Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Beaten favorite

For those who haven't picked up The Saratogian, walked by a vending box or may have otherwise avoided eye contact with its front page, Barbaro was euthanized Monday, ending a storied 254-day struggle to nurse the crippled thoroughbred back to health.

As anyone not living in Antarctica and/or a drug haze for the past year might recall, the 3-year-old horse enraptured the American public and media after gruesomely shattering his right hind leg during the running of the Preakness in Baltimore. It was only his seventh career race.

Journalistically speaking, aside from the general reaction angle --or even the recipe angle one now-defunct blogger posted last summer --what does this have to do with the Capital Region you ask? Well, just about nothing.

Tragic as the death may be, Barbaro never had a chance to run at the historic Saratoga Race Course. And while the name could frequently be heard floating among spectators attending the meet last summer, his connection with the Spa City is tenuous at best.
Of course, that didn't stop The Saratogian from allocating space for three articles penned by three different writers lamenting the thoroughbred's long-expected demise.

True, the heart-felt accounts of the horse's actual and symbolic meaning to thoroughbred racing were well written --albeit a bit on the sappy nostalgic side at times. But three articles about a horse that never even raced in Saratoga much less New York? Pardon the expression, but that's beating a dead horse, even in a community know for its horse-racing affinities.

Given the general dearth of news coverage, perhaps the Barbaro obituaries were necessary to bulk the paper a bit. Then again, maybe such overkill will goad one of the area's cash-heavy plutocrats into opening their wallets and establishing something worthwhile to memorialize the eight months of suffering this horse endured while serving as filler for newspapers around the nation.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Going greek

As the age-old adage goes, don't call you fraternity a frat unless you feel like calling your country --well, a similar monosyllabic and highly offensive term. Such a statement is undoubtedly echoed at infinitum to anyone affiliated with college Greek organizations, whether it be through membership or just passing familiarity with this bizarre clique.

Obviously, the Times Union reporter who penned a Sunday's piece about the University at Albany's attempts to rein in so-called underground fraternities was not one of these people. Using this informal slang no less than 17 times, the reporter tried to sort out the UAlbany's age-old quandary of how exactly to cope with the campus Greeks, a problem that has befuddled the administration since the university moved uptown and the city enacted its anti-grouper law downtown.

When Greek organizations first started cropping up in the 1930s, they were generally sanctioned and even encouraged by the administrators of what was then the New York State College for Teachers. But because the small downtown campus didn't have space for the fledgling groups, many of them settled in the city's private-owned row housing in the nearby Pine Hills neighborhood, where similar organizations remain today --off campus and generally out of the purview of the college.

Administrators had their one opportunity to reign in the Greeks in 1962, when the college became a university and construction began on the uptown campus. The creation of Greek houses on campus could have placed the groups within arms length of the university's regulatory power. But at the time, the notion was that the Greeks, who were cultivating quite a reputation as rabble-rousers, would just disappear if they were plugged into the student collective living at the college's four massive quads. The city took a similar approach to the Greeks, stringently enforcing its so-called anti-grouper law that prohibited more than three unrelated people living in a one-family unit and effectively shutting down many of the fraternity houses downtown.

Indeed, as the transition was made from downtown to uptown throughout the 1970s, many of the college's stalwart Greeks vanished. By the time the go-go 80s rolled around, this all changed. Fraternities continued to use rented apartments in Pine Hills as a stomping ground for parties, while using on-campus dormitories as quasi-recruitment centers. Within a decade, the school's flailing Greek system reinvented itself and then ballooned to encompass more than 50 fraternities and sororities, most with rather impressive membership.

In response to this growth, then-UAlbany President President H. Patrick Swygert organized a 16-member panel of students and campus officials to study the construction of a Greek row on the campus. Five unproductive years later, a group of student leaders rallied behind a similar idea, proffering to settle in a designated strip of the city; then Student Association President "Landslide" Larry Kauffman even suggested taking a corner of Albany's embattled Arbor Hill neighborhood for Greek housing. Both efforts quickly fell off the radar were left to the annals distant past.

Today, Greek life on the Albany campus is nowhere near as prolific as it once was during the 1990s. National organizations cracked down on many of groups for hazing and alcohol policy violations, while the administration took care of many others by an ineffectual practice of "de-recognizing" them; in other words, taking away their ability to have university-sanctioned events.

The result? The most offensive of these organizations simply went "underground" with little, if any penalty at all. In fact, some have apparently made quite the run at being derecognized, drawing membership from having a so-called bad-boy reputation. Unlike those groups sanctioned by the university's student-run Inter-Fraternal Council, unrecognized can do pretty much what they want, especially when their living far away from the prying eyes of administrators. One such organization --Zeta Beta Tau --has remained in existence nearly a decade ago for well-documented hazing violations.

University administrators tried extending the olive branch to some of these organizations in attempt to again bring them under some sort of quasi-control; come back now, and we'll grant you amnesty. for your misdeeds. Quite expectedly, none of them bothered to respond. And why would they, considering the deal brings them nothing but the ability to hang posters on campus and participate in the hackneyed events of Greek Week?

Truth is, there's an element of fraternal life that's inalterably lost when there's no common house for the members to gather. After all, it's hard to foster brother- or sisterhood without having a physical place to symbolize that unity. On campus university-owned Greek houses would give the student members an element of personal responsibility, while their conduct is closely monitored by the administration. It would also help the city clean up what has for decades been one of the most problematic neighborhoods in Albany.

But devoid of true housing, or any sort of responsibility for that matter, these student groups often degenerate into the stereotypical notion of fraternities, which at UAlbany, is a roving bands of loosely knit miscreants donning peculiar symbols and rabidly cavorting around with little if any fear of reprisal. Most inner cities classify these groups as gangs.

