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Who Will Hold the Purse?

Mired in ghost-ticket controversy, long-time Albany treasurer Betty Barnette faces a strong challenger

For years, Kathy Sheehan made superconducting magnets. Well, she didn’t actually make these essential components for medical MRIs, but the firm she worked for did. “It was a very cool place to work,” Sheehan said, “very innovative.”

Sheehan, a Democratic candidate for Albany city treasurer, put in 10 years with the high-tech firm Intermagnetics General Corporation in Latham, serving under three titles: vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary.

“In my role as vice-president, I was a part of the senior-management team that set the strategy for the company and then executed that strategy. As general counsel, I was responsible for legal compliance,” she said. The company was publicly traded, and Sheehan oversaw the filings with the Security and Exchange Commission, “any queries that came from the SEC, our obligations to shareholders, notices to shareholders, our stock-option plan, all of that was under my scope of responsibility.”

For much of this, she worked closely with the chief finance officer and the finance department, she said. “I am used to working at a company that is very transparent. All of our financials are publicly disclosed and reported. Anything that was going on in the company that was important to shareholders had to be disclosed in a timely manner. So I have operated in an environment that requires a high level of transparency and accountability, and I think that that could really benefit the city.”

When Sheehan started with the company, she said, they were making about $88 million in sales. By the time the company was acquired by its largest customer in 2006, it had reached $300 million in sales and doubled its employees.

Sheehan is running against the current treasurer, Betty Barnette, in a year when the 18-year incumbent has been mired in the controversies surrounding the city’s no-fine tickets swindle. Barnette was called before the Common Council during its months-long investigation into the city’s systems of awarding no-fine tickets.

“I had hopped that we’d be debating on Sept. 8th,” Sheehan said. “The League of Women Voters had set up a debate, and I was just informed that Barnette said that she had a scheduling conflict and wouldn’t be able to debate.”

Barnette did not return calls for comment.

As treasurer, Barnette oversees the Parking Violations Bureau, which is responsible for collecting the fines for illegal parking in the city. Under oath, she told the council that she had never heard of the bull’s-eye stickers that the police union passed out to its members, which protected them from parking fines, nor the VIP list that likewise shielded city employees and members of the public alike. “Until recently I had no knowledge of any bull’s-eyes or placard system, ghost tickets, no-fine tickets or VIP list or an exempt system,” Barnette told the council.

However, on May 8, the Times Union reported that Barnette had received at least seven no-fine tickets, calling into question her earlier testimony.

When asked how she could have been ignorant of a system that had been handing out thousands of no-fine tickets annualy for more than a decade, considering that she had personally received seven of them, the treasurer stood by her initial claim, telling the TU reporter: “The first I heard of any ghost tickets or warning tickets is when I read it in the Times Union. The truth is the truth and that is the truth.”

The report from the New York state comptroller’s office, released this month, stated that the city issued 57,420 between 2001 and 2008.

Barnette, the former chair of the Albany County Democratic Committee, is a staunch ally of Mayor Jerry Jennings. According to her campaign filings with the New York State Board of Elections, Barnette has received $4,000 from Capital City Committee, the mayor’s PAC, as well as $1,342.73 from Jennings campaign committee.

“The treasurer is an elected citywide office, an independent officer that shouldn’t answer to just one person in City Hall,” said Sheehan. “I would like to take some of the politics out of it. I would like to bring a professionalism to that office. Particularly in an office that, in 2010, will become the chief fiscal officer for the city.”

This is an important point, added one of Sheehan’s most ardent supporters, Council President Shawn Morris. Next year, Albany is restructuring the government offices that oversee the city’s finances. Along with the creation of an auditor’s office, the treasurer will be given the responsibilities formerly handled by the comptroller, including the issuing of municipal bonds, cash-flow forecasting and making investments for the city. The treasurer will essentially become the chief financial officer for the city.

“I think that Kathy certainly has a much-better background,” Morris said. “She is bringing a nice big resume.”

