Friday, August 26, 2011

Greene Grime

Another local enterprise has left downtown Catskill. As of Wednesday (8/24) the door closed permanently on Café 355.  Operator Jeffrey Meyers (C.I.A. ‘96) reached the conclusion, after three years of trying, that “I can’t afford to stay open.”  He has taken a job in Albany.  He is vacating a place whose décor is far above ordinary and whose history, as the Mayflower Café under Manny Cominos and then under Doug and Regina Doebler, is rich.   Other local ventures, including coffee shops, are imperiled.

A woman attracted police attention the other day in the Wal-Mart parking lot, as she successively opened fresh bottles of mineral water and poured their contents down a drain.  She was working from a trolley stacked with cases of that liquid, cases that she had bought with food stamps.  She was dumping the contents, she explained, so as to accumulate a supply of returnable bottles.  With enough refunds, at a nickel per bottle, she would then be able to buy a packet of cigarettes.  “And it’s all legal,” she said;  “I’ve checked."
That story comes second-hand from a probably reliable source.  We have not obtained official confirmation.  We would love to print the woman’s name.  We would love to include her, by name, in the ranks of locally suspected

*WELFARE CHEATS.  Our local newspapers have reported that charges related to welfare fraud have lately been lodged against Stephen and Kathleen Salluce of Athens (fraudulently obtaining food stamp benefits, Medicaid benefits, and home energy benefits, to the extent of about $6650); Leanne Smith, of Palenville (theft from Department of Social Services, hence from taxpayers, of $1365 in Medicaid benefits); Vanessa Weiss of Catskill ($605 in Temporary Assistance benefits, $167 in food stamps); Eva Brodsky of Jefferson Heights ($7,149, from the Columbia County welfare office); and Marina Cancell of Catskill and Ronald Thorne of Athens $3547).
Among other cases that have led to formal charges lately in GreeneLand:
*BREAK-INS.  Christopher O’Reilly, 18, of Cairo, and a 17-year old compaion (not identified because of his minor status) face charges on suspicion of breaking into 30 cars at the Earlton Hill Campsites.  According to the police report, they are suspected of taking GPS units, cell phones, satellite radios, and money from the cars to their own campsite.
*MENACING.  Jeremy B. Lee of Tollhouse Road, Catskill, was arrested on reckless-endangerment charges after by sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call relating to a domestic dispute.  Deputies reported that Lee fired shots through his front door, refused to come out, eventually did emerge, and appeared to be drunk.
*POT.  Justin Reynolds of Kornell Drive, Haines Falls, was arrested and jailed on several charges  after police officers, responding to a call about a domestic dispute, found a yard and house loaded with marijuana plants, along with cultivation gear.
*BURGLARY.  Matthew Altenau, 23, of Catskill, was charged along with a Saugerties man (Roger Justus III, 28) with burglary of storage units on Route 9W.  Police reported recovering more than $10,000 worth of stolen items. Several lockers were raided during June.  And  Steven D. Shultis, 29, of Cairo faces burglary charges arising from police suspicion that he broke into an abandoned Cementon building and sought to take items, including a mirror and copper pipes.
*RECKLESS PILOTING.  Matthew Devlin of Catskill, pilot of the tugboat Caribbean Sea, pleaded guilty of the offense of mis-operating a maritime vessel, with fatal consequences, after a fatal collision last July on the Delaware River near Philadelphia.  The barge he had been pushing crashed into an amphibious duck boat that was loaded with tourists.  Thirty-seven passengers were flung into the river, and two of them, students from Hungary, were killed.  According to the Associated Press report (Daily Mail, 8/6/11), Devlin said he was distracted by news of a medical emergency incurred by his 5-year old son.  The news drew him into telephone calls from and to his wife Corinne, and into web surfing in quest of information.  He turned off the tug’s radios to talk on the phone, and thus did not receive distress calls sent from the stalled, threatened tourist boat.
The charge against Devlin is the equivalent on land of involuntary manslaughter.  Under Federal guidelines, this would bring a sentence of 37 to 46 month in prison.  Meanwhile, the families of the dead visitors, who were taking part in a church exchange program, have filed wrongful-death lawsuits.
The Devlins’ son, following a prolonged period of oxygen deprivation during eye surgery, has recovered.
*ANIMAL ABUSE.  Robin A. Kelly of Catskill was charged with failing to provide proper nourishment for horses residing in her Bogart Road stable.  According to the police report, as recounted in the local Press, passing motorists noticed the condition of some of the animals and notified Ron Perez, who is president of the Columbia-Greene Humane Society. That alert, said Mr Perez, prompted a series of visits to the stable in quest of improvement. Unsatisfactory response led to a raid in which five of the horses were removed, placed in foster care, and put up for adoption.  For inquiries: (518) 828-6044.
*MOONLIGHTING.  Edward Pebler, the prison correctional officer who also was working as code enforcement officer for the town of Coxsackie, was arrested 11 months ago on felony charges involving falsified time sheets and unauthorized outside work.   Thanks to a plea deal that was not announced until long after the fact, District Attorney Terry Wilhelm reduced the offenses to a misdemeanor and minor cash penalties.  Peculiar behind-the-scenes aspects of the case were chronicled by Daily Mailman Doron Tyler Antrim.  
*DRUNK DRIVING.  Jason M. St. Denis, 24, of Cairo achieved the rare distinction of being arrested twice within a 90-minute interval.  According to a Daily Freeman account of official reports, a State trooper stopped St. Denis on State Route 32 in Catskill, booked him for drunk driving, released him to a third party, and told him not to drive while still drunk.  But 70 minutes later, again on Route 32, Denis again was nabbed on suspicion of driving while drunk, was released again to the care of a third party and told to stay away from the driver’s seat.  Again.