No doubt, the Greek system is once again reinventing itself at UAlbany; the free-wheeling days of binge-drinking keggerfests appears to be drawing to a close, as the school tries to bolster its academic reputation. But despite its ebbs and flows, Greek organizations continue to maintain a solid presence on the campus. They'll be back in force at some point, it's just a matter of when and under what manifestation. The question UAlbany officials should now mull is whether they plan play a role in this reinvention as it takes place before their eyes.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Happy trails to you

Don't get used to seeing Kristina Krawchuk on News 9 these days. Looks like the "Taser gun guinea pig" and weekend anchor is off to greener pastures, as she's apparently been penciled out of the "Your News Now" list of broadcasters.

And while you might be seeing her on the tube this weekend, the techies over at Time Warner's news station already axed her online contact credentials. Rumor is, a disagreement with the higher ups lead to her impending departure. Leave it to the Mensa folk in their production department to clip her bio even before her last newscast airs.

For those who haven't channel surfed over to News 9, Krawchuck is --or was --the channel's food cheerleader-turned-weekend anchor, who could often be found milling about downtown Saratoga Springs after the broadcast. There are some circles among web crawlers that fancy her as one of the more attractive news anchors in the region.

No word yet as to where the long-time fixture with the news station plans to park herself. But for News 9, which often seems in a bit of a struggle to fill their 24-hour-a-day broadcast, the vacancy can't be a welcome development. This is especially when there's an apparent dearth of competent news anchors --or ones that can read the teleprompter -- who are willing to submit to their penny-pinching ways.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What about Bob?

Bob Reilly could teach the nation's politicians a lot. The humble second-term state assemblyman from Latham stepped forward Thursday and doled out every last penny of his $72,000 legislative salary to charitable organizations around the region.

The former Albany County legislator and retired state Department of Education worker decided that his pension was enough for he and his wife to live. Such selflessness isn't a first for Reilly, who's given his salary away every year since being elected to the Legislature in 2004.

Reilly's annual act is, however, highly uncommon among the deep-pocket folk lining the Capitol, many of whom often find it more pertinent to give themselves a raise each year for their paltry 65 days at work in Albany. Boiled down, this amounts to about $6,076 per work week or $316,820 annually were they to work full-time. Not a bad haul for a crew largely comprised of former lawyers and businessmen, who largely rest easy with their personal contribution to a growing budget crisis in Albany.

So rather than throwing money into a new Hummer with all the bells and whistles to tear pavement up the Northway or on a down payment for a second summer home in the Hamptons, Reilly chose instead to give his share to some local non-profit agencies in the Capital Region. These are the same organizations that are on increasingly smaller budgets, thanks to fiscal mismanagement in Albany.

CARE, an organization trying to eliminate homelessness in Albany County recieved $8,000 of Reilly's salary, while $7,000 will go to support victims of domestic violence in Saratoga County. Regional food banks and pantries also got $8,000 to keep their shelves stocked.

State legislators could learn from this act, especially one noted money bag who barfed more than $1.4 million to seize his mantle in the senate during the 2004 election. But who could possibly blame Hollywood Joe for spending all that cash. After all, the incumbent Republican senate majority leader was running unopposed.

Then there's the state's esteemed senate delegation to Washington, who each rake in a paltry $165,200 per year for representing New York's interests. And it probably won't be too long until they're making more, under the cost-of-living-adjustment increase takes effect annually unless Congress votes to not accept it. Since 2000, lawmakers have voted in favor of keeping this adjustment, which has ballooned their salaries from $98,400 in 1990 to the present figure. Now that's a cost of living increase few workers would argue with.

What is more disturbing is the number of federal legislators who could probably live lavishly off interest earned from their private fortunes. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is estimated have a net worth between $10 million and $50 million, ranking her the 14th richest among senators. Her much more modestly wealthy compatriot, Chuck Schumer is said to have a net worth of between $290,023 to $925,000, according to financial disclosure filings.

Not everyone in government is as fiscally stable to altruistically toss their salaries at charities, but it's a safe bet that many of them are. And when a low-level former state worker can safely practice what he preaches, then it's about time a few of these tycoons follow in his footsteps.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

If it's brown, flush it down

When there's a good deal of pocket cash on the line, slick real estate agents will do just about anything to nail down the sale. They're sort of like used car salesmen, only on a much larger scale; bend the truth, fabricate or just flat-out lie to get a signature on the dotted line.

As the saying goes, the right house it the one that's for sale; the right person is anyone. And in the case of the real estate hall-of-famers Geraldine and Larry Abrams, the right house is a $85 million upscale hotel development on Saratoga Lake's sole remaining public beach. The right person is the hundreds of residents living around the lake, which would be inalterably changed with such a development.

The nearly two-decade long saga of Brown's Beach continued last week, as an attorney representing the Abrams and their investors pitched the latest development plan for the 7.3 acre parcel on Stillwater's shoreline. This most recent delusion of grandeur includes an 188-room resort with 400-seat banquet hall, three restaurants, a 15,000-square-foot day spa and dock space for up to 200 boats.

The development will be "green" and environment friendly, the developers told the Daily Gazette Tuesday. Just think about the roof-top water filtration system --otherwise know as grass --that will actually clean the lake, they claim. Buy this bridge, it only costs a dollar.

Dubbed Saratoga Lake Resort Hotel and Marina by the dynamic duo, the project bears remarkable similarity to one pitched about two years ago, when they proposed to build up to 250 rooms, a 500-seat conference center, three restaurants and a 165 boat slips. The jaw-dropping plan left many area residents scratching their heads and wondering how the Abrams' planned to force such a monstrosity down the throats of the town's elected and appointed officials. At the time, the town board believed they'd have a bit of oversight in at least deciding whether or not to rezone the Abrams' land to allow the resort.

