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All dressed up and no contract to sign: Grad students’ union holds a Halloween protest.

photo: Teri Currie

Hire Education

SUNY graduate employees say they just want the same rights as every other state employee or contractor

‘Compensation is always an issue,” said Kathleen Sims, chief negotiator for the Graduate Student Employee Union. But, she added, if the union hadn’t decided this was the year to bring the 4,500 graduate employees, who teach thousands of State University of New York undergrads, “up to par” on a number of noncompensation issues, the contract would already be done.

Instead, the grads have been without a contract since July 2003. They held a Halloween-themed protest on Saturday, complete with a coffin to symbolize the “death of public education,” and appearances by a number of local elected officials and candidates, including Neil Breslin, David Soares, and Robert Prentiss. It’s all a part of “keeping spirits high,” which is tough when you’re without a contract, said Sims.

The key issues the union is working on include just cause for termination, parental leave, a waiver of the student tech fee, and parity between campuses.

“Every other public sector employee, and every contractor” has just-cause protection, said Sims, which means simply than an employer needs to give a reason for firing someone. They also all have the right to return to work after having a child, she said. The union is not asking for paid parental leave, just the right for employees to come back to their jobs after an unpaid leave. They just had a member who was refused this right, said Sims.

The technology fee is an issue unique to the graduate employees’ situation of being both students and workers—they are charged the technology fee on the student side of the ledger, along with their tuition. But Sims argues that the fee covers equipment they use to do their work, something no other kind of worker has to pay for.

Finally, there’s the issue of parity: Only the four “university centers” have a guaranteed minimum stipend for graduate teachers, meaning that “We have people at SUNY Oswego teaching the exact same number of people in the same discipline as SUNY Albany, for 10 times less,” said Sims. Some people are teaching two sections of 50 students each for a salary of $1,476. She didn’t know if there were similar disparities in professor pay, but noted that the United University Professions contract does include a minimum rate for all campuses.

As for overall compensation, Sims said they are looking for a “reasonable and modest raise” and are interested in “getting at the heart of what it costs” to live in the state, not focus on percent-based raises.

Before Thursday’s demonstration, “I did not know that my life, my profession, was at the mercy of a beaurocracy that cared little for my individual well being,” said Alexander Chirila, an English Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant. It’s “an inexcusable breach of workers’ rights.”

“We have given our lives to education,” said Michael Jonik, also an English Ph.D. candidate. “We have families too, we have commitments in and out of the university. We are parents and deserve the right to take some time off to raise our kids without being afraid of losing our jobs, our positions, our careers.”

SUNY’s negotiating team includes people from the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations, SUNY’s central administration, and a few campus representatives. Michelle McDonald of the GOER said the office has a policy of not commenting on ongoing negotiations because it would amount to “negotiating in the press” and would be unfair to the union.

The Legislature must approve any agreement that SUNY and the union come to, and the union has been speaking with key legislators. “When I go over this list, especially when I get to parental leave, Democrats and Republicans alike, their mouths drop open,” said Sims. “They say ‘Not at our SUNY. No right to return to work? You’re kidding me.’ ”

—Miriam Axel-Lute



“That’s up to him.”

—Republican District Attorney candidate Roger Cusick, shortly after publicly touting his independence, deferring to his campaign manager—former Pataki flack Matt Burns—on whether or not he can answer a question from the press.

What a Week

That’s Not What We Meant

Both houses of Congress recently passed legislation implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, but the 9/11 families group and the commission have criticized the inclusion of several amendments tacked onto the legislation by Republicans. The new amendments would allow immigrants to be deported to countries likely to torture them, allow indefinite detentions and deny many immigrants the opportunity for court review prior to deportation. Critics contend that Democrats are being forced to accept provisions they would otherwise oppose for fear of being branded weak on terror before the election.

List? What List?

