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Who’s Complaining?

Common Council to vote on measure that would further reduce the bite of the Albany Civilan Police Review Board

 

Last October, Judith Mazza, in her sixth and final year as a member of the Albany Civilian Police Review Board, voted against a measure that she felt would be harmful to the board and its relationship with the community. The measure defined the standing of those who could bring complaints before the board as people who either felt they had been wronged by the Albany Police Department or who had witnessed an incident in which the APD had allegedly wronged someone else. It further stated that the police chief would be allowed to validate or invalidate witness complaints before they were investigated by the board.

“I didn’t agree with the development of it or the final product, because I don’t think anybody has the right to determine that a complaint is frivolous before it is investigated,” said Mazaa. The measure passed 5 to 1. Now, for the measure to be enacted, the Council will have to pass a bill introduced Monday (March 19) by Common Councilman James Scalzo (Ward 10).

Jason Allen, chairman of CPRB and one of the law’s authors (along with members of the APD), said that the change was necessary because the board lacked a definition of standing and was “weaker” for it. Furthermore, Allen pointed to two complaints, one made by Alice Green and one by the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, as cases in which the complainants were neither witness to nor involved in the incidents they wanted investigated. Allen said that cases like those kept the board tied up unnecessarily.

“It should be citizens directly affected by the action or who witnessed the action,” he said. “For other cases, we have other methods and tools we can use to work with them and the police department.” Allen said the board has a community-outreach function that meets with concerned groups outside of the board’s regular meetings.

However, Mazza said she felt that the board, rather than working on ways to exclude complaints like the ones made by Green and the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, should be looking for ways to officially include them. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, without restriction, 95,000 people in the city of Albany could then make complaints!’ And, in fact, that hasn’t happened. The whole issue of standing came up because of two complaints that came in,” she said. “And there was no other forum in which to deal with them.”

Mazza said that she respects Albany Police Chief James Tuffey and feels he is doing a good job. She said that she thinks Tuffey wants to be as open and honest as possible. However, she said that the changes that need to be made to the CPRB are not ones that would limit the community’s involvement.

“The board should not be seen as being unresponsive or as shutting off anyone from coming before the board,” she said. “The board has limited abilities to do anything as it is. All the board does is ask, ‘Did the Office of Professional Standards thoroughly investigate this complaint?’ All we are saying is, ‘Was there a fair, thorough investigation?’ The board can’t investigate, can’t question anyone.” According to Mazza, the board does not know how many police have been involved in all the cases they have reviewed in its six years of operation.

Mazza said she had asked repeatedly while a member of the board for that kind of data, but was always told, “Before we get data, we need to know what we are going to do with it.”

“I would say, ‘You have a person who is a real problem if they have 100 complaints against them,’ ” said Mazza.

Common Council President Shawn Morris said she is concerned about the proposed changes, and her concern stems from a worry that people may feel turned away from a service they should feel able to readily participate in. “I think we have a very good police chief that is committed to a department that does operate in an above-board and respectful manner,” Morris said. “That being said, the purpose of the Civilian Police Review Board is that some of those decisions on review come from the board, come from the citizens, and restricting their access and putting it in the hands of a single person is troubling.”

Chief Tuffey said that he did not approach the board about the change but was happy to help them define standing. “We sat down,” he said. “They wanted to clarify what a complaint was. We helped them do that. And we are supportive of the final product.”

Allen noted that under the law, Tuffey is required to submit a written explanation of any claim that is denied. “The process,” Allen said, “will be completely transparent.

Local Law A-2007, which includes language to enact the meadure passed by the board, currently is pending before the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee. Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti (Ward 6) said he expects to have a public discussion before the law comes to a vote.

Barbara Smith (Ward 4) said she thinks the legislation regarding the CPRB is already adequate. “We don’t want to have a chilling affect on people’s perception of accessibility to the board. We want people to think this is a valuable resource for dealing with some of the situations that arise between citizens and police as opposed to putting more barriers in the way to that kind of resolution.”

In the end, Morris said she thinks there is a majority of council members who are concerned with the public’s access to information and their involvement in government, and they will take that concern into consideration before their vote. There is also a matter of what Morris thinks is common sense.

“I don’t quite understand the impetus for the legislation,” said Morris. “People are concerned about fixing a hypothetical problem. I haven’t heard of a rush of complainants who don’t have standing. If there hasn’t been a big rush, then I think we have to ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

Crack for Show-and-Tell

A first-grader in Louisiana caused a ruckus at his elementary school when he brought a rock of crack cocaine for show-and-tell. Police said they were disturbed by how well the boy understood the drug and that he didn’t realize there was anything wrong with bringing crack to school. Lachristie Thomas, the boy’s 20-year-old mother, was arrested and charged with the misdemeanor offense of improper child supervision.

There’s Something in the Water

Actually, there’s not—at least that’s the claim that’s causing controversy about the mineral baths at Saratoga Spa State Park. The buzz followed an article in the New York Post that reported that the baths are not 100 percent pure mineral water and instead contain a mixture of mineral and tap water. Several public officials have expressed outrage, including former Saratoga Springs Mayor Raymond Watkins and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), who called for an investigation into the matter. Spa officials have fired back that they never tried to hide this fact.