"Members of the town board believe this project has merit, but there are a number of concerns," town Supervisor J. Gregory Connors explained to the Daily Gazette in 2005.

Faced with this modest resistance, the Abrams scaled back their plans and pitched a more modest development ten months later. The new plan called for a more upscale development with less rooms, less buildings and most importantly, less vertical height.

But that didn't last long. Over the summer, the Abrams' lawyer dropped a bombshell on the town board, stating in essence, the real estate agents could build whatever that want on the property, without an ounce of approval from the town's elected officials. The attorney cited a 1988 document that approved a zoning change on the land paving the way for a condominium development.

Now for a short history lesson on Brown's Beach. Robert Morris decided to put it up for sale during the late 80s after owning the property --then a 13-acre parcel used as an amusement park --for nearly a half-century. Developers came in and pitched a 34-unit condo complex, but couldn't get a shovel in the ground before the housing market crashed in the early 90s.

Morris plucked the property at tax auction for a cool $253,000 in 1993. Less than a year later, he subdivided the land and sold the lion's share to James Charles Agius and Susan Clare Bernhardt, who cleaned up and enlarged the beach. They ran a marina and bed and breakfast on the property until contacting Geraldine in 2003 to sell the land for them. Rather than list the property at the $1.96 million asking price, Abrams scrapped together $1.57 million and bought it herself. Yes, being in real estate has its privileges.

At the time, the Abrams gushed over the deal --as well they should --and flooded the press with all sorts of preservationist ideas for the land.

"We're just going to go and enjoy it,'" a badly salivating Geraldine Abrams told the Times Union after closing the deal. "It's our baby.''

Larry Abrams claimed the couple had no intentions of leveling the property to build condominiums. Instead, he spoke of building "villas'' on the beach and maintaining the historic nature of' the property.

Pan to the present. Of the 188 rooms in the Ritz Abrams, only 14 will be rented to the general public. The two tallest buildings on the beach will span 85 vertical feet, which might sound like a villa in mid-town Manhattan, but among the two- and three- story homes around the lake, well that's what we laymen call a high rise.

True, they're going to multiply the beach size to more than seven times its present length. But can anyone actually believe the 174 "owners" of the hotel rooms will want to rub elbows with John Q. Public and his gaggle of snot-nosed children. The caveat is that Stillwater will get a $1.25 million park from the Abrams built more than a mile away from the lake, where Junior Public can go frolic around in the grass.

So like it or not, the once-blue collar lake will soon be solely private and yet another breeding ground for the rich to soar their wealthy oats during the summertime. And the lake folk who blew a gasket when the city decided to tap the lake for drinking water; the lake stewards? Not a peep. But hey, the developers are only going to pave over half the property and dump several tons of concrete into its wetlands. And those 40-plus boats coming to the lake each year probably won't make a difference either on the already over-crowded waterway.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Don't be that guy

It's bad enough to be singled out by the largest newspaper in the region while at a reality television show concert, especially after being bilked $40 to see the recording industry's latest repackaged band of has-beens. It's also rather poor concert etiquette to wear the shirt of the band you're going to see; it makes about as much sense as paying to see a burned-out dreck like Tommy Lee flounder away on stage with four other washed-up hacks.

But to be the one person donning a Dilana tank top with the South African singer featured in the concert, only to be plucked out of a crowd of thousands by a roving reporter who decides to feature your gaff in the lead of her prattling article about merchandising? Well, that's just uncanny.

Such was the case for an unfortunate Amsterdam teacher Sunday, who ended up on the cover of the Albany Times Union in an article that struggled to make any sense. There were some quotes from the teacher, then some from a few merchandisers, then suddenly a paraphrased rap lyric from P-Diddy, who oddly enough wasn't even at the concert; utterly baffling. Most likely, the reporter was assigned to cover the event for a news article and tried to find a catchy angle for an event utterly devoid of news.

And now that Times Union has its name emblazoned on the front of the Knickerbocker, get ready for a few more articles like this. Maybe next time they'll pick up on the pop culture fashion faux pas that was glossed over in the lead. At least then readers can then laugh along with their shameless self-promotion.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Move over, Pulitzer

In the "what were they smoking" category, the Suburban Newspapers of America has deemed the The Saratogian worthy of no less than nine awards during their editorial contest for 2006, trumping both the Troy Record's five awards and the Glens Falls Post Star's eight. Yes, the same paper that brings the Spa City yesterday's news in the form of error-ridden stories that often not only miss the mark, but the target altogether, can once again affirm their title as "an award-winning" publication.

The Saratogian was found worthy of no less than nine awards among the 37 discriminating categories listed by the SNA, a gaggle of "suburban and community newspapers" spanning roughly 2,000 publications across the continent. Their Mantra? Supporting the advancement of high standards in the newspaper industry.

So high are these impeccable standards at the humble Saratogian, that their managing editor now makes a semi-annual practice of turning her column --a generally disjointed string of thoughts about housework appearing on the front page of the living section --to her 19-year-old college aged son.

But hey, at least he doesn't write balls. Fuzzy pink ones.

Needless to say, this column fodder scored high among the SNA judges, along with Barbara Lombardo's prattling editorials that basically weigh a bit heavy on the same rhetoric routinely spouted on such fair and balanced media bastions as the Fox News Network. Take for example her editorial published last year, ironically around the same time as Bill O'Reilly's heralded "War on Christmas" campaign. Real edgy stuff that wasn't bashed about the media ad nauseum.

And lately, it doesn't appear as though the Lombardo Factor has been producing editorials period. Or at least not ones that ever make it online. This should come as no surprise for electronic readers, as it appears the paper hasn't been posting anything online. Thus continues a spiral descent of what was one of the more cutting-edge local news sites just a scant four years ago.

