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An appeal to recycle: Fil Topliff of the Honest Weight Food Co-op. Photo: John Whipple

Sending the CDs Home to Roost
Honest Weight Food Co-op collects AOL disks and marks them “return to sender”

Coasters. Frisbees. Solar reflectors. The number of creative uses people have found for AOL CDs is a testament to just how ubiquitous they have become. But still, most of the gigantuan Internet-service provider’s software-and-sign-up discs still end up in a landfill.

That’s what bothered the employees at Honest Weight Food Co-op when they found a pile of 50 to 60 CDs in the bin they usually set out for people who want to dispose of Metroland’s adult insert. “We try to recycle as much as possible,” said Jessica Allen, outreach coordinator for HWFC. “The bottom line for the people at the co-op is the waste. [The CDs are] virtually indestructible.”

Co-op personnel responded by setting out a box specifically for the CDs, and they plan to mail them back to AOL, “as a kind of silent protest against filling up landfills with things people don’t want,” said Fil Topliff, front-end floor manager, who “jumped through a lot of hoops” to get an address from AOL where the company said it would accept CDs for recycling.

The box has filled a couple times, but two artists have asked if they could take the CDs for sculptures, so the co-op hasn’t actually sent a shipment to AOL yet. The co-op is willing to take on the cost of shipping, said Topliff, because “it’s part of our bylaws to be environmentally conscious.”

Frustration with the quantity of unsolicited CDs is widespread and has inspired others across the country to set up similar return projects, some of massive scale. In August 2001, after finding two AOL CDs in a bag with a rented movie, John Lieberman and Jim McKenna, technology professionals in El Cerrito, Calif., launched a campaign to collect 1 million AOL CDs and deposit them on AOL’s doorstep. To date, with the help of their Web site, they have passed the quarter-million mark, and are storing the collected CDs in Lieberman’s garage.

The pair nick the CDs to prevent AOL from reusing them; part of AOL’s recycling plan is to resend still-functioning disks.

AOL did not return calls for comment, but company officials have been quoted in the past as being supportive of the campaign, and saying they would welcome and recycle the shipment. “It just shows us that they are completely missing the point,” Lieberman told PC World in December 2002.

Meanwhile, Topliff and Allen questioned Metroland’s participation in the distribution of AOL CDs. “We were surprised that the Metroland did that, being that it’s an alternative paper,” said Allen. Metroland included the CDs as inserted advertising in two individual issues, one in August and one in December. The placement came through a national advertising network of alternative weekly papers and was not sold directly by the paper.

Stephen Leon, Metroland’s editor and publisher, said the question of a nonrecyclable advertising insert was a new one for the paper and the complications had not immediately occurred to him. In general, he said, he doesn’t turn down advertising based on content. “I stand for the separation of advertising and editorial,” he said. “Advertising doesn’t influence editorial, and vice versa.” However, he acknowledged that “the direct environmental consequences of the AOL disks are a new wrinkle,” and said he will “certainly give the question some thought.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Waited long enough: Councilman Dominick Calsolaro. Photo: John Whipple

The Task at Hand
A recent wave of deadly incidents leads Albany Common Council to revive proposal for gun-violence task force

Last week, Albany’s Common Council revived a year-old proposal calling for the mayor to reach out to state, federal and local law-enforcement agencies and create a task force to address gun violence.

Following the Dec. 23 shooting of Albany Police Lt. John Finn, who remains hospitalized after being criticallly injured during a foot chase and shootout with an armed-robbery suspect, Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) decided it was time to renew his push for the council to form a task force to address gun violence. The rash of violent events throughout the region that followed strengthened Calsolaro’s resolve.

On Christmas Day, a man killed four people and then himself in Niskayuna. Four days later, Albany police found a woman who’d been shot to death buried in a backyard on Teunis Street. A Lansingburgh man, expected to testify in a drug trial a few weeks later, was shot and killed in Troy on Dec. 30. The next day, bystander David Scaringe was shot and killed by an Albany police officer engaged in a chase in Albany’s Center Square neighborhood.

“The perception of Albany as unsafe is so strong out there that we need to take action to start changing that perception,” Calsolaro said, adding that since the task-force resolution passed on Jan. 5, “I received calls from numerous groups and individuals thanking us and looking forward to working with us.”

Calsolaro said the task force could work on changing the public’s perception of violence in Albany through better reportage of crime statistics and by holding gun-related workshops with various church and neighborhood groups. Calsolaro would also like to see the city police department involved in partnerships with other law-enforcement agencies, but Chief Robert Wolfgang said the department already has a “task-force approach” to preventing gun violence.

Wolfgang said the department regularly speaks with state police, the local office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and police departments from the surrounding towns and cities. “We work daily with these agencies,” Wolfgang said. “I’m not quite sure what any additional interaction between these law-enforcement agencies is going to do that we’re not doing already.”

“The department might be doing these things, but we don’t know, and that’s part of the problem,” Calsolaro said. “Maybe if we knew more of what they’re doing it would help with the perception that the city is a violent place.”

