Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Saving Sergeant Ryan

Eddie Ryan grimaces in the video. He first hisses the lyrics to a Marine marching song and then bellows them out, as the chaotic sound of a barking drill instructor reaches a crescendo in the background. He winces in frustration – and perhaps in pain –as a physical therapist methodically moves his extremities. With his one good arm, he gently punches an aluminum tray behind him to the time of the march.

Just the fact that the Iraqi War veteran is moving at all is more than amazing, given that a pair of friendly-fire bullets sheared off nearly two-thirds of his brain. He has nearly all of his mental faculties, just there’s been a quite literal separation between the synapses that once told his arms and legs how and when to move.

But now he’s moving. He’s extending his arms; he’s twitching his legs, and when a reporter from the Post Star asked the marine what the goal of his recovery is, Ryan is anything but bashful about his aspirations.

“I want to run,” he told the paper’s videographer. “Next year.”

Ryan is the heart-wrenching legacy of more than four years of brutal skirmishing among the hinterlands of Iraq. On about any other battlefield throughout American history, he would have come home a corpse. But with today’s military medicine, Ryan stands a fighting chance of regaining normalcy in his life, albeit a slim chance. When he returned home from battle, just about everyone greeted him as a hero. Everyone, that is, with two key exceptions: the military he fought in and the government that sent him to battle.

First, the military declined to disclose the nature of Ryan’s injuries, when it was quite clear from the get-go that the bullets that hammered into his head were from an American gun. Then, when he returned state-side, the sergeant was thrown into a veteran’s hospital that frequently skipped his meals and left him stationary long enough to get bedsores. His parents successfully petitioned the Veteran’s Administration to pay for their son’s care closer to his home town in Ulster County, and then had to battle again to get funds for his occupational and speech therapy sessions when he was released.

It’s ironic the military and government would fight so vociferously against a 23-year-old invalid who said “I want to go back to my unit” the minute he regained consciousness and still swears he wants to serve again in the Marines. Perhaps it’s that the government never planned on marines like Ryan coming back in anything other than a body bag, like they tended to do in Vietnam.

But they’re coming back now. Soon enough, they’ll be coming back in droves, and nobody in government quite knows how to provide for the tens of thousands of walking wounded that are being created from the war. Worse yet, they haven’t figured into the equation the ones that aren’t horrifically mangled by warfare; the ones that are quietly festering with a wide variety of disorders stemming from combat or the perceived betrayal of the very institution that swore to protect them for their service.

This sort of thing can grow under the surface for decades in a seemingly innocuous way. Take for example the case of Bob O’Neill, a decorated U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and returned home to his native Schenectady not knowing exactly how to restart his interupted life. So he did what he knew best: he fought. This time, it was on the hard-scrabble streets of a city in decline where drugs were just starting to take hold.

O’Neill fit in well. His predilection for battling crime earned him top honors in the department, where he was considered a rising star. Then one day, post-traumatic stress disorder got the best of O’Neill. He blacked out at times and had bouts of uncontrollable rage; his behavior became so aberrant that the department put him on permanent sick leave for nearly a decade.

O’Neill disappeared from Schenectady. He moved his family to a veritable fortress in the rural sticks of Hamilton County, where he collected his paycheck each month stayed in relative anonymity. His name surfaced once when a news agency got wind of civil suit regarding his sick leave benefits, which spurring a few headlines about the department’s wasteful practices.

Inside the O’Neill compound, the increasingly troubled veteran would brood in anger; stockpiling weapons and occasionally threatening to kill the only people he came in contact with: his VA doctors and his family. On one such occasion, his violent temperament prompted his wife to leave him. As she pulled away from the compound, he warned her not to call the police or else he’d come out shooting. When she returned later that day, a rifle and box of ammunition was set before each window on the second floor of their garage, with another cache of weaponry stored on the ground floor; he was waiting for them to come for him. And it was going to be a blood bath.

Then on a fateful morning in May 2005, O’Neill snapped. He went into a rage when he couldn’t find a bottle of cough syrup and threatened to kill his adult son, who lived in the compound with him. He was heading to his bedroom when his wife fired a single shot through his back, piercing his heart and killing the troubled man in minutes. When authorities came to investigate, they found his body laying before an open draw in the bedroom containing a pair of loaded pistols.

Bob O’Neill was a ticking time bomb that started when he returned home from Vietnam and detonated more than three decades later. It went off years after his service in the military were forgotten, years after his tenure with the police was whittled down to a budgetary afterthought and years after he could no longer provide for his family or the country he had fought for all his life. And without a proper safety net in place to save soldiers like Sgt. Eddie Ryan, America can expect many more Bob O’Neills settling anonymously in commnities around the state.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Plumbing leaks

Henry Smith has accomplished a lot at the young age of 30. He’s the black subject of a successful racial discrimination ruling against New York’s whitest city. He had his entire unremarkable personnel file leaked to the press. And now, he’s the latest lynchpin the Keehniacs are using to support their mudslinging campaign against Public Works fixture Tom McTygue.

Through all of this, Smith has kept his mouth shut, likely under the advice of his attorney. It’s equally likely he wants nothing to do playing the role of the rope in a vicious game of political tug-of-war as next week’s election nears.

The crux of Smith’s 2006 complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is simple: he was a black, part-time day laborer who saw white co-workers getting a leg up into full-time positions over him. The result of this complaint was equally simple: the commission would have investigated the case in strict confidentiality and made a ruling on their findings.

