Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bulletin: Trustees Duck

The Trustees of Catskill Central School District refused last night to allow public discussion of an e-mail message written by Superintendent Kathleen Farrell, inadvertently distributed widely, requesting an administrator to "Please go KILL these people…..please please please.”

President James Garafalo opened the school board’s regular meeting, in the high school library, with the statement that the board members had reviewed “all the relevant facts” of the case at a closed-door October 13 meeting, had “resolved” the matter, and feels “confidence” in Superintendent Farrell. “That’s all the board has to say.”

When no board member said otherwise, most of the people who had come to the meeting—an extraordinarily large turnout, composed of teachers, former teachers, support staff and parents, most of them dressed in black--walked out.

They were followed by television and print journalists, who took statements from the head of the teachers’ union and from the teachers whose questions about policy concerning closed and opened doors had most immediately triggered Dr Farrell’s outburst.

Patty Houlihan, president of the Catskill Teachers Association, expressed “profound disappointment” with the board’s stonewalling. She suggested, as did several other teachers in the crowd, that if the “Please kill” message had been sent by a teacher or a student, it “would have probably sent us into lock down and the police would have been called.”

About 100 members of the Catskill Teachers’ Association, Ms Hulihan recalled, had voted unanimously to condemn the putative apology that Dr Farrell made for her October 3 message. It was addressed to Terri Dubuke, one of two teachers whose e-mailed queries about door policy had triggered the “kill” request. It voiced “sincere apology for inadvertently copying you an email correspondence to John Willabay [director of facilities] regarding your questions about fire doors, locked doors, etc.”

Ms Dubuke told Seeing Greene last night during the exodus that “If [Superintendent Farrell] had truly apologized to me, I would not be here now.” The “apology,” she noted, was only for the inadvertent copying, not for the homicidal sentiment. And in point of fact, the message was inadvertently copied to scores of recipients. Among them was Lenny Collins, the other teacher whose e-mailed query about door-closing policy had most immediately provoked Dr Farrell. Mr Collins too voiced keen disappointment at the superintendent’s response to complaints and at the school board’s stonewalling.

Following the exodus, the board carried on with business as usual. Dr Farrell did step into the hall, however, to a bid for news media interviews library. She told a Channel 6 interviewer that “I have made a very sincere apology” for the “unfortunate language” that “unfortunately” reached “one person…by error.” For “private correspondence” to generate such an upheaval is a “true tragedy.” “I hope folks will recognize” the ”sincerity” of the remorse.

That corridor interview was witnessed by a seven students who were heads of Catskill High School’s student government. They were there, they said, because attending a School Board meeting is an obligation that goes with office.

Josh Hart, president of the student government, said that the students “generally” were “shocked at the way some faculty and staff have treated the act of humble apology” made by Dr Farrell. And “It is unfortunate that something as trivial as this could shake the foundation of trust of such an administrator.”

Veronica Hilcken, student body treasurer, estimated that Dr Farrell had “apologized well” but owed an apology to more than one individual. As for the action of the School Board, in refusing the “Please kill” episode a public airing, “If I hadn’t been required to be here I would have walked out with the teachers.”

The episode of the errant “Please kill” message was first reported last Friday in Seeing Greene. It was picked up by Kingston Daily Freeman, Catskill Daily Mail and Albany TimesUnion reports in Tuesday and Wednesday stories, as well as in regional newscasts.

When Board President Garafalo was telephoned by a TimesUnion reporter, he was unforthcoming, delivered a spurious version of the law concerning confidentiality of Board actions, and voiced abuse before hanging up.

