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Opening Government

Gov. Andrew Cuomo opens once-guarded sections of the Capitol to the public

For some, the Capitol Building has become a grim metaphor for the current condition of the state’s government. Though for the past decade the edifice has been in various stages of renovation, both within and without, scaffolding and construction equipment have served as constant reminders of the building’s age and deteriorated condition. Meanwhile, security gates and barricades at high- traffic entrances erected post-9/11 gave a visit to the building all of the charm of an Eastern European border crossing circa 1960.

It created an atmosphere which was foreboding,” said Assemblyman John McEneny (D, Albany). “People felt that they were suspect; not welcomed in their own Capitol.” In his first official act as governor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took a symbolic step toward healing the perceived divide between the government and the public by ordering that the 29 Jersey barriers on State Street be removed for tour bus’ sake in an effort to invite people back into what he has called “the people’s meeting place.” The act, announced during his inaugural address, follows Cuomo’s campaign agenda to empower the public and pursue openness and transparency in government.

It’s very important philosophically that people are physically at ease in the building that they own, with the people whose salaries they pay,” said McEneny. “I think it’s an egalitarian level of security that people have. They feel ownership for their building rather than feel like they’re intruders.”

Cuomo also ordered that the south side of the second floor, also known as “The Governor’s Floor” be opened to the public. Originally closed by Gov. George Pataki 16 years ago, this area contains the Governor’s office and the Executive Chamber, as well as the art collection within the Hall of Governors. This public collection of portraits by world-class artists, such as Thomas Cole, contains paintings of nearly all that served in the office, including U.S. presidents Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as U.S. Vice Presidents George Clinton and Nelson Rockefeller.

Now, a lone State Trooper is stationed at a desk in the hallway; the only visible security measure seen from Gov. Clinton’s portrait at one end of the gallery to Gov. Pataki’s portrait at the other.

It’s a great metaphor for the fact that we’re going to care more about the people who should be the most powerful voices in this democracy: the taxpayers,” said Assemblyman James Tedisco (R, NY-110). “It’s a good symbolic first step for empowering the people who we represent.”

According to McEneny, the new governor also seeks to ensure that the four-phase Capitol restoration effort that began in 2000 continues to completion, and in the most cost effective way possible.

The project, now in phase four, has already restored the Assembly Chamber and the skylight over the Great Western Staircase and has repaired the building’s badly deteriorated ceiling. By the project’s projected completion in 2014, the skylight over the Senate and Assembly staircases should also be restored.

I think Gov. Cuomo has a real sense of the Capitol as a symbol of the state of New York,” said McEneny. “A shabby, lackluster capitol could indicate that your best years are behind you. One that’s vibrant and valued and taken care of sends the exact opposite message.”

Other executive orders signed by the governor this month have included establishing teams to evaluate government programs and spending as well as an order requiring ethics training for all New York State officials.

If we want to go beyond the symbolic effort of empowering people and making them the most important voices, we’ll follow through with [Cuomo’s] agenda,” said Tedisco. “That is downsizing, reducing the size and cost of state government, and not passing unfunded mandates.” Tedisco also expressed the importance of spending caps, as well as property tax and ethics reform.

Much like the renovation to the physical Capitol, Cuomo’s mission to rebuild government and restore the public trust will be a work in progress for at least the early part of his administration. The first real test of these ideals will come with the governor’s budget proposal, due to be released next week on Feb. 1.

Though supportive of Cuomo’s early initiatives, Tedisco was quick to point out that it is still too early in the administration to determine if the governor would be true to his promises.

“The merit and the quality of the real openness and transparency; the ability to take tough questions, answer tough questions, and deal with difficult situations is going to come a little bit later,” said Tedisco. “We’ll be better able to judge in six months or so . . . or a year. The devil’s in the details. We just need to see how he reacts when his feet are put to the fire.”

—Jason Chura

Airing their views

DEC holds hearing on cement plant upgrade

The final public hearing on La farge Ravena’s cement plant modernization took place on Jan. 20. All who spoke accepted that Lafarge Building Materials, Inc. will get its permits. But like limestone dust, questions hung in the air about how strict and detailed the permits will be.

