Reform Is Better Than Yours
Albany Civic Agenda and the mayor agree it’s time for charter
reform, but whose will it be?
June 6, Albany Civic Agen- da announced its “Citizens’ Petition
Initiative” to amend the Charter of the City of Albany. A
day later, Mayor Jerry Jennings established the Charter Revision
Commission, a group whose recommendations would replace the
proposals of the ACA on the November ballot, provided they
are submitted by Sept. 9. The mayor claims he was not aware
his initiative would trump the ACA’s.
The ACA, formed last summer, is a group of Albany citizens
interested in promoting improvements in their city. During
meetings to discuss various public policies for Albany, including
better schools and public safety, members realized that the
last charter revision had been less than successful.
what I’ve gathered,” said ACA founding member Paul Bray, “The
last time they tried reform, the mayor was in a strong position
and the board was stacked in a 10-to-7 majority in his favor.”
Albany has been notorious for having powerful mayors, from
Erastus Corning to Thomas Whalen to Jennings, and before the
1998 charter revision, power was even more greatly concentrated
in the executive branch.
Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6), who supports the ACA’s
proposals and was also named to the mayor’s Charter Revision
Commission, sees things differently. “The charter was not
a perfect document but it seemed like we needed to get something
in place because we would not have the opportunity to go through
the process again,” he said. Conti voted for the charter revisions
made in 1998. That charter revision process took about two
years to complete.
According to Conti, when the charter was adopted in 1998,
he expected it to be tinkered with. “What we are attempting
now is to mold the document, and I think that is appropriate.”
The ACA wanted to install more checks and balances between
the executive and legislative branches, and started vetting
ideas for possible changes to the charter. The group eventually
whittled them down to two proposals that Bray sees as “modest
The first suggested change involves removing two city employees
from the five-member Board of Estimate and Apportionment (a
board Bray notes has been abolished in all but two other New
York cities: Binghamton and Utica) and replacing them with
members of the Common Council. The mayor has one of the seats
on the board.
The Board of Estimate and Apportionment sets salaries and
compensation and determines the number and title of positions
in the city government, and can redirect 4 percent (about
$5 million) of the budget approved by the Common Council.
Some petition proponents have said this allows the mayor to
have control over millions that can be used for political
payback. The ACA says this proposal is designed to avoid putting
“city employees in a position where they have to decide whether
to ‘vote their jobs’ or to ‘vote their conscience.’ ”
The second proposal would require that all mayoral choices
for commissioners and office heads be confirmed or rejected
by the Common Council when they are first appointed and at
the beginning of each mayoral term.
The ACA’s reforms have been supported by eight of the 15 Common
Council members, including Common Council President Helen
Desfosses, and numerous council hopefuls. They have also been
opposed by some who ask why these problems, which have existed
for many years, are being addressed only during an election
In spite of the mayor’s creation of the Charter Revision Commission,
the ACA has forged ahead in collecting signatures. Conti feels
it is important to gather signatures for the ACA’s proposals
to show that there is public support for the revisions they
have proposed. But according to Bray, “The deck is stacked
against citizen initiatives in New York. The bar is set pretty
high.” Bray points out that a mayoral candidate needs to collect
only 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot, whereas his group
must collect 3,000 for their initiative to be included. And
then it can still be preempted by the commission.
Meanwhile, the appointments Jennings has made to the 15-member
Charter Revision Commission have done little to silence detractors,
who claim the commission was a purely political maneuver.
“There are some good people on there,” said Bray, “but you’ve
also got his go-to people on there. He just doesn’t have a
broad circle he feels comfortable with.”
Bray and other members of the ACA would like to see the mayor
bring in policy experts from surrounding universities to add
to the Charter Revision Commission and to help design the
charter reforms. Conti, who was appointed as a member of the
Charter Revision Commission, notes that it is important to
work with the commission and insists that “any meetings about
charter reform have to be public. We have to maximize the
Bray says he would like to have faith in the commission, and
he is holding off his judgment until he sees some results.
