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Answering a higher call: Rev. Sam Trumbore. Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

Going to the Chapel, and Courthouse
Gay and lesbian couples tie the knot, putting Albany on the same-sex-marriage map

Certain public affirmations of love and enduring commitment have recently become acts of protest in New York and the nation, and Albany was just added to the list of places where same-sex couples have been married.

“Civil marriage is a civil right,” read a sign hung high outside Albany’s First Unitarian Universalist Church where the Rev. Samuel Trumbore married two same-sex couples—Elissa Kane and Lynne Lekakis, and Robert Barnes and George Jurgsatis—last Saturday.

The ceremony was, in many ways, like any other wedding: rings, inspirational talk of commitment, songs of devotion, and an adorable flower girl (Kane’s and Lekakis’ daughter). It was, however, hard to miss that the ceremony was also exceptional. As Trumbore uttered the familiar closing words, ending with “the power vested in me by . . . the State of New York,” guests cheered, rising to a standing ovation by the recessional, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

“This is a civil and religious ceremony to me,” said Trumbore. “I’m not planning at this point to do more,” he added, “but I may. It depends on who comes forward in my congregation wishing to do this.”

Kane and Lekakis, members of Trumbore’s congregation, went to City Hall last Thursday to request a license, but were denied. Kane said she and Lekakis wanted to know how their relationship was qualitatively different from the other couples obtaining licenses that day. “What’s different about our humanness that that same love wouldn’t be recognized?” she wondered.

As might be expected for newlyweds, both couples expressed heartfelt conviction about their new spouses, as well as about why they opted to pursue marriage licenses. Barnes and Jurgsatis chose not to speak to the press after the ceremony, but in a three-page statement, Jurgsatis said, “That he finds me amusing after 25 years is a miracle, that we are happiest when we are together is remarkable. . . . out of all the people roaming this earth that we were able to locate each other is a wonder.” He went on to say, “Gay marriage is about recognition and respect and nothing more—and none of us should settle for anything less.”

Trumbore faced possible misdemeanor charges for solemnizing marriages without licenses, just like his fellow UU ministers in New Paltz, but he was undeterred by the prospect of a fine or jail time. Albany District Attorney Paul Clyne has dismissed the marriages as “a publicity stunt,” but has not said he will bring charges.

Trumbore brought affidavits signed over the weekend to City Hall on Monday, with Kane, Lekakis, and some supporters, to request marriage licenses for the newlyweds. They were politely denied, opening the door to litigation by the couples. Trumbore said that local attorney Terence Kindlon “is ready to take us on for pro bono, so that means the case continues.”

Kindlon said lawyers from his firm will meet with the couples shortly to discuss a legal challenge. He said, “It looks as if we’re going to be initiating a case against the city of Albany to see if we can compel them to provide marriage licenses.”

—Ashley Hahn

Welcome to the World
UAlbany participates in an initiative to examine foreign views of American culture and create a more globally engaged citizenry

Jon Fisher, a senior at the University at Albany, recalled attending a birthday party during his study abroad in Oxford, England, in late 2001 and being questioned by many concerned people about why the United States seemed to be splitting with the United Nations on the decision to go to war with Iraq. “It felt like [I talked to] the entire restaurant as I went from table to table answering questions,” he said, explaining that he felt a responsibility to defend his country, but at the same time, “It’s almost like I wanted to let them know that I was American and I wanted to keep working with the U.N. too.”

Memories like this are the reason why he, now back in the United States, and friend Adam Winters founded an Albany chapter of Americans for Informed Democracy in January 2004. AID is a nonpartisan student organization launched by three American recent college graduates to create a more “globally engaged America as well as a world ready to embrace American involvement in world affairs.” It has chapters at more than a dozen campuses worldwide. Fisher said he thinks it is important for Americans to be aware of how they are seen in other countries and for the people in those countries to be informed on the diversity of American viewpoints.