(update: after nearly five straight days of darkness, the Saratogian online edition was back in force, posting all of yesterday's news reporting on last week's events. The news remained online for almost a solid day before the Web site went blank again Thursday morning. Keep up the good work, JRC!)

From ditching their online pictures in 2004, to the trimming down of posted stories last year to the abolishment of daily news posts altogether. Now, the only local online content is asinine "reader poll" questions like "do you think the Saratoga Springs downtown bar scene is too wild," which are probably posted only because the paper made a habit of printing the results.

So while The Saratogian closes the chapter on 2005 with a new pocket full of tawdry plaques, they can start firing out the submissions for 2006, which was another banner year for the paper. Circulation went up a whopping 1.1 percent last year, meaning about 100 more people were duped into buying this award winner each day. They'll need those people to keep reading if their going to balance out the more than 1,000 readers who wisely stopped buying the $1.75-per-issue Sunday paper last year.

Truth is, no award is going to right the direction of this paper until there's a solid gutting of management and a renewed commitment to good local journalism, even if it's centered around the city alone. But with such faux praise espoused by a generally bogus association like the SNA, the morons at the Journal Register Company will continue to believe there's nothing wrong with this equation.

Friday, January 19, 2007


Kudos to Latham resident Hugh Skerker for sticking it to the neofascists in Colonie. Now, maybe the town's taxpayers will finally stick it to der Kommandant Brizzell, the deeply entrenched town supervisor who thought it proper to wage a cyber witch-hunt to roost the former paramedic for sending her critical e-mails.

After nearly a year of senseless legal sparring, the former EMS worker walked away from his job with a cool quarter-mill dangling from his pocket. And rightly so, after the bumbling town officers used just about every furtive method in the book to sniff out and punish him for simply used the freedom of speech in tandem with the freedom of the internet to voice his discontent.

True, the town's insurance policy will cover about $101,000 worth of this settlement, meaning John Q. Public will be responsible for a paltry $124,000. Fellow EMS volunteer Bill Gardner banged the town for a $21,000 after making a similar claim, bringing the total claims against the town to $246,000, plus court fees and so on and so forth.

Of course, there's also a nice fee for the town's private attorney. And then there there's the imminent increase in insurance premiums, which will undoubtedly follow such egregious conduct by town officials. Just ask Montgomery County and their keystone kop, Michael Amato.

No, freedom isn't free. It costs folks like you and me.

It's more troubling that Brizzell and Arnis Zilgme, the town's smitten attorney who cooked up the whole scheme, are both still in office after unlawfully obtaining private account information from a private company without even a vague right to do so. Laughably, the Zilgme claims not to have known that his powers as the town's attorney didn't include the right to forge documents from the county District Attorney's office and then dupe Time-Warner into turning over Internet records.

In fact, when words like "alter" and "subpoena" are used in the same sentence, generally they are often accompanied by terms such as "charges" and "indictments." Also bothersome is the fact that Time-Warner rolled over and surrendered records with making a peep as to the legal basis for the request. Even the Colonie Police said Skerker's e-mails didn't contain vulgar or threatening language and were therefore did not warrant a criminal investigation, which should have been reason enough for Brizzell to drop any town government involvement.

Then again, Brizzell was the "heir apparent" to the last Colonie supervisor, who served nearly two decades himself. And when your among the list of only three town supervisors serving over the span of more than half a century, being entrenched has its privileges. In this case, it's to wage an illegal investigation with taxpayer money, then putting the town in legal jeopardy for no other reason than to find out who's bitching about the ambulance service.

Speaking of the ambulance service, what ever became of Skerker and Gardner's previously allegations of cronyism, misconduct and mismanagement in the EMS department? If the claims carried enough water to spur a whole federal court battle, then perhaps they might warrant an actual unbiased investigation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Doh! A Deer...

The only thing more asinine than demanding to be an anonymous source in an article about deer poaching is to be the editor that approved using the aforementioned person in an article. Trumping all of this would be the reporter who saw it fit to use the anonymous source's first name, identify him as having two children, and then list him among the residents of a sparse developed area on the outskirts of the city.

True, seven poaching deer from woods belonging to the Police Benevolent Association can be a racy subject, especially if you're the one doing the poaching. But considering the penalties for such an offense would be limited to fines and the suspension of hunting privileges, the use of anonymous sourcing is hardly necessary, especially when the context allows anyone with a third-grade education to track that source down. In this case, anonymous sourcing simply detracts from an article that was otherwise somewhat interesting,

Castigating the reporter isn't really necessary in this case, seeing as though the article was undoubtedly written by a neophyte to the world of journalism. The problem is, this reporter just stumbled face-first into one of the crumbling pillars of journalism, without being corrected by the editor-on-duty.

Too often in modern journalism --especially in the higher echelons --the use of anonymous sources is blurred with off-the-record information. This is not to say that there isn't a time and a place for such tools, rather they should be used sparingly and in extreme situations where they help build a story, not deconstruct it.

Some very well-known reporters these days have made some pretty outrageous and fallacious claims in using anonymous sources. One who comes to mind is Judith Miller, the hack reporter-turned-journalistic martyr, who wrote an April 2003 article entirely based on anonymous sources alleging that coalition forces had indeed found the elusive weapons of mass destruction cache in Iraq. Guess these sources were wrong, eh?

Simply and succinctly put, the rule governing the use of anonymous sources in reporting goes as follows: don't use them. If a person isn't willing to put their name on something or give a compelling reason why, chances are pretty good they're not saying anything important; either or they've watched All the Kings Men a few too many times.

Granted, there is a shoe-string budget over on Lake Avenue, thanks to the penny-pinching misers at the Journal Register Company; minor errors of spelling or grammar can be expected. But for any editor to allow such a mindless breach of journalistic common sense is a bit befuddling, especially since the paper DOES have a city editor, plus at least three copy editors on duty at any given time.