Friday, October 19, 2007

New & Newer

NEW BUSINESS. The site vacated by Dollar Tree in Catskill’s Price Chopper Plaza is now a Label Shopper outlet. According to Manager Tracey Hicks and Assistant Manager Heather Viccaro (L74”), the Peter Harris affiliate sells name brands of ladies’, men’s and juniors’ apparel, plus shoes and some home furnishings, at a quarter or a third of regular retail. Among the brands are American Eagle, Columbia, Liz Claiborne, Levi Strauss, Nine West, New York & Co., Woolrich. And they do clearances of clearances; we saw intact, wearable slacks for women marked down to one hundred and fifty cents, as well as jeans and khakis for $15. They are having a $100 drawing next Friday (10/26) from tickets dropped in the box by Sunday (10/22). AND SPEAKING of new businesses, a big shoe retailer will be opening a store soon next to the Pomadora restaurant in the strip mall opposite Wal-Mart. And incorporation papers have been filed of late for various GreeneLand enterprises, including an Accent Group (in Windham), a Gwen Design Studio, Bellabrink, Compliance Advantage (Athens), Green Earth Farm in Palenville, Lighthouse on the Hill (Prattsville; Michael J. Conforti), Pervasive Technology Ventures (Freehold; Phillip Content), Total Fitness Group (Sleepy Hollow Lake), Patty & Kenny (Athens) and--what you’ve been waiting for—Garden of Eden (“11111 Route 23, Windham” says the legal notice). "KILL" PLEA. "Please go KILL these people…..please please please.” That request was voiced in an e-mail message last week (Wednesday, 10/3) by Catskill’s Superintendent of Schools, Kathleen Farrell. Its intended recipient was John Willabay, director of school facilities, but a little key-stroke error blasted it far and wide. The superintendent was venting over communications about doors. That subject, as it happens, is a big, fraught policy matter, having to do with security against berserk gunslingers, foreign and domestic. Anyhow, in an e-mail on the morning of October 3, a teacher, Lenny Collins, had asked Selma Friedman, the Catskill Elementary School principal, “why the children’s bathroom doors are propped open and unlocked. For safety and security reasons shouldn’t those doors be locked shut too?” Ms Friedman relayed the question to Mr Willaby, who advised that the rooms in question “do not meet the requirements as they are not considered ‘occupied’ spaces. The only time they are closed and locked is in the event of a lock down or shelter in place in which case they are inspected for occupants, cleared and locked.” That message in turn prompted another teacher, Terri Dubuke, to ask why “the copy and faculty rooms” are classified as ‘occupied’ spaces” when they “receive even less traffic than the ‘gang’ restrooms?” Those messages in turn came in the wake of discontent with standing orders that classroom doors be shut when occupied and locked when vacant. Why the Wednesday messages triggered a nominally homicidal reaction from Dr Farrell is not clear. In any event, when she inadvertently hit the wrong key, transforming private message into public broadcast, Consequences ensued. About the range and nature of those consequences, we are not sure. According to unconfirmed sources, Dr Farrell flew to Florida just after the episode; she went on family business but turned off her Black Berry; the school district trustees in emergency session meted out a letter of reprimand and a vote of confidence; teachers’ union members are mulling legal action; some teachers and staff members see the incident as a chance to strike back at what they take to be an autocratic, micro-managing, punitive style of administration.

When a Seeing Greene reporter approached her on the subject of “the incident,” Dr Farrell responded “What incident?” and “No comment.”

BOB PORTER was buried yesterday in Coxsackie. He died last Wednesday (10/10), at 71 years of age, after a sudden hospitalization. He was a retired State Department of Taxation supervisor, a professional saxophone player, president of the Catskill Kiwanis Club, Lieutenant-Governor of the Hudson River Division of Kiwanis, and a collector of Masonic Knights Templar titles. Among those titles were Worshipful Master, High Priest, Potentate (of Al Tabri Temple No. 121, Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine of North and South America and Its Jurisdiction), Worthy Joshua, Royal Chief Engineer, Deputy Prior, Deputy Master, Deputy Thrice Illustrious Grand Master, Most Eminent Grand Commander, and Eminent Grand Master. To his Kiwanis friends, among others, he recited those titles with characteristic dry humor.


