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Looking for numbers: freshman councilman Freeman.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Anytime This Decade

Albany still falls short in its responsibilities to ensure equality in hiring practices

At Monday night’s meeting of Albany Common Council’s Human Resources Committee, Albany Deputy Corporation Counsel Tara Wells explained that the Human Resources Office is just too understaffed to meet basic requirements.

At issue was the number of minority members who apply for positions with the city versus how many get hired. It’s impossible to know, complained the committee, as the city doesn’t track this information. According to Wells, once an applicant reaches the point of taking the prerequisite job examinations, the city makes a note of ethnicity and gender based on visual observations. The city doesn’t request that information, however, in the initial application phase.

“So, you don’t know how many minorities applied for city jobs last year?” Councilman Lester Freeman (Ward 2) asked Wells. She told him that she didn’t.

The committee pointed to a consent decree that stems from a 1995 suit brought by Sebastian Banks against the city. In that suit, Banks alleged that he was passed over for a job on the fire department, even though he has scored a competitive 85 on the civil-service test, in what appeared to be a racially motivated decision. As Metroland reported in 2008, the court found in his favor, and ordered the city to produce objective hiring practices. Further, the court ordered that the city establish a committee to oversee the hiring for the department, that the fire chief explain his reasoning for his hires, and that the city must keep track of the ethnicity and gender of applicants to ensure that it maintains as diverse a department as possible.

Freeman, who worked in the EEO office for years before being elected to the council, pressed the issue with Wells. “Obviously you couldn’t tell me how many blacks applied for fire department positions.”

“I could only tell you how many sat for meetings,” Wells replied.

“How can we solve the problem if we don’t even know who is applying?” Freeman asked.

Wells said that she would like to work on the application. “It’s not a question of wanting to do it. It’s a question of just getting staffing where we can do it.” She pointed out that she appreciated his interest and ideas, and would have liked to have implemented them before he left the EEO office to campaign for his current position.

Wells took over the office’s responsibilities after the former commissioner departed in May 2008.

Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) pointed out that the committee could require this information from the city. “It is clear that the city has major gaps around its hiring. But it is up to us to figure out a game plan for how to make that different.”

Council President McLaughlin pointed out that these are questions that the council has had for a number of years, even when Freeman was in the office. “We’ve been asking these questions for over 10 years, and it sounds like at this point there seems to be a staffing problem that is not keeping you from doing the work, so even if this committee requests certain data, it still comes down to, ‘How is it going to get done?’”

This could all be resolved by the mayor hiring a commissioner, Freeman told Metroland. “He needs to do that ASAP.”

Simply, Wells needs some help.

The committee, at Smith’s suggestion, is issuing a recommendation that the position of the commissioner be filled as soon as possible with a qualified “professional in the field.” Freeman called this a good first step.

“The city is open to a lawsuit right now,” Freeman said. “It’s open. All you need is one person. And I am not going to try to recommend to anybody to do this, but all you need is one black person who takes the exam and then asks for the list and then asks for the procedures. Then they could go right to court, because the city can’t produce, they haven’t taken any steps toward trying remedying the situation. One easy step would be to track the application process.”

—Chet Hardin

On the Table

Albany County makes strides in resolving contract negotiations for critical services

Following two years of repeated delays, the Albany County Legislature Social Services Committee met Monday to discuss and vote on contractual agreements between Albany County and agencies that provide essential preventative services for youth and families at risk for foster placement. The new contract agreements, expected to be approved by the legislature this Monday night, represent a tentative compromise between the legislature and the Department of Children, Youth and Families, who have been at odds over the issue since the DCYF commissioner, Colette Poulin, introduced a new request for proposals process for potential providers in 2008.

DCYF has said that the new process allows for greater oversight and flexibility in dealing with providers, as well as setting more stringent criteria, but several attempts to explain and clarify the new process for legislators have been futile. Citing concerns about the effect that the proposed changes would have on existing providers, the legislature has tabled the proposed contracts on multiple occasions.

“We didn’t understand the justification for some of the new approaches that the department was recommending. . . . We couldn’t understand what the problem was with respect to some of our long-standing providers in our county that have had nothing but good success, a good record of delivering services for many years,” said legislator Tim Nichols (D-Latham), longtime member of the Social Services committee, adding that it was Poulin’s job to explain why such changes were necessary.

The new agreements proposed Monday are the result of negotiations between DCYF and Social Services Chairwoman Wanda Willingham.

“It’s clear that many legislators and service providers were wholly dissatisfied with the RFP process, the results of that process, or both. So we think it’s time to hit the reset button,” said Mary Duryea, a DCYF representative from Breslin’s office. She also stated that all the current recommendations were made within the RFP process. As a result of the compromise, longtime providers who rated poorly under the new process and were not recommended for funding will continue to receive county dollars for at least another year.

A major concern of the legislature, according to Nichols, was the effect that transferring services would have on the children and families receiving those services. “We made sure that our providers are still going to be viable enough to continue to provide the multitude of necessary services for our families in crisis in our county,” he said, adding that “there’s enough money to make sure that the providers that have been providing these services for many years can continue to provide the services and stay operational so we can meet the capacity that we have in this county. If you cut off providers and they go out of business, we lose capacity.”

In truth, the preventative services budget was cut by $1.5 million for 2010. “We need to put together a process that has a high degree of day-to-day accountability,” said Duryea. “And we need to do it with much less money to work with.”

