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Loud and clear: Councilman Michael Brown. Photo by: John Whipple

Hear Us Out
North Albany neighborhoods raise public-safety concerns, demand better policing

About 60 people from West Hill, Arbor Hill and Sheridan Hollow neighborhoods filled the Church of God and Prophecy in Albany last Thursday (June 3) to attend what became a spirited community meeting hosted by 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Brown.

Albany’s planning commissioner, Lori Harris, updated attendees on the Arbor Hill Redevelopment Plan’s progress, and the conversation quickly turned to what would become the evening’s dominant subject: public safety. Police Chief James Turley and Assistant Chief Anthony Bruno came to talk with residents about all manner of quality-of-life concerns, something the new chief says he’s making a point of doing around the city.

Turley said the department is actively trying to work with neighborhood leaders to determine what their locales need. “We’re not going to impose policing; we’re going to solicit how you feel you need to be policed, want to be policed,” he said. And residents were hardly shy about telling the chiefs what was on their minds.

Many in attendance were supportive of installing cameras in police cars, something being proposed by Brown, and called for better patrolling and improved community police presence—some said they hadn’t seen a beat officer in a year. Others demanded better response time, complaining that officers would respond to a call more than a half-hour after it was placed and came to the door with an attitude. They also told the police they need to do more to combat drug dealing and other illegal activity that goes on mere blocks from the police stations.

Resident Shirley Piper told the chiefs that people in her community think “the police officers are as a gang, and they’re covering up one for another.” She believes that residents won’t trust the police until there is better accountability instead of cover-ups, and like many others present she wants to see a change soon. “I’m really trusting that this isn’t just going to be a meeting where you come and you allow the people just to speak and then you go back and that’s it,” she said.

To help its residents interact and begin building relationships with its first-responders, the West Hill Neighborhood Association is holding a public safety appreciation picnic next Thursday (June 17) at the Star of Bethlehem Church.

Brown also took the police department to task for the same issues and encouraged the community to be more vocal at council meetings. “Once people realize that we have concerns and we’re not afraid to stand up and speak for our concerns then they’re gonna start listening to us,” Brown said. “Until then, they’re gonna ignore us.”

Brown was replaced as the Common Council President Pro Tempore in April, which council members said was because of his absence from March council meetings when public safety issues were on the table [“Brown Goes Down,” Newsfront, April 15]. At this meeting Brown said otherwise. “I got kicked out as president of the Common Council for one reason: because I wouldn’t turn my back on this community.”

At Monday’s Common Council meeting (June 7), several residents did make mention of their support for the camera proposal, though one resident in Brown’s meeting pointed out that footage didn’t make Rodney King any safer and called the measure a pacifier. “They’ll give you your cameras,” he said, “But yet still what is going to happen after you see the actual footage of somebody dying at the hands of an officer and nothing happens?”

Supporters of the cameras say that the footage would be a useful tool to protect both officers and the public. Councilman David Torncello (Ward 8), who sits on the public-safety committee, said he just hopes the city can afford to put a camera in every car; if not he’s concerned “that the one time we’re going to need it, it’s not going to be there.”

—Ashley Hahn

In the way of progress? Corner of State and Eagle streets, a proposed convention center site. Photo by: Alicia Solsman
Betting on the Big Project
Despite a new report saying everything’s rosy, examples show there are no guarantees an Albany convention center will succeed

Is a new convention center in Albany’s future? A recent announcement by Mayor Jerry Jennings would seem to indicate that it’s a sure thing, but questions still surround the proposal.

The plans call for an 85,000-square-foot convention facility and 400-room hotel within a mile of the state Capitol. Proposed sites for the project include the block bounded by State and Eagle streets, across from the Capitol, and two sites bounded by Broadway, Interstate 787 and Pearl Street.

Jennings and other advocates of the project claim that without the $225 million facilities, Albany risks losing its marketability as a destination for business travelers, tourists and, most importantly, the revenue both groups generate.

However, critics contend that the path to success in the meetings market is littered with failed convention centers and hotels—many of which now rely on taxpayer- funded subsidies to continue operating. Additionally, the legislation necessary for the project to get under way remains conspicuously stalled in the state Legislature, adding to the growing sense of uncertainty that plagues the proposal.

In 2002, an independent study commissioned by Jennings and conducted by the Strategic Advisory Group offered some support for Jennings’ convention-center aspirations. However, the report was widely faulted for using data that was pre-Sept. 11, 2001. After promising skeptics a revised report, Jennings presented the updated study at a recent meeting of the Albany Local Development Corporation. As many had expected, the new report reinforced the findings of its predecessor, stating that “no new information came to light that might cause [the consulting group] to revise the findings in any way.”

