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Shut you down: DPW Commissioner Bob Mirch.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Bring ’Em On

Troy DPW commissioner says he welcomes the claim filed against him by the NYCLU for alleged abuse of power in shutting down the Sanctuary for Independent Media

For Steve Pierce, the Notice of Claim filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union against the city of Troy and Department of Public Works Commissioner Robert Mirch goes beyond the temporary interruption of operations at the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

“What we want is for the administration to stop abusing code enforcement,” Pierce said. “It’s not just about what happened to us. It is about addressing an egregious abuse of power.”

The sanctuary was closed down March 10, the day after the opening of Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal’s Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi. The exhibit featured a twice-hacked video game: American-made Quest for Saddam was co-opted by a group associated with Al Qaeda. In the original, the goal was to kill former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; in Al Qaeda’s version, the goal was switched to the assassination of President Bush. The second iteration of the game is the one that Bilal hacked, adding to the mix a suicide-bomber character modeled on his own appearance.

Bob Mirch, who oversees the code department, organized a protest outside the sanctuary, calling the artwork “terrorism.” The next day, the sanctuary was closed down by code enforcement.

It is obvious to Pierce that Mirch used his position as DPW commissioner to silence artwork that he took personal offense to, and that the Tutunjian administration allowed it to happen.

For Mirch, a controversial figure in Troy, it is just the latest in a series of similar allegations. He and the Tutunjian administration have a reputation of bullishly using code enforcement as a method of political punishment. Pierce said that, since the March closure of the sanctuary, many residents have reached out to him with similar complaints about code.

“There seems to be a pattern of abuse of code enforcement,” said Troy Councilman Ken Zalewski (D-District 5). He said that he believes it would be proper for the council to investigate these charges of abuse, and has been advocating for the Law Committee to initiate such an investigation.

So far, the sanctuary has said that it would be happy with a public acknowledgment by the administration that code was abused in the shuttering of the sanctuary, and an apology. Under those conditions, the suit would be dropped.

Don’t hold your breath. Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian said that he has no intention of apologizing: He has no idea what the city would even apologize for, he said. The sanctuary was in violation of code. The city shut the building down. Simple. As he has said before, the only thing that code was guilty of was not closing down the sanctuary months earlier.

Mirch, pugnacious as ever, shrugged off the notion of an apology.

“I got nothing to back down from,” he said, “nothing to apologize for,” and laughed at the NYCLU’s suit. “They’re gonna waterboard us!”

In fact, the consummate political slugger seemed happy as hell that the NYCLU filed its claim, thus keeping alive the Bilal controversy.

“Everywhere I go, people say, ‘You are absolutely right!’ The people are behind me 100 percent,” he said. “I am having a great time. I live for this!”

—Chet Hardin


What a Week

The End Is Nigh?

After a narrow primary victory in Indiana and a 14-point defeat in North Carolina, Sen. Hillary Clinton once again will have to decide whether her candidacy for president is still viable. Clinton reportedly loaned her campaign $6 million dollars over the course of the past month, and with her mixed performance in the last two primaries, she may have a hard time securing significant new donations. On Tuesday night, Tim Russert of NBC News declared, “We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it. Those closest to her will give her a hard-headed analysis, and if they lay it all out, they’ll say, ‘What is the rationale? What do we say to the undeclared super delegates tomorrow? Why do we tell them you’re staying in the race?’ And tonight, there’s no good answer for that.”

Walking Papers

Albany District Attorney David Soares has fired longtime veteran assistant DA Brian Farley. According to the Times Union, Farley had 23 years of experience, working as the narcotics bureau chief and in the street-crimes bureau, and most recently successfully prosecuted the homicide of a 69-year-old man. Farley, however, was one of the individuals who purchased an automatic weapon in the weapons scandal involving the Albany Police Department, which the TU reported last year. Sources close to the DA’s office have been reported as citing a record of slow-moving prosecutions for his dismissal.

Happy Assholes

According to a study this week by the National Science Foundation, conservatives are generally happier than liberals, regardless of their marriage status, income or church attendance. Researchers say that conservatives are able to rationalize economic and social inequalities—inequalities that trouble the conscience of liberals. “Our research suggests that inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives,” stated the report. In a Pew Research Center survey from 2006, 47 percent of surveyed Republicans describe themselves as “very happy.” Only 28 percent of Democrats indicated the same.