Last week, as part of a two-week program by AID and the We Are Family Foundation to initiate discussion at universities across the country—and a couple in Europe—on the role of American culture abroad, Fisher and Winters organized the panel discussion “American Culture in the World: Benevolent Force or Evil Empire?” They asked six UAlbany professors with expertise in areas of the world including Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to present brief speeches on the topic of American culture abroad, which would be followed by questions from the audience.

“Unilateralism did not begin with George W. Bush,” said professor Karl Barbir, the panel’s Middle East expert, whose lecture focused on the historical roots of U.S. foreign policy. He discussed the historical relationship between the United States and the Middle East and other examples of the United States splitting from other countries, such as the Monroe Doctrine.

Other speeches focused on the role of American media abroad. Professor Michael Barberich, the panel’s media expert, discussed images of the United States that he thinks don’t make it overseas, such as an emphasis on images of fear and security.

Professor Yvonne Perry, a member of the university’s theater department, was chosen to represent the positive side of American culture because of her career on television shows like Silk Stalkings and Candid Camera. She was the last speaker, following more than an hour of intellectual and historical discussion with a frank and personal account of her recent visits to China. She described being shocked to find herself in a non-multicultural society, and recounted her surprise and discomfort at feeling like an outsider when she ventured into nontourist areas.

The panel was sponsored by the College Democrats, Republicans and Greens, which meant the audience of about 150 students had a broad spectrum of points of view. The discussion period following the speeches was intense and lasted more than an hour. “It was a balancing act,” said Winters. “It was tough because we were trying to make it legitimate with the nonpartisan aspect of it, but I could tell that some people came in with very strong opinions.”

The students had a wide range of reactions to the panelists’ overall message as well. Tim Elliot, a junior, said he was surprised about how “pro-American” he found the discussion. “If I wanted to see something like this I could have turned on the TV. I was expecting something completely different, the real deal,” he said, adding, “I liked that [Barbir] actually talked about Rumsfeld and Iraq.”

Jeff Fay, a part-time student and legal researcher for the New York State Legislature, said he was glad he came because he found the panel very interesting, but that he thought there was a lack of balance. “I found it was about as far left as I expected it to be. . . . I don’t think that this panel or its general theme reflected that there are many parts of [American culture worldwide] that are positive,” he said.

Simone Grant, a junior, said she had thought the discussion was going to be more negative because of the flier that advertised it, but she found it very fair and enjoyed the historical context the speakers provided.

—Liz Healy

I've got some questions: Councilman Michael O'Brien. Photo by: John Whipple

Tough Questions Continue
Albany Common Council quizzes police chief and public safety commissioner on finances, overtime

In a marathon caucus session on March 24, members of the Albany Common Council questioned Police Chief Robert Wolfgang and Public Safety Commissioner John C. Nielsen about the information they had provided at the council’s March 15 meeting [“On the Defensive,” Newsfront, March 18].

One of the major areas of concern for the council was financial oversight, especially of the seized-asset fund. The account is the only city fund for which Albany Comptroller Thomas Nitido does not have to authorize expenditures, and he receives no detailed accounting of how the money is spent. Anthony Pascuito, the retired director of seized assets for the New York State Police, conducted a “financial review” (not an audit) of the account immediately before the March 15 meeting, and he joined Nielsen and Wolfgang on March 24 to answer questions about it.

Councilmen Michael O’Brien and Dominick Calsolero expressed disbelief that receipts had not been required for travel and training-expense reimbursements. “You can go over this all you like,” Pascuito snapped, “but the fact is it’s documented it wasn’t happening, the chief and commissioner realized it should have been, and they corrected it on March 14.”

O’Brien also questioned a recommendation that receipts not be required from informants for drug buys. Pascuito noted that it was a question of safety, and said that the bills used were tracked. Not all units in the department think it’s a bad idea, however. According to a Jan. 1, 2002, interdepartmental correspondence, the Community Response Unit’s procedure is, “The Detective Supervisor shall ensure that all payments to an informant, whether approved or not, are . . . receipted for by the informant, who shall sign his alias or code name on a Department receipt form that is witnessed and cosigned by two officers.”