After presenting the report, Jennings described the convention center’s dilemma in the state Legislature as “a misunderstanding,” and downplayed the negative implications of the delay. The two convention bills are stalled in the Senate. One authorizes the creation of an authority to handle the facilities’ construction and the other raising the hotel tax in order to fund the project. Both bills already have been approved by the Assembly.

According to Robert Farley, counsel for the Senate Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee—the bills’ current resting place—Jennings’ convention-center plan is just one of many issues pushed into limbo by the absence of a state budget. Farley added that the first priority for lawmakers planning the distribution of the state’s finances is the recent Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which requires drastic changes in the state’s education funding system. Only after deciding how to handle the lawsuit can the state begin to think about its role in the convention- center project.

Plans for the new convention center call for the state to sign a 40-year lease on the facility, with payments totaling around $300 million. The state’s lease payments will then be used to pay off the debt incurred by the seven-member authority that would be appointed by Jennings, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, Governor George E. Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan). The authority would be allowed to borrow up to $225 million to build the facilities. The two members appointed by Jennings also would have to be approved by the Albany Common Council.

Among the more contentious sources of funding for the project is the proposed 3-percent hike in the county hotel-room tax, with the extra revenue lumped into a convention-center and local-tourism promotion fund. Local hotel representatives have been exceptionally vocal about their opposition to this aspect of the project’s funding, claiming that it would force them to fund their own competition. In the updated study, similar concerns were described during the consultants’ interviews with members of the Capital District Hotel and Motel Association, but the report claimed that both the local hospitality industry and groups prone to attending conventions generally saw the higher taxes as “a necessary evil.”

“It is important to understand that not all of the hoteliers support the positions that will be articulated below,” the updated report warned, prior to summarizing the CDHMA interviews. In a nod to the complaints raised by hoteliers outside of the immediate downtown region, the report added that “downtown hoteliers were prone to have a stronger level of support for the project.”

Yet for some local officials, support for the convention-center plan hinges not upon the economic implications of building a new convention center, but on the societal implications.

During an April meeting of Albany’s Common Council, Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) spoke out against a council resolution that would give the city’s approval to one of the state-level convention center bills.

“There’s no mention in the [2001] study that this is going to help the people or improve the quality of life in the surrounding area,” said Calsolaro after the council voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution. “I have my doubts that we’ll be able to draw as many people as we need to, in order to make it all worthwhile. I hope we do, but I have my doubts.”

While Calsolaro’s opposition to the plan was not shared by the rest of the city’s governing body, recent trends may indicate a cause for concern. A new convention center set to open June 10 in Boston has yet to meet the booking forecasts described in early reports. As of late May, the $850 million facility had confirmed only 44 major events in the next six years—a far cry from the 64 annual events predicted by early studies.

Yet for many states, the siren song of the convention market is difficult to ignore. The struggling convention center in Boston is the second problem of this sort for Massachusetts state officials, as a conference facility renovated during the 1980s also failed to become the boon predicted in preliminary studies. Expanded convention centers in Chicago, Atlanta and other major cities also fell far short of expectations in the last decade, yet the number of convention centers popping up each year around the country continues to rise.

Here in Albany, a convention center will face competition from several in-state and regional rivals. Competing for the 300-plus annual events predicted for Albany’s convention center in the updated report will be facilities of various sizes in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Renovated convention centers in Saratoga Springs and Lake Placid will also provide some competition for smaller events, while the Turning Stone and Seneca Niagara casinos will vie for the attention of midsized conventions.

According to the report, a convention center in Albany will receive its most significant competition from similar facilities in nearby Rhode Island and Connecticut. Additionally, Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, which may be renovated as part of the city’s 2012 Olympic bid, may also dip into the same pool of events.

There are no guarantees that the pool will be deep enough for everyone. While demands for meeting space and convention attendance have begun to rebound from the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, both numbers—possibly the most important ones to consider when predicting convention center success—experienced sharp declines in recent years. And both have yet to return to their pre-Sept. 11 rate of growth.

As the forces pushing for a convention center grow more persistent, the question raised by advocates and opponents alike remains: If we build it, will they come?

—Rick Marshall

Aiming high: district attorney candidate David Soares. Photo by: John Whipple

New Face in DA Race
Community prosecutor takes on Albany County district attorney Paul Clyne

Promising independence, innovation, and inclusivity, former Albany County assistant district attorney David Soares announced Monday his intention to challenge incumbent Paul Clyne in this September’s Democratic primary for district attorney.

