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Hurry Up and Wait

Councilmen clash on investigating Albany “ghost tickets”

Freshman Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) arrived 35 minutes late to the caucus and said little, although the Democrats were discussing an issue that he owns. After, he strode into the council chambers, through the public entrance, for the first February meeting of the Albany Common Council, after conspiring briefly with Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) in the hallway. It was to be Ellis’ night. He was going to challenge his colleagues, as he had told Metroland in the past, to wager their political calculations against action by voting on whether to initiate a full council investigation into Albany’s “ghost tickets” scandal.

Ellis proposed a motion to issue a subpoena for Albany Police Officers’ Union president Christian Mesley, to come before the council at its March 2 meeting and answer questions as to his knowledge of the police department’s alleged policy of handing out the no-fine tickets. Calsolaro seconded the motion.

After hearing discussion from Councilman Michael O’Brien (Ward 12), President Pro Tem Richard Conti (Ward 6) stood and proposed his own motion—to table Ellis’ bill. The chamber fell into chaos.

“You can do that?” Ellis asked. “You can table another council member’s proposal?”

Yes, the research counsel responded bluntly, scanning procedure documents.

Ellis stood with his head down, frustrated, “So once again, I,” he began, but was cut short by Council President Shawn Morris—Conti had the floor.

But Ellis continued, “I didn’t know that you could squash someone’s motions.”

“It’s not squashing,” Conti rebuffed. “We are operating under Robert’s Rules.”

“I understand, I just didn’t know you could squash . . .”

“It’s not squashing.”

“. . . this kind of motion,” Ellis finished.

Finally, the research counsel confirmed that Conti’s motion was in fact legal, and that it could table Ellis’ motion until a future date, which was set for the next council meeting, Feb. 19. Councilwoman Catherine Fahey (Ward 7) seconded Conti’s motion and the floor was again open to discussion.

Conti said that his motion didn’t reflect what he saw as the validity of Ellis’ motion, rather it was specifically meant to give the council the opportunity to discuss the procedure and process behind using the subpoena.

“This is the first time [this motion] has actually been put before us,” Conti said. “I think it appropriate that we have a discussion that is sane, rational, and orderly so that we know where we are going and therefore we can then consider this motion or some other motion.”

“Two months! Two months!” Ellis countered. “I have stated in the newspaper, on television, about how I felt the council should deal with this issue. We have the ability to do it. We have the power to do it. And not one time did I get a phone call from the president pro tem.”

“This has been going on now since November,” Calsolaro complained. “There comes a point when you have to take a stand and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

“We have not had discussion on this issue,” Conti argued. “Mr. Ellis said that he has talked to the newspapers and the television. . . . Yes he has. I have been waiting for him to talk with his colleagues on the council, and bring a proposal before us. I have sat in caucus after caucus expecting Mr. Ellis to bring the discussion before us so that we can have it. I have been waiting for you to bring this up at caucus, I have been waiting for you to bring it up.”

There are some insiders who say that Ellis’ actions are career motivated, pointing to the fact that he is exploring the possibility of running against Mayor Jerry Jennings this year. Securing this subpoena would be seen as a big, early win for Ellis in a race that many insiders agree will become too crowded if council president Morris, who is also considering a run, decides to announce.

“The correct question is why didn’t the council want to go on the record about whether they support putting Mesley under oath?” Ellis later told Metroland. “It’s not about procedure, or policy, or political grandstanding.”

In the end, the council supported Conti’s motion, with Ellis, Calsolaro, and Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) voting against it, though Ellis appeared undeterred.

“You don’t need to discuss whether or not you want to vote to subpoena someone. You are elected officials,” Ellis told his colleagues. “You represent your ward. And you need to discuss whether or not you vote to put someone under oath?”

“Progress does not happen without action,” Ellis said. “I am happy I did it this way, because guess what happened: We scheduled a meeting for Feb. 12th, and now we are going to start to deal with it. Don’t know what’s gonna come out of it, but now we are going to start to deal with it.”

—Chet Hardin

Video documentation of the Feb. 2 meeting is online at Albany Community Television’s Facebook page. The council has scheduled a special caucus for Feb. 12 at 5:30 PM in the City Court Room, 2nd floor of City Hall, to discuss further investigation. It is open to the public.