Riverside Farmers’ and Artisans’Market, at Historic Catskill Point, from 10:30am with music by one-man band Paul Slusar. >>> Bounty of Greene County, a “50-mile” fund-raising dinner, plus silent auction of selected local art, at Cornell Co-Operative Extension’s Agroforestry Resource Center in Acra, prepared by Ric Orlando (New World Home Cooking) and composed of foods grown locally, from 6pm. Queries to Angela Tallarico, (518) 622-9820 ext. 21. >>>Saturday Studios in downtown Catskill, from mid-afternoon. ”Interpreting Paradise: Views of the Catskills” at M Gallery, with autumnally accented landscapes by six artists, most of whom will be there for the opening reception. At DREAM Annie Fox, “healing stone” jeweler,” adumbrates “the deeper meaning of gemstones” and “what stones you should wear next to your skin and why.” Terenchin Fine Arts offers *”Fractions” by Andrew Amelinckx and by mid-century cubists. BRIK unveils ”Red October” qua 6 “emerging artists” who, according to the welcometocatskill web site, are “celebrating the creative either where the muse lives.” Chromogenic prints by photographic artist Susan Wides (“Kaaterskill” and “Mannahatta” series) bedeck the Beginner’s Mind gallery. At Gallery 384, four artists demonstrate painterly “nocturnes” showing “darkness in a whole new light.” Books & More offers photographs and words by William Gale Gedney on "Other Lives." The Open Studio displays works by members of Veronamerica, who hail from the Hudson Valley and from the Veneto and Lombardy regions of Italy. And chocolate samplings from Catskill + Co. will be dispensed at Main Street sites, along with wine. In the exact words of, “Sip and nibble as you admire this moth’s events.” >>>“Cole, Church and the Panoramic Landscape” is the title of a lecture to be delivered by Prof. Alan Wallach (College of William and Mary), using Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow and Frederick Church’s Niagara to elucidate changes in once-established conventions of landscape painting. From 4pm at Temple Israel, followed by reception in the Old Studio at Cedar Grove, 218 Spring St, Catskill. Free of charge, thanks to the Raymond Beecher Fund for Programming at Cedar Grove.

LATER >>>Sunday. “German Songs for an Autumn Afternoon” performed by Bard College students trained by Dawn Upshaw, from 2pm at Beattie-Powers Place, off Prospect Avenue in Catskill. >>>Tuesday (10/23). Michael Hayes, author of Oak Hill: Voice from an American Hamlet, Oak Hill resident and farmer, and Oak Hill Preservation Association president, will expound on and illustrate his favorite subject, at Greene County Historical Society’s Vedder Research Library in Coxsackie, from 7:30pm. 731-1033 >>>Thursday (10/25). Tour of Athens Generating Plant, 4-8pm but it may already be too late to sign up. To find out, try 945-3706 or

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Buzz

BROOKLYN BOUND: a 2500-square foot, inter-active, interpretive exhibit for a wing of the Brooklyn Childrens Museum, designed by Carol May and Tim Watkins, whose workplace is the former firehouse in Athens. The new facility will encompass “areas” devoted to water play, workshop, Bing Bang Bong (=learning about sound), sand play, reading, coral gardens, theater, Toy Town. This project is not quite on the scale of what the dynamic duo created for the Creative Kids Museum in Calgary (Mr Watkins just went up there to celebrate the first anniversary of that 10,000-square-foot facility). It differs too from their mutating murals, their functional sculptures, their Garden of Motion in Turkey Lake FL (20 25-foot high, painted, variously shaped giant weathervanes, dancing in the wind), their giant Glamour Dogs, their multiple 18-foot high squealing, swaying Sunbabies. But really, folks, we’ve only given a hint of their range. Check out

DITTO. Also Brooklyn-bound is another Athenian, Johnnie Moore, who is singing and dancing in the Irving Berlin review "I Love a Piano." The show goes next Sunday (10/21) to the Brooklyn Performing Arts Center, after stops most recently in Pittsfield, New Haven and White Plains.

OFF-BROADWAY BOUND: a GreeneLand-generated play, “The Prophecy of Isaiah,” written and directed by Isaac Klein from a monograph, Spinning Jesus, by his father, Art (the Tile Guy) Klein. The one-act drama, first staged last April in Catskill, at BRIK gallery, espouses a version of Christianity that, in contrast to the contemporary “fundamentalist” or “social conservative” orientation, is tormented by poverty, hunger, cruelty, torture, xenophobia, homophobia, bigotry, and degradation of Earth. Manhattan debut is set for November 16 at the Times Square Arts Center. Audience members and performers will share five tables that form a circle. Oh, BTW: the senior Klein is the author of ten books (so far); five were Book of the Month selections.

BOOKED for the “Today” television show next Friday (10/19) where she will concoct some dishes from recipes in The Relaxed Kitchen: How to Entertain with Casual Elegance and Never Lose Your Mind, Incinerate the Soufflee, or Murder the Guests: GreeneLander Brigit Binns (who also will be making an authorial appearance in Catskill tomorrow

BASS NOTE. “When bass are suspended and relating to baitfish this fall, turn your back on the shoreline cover and structure you’ve been targeting and switch to a blade bait to coerce the bite.” Got that? From Bassmaster magazine.

