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Community Policing Delayed

Union tries to put the kibosh on beat officers

Crime rates may have fallen in Albany over the last five years, but the reputation of the Albany Police Department has remained basically the same—abysmal. Following the latest in a long series of public disappointments—former Albany Police Chief Tuffey resigned amid a slew of controversies in 2009—his successor Steve Krokoff has embarked on a mission to repair the considerable rift between APD and the community it serves. Hailed a “shining progressive” by active members of the community, Krokoff announced last January that the policing philosophy of the department was shifting to a more community-based model.

Thrilled, community members jumped at the chance to engage with the police in their neighborhoods. Committees were formed, recommendations were made, plans were approved and things seemed to be moving quickly. In less than a year, the police have already begun to exhibit more of a presence within their communities and taken specific steps to increase multicultural awareness.

Then the Albany Police Officers Union stepped in.

The president of the Albany Police Officers Union and the New York State Law Enforcement Officer’s Union, Christian Mesley, has filed labor grievances, followed by an injunction, to prevent the community-policing effort from going any further until certain issues have been resolved, primarily the question of flexible hours for police officers serving in that unit. Because of the nature of the new unit, APD decided that its officers would be subject to occasional scheduling changes, something that is currently allowed only in two other units and that Mesley says should not be allowed at all. “We notified the city at a labor management meeting on Nov. 3 that we felt that they didn’t have the right to impose flexible hours and pick the days off of the officers that were bidding the unit.”

Public opposition to the unions’ legal maneuvering has been considerable. Twelve concerned citizens spoke out on Monday night during the public-hearing portion of the Common Council meeting—comparing the former department philosophy with the Gestapo, lauding the progress that has already been made and pleading with the Council to take steps to ensure that the process continues uninterrupted. “What a great way to destroy the trust that has been established between the APD and the community,” said Vera Michelson, an active member of the community who has been engaging the police department for years. “The chief tells us, sorry guys, we have to wait to see how this arbitrator’s going to rule before we establish the CUE. And when will that be? Six months?”

Michelson told Metroland, “We’ve come so far; we are so close. People have not seen this kind of hope before and they do now and that’s because there’s a lot of work that’s been done—by the chief, by officers and by the community.” She also mentioned that the officers who were bidding to become a part of the new unit were aware of the required flex-time before they placed their bids and should not have a problem with it.

Mesley countered that the 37 officers who bid for the community-policing positions had been assured that the union was going to fight flexible hours and expressed surprise at the community response on Monday night. Mesley denied a request for copies of the grievances, saying that it would be “in poor taste.” When questioned as to his reasons for opposing flexible hours, he said that was “best left for arbitration.” He also declined to comment on allegations that his actions are politically motivated. (He has been quoted as saying that his real purpose in filing the injunctions is to gain votes, as the APOU is losing members to a new organization.)

“I understand that some of his concerns may be valid,” said Jamel Muhammad, one of 19 members on the Albany Community Police Advisory Committee, “But I don’t see why we couldn’t have worked them out during the process. Is there really a need to hold everything up?” Muhammad, who was tapped for the committee by his councilman, Dominick Calsolaro, is a resident of Ward 2 and has lived in Albany all his life. He sees a very real need for effective community policing efforts.

“I remember coming up in the ’70s and ’80s,” Muhammad told Metroland this week, “All the police officers who would walk around—they knew the families, they knew the children, they knew everybody. Locking people up wasn’t the order of the day, especially if it was a younger person. They were more interested in finding out who the parents were and talking with them in order to help them and improve the situation of the child before they went down the wrong roads.”

Muhammed, who has experience on both sides of the law, believes that it not only takes a village to raise a child, but that “it also takes a village to keep the village safe.”

—Ali Hibbs


Safeways

It’s the big guy vs. the small guy as Congress battles over food safety

This fall, the battle to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act in the Senate has pitted local farmers against big agriculture. The public needs protections from food-borne pathogens that lead to illness and 5,000 deaths per year, according to the Center for Disease Control. Yet working out how to regulate the food industry has been tricky.

Few question the need for change in food safety, although Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) claimed the food industry was self-regulating, and proposed a substitute bill, which was praised by Glenn Beck. Food writing giants Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser dismissed Coburn’s claims and urged the passage of Senate bill S.510 on The New York Times Opinion page Nov. 28. Countless groups echoed the effort, working behind the scenes in Washington and rallying Americans to call their senators.