Two troubling stories about GreeneLand’s Industrial Development Agency have earned Press coverage.  Most recently, the Daily Freeman’s Ariel Zangla reported (8/25) on the contents of a confidential agreement relating to remuneration for the I.D.A.’s former executive director, Sandy Mathes.  Mr Mathes, who had held that office since 2002 resigned in May, under pressure from the county legislature, in the wake of controversy over bonuses paid to him by authority of the agency’s board of directors.  Disclosed in the Freeman report were terms of a deal whereby, under agreed conditions, Mr Mathes would be paid $2500 per week, and would receive medical insurance benefits, for six months following his effective date of departure (6/28).  The Freeman story was in the nature of a scoop.  Daily Mailman Jeff Alexander played catch-up to the extent of reporting that the existence of that deal was a surprise to Wayne Speenburgh, the chairman of the county legislature, and that Eric Hogland, chairman of the I.D.A.’s board, said the severance deal was carefully worked out, with “plenty of drafts” written and all board members participating. [Note: as posted on Friday, the account of Sandy Mathes's post-resignation salary said $2500 "per month."  That was wrong]
Which brings us to the second troubling I.D.A. story.  Mr Mathes’s departure was followed soon after by the resignations of three heavyweight board members: Hugh Quigley, Robert Snyder (the chairman) and Martin Smith.  That left a bare majority of four directors.  The task of finding replacements fell, by law, to the county’s legislators.
It is an important task, since the legislators have no direct power over the agency’s operations—no authority over its site development projects, its tax exemption deals, its compacts with prospective resident enterprises.  And yet the responsibility for finding suitable replacement prospects was not assigned by common consent to a search committee or to an individual.  Instead, the names of two nominees eventually appeared on the legislature’s agenda.  The nominations were not accompanied by notes about backgrounds or qualifications.  Opportunity for closed-door discussion was not provided.  And when two legislators raised a question about one nominee, a question based on a previous conflict-of-interest situation, they were accused by Chairman Speenburgh of smearing a good man.
Another seat on the Agency’s board is vacant, and still another will soon be vacant.  Perhaps the search for suitable appointees will be conducted this time in a manner that is methodical and inclusive.  

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Greene Goners

The Village of Catskill is losing its head.  Vincent Seeley, president of its  governing board of trustees for the past six years, the most industrious and involved president in memory, is moving away. What with the death last year of both parents, and perhaps with a sense of exhaustion, Vinnie is moving, with his wife Gwen and their two daughters, to Minnesota.  There the Seeleys will be close to the headquarters of his employer, Optum Health, and to Gwen’s kinfolk.  They will be leaving a community that he tried, with extraordinary dedication and an insomniac’s endurance, and in the face of harsh economic realities, to deserve the billing he gave it on the web site he instigated/instituted: “the ever-improving village of Catskill.” 
There will be no real successor.  The current vice-president, Jim Chewens, is limited in availability for Village work by his job as a prison correctional officer.  The other three incumbent trustees are similarly constrained.  And no fresh candidates for the five-member governing board have surfaced so far.
STREET TALK.  The imminent departure of Vinnie, along with the scarcity of revnues and of prospective candidates for trustee, has revived local interest in a Village-Town merger.
Soon to depart from Catskill, and from GreeneLand, is the giant HSBC bank.  Its local branch is one of 183 up-State offices that, by the end of this year if not sooner, on the basis of a billion-dollar deal that was announced recently, will become properties of  First Niagara Bank.  Since First Niagara already has a branch right next door to HSBC’s, at 341 Main St, Catskill, the present HSBC branch surely will be vacated.  An exceptionally imposing building, rich in history, will be added to our abundant stock of vacant commercial properties.
 In global terms, London-based HSBC is closing hundreds of retail branches, including half of its United States outlets.  Its program already has involved the elimination 5000 jobs and is expected to eliminate 25,000 more by 2013.  The announced rationale is concentration on corporate finance, international connections, and growth markets. During the first half of this year, HSBC’s corporate parent made a 3 per cent, $11.5 billion, gain in pretax profits.
Not announced so far is abandonment of the company slogan, “the world’s local bank.” 
The GreeneLand HSBC branch began life back in 1803, as Catskill National Bank & Trust Company.  It was sold in 1971 to Marine Midland Bank East and then to HSBC.
In recent months, or years, the place has been almost a hollow shell. Although it is open on weekdays, it cannot be reached by telephone. 

