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We’re Not on the Air

Citizens groups want public-access TV, and all the city of Albany has to do is ask for it

 

In 2002, members of the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations started talking about getting a public-access station in Albany. A year later, CANA member Aimee Allaud began taking the tapes of CANA meetings to Bethlehem so that they could be aired on Bethlehem’s successful public-access station, TV-18.

About three and a half years ago, the Albany Common Council Committee on Public Authorities and Utilities began meeting in anticipation of the city’s contract with Time Warner Cable running out. They started discussing the possibility of getting public-access television in Albany. They brought in community members, including Allaud, and heard from representatives of Time Warner. But, according to Councilman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), it was not long before Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings decided to appoint his own committee to deal with the public-access issue.

The mayor’s committee never issued a report on its findings.

On Monday, Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) stood on the steps of Albany City Hall, surrounded by members of the Coalition to Save Albany, and raised the issue again. With chilled breath, Ellis told the gathered crowd that it is important to make the city’s politics more transparent by broadcasting public meetings on

public-access TV.

To achieve this goal, Ellis noted that Albany corporation counsel John Reilly and the Law Committee of the Albany Common Council, who are currently in negotiations with Time Warner Cable, would have to demand that Time Warner provide the service.

Albany, under its current contract, receives 5 percent of revenues from Time Warner (about $1 million a year). Time Warner also is required to provide funding for equipment for public-access television. Twelve years ago, when the contract was first signed, the equipment went to the Albany School District and the College of St. Rose, and was never made available to the public.

Now that it has been operating without a new contract with Time Warner for three years, the city has had the option to negotiate for funding that would help create a public-access station. O’Brien notes that Bethlehem recently secured a grant from Time Warner in addition to its regular 5 percent of about $10 per subscriber to help its public-access program.

Ellis, however, said that although the Common Council gets to vote on whatever deal is reached with Time Warner for its franchise agreement, he and the council have no idea exactly what is taking place and what is being asked for in the negotiations.

“Like most contracts the city negotiates, the council has no input,” Ellis said. “We don’t know what went on in the negotiation. We don’t even know what the city is requesting, and they send it to me, as a councilman, to vote on. I don’t even know what the city requested, what was the give-and-take, and I think that is unfair to the public.”

O’Brien said he has heard that the corporation counsel’s office is trying to negotiate for a similar deal to Bethlehem’s. “There has been more noise about it in the last eight weeks than in the previous three years,” he said, “even though the contract has been expired for about three years.”

Reilly would not reveal the exact details of the negotiations but said, “We are aware of Bethlehem’s contract and we would like to be able to obtain benefits other municipalities have achieved.” Reilly insisted the city is looking at “what would make the most sense and be best utilized by the different organizations and groups that would like to have access to it.”

Anton Konev of the Coalition to Save Albany organized the meeting on the steps of City Hall on Monday. Konev said he has an idea why the Jennings administration might not be pressing Time Warner to provide public access. “Public access would give a voice to those who don’t see eye-to-eye with the mayor,” Konev noted. However, he added, “Public Educational and Government (PEG) programming is required by federal law. Cities are given the opportunity to take advantage of it, and for almost two decades now, the city of Albany has decided not to take advantage of public access.”

Konev said that public access would provide communities the chance to cover themselves, by giving minority groups stronger voices and allowing them to become part of the media. He also noted that it would provide technical training and job opportunities.

Steve Pierce, executive director of New York Media Alliance, noted that “most state capitals have a public-access station.” Pierce further insisted that Time Warner’s deal with the city is quite beneficial for the company, and therefore, “It should define significant benefits that our citizens will derive from allowing a private company use of our streets, sidewalks and public buildings to operate a lucrative business.”

Ronald Quartimon, director of the Arbor Hill Community Center, said that he has a specific use in mind for public-access television if it were available in Albany. Quartimon has been working with the Albany District Attorney’s office on their “Bring It to the Courts” gang-prevention program, which gives school kids the chance to produce videos. Quartimon said he would love to air the children’s work in Albany, but because there is no public-access station in Albany, the Albany children’s work will run on Schenectady’s public-access station instead.

As Monday’s press conference came to a close, a reporter from a local television station burst through the doors of City Hall, jovially announcing that the mayor and corporation counsel were not in. Ellis, who was talking to other reporters, stopped and yelled to the new arrival, “Yo, really? They work every day! They are here every day! I just saw the mayor drive up, so if you go up the right-hand side, he might be parked up there! I’m serious! I just saw him.”

Ellis laughingly shook his head and returned to his thought at hand. “My point is, this is the time to bring it to the forefront. On the council, we talk amongst ourselves about what we’d like to see. Today was about bringing it to the forefront that the community has been denied public access and that we need to bring it to Albany, and if it doesn’t come to Albany, it needs to be explained why.”

