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Talking Back to the City
By Rick Marshall

How local government works—and how to make it work for you
photos by John Whipple

The big day is over, the campaigning’s done and the polls are closed. So what’s a soul to do with all that leftover political energy? Well, as the old saying goes, “All politics is local.”

>From the historic formalities of Albany’s Common Council to the loose, familiar tone of Schenectady’s legislative body, the forms local government take are as varied as the peoples they serve. Metroland spent the last few months making the rounds of our largest cities’ council meetings and asking the elected officials and city residents we found there to talk about local government and the public’s place in it.

“If you’re going to be an elected official in this city, you’ve got to be prepared to be peppered, skewered and roasted by people,” laughed Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton while discussing his city’s raucous council meetings. “And then you’ve still got to be willing to help them.”

In Schenectady, like many other cities and towns around the Capital Region, meetings of the city’s legislative branch provide more than just an opportunity for the public to voice its opinion on legislation—they’re also a window on the city itself.

>From financial woes to government corruption and industry exodus, the “Electric City” has had its share of hard knocks in recent years. Much like the city itself, meetings of the City Council are a lesson in utilizing scarce resources, with council members sharing microphones and struggling along with those in attendance to be heard over the sound of the noisy heating and cooling units rigged up around the room. There’s an air of simmering frustration, and roughly 20-25 city residents show up twice monthly to send four-minute bursts of criticism—and, on rare occasions, compliments—across a short railing to their elected representatives. City officials quietly absorb the verbal barrage, only to respond at the end of the meeting to the assorted criticisms heaped upon them.

It’s the sort of meeting that would seem more appropriate in a small town, as attendees tend to leave the traditional etiquette of government meetings at the door, choosing instead to lob harsh words at council members whom they address on a first-name basis.

“True democracy is when you listen to the people on this side of the rail,” announced Vince Riggi, a lifetime resident of Schenectady, during a recent meeting. After noticing that the fans scheduled to be installed in the council had been placed on the city officials’ side of the room, he added loudly, “There’s enough hot air blowing around over there—why not put some fans on our side?”

Riggi, who has been attending City Council meetings for nearly 11 years, first approached the council when he got wind of a plan for a new baseball field that involved dumping waste into a ravine near his home. The plan would have destroyed not only the ravine, but also a popular path from the old park to surrounding neighborhoods.

“When I was growing up around there, we used to ride our bikes on that path,” he explains. “So I started going down to [City Council] meetings to talk about why I thought it was a bad idea. . . . Naturally, when you’re sitting through the meetings and waiting for your chance to speak you hear about other issues, and so my interest got piqued.”

Since then, Riggi and other “regulars” at City Council meetings have achieved somewhat of a “local hero” status, due in no small part to the broadcast of each council meeting over the county’s public-access channel. During the meetings’ public comment period, Riggi and fellow residents such as Patricia Zollinger, whose Web-based bulletin board has provided a forum for city residents and officials to voice their Schenectady-based rants and raves, are often the recipients of round after round of applause from the public in attendance.

While Riggi reluctantly admits that the whole “local hero” label is nice, he insists that the public would be better served if the people who stopped him around the city to pat his back would make time to join him at meetings.

“I tell them, ‘Listen, come down here—we could use your help,’” he explains. “When there are new people in the room, the politicians take note.”

And on this point, Riggi and Stratton—often at odds with one another during meetings—have found some agreement. Throughout the meetings, the mayor frequently steps out of the chambers to discuss some of the more immediate complaints like loitering or other public safety issues that residents bring to the floor.

“I don’t think any city council provides as much opportunity for people to speak, be heard and be seen—or for them to be famous in their own right,” says Stratton. “[For city officials], once you’ve been skewered on live public-access television in front of that many people, you certainly feel compelled to respond as soon as possible.”

The colorful nature of Schenectady’s meetings stands in sharp contrast to those of Albany and, to a lesser extent, those of Troy and Saratoga Springs.

During the meetings of Albany’s Common Council, it’s difficult to ignore the layers of history that dominate the atmosphere. Under high, gold-leaved ceilings, ornate furniture fills the council chambers, and the council president and other city officials gaze down upon the remaining council members and public from a massive, elevated desk. City residents are allotted five minutes apiece to speak at the beginning of the meeting, and city affairs tend to move briskly, in a flurry of parliamentary procedure, once the public comment period is over. Unlike his Schenectady counterpart, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings is rarely present at the meetings.

