrying or hauling capacity of one ton or more.” According to the manufacturer’s specifications, Staroba’s heavy-duty pickup is rated to carry that much and more, and in Guilderland, like in many other municipalities around the region, commercial vehicles are prohibited from parking on residential streets or driveways overnight. Despite Staroba’s insistence that, just as with many families today, the large truck was used primarily as personal transportation for him and his family, the violation was dismissed only after Staroba agreed to treat the truck as the commercial vehicle it is—according to town code, at least—and keep it garaged overnight.

But it did raise the issue of what’s in those zoning codes. At a time when monstrous SUVs and four-door pickup trucks have become common methods of transporting the kids to soccer practice or yourself to work, similar regulations regarding vehicle weight and carrying capacity can be found in the zoning laws of many cities and towns around the Capital Region. Yet, just as town officials in Guilderland discovered, the question is not only whether the laws should be changed to accommodate the growing size of family vehicles, but also why such regulations exist and whether their enforcement should become more commonplace.

“Trucks, commercial vehicles, tractors and tractor-trailer combinations in excess of the weights indicated are hereby excluded from the following streets,” states section 119-35 of the town of Bethlehem’s traffic code, “except for the pickup and delivery of materials.”

This portion of the town code goes on to list 14 streets, including Ellsworth Avenue, Elm Avenue East (between Jericho Road and Elm Avenue) and Kenwood Avenue (between the Delmar Bypass and Delaware Avenue), all with a vehicle-weight restriction of three tons. Although three tons may initially seem like a hefty—and therefore, logical—cutoff point between commercial and passenger vehicles, manufacturers’ specifications place many of the most popular SUVs in violation of local zoning laws whenever their rubber meets certain roads.

>From the Cadillac Escalade, with a gross-vehicle-weight rating of 6,800 pounds in its lightest form, to the Chevrolet Suburban, weighing in at 7,000 to 8,600 pounds (and, of course, the 8,600-pound Hummer H2), there’s a strong case to be made that many of the vehicles common on local streets and avenues are, in fact, there illegally.

While there are various reasons for the infrequent enforcement of such laws, the reason for their existence is a bit more certain.

“Typically, a residential road is a little less structurally sound than a commercial road,” explained Bill Neeley, supervisor of public works for the town of Colonie. “The asphalt’s thickness tends to be greater on the roads where dump trucks and heavy vehicles are more common.”

According to Neeley, weight restrictions on local roads serve a dual purpose: protecting both the structural integrity and the aesthetic quality of neighborhoods. The town of Colonie has set a higher cutoff point than Bethlehem for its weight restriction (4 tons on the 80-or-so residential routes listed), and similar regulations exist for many of the other towns around the region, including Niskayuna, Scotia and Rotterdam, as well as the village of Colonie.

Neeley was cautious, however, about lumping SUVs and oversized pickup trucks into the same pool of potential street- wreckers as garbage trucks and tractors.

“The occasional heavy SUV isn’t going to tear up the street like a dump truck,” he reasoned. “But with constant use over time—yeah, they certainly might cause some problems.”

And with large amounts of taxpayer dollars directed toward street repair each year—not to mention the personal expense that goes with pothole-induced wheel alignments and tire repair—the question of whether these restrictions should be enforced upon vehicles like Dodge Ram pickup trucks (6,350 pounds for the 1500 model and 9,000 pounds or more for the 2500 model) or the Chevrolet Avalanche (6,800 to 8,600 pounds) may gain importance as the average weight of passenger vehicles outpaces the capability of local roadways.

For now, though, the question of enforcement tends to depend on whom you ask.

“There aren’t any vehicles that weigh that much,” said a spokesman for the town of Niskayuna’s police department when asked whether any tickets have ever been issued for violations of the town’s 4-ton weight-restriction on the eight roads where a limit has been assigned. The town’s weight restriction, he later stated, referred to vehicles’ weights when empty. (There is no mention of empty or full vehicles in the code.) And while the same representative later implied that the local weight restrictions were intended only for commercial vehicles (the actual code only uses the word “vehicles,” and makes no distinction between personal or commercial use), this uncertainty highlights one of the more frustrating aspects of the weight-restriction issue: the problem of differing standards.