Then again, this is The Saratogian, a publication that seems to successfully defy all principles of logic. And yet for some inconceivable reason, people continue to shell out two quarters for such tripe. Then again, there are some readers who are getting pretty darn fed up with this schtick.

Dam it

It’s hard to consider the furtive Hudson River-Black River Regulating District a "regulating agency" as the state public benefit corporation's name might suggest. It's also hard to call them a public benefit corporation, when seldom if ever do they act to benefit the public. Lawlessly debauched overlords maybe, mindless despotic bureaucrats perhaps, but regulators, definitely not.

For more than a decade, this agency has served as a quasi-fiefdom that has been a dumping ground for the politically unclean of the Pataki Administration. During these glorious times of corruption, those deserved of a heaping helping of political patronage but with not-so-easily-vetted pasts were given a post with the regulating district. And it's easy to see why.

Among the dozens of small- to mid-sized daily newspapers in the upstate region, none have placed the regulating district under the microscope for any lasting period of time. Honorable mentions go to both The Daily Gazette of Schenectady and The Leader-Herald of Gloversville, which both try to follow up on issues facing the Great Sacandaga Lake, mostly as they pertain to Fulton County.

In the area of Hadley, Day, Edinburg and Luzerne, however, news coverage is sparse. For most papers, including The Post-Star of Glens Falls, The Times Union of Albany and the ineptly named Saratogian, coverage is limited to quick-hit articles, usually printed after issues are raised in the aforementioned publications. This means the Conklingville Dam --the single most important thing the regulating district is supposed to regulate --hardly gets a mention in the press, despite the catastrophic effect a failure might pose for any downstream municipality.

As some might recall, the damn dam is pretty damn old. In fact, it's now heading toward the century mark, which is never a happy milestone to reach in the life of a structure holding back hundreds of billions of gallons of water, especially if it's overseen by a corrupt agency more worried about filling their own pockets with filthy lucre. But despite this fact, the so-called lake regulators continue to max out the damn's storage capacity, filling the Sacandaga reservoir with more water than it's ever contained throughout it's 77-year history. The idea is to have enough water to discharge from the dam to keep water pulsing through hydroelectric dams in the upper Hudson Valley, where the Sacandaga River converges.

So let's do a quick recap: hopelessly inept agency of political cronies watching an aging dam that's stopped a lake's worth of water from wiping out half of Saratoga County, with no journalist to take the agency to task for over-extending the capabilities of the structure.


One newspaper made a glib mention of the sudden appearance of rebar poking through the dam's spillway, but it was a story buried deep in the local section. No news agency ever bother to report that lake levels over the summer were too high to make the more than $500,000 worth of necessary repair. Nor did they bother to mention that one of the emergency dow valves failed to open during a routine check last month; reports on both were given during the regulating district's monthly meeting in Johnstown, a city within easy driving distance of every daily newspaper in the Capital Region.

Then on Monday, the regulating district dropped it's latest bombshell: the second of three emergency valves has experienced some problems and the lake must be lowered by more than 11 feet. Robert Foltan, the fork-tongued chief regulating district fubulist, said the dam will be releasing nearly 3.5 million gallons of water per minute until reaching the "target elevation" of 760 feet.

Put in layman's terms, this means the valves present at the bottom of the dam to drain the reservoir in the event of a dam failure are busted. With two of the three valves inoperable, there's a good chance the lake couldn't be lowered in event of an imminent rupture.

But that's alright. Public safety is the regulating district’s highest priority, said the agency's paid shill of an executive director Glenn LaFave, who sent out a press release only after the second valve failed. Just don't mention the word "Gilboa" anytime in the near future.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who's right?

Get ready for the court battle of the decade Clifton Park, because high-toned evangelic attorney Thomas Marcelle has his sights on you. And this time, he’s got the deep pocketed Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., to help wage a public crusade against the Shenendehowa and two other school districts across the nation for disallowing an in-school right-to-life protest by students.

In the Capital Region case, a 13-year-old student at the Gowana Middle School had planned to protest abortion by placing a piece of red tape over his mouth, donning a pro-life T-shirt and by passing out literature supporting the cause to his classmates. His principal ordered him to turn the shirt inside out, ditch the fliers and remove the tape, according to the law suit.

Not surprisingly, the case has struck a chord with the right-wing claptraps and religious freedom fighters. They say the actions of the principal represent a duplicity in the freedom of speech laws in today’s society; protests for peace and same-sex marriage are fine, but bring up good Christian values and the tone changes, the theory goes.

But in the Clifton Park case, there’s more than just free speech at play. There is quite an agenda that’s being exacted. And it’s being done at the taxpayer’s expense, receiving all the free advertising in the world by politicos who could care less about the real issue: where, if anywhere, does protest belong in public schools.

This is the message Marcelle is flagging. Although preceded by a long and storied history of bible slapping, he’s also top defense attorney who's stood steadfast in his support of First Amendment rights and constitutional freedoms, albeit a bit on the religious side of the spectrum.

“I take the viewpoint that the First Amendment should be interpreted very liberally,” Marcelle told the Times Union in a February 2001 interview. “I believe in more speech than less. To silence someone just because it’s a religious viewpoint does damage to the First Amendment, in my opinion.”

Marcelle waged his first noted battle such rights in 1999, when he took up the defense of Dan Marchi, a special education teacher for socially and emotionally disturbed high school students in the Capital Region’s BOCES. The teacher was suspended in 1993 when he began to integrate religious instruction in his lessons. District officials said he “modified his instructional program to discuss topics such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and God.” The court eventually affirmed the lower-court ruling, handing Marcelle his first big loss in defending religious freedoms.