But then the case gets muddy; real muddy. At some point, a governmental higher-up wielding a stamp, a white envelope and a penchant for royally screwing the city decided to mail Smith’s complaint and personnel file to the Post Star. This, folks, was a big no-no. In fact, the act of disclosing Smith’s records period would have probably been enough to sway the commission in his favor, as employment records are highly guarded under law.

Needless to say, the September ruling found the city had unlawfully withheld a full-time position from Smith and had also moved to retaliate against him for filing the case by releasing his records to the media. The ruling was conveniently buried until last week, when the Times Union printed a story about it two weeks before the election and more than a month after it was first handed down, as one blogger wryly pointed out.

In the days that have followed, McTygue has since been very vocal about the ruling and its implications. More importantly, he’s questioned how these confidential items keep ending up in the media.

“This is confidential information, and to leak it to the press is a criminal act,” he told The Spotlight News Tuesday.

The only thing clear behind the motives of mailing Smith’s records is that someone wanted to throw some egg; more specifically, several gallons of egg. Thus Smith, himself is probably not the source of the mailer. The obvious finger points to the brothers McTygue, as has been insinuated in the press and by their detractors. The complaint was filed, so one of the brothers shipped off the records in hope of publically embarrassing Smith or detracting from his claim.

Now, before going any further along this line of thinking, take into consideration the publicity Smith has already generated in the city. It’s not exactly endearing. He was busted for steeling and forging a $43 dollar check at the former Mama Gorilla’s restaurant in 1997. Last summer, he landed himself in the clink on a warrant after failing to answer and assault charge.

True, these charges don’t make him a career criminal; it’s entirely possible both charges were dropped on contemplation of dismissal. What they do suggest about Smith is that he wouldn’t necessarily feel embarrassed or even threatened by his quite abbreviated record as a part-time short-term city worker were leaked to a news agency.

McTygue has publically indicated his department wasn’t the source of the records being mailed. Even though the EEOC ruled otherwise, it’s a claim that is believable seeing as though it was the release of the records that lead to the story making the press in the first place. So who might have had access to the documents and would have either sent them to the Post Star or given them to someone prone to do such a thing?

Well, once the case is destined for litigation, the city was forced to hire an outside attorney. Because it was a personnel matter –and one the EEOC clearly would have kept private –the litigation would have been discussed only among the full council in executive session. Excluding McTygue for the aformentioned reason, this leaves sparsely few suspects in the case of the leaked documents.

“I would bet money on it that it came out of the mayor’s office,” McTygue opined to the Post Star last year.

The Mayor’s office? Now, why would they leak document to the press that would not only sabotage the city’s litigation efforts but also paint the DPW commissioner as an overt racist? Could it have anything to do with the 2007 election?

All these suppositions would seem somewhat fantastic, were it not for the fact that the obstructionist Keehn administration has quite clearly directed the majority of its efforts at wresting power from McTygue and the other “good old boy” Democrats. Hence, why after nearly two years of Keehn in office, the city is no different than it was the day she won the election.

The other damning bit of evidence against Keehn and her cronies is that Keehn herself hasn’t made a single peep about investigating how personnel records were leaked to a news agency. Sad, how the people’s mayor isn’t very interested in finding out how the people’s records were illegally disclosed to the public.

What is even sadder is that all the newspapers reporting on this story have conveniently stuck to the discrimination case rather than how the whole issue came into the press to begin with. Regardless of whether the leak came from the DPW or the mayor’s office, if the faucet continues to drip personnel records into the press, the city will have to deal with a lot more than an EEOC ruling.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Department of Corrections

Were the world a perfect place, there would be no need for editors. News content would flow freely from the fingertips of reporters with the ease a fluidity of the morning rain and corrections boxes would be a thing of the past.

More importantly, the oft-incorrect Saratogian would open up a plethora of space in their paper, now devoted to righting the wrongs that happen to slip past their editors on a semi-regular basis. Take Sunday’s paper for instance. Prominently featured inside was a nearly 300-word “correction” refuting the information reported in an article entitled “Breaking Their Ties.”

For those who missed the story, it basically accused church leaders of running an almost cult-like organization in the village. New Covenant operates businesses, has a strict dress code for its women, orders its members to abstain from medication and all but dictates the day-to-day lives of their members, among many things alleged in the article.

The main source used in the article was an estranged member, who accused her former congregates of trying to lure her children away. She said the meddling was bad enough that she eventually sought and won a court order barring church leaders from associating with her children. Surprisingly, church Pastor Tom Bowden didn’t offer a substantive rebuttal to the comments made by a former member of the flock.

Though unclear from the ensuing correction, it seemed quite obvious in the reporter didn’t level some of Ketchum’s rapier-pointed allegations against the church in his interview with the pastor. In fact, the pastor’s comments throughout the article seemed oddly milquetoast for a religious leader being all but characterized as the next Jim Jones in the weighted report. And from even a cursory read, even an untrained eye could readily identify the side was better represented in the story.

But even if the article was a brick house built on a match-stick foundation, the story was both a thought provoking and compelling read, perhaps giving a clue as to some of the bizarre religious sects that are sprouting up like crab grass in the spring. For instance, the notion that religious leaders are running several visible businesses –including a deli on the main drag –poses some interesting questions about the church’s practices. Are the businesses tax-exempt? Do they only employ members of the church? Where does the line between running a church and operating a commercial enterprise blur?

Yet the editors at the Saratogian clearly didn’t find it fit to answer these questions. Nor did they bother to ask why that the pastor had only addressed the main premise of the story in a roundabout way, which never really tackled the most severe charges levied against his church. They simply moved the article along, into print and onto the front page.