Passing the Buck

Albany Mayor Jennings warns of financial woes that his critics saw coming

“I don’t know how the council could have done more. We don’t really have any say,” said Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), responding to a recent Times Union article in which Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings announced a hiring freeze for the city, warned of hard financial times, and asked the heads of his departments to “look for ways to save money.”

The article noted that Jennings had sent a letter to Council President Pro Tempore Richard Conti (Ward 6) in November, acknowledging the concerns of some council members about the city budget and impending financial shortfalls and recommending the formation of a “joint council-administration ad-hoc committee” that would focus on dealing with financial challenges in future city budgets.

Calsolaro, along with five other council members, voted against the mayor’s 2008 proposed budget, which passed by a vote of 9-6. But Calsolaro said that, as far as he knows, “we made that letter part of our budget resolution and it went back to the mayor. It is in the mayor’s hands now. We agreed to have a committee set up. It is now up to him to set up that committee.”

Council members do not have much control over the city budget. The council can approve or vote down a budget, or try to cut certain things out. But most likely, those changes would be vetoed by the mayor and the council is weighted with enough mayor loyalists that overriding a mayoral veto would be a pipe dream. Furthermore, Calsolaro said that the Finance Committee is rarely, if ever, critical of the city’s borrowing.

This past November, Calsolaro proposed eliminating all of, or a portion of, the vacant positions from the city budget. His proposal was ignored.

“[Schenectady Mayor] Brian Stratton, when he first came in, one of the earliest things he did was eliminate vacant positions,” said Calsolaro. “Stratton has been able to turn around his city budget from deep debt to budget surpluses.”

Comptroller Tom Nitido said things are not that simple: “I think we have a tendency to have simple solutions to complex problems; not filling positions is not the way to provide services at a price we can afford.” Nitido also said that it is essential for city officials to work together. “We need to sit together and figure out what we can do to reduce expenses. What happens is, one person proposes a way to cut expenses and the council people or mayor shoot holes in it. Someone sticks their neck out and, instead of people getting on board, they gang up on them.”

Calsolaro noted that he has proposed giving the council the ability to approve transactions made by the city of $10,000 or more. Currently, the Board of Estimate and Approval—a board made up of Nitido, Council President Shawn Morris, Jennings, Treasurer Betty Barnette, and Corporation Council John Reilly—is in charge of approving expenditures of any size. The board is weighted in Jennings’ favor, with Barnette and Reilly being close Jennings allies and Morris and Nitido being the only two possible dissenters.

But Nitido said he is not certain that giving the council more power would solve Albany’s budget problems. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find a place where a council reduced expenditures. They face pressure to increase expenses to provide services for their district, but you know we have seen very little action at the executive level to reduce the overall cost of payroll and benefits. It needs to happen, but it just can’t happen just from the council.”

The city’s financial situation has grown increasingly bleak since Jennings began his term as mayor. Jennings has relied increasingly on state aid and city surplus funds to balance his budgets. State PILOT payments made to Albany to support the proposed Albany Convention Center are scheduled to decrease in the next couple of years, and may eventually dry up.

Said Calsolaro, “Jerry started in 1994 with a $27 million surplus, and it was gone by 1999. He wiped it all out in six years to artificially keep taxes down and not cut anything. You don’t see cuts in the budgets he proposes. He is unwilling to make hard choices.”

Critics say Jennings has spoken out on the financial issue in an attempt to head off criticism during next year’s mayoral race, and to echo the financial concerns expressed by Gov. David Paterson.

Calsolaro insisted that Jennings was spoiled by the extra state aid delivered to him by former Gov. George Pataki, and that relying on such state aid to balance Albany’s budget is irresponsible. But it allowed Jennings to boost his popularity by not raising taxes.

“The mayor has done a very good job of bringing revenue in from the state,” said Nitido. “We do not get the same state aid other cities get, and we should try and right that, but that is not the whole answer.”

Calsolaro said that if Jennings does not run for reelection next year, or if he is defeated, that the person who replaces him will be left with unpopular choices to be made.

“He is not a financial manager,” said Calsolaro. “He has been a terrible financial manager of city funds. No matter how much money he gets, it’s gone.”

—David King





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