“It certainly looks like Lafarge will be building a new plant,” said former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone, who has found elevated heavy metal levels in wildlife and soil nearby. “Tonight a lot of people here are interested in money and greed.”

Several people objected that the Department of Environmental Conservation is only requiring one year of air monitoring after the new plant comes online. Emissions could change if the plant ages or starts burning tires, they said. Air monitoring should begin while construction workers are dismantling the old plant, they said.

“The plant is going to be operating for a lot longer than one year, so we think the air monitor should be operating for the life of the plant,” said Elyse Kunz, cofounder of Community Advocates for Safe Emissions. “It’s the only way to find out what’s really going on. It would provide peace of mind for those who are concerned.”

Several people raised the issue of fugitive dust that escapes from storage areas, trucks and the conveyor belt between the Lafarge quarry and plant.

“They result in respiratory damage to people living around the plant and the people who go to this school,” said Hayley Mauskapf, representing the 47-year-old organization Scenic Hudson. “They need to be adequately addressed in the plans to modernize.”

Landscaping should also be required, she and others said.

“Since we are in a scenic area, the visual impacts should be mitigated to the extent possible,” she said. “I know the stack is supposed to be somewhat taller than the current stack. Having some kind of green screen around it would help with the visual impact and noise.”

Friends of Hudson Director Susan Falzon called upon the DEC to make Lafarge’s permitted pollution limits independent of stringent federal limits, which face court and legislative challenges.

“People in the community exist in a cumulative toxic stew,” she said. “We want to make sure Lafarge plant, when modernized, does as little to add to it as possible.”

Mary Driscoll, who has lived in Coeymans for more than 45 years, protested against the recent “assault” by researchers looking for heavy metal poisoning near the plant.

“Our integrity has been questioned, our privacy invaded, and our reputation has been slandered all over the Capital District,” she said. “Do we have illnesses in our community? Of course we do. But I don’t believe there are more than in any other community.”

Modernization advocates included Lafarge Ravena’s environmental manager John Reagan, cement plant workers Dan Baker and Chris Ricciardi and Ravena resident Jerry Dunn. Also voicing support were Diane Ehrlich from the Albany Chamber of Commerce, Ken Pokalsky of the Business Council of New York State and local steelworker’s union president Richard Strattman.

Strattman read a letter from Albany County Executive Michael Breslin that called Lafarge Ravena “an outstanding corporate neighbor.” Congressman Paul Tonko’s district director Sean Shortell read a statement from his boss applauding Lafarge “for taking the steps necessary to modernize their plant in a fashion that will produce the cleanest, most energy-efficient plant in North America.”

Several other office holders commented favorably, including 108th District Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin, Ravena Mayor John Bruno, Ravena Village Board member Bruce Roberts and Coeymans Town Councilman Tom Boehm.

Written comments on Lafarge’s permits will be accepted through Feb. 22 by Sarah H. Evans, Project Manager/Environmental Analyst, NYS DEC, Region 4 Headquarters, 1130 North Westcott Road, Schenectady, NY 12306. E-mail: Fax: (518) 357-2460.

—Laurie Lynn Fischer


Presidential Endorsement

Photo: Ali Hibbs

On Jan. 21, President Barack Obama made his second visit to the Capital Region to talk about technological innovation and the benefits of sustainable energy production at the General Electric Plant in Schenectady. Obama championed education and infrastructure improvements, as well as technological innovation and expanded international commerce, as essential for the U.S. to remain globally competitive, create more jobs at home and ensure sustainable economic security. Plants like the one in Schenectady, he believes, exemplify the direction that we need to take as a country.

GE has undertaken a variety of initiatives that resonate with the administration’s plans, prompting Obama to tap GE CEO Jeff Immelt to chair his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Projects launched by GE include a new eco-friendly Renewable Energy Global Headquarters, a state-of-the-art digital mammography production facility, a renovated Global Research Center and the impending battery plant. Upon completion, these projects will have added more than 1,300 jobs to the region and will represent more than $300 million in local investments.

—Ali Hibbs

Loose Ends

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