Soares worked in the district attorney’s office for four and a half years, until being fired on the spot last Thursday when he told Clyne of his intentions to run for his position. Clyne defended the firing in several news articles, saying that assistant DAs serve at his pleasure and he couldn’t be expected to keep one on who was running against him.

He also said that Soares was easily replaceable in his role as the head of the community prosecution office. Last month, however, Clyne told Metroland the success of the community prosecution office was “due to David Soares.”

After Soares’ Monday announcement, Clyne’s office referred all calls to his campaign manager, Robert Haggerty of PR firm Strategic Moves, Inc. Haggerty, a pollster with longtime Republican connections, said he had no comment.

Soares has what many consider the holy grail for reform candidates—insider/outsider status. His work within the DA’s office has given him experience with how the system works and what needs changing. But though he’s not afraid to talk about locking up the “bad guys” when it’s warranted, Soares has come to believe that a focus on incarceration over crime prevention, especially when it comes to drug crimes, is counterproductive. Unlike Clyne, he supports reform of the draconian Rockefeller Drugs laws.

More unusually, Soares has not only critiques but also hands-on experience doing things differently. For the last two years he headed up the experimental community prosecution office in Arbor Hill, which sought to build partnerships between the DA’s office and other agencies to foster crime prevention and creative prosecution methods and address quality of life and drug crimes [“To Protect, Serve, and Earn Our Trust,” May 20]. This included creating a community accountability board where low-level offenders face community members who impress upon them the damage they have done and assign restitution projects, often including local community service.

Soares wants to bring the kind of creativity and accessibility that he learned on the ground as a community prosecutor to the whole county. “My primary objective is to establish access to our office . . . access for every village, town, and city in Albany County,” he said. “I want the people who would work for me to be able to tell me what’s going on in those areas. I want to make sure the crimes we are prosecuting are impacting on the communities. I want to make sure were are not prosecuting without input from the victims. I want the input of the people I serve to weigh into the decisions that I make.”

Soares said that Clyne’s administration has been locked into a mindset of pushing through felony prosecutions without paying any attention to the misdemeanor and quality-of-life crimes that “give rise to some of the larger issues” all across the county. “The conventional approach for the district attorney’s office in fighting crime and drugs [is] not working,” he said, citing a revolving door where offenders get a fine, jail time, or probation, and go back on the streets with nothing having changed.

When Clyne announced in April that he was running for reelection, he cited the increased number of felony prosecutions “disposed of” by his office as his main achievement.

Betty Barnette, chair of the Albany County Democratic Committee, which endorsed Clyne on May 20, issued a scathing statement questioning Soares’ qualifications, his level of experience, and his choice not to go through the committee’s review process. “I can only speculate that Mr. Soares chose not to participate in the candidate review process because he lacks the qualifications needed,” she wrote. “Although I admire his enthusiasm, his lack of experience is exceeded only by his lack of judgment.”

There are no official qualifications for the elected position. Barnette did not return calls seeking to find out what the committee considered to be appropriate qualifications.

“All the years of experience in the world is equal to nothing if you are unwilling to use it to make this world a better place,” responded Soares. “Mr. Clyne may have years of experience, but he’s wasted it because he lacks the vision to use it. . . . Mr. Clyne may be a more skilled prosecutor, but that doesn’t mean he’s a skilled administrator.”

Soares noted that his time in the underfunded community prosecution office taught him a great deal about making things happen with limited resources and about forming partnerships to get things done. He also said he already had more trial experience than Clyne’s predecessor, Sol Greenberg.

As for going through the county committee, Soares noted wryly that “Thurgood Marshall’s qualifications would be suspect if he was not the political machine’s choice.”

At his announcement, in Academy Park across from the county courthouse, a multiracial group of 30 to 40 enthusiastic supporters flanked Soares. One supporter, George Fisher, the assistant facilities manager of West Hill’s Victory Church, said that he had never registered to vote in his life, but he was going to register now so he could vote for Soares. Fisher has worked with more than 300 community service workers referred from Soares’ office. He called Soares “professional, thorough, friendly, a good communicator, who enjoys what he does and is very good at it.”

Pearl Martin, the vice president of United Front Youth Organization, a newly forming group designed to teach young people about the law and how it affects them, said Soares has been an inspiration, and that he worked with the Arbor Hill community in “a shared effort.”

