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Turning Up the Pressure

Albany Common Council members ask the state Investigation Commission to look into the Albany Police Department

This past week, six Albany Common Council people announced they had sent a letter to the state Investigation Commission requesting that the body look into six counts of alleged abuses by the Albany Police Department. Signed by Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), Corey Ellis (Ward 3), Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2), Catherine Fahey (Ward 7), Barbara Smith (Ward 4), and council President Shawn Morris, the letter was not an official act of the Common Council. It was not voted on during session and, according to some council members, was not presented to every council member. And yet, the signing and sending of the letter was likely one of the most powerful and decisive actions taken by members of the council in recent memory.

Incited by recent reports in the Times Union about alleged abuses by the APD, and the APD’s failure to refer complainants to the Citizens Police Review board, councilmen Ellis and Calsolaro called for an independent investigation of the APD during a council session. According to Calsolaro, Morris contacted a number of members after the meeting and presented the idea of contacting the SIC. The SIC has now received the letter, and Morris will be notified if an investigation begins. The SIC has investigated police departments across the state based on tips from government officials, citizens, and even anonymous sources.

Albany Police Chief James Tuffey reacted to the news defensively, implying a conspiracy by the council to attack the police department. Calsolaro insisted the action was not a personal attack on Tuffey, but a responsible act to reassure the public that concerns about the police department are being taken seriously.

Calsolaro said that for far too long, council members have left the investigation of police problems to representatives of the police department; inquiries have languished, tucked away for months and years, far away from public scrutiny.

Tuffey told the Times Union, “There are certain things I can’t give out until an investigation is complete. They don’t like that,” referring to the council members who signed the letter. But Ellis insisted that the council has the right to know, just as the mayor does, about police policy and ongoing investigations.

“It saddens me because we should know what the mayor knows,” said Ellis. “Tuffey sits in his office and briefs the mayor. Well, he can do the same for the council, and he can do it in a way where council members cannot leak it to the press. He can call an executive session.”

Calsolaro and Ellis insisted that, by being defensive and secretive and by acting as though the council is attacking Tuffey personally rather looking to the best interest of the community, Tuffey is distorting the real issues at play.

“We didn’t want this to be seen as a political thing,” said Calsolaro. “We decided not to involve the DA, because it would be seen as a political move. We wanted it to be a neutral party, so we contacted the state Investigation Committee.”

However, some of the council members who signed the letter were concerned that Tuffey might be able to use his influence to head off an investigation with the SIC. The council members held off announcing the letter for at least a week after it had been signed and sent.

The six members have been criticized that not all members of the council were contacted about the measure, but Ellis downplayed the criticism.

“I don’t think we should make light of it or dismiss it,” Ellis said of the criticism, “but certain members of the council are simply loyal to the mayor’s office and Chief Tuffey, and that needs to be said. Why would we need to contact them when we already know what their responses have been?”

In fact, the sending of the letter by the six council members is indicative of a change in a council that was once practically handpicked and controlled by Jennings. Calsolaro and Ellis pointed out that some of the members who have been sitting on the fence between their loyalty to City Hall and loyalty to the community have been bolstered by the pair’s outspokenness.

The split between mayoral loyalists and independent council members is now clearer than is has been since the 2006 elections.

McLaughlin said that she understands how a strong leader like Tuffey could feel attacked when the organization he runs faces criticism, but she said that the problems affecting the APD likely came about during the succession of a number of chiefs over the past decade.

“Our outcry to the SIC is a reflection of our commitment as strong leaders of our respective communities to show our commitment to our neighborhoods. This isn’t about him [Tuffey],” she said. “This isn’t about me. This is much more important, and, if we move beyond that, people will see the real issues we are trying to address.”

And yet, just days after the council members held a press conference announcing the letter, things did become about McLaughlin, who received a threatening phone call regarding her actions.

According to McLaughlin, the caller told her, “You better stop your racist BS and leave the Albany Police Department alone or you will be sorry.”

McLaughlin contacted Tuffey, who referred her to other officers in the department, who took her complaint. Although McLaughlin said that she is satisfied with the fact that the APD is investigating the threatening call, Ellis said that he finds it disconcerting that Tuffey did not handle the case personally.

In the past, Tuffey has responded personally to incidents involving Mayor Jennings’ safety. When Jennings hit a fire hydrant with his city-owned car in 2006, Tuffey personally responded to the scene.

“Why wouldn’t the chief handle it himself?” asked Ellis. “An elected official has been threatened—you would think the police chief would want to handle this personally.”

