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Three-Job Bob: Department of Public Works commissioner Bob Mirch enjoys a smoke.

Photo: Joe Putcock

The Garbageman’s Day in Court

Bob Mirch, poster child of the Tutunjian administration’s bullish reputation, shrugs off his latest controversy

By Chet Hardin

One good way to toy with Bob Mirch would be to lead off an article about Bob Mirch by letting Jim Conroy tell a story:

“One particular occasion was telling,” Conroy begins. It was back in the late 90s. Mark Pattison was in his first term as Troy’s first mayor. Conroy was the deputy mayor, and Mirch was the deputy commissioner of Public Works. Troy had just changed to the strong-mayor form of government after a disastrous run of city managers that left the city deeply in debt. The city was struggling then—as it does now—with abandoned buildings collapsing in its poor neighborhoods, and absentee owners who let their buildings rot and do nothing to prevent the criminal element that settles in.

“If you have severe code violations, you breed illegal activity,” says Conroy. “We always had this nexus between criminal activity, code violations, and the deferred maintenance of buildings, absentee owners. All of these ills—there is a relationship.”

Conroy says that Mirch had taken it upon himself to attack this nexus with the only means at his disposal: the Department of Public Works. “He began doing these ‘civil-enforcement efforts,’ identifying buildings where there were problems. Then he would go in and padlock the doors and kick the people out in the streets.”

“I got a call from Bob,” Conroy continues, “about a building on 5th Avenue near Jacobs Street. The building still stands. He was saying that he had gone into a house where prostitution was taking place, and he rousted everyone out of the building. And sure enough, I don’t doubt that prostitution was going on in that building, I don’t doubt it in the least. But there he is, a commissioner in Public Works, basically breaking down the doors of this building to go in and take what action he saw fit to deal with prostitution. And I am sorry, but that just isn’t how it works.”

Conroy says that the Pattison administration eventually clamped down on Mirch, and adopted a community- policing model to attack these quality-of-life issues. “We initiated a civil-enforcement effort, but we took the enforcement of it from the DPW and placed it with the police department, which has a better understanding of legal issues, due process. And that was a real rub against Bob.”

Conroy adds: “But we kept him under control.”

“Big Jimbo told you that?” Mirch asks. “He’s making that story up. That’s totally insane. The only prostitute in Troy at the time was Jim Conroy.”

That’s about the nicest thing Mirch will say about Conroy.

Conroy was, after all, the guy who Pattison made his deputy, even though Mirch wanted the job and had worked so damn hard to get Pattison elected. This chain of command left Mirch answering to Conroy, a guy, Mirch asserts, who didn’t even live in Troy for the first two years of the administration.

Mirch had been working for the city since 1980 when he was first hired by the city manager, John Buckley. He’s worked for six city managers in all, he says, and for both of the city’s mayors. He has built a reputation as a dogged campaigner and political brawler—a good guy to have on your side. In fact, Conroy will even admit that Mirch was key to Pattison’s first victory.

But after Pattison won his second term, Mirch got fired.

“We got Pattison elected the first time, and for the next three years, I get total disrespect. Not from Pattison, but from Conroy,” Mirch says. January of the year that Pattison was going to run for his second term, he met with Mirch and asked for his support. “I tell him, ‘I wish you luck, but I am not going to support ya,’ ” Mirch recounts. “So he says, ‘I might have to fire ya.’ ‘Do whatever you gotta do,’ I say, ‘but I’m not gonna support ya.’ ”

It was nothing personal against Pattison, Mirch says, but he wouldn’t support him as long as Conroy was around.

Mirch began to openly campaign for Republican Carmella Mantello.

“Bob Mirch worked openly to support Mark’s opponent in the mayoral race,” Conroy says. “The reason he was let go was he was in a position of some influence and sensitivity in the administration. And he was privy to conversations that were taking place. He was a valued contributor, and he chose to support Mark’s opponent. He betrayed Pattison, and suffered the consequences. If he still bears ill will against me, so be it. But 10 years is a long time to carry a grudge.”

The day after Mantello lost, Mirch says, Conroy went to the DPW and fired him.

“I was like, ‘Can I finish my coffee?’ ” Mirch says.

“Bob has a history of opposing anyone supervising him,” Conroy says. “He’s no different than the 10-year-old kid on the playground. I knew him growing up. Our parents were very good friends. The Mirches and Conroys were great friends. Bob’s always been rebellious, and he’s always been a bully.”

Without a day job at the age of 51, Mirch switched parties from Democrat to Conservative and got himself a job in the office of a downstate senator through the help of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

Mirch competed for the Republican Party’s endorsement in the 2003 Troy mayoral contest, but lost it to two-term council member Harry Tutunjian.

“We both gave great interviews, and they chose Harry,” Mirch says. He accepted it and went out and campaigned hard for Tutunjian. Tutunjian, in turn, ended Mirch’s tenure at the state by appointing him commissioner of Public Works. It was a good deal for Mirch. He had recently been elected majority leader in the Rensselaer County Legislature, and he was bringing back a souvenir from the state Capitol: the well-paid position of “constituent liaison” for Sen. Bruno. That totaled three government paychecks for “Three-Job Bob,” and that first year he earned roughly $125,000.

Tutunjian stormed into office in 2004 with a brisk, aggressive agenda. He wanted action, so he created an Action Team and gave them neon T-shirts. He made cleaning the streets and enforcing building codes a battle cry. It was the hysterical end of the real-estate bubble, and there was still the hope that Troy would attract the wealth that could gentrify its burgeoning downtown. Tutunjian wanted his streets to be swept in preparation, and the dilapidated and condemned buildings to be dealt with. According to Mirch: “Pattison ran the city like a think tank. All they’d do was have meetings all day and talk. Harry runs the city like a business.”