Supporters also included Councilman Dominick Calsolero (Ward 1), previous DA candidate Mark Mishler, and former police Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Police, Counter-Police
Debate continues over former Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro and some of the questions he raised about the
Albany Police Department

On June 2, 20 members of the Coalition for Accountable Police and Government held a press conference on City Hall steps and then delivered—or attempted to deliver—to Mayor Jerry Jennings a petition with 350 signatures calling for the reinstatement of former Cmdr. Christian D’Alessandro. The mayor’s door, usually open, was shut “for the first time in 30 years,” said participant Chris Mercogliano.

Jennings has avoided taking a stand on the matter, saying it is up to the police department. He did not return calls for comment. “I find it distressing that the mayor trivializes and doesn’t respond to the genuine concerns of city residents about these very important issues of community policing and community trust in relationship to the APD,” said coalition cofounder Barbara Smith.

The coalition was also distressed that focus was shifted from their concerns by the release the day before of news that Detective Cmdr. Ralph Tashjian and Detective Susan Miller would consider legal action against the city if D’Alessandro is rehired. D’Alessandro has long been expected to file suit himself against the city for wrongful termination.

Tashjian’s and Miller’s lawyer, John W. Bailey, said the timing was indeed on purpose. “There have been rumors circulating that Mr. D’Alessandro was going to be put back on the Albany City police force,” he said. “That was a source of genuine concern on the part of Detective Cmdr. Tashjian and Detective Miller.” Bailey said his clients felt they had been treated badly and prevented from advancing by D’Alessandro when he was their supervisor, and “they believe it had a racial component.”

Mercogliano noted that no specifics had been given in the news reports. “They were just playing the race card, which nowadays you’re not supposed to question,” he said.

Bailey acknowledged that “sometimes there isn’t any direct evidence of a tone of voice, of being given the lousy assignments . . . but people who are minorities learn very early in life to recognize when either their skin color or their heritage is a factor in the way they are being treated.” He said he did have specific evidence, but it wouldn’t be in his clients’ best interest to reveal it at this time.

Bailey also said he was convinced that D’Alessandro was involved somehow in a derogatory flier about Tashjian that was circulated earlier this year, in which Tashjian was portrayed as the minister of information for Saddam Hussein. “No matter how you feel about our presence [in Iraq], they are killing our young men and women,” said Bailey. “[Tashjian] didn’t look at it and laugh. He looked at it and he practically wanted to cry at what was being done to him. I don’t think he’s making too much out of this.” The APD has not charged D’Alessandro with creating the flier.

In contrast to Bailey’s descriptions, members of the city’s minority communities consistently speak highly of D’Alessandro, saying that he is actually one of the few police officers, or in some cases one of the few white people, that they feel they can trust [“To Protect, Serve, and Earn Your Trust,” May 20]. Many have turned out to demand his reinstatement.

“I think that because of people’s anxiety about racial issues, it is easy to use them to discredit Cmdr. D’Alessandro,” said Barbara Smith, an Arbor Hill resident and nationally known African-American scholar. “When race is raised, people don’t want to touch it. I am personally aware that Chris has widespread support amongst people of color in the city of Albany and in majority people of color communities, and I myself feel confident in my belief that he is not a racist, nor did he carry out his job in a racist fashion.” This Tuesday, June 8, D’Alessandro won a peace and justice award from the Capital Region Council of Churches, and he didn’t win it for being a racist or a liar, said Smith.

“Politics does make strange bedfellows,” said Bailey. “People use people for all sorts of reaons. I imagine that some of these people have their own agendas, and Cmdr. D’Alessandro fits into those agendas.” Bailey could not specify what sorts of agendas he might mean.

Meanwhile, Councilman Dominick Calsolero (Ward 1) has continued to raise concerns about expenditures from the APD’s seized assets forfeiture fund, some of which apparently went to businesses owned by Miller. The seized asset fund is the only fund in the city that doesn’t pass through usual city procurement procedures, and has come under scrutiny in recent months as to whether money was being spent appropriately. Calsolero noted that his concern is with the purchases, not anything Miller had done. “I don’t know that there’s any illegality there,” he said, but “it doesn’t look good.”

Calsolero said he raised the issue publicly to be sure it was covered in the city’s audit. “I’m not going to ignore that case,” said city comptroller Thomas Nitido. “We’re reviewing any information that we receive on polices, practices, and even individual purchases. But the mainstay of this is really an audit using generally accepted accounting principles.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Exit Mr. Johnson
After a rocky first year on the job, Albany schools superintendent calls it quits

By most accounts, Michael Johnson’s abrupt resignation as superintendent of the Albany City School District last week came as quite a surprise. After only a year on the job, albeit a relatively challenging one that featured a few run-ins with Albany’s education-minded mayor, Jerry Jennings, Johnson cited personal reasons when announcing his resignation at a school board meeting last Tuesday (June 1). Johnson will stay with the district until June 30.