So the church’s rebuttal didn’t come as a shock. One would expect as much even if all Ketchum said about New Covenant was true. The level of rebuttal is what is bizarre and yet another example why the editorial leadership of the Saratogian should be sent packing once and for all.

See, if the editors sign off on an article, they are in essence giving their endorsement of the piece. The onus is on them to sift through it with a fine-eye and note any areas that should be strengthened or retooled. Once the article appears under the masthead, the article becomes a piece of the puzzle representing the entire newspaper’s credibility. For the Saratogian to outright admonish something they endorsed just seven days earlier speaks volumes for how much they support their own content.

More striking is the fact that the Saratogian pulled all online references to the article following the article-sized correction. The story was deleted from both the Saratogian’s Web-based archives and from regional archives. Even cached images of the story no longer exist on the Internet, meaning the paper was likely threatened with a rather nasty libel suit if they didn’t move swiftly to remove any traces of the story.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Everyone's Buddy

When he came to office during the mid-1970s, the city was in the throngs of its darkest days. Many historic buildings were darkened, the streets were gritty and there were few jobs to be had among what had once been a vibrant city.

Somewhere along a political career that spanned the better part of three decades, he helped turn things around. The 66-year-old’s political longevity continues to baffle even the savviest of political pundits, given the sheer number of court cases and investigations that surround him. Born and bred in the city, he wielded a brash attitude and abrasive behavior throughout his tenure in office, which led some to revere him as a savior and many others to characterize him as a dubiously corrupt official. In the end, his service to the city stands testament to how one politician can indeed make a difference.

His name is Buddy Cianci. And love him or hate him, his career as mayor of Providence is often credited with turning Rhode Island’s capital around. What’s this have to do with the Spa City? Simply put: not too much. But the political career of Vincent Cianci Jr. harkens very closely to that of Thomas G. McTygue, a man recently dubbed the “mayor of Saratoga Springs” who could very well be his political doppelganger.

For those unfamiliar with Cianci, he is one of the longest-serving “big city” mayors in the nation and he was just recently released from federal prison after serving four years for a conspiracy conviction. But despite this record –one that includes using a fireplace log and a lit cigarette to brutalize a gent who was screwing his wife –he’s absolutely loved by most Providencians. His time in office was remarkable enough to spur both a major motion picture and Ciani's own line of marinara sauce.

Not even a month removed from a federal penitentiary, the deposed mayor was handed a Friday morning radio talk show. His almost unwavering base of support was never more evident than during his first day on the air.

“Welcome back to the airwaves –my husband and I really missed you,” chimed in one caller. “We think you took a really bum rap.”

Among his many achievements, Cianci is credited with luring a minor league hockey team to the city, building the Providence Mall and being the main force behind the annual Waterfire celebration, an event that draws thousands to Providence. More importantly, he’s largely thought of as the leader who changed the city from a burned-out industrial port into the polished metropolis it is today.

Then there was his other side. Cianci made more than a few enemies along the way.
His oft-heavy handed tactic, dogged determination to crush his opponents and generally shifty manner of conduct made him an easy target for a federal investigation. In June 2002, he was found guilty of masterminding a criminal enterprise that took bribes in exchange for tax breaks, favors and jobs. Twenty-seven years after rising to power, Cianci landed himself in jail.

“I’m struck by the parallels of this case and the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” remarked U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres during his sentencing. “There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis that have come across here…my job is to sentence the second Buddy Cianci, because the first wouldn't be here.”

This sort of duplicity seems equally prevalent in the man who seems more of a fixture in the city’s Public Works Department, than elected official. For 16 terms now, the Spa City’s electorate has affirmed McTygue’s job, even though there have long been allegations of corruption, coercion and conduct unbecoming of an elected official. Simply, put, he is the white whale and there hasn’t been an Ahab in more than three decades to take him down.

But to sell McTygue as a bully that has maintained a Stalinesque grip on power is to sell short the transformation the city has undergone during his time in office. When McTygue came to power, there was no city center, the open-air city hockey rink existed over a toxic waste dump, the municipal library looked more like the homes in Geyser Crest and Congress Park was a mere shadow of its former grandeur. Saratoga Springs was quite literally in the process of demolishing itself and its historic character one building at a time.

Pan to the present, Saratoga Springs is quite literally the envy of cities throughout the state. It is a booming city that has an almost ever-changing skyline. The streets are clean, the business is robust and the only local politician that has stayed in office as it transformed from trash to treasure is Tom McTygue. Of course, this isn’t to say the city’s modern renaissance is because of McTygue; such a statement would be vastly incorrect. Rather, McTygue has offered a veritable war chest of accomplishments that have added to the collective city revival.

Today, this legacy is generally overshadowed by McTygue’s detractors, many of whom are propelled by first-term Mayor Valerie Keehn. They often argue these accomplishments occurred not because of the commissioner, but rather in spite of him. They argue McTygue’s bullying tactics have maligned his department so bad that his employees work under constant fear of retribution. And now that he’s facing what is perhaps his toughest re-election campaign, rumors of a federal investigation into his office have conveniently surfaced.

So where does the truth lie? Well, more than likely right in the middle. Investigate any politicians with three-decades of longevity and you’re almost bound to find a graveyard worth of skeletons. This is how the game is played in politics; it’s the rankest game in the nation and those who don’t stink don’t stand much chance of winning at it. McTygue is no exception to this rule. The real question is does the endgame justify the means and does McTygue’s blustering overshadow the accomplishments he’s overseen in office? It’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ without taking a good hard look what Saratoga Springs has become while he’s been in office.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Scientific theory

Here’s the scenario: you’re walking down the street during the pre-dawn hours of the morning and there it is: a perfectly serviceable brick, placidly resting on the sidewalk in front of an unblemished plate-glass door. Like any common street-dweller in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, you decide to pick up the brick and test how it and the laws of physics might affect the aforementioned glass, if a touch of propulsion is added.