Retiring from part-time public office in GreeneLand is Jack Van Loan, head since December 2003 of GreeneLand’s veterans’ service agency. He will be replaced by appointment by Michelle Romalin Black of Greenville.  She is a GreeneLand native, an Air Force veteran and, according to County Administrator Groden and to key county legislators, she did very well on a rigorous accreditation test. 

     Another retirement has paved the way for departmental consolidation.  With the departure of Thomas Yandeau as head of the county’s Department of the Aging, County Executive Shaun Groden, with the hearty approval of the elected legislators, has placed that office under the guidance of Therese McGee Ward, head of the Youth Bureau.  The merger will produce more job cuts.  

Soon to be leaving the Cairo-Durham school system, after a long local career, is Superintendent Sally Sharkey.  As reported in the Daily Mail, the school district’s trustees decided back in May to give Ms Sharkey a one-year notice of termination, and then decided, by a vote of 5 to 4, at a stormy public meeting on June 30, to uphold that notice.  Ms Sharkey was a music teacher in the district before she acquired an administrative degree and then was appointed in 2005 as superintendent, followed in 2007 by a five-year contract extension.  Demands to give reasons for the termination were declined by the trustees.  One of the protestors, Adrienne Gatti, said (Daily Mail, 7/14) that Ms Sharkey is “the lowest-paid superintendent” in “surrounding counties” and “has not taken a pay raise for two years.”  According to State Department of Education figures, however (see, her salary of $135,523 plus a benefits package valued at $41,127) is second-lowest among GreeneLand school superintendents.  The lowest salary goes to the superintendent in the smallest (in population) district: Hunter-Tannersville, at $126,838 plus a benefits package valued at $42,244. 
The other figures are $138,030 plus $59,760 (Windham-Ashland-Jewett—and that benefits packages is the fattest of the six); $140,057 plus $34,316 (Greenville); $143,000 plus $10,940 (Coxsackie-Athens, and a remarkably small benefits package); and $162,081 plus $44,729 (Catskill). 

Then we have the case of GreeneLand’s semi-governmental Industrial Development Agency.  The abrupt departure of veteran Executive Director Alexander Mathes was followed soon after, not coincidentally, by the resignations of three veteran directors: Robert Snyder, the president; Hugh Quigley, an I.D.A. founder and leader during the past 20 years; and board secretary Martin Smith, who is chairman of the board of the Bank of Greene County.  Although Rene Van Schaak has been moved up to the post of interim executive director, and although four governing directors remain  (Dan Frank, former county executive; Eric Hoglund; Sy DeLucia; and Willis Vermilyea, retired county treasurer) and although office manager April Ernst is still on the job, the I.D.A. is in a state of limbo.  No minutes of meetings ( since May.  The agency was crippled by controversy last year over the $175,000big bonus that the directors gave to Mr Mathes in 2009.   It has been hurt too by a report from the office of the State Controller.  The report imputes a lack of transparency to many local agencies.  More broadly, it voices concern about results, in terms of jobs created relative to the scale of tax exemptions granted.  

