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Pretty, but unwelcome: Purple loosestrife, one of New York’s most invasive non-native species, can been seen along almost any highway in the state. Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers
Purple loosestrife and other invasive, non-native species have moved in like Tribbles, and New York won’t stand for it

For years, purple loosestrife has been creeping through New York’s wetlands and up its roadways, choking out native species such as cattail. New York is host to a number of non-native species like loosestrife, and has decided it wants to get rid of these uninvited guests.

Last week, Gov. George Pataki signed legislation establishing a task force that will examine the environmental impact of non-native species on the state. The 17-member panel is charged with identifying problems that accompany invasive species in New York and figuring out what to do about them. The panel will suggest statewide approaches to preventing the introduction of new non-native species, detecting and monitoring invasive populations, educating the public, and restoring native species where their populations have been damaged. The task force will help agencies coordinate regional treatment methods with a view to statewide control, instead of quick, local solutions.

Al Caccese, director of conservation and government relations for Audubon New York, cited invasive species as “one of the largest threats to biodiversity in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in New York State. Invasive plant and animal species have been associated with numerous environmental problems such as the degradation of water quality and fisheries, reductions in agricultural output, and the extinction of many bird species.”

It is estimated that invasive species have a $137 billion impact on the national economy annually. Crop infestations plague agriculture, zebra mussels clog intake pipes for public water supplies, and plants growing along and in the Hudson River hinder people using it for recreation. The cost of solving these problems is high, and supporters of the task-force bill hope that the new recommendations will help the state cope more effectively.

New York’s non-native-species problem is due in part to climate changes, but also to its geography. “The canal system and roadways connecting New York City to the Hudson to Lake Champlain to the Finger Lakes to Lake Erie and up into Canada are quite extensive pathways for non-native species to travel,” said Suzanne Maloney, director of the Invasive Plant Council of New York State.

It is especially easy for foreign species to travel through shipments traveling the waterways, so port inspections are getting increased attention, said Willie Janeway, government relations director for the state’s Nature Conservancy chapter, which consulted with legislators as they crafted the bill.

Still, there are people like Erik Kiviat of Hudsonia, an environmental research group covering the Hudson region, that don’t think purple loosestrife or the cattail competitor phragmites are all bad. Kiviat is quick to point out that although both species have detrimental traits, in certain situations they do provide good habitat and food for other species, some of which are in decline. He feels that each site should be evaluated individually and is researching treatment methods that take a wider variety of factors into account.

Prior to the new legislation, the state was already examining the incursion of zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil in lakes and looking into biological control of purple loosestrife in the lower Hudson Valley. The task force, however, will help New York piece together a macro-scale picture of its invasive-species problem, and hopefully a plan to match. “There is not a comprehensive approach to this in New York State at this time,” said Janeway.

“We’re not quite aware of what is here and how [invasive species] may be interacting in the environment,” said Maloney. “The task force is the first step for New York state for becoming aware of what is there and how much of it there is.”

“Of the universe of invasive species, there is a small set that cause problems, and an even smaller subset that we can do something about,” said Janeway. The task force will “narrow that universe down to the smaller set,” he said, but even then “there are some species posing significant threats that can’t be treated by a task force in two years.” These may require broader control methods, perhaps with federal help, since invasive species don’t respect state boundaries.

In January 2004, the Invasive Plant Council will begin compiling a database and sophisticated mapping system showing where certain species are and how management control decisions are working, using information culled from different agencies. These efforts will “allow the monitoring of the many new species to our state, and also help identify areas where there are not invasive species and help us protect them—absence is as important as presence,” said Maloney.

Janeway agreed, stressing that restoring native species to a habitat requires that the habitat will not choke them out. “There is more to protecting areas than combating sprawl. The long-term care of an area is of equal importance.”

—Ashley Hahn

Dennis Who?

The national media have rediscovered national health care, thanks to 8,000 doctors. On Aug. 13, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a single-payer national health-care proposal from Physicians for National Health Program, with 8,000 signatories. The proposal argues that by getting rid of the bureaucratic costs of the private insurance industry, everyone could be covered without increasing the amount the country spends on health care.

For supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, this seemed like a godsend. Kucinich has been pushing just such a plan—he calls it Medicare for All—since day one of his campaign. “Over time, the Kucinich plan will remove private insurance companies from the system—along with their waste, paperwork, profits, excessive executive salaries, advertising, sales commissions, etc.—and redirect resources to actual treatment,” reads his Web site.