“I stand before you tonight,” Tutunjian proclaimed before the City Council at the beginning of 2004, “to pledge that after years of planning in the city of Troy it is simply time to start doing!”

This hard-charging ethos has won loyal support for the administration, and for Tutunjian, who won a decisive victory in his re-election campaign in 2007. But it has also welcomed its share of criticism—and lawsuits.

One of the earliest incidents of the administration allegedly using ham-fisted tactics to deal with its opponents involved the old porn theater on River Street, the Cinema Art. In March 2006, the venue was shut down after a police investigation alleged that adults were using the shop to engage in sexual escapades. A month later, the city claimed that bricks were falling off of the building, and, oddly, tore the historic marquee off its façade. Since then, the building’s owner, Jan DeGroote, has leveled a civil-rights suit against the city.

Another incident involved a constituent who sent an indignant e-mail to the mayor, urging Tutunjian to respond to the allegation that three city employees, including Mirch, had used city time to record campaign robocalls to slander the voracious Tutunjian critic, incumbent Councilman Bill Dunne (D-District 4) during the 2005 council races. Soon after, this constituent was visited by code enforcement and issued a fine for a piece of graffiti that someone had spray-painted on his building. When it turned out that graffiti wasn’t mentioned in the city’s codes, this constituent told Metroland, the violation was re-issued for an unlicensed sign.

Controversial businessmen Jack Cox recently won a $20,000 settlement against the city in a suit that alleged his civil rights were violated in 2006 when Mirch repeatedly barricaded the entrances to Cox’s 5th Avenue towing business.

“That wasn’t me being a bully,” Mirch argues. “The neighbors in that neighborhood were scared. The Cox family had started moving in junk cars, and they weren’t following the laws. Those neighbors were in an uproar.”

Originally, Mirch put concrete blocks at the front of the property, and at the back entrance in the alley. Cox allegedly towed the blocks in the back away, so Mirch just dumped a big pile of dirt in their place. Mirch still laughs about the line he used with the papers: “Let’s see Jack try to tow away a pile of dirt!”

After the settlement, Republican Councilman Mark McGrath, a friend and ally of Mirch, called on the mayor to admonish Mirch for his actions. “There were better ways to deal with Cox,” McGrath tells Metroland, “than to use strong-arm tactics.”

“Action had to be taken, and I took it,” says Mirch, “and there is still peace in the neighborhood three years later. And the people in that Lansingburgh neighborhood are happy with that peace.”

Mirch stands outside of the South Troy Diner, smoking an American Spirit. You’ll find Mirch here every Friday morning, chain-smoking his way through breakfast with political junkies, city workers, county legislature candidate Michael “Pickles” Picarillo, and Steve Dworsky, a former Troy city manager and one of Mirch’s lifelong buddies.

Mirch is opining on his reputation as a bully: “Some people in authority are filled with fear, and don’t take the action that is needed. I am not afraid to make a decision. And it doesn’t always have to be right. That’s what I tell my people. If you’re right, good. And if you’re not right, then just accept the consequence that goes with it.”

Mirch has already said a number of times that he cannot discuss his most recent controversy, the lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Media Alliance, the nonprofit organization behind Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media. The suit alleges that Mirch, and the city of Troy, violated constitutionally protected speech when the city shut down the sanctuary for a code violation.

Last year, the sanctuary welcomed Iraqi-born Chicago artist Wafaa Bilal to exhibit his video game The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi after his exhibition was cancelled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute due to its controversial nature. Bilal’s piece drew intense criticism from RPI’s College Republicans, as the goal of the game is the assassination of President George W. Bush.

The day the exhibit opened at the sanctuary, Mirch mounted a protest outside the sanctuary. The next day, the building was shut down.

“I’d love to talk about the case,” Mirch says, “but my lawyer told me not to.”

The morning of the protest, Mirch went on the Al Roney show to condemn the artwork as an act of terrorism: “I just view it as something that is wrong, out-of-bounds, un-American and terrorism,” Mirch said. “In my mind and in my heart, I believe it’s terrorism.”

Mirch has said many times—the night of the protest, when the news broke that the sanctuary might be filing suit, and then on Friday, standing outside the diner—that he was surprised that the FBI didn’t go in itself and shut down the show.

Mirch says nothing has changed since the suit, that he is proud of the protest he mounted against the sanctuary. His only regret was the timing: The story was gaining national attention, shaping up to be national news, but the bomb termed Client No. 9 dropped the same day as his protest and Eliot Spitzer reluctantly stole all the news cycles.

Cornelius Murray, the lead attorney representing the sanctuary asks: “If you are wondering if we can get a trail all the way back to Mirch, the answer is that we can. We are not worried about that. This screams out as being an instance where, under the pretext of law, you are really doing something to punish a legal activity that you don’t like.”

It really does seem to pain Mirch that he can’t defend himself to the press. So, instead, he points to Monday’s issue of The Record.

“Did you see [columnist James] Franco’s ‘Tailspin’ Monday?” Mirch asks. “He wrote right in there that everybody knows Mirch had nothing to do with closing down the sanctuary. And I have dealt with Franco long enough that he knows that I don’t lie. It wasn’t me.”

“Thing is,” Franco’s column reads, “we now know Mirch didn’t give the order to close down the Sanctuary the day after the controversial art exhibit ‘Virtual Jihadi’ opened. That order came from higher up the food chain.”

Sources are saying that the order came out of the mayor’s office.

“I wish they’d unleash me, ’cause I’d love to bury the ACLU,” Mirch says, “but they won’t let me. Let the ACLU keep talking talking, man. The Garbageman will have his day in court.”

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