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Worked up: Downtown Albany residents might be losing their local Washington Avenue YMCA branch.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

There’s No Place You Can Go

As closure looms for the financially troubled Washington Avenue YMCA, community members argue that the branch has long been neglected and has been set up for failure

News that the YMCA on Washington Avenue in downtown Albany might have to close its doors by April caused a stir among local residents this weekend. J. David Brown, president and CEO of the Capital District YMCA, began meeting on Friday morning with presidents of the local neighborhood associations to discuss the situation. After five years of analysis and assessment, he said, the only thing that can save the YMCA at 274 Washington Ave. is new membership. Frustration has been voiced by neighborhood representatives, who wonder why this news is coming so late and what has been done to avoid the closure during this last five years. While many hope to be able save the facility, some wonder whether the YMCA shares those hopes.

No one argued the fact that membership at the facility has been steadily declining. “The truth is,” said an ex-employee who asked to remain anonymous, “the building generates little income via its membership dues in comparison to the cost of operation, and Albany has a large amount of ACCESS members who receive their memberships at a way-reduced rate. The suburban Ys have been floating this one, supplementing the deficit.” (The ACCESS program provides financial aid to members who demonstrate need.)

Even at prime workout times, the Washington Avenue facility often is far from full.

“The building has really become a money pit,” Brown told Metroland.

Part of the Y’s analysis of the building included considering the costs of moving the corporate offices to 274 Washington and possibly renting out extra space to nonprofit organizations, thus reducing the size of the facility but keeping it open. The cost, he said, would have been anywhere from $3 million to $7 million.

Brown pointed to new membership as the only plausible solution to raise the necessary funds. “We do not want to close,” he stressed. “The intention of our meeting was to communicate our issues. Although the situation looks bleak, what we need is for people to join. That’s the solution.”

When questioned, Brown said that the facility needed 1,800 new members to keep its doors open. He acknowledged that those numbers might be unreasonable to expect by January, but said that enough movement in the right direction could postpone the final decision and allow the facility more time to bolster membership.

Still, to some members of the community, the meetings looked like little more than damage control for a plan that has already been decided.

“That meeting was to tell us they were going to close it,” said Bill Pettit, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association. “I asked him point blank, ‘You’re going to close it?’ And he said, ‘Yes, in April.’”

Pettit said that he and other members were told that the official announcement would come out the first of the year. He also said that when asked what would happen if they managed to produce 1,800 new members by January, Brown told him that the facility would still be closed.

“He seems to be obsessed with the demographic the Y has lost as opposed to focusing on new ways to bring a new demographic in,” said Kelly Bush, president of the Center Square Neighborhood Association. “I would definitely say that he didn’t communicate the need for community involvement to us; we communicated it to him.”

She added that, in their annual report last year, “no indication was given that the closure of this Y was imminent.” Many neighborhood residents express the same feelings, noting that they have not received literature at their homes or been aware of any marketing measures that the YMCA could have taken in an effort to keep the Washington branch open.

“It’s a shame,” lamented the same ex-employee, “because the Albany Y serves as a community stabilizer, building relationships among residents. There are many members who’ve been there for 25-plus years, and it makes me kind of sad for them, because it’s not about the working out, it’s about staying active and being social.”

“I would even go so far as to encourage anyone who can afford it to go to the Washington Avenue Y and buy a membership, even if they have no intention of using the fitness equipment,” said Bush. “Consider it a contribution to the place that has done so much for so many.”

—Ali Hibbs


Sue Happy

After years of battling NXIVM in court, a nationally known “cult deprogrammer” says the end is nigh

This is the fifth lawsuit for Rick Ross. The New Jersey-based cult deprogrammer and founder of the Rick Ross Institute maintains a Web site that catalogues news coverage and allegations of cult activity, making him a target of what he calls harassment suits. While these legal battles can take up years of his life, he said, he’s never lost a suit. And in some cases, he has been pleasantly surprised by the unintended outcomes.

Take, for example, the suit leveled against him by the Maine-based Gentle Wind Project. That suit, Ross said, backfired on Gentle Wind by drawing the attention of Maine’s attorney general. Until that point, the authorities hadn’t paid much attention to the odd little group. “But he did start paying attention to them after they sued me,” says Ross, “and then he shut them down—literally liquidated them.”

He was sued by Arizona’s Church of the Immortal Consciousness, and by a woman in Florida who ran a ministry called the Pure Bride Ministries. He was sued by Landmark Education, who dismissed their own lawsuit, he said, “to get out from underneath it. As soon as they realized that they were going to lose they beat it—and quickly.”

“And now we have NXIVM,” Ross said, “who has lost at every juncture. They have just lost and lost and lost and lost.”

Founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, NXIVM is the Capital Region-based corporation behind Executive Success Programs, which claims to develop and impart “programs that provide the philosophical and practical foundation necessary to acquire and build the skills for success.”

As Ross is reporting on his site, Cult News.com, “a motion filed by NXIVM to reinstate causes of action previously dismissed in June of 2007 has been denied. This included an effort to reinstate claims of ‘product disparagement’ and ‘tortious interference’ in a long-standing lawsuit filed against the Ross Institute of New Jersey.”

“The motion by Raniere’s lawyers,” Ross told Metroland, “is a kind of Hail Mary pass. Their hope was to get these causes back in, because they realized if they didn’t that the lawsuit had no hope whatsoever.” These causes, he continued, “were the causes that had meat.”

What remains, now, are deliberations over trade secrets violations and copyright causes. “It’s as though the judge has turned off the life support” for NXIVM’s suit, Ross said. “Now it’s just going to wiggle to death.”

He said that he believes in a year from now, the suit will finally reach its conclusion.