Allaud said that it is good to see the issue raised again, as she has been raising it every month at CANA meetings, but with each passing year, it gets harder to believe anything will happen. Allaud said she has been reassured by Jennings each year that he is “on it.”

“It is now 2006,” said Allaud. “We have been working on this for four years, and the city still lacks what any civilized city should have.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

In Your Face, Satan!

Hugo Chavez stomped his opponents in a thoroughly predictable victory this week in Venezuela’s presidential election. Sailing back into office for a third term, Chavez polled a 30-percent lead over his closest rival, Manuel Rosales. But the opponent that Chavez seemed most pleased to hold his victory over was George W. Bush. Rebuffing the U.S. government’s attempts to talk, Chavez said at a press conference, “They want dialogue but on the condition that you accept their positions. If the government of the United States wants dialogue, Venezuela will always have its door open. But I doubt the U.S. government is sincere.”

Big Daddy

This past week has been a showcase for George Bush Sr.’s friends, and all they have done recently to clean up the messes of little Bush. On Wednesday, Washington D.C. could finally stop holding its breath as the Iraq Study Group, headed by Bush family friend James Baker, finally released its report. While the report seemingly did not contain a quick fix, it did level some constructive criticisms at the Bush administration. For example, it suggested that perhaps there should be some diplomacy aimed toward Iraq’s neighbors Iran and Syria. At the same time, Rumsfeld’s replacement and Big Bush’s personal buddy Robert Gates seemed to cruise towards confirmation as Secretary of Defense by telling everyone what they wanted to hear: neither admitting defeat in Iraq nor claiming victory.

4th Meal or Crunchy Wheezey

Taco Bell took green onions out of its gourmet creations this week after an E. coli outbreak made its way through 11 of the taco joint’s locations in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Although the company said there was no conclusive evidence that the onions were to blame, they claimed an independent lab had confirmed a “harsh strain” of E. coli in green onions at multiple locations. Taco Bell was criticized by New Jersey’s health commissioner for being slow to close locations after what she described as a “killer bug” hospitalized nearly a dozen people, including young children.



South End’s Due

Organizers plan upcoming workshop to help plot course for beleagured Albany neighborhood’s revitalization

Residents and community leaders in Albany’s South End have long felt that their neighborhood has been overlooked in redevelopment efforts taking place elsewhere in the city over the last few years. But finally, both ideas and dollars are stirring in Albany’s oldest and most historic neighborhood, where bleak poverty and solid, third-generation home ownership can still be found a few doors apart.

Dozens of residents, community activists and business owners are expected to gather at the Albany Housing Authority headquarters at 200 S. Pearl St. on Dec. 11 and 12 for a workshop to set redevelopment priorities for the South End. The workshop is sponsored by the city of Albany and the South End Action Committee—appointed by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings—and will give residents a chance to speak on various redevelopment proposals.

The city and the South End Action Committee have been working with the New York City planning firm of Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates Inc., whose representatives will be on hand to explain their recommendations.

Organizers hope that South End residents will attend the program’s two public meetings, scheduled from 5:30 to 9:30 PM on Dec. 11 and 12, at the Housing Authority headquarters. Both sessions are free and include dinner. Residents with questions should contact the Albany Local Development Corp. at 434-2532 or the Housing Authority at 641-7500.

“We’re trying to look at areas where quality-of-life issues matter—housing, home ownership,” said Carolyn McLaughlin, the Albany Common Council from the 2nd Ward who represents the South End and has been chairing the South End Action Committee. “We haven’t been fortunate enough to get the level of resources applied to our plans as have happened in other parts of the city. Now, I think other funding streams are finally opening up.”

Among the ideas to be discussed: the Housing Authority’s plan to build affordable homes that blend with surrounding historic architecture. With groundbreaking scheduled for the spring on a vacant lot along Broad Street, and with the South End one of the last truly affordable neighborhoods in Albany, residents are asking how best to blend future development with access to housing, said Darren Scott, the Housing Authority’s revitalization coordinator. The fact that the South End even needs to start thinking about that is a sign of change.

“The South End is due,” Scott said. “The fine line we’re having to walk is revitalizing the South End without gentrifying it.”

—Darryl McGrath


Making Up Numbers

Legislators in Rensselaer battle it out over the county budget—and it looks like nobody wins

“The big term Republicans have

for poor people is ‘accountability,’ ” Michael Rourke practically yelled at the Rensselaer County legislators Monday night (Dec. 4) during a public hearing. Bracing himself against the podium, the hall’s PA speakers distorting as he bellowed: “Where is the accountability of this board?”