Already gone from GreeneLand, happily, is Nicholas Barcomb.  He came over the Rip Van Winkle bridge from Hudson last January and, wielding a knife, stole $729 from Tori G’s restaurant. According to District Attorney Terry Wilhelm, Barcomb was nabbed by police, charged with felonious armed robbery, and housed in the county jail, entered a plea of guilty, and was sentenced by Judge Pulver Jr to a ten-year stretch in State prison.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Marriage Equality II: The Rhetoric

               [Part I is just below this post]
      Although the Marriage Equality Act was a sore subject in the senate of New York, statements about the pros and cons of that measure—statements about relevant principles, rights and wrong—were conspicuously scarce.  Outside the chamber, however, marriage equality was a hot topic.  The controversy continues. Some of it supplies fresh material for our Seeing Sophistry files.
*CATEGORY ERROR.  Proponents of the Marriage Equality Act relied primarily on an equal rights pitch.  The honor and the benefits of marital status, they argued, should be available to consenting same-sex adults just as they are for consenting opposite-sex couples.  To that thesis, whose cogency and conclusiveness are far from being self-evident, opponents of the bill offer no direct response.  Their paramount line of argument is that in passing the so-called Marriage Equality Act, the legislators performed a false, and pernicious, act of re-definition. Thus, Ruben Diaz of New York City, the only Democratic senator who voted No, stigmatized the bill as a move “to redefine our definition of marriage from [sic] one man and one woman” (press releases of 7/7 and 7/11).  Similarly, here in GreeneLand, Chuck Kaiser lamented (Daily Mail, 7/ 27) that the 33 assenting senators, scorning the Biblical definition of marriage as “a holy union between one man and woman” (citation not supplied), presumptuously “took it upon themselves to redefine marriage.”
     That version of events is categorically wrong-headed.  Defining is not what lawmakers do.  In this case, legislators performed an act not of definition but rather of legitimization. Together with a majority of State Assembly members and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the 33 assenting senators made it legal for same-sex couples to procure government licenses and to undergo civil ceremonies whereby they could legally call themselves, and could be called by others, married
     That action does not threaten anybody who believes, and asserts, that the same-sex couples who utilize their new legal right are not “really” married.  Thus, advocates of  a popular “referendum” on a “State Constitutional Amendment defining Marriage in New York as a union between one man and one woman” (Mr Kaiser’s words) miss the point.
*EXTRANEOUS ADVICE.  “Marital bliss,” says Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold of Rifton NY (in letters to many newspapers), “can be attained only when God’s order—that is, marriage between one man and one woman—is adhered to.”  That functional appraisal could work as a warning to same-sex couples who hope for bliss through marriage. It does not work as rational grounds for deploring a measure has no bearing on the quests of  opposite-sex couples for marital bliss.
*HEALTH HAZARD.  The 33 senators who passed the Marriage Equality Act, Mr Kaiser affirms, “advocated for” an “unhealthy lifestyle.”  In support of that contention, Mr Kaiser testifies that “the morbidity and mortality rates of practicing homosexuals is [sic] far greater than any other segment of our population.” That line of argument could be cogent (without being conclusive) if it were backed by evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage would enlarge the population of practicing homosexuals.  Meanwhile, one can speculate that new law may reduce rates of morbidity and mortality in the gay population, by prompting a decrease in rates of promiscuity.
*MIS-DESCRIPTION.  In addition to mis-classifying the new Marriage Equality Act, Mr Kaiser falsified its immediate terms.  He averred (I’m not making this up), that New York “took a giant leap down the slippery slope of moral degradation when it officially sanctioned sodomy under the guise of ‘marriage equality’.”  But it is difficult indeed to legalize a practice (anal intercourse) that already is legal.    
*EXTRAVAGANT ALARM.  Because the State legislature and Governor have given legal sanction to so-called marriages of same-sex couples, says Pastor Arnold, “civilization as we know it is now doomed.”  That fate looms “because what was foundational is being destroyed and”—ahem—“redefined”; we are “declaring God’s laws as irrelevant.”  Since he voices those sentiments in response to one legislative act, he makes it seems as though salvation is readily attainable: repeal that one legislative blunder.  Too easy.  
*PHONY NOSTALGIA.  “Let us return,” pleads Pastor Arnold, “to the time when our nation put its full trust in God.”  Would that be the time until June 24, 2011? Anyhow, nations are not people who trust and distrust.  And the proposition that this “nation” until recently did “put its full trust in God” is a bold, novel one.