But that was the extent of Marcelle’s failures when defending religious rights in public schools. He’s perhaps best known for his bid in in U.S. Supreme court, where he successfully argued for a Cooperstown-area elementary school religious group’s right to use their school's facilities for weekly late-afternoon meetings. In writing the decision for the 6-3 majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared the club, which met immediately after the last class of the day, “simply taught morals and character development” much like the school itself.

Marcelle wasn’t alone in his fight either. He caught the eye and coffers of the Rutherford Institute, Virginia-based religious freedom group, which began funding his battles against the public school system. The following year, the Rutherford Institute backed Marcelle’s successful battle against the Saratoga Springs School District over a Dorthy Nolan Elementary student’s right to pray out loud during snack time. The 5-year-old kindergartener attempted to ask three of her classmates to say grace aloud before being told to refrain by her teacher.

Most recently, Marcelle won a seven-year federal case against a bucolic Oswego County school district, which prohibited students from placing bricks in school sidewalk that bore evangelical messages. The judge ruled the bricks, which contained messages such as “Jesus Christ the only way” and “Jesus Saves,” didn’t endorse a particular religious view by the district, therefore removing them would violate the rights of the people who paid for them during the fundraiser for the Class of 1999.

In the Gowana Middle School case, Marcelle’s admirable position as constitutional guardian is being exploited to bring attention to the abortion issue and to make a not-so-subtle political statement about the so-called left-leaning public education system. With the deeply-connected and conservative Alliance Defense Fund fueling the battle, it’s only a matter of time until the right-wing talking heads begin to twist and distort issue at hand.

Truth is, both parties seem a bit wrong in this case. Protesting is fine, provided you’re an emancipated individual who has the lawful powers to make life decisions. This freedom comes at one’s 18th birthday, at which time the nation views the individual as an adult and capable of their own destiny.

In the case of the 13-year-old boy, who’s name hasn’t even been released to the media, the right to protest runs no stronger than his right to watch television after school. When at home, his parents act as his decision makers; when at school, it’s up to his teachers to assume this role in absenteeism.

So if the principal says no, then like it or not, there’s no protest, period. And in a situation where the boy would be prevented from participating in or disrupting the educational process --it’s pretty difficult to answer a teacher’s question with a piece of red tape affixed to one’s mouth --there’s ample precedent for saying no irregardless of the cause.

Conversely, the principal showed a bit of lunacy in partially allowing the student to continue his “silent” protest, sans the tape and leaflets. Either let the kid wear the tape, or tell him to can it and hit the books like everyone else; there’s no sense in half-assing something.

All this will bubble to a head when the fair-and-balanced Fox News trailer pulls up to the middle school in a couple of weeks. Junior plans his second tape-wearing to mark the anniversary of Rowe V. Wade later this month, adding fuel to a fire that’s already creating too much smoke for this issue. Hopefully, Bill O‘Reilly will parachute onto the scene from a C-5 cargo plane and clarify everything before the district loses too much money.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kathy's Inferno

As Virgil and Dante climbed the bristling fur of Satan’s back, neither man took notice of a strange fluorescent hue beaming from an obscure corner ninth and most sinister circle of hell. Nestled among the most vile of traitors encased in the frozen Cocytus sat the Wilton branch of Department of Motor Vehicles at its “newer” location in the Mall.

True, there aren’t too many DMV locations that motorists can visit and leave with a satisfied and content feeling; some of the Long Island branches are hellish enough to convince even the staunchest of atheists that the netherworld indeed exists. Still, there’s an icy layer of bureaucracy now operating at this once cozy office that is astonishing even for a frigid operation like Motor Vehicles.

Customer service, easier accessibility and more space were among the main selling points County Clerk Kathy Marchione offered for the $250,000 relocation. Move nearer to the Northway and the will office will be easier to reach. And more space means more room for tellers, more tellers means quicker service. Quicker service means more smiles among the driving public, right?

Wrong-o, Kathy.

Even if there isn’t a line, or even an indication that one might form, you're ordered to take a number, grab a seat until your number is bellowed out by the commandant up front. If you happen to forget to fill a form or check a box? Well, you’ll have to get back on line at the information desk, grab another number and wait for the call. And whatever you do, don't make small talk with the frowning clerk, lest you break their concentration and throw the whole process off.

All this is compounded by the fact that the mall’s owners feel fit to play musical storefronts with the DMV at the drop of a hat. Undoubtedly, they knew the office would be moved to make way for an expansion of J.C. Penney before the county signed a lease. Now instead of being located centrally by the mall's main entrance, DMV has reappeared at a remote location near Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Those visiting the DMV can now battle traffic snarls along Route 50, park half a mile away from the office during heavy shopping times and then wonder if the mall’s owner will arbitrarily decide to move the office to a different corner of the sprawling commercial plaza. Why? Because every contract with the mall stipulates they can move an office if they have another store coming in and need the space, Marchione explained to the Daily Gazette late last month.

In theory, the mall’s management could move the DMV down the anonymous corridor leading to the food courtbathrooms and the county could do little to stop them, other than void their $56,250-per-year lease after the next nine years pass. But look on the bright side, the county clerk insists; at least the new “new” location has an additional 300-square-feet with which the county can further expand DMV’s bureaucracy.

For those chagrined by the last year of changes, look on the bright side: it gives the county ample opportunity for another “grand opening” in February. That’s one to mark on the calendars. So bust out the streamers, get the champagne on ice and alert John Gray. The DMV is ready to christen in their new digs.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The highway to salvation

By most accounts, Buddy Cremeans knows how to carry a crowd. Faced with thousands of pleading eyes begging for an ounce of salvation, the pastor-nouveau queues the Fender Stratocaster, fires up the pod-cast and belts out a Jesus-toned self-help clinic that would make even Dr. Phil jealous.