“There are issues with the treasurer’s office in general,” Morris continued. “There are so many ways we need to improve what happens there.” For example, she pointed to two consecutive lawsuits filed by the city comptroller’s office against the treasurer’s office for not filing information electronically.

“I sponsored a law that required her to do this, and she still didn’t do it,” Morris said. “There is this reluctance to comply with actual laws. There just seems to be a reluctance by the incumbent to comply with the other offices in city and state government, and I think that that is a very, very serious issue.”

Plus, Morris said, she supports Sheehan because she sees her as outside Albany’s culture of political positioning. “I think that there needs to be a stronger separation between political offices and elected offices. So you have the city treasurer as the county chair, and fully embracing the various political shenanigans against other elected officials. I think that that raises a lot of concern. Maybe the treasurer’s office is one that shouldn’t be so politically charged.”

“These are taxpayers dollars,” Sheehan said. “We are responsible to the taxpayers. It is important to understand what we are doing with our funds, how we are safeguarding those funds, and what the policies and procedures are behind how we collect taxpayer money and how we spend it. I don’t see that as highly political.”

“I think a lot of the problem is the perception that the current treasurer is in lockstep with the mayor,” Sheehan said, “and acts as though he is to whom she answers. Now, that may be fair or unfair, but that is definitely a perception out there. I would make it very clear who I ultimately answer to.”

—Chet Hardin


More to Love

Closing in on the Democratic primaries, 11th Ward candidates are still fighting hard for the common council seat

Over the next few weeks, residents of the 11th Ward in Albany have a good chance of running into one of the four candidates for common council while walking around their neighborhood. Candidates Ken Barnes, Luke Gucker, Anton Konev and Justin Teff can be seen out almost every night, talking to voters door-to-door.

“Everyone is working really hard,” said Gucker. “That’s been very clear, there are no do-nothing candidates. I’ve seen everybody out; we’re all out there.”

But with four candidates running with similar platforms and a heavy focus on door-to-door campaigning, it may be hard for voters to keep them all straight.

“I understand that there’s a relative bounty of candidates for people to choose from in this ward,” said Gucker, “so it’s kind of hard to distinguish between them after coming to the door all summer. I think the debate was a really good chance to see us all side-by-side, tackling the issues, and it was a chance to let people know really how we feel.”

In early August, all four candidates came together at First Lutheran Church to participate in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and sponsored by the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association with the help of a number of neighborhood associations in the 10th and 11th wards. About 50 people came out to the event, which was recorded and made available online the next day.

“I have had people come up to me and say that the debates had persuaded them towards me,” said Konev. “I also have heard people who were persuaded towards one of my opponents, Justin Teff. He was pretty impressive at the debates.” Konev said that he views Teff, a lawyer and current ward leader, as the candidate to beat due to his large support system in the area and his professional experience.

At the debate, which asked questions submitted by voters in the audience, the four candidates lined up on a number of big issues. Even Teff, who publicly supports incumbent mayor Jerry Jennings, joined the other candidates in their stance against the impending convention center, the expansion of the landfill into the Pine Bush, and the influx of charter schools in Albany.

“I do not like the expansion into the Pine Bush,” said Teff at the debates. “I think whether it’s the environmentally sensitive nature of the land, whether it’s the Karner Blue Butterfly, that it is a disaster.”

Barnes, Gucker, and Konev are also all running on third-party lines on the November ballot, giving them a second chance should they lose the Democratic primary. However, Konev feels that the primary will most likely decide the race.

“It’s impossible to win unless you win the Democratic election,” he said. Gucker disagrees.

“With the number of Democrats registered in the city it is definitely important, and I’m working as hard as I can to do as well as I can in the primaries, absolutely,” said Gucker. “I’m not taking my eyes off either one, really. I’m putting my heart and soul into the primary, but that’s not the end of the story.”

For the general election, Barnes is running on the Conservative line, Konev the Independence line, and Gucker the Working Families and Green lines. However, Konev said that he plans to challenge Gucker’s submitted petitions for the Green line.