The most frequent weight-related classification applied to vehicles is the gross-vehicle-weight rating, which includes the weight of the vehicle, driver, passengers, optional equipment and cargo. However, most vehicle specifications also list the weight of the vehicle when empty, known as the curb weight. The two measures can differ by a ton or more in some cases, leading many to question exactly which “weight” to go by when enforcing regulations. (The weights listed for vehicles in this story are the GVWR weights.)

In addition to the significant lack of empty vehicles cruising around local roadways, a number of other arguments have been made for the use of GVWR as a representative measure of weight. The New York State Department of Transportation uses vehicles’ GVWR in order to make a distinction between different classes of vehicles throughout much of the state code, while the Internal Revenue Service also uses GVWR to determine applicability to certain taxes and tax breaks. The controversial federal tax break that once allowed business owners to deduct up to $100,000 for nominally “work-related” (no proof required) vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds also relied upon the GVWR measure, and though this loophole has since been altered to allow such a deduction only for vehicles with a GVWR of 14,000 pounds or more, “work-related” vehicles with a 6,000-pound GVWR can still qualify for up to $25,000 in deductions.

Some local municipalities have removed much of the confusion by specifying the standard of vehicle weight to which their restrictions apply. The town of Colonie’s restrictions apply to “every vehicle having a gross vehicle weight, whether unloaded or loaded,” of more than 4 tons while the town of Rotterdam’s restrictions simply apply to vehicles with a current, total weight greater than the designated tonnage.

According to Lt. William Manikas of the Rotterdam Police Department, the primary obstacle to enforcement of such restrictions is simply a matter of resources. With more than 70 streets where vehicle weights are restricted and a police force of less than 50 officers, checking the weight of every SUV or extended-cab pickup truck would simply be a waste of manpower, reasoned Manikas, who added that he has yet to receive any complaints about SUVs violating local vehicle-weight laws. And complaints, said Manikas, tend to be the only way the police are alerted to weight-restriction violations.

“We’ve never really received any complaints about SUVs’ weights,” said Manikas, “but certainly, if it’s something we started seeing, we would do our best to take care of it.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Overheard

“I don’t care if they give me a Price Chopper receipt. I just want to get going.”

—CDTA bus driver on an over-full Central Avenue bus that had just missed a green light because so many people were boarding.

“It doesn’t snow in China, does it? It’s too warm.”

—man at the back of a bus in Saturday’s snowstorm, to a group of Asian students who had just boarded the bus. They didn’t reply.

 



What a Week

Some Ideas Are More Equal than Others

At the instigation of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, the wrath of the right has decended upon Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who was to speak at Hamilton College in Utica this month. After 9/11, Churchill wrote what many see as an inflammatory essay saying the attacks were a legitimate continuation of a war America started. Even those who disagree with the essay have raised concerns about the furor raised in response—Hamilton College canceled the speech after its president began to get death threats, while Churchill has been forced to resign as department chair and is at risk of losing his professorship.

End Justifies Means?

Initial reports of 70 percent turnout in the recent Iraqi elections turned out to be untrue (it was more like 57 percent, 40 in Sunni areas), 45 people were killed in terrorist attacks, and Sunni boycotting could still sabotage the constitutional process. On the other hand, voter turnout was higher than in many recent U.S. elections, and even the most cynical commentators found hope in the bravery of people lining up to vote and waving their ink-stained fingers in peace signs at the cameras afterwards. Now let’s make it worth their while.

Like a Phoenix

Dr. Howard Dean’s political career may not have been ruined after all. Heading into next week’s Democratic National Committee election, Dean appears to have the majority of his party’s support. Despite his nosedive as a presidential candidate, Dean is once again poised to take one of the top adversarial spots to President Bush. This means one of two things: Either the former Vermont governor has managed to shed the caricature image attached to him after his infamous screaming fit, or the Democratic Party really is screwed.

One Fewer Unemployed

Former President Bill Clinton has been chosen to spearhead the reconstruction of tsunami-damaged areas in Southeast Asia and Africa. While his new job will not officially begin until March, Clinton already has plans to not only rebuild the ravaged area, but to quell some of the bitter political conflicts that have existed in nations like Sri Lanka and Indonesia for decades. U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard stated, “No one could possibly be better qualified for this task.” And with the amount of damage control Clinton has had to do over the last decade, that might be true.