SELF-PUBLISHED recently is a book fetchingly titled Catskill, Greene, County, New York, Revisited. 1930 to 1960. According to a Daily Maul scribe (9/24), author Wanda West Traver wrote “in intermittent spurts” (not to be confused with regular spurts?); her account “transverses [!] life in Catskill during Traver’s life here”; and she believes that “Catskill centralizing its public schools was a progressive step forward”—in contrast, presumably, to a progressive step backward.

BEST BEANS & stuff. Judges in the recent two-county chili Cookoff decided that the tastiest dish came from GreeneLand’s Kristopher Rose (yes; with a k). Among tasters, who voted by depositing beans in appropriate boxes, the Peoples Choice iby a single bean at Catskill Point was Scotty’s Too Hottie (= Scotty Christman), followed by dishie Gwen Seeley's dish. Official judges were Paul Rother, Bill Dowd, Randy Hatch and Michael Hunter.

FOR SALE at foreclosure auction: house at 844 Leeds-Athens Road on which defaulting mortgagee Dennis Izzillo owes, according to the legal notice, “approximately $127,323.28.” As previously reported (Seeing Greene 6/15), Mr Izzillo ran the Firehouse Tavern on Main Street, Catskill, until his landlord ran out of patience over non-payment of rent. Also imminent for Mr Izzillo is a hearing in Bankruptcy Court.

METAPHOR MASHER. Jim Tedisco, leader of the State Assembly’s Republicans, has put out a fund-raising bid affirming that “We have drawn the line in the sand, and have turned back the tide in our favor,” and “stood up” to the Governor AND “proved that we would not be steamrolled.”

SWEENEY UPDATE. GreeneLand’s former representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, John Sweeney (affectionately dubbed “Congressman Kickass” by President G. W. Botch for his thuggery in the midst of vote-recount controversy in Florida in 2000) is now a bachelor. He and Gayle completed divorce proceedings in July, amid mutual accusations of brutality. According to the TimesUnion, moreover, they have admitted that, with regard to the State Police report about the 911 call (from her, about him) that they had claimed, during the 2000 election, was false, they lied. Meanwhile, the State Police union is mounting a lawsuit on behalf of Captain Frank Pace who, upon being suspected by his chief of passing that fateful report (that suppressed public document) to the Press, was consigned, in effect, to Siberia.

WEEKEND TREATS. Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market at Historic Catskill Point, Saturday from 10:30am, features music by the folk/country Rovin’ Cowboys. In the afternoon, kids are invited to don suitable costumes for an early Halloween, including a matinee showing of “The Witches” at the Community Theatre, along with “paint a story” doings at Imagine That. Then it’s Second Saturday, with galleries and shops enticing Main Street strollers. See the new “painted lady” (raspberry, key lime, whatever) that is 400 Main St, along with the flanking exhibits at the Open Studio and the Arts Council galleries. Get a pre-launch, autographed copy of The Relaxed Kitchen from Herself, at Hood & Co. Llater in the evening, back at Catskill Point, rock diva Lex Grey joins the Will Smith Trio at Stella’s Lounge.

Elsewhere on Saturday, GreeneLanders could try a soap-making workshop (with Kelly Tsakoumagos of “Old Thyme Soaps”) at the Agroforestry Center in Acra, 10am-2pm Saturday; 622-9820; a Hudson Lighthouse tour (828-5294); a Mountaintop Pumpkin Festival at Bear Creek (; 263-3839) site; or a creep through haunted Massacre Mansion (Blackthorne Resort; 6342341).

On Sunday, Susan Wides leads an autumnal photo hike to Sunset Rock on North Mountain, with foliage-aflame views of the Catskills+North Lake+South Lake+the Mountain House site, starting at noon from the Mountain Top Historical Society’s Haines Falls campus. (917-697-0334). For devotees of gregarious idleness, meanwhile, there’s a potluck party at Beattie-Powers Place in Catskill, with musical entertainment provided by the aforementioned, the inimitable Lex with pianist Al Garzon, from 1 pm. The organizers ( ask participants to bring a dish or $10. Make it $20. They have sunk a lot of money, as well as effort, into restoration of that gracious estate.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Albany: Restless Driving?

Republican politicians erupted rhetorically the other day over a policy change, announced by Gov. Eliot Spitzer on September 21, making illegal immigrants eligible to obtain New York State drivers’ licenses. Some Democrats, and many of the State’s county clerks, concur with the opposition.

