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Hitting the streets: Albany County Legislator candidate Chris Higgins campaigns for a win on Nov.6.

Photo:Chris Shields

Three to the Wire

A trio of candidates bid for the 6th District seat on the Albany County Legislature

The residents of Albany County’s 6th Legislative District will soon decide, in the upcoming election for county legislature, which is mightier: the incumbent’s record; the upstart’s shoe leather; or the yellow smiley-faced balloon. The district, which includes Center Square, Park South and, as of January, the Mansion District, faces many unique challenges in the years ahead.

Chris Higgins secured the Democratic Party nomination in the September primary, giving him a significant enrollment advantage in the largely Democratic district. An attorney for the Senate Democratic conference, Higgins is relatively new to the area, having lived in the district for only two years.

Higgins has several proposals, such as a county gun-buyback program modeled after ones in place in Buffalo and Yonkers, and several environmental initiatives such as biodiesel fuel in municipal vehicles and pushing for county building construction to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

Chris Burke, who was defeated in the Democratic primary, remains in the race as the Working Families Party candidate. Burke is the incumbent, appointed to the seat in March after it was vacated by John Frederick. Burke has lived in the area for 15 years, “never more than a block off Lark Street,” he said, and has a long history of service to the community, including being the chairman of the Lark Street Business Improvement board for five years.

Burke has spent his time in office focusing on housing and historic preservation issues as well as attempting to get more money allocated to fight crime in the area. Burke has called for better coordination of social services and law enforcement so that the deeper issues within neighborhoods that lead to crime can be addressed.

“Law enforcement is a last resort, and it doesn’t solve the larger problem,” said Burke. “You’re not going to improve the whole neighborhood by simply calling the police all the time.”

Running on the Independent line with the Republican endorsement is R.A. DePrima. DePrima is a longtime resident of the district who lives and runs a real-estate brokerage firm on Lark Street. De rima has run several times for office on both the county and city level. With a campaign strategy that riffs heavily on the “basic concerns of the area,” DePrima has gained the support of a number of local businesses.

DePrima is also running on the Fix Parking Party line of his own creation. The party reflects what he believes to be one of the most important issues in the district because of its direct effect on local businesses and the residential quality of life. Should he win the election, he hopes that his victory will serve as a message to area officials that the parking issue must be addressed in Albany.

“This issue is about the real needs of real people,” said DePrima. “People are tired of getting booted. People are tired of getting towed.”

Interestingly, parking has become one of the most talked-about issues in the race, an odd occurrence considering the small amount of influence a county legislator actually has over the issue. To implement a residential and business permit-parking plan, the city council has to pass a resolution that requires state authorization. The county does not have the authority to implement neighborhood permit parking within the city.

Still, each candidate has vowed to do what he can for the area, which is flooded daily by the intruding cars of state workers.

Burke said his approach involves a more efficient use of local church lots and parking garages to help take the strain off of residential streets. He also has a proposal that would better utilize the area around the Planned Parenthood building on Lark Street.

Higgins claimed that his knowledge of the workings of state and city government put him in the best position to maneuver a permit-parking bill into reality.

Also on the campaign agenda has been the issue of affordable housing and the revitalization of abandoned buildings in the city. Higgins and Burke believe that the county is on the right track with programs like the Albany County Housing Trust Fund, but stress that more could be done.

“The $300,000 that was in the land trust . . . leveraged almost $8 million in other funds,” said Burke. “Well, what if we were putting $500,000 or $1 million into it?”

DePrima has proposed a six-year tiered tax-break plan under which owners who agree to manage abandoned property will pay no taxes in the first year of ownership with the understanding that they put the money they are saving back into the property. Taxes will incrementally increase to full by the end of the sixth year.

With the candidates’ platforms proving to be similar or identical on many issues in the race, some focus has shifted to the candidates themselves, and which one is best to represent the district.

Though DePrima has many good intentions, his critics say that it remains to be seen how effective he can be labeled as an Independent in the largely Democratic legislature.

Following his primary campaign, Burke largely dropped off the radar and focused on low-profile, low-cost tactics. However, in a race against the vocal and visible DePrima and the well-funded Higgins, some suspect that Burke’s low profile may have irreparably hurt his bid.

According to his Sept. 18 campaign filing with the New York State Board of Elections, Higgins received more than 65 percent of his campaign contributions from out-of-area donors, people he said are his coworkers at the Senate. Still, the presence of state politicians and lobbyists on the report has some people unnerved. And because of his relatively short history within the community, Higgins’ critics wonder if he can operate as legislator with the district’s interests in mind.