The Bush campaign in Florida may be planning a rare “mass challenge” of voters in predominantly black communities around Jacksonville, according to a recent BBC investigation. A little-known Florida law allows political operatives to prevent voters from receiving ballots until they prove their legal voting status, forcing many to vote provisionally—and provisional ballots are already being contested by Republicans in several states. A document leaked from the Bush campaign headquarters lists more than 1,800 names of black and Democratic voters on a “caging list” that many expect to be targeted by the mass challenge on Election Day. Campaign operatives say that’s not why it was gathered, but refused to say that they wouldn’t use it for that purpose.

Keep it Green

A new community group, Helderberg Greenway, has formed with the intention of creating a “high terrain greenway” through the Helderbergs to protect its rural quality and natural resources. The group will also work on various mapping, land-preservation and tourist-promotion projects, and hopes to eventually include people from all the communities between Thacher Park and Catskill Park.

Polluter, Watch Thyself

Struggling with a staffing crunch, DEC quietly proposes to let polluters hire their own monitors

A proposed policy change by the state Department of Environmental Conservation has state environmental groups and unions crying “fox guarding the henhouse.” The proposal would reduce the types of sites that are required to have on-site monitoring from a list of six to only one (though there are other sites still described as being recommended for monitoring), and would allow those monitors to be private contractors hired by the regulated companies themselves.

Wayne Bayer of the Public Employees Federation, which represents 2,000 professional DEC employees, said PEF was very concerned about the proposal because “private contractors’ loyalties will be severely compromised by essentially having two masters: one that’s paying them, and whatever obligation they have to report to DEC.” Under the current system, on-site monitors are DEC employees, though the companies do have to pick up the tab.

The new proposal will cause serious conflicts of interest, said Tim Sweeney, director of Environmental Advocates’ Regulatory Watch Project.

And the decision to monitor at all, even with private contractors, “goes from being a program/staff level decision to a political decision made by the commissioner,” said Mike Keenan, PEF local president.

But they and Kathy Curtis of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition all agree that the worst part is the apparent attempt to avoid public input. The notice was published only in the Environmental Notice Bulletin, said Keenan. There were no newspaper ads, no outreach attempts.

“There was no input from the people most affected,” said Curtis. “The people who live near these sites.” She noted that the proposed policy was posted on DEC’s Web site, but without the old one for comparison. “How could anyone make a judgment?” she asked. “If [the policy] is so great, why the big secret?”

PEF, environmental groups, and several state legislators urged DEC’s Henry Hamilton to extend the comment period, which was originally scheduled to end last Friday (Oct. 29). They were hoping for 30 to 90 extra days and at least two public hearings. “That would be less than ideal, but at least it would be an adequate minimum,” said Curtis.

Hamilton did extend the comment period—for one week, now ending tomorrow (Nov. 5), which Curtis called “the chintziest way to do something without doing anything.” Comments can be faxed to 402-9145 or e-mailed to

DEC did not return calls by press time, but Keenan and others speculated that the driving force behind the change has to do with staffing levels. The agency is seriously understaffed due to the hiring freeze, said Keenan, and even though the on-site monitors don’t cost the agency anything because they are paid for by the regulated entities, they are still counted toward the overall total of DEC staff. Keenan suspects that the agency is hoping to be able to shift those monitors to other parts of the agency facing staffing shortages.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Pond Foolish

Advocates argue that more beaver trapping is not the answer to flooding problems

The New York Bureau of Wild-life, part of the Department of Environmental Conservation, has extended beaver trapping for one month this year in much of New York. The extension, which went into effect on Oct. 27, has stirred controversy over how to deal with flooding problems caused by New York’s official mammal.

The extension of the trapping season may seem like a simple and direct solution to the problem, but not to wetlands and wildlife experts such as Sharon Brown. These experts point to the beaver as a guardian and maintainer of New York’s dwindling wetlands, and insist that trapping is an ineffective solution to beaver damage.

“Beavers are the only natural way to restore wetlands,” says Brown. Each individual New York beaver family is responsible for around 15 acres of wetland. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 43 percent of threatened and endangered species reside in wetlands. The loss of beaver dams can also increase erosion and downstream flooding.

