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Because Knowing Is Half the Battle

Albany councilman leads push to make more comprehensive crime statistics available online

Between Dec. 12 and Dec. 18, there were three burglaries reported in the single square mile of city blocks that make up New York City police department’s first precinct. According to NYPD’s Web site, the precinct also received 32 reports of grand larceny, one rape and two robberies during that one-week period. Along with the pair of robberies reported that week, there were 16 more robberies reported during the three weeks leading up to that period, bringing the year’s tally for the precinct up to 170—a 16-percent increase from the previous year.

Similar statistical information can be found for each of the department’s 123 precincts, with each set of records made available to the public a week or two after they’re compiled.

According to Albany Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), this sort of online, detailed and timely presentation of crime statistics should be available to Albany residents, too.

“We’re the ones that pay the taxes and live on the streets here,” said Calsolaro during a recent interview. “We should be able to find out what’s going on.”

Calsolaro said he’s been pushing for several years to make the number, type and comparative rates of crimes occurring in Albany neighborhoods available online, but he’s been frustrated by the resistance he’s encountered among local lawmakers and law-enforcement officials. With a new police chief settling into the Albany Police Department’s top spot, Calsolaro said he hopes the department will be a bit more open to the idea of making the city’s crime rates accessible—and understandable—to the city’s residents.

“I was hoping that we wouldn’t have to have this legislated,” said Calsolaro during a November meeting of the city’s public safety committee.

During the meeting, former APD chief James Turley argued that he had already provided Calsolaro with the information he requested. Calsolaro responded that the reams of computer printouts he received from the department, containing months of raw data from the police department’s records, wasn’t quite what he asked for.

Currently, the Albany Police Department provides statistics on its Web site only in full-year and monthly increments—and only through 2004. While each of the city’s stations keeps records of its own crime statistics, this information isn’t made available online. While Detective James Miller, APD spokesman, said the department regularly provides crime reports broken down by streets and jurisdiction at meetings of local neighborhood groups, he wasn’t certain if there were plans to make such reports available to the public.

“To break it down into those specifics—we haven’t gotten to that point yet,” said Miller. “Right now, we’re really concentrating on the internal aspect of collecting crime data and putting it to good use.”

And at November’s public safety meeting, councilman Joseph Igoe (Ward 14), the committee’s chair, indicated that the responsibility for reporting crimes might not even fall on the police department at all—instead, he argued, it might be the job of local media.

“There are resources around now that maybe should do a better job of handling it,” said Igoe, nodding in the direction of the nearby press box. “If a gun crime happens one night, you should be able to read about it in the paper the next morning.”

“We shouldn’t have to go to the media to find these things out,” replied Calsolaro.

Yet, with the APD hesitant to make such data available and some local lawmakers hoping to pass the responsibility on to other agencies, at least one Albany resident has taken it upon himself to track the city’s neighborhood crime statistics. Albany resident Leonard Morgenbesser, who keeps an ongoing archive of gun-related crimes reported by local media over the last few years, said his “nonscientific” records shouldn’t be the best information available to residents about the crimes occurring in their neighborhoods. Lawmakers shouldn’t let their fear of making the city seem unsafe stand in the way of making their constituents aware of what’s going on around them, he added at the close of the November meeting.

“Even if we have to move heaven and earth, the people have to know,” said Morgenbesser.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


What a Week

Spymail

So, now that you know the government can keep tabs on phone and e-mail conversations, perhaps you thought you could rely on snail mail to keep your correspondence private. You thought wrong. A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection announced Monday that officials have been opening mail originating from points outside the United States. They claim to be doing it for safety reasons; however, people like Grant Goodman, an 81-year-old retired history professor in Kansas who found that his mail from a fellow retired professor had been opened, fail to see how opening such correspondence is increasing anyone’s safety.

Want to be annoying? Tell me your name!

President Bush signed a law recently that bans sending annoying e-mails or posting annoying messages anonymously. While the bill was part of the Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act and is designed to put a halt to online stalking, the bill seems to have larger connotations for Internet free speech in general. The bill could be used to silence anonymous online dissenters and other forms of anonymous speech on the net. What makes the intent of the bill suspicious in critics’ eyes is how much the original wording of the bill that the House approved has been changed. The original wording criminalized using an “interactive computer service” to cause someone “substantial emotional harm”; the final wording reduced those specifics to the vague word “annoying.”

Respect my authority!

Members of the Albany Convention Authority want to know why State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings have had discussions about moving the Albany bus terminal to the Rensselaer Amtrak station. The nine-member panel in charge of creating the Albany Convention Center has yet to even meet; its members are charged with finding a location and securing funding for the center, and to hold public meetings. Authority members, including Assemblyman Jack McEneny, feel backroom meetings between Jennings and Bruno undermine their . . . authority. Jennings has made it clear that he wants the bus station gone from its current location to use the land for other developments, if not the convention center.