—Jason Chura


What a Week

Nothing Like the Real Thing

In response to the California wildfires, on Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Association officials staged a press conference where FEMA employees posed as members of the press and lobbed softball questions at FEMA deputy administrator Harvey Johnson. After the Washington Post broke the story, FEMA admitted it had made an “error in judgment” by using employees to serve as stand-in “reporters” at the hastily arranged news conference. Real reporters hadn’t arrived for the conference, about which they received a whopping 15-minute notice.

Supremely Slick

The United States Supreme Court agreed Monday to reevaluate the $2.5 billion in punitive damages awarded to 33,000 local fishermen, landowners and others affected by the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The penalty is half of what an Alaskan jury awarded in 1994, but Exxon already has paid $3.4 billion in cleanup costs and other charges. Anchorage lawyer David Oesting countered in his brief that the award “represents barely more than three weeks of Exxon’s current net profits.” The most business-friendly Supreme Court in years, according to its critics, will hear the case.

Outmaneuvered

Gov. Eliot Spitzer announced that over the weekend he was able to strike a deal with the federal government to provide three types of drivers licenses. The tiered- licenses scheme comes on the heels of the New York State Senate’s vote against Spitzer’s proposal to change the requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, as well as pressure from FEMA to back off the plan. Spitzer has argued that the proposal is “a common-sense change that deals practically with the reality that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants live among us,” but it has met with intense public outcry since first presented back in September.

Bad Company

“I don’t speak against the homosexuals. I tell you that God delivered me from homosexuality,” said gospel singer and “ex-homosexual” Donnie McClurkin. He made this controversial statement during an “Embrace the Change” concert sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Obama’s campaign has drawn strong criticism from gay-rights advocates for its alliance with McClurkin. Many observers predict that this signals the beginning of the end of the young senator’s presidential bid.



The Neighborhood Speaks Out

Albany County Legislator candidate Brian Scavo is campaigning to help the community, but concerned citizens believe he is part of the problem

When Brian Scavo defeated 7th District incumbent Tom Monjeau in the Democratic primary for Albany County Legislator this September, many members of the district were surprised. Now that an election win for Scavo on Tuesday over Green Party candidate David Lussier has become a possibility, concerned members of the Delaware Avenue neighborhood area are speaking out about a candidate whose campaign promises and personal actions they find questionable.

Scavo has been campaigning aggressively in the district for months, but his campaign fliers and stated intentions have raised red flags in the community. Scavo’s campaign literature asserts his dedication to the “return to K-8 neighborhood schools.” He also throws his support behind “safe streets, safe schools,” and fighting crime.

While citizens of the district agree that schools and crime are important issues, these matters are addressed by city government and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the county legislature. When asked how a legislator could influence schools and crime, a representative from the office of the county legislature responded: “Those are city issues. The county is not responsible for that.”

Paul Stewart, an active member of the neighborhood, said that this “demonstrates that [Scavo] does not know what the job of the county legislature entails. These are not things the county legislature has to deal with.”

Another of Scavo’s major platform issues is the reduction of property taxes. He promises to help homeowners challenge their tax assessments, a service he has performed in the past. Community members expressed apprehension about his stance on property-tax issues, due to the alleged illegitimacy of his own tax dealings.

Scavo’s personal residence in Albany is deeded to his deceased patents. He lived in the home with his mother, who was entitled to a senior STAR exemption and her husband’s early combat veteran’s exemption until her recent death. Scavo owns the house next door to his personal residence, which he rents out as an income property. On this rental property, he also holds a combat veteran’s exemption and a STAR exemption, both of which are reserved for owner-occupied homes. According to the assessor’s office, these exemptions, totaling approximately $50,000, are not legal.

A recent rental advertisement placed by Scavo on houseinfo.com also raised concern. The ad described the apartment, provided Scavo’s contact information, and finally noted, “Welcome students, straight people.” Discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, family status, age, handicap, or sexual preference is a violation of both Civil Rights Law and Fair Housing Law. Representatives at the New York Civil Rights Bureau and the Albany United Tenants Association determined that the ad was discriminatory and would be valid reason for potential renters to issue a formal complaint.

Scavo’s personal behavior in the neighborhood has also brought forth a slew of complaints. A neighbor of Scavo’s who spoke on the condition of anonymity claims that, soon after he lost the 2005 Albany Common Council race, he accosted her while she was picking up litter on their block.