This was the dilemma faced by esteemed local Physicist John Philip Sayers as he was strolling out for his morning latte and a copy of the Wall Street Journal; would the glass break? As he speculated using advanced quantum theory, the pane shattered, leaving a gaping hole into the gritty darkened electronics bodega.

But before the young theorist could advance forward to his intended destination, another burning question blazed a trail across his whirring thought process: what if some sort of anomalous gravitational pull somehow created an electromagnetic field across freshly created hole, thereby thwarting entrance into the store? The store’s alarm hadn’t gone off, meaning there was a chance such a freakish scientific event was occurring.

So in the interest of science, Sayers decided it would be a good idea to try passing something through the broken doorway; namely himself. Lo and behold, he was able to enter the store, where he then realized some unaware shopper had carelessly left his or her collection of cell phones beneath a display case. Being the upstanding citizen that he is, Sayers decided to collect the devices with full intention of bringing them to the proper authorities.

Of course, there was one more experiment Sayers needed to conduct before leaving: gauge the reaction of store owner Donald Khemraj as a strange man repeatedly pummels the metal-reinforced glass store front with a pipe wrench. Regrettably, the store owner didn’t all that interested in Sayers’ research. And before he could explain his ground-breaking work, the shopkeeper pumped his chest full of buckshot.

The rampaging store owner and his son –clearly bent on some sort of sadistic war path –were about to make a Jackson Pollack mural with the contents of Sayers’ head before the police pulled up, he told the Times Union in an “exclusive” interview

“I basically gave up, and you shoot me, so basically the police saved my life,” groaned the 21-year-old man from his Albany Medical Center hospital bed.

Saved his life and then beat him mercilessly, Sayers went on to explain. They cursed at him. They kicked him. They callously ignored his pleas for the better interest of science until he collapsed and pointed to the quarter-sized hole blown through his bicep.

The bi-polar “good kid” who admitted to being “disrespectful” on bad days just wants a chance to start from scratch. However, with all the publicity he and his family have brought to this case, it’s tough to say if another chance is even a possiblity. In his hour-long interview with the reporter, Sayers all but admitts to the charges against him. The man described as having “the mental ability of an 8-year-old” also apparently spoke to the reporter without once receiving proper counsel, something that could further complicate the case down the road.

Yes, there’s quite a different story dripping from the headlines in the days following Sayers’ botched burglary. And it’s debatable whether the TU’s hyper-coverage –including speculation from unaffiliated defense attorneys –has done anything other than muddy the waters for investigators, as they try to gauge the shopkeeper’s culpability.

It’s not something attorneys on either side will welcome, given the case is already showing some hallmarks of another vigilante shooting that took place in a New York City subway car more than two decades ago. The innocents in “The Hill” these days are scarred and scared. There’s a shooting almost every day and a killing once a month. It’ll be interesting to see the community’s reaction if diabetic Guyanese business owner in his late-50s is lead away in cuffs for doing what the city police seemingly can’t do: protect the neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How soon they forget

Republican Public Works candidate Skip Scirocco placed another trio of feathers in his cap, seizing what he seems to consider a resounding endorsement from the 600-some-odd Skidmore students registered to vote in the Spa City’s upcoming election. The hurtling Volkswagen sports compact took a quick pit stop off the campaign superhighway to grab a trio of endorsements from Skidmore’s Young Republican Assembly, Democrats and the Environmental Action Club.

“It’s never happened before,” Scirocco told the Saratogian Monday. “This is a first –we made history today.”

Although his exuberance is a bit over the top for what will probably amount to about 200 votes across the board, Scirocco is right in one regard. He did make history; or at least he paved over a good deal of it by seizing any endorsement from student groups other than the standard thumbs-up from Skidmore’s junior GOP.

See, the city Republicans have been anything but friendly toward the small liberal arts college wedged at the end of North Broadway. In fact, there’s an ample history of the city and county Republicans doing just about everything in their power to quell any voice from the college’s small cadre of voters.

Let’s pan back to November 2001, just six months after Skidmore first received its own on-campus voting district. During the college’s first-ever on-campus general election, students soundly voted for Democratic candidates. In every case, they tallied more than 300 votes for the Democrats and even propelled Public Works fixture Tom McTygue to victory during a contentious election year.

The following winter, the county GOP decided to lash out against the students during a special state Assembly election for Bobby D’Andrea’s seat in the Legislature. Some students arriving at the polls found themselves staring at an affidavit waved by Republican poll watchers.

Three months later, the Republican-led city council then launched a campaign to move Skidmore’s fledgling polling place from the college’s Case Center to the city center off campus. The logic behind the move was simple: Skidmore vastly supports liberal candidates and college students are inherently lazy. So if you move the polls more than a mile away from the bong and ensure there’s no Tuesday night beer specials downtown, you can ensure the Democrats will lose a small but valuable number of votes.

The only reprieve given to the college was by then Democratic elections commissioner William Fruci, who spotted the ploy for what it was and refused to sign off on the city’s resolution. The county Board of Elections later decided the whole affair was bogus because the city had tried to move the polling area six days past the deadline to do so.

By the 2003 election, the Republicans were on a power play to seize the mayor’s office and secure a supermajority on the council. At the time, Scirocco was happily serving on the county Board of Supervisors and didn’t seem too concerned about his challenger; some fringe Green Party candidate named Cheryl Keyrouze.