 



Walls Away! The Albany Housing Authority is in the process of demolishing its building at 159 Church St. The building has not been occupied since the 1970s, when the construction of I-787 made the noise levels in the building unbearable. Until a recent move to the new AHA building at 200 S. Pearl St., however, the AHA’s maintenance offices were still housed at 159 Church St. AHA plans to use the site for its garage and fleet.

photo: John Whipple

I’m Sorry, All Agents Are Busy Organizing

Ticketmaster employees say their wage and workplace rules are not entertaining

When Jessica Weber was in the hospital recently, she had to call in to her employer—Ticketmaster/Reserve America in Ballston Spa—every day from her hospital bed, or risk accumulating “points” for unexcused absence.

When Dianne Shadick had car trouble, she was told she needed to produce a receipt from the towing company. “I don’t have the money for a tow truck,” she said. “I had a family member pull me out.” That earned her her 19th point.

William Shreve lost his voice for two weeks, and accumulated 12 points because he didn’t offer enough doctors’ notes. “They knew I couldn’t talk,” he said. “I can’t afford insurance, I can’t afford doctors.”

Points can also be accumulated for arriving or returning from break late (1/4 point), or leaving early because you aren’t feeling well (1/2 point). Sometimes if the phone system takes a while to log you in, you can get penalized even if you’re at your station on time, employees say. Technically, you can be fired for having more than 16 points, though several employees say people are still working there who have exceeded 30, and “practically everybody that works there has a final warning,” according to Shadick. This means an atmosphere of “any day I could be fired, anybody working there any day could be fired,” said Shadick. Some team leaders stick strictly to the rules, while others play favorites in awarding points or initiating termination, said several employees. That’s only one of many reasons they’ve turned to Local 408, IUE-CWA, to help them organize into a union.

The agents at the call center take Ticketmaster orders as well as campground reservations for several state park systems. They start at $7.50 an hour, and add $.25 for every new contract that they learn to handle calls for—that is until they reach $8.50 an hour. There the raises stop, even though there are more contracts to be learned. Other call centers in the area are advertising positions at $9.13 an hour. Shreve would be interested in some of those positions—but they require a car to get to, and at $8.50 an hour he can’t afford one.

“My son has Asperger’s [Syndrome],” said Don Deveneau, who started at Ticketmaster in October and is still at the $7.50 rate. “If it wasn’t for him getting SSI there’s no way in hell I would be able to afford the roof over my head. I’m having trouble paying the utilities.”

“If they don’t allow an annual increase in pay, there’s no way you can keep up with inflation,” says Shreve. “I’ve peaked out. . . . Whenever inflation goes up, I lose.”

The limits on wages are major hardship for many of Ticketmaster’s employees, but it’s the work rules and environment that really get under their skin. Along with the point system and doctors’ note requirements, they have to clock in and out for their 10-minute breaks and for bathroom breaks. If they take a day off for a loss in the family, according to Deveneau, they are required to provide not only a copy of the obituary, but a letter on the funeral-home letterhead attesting that they were present at the funeral. “Boot camp wasn’t this bad,”said Deveneau.

“They treat you like a 5-year-old over there, that’s all there is to it,” added another employee who wished to remain anonymous.

Ticketmaster workers say support from supervisors for difficult calls is also spotty. “We’re not allowed to hang up at all,” said the anonymous employee. “I’ve hit the emergency button and no one has come to aid me. . . . One of my friends got a bad call, a guy was masturbating on the phone, and there was no supervisor around to take the call. He hit the emergency button over and over.”

Or sometimes the supervisors are around, said Deveneau. “You look up there on the stage, especially on a Saturday, and the agent support people are just laughing and joking and teeheeing. . . . and you get this message, ‘All agent support people are busy.’ ”

The company has been holding focus groups to ask for suggestions, but Shadick, for one, doesn’t believe anything will change. “I’ve made quite a few suggestions about different things,” she said. “They have little meetings and ask agents ‘How can we improve?’ but nothing ever gets done.”