The governor’s executive decision removes a rule that had been adopted by his predecessor in the wake of the 11 September 2001 World Trade Center catastrophe. The rule obligated applicants for driver’s license to prove, by way of a valid Social Security number or other evidence, that they are legal residents. Starting in December, foreign applicants “will provide a current foreign passport and other valid and verifiable documents to prove identity” to Motor Vehicles Department staff ( but need not be legal residents.

Coupled with the DMV policy change, the governor added, will be new “anti-fraud security measures.” These include fresh document scanning technology, a special document verification unit stuffed by trained specialists, and photo-comparison technology “to ensure the principle of ‘one person/one license’ is upheld.”

“Dangerous” and “absolutely absurd,” says Assemblyman Marcus Molinaro (Republican of Columbia County) of the new dispensation. “Astounded and flabbergasted” is how Sen. Steven Saland (R, Poughkeepsie) describes his reaction. A “stunned” Peter Lopez, who represents GreeneLand in the State Assembly, says the decision “puts our communities at risk.” According to GreeneLand’s State Senator, James Seward, the Spitzer ruling is illegal as well as being “a disaster for our national security,” placing “every New Yorker at risk….” It’s “Border Line Insanity” says a Conservative Party advertisement. Under the headline “License to Kill: Eliot’s Passport to Terror,” the leader of Republicans in the State Assembly, James Tedisco, says the governor’s policy poses a “clear and present danger to the safety and security of our entire nation.” It is “equivalent,” says Sen. Vincent Leibell, to “telling our military to ‘turn off your sonar and radar’.” In the estimation of Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn), the Spitzer plan amounts to allowing “terrorists to go unchecked.” (The quotes come from Press accounts recorded the Internet).

Kirsten Gillibrand, GreeneLand’s newly elected United States Representative and a Democrat, was reported in one newspaper as concurring with the critics. At this time of writing (Tuesday, Oct. 8) Seeing Greene’s calls for (dis)confirmation had not been returned. [ADDENDUM. Received on Thursday (10/11) was a letter, dated Oct. 9, confirming Representative Gillibrand’s opposition to the governor’s policy, as well as to “any proposal that will allow illegal immigrants to receive additional taxpayer-funded services.” Instead, “I support the REAL ID Act which will require individuals to show proof of citizenship in order to obtain a driver’s license” and “I believe that giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants is the wrong approach to improving our national security.”]

Governor Spitzer accuses those critics of trafficking in “the politics of fear and selfishness” at the expense of “common sense and responsibility.” Their “hysterical rhetoric” preys upon public fears although in fact their contentions are factually, legally, morally and ethically wrong. The new system will enhance national security as well as public safety. New York contains as many as a million illegal immigrants. “Thousands of undocumented, unlicensed and uninsured drivers [are now] contributing to increased accidents and hit-and-runs as well as higher insurance rates.” Some of those drivers, responding to the new policy, would apply for licenses, pay fees, meet the obligation to buy auto insurance, and establish in the process an identity record.

On October 3, a resolution denouncing the governor’s new rule was presented to the State’s county clerks, who preside over local offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Thirty of them, including GreeneLand’s Mary Ann Kordich, voted to disapprove, with three dissenting, three abstaining, and 16 not participating. Some of them, led by Saratoga County Clerk Kathy Marchione, say they will not implement the new DMV policy.

Twenty-nine of the protesting 30, the governor pointed out in a news media release, are Republicans; and their stand-pat policy, he contended, makes New York “less secure and our roads less safe.”

“The simple fact is, increasing access to driver’s licenses, tied to increased anti-fraud security measures, is good for public safety and good for homeland security.” Roads are “less safe” when people drive “without a license and without insurance…. It is unlicensed drivers—not immigrants—who are a threat to public safety.”

As for homeland security, the new rule will help, says the governor, since it will "bring an entire population of people into a database that, when necessary, can be used to help law enforcement track down criminals and terrorists.”

Last Sunday’s TimesUnion contained a “debate” on the DMV policy issue. Clashing evaluations were voiced by Brian O’Dwyer, a Manhattan lawyer and head of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, and James Staudenraus, a leader of the Federation of American Immigrant Reform who was billed as an adviser to a group called 9/11 Families for a Secure America, a group that advances public policies to protect homeland security and public safety.

Mr O’Dwyer credits Governor Spitzer with “a rational response to the facts on the ground. The governor is reinforcing New York's traditional policies aimed at encouraging immigrants to seek police, health and school services without fear of being turned over to immigration authorities, regardless of the immigrant's legal status. That…controls crime, prevents epidemics and keeps immigrants from hiding their children in the shadows instead of sending them to school.”

