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Representative democracy is a tricky thing. Most of us expect our elected representatives to listen to us and our opinions, but also to exercise their judgment and use their consciences. We want a say on matters of utmost import to us, and yet we know that if we had left matters up solely to majority local opinion, Jim Crow laws might well still be around. We want our representatives to take it seriously when lots of ordinary people take time out of their schedules to express themselves, but not to let a clique with too much time on their hands hijack the public good.

The usefulness of speaking out, and the responsiveness of city government to public outcry, has been on many people’s minds in the city of Albany recently, after the Common Council voted last December to change the zoning on a parcel of Holland Avenue to “highway commercial” after several passionate, hours-long public-comment periods in which nearly no one spoke in favor of the change except representatives of the owner and developer. People brought well-reasoned legal arguments, worries about traffic and a change of character in their own neighborhoods and unfair competition with their neighborhood stores. They brought varied and detailed other visions for development of the strip, and spoke about it in context of the larger direction of the development of the city.

But as I listened through one of those public-comment sessions, I couldn’t help but remember another comment period, at the Albany County Legislature in December 2004. This comment period was just as packed, and the speakers just as passionate and just as united. But rather than coming away afraid that they wouldn’t be listened too, I came away saddened by the idea that they probably would.

That was during the debate over whether to add gender identity and expression to the county human rights law. The people who had turned out to speak were universally one particular brand of Christian. They had clearly come together. They had a lot of trouble distinguishing between sexual orientation and gender expression, seemed to think that not being arbitrarily denied housing and employment was a special right, and appeared overall worried that if the law passed their young people would all spontaneously become confused about their own gender. They inappropriately called on the legislature to follow what was supposedly the preference of their God.

Now, clearly, I personally found one group persuasive and not the other. But when both groups are calling on the ideal of democracy and the responsiveness of government to its citizens, it doesn’t feel like quite enough to expect that all elected officials would draw the line between reasonable and not in the same place I would.

During the council meeting on Holland Avenue and afterward, one neighborhood leader reported that the dramatic gap between the strong and unified public opposition to the zoning change and its support on the council had led many people in his neighborhood to start muttering about money changing hands. Even those who didn’t go that far exclaimed about yet another example of special interests in the city riding roughshod over residents. And yet I know that many of those same people were saddened when the sponsor of the expanded human-rights legislation had to pull it for lack of support.

What, from a process point of view, was different about the two?

Patricia Strach, who teaches a course on citizen participation at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College says that elected officials generally take into account how many citizens are involved, whose constituents they are, how strongly the opinions are felt, and if they are directly affected or what their motivation is.

That latter item is key, say two Albany council members. Dave Torncello left the council at the end of last year after serving Ward 8 for 20 years. He says he weighed constituent input, along with facts and his judgment of the best interest of the ward or the city as a whole. “The people who are directly affected, in my opinion, always carried more weight than someone who’s just globally interested in something,” he says. “You can’t always go on what constituents in a limited area want. In a small neighborhood area they may be 100 percent against something that would be beneficial to the city or the ward.”

Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4), who is new to the council but who has done her time “on the other side” offering comments to elected representatives, admits she’s still getting a feel for how to answer these questions, but how much the speaker is affected carries a lot of weight with her as well. “I find it really disappointing when there is a genuine and thoughtful mobilization of public opinion around an issue that affects the people who are speaking out and despite all of that the legislative body ignores . . . what’s being said,” she says, contrasting such a scenario with the mobilization against the human-rights law expansion, which had “an ideological agenda about who is a full-fledged human being with rights and who is not a full-fledged human being.”

Of course this test doesn’t exactly explain what happened on Holland Avenue. “Normally the unwritten rule was you went with what the alderman in that particular area wanted because he was representing the people and that’s what they wanted,” says Torncello, noting the CVS proposal in his ward that was successfully defeated by neighborhood opposition. “The Walgreens thing was just diametrically opposed to the way most things happened . . . nobody . . . gave me any good reasons why [the zone change] should have occurred.”

Generally, if there are really powerful outside interests holding sway, an issue will never be brought up for public discussion to begin with, notes Strach. “Once it’s brought out in the open . . . powerful interests have already lost,” she says. Perhaps that isn’t how things work in Albany. Or perhaps the story isn’t over yet.

—Miriam Axel-Lute


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