Speak Now or Forever Question Your Vote

Voters’ rights advocates try to sway lawmakers against lobbyists pushing less reliable, more expensive voting machines

In less than two weeks, the public-comment period for New Yorkers to provide input on the types of voting machines that can be used around the state will end. However, questions remain about whether lawmakers will consider the concerns of their constituents or the generosity of lobbyists when the final decision is made.

“This situation in New York, it’s a golden faucet that manufacturers want to exploit,” said William Sell, a member of voters’ rights group New Yorkers for Verified Voting.

New York ranks last among the states—by almost half a year— in establishing a set of statewide standards for new voting machines. More than $200 million is earmarked for New York by 2002 federal legislation aimed at helping states update their voting machines, but the state’s lawmakers spent three years arguing along party lines without reaching agreement. State legislators finally punted the responsibility to county election officials late last year, but now it looks like the delay could result in the loss of all federal funding—leaving individual counties to foot the bill for new machines. While lawmakers were able to agree on the need for voting machines to keep voter-verifiable records of ballots, the question of which type of machine to use has pitted lobbyists and manufacturers against constituents in the battle for politicians’ ears.

The two styles of machines are Direct Recording Electronic and the Paper Ballot Optical Scan. Voters cast their ballots on DRE machines using either a touch-screen or push-button system, and their vote is recorded electronically and displayed on a roll of paper similar to a cash-register receipt. With PBOS machines, voters mark large, paper ballots in much the same way as they would for lottery tickets, then insert the ballots into a scanning machine. A display screen on the PBOS machines allows a voter to confirm that everything is recorded correctly before the paper ballot is accepted for storage in a secure container (in case an audit is necessary). The DRE printout roll is used in case of an audit on those machines.

Heavily pushed by manufacturers and their lobbying groups, the DRE machines are less expensive per machine, but each county will need at least one DRE to replace each of their lever-style voting machines. In contrast, only one PBOS machine will be needed for each polling place, as simple, curtained tables are all that’s required for voters to privately mark their ballots before having them scanned. Additionally, the DRE machines require specialized repair training, as manufacturers have refused to give government agencies access to much of the hardware and software used in the machines. NYVV estimated the cost of replacing a standard three-machine polling place at $11,000 for PBOS and $27,000 for DRE (not including the cost of service contracts).

DRE machines’ reliability has also been controversial. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, local officials spent more than $24.5 million converting to DRE in March 2005, only to discover that a neighboring county of comparative size spent less than a third of that amount converting to PBOS. When hundreds of votes were lost in the following election, the county scrapped the machines and converted to scanners.

“In the computer industry, we have a saying: Never buy version 1.0,” said Bo Lipari, executive director of NYVV, during a recent presentation in Saratoga Springs. “With DREs, our state is asking us to buy $200 million of version 1.0.”

In warning of the risks of DREs, Lipari is far from alone. Civic groups like the League of Women Voters have had their support for PBOS systems echoed on editorial pages around the state. At a series of public hearings held by the State Board of Elections over the last few months, supporters of the DRE machines were few and far between.

Yet, critics fear that many lawmakers have already made their decision.

“Revamping our voting systems has to happen, but the process has been mishandled since day one by our leaders and the New York State Board of Elections,” said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause New York, in response to news that the state board of elections began preliminary certification of at least one DRE machine—an unfinished model that the manufacturer, Liberty, promises will eventually conform to voting standards—during the first week of December.

The state agency initially claimed that the public hearings and comment period were being held so that public input could be incorporated into the creation of certification guidelines. The decision to begin certifying machines before the public input period was finished cast serious doubts upon lawmakers’ sincerity, according to many of the groups that expressed outrage at the announcement. With manufacturers and their lobbying groups pushing for expensive DRE contracts, civic groups argue that one of the only ways the state can avoid having the most questionable voting systems in the nation is by petitioning their local officials. Without enough public demand for the PBOS systems, civic groups said that many of the manufacturers won’t even bother to offer PBOS machines to many counties.

In Saratoga County, Democratic elections commissioner William Fruci said he and his Republican counterpart are, like many county election officials, waiting for the state BOE to settle on certification standards before making their decision on which type of machine to use. The county already uses DRE machines in several districts, and Fruci said he hasn’t experienced any of the problems the machines have caused elsewhere in the country.

But, say many civic groups, citizens shouldn’t let such an ambiguous—or, in some cases, complete lack of—response from election officials about their voting-machine perspectives silence the call for real voting reform.

“If an election commissioner tells you they’re not going to weigh in on the type of machine they plan to use until after the certification standards are created, that means they’re not doing their jobs,” said Lipari. “Because you can bet that as soon as those certification standards are approved, they’re going to whip some hefty contracts out of their desk drawers that they’ve had written up for months.”

Numerous calls to the Albany and Schenectady County Boards of Elections were not returned in time for publication. Comments can be mailed to the NYSBOE at 40 Steuben St., Albany, NY 12207 or e-mailed to ldaghlian@elections.state.ny.us.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


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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