Moreover. “we all benefit as well when the state encourages all drivers…to legally seek a driver's license, a process that requires passing a driving test and demonstrating an ability to understand the state's motor vehicle laws.”

Especially “offensive,” says Mr O’Dwyer, are “comments by those who suggest the governor's plan will undermine the fight against terrorism. To equate hard-working and productive undocumented immigrants with terrorists is the kind of broad brush bigotry that undermines New York's position as the capital of the world, where diversity should be embraced instead of shunned.

“Instead of criminalizing undocumented immigrants, we should be creating a path to legal residency and citizenship and bring them out of the shadows of economic and social exploitation.”

According to Mr Staudenraus, however, the Spitzer DMV policy “ignores anti-terrorist recommendations of the 9/11 Commission,” violates “the new federal driver’slicense law that sets uniform standards for states to issue licenses, “rewards and encourages illegal immigration,” “facilitates voter fraud through the Motor Voter law, “gives official ID to individuals we know nothing about” and “undermines federal immigration enforcement efforts.”

“Foreign terrorists covet a valid driver's license, because it helps them blend into our society.”

“When states suddenly allow illegal immigrants to get a license, DMV offices are flooded with applicants. Under pressure from a big backlog, homeland security will be compromised.”

The governor, says Mr Staudenraus, has “chosen to pull the pin on a political hand grenade that is entirely of his own making.” He proposes to aggravate instead of alleviating the present “illegal immigration crisis.” “Instead of…rewarding illegal aliens with a driver’s license,” Mr Spitzer “should promote sound policies that discourage illegal immigration.”

Friday, October 05, 2007

Leaves of Greene

TAX BREAK FOR IMPROVERS? Greenville’s Town Councilmen are evaluating a proposal that would soften the property tax burden for homeowners who make capital improvements. According to reports in The Greenville Local (Melanie Lekocevic) and The Greenville Press (Linda Fenoff), they will hold on October 15th a public hearing on a plan whereby owners would not be obliged to pay the full amount of tax that would normally be added when assessed value goes up in consequence of capital improvements costing more than $3000. Instead, they would be exempted from the whole increase in the first year following the improvement. They would pay 12.5% of the normal additional tax in the second year, with increases being added in successive years until the full amount is due in the ninth year. The deal would apply to single-family and two-family homes; the increase in assessed market value must be at least $5000; and the exemption deal would top out at $80,000.

AWOL. Meanwhile, Greenville’s Planning Board chairman, Jim Kudlack, has joined Town Supervisor Aldo Cardomone in being unapologetically, uncommunicatively absent. Peter O’Hara has filled in for Mr Kudlack, for months, and Jim Mulligan has done so for Mr Cardomone. Legalities of replacing them officially are unclear.

SHOT at an East Catskill home and garden, recently: “fashion” pictures for the next T. J. Maxx catalogue. The site was selected by professional locator, via many photographs and comparisons. But the pictures themselves have nothing to do with the house or the garden or the scenery. They will appear in the company’s Winter catalogue. The Christmas tree, the “snow” and the other settings could be anywhere. Similarly, Pottery Barn managers spent a fortune recently on location hunting, and then local shooting by a crew of 30, for a catalogue. For all intents and purposes, however, the beautiful homes and gardens are not in the pictures.

BOB’S BACK. He’s nothing if not persistent. Robert Meringolo set up shop in front of the county courthouse on September 26th, soliciting petition signatures in support of his sustained vendetta against a State Policeman as well as against all sorts of authorities who allegedly connive to cover or ignore GreeneLand’s corrupt condition. As reported in The Daily Mail (Jim Planck), Mr Meringolo was contending that Sgt. Patrick Cullen “has terrorized and broken the law against the citizens of Greene County” and he was distributing to passers-by a “position paper.” Ordered by Village Police Sgt. Brian Kozloski to move his sign and booth from their position along Main Street, he complied, while protesting to the sheriff’s department that he was not obstructing traffic (pedestrian or motorized) and was exercising his rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. His complaint may be legitimate. His crusade is something else. For pertinent information, type “Meringolo” in the Search Blog window on your screen (above left); that should lead to the March 2d edition of Seeing Greene.

“I’M NO DUMMY,” says Harry, ventriloquist Steve Charney’s loquacious pal; “I’m a wooden American.”