What a Week


Small, but Growing

A buy-local pledge and a new business directory are the focus of a Local First monthly meeting

Capital District Local First (CDLF) is taking the next step in its campaign encouraging people to take the 10 Percent Shift Pledge. Through this program, residents of Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady counties will pledge to shift 10 percent of the goods and services they buy from chain to local businesses.

Draft copies of pledge sign-up sheets were distributed at a monthly CDFL meeting held Monday at Flavour Café in Troy.

“This could be a really big boost to our local economy, especially at a time when we really need it,” said David Hess, treasurer of the board of CDLF and a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The pledge program is modeled after similar programs instated by Local First chapters nationwide. It was started after a survey conducted by Civic Economics and the Local First in Grand Rapids, Mich., found that a 10-percent shift to local goods and products could create $140 million in new economic activity and 1,600 new jobs in that area.

The meeting Monday featured a panel of three Troy business owners leading a discussion on the topic “Building Communities and Building Businesses.” Rocco DeFazio of DeFazio’s Pizza, Elizabeth Young of Living Room Antiques, and Karen Schlesinger of Digital Artist’s Space participated in the panel with CDLF vice-chair Karisa Centanni acting as moderator.

DeFazio, Young, and Schlesinger all spoke on how working to create better neighborhoods can lead to more successful businesses, highlighting programs such as the Troy Neighborhoods Action Council, Troy Night Out, and the attempt at a formation of a Troy Business Improvement District.

DeFazio formed T-NAC to expand on the work he had done to improve his own Little Italy neighborhood. “We want to empower other neighborhoods to do what we do,” DeFazio said.

“What I’ve really found is that there’s strength in numbers,” echoed Young in reference to her work with Schlesinger on Troy Night Out and the Troy Downtown Collaborative.

CDLF also played host to a presentation by startup All for Local. All for Local, the product of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute seniors Joe Balestriere, Alessandro Gerbini, and John Debs, is developing an open-source Web site directory for small businesses to create profiles of business and inventory information. They are also developing inventory software that will eventually funnel into the Web site for real-time inventory information, similar to Gerbini describes the site as “social networking for businesses.”

“By bringing together all small businesses to one database, we can hopefully increase the amount of people that can shop locally simply by knowing what small businesses offer,” Gerbini said. The first step is to gather information about local businesses, and they anticipate having the Capital Region local business directory up by April.

Local business owners (or just those who want to find out more about the businesses in their community) are welcome at every CDLF monthly meeting. Smaller hubs of the CDLF have been set up in each of the four counties represented by the organization. While the CDLF deals with overarching issues concerning local businesses, the hubs will be more action- oriented, organizing events at the city level.

The Schenectady hub has the ball rolling on a May Buy-Local Bash, and the Troy hub has weekly meetings at Brown’s Brewing Company. The Albany and Saratoga hubs are still getting off the ground. Centanni, the interim leader of the Albany hub, encourages anyone interested to contact her directly through the CDLF Web site or to attend a general CDLF meeting.

—Cecelia Martinez

You can find out more about the CDLF at Businesses interested in participating in All for Local can e-mail


Full Impact

Jennings wants a new plan for Washington Park, but will he want the environmental review that goes with it?

What constitutes an “environmental impact” on a public city park? Members of the Washington Park Conservancy in Albany have been asking that question for three years; now, they may finally get an answer.

Members of the conservancy met recently with Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, his staff, and the heads of several city agencies that deal with the park. The two main topics were what to do with the two “staging areas” in the park where the city has been storing grounds equipment and supplies, and the conservancy’s longstanding desire to have a State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR, performed on the park.

“It was a very, very productive meeting,” said Jennings spokesman Bob VanAmburgh, who added that the mayor plans to hold regular meetings with the conservancy.

A solution, or at least a compromise, on the staging areas may be at hand. One of the areas has already been disbanded; now, the city just has to restore a heavily gouged area of bare earth left behind. The second staging area, which is on a rise overlooking the lake, is going to be moved to a less visible site in the park. Conservancy president Fran Ingraham Heins, who has lauded the mayor’s cooperation on this issue, said she will be walking the park in the spring with Nicholas D’Antonio, commissioner of the city’s Department of General Services, to find a new place for that second staging area.

“We’re trying to find a good solution,” Heins said.

The conservancy’s request for an environmental review of the park is a more complex issue, but an answer on that may be forthcoming.

