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Reform Reformed

Albany’s Charter Review Commission wraps up quietly

Nearly four months after the Albany Civic Agenda’s proposal to put charter reform on this November’s ballot [“No More Power to You,” Newsfront, Sept. 15] was voted down 9 to 6 by the Albany Common Council, Mayor Jennings’s Charter Review Commission held its last official public meeting.

Back on Sept. 8, Judge Larry Rosen, head of the charter commission, addressed the Common Council, warning members that voting to put the ACA’s charter reform on the ballot would “set a dangerous precedent” and explaining that his review commission would utilize “multiple public hearings” and “public education.” He concluded, “It is my belief that such input, debate and public education has sadly not been part of the process.” Other opponents of the ACA’s charter reform repeatedly referred to the proposals as “a backroom deal.”

The ACA’s Paul Bray, however, said that not much can get more backroom than the way this Tuesday’s meeting was conducted. Bray noted that although public comment was advertised for the meeting, none was allowed. “There was no public comment last night and copies of what they presented were not available for anybody who showed up,” said Bray. “They said, ‘Well, we have had two public hearings.’ After their meetings they would have this ‘OK, well, if you have something to say’ [comment period], sort of very begrudgingly, sort of ‘try to keep this short and keep it on what we said.’ ”

On the other hand, Bray said, “The citizens’ petition. . . . We got 3,600 signatures, we held press conferences, had meetings, discussed it with a wide range of people, and there was a lot of press coverage. It was a very public process, and this was the opposite.”

On Tuesday, sitting in leather chairs at a polished conference table and surrounded by representatives from Albany Law School, the 13-member commission decided, with little debate, on four amendments to the city’s charter.

One reform put forth by commission member Councilman Daniel Herring (Ward 13) and passed unanimously would give the Common Council approval over 10 mayor-nominated department heads. Such “advise and consent” was one of the two main proposals supported by the ACA.

Two other amendments were easily approved, including a proposal by Comptroller Tom Nitido that calls for a periodic review by the Common Council and the comptroller of the appropriate city debt level, and an amendment that would require elected officials such as the comptroller and the treasurer to name a backup in case they are temporarily unable to perform their duties.

The only amendment that met with any kind of resistance had to do with the Board of Estimate and Apportionment. The BEA is made up of three mayor-appointed members. It controls spending of up to $5 million outside of the city budget. Under the amendment, the makeup of the board would be changed to the city treasurer, the comptroller, the corporation counsel and the Common Council president. Commissioner Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6) voiced his disapproval of the amendment, saying, “This does nothing to give the council more say in financial policy.”

The ACA’s proposal had been to give the Common Council three seats on the board and the mayor two.

Before the vote was held, Judge Rosen informed the commission that the final report on their findings would include a minority report in which members could voice their opinions about amendments and changes. He assured Conti that he was not announcing this to sway his vote for the BEA amendment. When the roll was called on that amendment, Conti simply voted “present.” Everyone else voted for the amendment.

The only real debate of the night came when Rosen reminded the commission that they would have to decide how the amendments will be presented on the ballot this coming November.

Rosen said he felt the amendments were all “inherently linked” and should be presented as a package on the ballot. Conti quickly asserted that the amendments should be voted on separately. This time Conti found he had a number of supporters. Said Councilman James Sano (Ward 9), “I’d like to see the citizens be able to vote on the amendments as we are tonight.”

Councilwoman Sandra Fox (Ward 15) countered, “The people are gonna be in there for an hour and a half!”

If the amendments were presented together and voted down over one item, noted Commmisioner John Yanas, “We could lose everything.”

Bray thinks that is precisely the intention of the members who want the amendments presented as a package. “My inclination is, [they think] if they group it, that’s a way of killing advise and consent, so no reform comes out of this. I think the Board of E and A amendment is like a rotten fish: You wrap three things with it and they will all go down.”

The commission will meet one last time after the holidays to decide how the amendments will be presented on the ballot. The commission will then have the better part of the New Year to educate Albany’s citizens as to what reforms they propose and why they should (or should not) vote for them.

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

Keeping tabs on the dissenters

The local chapters of Campus Action and Campus Greens are not plotting to illegally overthrow the government of the United States; you probably didn’t need us to tell you that. However, a memo obtained by NBC News revealed that the Department of Defense thought it better check for itself: The DOD has been spying on numerous activist groups around the country. Although some activists were troubled by this, others, including some Campus Greens, took it to mean that they must be “doing something right.”

In your face, Robertson!

George W. Bush-appointed U.S. District Judge John Jones has barred the teaching of “intelligent design” as an evolution alternative in Dover, Pa. schools. Jones ruled that the school board’s policy violated a constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools. “Any asserted secular purposes by the board are a sham and are merely secondary to a religious objective,” he said. Pat Robertson had excoriated the town of Dover when it voted out the board of education responsible for the “intelligent design” policy.

Safeguarding our civil liberties?

There seems to be a disconnect between politicians and President Bush about the implications of the wiretapping program he ordered that monitors calls of American citizens. Three Democrats and two Republicans sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking for an immediate inquiry into the program. “We must determine the facts,” said the letter. Bush has not been doing his usual dodging, defending his actions vigorously: “It has been effective in disrupting the enemy while safeguarding our civil liberties.”

Aw, working into the holidays

Gov. Pataki called the New York Legislature back into session last week to toughen gun-crime penalties in the wake of the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers. While the Conservative Party clamored for a return of the death penalty, and Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx) asked that special penalties for those who kill police be extended to taxi drivers, bodega owners, and the elderly, the Assembly and Senate have remained locked in their usual positions over the line between fighting crime and restricting gun owners’ rights.



Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends
To the grave disappointment of the dozens of citizens who turned out for the second Albany Common Council meeting in a row to oppose a rezoning proposal for Holland Avenue [“A Little Highway in the City,” Newsfront, Dec. 8], the measure passed 8 to 5. The rezoning, which turns a lot on Holland from office-commercial to highway-commercial to allow a large Walgreen’s pharmacy to be built there, had strong opposition from the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as from the ward’s council representative, Shawn Morris. The bill was brought to a vote over her objections through a little-used procedural rule. In the public comment period, Craig Waltz of the Helderberg Neighborhood Association raised a question of why a lame-duck council was so eager to move on this bill in the last meeting of the year. Outgoing council members Michael Brown (Ward 3) and Sarah Curry-Cobb (Ward 4) both had pet pieces of legislation (community-center funding and a commuter tax, respectively) that were missing their last chance for air time in favor of this development proposal, Waltz noted. Why the heavy priority on this decision? he asked rhetorically. Brown and Curry-Cobb both voted for the rezoning. Opposing were Morris, Dominick Calsolero (Ward 1), Richard Conti (Ward 6), Mike O’Brien (Ward 9) and Dave Torncello (Ward 8). Dan Herring (Ward 11), who also opposed the change, was not present; neither was Shirley Foskey (Ward 5). Waltz and other neighborhood leaders have already put in motion plans to sue on the grounds that the change is illegal spot zoning.


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