HOT TIP: “When bass are suspended and relating to baitfish this fall, turn your back on the shoreline cover and structure you’ve been targeting and switch to a blade bait to coerce the bite.” Got that? From Bassmaster magazine.

MEAN DOG? According to a headline in the CBC web site, “"Helmsley's dog gets $12 million, but leaves 2 grandchildren zilch." From WorldWideWords.

THE WEEKEND Oktoberfests at Hunter Mountain Resort ([518]263-4223) and at Blackthorne Resort ([518]634-2541). Banjo Burke-themed festival of Irish music workshops in East Durham ([607]225-0028). Autumn Affair in Windham with juried arts & crafts, live entertainment, Chinese auction… ([518]734-3852). Apple Harvest Festival at Angelo Canna Park in Cairo ([518]622-3939; ). Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market as usual on Saturday at Historic Catskill Point, this time with music by the Cabin Still string band. Ginseng Festival on Sunday at Historic Catskill Point ([518]943-0989).

Photo hike with ace photographer Susan Wides, starting at noon from Mountain Top Historical Society in Haines Falls, to sites that defined “picturesque” and “sublime” for Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School painters. About two hours. ([917]697-0334


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Albany: Political Reforms & Reform Politics

State Senator James Seward, who represents GreeneLand and other up-State counties, has endorsed some measures of reform for New York State government. His proposals offer a timely occasion to ponder what needs doing as well as to speculate about political forces shaping reform proposals. In newspaper columns and on his web site, Senator Seward has espoused two kinds of reform:

Term limits package. By way of constitutional amendment, limits would be placed on how long State-wide elected offices (governor, attorney general, controller…) can be held and on how long legislative leaders--Assembly Speaker, Senate Majority Leader, committee chairs—can serve continuously. The limits on tenure in State-wide election office would be two elective terms, amounting to eight years. For legislative office, the limits would be eight years for Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker, and six years for committee chairs.

Initiative and Referendum. State laws could be adopted by means of direct popular election, after being placed on the ballot by way of large-scale petitioning; and laws passed by the legislators could be subject to ratification or rejection by direct popular vote. (See “Power to the People” at the web site ) Senator Seward has solicited public comment on these measures. Here are ours.

END RUN? In calling for constitutionally mandated limits on the tenure of Senate and Assembly chieftains, Senator Seward breaks new ground. The usual targets of advocates of statutory term limits are holders of elective public office. And in coupling his unconventional proposal with a conventional one, Senator Seward may be attempting to reach a desirable goal by roundabout means. The desired result would be restraining the powers of legislative chieftains such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. Compared with their counterparts in other States, those leaders do wield extraordinary power. They shape the career paths and perquisites of their legislative co-partisans. In large measure they decide who shall be allowed to deliver benefits to constituents. Formally speaking, they wield this power at the pleasure of their fellow legislators. They can be dumped by simple majority vote of their respective co-partisans (the Assembly Democrats, the Senate Republicans). Realistically, however, direct attempts by rank-and-file legislators to replace or muzzle them could be suicidal professionally. The perquisites that have been acquired by the entrenched leaders keep them entrenched. Thus, while no constitutional amendment is needed legally to impose limits on the terms of legislative chieftains, and their powers, maybe no other device would work.

Similarly, Senator Seward’s call for instituting the Initiative and the Referendum can be viewed as an attempt to create an avenue for achieving otherwise-infeasible reforms. In this case, the reforms would be counters to the disposition of incumbent legislators, in generously bi-partisan fashion, to feather their own nests. By way of referendum, the voters could negate measures that serve only the special interests of incumbent law-makers, measures that fatten the incumbents’ paychecks, expense accounts, pensions, and job security. By the same token, initiatives could be used to adopt salutary reforms that otherwise would be blocked because they jeopardize the (bi-partisan) interests of incumbent legislators. Prominent among those reforms would be curbs on the size and sources of financial donations to candidates for elective office. Such restrictions are more inconvenient for incumbent office-holders, Republican and Democratic alike, than for challengers. Perhaps Senator Seward has this kind of result in mind as benefits of the Initiative and Referendum. That line of thought draws upon sensitivity to political context. It is grounded on awareness of the facts that reform of State government has been much in the news this year; that public discussion has been focused chiefly on proposals made by the newly-elected governor, Eliot Spitzer; that those proposals call for reducing the power of big money in elections and for reducing the number of competitively safe districts; that the governor is a Democrat while the Senate’s Leader, Joseph Bruno, is a Republican, as is Senator Seward; and that Senator Bruno has responded coldly to Mr Spitzer’s program. Mr Seward has not openly differed from his Senate leader. But perhaps he is a closeted friend of campaign finance reform.