“This suit never had any substance to it. From its inception, it has never been anything more than a harassment suit,” Ross said. He laughed at the length of time that the suit has lasted. “Seven years. That’s an all-time record with me. Most of my adversaries, the various cults that have sued me, they don’t last five years. Raniere managed to keep it going for seven. You gotta give the guy some credit.”

While Ross maintained that it lacked substance, he added that the NXIVM suit “is probably the most significant lawsuit that I have been involved in from the standpoint of writing new law and establishing new precedent. The NXIVM v. Ross suit is now cited as an expansion of the First Amendment, as upheld by the United States Supreme Court, in regards to confidentiality agreements.”

To protect what Raniere believes are the trade secrets behind the technology that the organization uses to train its students, NXIVM requires that students sign confidentiality agreements. Ross received copies of NXIVM’s training materials from a former student who had signed such an agreement, which was ignored when Ross posted the training materials, along with analysis, on his Web site.

In 2003, NXIVM went to the courts to seek an emergency injunction against Ross’ site, he said. The Albany court, where the claim was filed, ruled in Ross’ favor. “So NXIVM appealed to the 2nd Circuit in Manhattan, and that court found that the confidentiality agreement was trumped by the public’s right to know. NXIVM appealed that to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that this is unprecedented, that confidentiality agreements in the past have been upheld in proceedings, and that this confidentiality should be upheld.” The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. “And that gave the 2nd Circuit the leeway that they literally wrote new law. New law came out of this case.”

Ross has been a consistent source for this paper in its reporting on NXIVM.

In a 2008 Metroland article, “The Stars Come Out in Troy,” Ross was quoted discussing Raniere’s previous business, Consumers Buyline Inc. Raniere later claimed that Ross was incorrect in his characterization of that company’s legal issues and that Metroland had conspired with Ross to libel him and NXIVM.

This past spring, it appeared that NXIVM had attempted to sue Metroland for $65 million. However, the company that owns Metroland, Lou Communications Inc., was never served in that suit. Instead, NXIVM attempted to serve the now-defunct former owner of the paper, Metroland Magazine Inc.

The statue of limitations on NXIVM’s potential claim against Metroland has expired.

As for Ross, he estimated that his legal expenses to defend himself in NXIVM Corp. v. Ross would have topped $2 million had he not received extensive pro-bono representation. As it stands, he said, he has spent less than $1,000.

Ross’ countersuit against NXIVM is ongoing.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


Illegal Fixes?

The Albany County Legislature passed a budget, then balanced it

On Dec. 7, at the final legislative budget hearing, Albany County Legislator Richard Mendick pointed out a mistake in the tentative annual budget that he and his fellow legislators were going to be voting on that night. An $800,000 mistake. Duly noted, the legislature moved forward with its vote and adopted the county’s $571 million spending plan.

The next day, the legislative clerk filed the tentative budget with the Albany County executive in accordance with Resolution No. 483.

The problem, Mendick pointed out the Friday after the budget was passed, was that the 11-page document containing the budget changes that the legislature reviewed and voted on was different than the document the legislature delivered to the executive. In fact, 11 line items in the document delivered to the executive had been altered from the document that the legislature voted on. Mendick cried foul: “Having reviewed the budget passed by the Albany County Legislature and the one given to me by the Democrat Majority, I have determined that the changes made are deliberate.”

In a press release issued by the minority office, Mendick charged “that approximately $2 million in reserve funds, not approved by the Legislature, have been added in attempts to correct budget deficiencies and to balance the budget. Mendick says this is a planned maneuver to deceive both the County Legislature and the taxpayers.”

Majority Leader Frank Commisso, the chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, didn’t respond to a request for interview by Metroland. Instead, he issued a press statement chastising Mendick, stating that the Republican legislator didn’t understand the process and was just seeking headlines.

According to Shawn Morse (D-Cohoes), this is the way the process goes: The legislature votes on changes to the budget, and then the legislative staff makes the mechanical changes to ensure that the budget is balanced prior to its delivery to the executive. In this instance, even Albany Comptroller Mike Conners, an independently elected member of the Executive Branch of county government, assisted.

“These changes reflect the revenue side of how we are funding all the changes that we voted on,” Morse said.

Conners told Metroland that his office helped balance the budget after it was voted on and before it went to the executive, that he helps the legislature throughout the budget process, and that he has assisted in this capacity for years.

The problem, as Mendick and others point out, is that the county charter does not allow for or prescribe changes to the budget after adoption, made by either the legislative staff or the comptroller. If there are issues with the budget after the legislature approves it, said John Rodat, commissioner of Management and Budget, then the executive’s office would file a request for legislative action to amend the budget.

“Not in a million years would this office presume to make changes of this size. We wouldn’t,” Rodat said.

Phil Steck (D-Loudonville) said that he doesn’t believe there wasn’t any attempt on the part of the legislature to deceive. “Everyone understood that the money was going to be taken out of reserves to cover this,” he said. “They just didn’t apparently put in legislation to say that. It just wasn’t in the legislation. In the legislature you have to vote on it, or it doesn’t happen.”

He added that he doesn’t see it as appropriate that Conners’ office would be involved in changing the mechanics of the budget after it has been voted on. “That’s a legislative act. It’s not a technical act of the comptroller. I don’t think it causes any difficulty for us to vote that the money is allocated properly. I don’t see this as the comptroller’s business.”

“The legislature is the direct representative of the people. And I don’t think that it is appropriate of us to forfeit our authority to the comptroller,” Steck said. “I don’t think Mike has the authority, legally, unless somebody can show me something in the county charter that says that he does.”

—Chet Hardin



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