at a Crippling Pace
state legislators drag their feet reforming New York’s voting
systems, advocates for the disabled stop them from walking
out the door
is a civil right—give us access, now! Voting is a civil right—give
us access, now!” Bellowing this refrain for almost 30 minutes,
nearly 60 advocates for the disabled blocked the doors of
a conference room with their bodies and wheelchairs in Albany
on Tuesday, barring state legislators from leaving a joint
legislative committee meeting on voting reform in New York.
At that meeting, the protestors’ issues once again had not
been addressed. More than a dozen New York State Troopers
and security personnel were called to shuttle the legislators
out of the building. Two demonstrators were arrested and charged
with disorderly conduct.
The protestors wanted to know why, for the third consecutive
meeting, the legislators, who have met irregularly over the
past month to bring New York into compliance with the federal
Help America Vote Act, had not discussed the issues most pressing
to the disabled community: ensuring that polling places are
equipped to provide privacy at the polling place for disabled
voters, ridding the state of its full-face ballot requirement
and discussing which electronic voting machines the state
will purchase. Instead, the advocates said, lawmakers spent
the hourlong session dredging the annals of the state’s election
law looking for hairs to split while trying to bring the state
into compliance with HAVA.
issues have been on the agenda for three straight committee
meetings and they haven’t even discussed them,” said Susan
Stahl, 38, of Rochester, one of two protestors arrested for
not moving her wheelchair when asked to by state troopers.
“They need to know that people with disabilities vote and
our issues are very important and we can’t be pushed aside.”
Responding to the demonstrators’ complaints, Assembly Democrats
offered little more than partisan finger-pointing (saying
that they were not in control of the committee’s agenda),
and Senate Republicans had few excuses at all. “Our only deadline
is June 22, when session is over,” said Sen. Nick Spano (R-Westchester).
“We’ll get it done by then.” These statements were of little
consolation to the demonstrators.
a lot of frustration here because one of the fundamental reforms
called for by HAVA is the ability to vote privately and independently,
and I still feel that this needs to be addressed here,” said
Tim Cronin, from the New York State Independent Living Center,
which helped organize the protest.
Legislators did come to several “conceptual” compromises on
various issues. The committee came closer to finalizing the
long list of possible forms of identification required for
first-time voters, which could now include bank statements.
Lawmakers also decided that local boards of election, as opposed
to the state board, are better equipped to handle both purging
deceased voters from the rolls and determining standards for
verifying newly registered voters at the polling place. Legislators
said these issues needed some tweaking and would be finalized
at the next meeting, which could take place as soon as today
(Thursday). But the legislators failed to broach the contentious
subject of electronic voting machines.
big issue is the machines,” said Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito
(D- Oneida). “We’ve got to get to it, but we can’t seem to
get off of the minutiae. We’re hoping that it will happen
at the next meeting.”
Good government advocates, like Blair Horner, legislative
director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, are
looking forward to the upcoming meeting when, with any luck,
legislators will get to debate voting machines. Horner wants
New York to require that all its electronic voting machines
offer voter-verifiable paper-audit trails, which would provide
a fail-safe to ease nationwide sentiment that the machines
are prone to tampering. Considering that California’s secretary
of state recently banned the use of all electronic voting
machines not providing paper audit trails, Horner said that
New York is in a unique position to help set the standard
for what type of voting machines will be available to states
across the country.
many machines is a company going to want to produce when two
of the three biggest states in the country want ones that
provide paper trails? That’s a big deal,” Horner said.
Despite the displeasure expressed by advocates for the disabled,
Horner was pleased that the committee did iron out a few compromises,
bringing New York a bit closer to the nearly $250 million
in federal implementation funds it stands to receive. The
state must meet all of HAVA’s requirements by the 2006 elections
or forfeit the federal funds.
whole process has been two steps forward, one step back. Today
we went two steps forward,” he said.
Move, Mr. Mayor
Center of the storm: former APD Cmdr. Christian DAlessandro.
Photo by: John Whipple
Coalition for Accountable Police and Government brings demands
for changes in the APD to Mayor Jennings’ door
months after some of its leaders began speaking regularly
at Common Council meetings about their concerns with the Albany
Police Department [“They Got Him Off the Streets,” Newsfront,
Oct. 16, 2003], the recently formed Coalition for Accountable
Police and Government issued a formal set of demands last
Wednesday (May 12) at a packed meeting at Sweet Pilgrim Baptist
Church on Clinton Avenue.
The demands are the reinstatement of former Cmdr. Christian
D’Alessandro, the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner
John C. Nielsen, and an outside investigation into the department,
specifically into its use of seized asset funds and grant
money and its overtime recordkeeping.
Most speakers, and the video the group showed of media coverage
and footage of testimony at the Common Council, focused on
D’Alessandro’s reinstatement, which clearly resonated most
deeply with the crowd. His reinstatement is the admitted priority
for some coalition members, including Helen Black.