Again, allegations of Republican poll intimidation crept up. Only this time, they were far more wide-spread and far more publicized. One student reported being thrust an affidavit by GOP poll watchers and being told “the district attorney can prosecute you on a felony charge” if the document was filled out incorrectly. Others claimed Republican head hauncho Jasper Nolan was shouting at students with almost uncontrolled vigor; not exactly ideal voting conditions.

Though Nolan and the Republicans voraciously disputed this claim, the end results suggested otherwise. Skidmore’s own Ken Klotz was shown to the door and the city Democrats fired an angry 43-page letter to the state Attorney General contesting the bare-knuckles politics of their partisan counterparts.

Things quieted down on the campus during both the 2004 and 2005 elections. During the later, students helped power Mayor Valerie Keehn into office with more than 100 votes in her favor. Ironically, they also tossed more than 80 votes toward challenging Democratic supervisors Joanne Yepsen and Keyrouze, who unseated none other than Scirocco, himself.

So the recent endorsement of Scirocco by two left-leaning campus groups seems a bit queer, especially when taken into context of the history the candidate is supposedly making. It’s valid to mention the transient nature of these students, many of whom leaved the area after four years or so. But surely there is someone still vibrant on the campus who can recall these events, with which the Volkswagen was tacitly involved, at the very least.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Quid pro quo

In Latin, it means something that is done for something else; a fair exchange. Hypothetically speaking, if the sitting mayor of a certain upstate city wanted to ensure the demised of her political arch-enemy in November, he or she might wave the carrot of better health benefits for the city’s unionized workers in exchange for those workers endorsing her opponent’s challenger.

Of course, this is hypothetically speaking and would never happen in real practice. And this illustration is merely a way to explain such a term to those who might not be well versed in a 2,000-year-old dead language.

In other Spa-centric developments, Union President Joe O’Neill is grand-standing for Skip Scirocco, the Republican candidate vying for the commissioner’s seat now occupied by Tom McTygue. During a news conference last week, O’Neill railed out against McTygue with the bravado usually reserved for a man who just realized his neighbors has made a habit of micturating on his lawn each morning with their coffee.

“We won’t back down,” O’Neill said during the Scirocco rally Wednesday.

O’Neill was also quite candid about the fact that his union doesn’t usually endorse political candidates. But this time, it’s time to send a message about professionalism in the work place, he told The Saratogian. This time, it’s personal.

But perhaps what he meant was that it’s personnel, not personal. See, there are now roughly 300 unionized city workers that are vying for a new contract with the city, The Daily Gazette reported Saturday. City Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe said a main sticking point in these negotiations is working out a health insurance co-payment system like most private-sector businesses do to quell burgeoning costs. Naturally, this idea isn’t popular with anyone now offered full benefits through the city.

So who is negotiating these contracts for the city? Well, oddly enough it’s Mayor Valerie Keehn, according to the Gazette article. When asked about the negotiation, the oft-long winded mayor was quite glib and non-committal.

“We need to look at all of these things when we’re negotiating a contract, including health care,” she said.

So let’s put two and two together for a moment: despite her admissions that say otherwise, the mayor is quite clearly backing Scirocco. Her singular reason to for doing this is to boot McTygue off the council and, more than likely, make another run at changing the city charter. All this information is presented in a ‘by the way’ manner during the mayor’s office negotiations with O’Neill.

In other words, come out and support Scirocco and you’ll sway the favor of the main negotiating force in contract talks. Even more peculiar is the fact that many members of O’Neill’s union didn’t even know they were endorsing a candidate. After all, even O’Neill himself admitted the union hasn’t made a history of getting into local politics until now; strange how the puzzle pieces seem to fit together so snuggly.

Then again, perhaps O’Neill is thinking of himself when throwing support behind Scirocco. It’s well rumored that Pat Design, the DPW deputy in exile, will rise to become Scirocco’s deputy, leaving one very important position open in his cabinet: public works director. After all, no one truly believes Bill McTygue would survive much past the first of next year if his brother is deposed.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

When the chick hits the can

Where is Charles Collins when you need him? As the legislative stink in Albany slowly permeates up the Northway, the state Senate could sure use the Collins’ treatment, especially during their recent eleventh-hour dickering with the New York’s racing franchise agreement.

Collins, as some may recall, was the Troy radical so disgruntled by his treatment in Albany’s higher courts that he drove his truck to the Capitol and proceeded to hose down the state Court of Appeals with a 55-gallon drum of chicken shit. The stunt landed the part-time para-legal and outspoken divorcee in the clink for a one- to four-year sentence, but created an awe-inspiring example of how to turn words into action.

True, the circumstances surrounding the franchise agreement are drastically different; Collins beef was with Chief Justice Judith Kaye and not the senate or Legislature as a whole. But given the recent wind bagging of Senate Republicans over re-upping the New York Racing Association’s lease on life, perhaps they could use a sobering stream of horse manure cascading down their chamber windows.

After too many years of studying, haggling, lobbying and bartering, first-term Gov. Eliot Spitzer finally chose NYRA to run the state’s thoroughbred tracks. It was the most logical choice for the governor to make, simply because NYRA has a proven track record of bringing and maintaining quality racing to the three tracks. Besides, NYRA might be a bunch of crooks, but they’re our crooks, and no more twisted than the foul, legislative cretins that commissioned them 50-some-odd years ago.