Johnson’s tenure as superintendent was marked by a hands-on style of administering education policy throughout the district. He was noted for attending church services and other community functions to solicit concerns about the district’s schools, also taking such opportunities to call for greater parental involvement in students’ education. Johnson held education and literacy summits throughout the year and mandated a Readers to Leaders program, in which students were expected to log 100 hours of reading time throughout the school year.

But the superintendent also faced his share of criticism, from both the community at large and from City Hall. The superintendent created a small stir last fall when he put the kibosh on students bringing in homemade treats to celebrate birthdays in class. His reasons were twofold: Birthday parties should be relegated to lunch hours when students are not supposed to be learning, he said, and allowing students to bring sweets from home opens the district up to potential lawsuits should children get sick.

Johnson’s decree, variations of which exist in districts throughout the state, was unpopular with some of the district’s parents. But the superintendent presented a reasoned argument and stuck to his guns. In retrospect, Johnson handled “cupcakegate” much better than he did his first real run-in with City Hall.

In March, Johnson proposed withholding working papers from students who were failing one or more class. The move raised the ire of Mayor Jennings, an advocate of the city’s successful summer youth employment program, who was not consulted on the idea. Jennings and members of his administration argued that the city’s summer jobs program not only provided important working experience for students, but that amount students earned, though small—roughly $100 per week—was often considered necessary for many of the district’s economically disadvantaged families. Facing pressure from City Hall, Johnson backed off.

This set off a flurry of rumor and speculation that the school board was seeking to replace Johnson. Hundreds of parents flooded an April board meeting to show their support for Johnson, and board members scrambled to dispel the rumor.

“There was no effort that I know of to seek the superintendent’s resignation by members of the school board,” board president Scott Wexler maintained. Regardless, little more than a month later, Johnson made the announcement that he was leaving.

Johnson’s resignation leaves the school district with a tall order to fill: finding a replacement superintendent for the second time in two years, at a moment when it already has a pretty big fish to fry—turning out a yes vote to the district’s revised budget.

On May 18, voters turned down a $149 million budget proposal that called for a 10-percent tax-rate increase. The departing superintendent didn’t have time to be interviewed for this story. ACSD spokeswoman Tara Mitchell said Johnson is too busy pushing the revised budget proposal, a $147 million plan that calls for a 5.9-percent tax-rate increase, to various voters groups throughout the city.

Bill Ritchie, president of the Albany Public School Teachers Union, was a critic of the secretive manner in which the school board hired Johnson: hiring a national headhunting firm to find a replacement for departing superintendent Lonnie Palmer. Ritchie, who thought then and now that a new superintendent could be found within the district’s ranks, wants members of the community and faculty to be more involved in the hiring process.

“Not involving stakeholders in the hiring process from the get-go puts everyone at a disadvantage,” Ritchie said. “An open process, if it’s done well, will lead more quickly to the development of trust between all parties involved.”

Ritchie may get his wish. Wexler said the school board will hold public meetings seeking input from community members and educators on how fill the superintendent’s position.

“The board has decided to convene two meetings of our stakeholders to get some feedback from those groups as to where we go from here,” Wexler said. “Recognizing that we have a number of options for how we proceed, we should ask the community for its input before going ahead.”

Dates have not been set for the meetings, but Wexler said they could convene as early as next week.

“Certain constituencies value a degree of openness that was not done [when] hiring [Johnson], and that was a terrible mistake,” Wexler said. “We need to move in a collaborative way. If we don’t, it is more than likely that we will be unsuccessful again.”

—Travis Durfee

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall
Photo by: John Whipple

On Friday, June 4, approximately 75 people gathered in front of the Washington Avenue Armory to protest U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, and especially the “security wall” being built. On Saturday they held a vigil in Washington Park at which the names of all the Palestinian and Israeli children killed in the Second Intifada were read. David Aube, spokesman for the local Palestinian Rights Committee, said that the main problem isn’t the wall’s existence, but that it’s being built deep in Palestinian territory, dividing villages in half and separating villages from their fields. He also said that while the committee supports a two-state solution and the right of return, the eventual terms of peace will have to be up to Palestinians and Israelis. “As Americans, our primary organizing is to change American policy,” he said, and “demand that the U.S. be a true honest broker, which they are not and have never been.” He also noted that U.S. financial aid “does not let Israel see the true cost of the occupation.”

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