Calsolero raised a question about the use of the funds. Expenditures have included art for office walls, newspaper subscriptions, and charity donations. Pascuito said those were allowed expenses, though some might be in “gray areas.” He maintained that the fact that more than 50 percent of expenditures went to operations (equipment, buy money), a dramatic increase from a couple years ago, was a positive sign. “You can be penny wise and pound foolish. You can worry about a few thousand dollars for personal functions of the chief, commissioner—or anyone in this chamber,” he said, but insisted that wasn’t a real problem. “You just don’t want to go crazy with [those expenses].”

Council members also questioned why this was the first financial review of the account, and whether an actual audit might be a good idea. Nitido said Tuesday that he has sent a memo to the department saying that he plans to audit the seized- asset fund, criminal investigations fund, and compensatory time, from 2000 to the present. “I’m entitled to that under the city charter, and I expect there will be cooperation,” he said.

The other hot-button issue of the evening was overtime expenses. Wolfgang and Nielsen explained that they had taken into consideration all suggestions for reducing overtime, but were limited by the union contract. Calsolero questioned the chief’s assertion that there are no records of so-called “atta-boy” compensation days, given as a reward for good work. Wolfgang reiterated that “no records exist as to who issued what days,” and said compensation days would not be specified by type in the records.

Printouts of hours owed to various officers from 1996 to 2000, shared with Metroland by sources close to the police department, however, contained a column that lists the reasons for compensatory time, such as “wk day off” or “AB” with a supervisor’s initials. Other days just said “per [supervisor’s name].”

In the past, Wolfgang has said the atta-boy days were both unauthorized and the actions of only one supervisor. At the meeting, Nielsen characterized them as “an old policy we inherited” and “a practice in place when we inherited the detectives department.” They both emphasized that the practice has ceased.

Nitido also has expressed an interest in auditing records like these. He said he receives a regular accounting of vacation and sick time, but is not informed of the amount of comp time officers are carrying until they get paid for those days when they leave the department. “I’m not accusing people of taking time they’re not owed,” he said. “It’s just that we need the financial oversight and controls.”

The council expressed disappointment that most of the documents they had requested relating to the firing of Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro had not been provided. After a disagreement between corporation counsel Gary Stiglmeier and the council’s own lawyer, Barbara Samel, on whether the records could be withheld because they are part of a personnel file, the council agreed to wait until the caucus meeting held yesterday (Wednesday) to discuss whether they will attempt to subpoena the records or view them in executive session.

Council members were cautiously upbeat about the results of the meeting. “I felt that the police department had exhibited some movement around many issues,” said council president Helen Desfosses. “I think there was much more disclosure and more openness than the beginning discussions had indicated.”

“Obviously, not everything was answered,” said O’Brien. “Was there progress? Yeah, I definitely think so. . . . I think that they want to correct bad practices, that’s what they’re telling us.” O’Brien said he hoped there would be a chance this Wednesday to go into executive session with the APD leadership, where maybe “they’ll be candid about what they’re worried about.”

“There’s still issues,” noted Councilman Richard Conti. “Trying to get a handle on some of the financial issues. . . [such as] the adequacy of the overtime audit, which I still don’t think was a management audit.”

Members of the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government who attended the caucus were also cautiously optimistic, though they said there were more questions yet to be answered, including questions about police rudeness raised by the Citizens Police Review Board and a breakdown of grant funding and crime statistics by neighborhood, something Conti and Councilwoman Carolyn McLaughlin both raised and the department has promised to provide. And, of course, questions about D’Alessandro’s firing.

“I’m very pleased with the Common Council,” said South End resident Muhammad Abdullah. “They’ve been standing behind the community.”

“I’m just very thankful that the Common Council is taking their rightful role,” said Helen Black, an Arbor Hill resident who has been a leading voice in the coalition. “They need to keep asking hard questions. . . . I think the next caucus is critical. Will they continue to pursue the truth beyond the surface?” She continued to call for an outside investigation, saying that while the council has taken a historic step, they still lack the resources and expertise to examine completely the problems facing the department.

—Miriam Axel-Lute or 463-2500 ext. 141

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