Of course, this decision didn’t settle well with the other three suitors, which along with NYRA contributed more than $2.3 million worth of state campaign funding in just 18 months. And this is excluding the torrent of lobbying that undoubtedly occurred under the Pataki Administration, which quite clearly hamstrung NYRA during its dying days in office.

At the time, the lame-duck Pataki had all his chips in one corner: Empire Racing. These blessings were candidly supported by the state GOP –namely one pugelistic senate majority leader –and made the impressive collective an almost sure-fire bet to win the franchise agreement. On the other side of the isle, it was said that Spitzer, then the all-but-elected governor, was clearly backing Excelsior.

Yet after the inauguration in January, everything changed. Spitzer scoffed at advice from the Pataki-era committee on the future of racing and its recommendation of Excelsior. He then toiled with his own committee for most of the summer, before returning what was probably the most solid verdict that could come from the whole morass: keep racing with the race operators and leave the casino gaming up to casino operators.

But this isn’t good enough for Hollywood Joe Bruno’s boys. The Republican-dominated Senate Racing and Wagering Committee are now raising red flags over Spitzer’s deal, in a way that is politicizing the whole affair even more than it was in the first place. Rather than working with Spitzer’s agreement, they’re bandying about the notion of re-opening the whole process less than three months before the franchise agreement expires.

The whole affair stinks worse than the Court of Appeals façade did on that brisk January morning after Collins’ visit in 1998. The sore-loser competitors are now smelling weakness in the bidding process and are making a push for the inside post, even though there’s theoretically no longer any race running.

“We’re at the 16th pole,” Excelsior team member and former jockey Jerry Bailey told the Times Union Wednesday. “It’s time to get the whip out.”

No Jerry, it’s time to get out the spray hose and give good ol’ Charlie Collins a call.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Barn burning

Valerie Keehn might not be well acquainted with the works of Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, but the incumbent mayor’s warpath to re-election seems to borrow liberally from his oft-studied playbook. The idea of the Schlieffen Plan is simple: wage a blitzkrieg campaign against the weaker of two enemies, and then wheel around to tackle the sleeping beast before it has time to awake.

Keehn and her supporters tried to handily defeat Boyd during September’s primary. Her campaign waged an aggressive series of political mudslinging to energize her base, marginalize Boyd and seize the Democratic primary in a way that was almost humiliating for her challenger. Kamp Keehn certainly banked on Boyd capitulating after such a defeat, allowing their candidate to centralize her efforts on the real challenge: defeating Republican challenger Scott Johnson.

But much like leaders of the German Reich found during the dawning years of the First Word War, Keehn is finding there could be some drawbacks to waging a two-front battle against a wounded enemy not yet vanquished and a much larger one just digging in for the fight. The vitriol traded during the battle for the primaries somehow convinced Boyd to stay in the mix, setting up a bizarre dynamic of political rivalries and alliances that is all but certain to drastically change the composition of the city’s governance.

Voters got their first look at this dynamic Tuesday, during the League of Women Voters’ candidate’s forum. Though Keehn came out much sharper than her previous showing during the primaries, she often found herself warding off poignant attacks coming from within her party and on the other side of the partisan line. Ultimately, her back-tracking left her on the defensive against both her challengers, rather than the offensive against Johnson, who many rightly view as her most formidable opponent.

Keehn’s diminutive attempts at going on the offensive were limited to questioning both panelists on their views toward development in the city and if they wanted to limit the powers of city “land use” boards. Clearly, this was a round-about attempt to characterize both opponents of being pro-development, something that has become a sort of furtive mantra of her campaign. But in both cases, Keehn’s quasi-assertions were summarily defended, first by Johnson and then by Boyd.

In contrast, the attacks on Keehn ran all night long. If there were any doubt of Boyd’s dislike for the mayor, they were readily clarified during the debate. He rightly pointed out Keehn’s “tacit” support of Republican Public Works candidate Skip Scirocco and how such an allegiance is even more of an indication of her willingness to sink the plan to tap Saratoga Lake as a city water source.

And then Johnson joined in the fray. Blasting the mayor for her “un-accomplishments,” he pointed out that not a single acre of open space or unit of affordable housing has been added to the city during her tenure in office. He also cast serious doubt on Keehn’s role in restoring the state’s video lottery terminal funding, which is perhaps the greatest footing she has used in her campaign.

Overall, the debate was a much less back-biting affair than its doppelganger in September. Perhaps this was due to Keehn’s attempts to ward off significant attacks from either side; maybe it was the fact that all candidates are starting to realize it’s too close to the election to wage a campaign of negativity.

Despite being the clear underdog, Boyd again seemed like the most poised of the three candidates in his answers, even though he decided to make note of the Keehn appointment-Fulani link he foisted last month, an assertion that roundly drew jeers from Kamp Keehn. Even thought Johnson’s answers seemed well thought out, his delivery and intonation seemed remarkably bad for someone who was a high-toned trial attorney.

Keehn, as aforementioned, seemed markedly more collected during the debate. At times, she even seemed a bit impassioned compared to other speeches, such as her state of the city address and the first debate. Such a comparison, however, is akin to telling the difference between a tagged corpse and a clinically brain-dead patient; a sign of life in one doesn’t mean it’s any better off than the other.

Though it was clear through the debate that Boyd is aiming to sink Keehn’s ship, he also seems quite determined to grab voters from the middle ground; the politically unaffiliated. It’s this middle ground of voters that often seem to sway elections these days. But to Boyd’s detriment, there seems to be few clear differences between his views and those of Johnson, who many Keehn detractors see as the favorite to unseat the wicked witch of the left.