It seems that some reporters were slow to bone up on the issues. Despite the fact that he is the only presidential candidate advocating a single-payer plan, many of the early stories filed didn’t mention Kucinich at all, even when they did try to connect the issue to the presidential race. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for example, ran a story that compared Bill Clinton’s attempts to address health-care reform with the prospects (not so good) under the current Bush administration—without mentioning the Democratic hopefuls at all.

It was a familiar pattern for Kucinich supporters. After The New York Times story on the first Democratic debate left out Kucinich completely (along with Carol Mosley-Braun and Al Sharpton), Kucinich volunteers organized media responders to address what they see as persistent marginalization of their candidate.

“The national political reporters believe it’s their job, not the voters’, to narrow the field,” said Jeff Cohen, Kucinich’s communications director. “They set up a spectrum from one baby step left of center to far right. If you don’t fit, they whisk you away.” Kucinich does get great local coverage wherever he goes because he draws huge crowds and has actual plans, said Cohen, but he continues to be marginalized on the national level.

Cohen knows about media bias. He was a founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a left-leaning media watchdog group. As communications director for Kucinich, he walks the interesting line of challenging the mainstream lack of coverage of his candidate while also maintaining that Kucinich can win despite the bias. “This happens every four years,” said Cohen. “You can’t remember the people [the media] called contenders just because they had millions of dollars early. You would think they would quit.”

Taking nothing for granted, Kucinich media responders swung into action as the health-care story broke. There’s no way to prove it, but Cohen believes their e-mail messages and calls made a difference. Despite the number of initial articles that ignored him, a significant percentage of stories on the issue—including a widely printed AP story by Mark Herman—did acknowledge Kucinich’s stance in a line or two, giving him a rare chance to be mentioned out of the shadow of the better-funded candidates.

“We’re thrilled that health care has become one of the dominant issues inside the campaign,” said Cohen. “Of course if I were a reporter, I would’ve pushed those doctors to say which candidate they were supporting.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Victim of identity theft: Linda Mussman at the headquarters of her Bottom Line Party Photo: Shannon DeCelle

It’s My Party Now!
Hudson Mayor Rick Scalera “poltically maneuvered” for an independent party designation created by a longtime opponent—and he’s damn proud of it

Hudson Mayor Rick Scalera—already endorsed by four major political parties in his campaign for a fifth term in office—recently snagged the name and logo of a homespun political party previously used by a community activist to run against him. It was a cold and calculated political cheap shot, a fact Scalera seems to revel in.

“It was meant to be devious,” Scalera said. “If I hurt her feelings in that respect, it was meant to be because that is what she did to most of the people that have worked their ass off in this city for the better part of eight years.”

“She” is Linda Mussman—a longtime community activist and cofounder of the Hudson-based art warehouse Time & Space Limited—who challenged Scalera for mayor in 2001. Mussman made that run as a candidate on the Bottom Line Party, an independent designation she created through the petition process. Scalera defeated Mussman in that race, 953 votes to 465. Republican challenger MaryAnne Lemmerman garnered 810 votes.

Mussman had every intention of running for mayor as the Bottom Line Party candidate again this year. But on a recent trip to the Columbia County Board of Elections, she learned that Scalera had filed official paperwork to claim the independent designation for himself. The city’s Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence parties have already endorsed Scalera.

“He wants all the toys for himself,” Mussman said. “It’s obvious that Rick Scalera doesn’t want to have anyone running in this election. He doesn’t want a fair fight; he wants everything for himself.”

But the mayor said the only reason he sought the Bottom Line Party designation was because Mussman is challenging him in a primary for the city’s Democratic mayoral nomination on Sept. 9.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that Linda Mussman is [seeking a primary against] me for my party designation,” Scalera said. “I chose to politically maneuver to take her name away on the independent line. How that is any different than what she’s doing by trying to take my entire party designation away? I was endorsed by the Democratic Party, not her.”

Scalera said Mussman should have come to him first—as the city’s Democratic Party chairman—to ask for the party’s endorsement or a primary election. Instead, Mussman collected the signatures of enough registered Democrats to force primaries for mayor and a number of other positions within city government. “Linda decided to circumvent that whole process,” Scalera said. “Now that is unprecedented.”

“I guess he doesn’t understand the law,” Mussman said. “It seems that the small group of insiders are in control of the City of Hudson.” She says her slate would make city government “much more open and inclusive and welcoming in terms of encouraging people to get involved in government. That is what is so irritating to Rick Scalera, and that is amazing to me. What is irritating about letting the people decide?”

Scalera took his “political maneuvering” one step further by collecting signatures for the Bottom Line Party using the logo created for Mussman by her partner, Claudia Bruce. Mussman’s Bottom Line Party headquarters on Warren Street features the logo in its window.

