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My Reform Is Better Than Yours

The Albany Civic Agenda and the mayor agree it’s time for charter reform, but whose will it be?

On 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.

“From 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 and reasonable.”

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 year.

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 community’s involvement.”

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” in Albany.

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

Nuclear 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?

“Like 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.



Overheard

Overheard:

"So I gave him $50 for 'cheese' from Vermont, and he brought back $50 worth of actual cheese! It was damn good cheese though."

—late night at the Old Songs Festival campground




Loose Ends

The 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.



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