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Reform at a Crippling Pace
As state legislators drag their feet reforming New York’s voting systems, advocates for the disabled stop them from walking out the door

‘Voting 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.

“Our 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.

“There’s 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.

“The 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.

“How 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.

“This whole process has been two steps forward, one step back. Today we went two steps forward,” he said.

—Travis Durfee
tdurfee@metroland.net


Center of the storm: former APD Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro. Photo by: John Whipple
Your Move, Mr. Mayor
The Coalition for Accountable Police and Government brings demands for changes in the APD to Mayor Jennings’ door

Eight 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.”

“They 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 plan.”

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 city.”

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 services.

“I 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 comment.

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 been deleted.

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.”

“I 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.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute
maxel-lute@metroland.net


Spin Cycle
Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

It’s rush hour in downtown Albany, and you are stuck in traffic dreaming of teleportation. What about biking?

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, visit www.nybc.net.

—Ashley Hahn



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