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Crisis Center Shuffle

Is a proposal to reorganize a well-functioning county agency designed to strengthen it or sideline it?

At first glance, the recently completed report commissioned last year by Albany County on its Crime Victims and Sexual Assault Center [“Separation Anxiety,” Newsfront, Nov. 11, 2004] should be reassuring to worried clients, volunteers, and staff.

Written by the statewide Council of Community Services, it praises the agency in multiple places, saying it is stable, effective and well-respected; provides comprehensive services with an experienced staff that has a low turnover rate and works well as a team; and has a strong accountability system. The report’s critiques are much more specific, such as: The center doesn’t reach out to specific populations, such as those suffering elder abuse; as currently structured it can’t bill third parties, such as Medicaid; the deputy-director position may not be necessary.

But the report takes a sharp turn at recommendations, proposing moving the agency’s crime-victims advocates to the district attorney’s office and its therapists either under the mantle of the mental-health department or to a nonprofit. County Executive Mike Breslin has said that only the mental-health department option is under consideration. The positions of director and deputy director of the center would be cut.

Elizabeth Martin, who became director of the center last year just as the study was begun, said she thinks a connection with the mental-health department will provide more clinical oversight for the center (Martin, unlike the previous director, has no clinical experience), as well as allow for more collaborative use of the mental-health department’s psychiatric expertise and the center’s trauma expertise.

Rikki Shaw, founder of Rape Culture Revolutionaries, a local group that advocates for people who have experienced sexual abuse, has two major problems with the recommendation: First, it breaks the continuity of service for crime victims, making them go to separate offices for an advocate and therapy. And second, it sends “normal people who’ve had a traumatic experience” to an agency whose mission is to treat people with “persistent mental illness.”

The report does propose to expand that mission statement, and Martin says the center would keep its name and current location as a way to try to reduce that stigma. She also said that there is not a lot of overlap between the center’s advocacy clients, who are only those pursuing a case in the courts, and therapy clients.

Shaw said she and concerned clients and volunteers collected over 500 signatures at LarkFest opposing the restructuring plan, and they plan to bring them to the county legislature meeting on Oct. 11.

Shaw and CVSVC client Laurie Schaible acknowledge that it does make some sense to have crime-victim caseworkers at the DA’s office. But, Shaw notes, if they actually work for the DA, they may not be able to advocate fully for their clients, if, for example, a politically connected defendant is pulling strings within the office. Shaw noted that she believes current District Attorney David Soares is less likely to do this than his predecessor, but said that was no guarantee for future administrations.

Soares said that while he was not involved in the restructuring discussions, he welcomed the move, having had plans to institute a crime victims advocate bureau anyway. He said that victims’ services had been “hit or miss” because of the separation of the offices, and “by having that unit moving into my department, it’s going to mean incredible things” in terms of coordinated and consistent support for victims. “Now every crime victim will get assistance,” he said.

Though CCS director Doug Sauer said “no options were off the table” while the study was being done, the report shows no evidence of having considered ways to improve services or funding of the center within the current structure. This leads Shaw and Schaible to suspect the center was targeted from the beginning for restructuring. “Why are they looking at this agency specifically, when there are so many other agencies that could be looked at for streamlining?” asks Schaible. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“We aren’t looking to hurt services. The services are good and we want to enhance them even more,” said Martin.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

What a Week

Success Is Possible

In Wake County, N.C., the percentage of black and Hispanic students performing at grade level has jumped from 40 to 80 percent over the past 10 years. None of its schools is failing. Property values in urban areas have not fallen in comparison to the suburbs. What have they been doing differently? Integrating schools by income, using a combination of magnet schools and busing (only about 2.5 percent of students end up traveling long distances not by choice). The approach may be difficult to implement in areas that don’t have countywide school systems, notes The New York Times, but the impressive results are nonetheless making educators sit up and take notice.

American soldiers stationed in Iraq have found a new way to supplement their income, or at least the income they can spend on porn. Allegedly, troops have been using pictures of dead and mutilated Iraqi corpses as currency. The Webmaster of exchanges access to his porn/shock site for pictures soldiers have taken on the field of battle. Photos are posted with “humorous” captions, written by soldiers, that mock and gloat over victims, who lie in pools of blood, mutilated, disfigured, blown up, decapitated or maimed.

Africa Ignored Again

The desperately poor African country of Malawi has more than 4 million people in danger of starving, as the harvest of maize reached its lowest point in a decade. The United Nations and a host of aid agencies appealed to the world in August for $88 million in relief, but pledges so far have reached only $15 million. Experts predict that unless immediate action is taken, more than 10 million people in the region may face famine.

Speak Now or . . .

The environmental group Friends of Hudson is trying to get the comment period extended on a proposal by the LaFarge cement plant in Ravena to burn tires as fuel. Specifically, the group wants DEC to hold public hearings in Rensselaer and Columbia counties, not just Greene County, since those counties also are downwind from the plant. The comment period, which has already been extended once, currently ends Monday (Oct. 3).

Doing a heck of a job: Michael Brown.

Letter of the Law

Suspicions in Albany’s Third Ward race are fueled by aggressive interpretation of a single “s” in poll-watcher credentialing rules

It took a day in court, election-day calls to local police and more than a week after the Sept. 13 primary to sort out who was elected as Albany’s Third Ward Democratic candidate for Common Council, but incumbent Michael Brown was named the winner on Friday, Sept. 23, by a 17-vote margin over challenger Corey Ellis. And while the evenly divided vote (Brown received 367 votes to Ellis’ 350) might lead some to question Brown’s assessment that the ward “stuck together” in electing him, even more uncertainties surround the election law that lies at the heart of all the day’s chaos.

