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Coup d’Troy

Council Democrats emerge from November’s elections with an overwhelming majority and a full agenda

By Chet Hardin

 

 

Clem Campana has reason to be pleased. The first meeting of the Troy City Council Planning Committee was a success. Held in the Council Chambers in City Hall, the meeting was well-attended, with more than a dozen residents, a half-dozen journalists, the mayor, deputy mayor, corporation counsel, and others. Campana says that he has never seen so many people come out for a committee meeting.

“I’ve been going to them for two years; they were always held upstairs in the third floor conference room,” the two-term councilman says. “This was a great turnout.”

Council President Campana (D-At Large) stands outside City Hall afterward, discussing the finer points of the committee’s proposals with his confidential secretary, Robert Martiniano. The Democrats are pushing forward with an aggressive early agenda, including a mandatory landlord registry and a proposed moratorium on the subdividing of residential property in an effort to “de-densify” the Hill neighborhood abutting Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Planning chair Ken Zalewski (D-District 5) opened the meeting by announcing the council’s final appointments to the City Hall Committee; three city residents and a former dean of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This nine-person team has been charged by the council to review any proposed sale of City Hall, and is viewed as a victory for the Democrats in the battle over the control of public building’s future.

It was an energized meeting, with each proposal drawing a string of comments from the audience. Very often, the councilmen and residents fell into an easy dialog—exactly the kind of openness that he and his fellow Democrats want to bring to the government process, Campana says. They want to engage the citizens of Troy.

And that’s why, he says, they were elected.

When Campana first came to office two years ago, he joined a marginalized minority. The Democrats were outnumbered by Republicans six to three, with Republican Mayor Harry Tutunjian holding strong sway over the majority. Very often, the three Democratic councilmen would lodge dissenting votes as no more than protest, complaining that even their input had been cut out of the process or ignored. If the Republican majority wanted pay raises for the mayor’s political appointees, the Republicans got their pay raises. If Tutunjian, along with the Republicans, wanted a water rate hike, they got it. And so on.

Now, Campana sits at the head of a veto-proof Democratic majority, having flipped the council in the latest election—six Democrats to three Republicans. The minority hasn’t a chance of pushing through any legislation without the cooperation of the Democrats, while the majority councilmen are in position to push their agenda into legislation, to establish their committees, fund their pet projects, and to grind a few of those axes that have been piling up in their corner.

Election analysis is tricky stuff, as the red-faced pundits proved in New Hampshire, and even with the benefit of hindsight there is still plenty of room for debate. Jeff Buell, director of public information at City Hall, credits the Republican loss of the council, in large part, to the consummate campaigning of neophyte Zalewski, who alone brought in an unheard-of 1,400 votes in his district race, double the average. In Buell’s opinion, this raised all ships.

“I think that to some extent that might be true in the at-large races,” says Bill Dunne (D-District 4). Zalewski did bring out an impressive number of voters in his district, and many of them probably voted Democrat down the line. But Dunne doesn’t accept that this would have had much impact in the separate district races, such as his own. In those, he credits the hard work of the individual Democratic candidates.

Of course, Dunne says, he also credits the Democratic win to the missteps and popular—if not always fair—criticisms of the Tutunjian administration and the Republican majority. “There were a lot of things that maybe by themselves weren’t that big,” Dunne says, pointing to the mayor’s reputation as an idler, while development runs amok at the cost of Troy’s historic buildings, and his administration’s belligerence in dealings with the public, “but there was this synergy that began to form around these disparate pieces.”

“The first time I saw a chink in their armor,” Dunne says, “was at a council meeting earlier last year.”

It was a heated City Council meeting at the end of 2006. Republican former Councilwoman Marjorie DerGurahian remembers the night well. Members of the Troy Action Team, employees from Commissioner Bob Mirch’s Department of Public Works, lined the back wall of the chamber, holding up signs with her name, along with the names of Dunne, Campana and Peter Ryan (D-District 3) with lines drawn through them. It was a protest meant to force the dissenting councilpeople to vote in favor of a water rate hike. The administration was claiming that the rates needed to be raised or else 15 water-department workers would have to be laid off. At question was a deficit of $500,000.

The council voted 5 to 4 to raise the water rates, with DerGurahian siding with the Democrats. (The vote went through and the rate increased, DerGurahian adds, and then a few months later, when election season began to heat up, the administration just happened to “find” nearly a million dollars to pave the streets.)

At the end of that contentious meeting, as Dunne was preparing to leave, he says, Tutunjian shouted at him, “ ‘Dunne, you’re a clown!’ ” There were still quite a few people gathered in the chambers, and they heard the mayor. Afterward, many of these people approached Dunne, he says, and told him that they had lost respect for the mayor.

But as far Dunne is concerned, more than anything else, it was the proposed sale of City Hall that swung the vote last November.