Marriage Equality, Part I

The past week has set a record in New York State for weddings.  According to news media reports, 46 couples were united in marriage at a joint ceremony at Niagara Falls last Sunday.  About  100 other couples did the same last Monday at Long Island’s Bethpage State Park.  Town clerks all around the State have been busily engaged in processing applications for marriage licenses.
The rush of marital business was triggered by a change in State law.  It marked the first week in which applicants could take advantage of the newly adopted Marriage Equality Act.   That measure removed a restriction on eligibility to earn the status, and the benefits, of being, in the eyes of the law, married.  It conferred eligibility to obtain marital legal status on couples who are of the same sex.  It made New York the sixth State, and the most populous one, to give legal sanction to same-sex marriage.  (The other States are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont; plus the District of Columbia) And it prompted hundreds of homosexual couples to seize the opportunity. 
First among the GreeneLand couples were Sam Aldi and Michael DeBenedictus.  On Sunday (7/31), in their sunlit Catskill garden, before scores of friends and relatives, with Village Justice William Wooton presiding, they sealed a bond whose durability had already been proved over the past 40 years. 
The Marriage Equality Act won adoption after strenuous controversy, especially in the State Senate.  Its passage there, by a vote of 33 to 29, marked a reversal of fortune for a similar measure that went down to defeat, 24 to 38, back in 2009.   
Some features of the marriage equality controversy deserve comment.

MEDIA BIAS?  Devotees of the “liberal bias” thesis concerning our mainstream news media can draw a mite of support from one aspect of how the Marriage Equality drama was covered.  While giving prominence to the pivotal role played by the senators who reversed their previous opposition, the reports did not immediately identify the ‘defectors.’ Neither did they do so when reporting the prospect of an organized political retaliation against on the defectors. Thus, in a long Associated Press story (published in the Daily Freeman under headline “Gay marriage foes target 7 senators who flipped”) readers are told that “The four Republicans and three Democrats who changed their votes or positions were key in Friday’s 33-29 vote.”  But in the course of 17 paragraphs, only two of those ‘flippers’ were named.  That example is representative of what occurred in print and on screen.  The omissions do not make sense professionally.  They can be cited plausibly as evidence that the responsible journalists chose more less consciously to give those defectors a bit of protection.
        The pivotal Republican senators were Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, Roy J. McDonald of the Capital Region, James Alesi of Monroe County and Stephen Saland of Columbia County (and other counties).  The switching Democrats were Joseph Addabbo, Carl Kruger, and Shirley Huntley, who represent districts in New York City.
SILENT SENATORS.  In their dealings with the Marriage Equality Act, New York’s senators differed not only in how they voted, but also in how they addressed the subject.  The main contrast here is between something and nothing.  Senator Grisanti accompanied his affirmative vote with a speech acknowledging his change of position, and he put a video of that event on his official senatorial web site.  Senator McDonald gave a cryptic statement to The Daily News (“fuck it”; “trying to do the right thing”) but no trace of that event appears on his web site.  Similarly, the search word “marriage” yields nothing on Senator Alesi’s web site, and yet, tucked next to his “Community Update” of June 24 (distributed to all local papers) is a video in which he speaks at a marriage equality rally, anticipates being (by alphabetical order) the first Republican senator  to vote on the impending bill, rates his vote as “the most important thing I can do in my 20-year career as a legislator,” and anticipates the loss of “what I thought were a lot of good friends.”  As for Senator Saland, the last of the Republican “turncoats,” he spoke on the Senate floor and addressed the issue on his web site (while declining to be the focus of national media interviews).  He spoke of the stress of clashing loyalties to the traditional conception of marriage and to equality of rights. He also emphasized the “religious exemptions” that he and others had managed to  include in the 2011 act, as distinct from the 2009 version.  www.nysenategov/senator/stephen-m-saland/marriageequality.
Senator Saland’s territorial neighbors and fellow Republicans, James Seward (representing GreeneLand, among other counties) and John Bonacic (Ulster and other nearby counties) took a different course.  While voting Nay on the Marriage Equality Act, they refrained from addressing the subject. They kept mum.  On their web sites, with sections devoted to Issues, with all press releases and public statements listed, nothing about marriage occurs.  Both of those senators (and many others) did post video statements evaluating the 2011 legislative session.  Both gave the session high marks.  “Good news,” says Senator Seward; “Albany is functioning again,” and even “better” days for New Yorkers can be expected, thanks to measures lately adopted by the legislators.  It’s been a “good year,” says Senator Bonacic; and “things will get better and better.”  Their readers would not know that the legislative session ended with a bothersome, controversial, emotion-laden, dramatic debate about marriage.
Also mum on the subject were the down-State Democrats who supported the Marriage Equality Act after opposing the earlier version. They issued no statements, submitted to no interviews.  In two cases, however—Senators Huntley and Kruger--the search word “marriage” does yield material on official web sites.  The material in each case is a press release dating from December 2009.  Each release explains the senator’s vote against the proposed Marriage Equality Act.  Each explanation consists of affirming that the senator’s constituents clearly, firmly oppose the granting of marriage rights to same-gender couples.