Experts also suggest that trapping could actually be exacerbating the problem. “Killing beavers does not solve a flooding problem permanently,” stated Dora Schomberg, New York state coordinator for the Fund for Animals. “It does, however, leave prime beaver habitat available for new beavers to take up residence. Beavers also tend to increase their reproduction in heavily trapped areas.”

Issues of practicality aside, other experts like the Fund for Animals’ Laura Simon, an urban wildlife specialist who offers alternatives to trapping to communities in Connecticut, suggest that the methods used for trapping beavers are inhumane. “Beavers can breathe underwater for a long time,” she said. “Once they are paralyzed by traps like the Connibear trap, they are left to drown,” a slow death that can take up to 18 minutes.

Brown points to “modern methods of controlling beaver flooding, such as beaver deceivers, that eliminate the need for trapping.” According to Brown, these methods have been shown to work in Seattle, Maine and some sites in New York. “The DEC should start providing information on modern solutions and alternative solutions to trapping,” Brown said, adding that the information the DEC provides for beaver problems is “out of date.”

According to Simon, in her community, the people who have used alternative methods to deal with beaver flooding “have been thrilled that there is an alternative to trapping, and they have been nothing but satisfied.”

“It is sadly predictable that Commissioner Crotty and Gov. Pataki granted the Bureau of Wildlife’s wish to adopt these regulations,” said Schomberg. Trapping is a ghoulish method of killing animals and completely unnecessary. Pataki and Crotty consistently rubber-stamp the Bureau of Wildlife’s demands for more dead animals while ignoring the public’s focus on nonlethal methods for resolving problems. It’s a crying shame that Pataki and Crotty are stuck in a political and ethical Neanderthal Age.”

The beaver deceiver and other nonviolent beaver solutions don’t require permits for use. In fact, Simon points to permit sales as a possible reason that DEC does not promote alternatives to trapping. “They are so reliant on trapping revenues that they need to promote it. They don’t want to hurt their revenue base,” she claimed.

Calls to the DEC were not returned by press time.

—David King

Home stretch: Volunteers on Election Day.

photo: Joe Putrock

The Longest Night

Around the region, voters track the presidential election with bated breath

At the Sage Colleges of Al-bany, some of the couple dozen students in “Do it in the booth” T-shirts who had gathered for the Sage Votes election-night party were glued to the TV screens and laptop projections showing early results around 9 PM. Others gathered in the back of the room, clearly interested in the results, but also worried about them and trying to keep their minds off the meaningless first results with a game of spades and discussions of astrology.

“I did my part,” said one of the African-American students playing cards. “I just moved up from Florida, and I sent in my absentee ballot for Kerry a week and a half ago.” He looked grim as he added, “It’s probably one of the ones that got ripped up, though.” It was perhaps intended as a joke, but no one laughed.

A woman on the other side of the room said she didn’t want Bush to win because “I want to live, I don’t want to die.” As with her fellow student, it sounded more serious than it ought to have.

Meanwhile, a serious-faced student who had added “GOP” and “W” in red to his Sage Votes T-shirt focused intently on the laptops, and the Sage Votes coordinators called out to students when their home states came in. There was little attention to local races, and the TV station showing their results was switched off before too long.

At a UAlbany election-night party attended primarily by Kerry supporters, things were far less civil. “Kerry is reprehensible,” said one player in a poker game to another as CNN was flipped on. A wave of voices rose up demanding evidence, but none was offered. “It’s just like you’re voting to get someone out, not to put someone in, and that’s reprehensible,” he finally muttered, and then he mustered up the nerve to question the crowd in turn. “What do you see in Kerry anyway?” Responses floated up from all corners of the room: “A guarantee for a woman’s right to choose,” “A secular country,” “Someone who understands the horror and consequence of war.” The Kerry-is-reprehensible guy replied, “See, you’re just voting against Bush, not for Kerry.”