“Buell denies this,” Dunne says, “but a lot of people began to come up to me and say, ‘What is going on with this whole thing?’ People who I never thought were interested.”

It was one of the main issues that Campana encountered when he was campaigning. Going door to door, he says, he heard it over and over again: “It’s public property. It’s our building.”

“And they are the taxpayers,” Campana says. “They should have a right to say how it is sold, if it is sold.” There was a general anxiety over the sale, and the feeling that the administration had already moved on a deal without the consent of the public.

If the mayor was using the proposed sale of City Hall to Judge Development as a campaign stunt and expected it to have a positive impact, the mayor and his advisors were terribly mistaken, says Dunne. Too many key questions remained: Could City Hall not be saved? Why was the sale of City Hall not put out to bid? Was the price quoted by Judge the actual worth of that piece of real estate? The proposal to sell City Hall to Judge Development, he says, is the straw that broke the administration’s back and lost the council to the Democrats.

DerGurahian agrees.

“I think the people of Troy are so frustrated by losing so much,” she says. “I think they feel that they are losing so many things in the city. And it was just one more thing that was really everyone’s. City Hall, the site it is on, is very important to the people of Troy. They didn’t want to lose it.”

Former Republican Councilwoman Carolin Collier had served three terms in her South Troy district when she was unseated last November by newcomer Gary Galuski (D-District 6). In Collier’s case, there’s little mystery behind the loss. She had taken sides in a messy public feud within the Troy Police Department, making an enemy of the head of Troy Police Benevolent Association, Patrick Fitzgerald, and lost the endorsement of the 130-member union. Further, Fitzgerald, in his capacity as union chief, wrote letters denouncing Collier that were distributed throughout her district.

She was the chair of the Public Safety Committee at the time. Now, Dunne fills that seat.

“Thank God,” Fitzgerald exclaims. “The last Public Safety chair didn’t seem to have any relationship with anyone inside the police department, except one or two people. There was no relationship between the union and Public Safety. And there was no relationship between the police administration and Public Safety. And you can’t work that way.”

He thinks that Dunne will listen to the cops, “the people with 35 years of experience. They have a good idea about how to run the department more efficiently, even though it seems that City Hall hasn’t wanted to listen; it wants to run the police department.”

Fitzgerald, who has been an officer in Troy for 18 years and just started his third two-year term as union president, laments the negative impacts this lack of relationship has had throughout the force. He has been fighting against City Hall, he says, for long enough; the police are now entering their fourth year of working without a contract. This means the police officers are still on 2004 wages, with benefits locked to that year’s scale.

“We didn’t receive a raise in 2005, 2006, or 2007, and now for 2008,” Fitzgerald says.

Troy cops are the lowest-paid officers for any city in the area. Cohoes police department’s top rate of pay, for example, is $59,000. Watervliet’s is the same ballpark.

Troy’s top rate of pay is $45,000.

“And we are working in a city where they just voted themselves a raise over at City Hall,” Fitzgerald says. At the end of last year, the Republican-controlled City Council voted through a controversial post-budget pay raise, with retroactive bonuses, for City Hall employees, including many of the mayor’s political appointees. “We’re three years fighting with City Hall for a pay raise, and they gave everybody a raise,” says Fitzgerald. “There were no negotiations; they just gave themselves a raise. That is frustrating to the men and women who work here.”

Another source of antagonism for the police force, he says, is the residency requirement. According to the city charter, all Troy cops must reside within city limits. Early last year, seven officers were denied promotion to sergeant for their failure to meet this requirement. And yet, as Fitzgerald points out, there is widespread speculation that some of the Tutunjian administration’s top appointees have been violating similar residency requirements for years. The charter includes all employees of the city of Troy, with rare exception.

“All employees of the City of Troy, except those expressly exempt by the Public Officers Law of the State of New York, shall be residents of the City of Troy at the time of their employment,” the charter reads. “Any employee of the City who does not comply with the mandatory residency requirements of this article shall be subject to immediate termination by the Mayor.”

If the police department is expected to abide by these requirements, Fitzgerald says, City Hall ought to, as well. And Dunne agrees with him.

“This administration has approached the residency issue from the lowest common denominator,” Dunne says. “They have gone after the low-hanging fruit. We are going to start at the top. We are going to look at the senior-most officials of the city, and we are going to see who is compliance with the residency law.”

Because, Dunne says, he knows “for a fact” that senior administration officials and bureau heads are in violation of these laws. One of these officials is David Mitchell, the city’s corporation counsel.

Mitchell owns a three-story building at 20 4th St., the building that housed Tutunjian’s campaign headquarters last November, and has claimed in the past before City Council that he resides at this address. All City Hall appointees, including Mitchell, have to fill out an annual disclosure in which they state their addresses. Dunne has requested to see these forms, and so far he has been denied access.