Rourke’s frustration was echoed again and again as Rensselaer County’s budget woes were highlighted during the hourlong budget meeting.

Two months ago, County Executive Kathy Jimino proposed a spending plan that would hike taxes for the beleagured county by 26 percent. The Republican majority responded with a set of amendments that it claimed will bring the tax increase down to 9 percent. The legislative body split Monday night along partisan lines on a vote to approve the Republican majority’s amended budget.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Jimino was expected to veto the budget, and, according to Majority Leader Robert Mirch, the legislature in return would override the veto.

In a dramatic turn, Jimino came before the board Monday night to call for the body to reject the amended budget. It was the first time, Jimino assistant Chris Meyer said, that the executive had appeared univited at a legislative meeting to speak.

During her speech, Jimino said that the Republican majority had created “a fantasy budget” that overestimates revenues and underestimates costs. One obvious sticking point in the budget, she said, is the plan to level a surcharge on cigarettes sold in Rensselaer County. Even if the legislature could convince the state Legislature to give them the authority to pass this tax, the estimated revenues are overreaching, she said.

As Democratic legislator Peter Grimm pointed out, the tax would simply drive smokers to other counties. “They could just drive over the bridge to Watervliet,” he said. “It would hurt the small businesses in Troy.”

Another fault Jimino pointed out during her speech is the budgeting for a $1.4 million increase in sales-tax revenue simply because “it just seems like a number we should be able to achieve,” as she said she was told by a representative of the majority. According to her office, Rensselaer is expected to lose sales-tax revenue in 2007.

“As elected officials,” Jimino said, “we have a responsibility to tell it like it is.”

The way “it is” isn’t pretty. According to Jimino’s office, although sales-tax revenue in the county has increased by $11 million since 2001, operation costs have skyrocketed: the cost of Medicaid has increased $10 million; the cost of health insurance nearly $6 million; the county contribution to the retirement system has jumped from $300,000 to just under $6 million; energy costs average an increase of $2 million; and the debt service (which will pay for the Rensselaer County Jail expansion and the equipment to maintain infrastructure, among other things) has risen nearly $4 million.

One way Mirch argued that Rensselaer’s bugetary crisis could be eased is if nonprofits and colleges, such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, were held accountable for their strain on the county’s infrastructure and services.

“Several years ago, the not-for-profits in Troy came up with a, I think, collectively gave the city $400,000,” Mirch said. “But it has now gotten to the point, given the situation of not only Troy, but of the entire county and the entire state, all of the not-for-profits—and I don’t mean the churches—really need to step up to the plate. I know places like Yale University gives New Haven enormous amounts of money. And there are ways they could do it. They could give us money, for example, in the city of Troy, earmarks just for paving, and we could pave the streets just in the vicinity of the college and places that border it.”

“We are on a sinking ship if we don’t do anything about this,” Mirch added. “We have to stop spending. It is the majority’s position that at this point, from this day forward, the only money we are going to spend are mandated expenses. If somebody needs a new computer, well you know what? They are going to have to get through the year with their old computer.”

Some of those cuts seem awful political, said Democrat Flora Fasoldt. Fasoldt has become the public face of rescinding the contentious pay raises Rensselaer legislators gave themselves last year. And she said that effort, along with the minority’s attempts to hold the majority accountable, has drawn the Republicans’ ire.

“They cut our office staff in half,” she said. The Republicans’ amended budget calls for a staff reduction for the minority offices of 49 percent, while the majority reduced its own staff by 8 percent.

“Their budget is all about retaliation. Retaliation against the minority because we spoke out against their excessive pay raises. It’s the politics of the moment,” she said. “That’s how they govern—fear and force.”

Fasoldt says the minority has offered ways of saving money that have been disregarded by the majority. Mirch argued that the Democrats suggestions were considered, but accused the minority of playing politics. He pointed to their effort to sell the naming rights to the Joeseph L. Bruno Stadium on Hudson Valley Community College’s campus.

“It is these constant political games by the Democratic minority,” Mirch said, “that is insulting to the taxpayers, it’s insulting to Sen. Bruno, when we have such bigger problems to be working on. Why are they wasting the public’s time and the legislature’s time with something like this? Even if they got their way, it wouldn’t affect the county a bit. HVCC is controlled by the SUNY system, obviously, and any money would go to the SUNY system.”

Richard Daus of Johnsonville left the legislators Monday night with a simple message: “You mark this date,” he warned, “so that two years from now, when you are looking back and wondering why you aren’t in office any more, you will know this had something to do with it.”

Should Jimino veto the budget, the legislators are scheduled to hold a session at 6 PM tonight. It will be open to the public.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net



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