“His actions of stealing my party’s name and logo are the true actions of a bully and a thief,” Mussman said. “I can’t be generous about this.”

Scalera couldn’t be either.

“The house seems to be more important to Linda because her girlfriend drew it,” Scalera said. “Quite frankly, anybody in elementary grade could’ve drawn it. It was special to them and it don’t mean anything to me.”

It appears that Scalera did not break any of the state’s election laws in acquiring the Bottom Line Party designation or logo, said Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections.

“The Bottom Line Party is not an official party recognized by the state of New York, it is just a name she used in that one instance,” Daghlian said.

In order to be recognized as an official political party in New York state, an independent party’s gubernatorial candidate must receive 50,000 votes, Daghlian said. Since the Bottom Line Party did not meet that benchmark, the name was technically up for grabs. “Is it ethical for that guy to grab it?” Daghlian said, chuckling. “Maybe not, but that’s not for us to decide.”

Since last week, both candidates have filed objections to each other’s petitions, each saying the other’s is rife with errors.

Mike Nabozny, the Columbia County Board of Election’s Republican deputy commissioner, did not know when the candidates’ grievances would be aired. But Scalera was sure of one thing: He doesn’t think he needs the Bottom Line Party designation to win this fall. He only sought it to send a message to Mussman.

“This petition crap is something I’m not used to getting in the middle of, and frankly, I can’t wait till it’s over,” Scalera said. “The bottom line is, no other candidate has put in their name for the mayor’s race; it’s just Linda and I. The voters will have a choice come this fall, so let the campaigning begin.”

—Travis Durfee

Garnish Plates, Not Tax Returns
Government chokes on seized tax returns, agrees to give some of them back

More than 40,000 low-income New Yorkers recently learned they may be thrown a bone in the form of long-overdue tax refunds that had been withheld by the government.

From 1997 to 2000, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance gave some of these lower-income residents too many food stamps. It then made up the difference by keeping their tax returns, which it can do legally under the federal Treasury Offset Program.

But the state neglected to notify the people whose tax returns it took, and it collected some debts TOP does not cover, so two nonprofit advocacy groups sued the OTDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of the people affected.

“We’re not saying whether people owed money or not, but rather that they didn’t have an opportunity for due process. . . . They had no opportunity to be heard,” said Anne Erickson, director of the Greater Upstate Law Project, an advocacy group that filed the suit jointly with the New York Legal Assistance Group.

“These are working families whose hours and incomes fluctuate, which triggers fluctuation in how much they receive in food stamps. So by the time the budgeting gets caught up, they can get overpaid,” Erickson explained. And yet, she said, the government took from “people who were already paying [back their debt] on a regular schedule. They just took it in one fell swoop.”

Under TOP, OTDA and the USDA can ask the U.S. Treasury to garnish the tax returns of food stamp recipients who are considered to be in debt because the government overpaid them. The state is effectively encouraged to use TOP—it can keep 20 percent of the tax refunds sequestered by the Treasury—and it continued to do so even after the lawsuit was filed in 1998.

But relief may finally be in sight. Under a proposed settlement, the government would automatically repay people whose food-stamp debts are more than nine years old, those who were on food stamps when their refunds were taken, and those whose overpayment in food stamps went undetected for more than a year. Many others will be offered a hearing.

GULP suggests that everyone offered a hearing should take it, and the group is looking into ways to support people through that process. GULP’s case attorney has found that the government often used a very minimal paper trail to establish a food-stamp overpayment, so a case review could earn a refund for many people.

TOP has been suspended due to the alleged misuse and the pending lawsuit, but it will be revised and reinstated once the suit is fully resolved.

The settlement is estimated to total $2.2 million, most of which will come from the federal level, though the state and local governments will also have to pay. The state sent out the terms of the proposed settlement this summer to more than 40,000 affected New Yorkers for their review. The mailing explained the settlement and gave recipients an opportunity to respond to the proposed terms.

A lot of people were confused by the notice, said Erickson. Many thought they had to appear in court. The mailing did include numbers to call with questions, but one of them was wrong. The toll-free number listed for GULP was actually the number for Vision Quest, a juvenile justice group in Tucson, Ariz., which was inundated with frustrated callers.

Unless the potential beneficiaries disapprove en masse, which seems unlikely, the court will agree to the settlement on Sept. 4. Then the state will send new notices to the same group saying one of three things: We took your tax refund, and you will be refunded; we took your tax refund and you can have a hearing; or we actually took nothing from you, so don’t worry about this case.

“This is the families’ money that the state took. They’re simply returning it,” Erickson said.

—Ashley Hahn

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