While early exit polls showed Kerry with a strong lead in most swing states, the final map looked much like it did in 2000, although the deciding factor was Ohio, not Florida, with Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Mexico also apparently up in the air. Though they hung on through the night, Kerry, reportedly against the advice of his running mate, conceded the election Wednesday morning, when it appeared that he would need to get an unlikely majority of the provisional ballots in Ohio to carry the state.

Unlike 2000, there was a fair amount of attention before the election devoted to a wide range of vote-suppression tactics [“Step Away from the Ballot Box,” Newsffront, Oct. 28]. Reports of various problems with voting intensified in the weeks and days before the election. Absentee ballots weren’t mailed out in several Florida counties, and other voters got theirs too late to cast them. According to investigative journalist Greg Palast, who uncovered many of the stories about votes that were uncounted in Florida in 2000, as well as people who were improperly purged from the voter rolls due to a highly faulty list of supposed felons, this year these tactics spread. In an article dated Monday (Nov. 1), he writes that a few weeks ago, Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson removed felons from the voting rolls, even though in Colorado they actually do have the right to vote. She had to declare an “emergency” to do it, since federal law now bans such purges within 90 days of the election.

Vote statistician Philip Klinker of Hamilton College did a study for Palast that showed that Hispanic voters were 500 percent more likely to have their vote “spoiled”—i.e., not counted, whether by machine or election worker—than a white voter.

Black Box Voting, an organization devoted to exposing the security problems of electronic voting, has filed Freedom of Information requests for the internal logs and other related information to audit the results in 3,000 counties and townships, and is urging candidates not to concede until the audits are complete. The organization claims that it found three hours missing from a vote-counting computer’s audit log from Seattle’s primary elections, along with other indications that the vote transmission—done over modem lines—was hacked.

But despite scores of reports of problems like these, large and small, most media reported that voting went smoothly. But groups like This Time We’re Watching disagree. Saying that even if Kerry has conceded, they haven’t, the national organization associated with the urban-youth-focused League of Pissed Off Voters is calling for groups in and out of Ohio to hold protests demanding that all the votes be counted and voting irregularities be investigated.

Others are ready to regroup and move forward. “This sucks,” said Richard Kirsch, executive director of the Capital Region’s Citizen Action. But he thinks Bush won legitimately. “I think the margin is great enough that he won. It appears that the forces of fear, and the forces of people that are afraid of a society that is multicultural and accepts values different from theirs won.” Still, said Kirsch, it’s important to remember that “55 million people rejected that view,” and that progressives turned out record numbers of volunteers, money, and voters this year, momentum that will need to be now poured into keeping the Bush administration from enacting all of its agenda. “People are more energized when they’re fighting against something.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Sweet victory: (l-r) Newly-elected Albany County District Attorney David Soares with Christian D’Alessandro.

photo: John Whipple

Change in the County

Supporters of new district attorney David Soares say the coalition that elected him is here to stay

In Ballroom A of the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Albany last night (Wednesday), it was sometimes hard to tell how people were feeling. There was a clear sense of celebration and victory in the air, as returns showed David Soares the likely winner of a closely watched race for Albany County district attorney, and most other local Democrat/Working Families candidates winning their races as well. But the partygoers, many of whom had worked on both the Soares campaign and Volunteer 2004, the Democratic effort to get out the vote in swing states, were frequently distracted from their celebration by electoral maps that flashed on the projected TV screen in the corner, filling up with red states, but not yet decisive when many started to drift away around 11 PM.

But for the most part, attendees tried to focus on the positive, and Soares’ trip from a supposed longshot into the district attorney’s office. “I must have said his name 100,000 times,” one man commented to another amid the room’s chants of “David, David,” when Soares arrived. “Downtown, uptown. I said his name all day long for two days. It was worth it.” Many of the people in attendance had been up since the wee hours of the morning to work outside the polls. “I’ve never seen grassroots people so involved,” commented Alice Green, director of the Center for Law and Justice, adding that the big change was a new sense of what is possible. “I saw people who had never voted, and wouldn’t have if it weren’t for this campaign. I think this is the beginning of a new Albany.”