Currently, however, it seems not even the Revision Commission
members know what is going on. “I haven’t seen anything happen.
I see people who are on the commission and I ask them what’s
happening [with the commission], and they just shrug their
shoulders,” said Bray.
It hardly seems that the commission is racing toward its September
ballot deadline. According to Conti, no concrete plans have
been made regarding the commission, and he doesn’t expect
any rapid movement, nothing that it’s “the lazy days of summer”
During his visit the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant
in Maryland, President Bush announced, “It’s time
for America to start building nuclear power plants
again!” He also took time to pooh-pooh the 1979
Three Mile Island incident where a power plant
in Pennsylvania had a partial melt-down. “That
frightened a lot of folks. People have got to
understand that advances in science and engineering
and plant design have made nuclear plants far
safer.” It is news to us that Bush has faith in
any form of science. Let’s hope the Office of
Homeland Security has taken care of that pesky
power-plant security problem.
Demonizing Whom, Exactly?
a moth to a flame, Democrats can’t help themselves
when it comes to denigrating and demonizing Christians,”
said Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). He was responding
to a proposal by Rep. David Obey (R-Wis.), a Catholic,
to put Congress on record against “coercive and
abusive religious proselytizing” at the U.S. Air
Force Academy. Yep, wouldn’t want to denigrate
coercion and abuse, would we? They’re so useful.
Book Those Canada Honeymoons
Despite rabid opposition by the Conservative Party,
on Tuesday, Canada became the third country in
the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Prime
Minister Paul Martin ordered his cabinet to vote
for the legislation, but there were 32 members
of the Liberal party who voted against it. A coalition
of Liberal and Quebec- separatist legislators
passed the bill. Martin decided to bring the issue
to a vote because courts in eight of 10 provinces
had ruled that banning same-sex marriage violated
Canada’s charter on rights and freedoms.
10,000 Years of Culture in the Balance
For the first time in the World Monument Fund’s
10-year history, an entire country’s culture and
heritage has made its watch list of 100 Most Endangered
Sites. The WMF blames the destruction of what
has been known as “the Cradle of Civilization”—yes,
that was Iraq’s original claim to fame—on decades
of political isolation and the current looting,
military occupation, artillery fire and vandalism.
I gave him $50 for 'cheese' from Vermont, and
he brought back $50 worth of actual cheese! It
was damn good cheese though."
night at the Old Songs Festival campground
Albany Parking Authority has announced its plans
to make parking on Central Avenue easier
[“Counting Your Curbs,” Newsfront, April 28].
The changes include lower prices and longer maximum
times on meters on Central Avenue and on side
streets like Bradford and Sherman Streets. . .
. The Friends of Sri Lanka, formed six
months ago to help tsunami victims in the fishing
village of Hambantota [“Hands Across the Water,”
Jan. 27] announced they have raised $11,000 toward
their latest project: buying 448 cooking stoves
for refugee families. They still need to raise
$4,000; donations can be sent to the Friends of
Sri Lanka Fund, c/o M&T Bank, 80 State St.,
Albany NY 12207. For info on how to help, call
462-8714. . . . The state Senate ended its session
without passing legislation to create a commission
to study how to provide universal health care
for all New Yorkers [“Care for All?” Newsfront,
May 12]. Advocates are asking that the Senate
reconvene a special session to address the issue.
The expanded bottle bill [“The Five-Cent
Solution,” Newsfront, April 21] also died in the
Senate, after Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno
called it one of the dumbest things the Assembly
passed this year. . . . A federal appeals court
in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of the 13
state attorneys general—led by New York’s Eliot
Spitzer—who are suing the Environmental Protection
Agency to keep it from weakening the Clean
Air Act [“Suing for Clean Air: Take 2,” FYI,
Oct. 30, 2003]. The decision was unanimous.