In October, Chris Debiec, the vice president of local 408, reached out to the Ticketmaster Ballston Spa employees after hearing some of these accounts. He was pointed to Shadick as someone whom other people went to to talk about their problems. On Jan. 20, he met with her during her break, off company property, to give her some materials to hand out to colleagues on her own time. Two hours later, she was pulled out of a refresher training course and told she was being fired for excessive absenteeism. “Why would they be spending the money to have me in a class if they were making plans to let me go?” she said. Shadick and Debiec both believe she was fired for her union activity. That would make her firing an unfair labor practice, according to the National Labor Relations Act. Employees also have told Debiec that the company has been interrogating them about what they know about the union—another prohibited practice.

On Tuesday (Feb. 1), Debiec and members of his internal organizing committee went public with their organizing campaign, and served notice of two unfair labor practice charges—for Shadick’s firing and the interrogations—on the management of Ticketmaster.

Debiec said he was told to leave the property, and that management “banned all union materials on their property.” According to the National Labor Relations Act, employers may not interfere with organizing activity. This means that employees may hand out organizing materials in non-work space on the property (break room, parking lot) when both they and the co-worker receiving the materials are not on work time.

When employees tried to leaflet in the parking lot after their shift on Tuesday, however, management called the police on them, another unfair labor practice, according to Debiec, who got in a shouting match with a manager over the call. The police told the employees to stay on the sidewalk for now, said committee member John Weber Jr., who said the police were “just making sure that everything is straight before they let us do what we were trying to earlier.” They were able to finish their leafleting.

“With all these violations of the National Labor Relations Act, I don’t expect they have yet contacted an anti-union firm,” said Debiec. “They obviously haven’t done their homework. . . . I expect that within a few days they will.”

If the company consults an anti-union firm, they will likely shift tactics to one-on-one meetings and letters home promising all sorts of changes, said Debiec.

John McDonald of Ticketmaster/Reserve America Ballston Spa said he couldn’t yet comment. Calls to Ticketmaster’s corporate headquarters were not returned.

Ticketmaster is famous for its hefty “convenience charges” and “order processing fees,” which can increase ticket prices for consumers by upwards of 15 percent. Will the public support a union-organizing drive if they are afraid it will raise ticket prices higher?

Debiec responded to this question by rattling off a list of the salaries, bonuses, and stock options of the top officials of Interactive Corp., which owns 26 businesses, including Ticketmaster, Home Shopping Network, Expedia, and Citysearch. Barry Diller, the CEO, for example, paid himself a $3.25 million bonus in 2003 on top of his $500,000 salary and nearly $1 million worth of personal use of the company jet. “Maybe they can cut back on the bonus and share the wealth,” said Debiec. “Of course probably, they will end up upping the ticket prices, which they shouldn’t.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


The Good Fight

We bid farewell to Tom Nattell, lifelong poet, activist and one of our own

On Monday, Capital Region poet-activist and Metroland columnist Tom Nattell lost his two-year battle against throat cancer. He was 52. We are all deeply saddened by this turn of events, and although we knew Tom was dying, we all hoped through a miracle, some sort of cosmic reordering and righting of a terrible wrong, that he’d somehow pull through. We wanted this not only because it’s difficult to imagine our broader community without him, or because we’ll miss his upbeat personality or the extra dessert at staff parties (Tom didn’t do refined sugar), but because he was a genuinely good guy.

We extend our most heart-felt sympathies to Tom’s longtime partner, Mary Anne Winslow, to his kids, Noah and Leah, and to his close friends. We’d also like to thank them for sharing Tom with us, because, no doubt, the time he spent working on various projects and causes over the years took time away from his family and loved ones.

At Metroland, we first got to know Tom as an activist and a poet. He’d stop by the office on a fairly regular basis with press releases, often printed on bright neon- colored paper to make them stand out from the rest, promoting everything from protests to poetry readings. More times than not, the events he organized were a little bit of both: Rock Against Reaganomics concerts; the 24-hour performance bash, Readings Against the End of the World, which ran for a decade in the ’80s and ’90s; the Poets Open Mic at QE2; the annual Poets Action Against AIDS; the Poets in the Park series held every summer at the Robert Burns statue in Washington Park; and, of course, his infamous performance-poetry troupe, 3 Guys From Albany, which has toured the country performing in—where else?—17 other cities named Albany.