Others commented that of the various reform victories progressives have eked out in the area in recent years, this may be the one with the most power.

The dramatic change between Soares’ upset win in the primary and the general election was captured in an audience comment when Soares addressed the crowd. “He’s prepared tonight,” the listener noted. “Primary night he wasn’t prepared. Tonight he’s on.”

Soares, speaking after a host of activists and elected officials, including Margaret Walsh, Jack McEneny, Helen Desfosses, Dominick Calsolero, Luci McKnight and Wanda Willingham, started by observing that “some” were talking about the “death of the Democratic Party.” Those people “couldn’t be any more wrong,” said Soares. “The Democratic Party is alive and well and today we are stronger than ever.”

Soares said he wasn’t surprised about the win because while the pundits “knew the rumors and the inside politics, I knew the people.”

The event sometimes took on the feel of a religious revival. When Soares commented that after being fired by the incumbent DA Paul Clyne, he was “left for dead,” someone shouted from the audience, “He is risen!” Soares promised to focus on safe streets, good government, and above all, accountability, but cautioned that “rainbows won’t come out on Jan. 1,” and called on his supporters to continue their hard work.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

Local Election Results

David Soares won a bitterly fought battle for Albany County district attorney with 54 percent of the vote. Roger Cusick had 43 percent, and Paul Clyne, who dropped out of the race last week, got 3 percent.

Margaret Walsh breezed easily to victory for Albany County Family Court judge. While her opponent, John Reilly, was still on the ballot, he had not campaigned since Walsh’s decisive primary victory.

Democrat and Working Families candidate Christopher Maier won his race for Troy City Court against the recently appointed Republican Joe Ahearn, who stepped into both the race and the judgeship after the Republican incumbent, Henry Bauer, was removed from the bench.

At press time, in Columbia County, incumbent County Court judge Paul Czajka led challenger Pam Joern by 1,500 votes, but nearly 3,000 absentee ballots had yet to be counted.

Bob Reilly, Democrat, won a strong victory against five-term incumbent Assemblyman Bob Prentiss. This was the only state-government upset in the region, despite widespread talk of reform. State Sen. Neil Breslin fought off a strong challenge from County Comptroller Mike Conners, and Assemblymen Jack McEneny, Paul Tonko, and James Tedisco all retained their seats.

Newcomer and Albany High graduate Teneka Frost had a strong showing in the Albany school board race, and will join incumbents Bill Barnette and Barbara Gaffuri when they return to the board. Gaffuri, who came in third, will take over the one-year remainder of Paul Webster’s term.

No turnover on the federal level from our region. Sen. Charles Schumer, Reps. Mike McNulty and John Sweeney all kept their seats handily.

Loose Ends

Rensselaer County assistant district attorney Joseph Ahearn, who recently was tapped as a Republican candidate for City Court judge when the incumbent, Henry Bauer, was removed from the bench [“Reorder in the Court,” Trail Mix, Oct. 21], has been nominated by the Troy City Council to replace Bauer in the interim, as expected. . . . After many protestations that its policy was just fine, and in the face of several controversial chases, some of which broke the existing rules, the Albany Police Department has tightened its rules on “hot pursuit” [“Case Closed, Questions Open,” Newsfront, May 13]. Officers now have less discretion about when to terminate a chase, and must give possibility of danger to the public more weight. The APD also is considering a policy that would keep officers from firing at a vehicle unless someone in the car was threatening deadly force with something other than the vehicle itself. The department has been tracking its pursuits since May.
. . . A private engineer’s report commissioned by the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association has found that the Madison Theater is basically sound, except for a lot of mold and mildew from water damage, and a flooded basement. The roof probably needs replacing, the report said, but quoted an earlier estimate of about $30,000 for that work, not the hundreds of thousands suggested by CVS representatives, who are interested in the property [“A Dose of Suburbia,” Sept. 23].

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