They’ve wanted D’Alessandro back all along, said coalition
cofounder Betsy Mercogliano, but they didn’t think to ask
for it so directly until “shifts began to happen in the police
department and we began to feel more support from the Common
Council and others.”
come to me, officers, sergeants, lieutenants, people at the
command level, wanting to see the kind of changes you want
to see,” said Paul DerOhannesian, D’Alessandro’s lawyer at
the forum. “So goes D’Alessandro, so goes all those other
good cops.” D’Alessandro was present, but did not speak due
to possible plans to file a lawsuit against the city.
Coalition leaders have stressed that their concerns far exceed
D’Alessandro as an individual. “Quick fixes are just that,”
said coalition co-founder Barbara Smith. “They need a strategic
Black and Mercogliano pointed to letters from anonymous police
officers, questions over the use of funds, testimony from
union president James Lyman, reports of fistfights on Lark
Street involving the commissioner, and reluctance to share
information as some of the many reasons that the coalition
chose to call for Nielsen’s dismissal. “It became more and
more evident that there was a major, major problem with the
highest leadership,” said Mercogliano. “It’s not just us.
. . . This man just doesn’t seem suited to this job in this
Coalition members responded to Saturday’s Times Union
report that Nielsen might be seeking a new job as a civilian
contractor working on police reform overseas with cautious
optimism. But at the Common Council meeting on Monday (May
17), a few brought up the idea that if the commissioner does
leave, his replacement should be selected by a search committee
rather than solely by Mayor Jerry Jennings.
Such a committee should include representatives of police,
fire and codes, as well as the community and the Common Council,
said Mercogliano. “I hope that the community will not tolerate
a political appointment that’s just the mayor’s buddy.”
There is some precedent for involving interested parties in
such a high-profile search. Recently, the regional interfaith
group ARISE won an open search process with citizen involvement
for the position of Schenectady County commissioner of social
just wanted to put it out there as a suggestion that we start
thinking along those lines, rather than just saying no to
someone we don’t like,” said Tom McPheeters, who is involved
with ARISE on Albany issues.
The mayor’s office declined to comment on the idea because
there is no official vacancy. Nielsen was not available for
City Comptroller Tom Nitido is currently conducting an audit
that will cover most of the concerns that have been raised.
“The work we’re doing is going to be credible and thorough,”
he said. “At the moment I don’t see where you’d get more from
an outside entity. I’m entitled to information that an outside
entity might not be entitled to.” But Black said an outside
investigation is still needed to deal with any potential criminal
matters, such as accusations that some time records may have
Wednesday’s meeting also delved into the political. While
citizens have mostly been pressuring the Common Council so
far, attention turned to Jennings, whom speakers said had
the power to make all these changes.
Attendees were also distressed that Councilman Michael O’Brien
(Ward 12), who had been scheduled to speak, did not attend,
reportedly because Arbor Hill Councilman Michael Brown (Ward
3) asked him not to.
O’Brien said that while Brown did question why he was attending
a meeting that was on “an Arbor Hill issue,” that wasn’t the
reason he didn’t attend. Although he very pleased to see the
group still active, he said he had believed that D’Alessandro
had already filed his lawsuit and didn’t think it would be
appropriate for him to appear on a panel with someone suing
the city. He also noted that the council at this time does
not support the demand for an outside investigation. “I won’t
say it’ll never come to that,” he said, but for now “I think
Mr. Nitido is doing a conscientious investigation” that is
“still a work in progress.”
think the mood of the council is if [the APD] were to bring
Chris back . . . reestablish the community policing board,
make distribution of funds more transparent . . . then we
could take it from there, going forward,” O’Brien added. “I
don’t think we’re going to call for a public confession.”
If all these other changes are made, he added, the question
of Nielsen’s dismissal “will be less of an issue.”
After the meeting, about three dozen people marched with candles
to City Hall to deliver their demands to the mayor. Asked
if they expected a response from the mayor, Black noted dryly
that they still have not received a response to a January
letter on the same topics.
But Aaron Carter was somewhat more optimistic. “There’s always
hope that his heart will be touched,” he said. “It’s not D’Alessandro
and the people supporting him against the mayor. It’s what’s
right versus wrong, in action. Anyone can be wrong.”
Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen
rush hour in downtown Albany, and you are stuck
in traffic dreaming of teleportation. What about
As part of its first Capital Bike Week, the New
York Bicycling Coalition organized a race last
Thursday between its Super- Commuter of the Year,
Mark Gaffney (pictured), a bus rider and someone
driving a car. Racing about four and a half miles,
from Starbucks on South Pearl Street to Starbucks
in Stuyvesant Plaza, the bike beat the car by
one minute (the bus was considerably slower).
Normally Gaffney rides more than twice that distance
from the Washington Park area to his job in Latham.
The coalition’s executive director, Jesse Day,
said they were “trying to outline not only the
health and economic benefits of bicycling, but
also the time benefits.” Bike week also included
a riverfront ride and fund-raiser, and a ride
around Albany with state legislators and lobbyists.
In addition to its regular educational efforts,
the coalition is organizing a free cross-state
ride on Route 5 in early June. For more information,