While Schenectady’s meetings occasionally stray from the standard rules of order, one gets the feeling that strict adherence to tradition has been the lifeblood of meetings in the state’s capital city for decades—a condition that, like the furnishings, reflects the city’s long and storied political history. According to council President Helen Desfosses, the intimidation factor that such an environment creates has not gone unnoticed.

“When I first became president, I tried to move all of our seats down on the same level instead of having us sitting way above everyone else,” explains Desfosses. The city’s historic commission blocked the room rearrangement. Still, Desfosses insists that she continues to make every effort possible to create a “warm and inviting atmosphere” in the council chambers.

“But,” she added, “our council chamber is part of a historic building, so we’re limited in the changes we can make.”

Although the average public attendance at Albany’s council meetings ranks among the lowest of Capital Region cities, when an issue hits close to home, there’s no shortage of voices clamoring to be heard.

“We get people that are activated—and agitated—by a single issue,” said Desfosses of the difference between Albany residents’ attendance and that of other cities or towns. While places like Schenectady and Troy have a small group of residents who attend each and every meeting of the local government, attendance at Albany Common Council meetings is more agenda-dependent. “They’ll show up here throughout the whole legislative process . . . for as long as the issue is on our agenda, sometimes week after week for a year.”

And, just like in other cities, their efforts occasionally have dramatic results.

City officials and residents of many of the region’s local governments are quick to describe laundry lists of city actions that might never have occurred were it not for local residents’ decision to go public with their concerns during meetings. In addition to addressing some of the more immediate complaints—such as road repair and general quality-of-life issues—recent investigations into police corruption were mentioned by both Albany and Schenectady officials as products of public participation in city meetings.

Of course, sudden bursts of public attendance can occasionally put local governments in a tough position, too. In Troy, when members of the Police Benevolent Association showed up en masse at a recent City Council meeting in order to pressure the council to pass the PBA’s pay-raise legislation, many members’ discomfort with the “nudge” being applied to standard procedure was evident. Despite council members’ complaints that they were afforded too little time to study the bill’s contents, the measure was passed in a hectic meeting that included an adjournment, impromptu drafting of the new legislation and numerous questions as to what exactly the standard practice might be in such a situation. Several members of the public who attended the event were skeptical of the council’s actions, characterizing the night’s events as a local government being bullied by its police force.

In contrast, members of a community-media-advocacy group who spoke during a meeting of the Saratoga Springs City Council appeared to give council members the nudge necessary to set aside funds for development of the region’s public access network—a move that many in attendance viewed as a positive step for the community that otherwise might not have been made without the groups’ participation in local government.

However, as most longtime participants in local government will attest, swaying the opinion of your elected officials tends to be a hard-fought battle—a battle that, in many cases, can require more time and energy than some residents are willing to sacrifice.

“People are afraid of investing the time it takes to see an issue through,” explains Riggi, who, prior to a organizing a recent rally on the steps of City Hall, admitted that he had been growing disillusioned with city residents’ apathy. The event, arranged as a protest of the garbage fee recently added to residents’ already-high taxes, attracted a surprisingly large crowd of more than 200 people.

“It really buoyed my spirits,” he laughs, adding, “I guess it just goes to show you—people only get active when they’re angry and frustrated.”

For some city residents, the primary obstacle to airing their concerns is not a lack of subject matter, but a fear of the potential response.

“One of the best aspects about these meetings,” explains Desfosses, “is that people say what they want to say, and cannot be interrupted, fought with or argued with during that time.”

According to Riggi, some residents’ fears center on more sinister forms of reprisal.

“I’ve heard people say that they think their garbage won’t get picked up or they’ll get ticketed if they speak up at meetings,” says Riggi, who argues that the more vocal a member of the public is, the less likely he or she will be targeted by the powers that be.

“Knowing that you’re not going to cower and hide under your bed at the first sign of resistance is an extra layer of protection,” says Riggi. “Sure, speaking up isn’t for everybody, but you can still show up and show your support. When you open your hearts—and your ears—to the plights of your neighbors, it does a world of good for the community.”

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