Determining whether or not the city deserves such a reputation is difficult if you turn to the police department for data: The department does not make updated crime statistics readily available to the public. Although its Web site, police/index.htm, contains a “crime info” page that is supposed to list quarterly statistics on crimes reported throughout the city, it hasn’t been updated since March 31, 2002.

Last year, Metroland requested statistics from the department regarding the number of illegal firearms seized in the city from 2000 to 2003. The figures Metroland received, stating that only seven firearms were retrieved by the department in 2001, greatly differed from ones that appeared in the Times Union on August 8, 2002, stating that 147 firearms were seized. Department spokesman Detective James Miller said on Tuesday he’d look into the discrepancy. Subsequently, Miller did not return multiple calls for comment.

Leonard Morgenbesser, an Albany resident who tracks gun violence in the Capital Region through media reports, has regularly testified before the Common Council about gun-related issues over the past few years. He has counted 119 incidents of gun violence in the Capital Region from Sept. 19, 2002, through Jan. 1, 2004, roughly one every four days. Morgenbesser was thrilled at the prospect of bringing the civic leaders from around the region together to address what he sees as a public-health problem.

“Much like epidemiological looks at and tracks diseases through data, I think you need more comprehensive data on gun violence and more people looking at this for prevention measures,” he said. “[By] bringing a cross-section of people from throughout the region including public health, we won’t be overlapping and taking resources away.”

The creation of a task force like Calsolaro has in mind depends on the mayor, but Jennings, who did not return calls for this story, hasn’t exactly embraced the idea with open arms.

“I don’t have a problem if the council wants to make a task force,” Jennings said in his address before the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations yesterday (Wednesday, Jan. 14). “I’ll sit down and talk with them, but we have to have a focused agenda.”

Other council members say the council should be more proactive and finds ways it can address the issue itself. At the council’s next meeting, Councilman Glen Casey (Ward 11) will introduce an ordinance stiffening the penalties for carrying unlawful loaded firearms in the city. The legislation, which Calsolaro is cosponsoring, would increase the fine from $150 to $1,000, and the maximum jail term from 150 days to one year.

Councilman David Torncello (Ward 8), Albany’s longest-tenured councilman, said that leadership from the Troy, Schenectady and Albany city councils used to meet informally roughly a decade ago, and said he thought that reviving such meetings could be one way to for the council to address gun violence.

“We put an awful lot of effort into telling other people what we hope they would do, and I know that’s a part of the job,” Torncello said, “but we can also do some things on our own.”

Common Council President Helen Desfosses said that the council hadn’t made any decisions about moving ahead on the gun-violence task force as of Wednesday.

“As far as we’re concerned,” she said, “it is in the mayor’s hands, and we’re waiting to see how he’ll implement it.”

—Travis Durfee

Time to Push the Envelope
With heightened interest after the Scaringe shooting, Albany’s Citizens’ Police Review Board steps up its quest to get answers from the APD

For the three-and-a-half years of its existence, the Albany Citizens’ Police Review Board has labored, if not in total obscurity, then with less citizen attention that many board members might have hoped. While they have forged relationships with numerous community organizations and have considered nearly 150 complaints against the police, there are usually far fewer community members in attendance at their open meetings than even the half-dozen who showed up this Monday, the board’s first meeting since the shooting of David Scaringe [“Death and Disbelief,” Jan. 8].

The Scaringe case did not come up explicitly until the comment period at the end of the meeting, because the board’s ordinance does not allow it to look into a case unless it receives a complaint. But the board did vote, unanimously, to step up its long-standing quest for information from the police department, and pointedly added requests for the department’s policies on hot pursuit and use of deadly force, and data on all incidences of each, to their list of requests. Board members said they had been waiting for older items on the list, including information on whether the department has implemented the board’s recommendations on bias-based policing and strip searches, for nearly three years, said board chairman Kenneth Cox.

So this time, the board members included a deadline with their request: They want the information by Feb. 9, or they will consider going to the Common Council to request subpoena powers to force Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen to comply.

They also scheduled a public hearing on the shooting for Feb. 3.

Nielsen said on Wednesday that he was waiting for the official request in writing from the Albany Law School, which provides staff for the board, and said the department would respond immediately. “We’re not hiding anything,” he said.

During the comment period, concerned community members urged the board to take a stronger stand on this issue than it has in past police shootings, particularly in terms of reviewing department policy. “We need to do something so this don’t happen again,” said Samuel Brown. “My people have been being killed for years. . . . We need some action.”

“If you can sit there and talk about discourteous police behavior,” said Dr. Alice Green, director of the Center for Law and Justice, referring to the complaints the board had ruled on earlier in the evening, “I don’t know how you can not get involved when a citizen is killed.”

Green and Erin O’Brien, director of the Women’s Building, both said they were filing complaints with the board regarding the Scaringe shooting.