In four short years, Cremeans and his independent-faith Northway Fellowship has propagated along I-87 faster than a cases of whooping cough through crowded elementary school bus. Earlier in life, he pursued a career in business. Then, at the age of 32, he decided to bring religion back into his life --and business back into religion --by becoming ordained as a minister.

“I had a bad experience with Christianity, got bitter and blamed God,” he told the Times Union in a 2002 interview. “I let people who were representing Christianity mess me up. God started telling me, ‘Lose the grudge.’”

With the grudge lost, Cremeans migrated to the north in 2000 and went on to attract anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 worshipers to his highway-side parish, most of whom are described in media accounts as predominantly middle-class Caucasians. So what better place to expand a church than at a strip mall in Clifton Park?

Cremeans consecrated the fellowship’s newest sanctuary this weekend at the former location of Gold’s Gym in the Northway Country Commons. It’s even within easy staggering distance for the drunks pouring out of Northern Lights after a good weekend jam session; head bang to some metal all evening, then saunter over for a bit of quick-stop salvation. The new locale give the fellowship an addition 20,000 square feet of space to join the 10,000 square feet already rented in the Shops of Malta shopping center.

But the plans don’t stop there. Cremeans has ambition to purchase a 100 acres of land somewhere in Malta for the purpose of building a sort of amphitheater for his sermons. In November, he whipped out $40,000 to give out among his parishioners, charging them with finding ways to multiply this money to help fund the new building. And indeed they did. One parishioners sold her the family car, raising $5,000 for the cause; another waited on line to purchase a Sony Playstation 3 and then sold it on e-Bay for the fellowship.

Cremeans seems ingenuous with his message; namely he’s trying to reach a segment of the population that stopped attending stogy church services arcane to the modern middle-class mind and harping more about eternal damnation than quick salvation. But in his message, there seems to more of an urgency to grow the parish in size than in devotion. Also, here's also a sort of cheapening of the holey message when it’s delivered at a strip mall.

Instead of raising his own expensive structure by the lulling hum of the Northway's rush-hour traffic, perhaps Cremeans could direct some of his zeal for religion to refurbishing some of the barren religious hulks of yesteryear. After all, the late 20th century atrophy of many Christian sects has left dozens of these historic houses of worship rotting throughout the Capital Region, many too large and too expensive for any private use.

Take for example the The St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Mechanicville, just a few scant miles from Cremeans’ locale in Clifton Park. Built in the late 1890s, building has more than 15,000-square-feet of space and seats about 350 people in its sanctuary, which would be more than enough space for the fellowship to occupy.

When the message is expansion of numbers and not the expansion of faith, it’s a lot easier just to erect a big box church and keep the dollars rolling in. For many, this brand of no-frills religion has served well, especially for those fear mongers who worry there might not be enough time to read the scripture before the next big disaster. The alternative is much easier: buy into the modern credit-based faith, where the new flat screen brand of eternal salvation can be received at once for a 72-month easy-to-fill schedule of payments.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Well stated

In the days following the amateur drunkfest some call New Year’s eve, it appeared as though many members of the Legislature still hadn’t sobered up. Either that or they’re assured Eliot Spitzer doesn’t have the power to enforce even a tenth of the reforms he espoused during his inauguration and state of the state address.

Spitzer kicked off 2007 by kicking outgoing Governor Pataki square in the junk. With the stern tone and powerful language he directed toward an electric and eclectic crowd of thousands, the Capitol’s new regulator did everything short of calling the Legislature under Pataki the text book definition of corrupt.

And in one short speech, he managed to ruffle quite a few feathers.

With a face full of digital recorders, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno tucked his chin into the shoulder of his blazer and spoke in a meek voice that could only described as uncharacteristic for someone of his candor. But the message was clear: Hollywood’s pissed.

“I think history will judge the last 12 years,” he growled Monday, as an attractive young blonde whisked him into the Capitol building.

On the other side of the isle, things don’t look much brighter for Spitzer. Shelly Silver, who even democrats have come to dislike, tested the new governor even before he got sworn in. As has been well reported, Silver is hell-bent on having one of his chums appointed to the besmirched comptroller’s seat.

Of course, this goes against the whole Sptizer mantra, as laid out during his campaign, during his inaugural speech and in his State of the State address. See, the sheriff wants to pull down the ladder of political patronage and start filling the system with the right people for the right positions. That’s not going to bode well for all Shelly’s boot-kissers, who feel they’ve towed the line long enough to get a hand up.

Even among the glitz and glory of the inauguration celebration, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, himself a former assemblyman, tempered his hope for the future. In a glib knee-jerk statement, he alluded to the dark cumulus nimbus clouds forming on the horizon.

“There’s trouble brewing,” he quipped.

Then in the State of the State address, the new governor told the legislators themselves it’s time to buck up, clean up and move forward with the tough reforms; stop the bickering, snickering and dickering to unite New York under the banner of progress.

Then they applauded --albeit nervously and with hesitation. Even Spitzer himself had give a bit of coax to the masses, at times giving a quick “com'on guys” to incite clapping at some of the less opportune times.

In the end, what does it all amount to? Not much more than a hill of beans, which is fine if you’re rolling a burrito, but not so good if you’re a politician who’s awoken the hopes of millions. Columnists across the state have offered guarded skepticism of Spitzer’s lofty goals, almost mimicking the response he’s received thus far from the politicians. Both know there’s a rough road ahead that won’t involve a parade of “people’s celebrations” so to speak.