Keehn, on the other hand, is attempting to electrify enough of her base so that she won’t need to rely on the old-school Democrats, a band of hardliners that are unwavering in their support of her enemy Tom McTygue. Her hope is to create a great enough schism in the party and even some rogue Republicans to oust the Public Works fixture, while keeping staunch ally Ron Kim in the mix.

The problem with this thinking is this: she could very easily end up one of two Democrats on the board come January, the other being McTygue supporter John Franck. Strangely, this dynamic would all but hand the reins of the City Council to Scirocco, the highest ranking Republican running for office. Stay tuned folks; the only clear thing at this point is that we’ve got a barn-burner here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fire and brimstone

Seering hot magma was still raining down from the volcanic news of Wendy Knowlton-Cook’s arrest, as the cauldron of talk-show vitriol roiled violently across the AM dial Wednesday. Hand over fist, the callers inundated the claptrap morning commute programs with their take on the latest headlines: Derby-dad girl’s sex-drug shocker; kids in car during sex, drug bust.

Just a day earlier, a Schenectady City Court judge uncharacteristically weighed in on the allegations against the daughter of Funny Cide owner Jack Knowlton before setting her bail at $15,000. Though confessing she deserved a fair trial and is presumed innocent until proven guilty, Judge Vincent Versaci felt compelled to castigate the shammed woman.

“I have never seen such atrocities in my life, and that’s saying a lot” he said. “Congratulations.”

Outside the courtroom, it was a sharp reporter from CBS 6 News that asked the tough questions of a cuffed, bedraggled and teary-eyed Knowlton-Cook as she was loaded into a sheriff’s van.

“Are you a bad mother, Wendy,” she asked in a moment of journalistic brilliance that is sure to draw a Pulitzer nomination.

During the morning commute the next day, Paul Vandenburgh cited the CBS 6 report as “the best” among the continuing television coverage. He was left almost speechless as he mentally replayed the sum total of the allegations and Knowlton-Cook’s background as a small business proprietor in upscale white-bred Saratoga Springs. Amazing how someone like that could just fall into the gutter, he opined; simply amazing.

Just a few twists of the dial away, Al Rooney filled the AM airways with one hateful call after the next, all saying essentially the same thing: lock this bitch up and throw away the key.

“I can’t believe that judge would set bail so low on someone like this,” shouted one caller. “I mean, she should be held on a million dollars at least.”

Meanwhile, television and press reporters rifled through the tattered remnants of Knowlton-Cook’s life. She was the perfect one to strap to the whipping post and give a good thrashing: the drug-crazed daughter of a local celebrity, a long rap sheet with six misdemeanor arrests and perhaps the most salacious of story to come down the pike in recent times. The stench of sensationalism was enough to drag in even the New York Post, a paper that would forget there’s part of the state north of the Tapan Zee were it not for a relic they have stowed in the Capitol Building.

Among local newspapers, the Times Union carried the largest whip while boasting the least substance in their articles. Like most news agencies, the newspaper didn’t make the celebrity connection until Knowlton-Cook’s arraignment Tuesday. Their follow-up article contained much of the same information their initial coverage listed. And in a third piece, all the same news bandied in the first two articles was relisted with a sprinkling of new information: surprise, surprise, surprise, she had a drug record in Florida.

Oddly enough, the only paper to truly capture the tragic nature of this mother’s gut-wrenching descent into the world of drug addiction was The Saratogian. After first ignoring Knowlton-Cook’s local connection, the paper was granted an unusually candid interview with the Knowlton family, something that all the other news sources failed to do for whatever reason. In discussing the case, Jack and Dorthy Knowlton acknowledged their daughter’s problems, but didn’t excuse her behavior.

“She put the children in danger,” he told the paper. “Let’s not gloss over that. Society has very strong consequences for that. She'll be suffering those consequences now and in the future.”

They also painted a troubling picture of the woman’s descent, which seemed to begin after her equally disturbed husband succeeded in hanging himself on Halloween nearly four years earlier. They discussed her drug problems, her relapses into substance abuse, the death of her best friend and the cesarean birth of her two-month old son. Still no excuse for her behavior, her father reminded, but a greater and more compelling piece of the big picture.

It’s a horrific picture that the generally fickle public should take a long and introspective look at before blasting Knowlton-Cook into the lower circles of Hades, especially until the allegations against her are vetted in court. Before then, Wendy Knowlton-Cook should be seen as what she is: a very troubled woman in dire need of help and the poster child of the cocaine problem that festers just a few inches beneath Saratoga’s rich upper crust.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

My way or the highway

Ron Kim must have a thing for highways. At least that’s the impression one might get after the Public Safety lapdog’s election-year display Tuesday. Kim abruptly left the City Council meeting, pouting off like a spoiled child denied a piece of candy at the checkout counter.

“I don’t need to spend any more time on this council,” he proclaimed, before storming out with his contention of supporters and all the bravado of a shunned Hollywood movie star.

Kim also scrapped the rest of his agenda and left the council one vote short for the rest of the meeting and didn’t even bother to sit through the budget presentation. Had he stayed, perhaps he would have heard a good indicator of why his pie-in-the-sky approach to the police department debacle would never work out.

Already facing a 5 percent tax increase, the city simply can’t afford any of the new police departments Kim has foisted. Spa City residents will feel pinched by this years’ increase as it is; add an additional $200 per average-priced household onto that amount and the already dwindling middle class will shrink even more. Perhaps that’s the logic: raise taxes to a point where nobody but the uber-rich can afford them and the city won’t have to worry about crime anymore.