“I thought the best thing to do would be was to file a complaint, because that starts the process and opens the door for a possible independent investigation with the Common Council,” Green said after the meeting. The board has so far only promised to review the police department’s investigation and the related policies. Green has expressed frustration that the board did not seek similar policy reviews after the shooting of Jason Mayo in December 2002. At the meeting, she responded strongly when Commissioner Nielsen suggested that the cases were “worlds apart.”

“If we approach [this issue] in terms of innocent and guilty, we’ve lost,” she said, saying that all shooting victims are human beings.

The members of the board, who are all volunteers, seemed both unused to, but welcoming of, the new level of interest in their affairs. Cox said it was a shame that “someone has to lose their life for us to move forward,” but nonetheless said he thought the level of response was a “breakthrough,” and that “we can’t go back to the way it was.” Despite their trouble getting information from the police department in the past, he said he believed the department respects the board, but just isn’t moved to release information “unless there’s a crisis, unless there’s a groundswell.”

Cox called on those who turned out to talk to people and keep showing up.

“They got the sense that they had some community support there,” said Green. “The point was made very clear that both the board and the police department need to listen to the community.” It’s not going to be easy to change the interactions between the board and the department, however, said Green, especially with such a highly charged incident where there is likely to be a lawsuit. “With this kind of an incident,” she said, “everyone in the department will be very careful about what they say and do, so it won’t provide the openness that’s needed.”

In a different vein, Assemblyman Robert Prentiss (R-Colonie) has proposed “David’s Law,” which would increase the charges for any drivers involved in a police chase from a traffic violation to a misdemeanor, and would hold them responsible for any injuries or deaths that result from such chases.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Keeping Up With the Rising Tide
A hundred people turned out to a minimum-wage rally at the New York State Capitol on Sunday to ask the Legislature (which has been supportive) and the governor (who has not) to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.75. Members of the Working Families Party and other advocates for the working poor pointed to a report from the Fiscal Policy Institute that said that the spending power of the minimum wage is approaching its lowest level in half a century, while the percentage of low-wage workers in the state has tripled since 1979.

Trailmix: The Dems on Education

A staple of the Democratic presidential hopefuls’ campaign rhetoric is bashing the president for inadequately funding the education reforms he laid out with 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. So what would they do differently?

While all candidates are paying lip service to providing local school districts with more federal funds to better train teachers, purchase education technology and pay for construction funds, their specific education proposals range from the very focused to the very broad. John Kerry, for example, proposes creating an Education Trust Fund, which would provide $10,000 tax deductions to teachers going back to school and $50 billion to help struggling states avoid education cuts and layoffs. Al Sharpton, however, thinks the best way to solidify the nation’s commitment to education would be to enact an Education Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Wesley Clark and Richard Gephardt all speak about universal pre-k, or something resembling it. Gephardt mentions supporting federal funds for it. Clark proposes access to universal, free pre-k at the age of 4. Kucinich would offer it by 3. Dean’s plan is a bit more ambitious—it starts with in-home visits, nutrition assistance and parenting classes immediately after birth so children are prepared for learning when they start pre-k at 4. Kucinich proposes trimming 15 percent from the Pentagon’s budget to pay for his $60 billion program. Dean would pay for his proposals by repealing the president’s tax cuts.

A few of the candidates have offered concrete proposals to assist families with children in poorly funded school districts. John Edwards proposes a $5,000 mortgage tax credit to teachers willing to buy homes in the communities where they teach. One of the more radical ideas for education reform comes from Carol Moseley Braun, who would fix school-funding inequities by scrapping the nation’s property-tax-based school- funding formula. Although Braun accurately states that such a formula unfairly strains limited tax bases in urban centers and rural areas, the candidate doesn’t offer a concrete alternative for another funding source.

If the general-education proposals seem scant, that’s because most candidates have more detailed proposals for higher education. Joe Lieberman’s education proposals provide a case-in-point: The senator says we need to think about education in terms of k-16 rather than dividing education proposals into two categories, k-12 and higher education. Though he fits into the vague, I’ll-fund-what-Bush-didn’t camp for general education, Lieberman proposes a plan to ensure that 90 percent of Americans are either entering the military or going off to college after high school by 2020.

Lieberman, along with Gephardt, Dean and Clark, wants to increase federal grants for higher education. He wants federal Pell grants increased from their current $4,050-a-year maximum to $6,150 for the 2004-2005 school year and $7,760 for 2008-2009. Dean proposes up to $10,000 per student annually in federal grants depending on income. Clark would provide a universal college grant of $6,000 a year for the first two years of college, with the aid going mainly to families earning less than $100,000 a year.

Then there are the free college proposals. In exchange for 10 hours of work or volunteering during the school year, Edwards proposes one year of free tuition to a public college or university. Kerry will offer four free years with the promise of two years in a national service program. By restructuring the tax system and repealing tax cuts for high-income taxpayers, Kucinich would offer students $4,000 per year for state college and university tuition.

—Travis Durfee

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