The Senate passed S.510 last Tuesday with clear bipartisan support—73 to 25—but the fight isn’t over. Within days, the House, which had approved its own version of the bill over a year earlier and needed to approve the bill before it went to the president, objected to the Senate version on legal grounds: S.510 contains funding directives, and only the House can initiate such items.

Given the changes to Congress that will happen in January, the setback is causing tension. New laws have not been applied to the Food and Drug Administration in 70 years. The FDA was founded in 1906 to handle issues of food purity and labeling as the food supply became industrialized.

“The nature of food production has changed dramatically,” said Kendra Howard-Smith, from University at Albany’s History Department. “The scope of the job the FDA has today is much broader than what is was at the turn of the 20th century, just in terms of trying to account for much larger scale, much more food and much more complex food in terms of its contents.”

Food anxieties at the time focused on things like tainted milk and snake oil remedies. Our current anxieties focus on chemical additives, and bacterial trails in the food chain.

“I think it’s absolutely a step in the right direction,” said Smith-Howard of the bill’s public-health implications. “There have been cases in which industry, even when their food has been contaminated, has refused to cooperate with recalls which is troubling and potentially hazardous to the health of other people.”

Recent outbreaks include widespread salmonella in eggs from a mega-distributor who had chicken cities populated with 125,000 ill-tended hens. A peanut producer found evidence of salmonella in 2009, and kept testing until the tests didn’t show salmonella. The need for change is clear.

However, when the House version passed last summer, there were few protections for small-scale farmers, who should not, advocates argue, be subject to the same kind of oversight as the industrial food chain. To demonstrate why, Steve Gilman, Policy Coordinator for NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, explained the 2006 spinach salmonella outbreak.

“Contaminated spinach that came from one field from one farm got comingled with baby spinach from other farms,” said Gilman. “One little outbreak affected people in 27 states and six people died. There’s an example of the industrialized food system being far more risky than the small-scale sector. We wanted to make sure that the risk got reflected in the rules, and the protections that we managed to get included in S.510 kept small-scale farmers from being included in the definition of a facility.”

The “we” Gilman includes is a task force from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, NOFA affiliates, and efforts of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, among other activists, such as FarmAssist Productions in Columbia County.

The insulation is not sought to exempt these farmers from scrutiny, but to eliminate paperwork demands required to work with the FDA. The farms in question are regulated by state agencies. The Tester amendment within S.510 defines small-scale farms as those with sales under $500,000 and distribution range under 275 miles. Text in the bill also assures education to make farmers aware of the points where pathogens can enter the harvest.

There are larger-scale farms that may not fall under the umbrella dollar wise, such as Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, whose CSA has 1,000 shareholders, and distributes from Albany to Manhattan. While this range fits the regulations, Jean-Paul Courtens is not sure how the farm’s operations will be affected.

“The amendment would have made more sense to exclude any farm that direct markets its produce from farm to table. Future regulations will greatly impact our operation, and we will have two choices: downsize or build a million-dollar packing-house,” said Courtens.

What will happen with S.510 is unclear. Speculation is that the House will look at the bill this week. Word is that the nation’s produce industry organizations—United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association—are working to get the key Tester amendment dropped.

“The local food system is biting into their bottom line,” said Gilman of the large produce groups. “So we’re really making an impact. And they’re trying to kill this bill so that small-scale farmers won’t be protected.”

—Amy Halloran


Tutunjian Smash!

Troy mayor says it’s time to bulldoze City Hall

Dissent has fallen upon Trojans and their City Council members over the bids that are being held for the demolition of One Monument Square on Dec. 14 and the concerns that have been raised over the future of the vacant City Hall. Mayor Harry Tutunjian said it’s time to demolish.

“Our goal is to offer a shovel-ready site with no building on it,” Tutunjian said. “Ideally I would like to have the process be seamless: As the plans for the building are taking place, the demolition is taking place so there is not a lapse in time on the movement of the site.” Tutunjian said that he would like to see construction right away while there is still interest in the site.

The plan, according to Tutunjian, is to seek bids for proposals from developers. “We went for requests for quotations and requests for proposals to get someone to come forward with an idea and say, ‘This is what I want to do with this site.’”

However, Councilman Gary Galuski said he thinks Tutunjian might be “putting the cart in front of the horse,” by not having some proof of potential development before One Monument Square comes down. “We just want a plan for the site,” Galuski said, adding that he doesn’t like the idea of not having council chambers in City Hall’s Verizon building location.