“I handed in the petitions fully aware of the issues with them being challenged,” Gucker said. The problem with the petitions, which do not state ‘Ward 11’ but contain Gucker’s address, was brought to his attention by Teff and Konev. After conferring with lawyers, Gucker decided to turn in the petitions rather then alter them after they had been produced.

“I felt like it was legitimate, and I worked hard on those petitions,” he said. “I think Anton was just looking for it, and I was aware of that. I handed them in anyway because I feel that they are valid and there are court cases backing me up.” Gucker said that there is a precedent case involving petitions that did not state the specific locality but did have the candidate’s address.

“The petitions are required by the state law to state the office that the person is signing for and the locality for that office, and the petitions for Luke Gucker fail to do so,” Konev said. “I respect Mr. Gucker. His policy positions are very close to mine. I’m just following the law.”

With the candidates focusing on similar issues, like community policing and code enforcement, success may come for the one who is able to make himself stand out from the crowd.

“I guess it’s encouraging that we’re on sort of this similar path, but it makes it harder to differentiate,” said Gucker. “I think that there are really important differences between all of us, but I think the real differences go a little deeper than the big issues. I think that what really will set a candidate apart is a clear vision for where the ward is going.”

“I think all four of us believe that we are the best candidate,” said Konev. “Our platforms differ very slightly and having four people in the race provides for people to have a choice.”

—Cecelia Martinez


Let’s fight: 1,500 citizens came out for Rep. Tonko’s town hall.

Photo: Chet Hardin

Shouts and Grumbles

Heated attacks and hyperbole drown out reason at Tonko’s health-care town hall

“Are you going to hang tough on the public option?” a supporter of single-payer asked. The crowd broke out into cheers and boos.

“The purpose of the evening is to elicit information,” answered U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko (D-21). “Hanging tough on cutting costs that are excessive, providing for the efficiencies of scale, introduction of technology to avoid duplication, all of that needs to be fixed. And I am going to hang tough.”

According to Bethlehem Town Supervisor John Cunningham, roughly 1,500 people crowded into the pavilion in Elm Avenue Park in Bethlehem to debate, cajole, encourage, threaten, and shout at an unflappable Congressman Tonko. A nearly split crowd of supporters and opponents of the Democrats push for health-care reform echoed the national debate along familiar lines: those who want universal health-care to protect the low-income and uninsured, and those who either don’t want to pay for it or believe it is an overreach in power by the government.

At one point, the congressman engaged in a constitutional debate with a man who argued that nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government charged with the power to impose universal health care.

“Here is a copy of the United States Constitution,” the man proclaimed. “In Article 1, Section 8 of this document, the powers of Congress are given clearly and explicitly and anything else is prohibited. Where are you getting the authority to push this kind of plan?”

Tonko came prepared, and pulled out his own copy of the Constitution. “Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes . . . to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”

An evening of confused debate and misinformation, however, did have moments of relative clarity. In one such moment a young mother asked the congressman to explain “in coherent terms how, when Obama took office, the deficit was at one trillion and now it is at nine trillion dollars.”

The crowd erupted into applause and jeers.

“There was, about a decade ago, a forecasted 5.6 trillion dollar surplus,” Tonko answered. A man in the crowd shouted, “Where did it go? Where did it go?”

Tonko pointed to the emergency measures taken to stymie further growth of the recession, taken both by former President George Bush as well as President Barack Obama. He also pointed out that Bush’s tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, as well as the spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have recently been “put online,” meaning that these expenses have been added into the calculations of the deficit.

“The theory is here that the plan as established, 3200,” Tonko said, referring the bill number for the House of Representative’s health-care reform act, “will not increase the deficit . . .”

“That’s a lie,” he was shouted down. “That’s a lie! There’s no way that’s true.”

Tonko launched into a complicated explanation of funding the plan, as the crowd continued to shout him down.