Maybe Next Time

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer may have to wait until next year to reform the state’s habitually late (with the exception of the past two years, technically) budget process. Spitzer said Tuesday that he’d rather have a late budget than one that contains too much spending. Holding up negotiations between Spitzer, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are the issues of health care, education and taxes. The Bruno-led Senate produced a budget that restored all of the governor’s proposed Medicaid cuts, put more money into Long Island schools, and contains a provision that a property-tax-relief plan should not exclude wealthy homeowners.

A Starving Nation

Seven out of 10 North Koreans lack the proper amount of food, the South Korean aid agency Good Friends reported. While the organization would not disclose how they obtained the information, many previous reports issued by the agency have later proved true. Since the mid-1990s, North Korea has been dependent upon foreign aid, but food shortages worsened last summer after the South Korean government suspended its food aid program in protest of North Korea’s July missile test.



Pork-Barrel Basketball

A loophole in congressional gift rules allows lawmakers to score freebies—like NCAA tickets—from public universities

Unlike the blowout loss the University at Albany men’s basketball team suffered against the University of Virginia during round one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament last week, when it comes to handing out lobbying dollars, there’s no competition. The SUNY system takes No. 1 over Virginia—and every other school and university system in the tournament—with more than $9 million in federal lobbying expenditures during the past eight years.

What’s worrying some fiscal-policy activists more than the thousands of dollars colleges and universities spend lobbying Congress, however, is a loophole in congressional-gift rules that exempts public colleges and may therefore facilitate pork-barrel politics.

With March Madness underway, the national organization Americans for Prosperity is using the tourney to highlight what its officials say is an improper discrepancy in how public and private lobbyists are treated. As part of the organization’s “The Real March Madness” campaign, Americans for Prosperity distributed letters to the head of every public institution, including the University at Albany’s officer-in-charge Susan Herbst, which urged them to publicly declare that the school would not provide lawmakers with free NCAA tickets.

Ed Frank, vice president of public affairs at Americans for Prosperity, said he heard no response from UAlbany officials.

Michael Parker, assistant director of media relations at UAlbany, said the university distributed a total of 610 tickets. He said no tickets were given to politicians. He added that the Americans for Prosperity’s rankings of top lobbying schools is somewhat “specious” in that while the SUNY system does place first, the rank says nothing of UAlbany’s individual level of lobbying expenditures.

Through media reports, Frank said he has heard that a few schools honored Americans for Prosperity’s request and declared they would not provide lawmakers with free tickets. “That’s great,” he said, “but obviously the loophole is still there. The point remains that [public colleges] can continue to give any gift—basketball tickets, football tickets, theoretically a car or a boat. There’s literally no limit to what a public entity like a university or city government can buy for a member of Congress.”

Until recently, rules in both houses of Congress allowed lawmakers to accept gifts valued at less than $50. Included among several exceptions to this rule was anything paid for by the federal government, a state, or local government. Public universities, as an entity of the state, fall into this category.

As part of Democrats’ opening 100 Hours campaign in January, the House revised its rules to create a complete ban on gifts. The exceptions, however, remained intact.

In the Senate, a similar gift ban was proposed in the form of a bill, which is now in committee.

“We want to see that loophole closed up,” Frank said, “and have public lobbyists treated the same way as private lobbyists. We don’t see a big distinction there.” As it relates to the NCAA tournament, Frank illustrated this contradiction by comparing a public school such as UAlbany, which theoretically could shower lawmakers with tickets, to a private tournament team that is restricted.

The Web site for “The Real March Madness” contains additional information and examples about colleges’ lobbying efforts and federal earmarks for universities across the country. Among the earmarks described as “questionable” is $500,000 the University of Akron received to study how to eliminate wasteful federal spending.

The Web site does not list any earmarks for SUNY schools, but Frank said Americans for Prosperity has records that show UAlbany received $1.3 million “for the cyro-powered electronics development for an all-electric ship” in 2005.

“Not every single project that gets funded is completely without merit,” Frank said. “Some of them may have merit, but the point we want to make is that we need to have more of a conversation about this. We need to have a debate about whether local projects should be funded by federal taxpayers or whether they should be funded by local taxpayers, who are actually going to benefit from them.”

U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty (D-Green Island) said he was unaware of the House’s gift-ban exception that exempts state universities. He indicated he probably would be in favor of legislation to close that loophole.

“I think that if a member wants to go to a sporting event, he should pay for it,” McNulty said. “Everybody else is paying. I think the member should pay too.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has introduced legislation that would erase the exemption for public lobbyists from the House rules.

Assuming the Senate’s gift-ban bill passes, Frank said he hopes Flake would be able to offer an amendment to close the loophole when the legislation comes to the House.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


Four Years Too Long

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Hundreds of people converged outside the Capitol in Albany Sunday afternoon to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq and protest the continued U.S. presence. Many carried banners and posters, while others wore the name of one of the more than 3,000 service members who have been killed since the war began. Several speakers addressed the crowd before the group marched to the Leo O’Brien Federal Building.

 




Loose Ends

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