“The charter is written in such a way that I just have to ask, and they are supposed to give them to me. They flat-out gnore that,” Dunne says. “My only recourse would be to sue them. I have asked repeatedly for David Mitchell’s disclosure forms ’cause I know in one of them that he would have to put his actual address. Any lie in that is a knowing violation of the state ethics law. And that’s a big deal.”

Mitchell makes more money in city salary than any other employee, Dunne points out: $94,000 a year, including his corporation counsel salary and the $1,000 a month he is paid from the Troy Industrial Development Authority.

“And as far as I know, as the city’s chief legal officer,” Dunne says, “he is in violation of the residency law. And that’s a problem.”

Dunne sent Tutunjian a certified letter last year asking if he would sign an affidavit stating that all the members of his administration were in compliance with the residency laws. Tutunjian, Dunne says, ignored it.

The Law Committee is slated to begin an investigation into the residency of City Hall employees. Dunne is the chair of that committee.

The mayor’s office refused to comment directly when questioned about the residency of its appointments, referring to the accusations as “laughable,” based on the “spotty information” of anonymous blogs.

“If the City Council wants to govern that way,” Buell writes in his e-mail to Metroland, “it is going to be a long two years for Troy.”

When DerGurahian took office four years ago as City Council president, she says, it was exciting, the council and the newly elected Tutunjian administration had pledged to “work together in Troy’s best interest.” To open the government process to the citizens of Troy, to reach out to the minority Democrats. Like the Democratic majority, they, too, had an aggressive early agenda.

“There were seven of us who were elected on the Republican ticket,” she recalls. “We were all about working together and getting things done. We had a pretty good council for those first two years, but two years is a long time.” And that spirit of cooperation slowly gave way to orders being given and taken.

Last year, she was not asked to represent the Republicans in her bid for a third term. Politics, she says, with her skilled restraint, was disillusioning.

“I didn’t do as I was told. Even though I didn’t vote with the mayor’s viewpoint only three or four times,” she says, it was enough to make enemies within Republican majority. “I spoke up and said what I wanted to say.”

She had a reputation for voting independent of party lines, many times voting with the Democrats. More important, she sided with the Democrats in her willingness to question the administration, and to ask even the unpopular questions. Whenever she would side with Dunne or Campana on an issue, members of her party would accuse her of “switching sides.”

“They were terrible to Bill Dunne right from the start,” she says. “He is angry about a lot of things, and he has a right to be. But I hope that doesn’t make them treat the minority like they were treated.”

The Republicans chose him early on, Dunne concurs, to be their “adversary du jour.”

“It is systemic of the whole Republican party,” he says. “There has got to be somebody to dislike. If they don’t have that, they don’t have a political ideology.”

“And today it’s me,” Dunne adds, after some thought and with a hint of satisfaction.

Now, as council president pro-tem, Dunne has the sort of sway in the council that he has been fighting to gain for years. Together, he and Campana have already signaled the administration that they will be unwilling to play ball on certain issues. The first, most dramatic, of this was their resignation from the mayor’s 15-person charter commission.

“I don’t like how it is set up,” Campana says. “That commission should not be comprised of anyone who is on the city payroll or who has vested interest in the city. They should be people who have a grasp of the charter, but they should be neutral.”

“They can have a major impact on how business is done in Troy. There are far-reaching consequences,” from the salary of the mayor, to pay raises, to the makeup of the City Council. However, all recommendations will have to be put forward unanimously by the commission, and then voted on by the council, Campana says. And if the council doesn’t approve of the commission’s decisions, there will be a fight.

Not all will be smooth sailing for Dunne and the Democrats, however. This is Troy, after all, where party allegiance doesn’t always trump personal ambitions. There is no better example of that then the recent blow-up surrounding Dunne’s “punishment” e-mail. Since there were only seven recipients of that confidential e-mail, which detailed the council majority’s plan to push back against the administration’s pay raises, it might be surprising to the casual observer that the e-mail would make it outside the Democratic circle. After all, the only people who were supposed to see the e-mail were the Democratic councilmen, Martiniano, and former city manager Steve Dworsky.

Of course, the e-mail did get leaked out of this tight circle of politicos to Troy’s own Machiavelli, Bob Mirch. Whether this signals a splintering in the Democratic Party or just business as usual in Troy waits to be seen.

“This council is a working council,” says Campana, standing outside Troy City Hall, blowing breath into his cold hands. “The last majority was part of the administration. They were part of the same party. We campaigned together and we are going to pull together. Our main mission is to represent the people who elected us.”

“It is easy to get into an argument with the administration, but we are here to get some good government, not to argue,” he says. “We are about the people who put us into office. And you have to keep that in mind as we move forward.”

Two years is a long time.

 

chardin@metroland.net


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