WRONG REMEDY? At any rate, the “end run” way of appreciating Senator Seward’s reform proposals could be unduly charitable. Meanwhile, we can guess plausibly that in supporting mandatory limits on the terms of elected officials, Senator Seward backs a bad cure for a genuine problem. The problem is entrenchment. Incumbency begets incumbency—and insularity. Turnover, as Senator Seward says, offers “a guaranteed mechanism to keep [our] leadership fresh and the exchange of ideas innovative.” There would be “more participation from government officials and lawmakers, “more creative and innovative policymaking,” “a greater level of openness, transparency and accountability for the people of New York State.” That appraisal, however, can be countered by way of attention to other effects of mandated term limits:

*Loss of experience. Mandatory limits on the terms that can be served by an elected official could deprive the legislature of expertise vis-à-vis the career bureaucrats. In Senator Seward’s own words, although mandatory term limits would help “to keep democracy fresh,” they also may “empower career bureaucrats because officials aren’t around long enough to develop an expertise in an area.” In addition:

*Lame Duckery. Mandatory term limits can be assessed plausibly as an obstacle to effective service. If the occupant of an elective office cannot be re-elected, she loses incentive to perform effectively. Skip the case work. Take the salary and sit. Take the lobbyists’ favors and ask for more. Never mind the voters.

*Malrepresentation. Mandatory term limits can be assailed further from the standpoint of fidelity to democratic governance. They deprive the voters of what could be a preferred choice; and the preference may be based on the evidence of long, faithful service.

COP-OUT? Although mandatory term limits may be a bad remedy, they still can be seen plausibly as a way of countering a serious problem. The problem is being saddled with entrenched, unresponsive, virtually self-anointed office-holders. And this leads us to suggest that Senator Seward’s package of reforms can be regarded plausibly as a smokescreen. While touting mandatory term limits and the Initiative and the Referendum as prospective gains of “power to the people,” Senator Seward has been conspicuously silent on contemporary proposals that seem likely, without bad side effects, to foster responsive governance, namely,

*FAIR REDISTRICTING, in which the boundary lines of Assembly and Senate electorates make sense in terms of contiguity, compactness, respect for county and municipal boundaries and population size. As matters stand, the incumbent legislators control redistricting, and they habitually adhere to a bi-partisan master rule: making the world safe for incumbents. Thus, most of the Assembly, Senate and U.S. Congressional districts are safe for one party or the other. They are safe because the incumbent legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, want it that way. That condition deters challenges and even scrutiny. It can be alleviated, as Governor Spitzer has proposed, by putting the authority to re-draw district boundaries in the hands of a blue-ribbon commission. Reducing the number of electorates that are competitively safe for one party or the other (and hence for the incumbent) surely would contribute to the cause of popular control over representatives.

*CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM. Although Senator Seward touts his proposals as contributions to “power to the people,” he has been mute on the subject of campaign finance reform. Such silence is noteworthy in the context of news media attention to Governor Spitzer’s proposals. The governor urges downward limits on the size of any one contribution to a State-wide campaign, to a local campaign, and to political parties, as well as a ban on contributions by corporations to political party coffers. Surely an honest champion of ”power to the people” would want to address those proposals.

ODD OMISSION Similarly, Senator Seward’s call for adopting the Initiative and Referendum is noteworthy for its historical incompleteness. These “power to the people” measures tap into a rich vein of history. They evoke recollections of the Progressive movement that flourished early in the 20th century, in Wisconsin and on the West Coast. But the West evocation is curiously selective. The Progressives commonly advocated the Initiative, the Referendum, and the Recall. The latter measure formulated rules that prescribe how constituents, through petitions, could oust an incumbent from office before the end of her term. In disregarding that part of a traditionally three-part reform package, Senator Seward casts doubt on his devotion to people power. Meanwhile, experience indicates that the Progressive reform package, where adopted, has been a mixed blessing. All sorts of schemes have been promoted, with grass roots participation being essentially a sham. The most notorious negative case in recent times is California’s experience with disruptions caused since 1978 by passage of the property tax-slashing Proposition 13.