McLaughlin said that she has received a lot of support from the other members who signed the letter, but has yet to hear from her other colleagues. “To be honest with you, I haven’t heard from any of the other council members,” said McLaughlin. “It felt a little strange that none of the other members had sympathy in a situation where someone is being harassed.”

Ellis said it is important that the public understand the council is not attacking Albany’s police force. “I know for a fact it’s not all police officers. I know 30 of them personally that I went to school with and grew up with. I don’t feel like when I’m speaking out about how the department is run that I am attacking the officers. I am speaking out against the policies that allow these incidents to take place.”

McLaughlin said that, as a council member, she has learned to take criticism, justified or not. She has become accustomed to being labeled as just a piece of the Albany machine, despite the fact that she feels she is far from it. But she also knows that some criticism leveled at her is valid. In the same way, she thinks Tuffey and the APD should know that the letter the council sent was not a personal attack on them.

“People have the right to say what they are going to say,” said McLaughlin. “I believe if you are going to be a police officer you need to have thick skin. And if you are facing criticism and the shoe fits, then you wear it; but if it doesn’t, then you move on and you keeping doing your job. We can’t afford to make this a personal conversation. We have to divorce ourselves from it and be objective. This is not personal this is business.”

—David King

What a Week

Shake Up

It has been revealed that Mark Penn, chief strategic adviser to Democratic presidential hopeful and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, was involved in discussions surrounding the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Problem is, Clinton has said she is adamantly opposed to the agreement, which plays very poorly in the Rust Belt states, including Pennsylvania, where Clinton is fighting what many see as the final, great battle in her flagging candidacy. Penn has been bounced, as a result, from his high position in the campaign, and is being prepped for the role of scapegoat if Clinton loses Pennsylvania. Compounding the pressure on Clinton, her husband has been a vocal proponent of free trade with Colombia since 2000. But spouses don’t always agree, right?

Consistently Poor

As the state Legislature puts the final touches on its budget—a week late—it has made sure to continue an 18-year tradition of not raising the welfare grant. According to Hunger Action Network, the current welfare grant for a family of three is $291 a month—“less than half the federal poverty level.” Roughly 2.6 million New Yorkers live in poverty, a third of those are children. The state Senate shot down the Assembly’s proposal to increase the welfare grant by 30 percent over the next three years.

Consistently Rich

As anti-poverty organizations held vigils outside the state Capitol to protest the Legislature’s decision to leave the welfare grant untouched for the 18th year in a row, Billionaires for Bruno held their own counterprotest to celebrate the defeat of the widely popular Millionaire’s Tax. The slight increase to the income tax for those who make more than $2,000 a week polled extremely well with New Yorkers, even pulling support from 65 percent of Republicans, and would have brought in billions in extra revenue. “The poorest New Yorkers now pay twice as much of their income for state and local taxes as do wealthy New Yorkers,” said Hunger Action Network, a ratio that Billionaires for Bruno hope will continue for years.

The Expected Gardener

Jerry Jennings’ appointment to replace outgoing DGS commissioner leaves some Common Council members concerned

“This is no surprise. This has been the plan all along,” said Albany Common Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin (Ward 2) of the recent announcement by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings that Nick D’Antonio is taking over as head of the Department of General Services from Willard Bruce.

McLaughlin said that she expects the council to approve the nomination with perhaps a few votes against him by some members for “symbolism.”

Although many council members describe D’Antonio as “responsive,” a number of them are concerned about his credentials and his involvement in a notorious scrap-for-cash scheme that saw city employees selling recyclable scrap metal for cash to fund parties. D’Antonio told the Times Union that the scrap-for-cash policy had been in place before he became deputy commissioner. The Public Integrity Unit of the district attorney’s office was contacted about the scandal, and according to spokeswoman Heather Orth, “Because it has been referred to the public integrity unit, all we can say is we did receive a complaint about the case and it is under review.”

“Mr. D’Antonio has a long history with the city, and I think he brings some strengths and weaknesses to the position, and we need to have a thorough discussion about them,” council President Shawn Morris said. “There are some concerns about the sale of recyclables that lead up to that and what has been done since and what role people played.”

Both Dominick Calsolaro and Corey Ellis said they have been approached by concerned constituents who have voiced their worries about D’Antonio.