Admittedly, Kim has long made the new Public Safety complex his sole mission in office. But in two years, he and his contingent haven’t forwarded a single proposal that would make a bit of fiscal sense. Sure they seem plenty viable to Kim. Then again, so does having three quarters of the city’s top-20 highest paid employees under his jurisdiction.

First, Kim entertained the ludicrous idea of renting a police department from a private builder. When this wasn’t received well, he suggested the $17 million Taj Mahal of buildings, of which the construction cost alone would have caused an unreasonable tax burden. After this plan was nixed, he resuscitated the private development plan from the operating table, throwing in two key elements: rent to own and purchase by VLT revenues.

At first glance, it didn't sound like a bad idea. Pay for the building’s $1.4 million annual rent with the $1.5 million the city will surely get through VLT revenues. Spending this money to bolster the police deparment also seems to fall under what uses the money was intended for: offsetting the negative costs of having a bustling casino in the city. New shinny police station, happy cops and at absolutely no cost to tax payers. Sounds great, right?

Not exactly. First of all, the already too expensive $17 million price tag would balloon to $42 million. This fails to take into consideration increased energy bills, upkeep, or even the cost to hire more city employees. Then consider that the state wasn’t too keen –no pun intended –on forking over the VLT revenues at all this year. And as any state resident or political junkie could attest, the tide in Albany can change markedly over the course of three years, much less three decades.

These points could easily be dismissed as political rhetoric or obstructionist talk, were they coming from Commissioners Tom McTygue and John Franck. Both are on the other side of the Democratic isle from Kim, who is nearly attached at the hip to Mayor Valerie Keehn. But it’s usually wise to take heed when Matt McCabe –the proverbial Switzerland of commissioners and the guy who balances the city’s check book – is raising red flags.

McCabe has balked at just about every idea except selling City Hall to finance the project. Even then, it was never clear whether he suggested the sale to make a point or to actually put the historic building on the market. McCabe was also the voice of reason who noted that most of City Hall will be empty if the police and courts move out; a point that neither Kim nor his dominatrix have properly addressed in the proposals they blindly support.

Even when given all this, Kim figured it was time to pull some theatrics; make a quick point, stir up the crowd and then take the party on the road for some beers. While his stunt likely gained some favor with his City Police minions, Kim also solidified something else: he’s unable to compromise. In politics, that can be a dangerous beast, seeing as though there’s seldom a way to please everyone all the time. More disturbing is the fact that Kim is pushing the issue so hard with a month and change to go before the general election.

Saving a decision for after the election would clear a bit of the murky water clouding this issue. Instead, Kim is using the issue as a rallying point for his campaign, one which will indelibly fare only as well as Keehn’s. Still, it’s a shame they feel the need to hover a gargantuan tax hike over the heads of city residents for their own political gain. Hopefully, voters will follow Kim’s glib advice Tuesday and prove next month that he "doesn’t need to spend any more time on this council."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lights, camera, council

Live from downtown Saratoga Springs, it’s the City Council Show! Starring the people’s matronly matriarch, the politician that can make every meeting seem like a special ed class, introducing Mayor Valerie Keehn! Give a round of applause for her co-star, the commissioner so entrenched he predates most photos in the Bolster Collection, Public Works fixture Tom McTygue. Also, a special guest appearance by the hugable blowhard we all love to dodge, ladies and gentlemen give hand for Daaaaaavid Bronner.

And now, without further adieu, heeeeeere’s Valerie.

“Thank you, thank you, you’re too kind,” says Keehn, taking an imaginary swing of a golf club. “But first, I’d like say those of you at home can now watch the city council meetings live.”

The city council took a light years’ leap into the future last month by creating a live Web cast of their meetings. Anyone with a high speed Internet connection and a functional computer can now log onto the city’s Web site and follow a few mind-numbingly simple instructions to watch the commissioners duke it out live from the comfort of their own home.

Having the council meetings simulcast online is a gargantuan improvement for the city and one that will undoubtedly open the doors of government to a new segment of people. Previously, the live audio feed of these meetings was only available on Time Warner’s cable access channel. The service was almost wholly useless to anyone with an untrained ear, as the cacophony of commissioner-bickering usually precluded the ability to discern who was saying what, if anything at all.

The added video-feed –albeit a quality that harkens of a certain shaky filmmakers work –paints a clear picture of the chaotic environment often enveloping the city’s bi-monthly business meetings. Take for example the spirited exchange by McTygue and Bronner from last months’ session. And just think: this service is free.

Or at least mostly free. After the city invested more than $79,000 into their Web site last year, Accounts Commissioner John Franck and outgoing Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe decided the finished product needed a bit more tweaking. They discussed investing up to an additional $9,000 into buying the improvements needed to Webcast the meetings; a suggestion that was initially balked at in the annals of i-Saratoga.

However, now that these often-hollow promises have come to fruition, the city’s investment seems like a very sensible one. Both Franck and McCabe should be commended for their efforts. In today’s go-go society, where many no longer work the typical nine-to-five shift, it’s often difficult to attend city council sessions. Compounding this is the relative small amount of coverage coming from these meetings. This is not to rag on the reporters covering them, but to understand that they sometimes don’t have the time or space to write about all that is newsworthy.

On a side note, Spa City reporters beware. This advancement has thrust your job security toward the precarious side of the employment spectrum. Editors of Pasadena Now, a Metroland-esque online zine, decided in May to hire English-speaking writers from India to cover Pasadena City Council meetings. Because the meetings are broadcast live online, the editor figured he could save the cost of hiring an American reporter. While the move was resoundingly criticized among journalism circles, it’s a philosophy one could easily envision the money misers at the Journal Register Company embracing.

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