Hopefully, Spitzer stands by the gumption that has swept him into some sweet digs on Eagle Street. Hopefully, the other two men in the room will realize the gravy train has left for Peekskill, meaning it’s time to turn over a new leaf. And hopefully, New Yorkers themselves will take with them to the voting booths and operant knowledge of any senator or assemblyman that tries to redirect the wind of change in Albany.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Yes, it’s nitpicking. But when the word “town” represents exactly 4 percent of the words used in the whole damn article, perhaps it’s worthy of a mention. In a Saratogian report about the small lakeside settlement of Saratoga feeling out options for a new municipal hall, the writer chose to use the word “town” 14 times throughout the brief account.

One would think the copy desk would have at least trimmed down the three usages in the lead alone. Then again, when the Saratogian Web site routinely posts their obituaries as their top news story, it’s pretty difficult to criticize them for something that at the worst, is a distracting read.

Interestingly enough, townies and outside folk alike often refer to the city proper as Saratoga, drawing occasional rebuke by intellectuals and word snobs about the proper terminology for each geographic location. Hence, some news reporters find it necessary to make an often redundant distinction between the town and city. Were a once-mulled plan to rename Schuylerville ever brought to fruition, the waters of identity certainly would have been muddied.

On a side note, there was some news in the obituaries. Rest in peace Ellsworth Jones, the former city mayor some credit with initiating the modern rebirth of Saratoga Springs. And the word town wasn’t used even once in the article.

Perhaps a more riveting thought is why the small community of Saratoga needs to build new offices, just a scant four decades after dumping cash into their present locale. While 40 years might sound like a long time, consider how long the City Hall in Saratoga Springs has stood overlooking Broadway.

Saratoga officials say the new hall will have an eye-popping $4 million price tag and will boast nearly three times the space as the present location, which happens to be sinking into the ground, according to the supervisor. Moving into an exsisting building, such as the old Schuylerville High School is "off the table" because there's no longer any space available.

So let's get this straight for the record. Sink millions of dollars into a new slip-shod building to increase the size of the government and have a useless piece of property featuring a rotting relic from the 60s. Horatio Gates is rolling in his grave.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

As the restaurant turns

Anyone who has ever dabbled into the restaurant business knows it’s a dog-eat-dog industry that’s more prone to chewing up newcomers and spitting them out broke and penniless. In order to make it, one needs a quick wit, an iron-cast stomach and pockets as deep as a list of clientele.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to learn two of the Spa City’s top eateries were shuttered by the close of 2006, despite having stalwart reputations and general success over the past decade.

The first to fall was Michael and Pattie Lenza’s 43 Phila Bistro, an eponymous name for its location on an avenue clustered with restaurants. For years, the Lenza’s restaurant offered the only haute cuisine in the city proper, as the yuppies traveling north from the Big Apple began demanding the same high-octane dishes boasted at Siro’s over the summer.

The bistro won awards, drew acclaim and became a destination for the wealthy during race season. And with good reason too. After Michael Lenza put Fourty-Three on the map, Executive Chef John Winnek brought it to the next level with a quality rolling menu and a stable of capable, quality underlings to his kitchen.

The restaurant seemed in good shape in 2001, as the Lenzas began aggressively expanding their kitchen. They built an extension on the side and renovated the building’s second floor with the idea of expanding their business into catering. They also started serving food at the McGregor Links Country Club.

But apparently, the summer traffic into Phila slowed fairly precipitously over the past few years. The country club operation was scrapped one year after it started. Then over the summer, the Lenzas put the restaurant on the market. Several months later, they were closing the doors for good after 13 years in business, something that shocked even the regulars. Word on the street was that the business had become an income drain and the family was nearing bankruptcy.

Not much more than a couple blocks away, another popular restaurant called it quits. Mino Kawaguchi closed the door to Mino’s Sushi House on Caroline Street last month, ending his reign as Saratoga’s sushi king. He came to the United States about 25 years ago and owned eight restaurants in Greenwich Village, Albany and California before settling in Saratoga Springs to open the city’s first sushi restaurant.

And ask any sushi aficionado, Mino was the best gig downtown. Over the years, several others tried unsuccessfully to compete with Kawaguchi, who built an impressive and eclectic clientele. Even recently, there were rumblings that Mino was planning to expand the business in the building by adding a hibachi grill upstairs.

But apparently, business dropped as the much larger Sushi Thai Garden opened on Phila Street. As recently as October, the business had tax liens imposed on it, with more than $9,000 of unpaid taxes. Mino apparently opted for closing his Saratoga restaurant in favor of keeping another location across the street from the Colonie Mall. Another one bites the dust.

Update: Mino told the Post Star he intends to reopen in a few months at a new location, perhaps in the ghetto-turned-art-district of Beekman Street. Kudos, Mino. Stay with us a bit longer. There's nothing that beats a pull of hot saki and a Saratoga Roll.

Then there’s the peculiar case of David Zecchini, who apparently has more money that god. Or at least enough money to throw stacks of hundred-dollar bills at god. That’s the impression the owner of Chianti il Ristorante gives with his constant retooling among his three -yes that’s three -upscale Italian-fare eateries.

After spending eight successful years and countless cash at transforming a dilapidated Long John Silvers into a Euro-paradise, Zecchini is pulling up stakes for a space in Sonny Bonacio’s new building, located exactly a half-mile away from Forno Bistro at the old Firehouse on Broadway and Mare Ristorante at the former location of the Metro.

True, moving a business closer to the Broadway action is always a good plan to make the register ring. But when you own two other restaurants just a scant few blocks away from one another, it seems a bit superfluous to bring in a third. Zecchini is also the fellow who put thousands of dollars into transforming the Metro into Luna Lounge, only to tear all his improvements out three years later to create Mare.

Word on the street is that he’s blind-stinking crazy.

But perhaps crazy is what it takes to make it in this cut-throat business, where one season can mean the difference between success and a spot on the bankruptcy rolls.

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