“I have gotten calls about the sale of scrap metal and concerns about the way African-Americans are treated in DGS,” said Ellis. “Mr. D’Antonio seems like a nice guy, but if my constituents want me to vote no, I will vote no.” Ellis said he has been approached by a group of citizens who want the chance to discuss D’Antonio’s appointment with him.

Calsolaro said that besides his concerns that the sale of scrap metal might be a criminal matter, he would like to know what qualifications D’Antonio has to oversee the dump, plow the city streets, plant the city’s flowers, and manage its trees.

“Mr. D’Antonio has been responsive to me, but that does not make you a good commissioner,” said Calsolaro. “Whether it is Joe Smith or D’Antonio, they should respond to constituents, that is the job of the office. It is a big department that covers a lot of different areas, and I would like to know if he has any of the expertise it requires.”

D’Antonio was a former assistant to Mayor Jennings, and according to many, his move to DGS was no accident. D’Antonio has spent five years as deputy commissioner of DGS. The problem some council members have is that D’Antonio’s appointment is another example of what they say is Jennings’ tendency to appoint loyalists and friends to positions they are not particularly qualified for. D’Antonio would receive a salary of $94,448 if successfully appointed. There will be a meeting of the General Services Committee at 5 PM at City Hall to interview D’Antonio. The committee will then make its recommendation to the full body of the council.

—David King

Park and Pay

The Albany Parking Authority offers a Central Avenue solution that some say is too pricey

For years now, residents and business owners on Central Avenue in Albany have demanded solutions to the area’s widely perceived parking problems. With metered on-street parking and city-owned lots that allowed parking for only an hour and a half, business patrons and employees were forced to either move their vehicle every few hours or continually feed the meter. Residents were forced to either park outside their neighborhood or to move their cars from lot to lot during sick days and vacation days to avoid the dreaded city boot or tow truck.

The Albany Parking Authority has finally offered up a solution, but for many residents and business people it is simply not feasible. The authority now controls eight lots on Central, which have been designated as pay lots; parkers must pay at a terminal and display the receipt on their car, or purchase a monthly permit. For $20 a month, interested parties can purchase a night permit that allows them access to the lot from 4 PM to 9 AM on weeknights, and around-the-clock on weekends. A weekday permit, which allows parking from 7 AM to 7 PM, is available for $30. For unfettered access to the lots, both night and day, the permit costs $40 per month. Meters cost 50 cents an hour during the weekdays with a $3 maximum. Some residents say the authority has effectively levied a tax on a neighborhood that is already struggling financially. For more information on permits, call the Albany Parking Authority at 434-8886.

—David King


Metroland writers keep award winning streak going

For the third year in a row, a Met roland editorial staffer has taken first-place honors in the New York Press Association’s prestigious Writer of the Year category. This is the association’s top statewide honor for an individual writer, and the 2007 award was presented to Metroland staff writer David King at NYPA’s annual convention in Albany last weekend.

King follows in the footsteps of former Metroland staff writer Rick Marshall, who won NYPA’s Writer of the Year honors for 2005, and current news editor Chet Hardin, the 2006 winner.

Metroland also won six other awards last weekend when the association announced all of the winners in its annual Better Newspaper Contest. King took second place in the Feature Story category for his piece on KingJamell Modest’s life on Albany’s mean streets. He also finished third in the Sports Feature category for his story on mixed-martial-arts fighter Michael La Duke. King’s Modest story, along with his feature on gun violence in Albany, contributed to Metroland’s third-place finish in Coverage of Crime, Police and Courts.

This newsweekly also won second place in Coverage of the Environment for Shawn Stone’s feature on ethanol and a multi-writer Earth Day package; and second place in Coverage of Local Government, with several writers contributing. Finally, Metroland took second place in Best Special Section Cover for last year’s Summer Fashion cover, a collaboration between fashion director Laura Leon, photographer Leif Zurmuhlen, and art director John Bracchi.

The New York Press Association represents more than 350 weekly newspapers across New York state.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Reserve Now!

Democratic Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand was at the Mobil gas station on Western Avenue in Albany to call attention to her proposal to temporarily lower gas prices by temporarily drawing from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve. “With gas prices at a record high, and the nation’s economy facing an economic downturn, immediate action must be taken to bring relief to local families. The issue of rising fuel prices is a top concern for families, seniors, small businesses, and farmers alike,” said Gillibrand, the freshman congresswoman from the 20th Congressional District. She proposed measures she claimed would save taxpayers nearly 50 cents a gallon over a six-month period. Six months? Seems that something Gillibrand would consider awfully important is happening about six months from now.

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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