Nichols doesn’t like the idea that the new process was meant to save money. “What’s driving these changes? That’s a legitimate question. Is it because we’re doing a bad job as a county—which I don’t think we are—or is it because the county is looking for ways to save money? And that what this is really all about is Colette [Poulin], and she mentioned in one of her statements that we were going to be spending about a million dollars less a year. OK. Why?”

Central to (and dependent upon) these negotiations is Project Strive, which has been providing preventative services to Albany County for more than 30 years and has long-term ties to the legislature and the local Democratic Party. Under the recommendations made by DCYF in 2008, funding for the agency would have been dramatically reduced due to operational concerns and lack of certification. As a result of negotiations between the legislature and the department, Project Strive has been approved to receive nearly $1 million in funding, more than $600,000 more than had been originally recommended.

Republican Legislators Patrice Lockart and Christine Benedict voted against the funding increases for Project Strive. Benedict stated that “Commissioner Poulin had been appointed to do a job, and I have faith in her to do it.” She added that the executive director of Project Strive, David Bosworth, has close ties to the Albany Democratic Party.

Rather than negotiating typical three-year contracts, part of the agreement has been to contract with the agencies for just one year and then to evaluate the effectiveness of those services at the end of the term. “This is really a bridge,” said Nichols. “This is a one-year contract. We really need to get a handle on what it is that was originally driving a lot of these changes, because it’s not quality of care. Quality of care is fine.”

—Ali Hibbs

Time to blog the content! (l-r) AOA’s Dahlmann and Darcy.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Popular Niche

All Over Albany turns 2—and still wants to know what you had for lunch

Albany’s Midtown Tap and Tea Room was packed last Thursday night, with 150 members of the AOA crowd—that is, contributors and readers of popular local blog, All Over Albany—to celebrate its second birthday. All Over Albany creators Greg Dahlmann and Mary Darcy enter their third year of blogging with expectations to attain new heights.

Two years ago, Dahlmann and Darcy made the transition from working at WAMC to take on an entirely new media project, in the hopes of filling a void in Albany’s local news scene.

“We thought about what was missing,” said Darcy. “And just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have one place where all this information existed? Where you could find maps, where you could find interesting people, where you could find things to do, where you could find conversations, and community.’ There wasn’t just one place like that.”

Enter All Over Albany. Containing reviews, price comparisons, profiles and aggregated local news stories, Dahlmann and Darcy’s blog intends to make it easy to stay informed on happenings in the Capital Region. Aiming to make readers feel welcome, Dahlmann and Darcy draw on their backgrounds in radio for an informal, conversational blog style.

“I don’t think we were really all that hung up on being taken seriously,” said Dahlmann. “Not in the traditional sense.”

“We just did what we did, and hoped people liked it,” said Darcy.

“We wanted it to be smart, but fun,” said Dahlmann, “because that would be something we’d want to read.”

Darcy stressed the way the blog presents content. “It’s stuff you’d tell your friends, the way you’d tell your friends,” she said. “We tell people to keep the funny in there. The funny conversations you have with your friends are still smart. You don’t have to dumb it down.”

Based on the numbers, AOA seems to have reached its ideal audience. Eighty-six percent of its readers have a college degree and 84 percent eat dinner out at least once a week, they say. Also, they boast that 75 percent have a household income above $50,000. As stated on All Over Albany’s brochure for advertisers, “All Over Albany has developed a community of the region’s most coveted consumers: young, savvy, educated and high income.”

“Sometimes people think we’re out to reach a particular demographic, but it’s really just a mindset,” said Darcy.

“We appeal to curious people,” said Dahlmann.

Initially, Dahlmann and Darcy funded the project on their own by picking up extra video production work—and have since reached out to advertisers who now help fuel the site.

“Even though we went into this with a lot of experience creating content, we didn’t really have experience as small-business operators,” said Dahlmann. In addition to finding, writing, editing and organizing content on the blog, Dahlmann and Darcy have been active in the business aspect of the blog—marketing, planning events and arranging contractors, lawyers and accountants.

“I think that’s been the biggest part of the learning curve,” said Darcy.

Dahlmann recalled participating on a panel along with political journalists who lamented the supposed misuse of social media sites, as they’d watched users post seemingly trivial information, like what they had for lunch.

“So I said, ‘Well at AOA we actually really do care what you had for lunch,’” said Dahlmann. “And we want to know where you had it, whether it was good and if you’d go back there again. Our view of what is news is broader than what a typical media outlet might consider.”

Having experience in media, Dahlmann and Darcy were confident in the product itself from day one, but according to Dahlmann, they “were less certain that enough people would respond to it in a way to make it sustainable,” said Dahlmann.

Currently reaching approximately 35,000 unique readers per month, Dahlmann and Darcy have proved their ability to provide attractive content and are now focusing more on turning their site into a worthwhile business endeavor. “The first year was proving that we could create something people would be interested in, the second year was figuring out if we can make money doing it, now we’re in the third year and the third year is putting it all together, and finding out if it is sustainable.”

AOA currently has nine different ads in rotation on the blog, displayed either along the right side, or across the top.

“We’re getting close to being self- sustaining,” said Darcy. “I feel confident that we’ll see that this year. There are lots of possibilities. We talk about new ideas every day. This year is going to tell a lot.”

—Elizabeth Knapp

Loose Ends

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