After a meeting with the conservancy in late November, Jennings announced that the city is forming a committee to commission a new comprehensive plan for Washington Park. The plan will be the first such study of the park in 20 years. And, under the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s regulations on SEQRs, a review is automatically triggered whenever a municipality undertakes a “park development plan.”

Jennings apparently didn’t realize at first that when he announced his intention of having a new comprehensive plan done, he might also be setting in motion an environmental review—the same environmental review that the city has declined to undertake for several years, despite numerous requests by the conservancy. But by the time he was asked this week about the unintentional consequences of his announcement, he had already instructed the Albany Corporation Counsel to check on that very point.

“Well, that answers the question my lawyers are researching,” Jennings said when told that the regulations do mandate environmental reviews for a “park development plan.” He added that the corporation counsel may still advise him after examining the regulations that the mandatory environmental review doesn’t apply to fairly small projects such as the park.

He also affirmed his commitment to naming a committee that would be in charge of the comprehensive plan. He already has a few names as possible appointees.

If the city does end up triggering a mandatory environmental review because of the new comprehensive plan for the park, it wouldn’t be the first time a municipality has taken such a step, said Betty Ann Hughes, chief of the DEC’s State Environmental Quality Review and Training Unit.

“It’s absolutely frequent to see a SEQR initiated by local entities in the planning realm, and for individual projects,” Hughes said.

While avoiding direct comment on whether an environmental review would be required in this case, Hughes said she is well aware of the Washington Park Conservancy’s interest in having an environmental impact assessment done for the park. She has fielded several questions from conservancy members on the matter in the past three years, she said.

The conservancy is becoming more insistent about the environmental review, after those three years of behind-the-scenes efforts to get the city to agree to it. That’s because, Heins said, the conservancy is concerned about what it considers increased heavy use of the park.

“We’ve got to be more mindful of how we use the park, because it is a small space,” she said. “We’re not threatening the city, but we want to make sure they’re following the process. And there have been changes—roads have been closed; gardens have disappeared.”

The DEC’s description of the environmental quality review states that “if an agency makes an improper decision or allows a project that is subject to SEQR to start, and fails to undertake proper review, citizens or groups who can demonstrate that they may be harmed by this failure may take legal action against the agency.” The description goes on to state that “New York State’s court system has consistently ruled in favor of strong compliance with the provisions of SEQR.”

The conservancy is nowhere near that last-resort stage, Heins said. Right now, the group is banking on the city’s strong recent track record of cooperation and conciliation regarding the park.

—Darryl McGrath

Come together: Centanni listens as Young discusses business in Troy.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Polly Pardon

Following toy-industry outcry, a stay has been placed on lead regulations

On Friday, Jan. 30, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a one-year stay of enforcement on many of the certification and testing requirements mandated in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (HR-4040). As reported by Metroland last week [“Toybox Outlaws,” Jan 29], the complex CPSIA, a federal bill that passed nearly unopposed in both the House and the Senate and was signed into law by then-President George Bush on Aug. 14, 2008, significantly tightened the safety regulations on all products intended for children ages 12 and younger. As the Feb. 10 date of enactment neared, an increasing swell of opposition from manufacturers, retailers and consumers demonstrated the unintended consequences of the sweeping legislation: The financial burden of testing and certification, they argued, threatened to drive small domestic businesses to close up shop or risk bankruptcy. The industry of handcrafted, one-of-a-kind children’s products would become a thing of the past.

Under significant industry pressure, Acting Chairman Nancy Nord and Commissioner Thomas Moore of the CPSC, the regulatory agency charged with enforcing the CPSIA, voted to issue the stay. According to a Jan. 30 statement by Nord, the stay is “a limited ‘time-out’ so that the Commission and Congress can address the issues with the law that have become so painfully apparent.”

The stay applies only to the third-party certification and product testing requirements for total lead content and six banned phthalates. While manufacturers and retailers will not have to test and certify products for sale, any products sold will still be required to comply with the new limits.

Essentially, companies that are confident that their materials are safe are free to continue sales while the CPSC and Congress work out the problems with the legislation. Companies that use materials that do not comply with the new standards remain liable for selling noncompliant goods, as do resellers like thrift and consignment stores.

Nord’s statement included a letter to significant legislators addressing the need to amend the legislation, and calling for discussion of the CPSIA to be a priority of the 111th Congress.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have demanded that Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) hold a hearing to reevaluate the legislation. As of press time, no such hearing was scheduled.

—Kathryn Geurin

Loose Ends

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