“He was really angry and yelling things to the effect of, ‘You don’t care about the neighborhood,’ and that if I cared about anything I would’ve voted for him,” she said. “He was frightening.”

A number of women have come forward with complaints about aggressive and unwanted advances by 53-year-old Scavo that continued even after they requested that he desist. Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris expressed serious concern about Scavo’s dealings with young women.

“As a politician, I should temper my remarks, but as a mother I cannot,” she stated. “He crossed a double-yellow line for me when he asked my 17-year-old daughter on a date.”

According to Morris, Scavo proceeded to ask her neighbor’s 17 year-old daughter on a date as well, conduct that worried Morris enough to bring the issue to one of the Albany Police Department’s neighborhood outreach officers.

“They are well aware of his behavior,” claimed Morris.

Neighbors also expressed concern that, while Scavo’s campaign catchphrase is “helping people,” and he asserts that he wants to “improve neighborhood integrity,” he has not been active in neighborhood improvement, and he does not demonstrate pride in the community. Scavo has been cited by Albany Code Enforcement for having junk cars at his personal residence and upholstered furniture and broken appliances on the open porch.

According to neighborhood volunteer Louise McNealy, “We have a very energetic and organized neighborhood, and I’ve never seen Brian at neighborhood planning meetings, or cleanups, at the zoning board, or a tour, or even at Neighborhood Night Out for free ice cream.”

The Delaware Avenue area has an active neighborhood association, merchant’s association, and neighborhood watch. His absence at these forums, at past debates, and meet-the-candidates nights has been upsetting to many in the ward.

Scavo declined repeated requests by Metroland for comments on his campaign ideas and the concerns of his opposition.

According to Morris, “We need politicians who obey the law, not only to the letter, but with a respect for the spirit of the law. . . . [Scavo’s] actions have demonstrated how unfit he is for office.”

—Kathryn Lange

klange@metroland.net


Doing the Lord’s Legal Work

Bloggers and journalists find themselves threatened with lawsuits after criticizing a video game

 

Evangelical Christian posta-pocalyptic video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, based on the book series of the same name, was introduced last year to a storm of controversy. Now, with an expansion on the horizon, the maker of the game, Left Behind Games Inc., apparently have launched a legal campaign to silence its critics.

The game has been condemned by both secular and Christian blogs and publications that have criticized that the game at best excuses and at worst encourages religious-based violence against gays, Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians. Critics also have expressed disapproval of gender roles within the game, where women are limited to the professions of nurses or singers. Apparently, the game play wasn’t that great, either.

Beginning in early October, various blogs and Web sites that had posted negative reviews of the game, such as Talk to Action, Public Theologian, and the Daily Kos, received identical, nonspecific legal notices from an attorney representing Left Behind Games Inc. demanding that they take down their content regarding the game, which the company alleged was “false and misleading.”

Delmar resident Glenn Weiser, who owns and maintains celticguitarmusic.com, was among the recipients of the letter due to his article “Let God Sort ’em Out,” which he first wrote for the June 29, 2006, Metroland, and which he also hosted on his site.

Weiser was unable to comment on the case due to the fact that LBG hadn’t specified complaints. Weiser has contributed dozens of articles to Metroland and was recently quoted in The Village Voice.

Weiser removed the story from his Web site on the advice of his lawyer and has posted a statement denying “knowingly and maliciously posting anything false or misleading about the game or LBG.”

The article remains online in the Metroland archives.

Metroland has not yet been contacted by LBG or its legal representation, according to Stephen Leon, Metroland’s editor and publisher.

“It’s an attempt to squash free speech, but it’s a clumsy one,” said Leon. “It’s very nonspecific. That’s a meaningless, empty threat right now. If they ever confront me with anything more specific, I’ll deal with that. If I got that letter I would just chuckle and put it in a folder and put it in my file drawer.”

Metroland will not remove the article from its site even if receives a similar threat from LBG.

The threat has all the makings of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP suit, a tactic that has been gaining popularity with corporations and other entities that is meant to halt discussion of issues through legal intimidation. Regardless of the threat’s validity, the tactic usually serves to warn others against further debate lest they face legal action themselves, according to the California Anti-SLAPP Project’s Web site.

Legal fees can total tens of thousands of dollars if a lawsuit progresses; a daunting amount for a private citizen or small business to scare up. To date, only smaller Web sites and blogs have received notices, while larger publications, such as PC Gamer and Metroland, remain unthreatened.

So far, the SLAPP suit seems to have backfired, as many of the blogs have decided to defy and deride the notice rather than comply with it.

—Jason Chura




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