Trouble began when Brown’s supporters, which included Mayor Jerry Jennings’ brother, Joseph Jennings, who also serves as the Ward 11 Democratic leader, had the poll watchers appointed by Ellis to guard against fraudulent activities ejected from many of the ward’s polling places. Local law-enforcement officials removed Ellis’ volunteers—for an hour or more at some locations—after Brown’s supporters challenged their credentials, citing an interpretation of election law that, they claim, disqualified all of Ellis’ volunteers.

“[Ellis’ poll watchers] were told that their credentials needed to be approved by both Mr. Ellis and Mr. Brown,” explained Ellis’ lawyer, Mark Mishler. “There is no possible way that election law would require a candidate who wanted to have poll watchers at the polling place to get an opponent’s approval—that’s absolutely absurd.”

But that’s exactly what Brown’s supporters argued—and what the county’s board of elections initially agreed with. Meanwhile, the same election law also appears to indicate that Brown’s poll watchers don’t need the same approval.

“Watchers shall be appointed by the chairman of any such party committee or independent body or by the candidates,” states section 8-500 of the state’s election law.

According to the county BOE, this means a candidate’s poll watchers can be approved by the local chairman of the party—a process that, many would argue, provides a distinct advantage to incumbents.

As for the other option, said Mishler, it’s that one letter, “s,” which lies at the heart of all of the confusion.

“[Brown’s supporters] are interpreting [the election law to mean] that, because ‘candidates’ is plural, poll watchers’ certificates need to be signed by more than one candidate in a single race,” he explained.

And while the chaos that developed out of the poll-watcher challenges eventually was resolved (after much debate, BOE agreed to admit Ellis’ poll watchers with certificates signed by Ellis and Fernande Rossetti, a candidate for city court judge who was also on the day’s ballot), the amount of time that the polling place went unmonitored by Ellis’ representatives only added to his supporters’ concerns.

“Corey’s campaign had strong concerns about the integrity of the ballot and maintaining an accurate count,” said Working Families Party chair Karen Scharff, whose party endorsed Ellis. “It makes you wonder what was going at these polling places that [Brown’s supporters] didn’t want poll watchers there watching.”

These questions, said Scharff, prompted Ellis and Mishler to request that the machines and all uncounted votes be impounded immediately after the polls closed. Brown’s connection to several recent vote-related controversies, including a federal lawsuit alleging that he diverted more than 100 absentee ballots in a 2004 primary, made such a course of action necessary, she said.

Scharff added that Ellis will make a decision in the near future about running in November’s general election, and that he’ll have to weigh the significant difficulty of running on a minor party line against the high level of support he received. And while neither Scharff nor Mishler said they have evidence of fraudulent activities occurring in polling places while Ellis’ poll watchers were absent, they said that the simple fact that Brown’s supporters wanted to remove the observers certainly raises some questions.

“We have nothing that leads us to believe that anything fraudulent happened during that time,” said Mishler. “But frankly, how would we know for sure?”

Repeated calls to Brown for comment were not returned.

—Rick Marshall

A Rising Tide?
photo:David Doonan

An estimated 150,000 antiwar demonstrators marched in Washington D.C. on Saturday (Sept. 24) to demand the return of U.S. troops from Iraq. The protests were rife with references to Hurricane Katrina, including such slogans as “Make levees, not war” and “Hurricane Bush: a category 5 disaster for America.” A 70-person march and rally was held in Albany on Friday (Sept. 23) to kick off the convoy of three buses that departed the city at midnight to join the main protest. On Monday, a group of protesters participated in civil disobedience by entering a restricted space in front of the White House to pin names of dead soldiers on the fence and demand a meeting with the president. Between 300 and 400 people were arrested, starting with Cindy Sheehan. Jim Fulmer, a member of the Saratoga Peace Alliance, was among those arrested.



Loose Ends

The cataract surgery performed last year by the National Organization for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation [“Sight for Sore Eyes,” April 29, 2004] on Qandygul Guma, a 7-year-old Afghan girl who had been blind since she was a toddler, was successful, reports local photographer Connie Frisbee Houde, who has traveled to Afghanistan several times with NOOR. Qandygul has regained her sight. . . . Freecycle [“Reuse, Reuse, Reuse,” April 25], the network of listservs connecting people who have unwanted items with people who could use them, has run into controversy. In May, in order to expand, pay its staff person, and move off Yahoo!Groups, the organization accepted sponsorship from Waste Management, Inc., the country’s largest waste hauler and recycling company, which has periodically come under fire from environmentalists for its practices. Some local Freecycle moderators, including the moderator of Catskill Freecycle, have jumped ship and joined a splinter group,, that promises its lists will remain grassroots and locally controlled. . . . Brian Scavo [“City of Albany Endorsements,” Sept. 9], who came in second in Albany’s Ward 7 Democratic primary, has announced his intention to fight on to November on his independent “law and order” ballot line. . . . The Albany Police Department is investigating yet another high-speed chase, this one initiated because a driver was acting erratic and drove away while her license plate number was being called in, reports the Times Union. The chase, which went from West Hill into Loudonville, ended with a crash that sent an uninvolved driver to the hospital.

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