To fund the health-care reform being discussed, Tonko said, would add roughly $30 to $40 billion a year to the nation’s $2.4 trillion budget. He arrived at that number by a math that was too complicated for many in the room: Over the next 10 years, the Democrats’ health-care reform is anticipated to cost upwards of $1 trillion, or $100 billion a year. However, the plan will also reduce costs, through savings, efficiencies and better control, by $60 billion a year.

The numbers were confusing the crowd, as it began to grumble.

“Shut and listen,” an elderly person shouted, “you might learn something.”

“So that leads us to about 30 billion per year that is unpaid for,” Tonko said. “That is doable, there are ways to capture that money.”

“Through taxes,” someone shouted.

“Why I can’t keep my money that I make?” the questioner responded.

Tonko stressed Obama’s campaign promise that these funds would not come from raising the taxes of those who make less than $250,000 a year. “Are you in an income strata that is above, say, $250,000?” he asked the woman.

“I’m a mother,” she quipped. “It’s priceless what I make. I am in the same tax bracket as you Mr. Tonko, and I’d like to keep my money.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net

Spoiler Alert

Is First Ward challenger Scott Mannarino running a proxy campaign for the mayor?

First Ward Councilman Dominick Calsolaro said that having an opponent in Scott Mannarino “came out of the blue.” The challenge, the two-term incumbent said, looks like a play by supporters of Mayor Jerry Jennings’ to keep Calsolaro from having the time to campaign for Corey Ellis, Jennings’ main opponent in the 2009 mayoral race.

Carolyn Ehrlich, Jennings’ campaign manager, confirmed that Mannarino has the mayor’s endorsement and that Jennings has been going door-to-door with Mannarino in the First Ward to drum up support for the newcomer. Calsolaro is not surprised. He’s not worried, either.

“When I ran the first time, in 2000, it was an open seat then, and he [Jennings] ran with my opponent then and I ended up winning,” said Calsolaro. “I don’t know how much effect it’s really going to have.”

A search of Mannarino’s campaign filings on the New York State Board of Elections Web site reveals that his campaign committee claims to have raised and spent less than $1,000 since his campaign began.

“They filed an ‘in lieu of’ statement, which means that at the closing of the reporting period neither the total receipts nor the total expenditures for the committee have exceeded a thousand dollars in the aggregate,” said John Conklin, information officer for the state BOE. This statement exempts Mannarino’s campaign from filing an itemized report detailing all transactions since the beginning of the campaign.

Although Mannarino himself could not be reached for comment, Metroland contacted his spokesperson, Ang Morris, who said she had no information on how much money Mannarino’s campaign has raised.

“Mr. Mannarino is out campaigning, going door-to-door in the First Ward just listening to the voters’ issues and concerns that they have and is campaigning hard to make sure that the voters have an option in this next primary,” said Morris. “Anything else is a non-issue, except for making sure that the voters have an option.”

As Metroland first reported in May, Mannarino was not registered to vote in the First Ward. Instead, he was last registered at 7 Barclay St., a property owned by Albany County Legislator Brian Scavo. Morris countered that Mannarino is a lifelong resident of the ward and is very active in the community.

“Our main platform is basically being an effective leader,” said Morris. “We’re not about a negative campaign. We’re all about a positive campaign and getting rid of negative, petty politics.”

However, Calsolaro said that he goes to almost every neighborhood meeting in his ward and has yet to see Mannarino at one of them.

“I don’t really know if he really knows the concerns of the people of the First Ward,” said Calsolaro. “He’s not a participant in the community.”

Calsolaro said that he’s been going door-to-door for the last month and making calls to voters in the First Ward; he feels comfortable with the progressives’ presence on the common council. “I think the residents of Albany want people speaking out,” he said. “We’re listening to and doing what the citizens of Albany want us to do.”

Calsolaro said that while it’s nice when there is no opponent, he is optimistic about his chances of keeping his seat. The residents of his ward know him, he said, and what he’s done in the First Ward.

“I don’t think I’m going to lose,” said Calsolaro. “I’m looking for a big night on September 15th.”

—Daniel Fitzsimmons


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