We knew that Tom had the stuff a lot of us wish we were made of: His commitments to social justice, the environment, home-grown art and activism were tireless. He was dedicated to building the kind of community he wanted to live in—one that is vibrant, thoughtful, sustainable. He was one of those exceedingly rare individuals who didn’t just talk the talk, but walked the walk. In a world that often seems filled with people looking out only for themselves—and their financial well-being—Tom took only what he needed and gave back so much more. You know the saying: Think globally, act locally. That was Tom. Because he was the real deal, we wanted his voice in our paper and that’s how he came to write his column The Simple Life, which appeared in these pages every other week since 1997.

Through his writing Tom opened a window into his world and shared his approach to life with those who were not fortunate enough to know him personally. He taught us how we, too, could make a difference in this life through conscious personal actions, however great or small.

>From Tom we learned about things like the efficiency of the bicycle as a mode of transportation. Tom was an avid cyclist. Most days he left the car at home and rode his bike to his day job as a research scientist for the State Health Department. Or he walked—not as efficient as the bike, but gentle on the environment, nonetheless.

And who could forget his instructions for how to set up a deluxe home recycling center, complete with a box of dirt in the basement filled with supercomposting worms? He claimed they even recycled his cotton undershorts—everything but the elastic waistband.

Because of Tom we all know that something as simple as planting a seed—an organic, sustainably produced seed, mind you—can make a world of difference.

Near the end of his life, Tom was waxing philosophical about the meaning of it all. He told Paul Grondahl from the Times Union: “A human life is just an eye-blink in the universe, man, if even that.”

Maybe there’s some truth to that—especially if said life is lived in a vaccuum. But Tom certainly didn’t live that way. He lived a life in the world and touched countless people through his actions. Because of this, we know the ripple effect of his existence will continue to be felt in our own lives, throughout our greater community and, in turn, in the wider world.

To ensure that this happens and to honor Tom’s life and memory there are certain things we can all do. First—this is the easy one—make a donation to the Tom Nattell Peace Poetry Prize, which will be awarded annually to an Albany High School student for a poem that fosters a sense of social responsibility (checks may be made out to the Community Foundation for the Capital Region; write Tom Nattell Peace Poetry Prize on the memo line, and mailed to the Community Foundation for the Capital Region, Six Tower Place, Albany, NY 12203; visit www.cfcr.org for more information).

On a personal level, we can all choose to live a little bit more like Tom. We can all try to live simpler lives, as it were. Take your pick: There are any number of ways to start or add to the conscious decisions we make about how we spend our time on this planet and our world’s precious resources.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Walk, bike, take the bus. Get rid of your lawn and plant an organic garden instead. (If you can’t part with the grass, at least stop using petrochemicals to fertilize it and don’t waste water to keep it green at the height of summer.) Write to your elected officials and let them know what you think about policies affecting the environment, poverty, AIDS . . . .

You get the picture.

Tom led by example. It’s our turn to take up his mantle and follow, man.


Loose Ends

The U.S. Justice Department has some integrity left, it seems, as Solicitor General Paul Clement refused to defend a law prohibiting drug reform advertisements in public transit systems. The law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court last fall [“Say Anything You Want About Drugs—as Long as You’re Against Them,” FYI, Feb. 5, 2004; Loose Ends, Sept. 16, 2004]. . . . Criticism of the potential Albany Convention Center got a big boost with the recent release of a report from the Brookings Institution, which cast significant doubts upon the expensive project’s probability of success. The Brookings report further supported the findings of previous studies [“Betting on the Big Project,” Newsfront, June 10, 2004], indicating that the business of building convention centers may be booming, but the actual number of conventions held each year is plummeting. . . . A recent study conducted by Texas A & M University found that teenagers who receive abstinence-only sexual education in Texas schools are significantly less likely to abstain from sexual activity. As previously reported [“Abstaining From the Truth,” Newsfront, Dec. 9, 2004], abstinence-only sexual education has received a major boost in funding under George W. Bush.



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