Tutunjian said that the city could buy the Verizon building when the lease is up. “There is a meeting space in there that will hold 80 people, but they refuse to use it. We could easily put on an addition that would accommodate a chamber, but we would have to own the building and up to this point they’re a hundred percent against trying to own that building.” He added that he is in support of the purchase of the Verizon building because it makes economic sense.

As far as “putting the cart before the horse,” Tutunjian rebutted, “What if we don’t demolish it? Then what’s the plan? Is it the same plan we used for Proctor’s Theater, which is empty 30 years later, and left to rot? The city didn’t take care of it back then. Who’s going to take care of this building now?”

Former Deputy Mayor and real estate associate James Conroy has continued to champion the restoration of One Monument Square since before his run for Mayor in 2007. Conroy said that he thought putting One Monument Square out to bid for demolition supplies a “missing part of the puzzle,” by answering “what is it really going to cost to knock that building down? Awarding the bid,” Conroy said, “is a different story.” He said the City Council does not want any further removal or demolition to the building without their specific approval. He said that he believes this should have been done back before the first move took place. “And for that, the City Council has themselves to blame.”

“I don’t understand how people can push so hard,” Conroy said, “to knock down a building that was built for the purpose of being a city hall, in a location important for a city hall to be, with out having a firm plan and budget for an alternative.”

Tutunjian said that he is more than willing to accept any plans presented by the City Council. The problem is, he said, is that there are no plans. But there haven’t been any real plans for the site from the start and it seems as though there has been a lot of talk about what is going to become of the site and Tutunjian finds that to be a point of contention, along with the other residents of Troy. He said that until the City Council approaches him with plans on how to finance the restoration on the building and tell him, with a mandate, that they want to move back to Monument Square, his plan will move forward.

“Right now there is mold growing out of the carpets,” Tutunjian said. “There are puddles of water everywhere. There’s actual, physical mold growing out of the carpets in City Hall. So to say let’s not tear it down, and wait. Wait for what? We have a plan, we spent money on a consultant to design what can go there, let’s do it. Let’s move forward with it. The time for planning is over. Let’s start doing. I’ve said that for seven years now, and we started doing.”

—W.T. Eckert


Building a Plan

Change is coming to CDTA bus service in Albany, and the transporatation authority wants your input

By this time next year, the public transportation system in Albany County may look very different. The bus route you depend on may be served by more frequent buses, or it may be replaced with another route altogether.

The Capital District Transportation Authority is in the process of a comprehensive route restructuring in Albany, CDTA senior transportation planner Ross Farrell explained to members of the community group W.I.T.H. (Woman in the Hood) in a public meeting this past Saturday (Dec. 4) at the Howe Branch of the Albany Public Library. The goal is to come up with a plan that better serves CDTA’s customers, he said, while remaining “revenue neutral.”

This meeting is one of many CDTA has held, and will hold, with community groups to get public input on the process. The meetings will continue through January 2011; a draft plan will be put together in February and March, with the implementation of the comprehensive changes over summer 2011.

“We haven’t even designed the actual plan yet,” Ross told transit activist and South End resident Eizzie Rivers and the other members of W.I.T.H.

Rivers was instrumental in the effort to collect over 1300 signatures on a petition to increase service to South End residents along the Morton Avenue corridor; today, Morton is served in both directions by the No. 9 bus, which runs infrequently and only on weekdays.

If the purpose of these meetings is to clarify what the public wants, then this gathering was a success: CDTA, Ross said, was under the impression that people were most interested in using a Morton Avenue bus to get to and from Albany Medical Center. Rivers, and the residents, made it clear that a connection to the No. 7 bus, which takes people to the Walmart in Glenmont, was even more important.

A few days earlier, Ross and CDTA made a presentation at City Hall to the Albany Common Council.

“They gave us a very brief version of what they present at the community meetings,” 10th Ward Common Council member Leah Golby said. Golby, a transit advocate and frequent CDTA rider, is very interested in the process. “They told us what the most popular requests [for service] were,” Golby said. “These included more service on the No. 18 bus, which serves Delaware Avenue,” she recalled, and support for a Morton Avenue bus.

This week, CDTA will be directly surveying riders on buses serving the South End as the process moves forward.

For a complete schedule of remaining public meetings and plan updates, visit cdta.org/albanyservice.

—Shawn Stone


Loose Ends

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