Tuesday, January 29, 2008


We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for this breaking update: the furtive push for a Saratoga Springs Public Safety castle has officially back-fired. City officials are now making plans to renovate two already used rooms in the Police Station to comply with demands in a state discrimination suit filed by the department’s 11-woman contingent, Commissioner Ron Kim admitted to the Times Union Monday.

The project will convert a roll-call and supervisor locker area into a separately accessed women’s bathroom, shower and locker area. Women officers and employees of the department use a locker area in a converted janitor’s closet and utilize a unisex bathroom accessed through the men’s locker room.

The bizarre configurations of the facilities has caused increasing grumbles among the department’s growing number of women, as it rightly should. Most all public facilities took woman in the workplace into consideration at some point in the last half-century.

“We thought the shower was important because if female officers came off the street contaminated with pepper spray or hazardous materials, they could have a place to go to clean up without taking that stuff home,” said Assistant Police Chief Chris Cole, more than 35 years after Sandy Arpei won a court battle to become the department’s first female officer.

Yes, issues of gender-equal facilities were too far-fetched for the Saratoga Springs Police until this month. Though department heads could find grant money for just about every far-fetched law enforcing device -cash for everything from license plate readers to high-tech spy camera systems -they can’t seem to find any funding to rehab the old police station. Perhaps that’s because they’re not looking.

Even before the state suit was filed last fall, building a new public safety facility became a veritable mantra among Kim and Police Chief Ed Moore. After the suit surfaced, both Moore and Kim took a ‘told you so’ attitude toward what was then the proposed $17 million plan to build a police and court facility nearly four times the size of the Lake Avenue department.

“I have the same opinion they do,” Moore told the Daily Gazette in November.

In that case, Moore must not be a very opinionated guy. He hasn’t lifted a finger to investigate better circumstances for his female workers since becoming chief in June 2003, with exception to stumping for an unrealistic station most taxpayers can’t afford.

There’s no doubt Moore and his predecessor have held out on any renovations in the hope of securing a new facility, allowing their old one to literally crumble into the ground. In wake of the discrimination suite, the circumstances there almost grew dire enough to force a knee-jerk reaction from the city council into building a new station.

But some action needed to be taken with an April hearing in the case looming and no marked progress with the new station. So in addition to funding the plan for a new station, taxpayers will fund a necessary renovation of the old one. Kim downplayed the cost, but declined to discuss how much materials and the in-house labor would run. However, he did take the opportunity to roll out some corny metaphors in support for his unrealistic castle.

“We can continue to put a Band-Aid on a gaping gunshot wound, but at some point we have to do something more dramatic to make sure the patient lives,” he told the Times Union reporter.

Ironically, this same reporter did a story about another Saratoga County police department, which was experiencing problems that sound vaguely familiar. In 2003, Mechanicville’s police station was suffering from “hazardous building materials, falling tiles, corroded floor tiles, no bullet-proof window protection, a rodent invasion, a locker room with no ventilation and lack of space.”

Remarkably, these problems were rectified the within a year and without the $800,000 grant initially requested by the department. In fact, the work was done with $25,000 from the city council and by employing a local contractor. Once completed, the renovations made a believer out of Police Chief Joseph Waldron, who had initially stumped for a new facility.

“I bet you we have added over 1,000 square feet of space here by just tearing down bearing walls,” he said in 2004. “It was like an empty shell. We emptied everything and made it into something.”

So now that renovations are imminent, perhaps city officials can again revisit a full overhaul of the existing police station instead of the senseless project to build a new one. And maybe -just maybe -they can also see for once that things can indeed get done without filling up a room at City Hall with overpriced blue prints.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Brushes with Gangland, Part I

Sometimes, it’s like a dead body just falls from the sky. The deceased has no connection to the community, no regional identity and no real reason for leaving his or her decaying remains in a spot hundreds of miles away from anything familiar. Yes, sometimes it’s as if a corpse simply drops from the heavens into. And sometimes, that body just happens to drop in your backyard.

Such was the case for authorities in Saratoga Springs one late December, after two men walked into the Sheraton of Broadway and only one walked out. He vanished into the Adirondack cold with what authorities would later estimate to be $125,000 worth of weed. In his wake, he left behind a body, two well-placed bullets and a mystery that was the Spa City’s only unsolved homicide this century.

It is believed that Kevin Arkenau Jr. was sleeping in a room rented on the third floor when two bullets fired from a silenced pistol pierced his temple and eye. One of the hotel’s maintenance workers made the grisly discovery the following afternoon, hours after his killer had already created an enduring mystery and then vanished into the night.

“In a way, it was as if a body dropped out of the sky,” Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy told the Times Union last week. “We had a body but not all the pieces of the puzzle.”

One of those pieces is Roger Aletras, a man also identified by the state Department of Corrections as “Roger Knox.” Federal grand jurors in Vermont pinned a a capital murder charge on Aletras among others returned last month in a five-count indictment. Authorities describe the 36-year-old Bronx native as a career criminal who spent time in and out of the clink for a wide variety of crimes. What they don’t describe him as is a reputed federal informant-gone-wild with ties to the Bonanno and Genovese crime families, as well as loose connections with others.

Aletras didn’t stay free for very long after Arkenau’s death. Police arrested him less than two months later on charges of possessing a pistol -not the one used in the killing -as a convicted felon. In 2005, he was sentenced to serve 19 years in prison for the crime, despite heart-felt pleas by his family and attorney for the judge to show leniency; all contained in a document signed by and on the letter head of Stacey Richman.

“This is not a man beyond redemption,” she wrote in the June 2005 filing. “Mr. Aletras had despite his transgressions made great progress...he had a solid home, a son and an intact family unit for the first time in his life; he was on the right path.”

For those who don’t know Richman, the daughter of Murray “Don’t Worry” Richman, she started out as a Los Angeles entertainment attorney and has represented celebrity criminal cases for both Ivana Trump and Jon Voigt. When she moved east to Manhattan, she defended high-profile cases such as rappers DMX and Ja Rule, among others in the hip-hop world. But Richman’s clients extend beyond uber-wealthy celebrities. She’s made quite a name for herself defending people like Leonard Minuto Jr., a close associate of the Gambino familiy; and Anthony DiSimone, the son of reputed mobster Salvatore “Sally Bows” DiSimone.

So it’s a bit peculiar to see Richman’s name and signature on Aletras’ sentencing document, especially when he’s described by Capital Region media as someone “who spent much of his adult life in prison on burglary charges.” That is, until the next name comes up.

In the filing, Michelle Spirito lauds Aletras’ work ethic and his devotion to his her daughter, who some media outlets have referred to as his “common-law wife,” even though there is no such thing as common law marriage in New York. She also indicates the man has “become like a son” to her and that he showed selflessness when he was released from prison. What she doesn’t mention is anything about her own husband, John “Johnny Joe” Spirito, a Bonanno family soldier who outgoing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided against prosecuting under penalty of death for the the gangland-style killing of Gerlando “George from Canada” Sciascia in 1999.

Sciascia was a powerful international heroin trafficker and capo in the Bonnano family. He was reportedly managing the drug trafficking between the Montreal Mafia and New York’s Cosa Nostra until he made an off comment about a fellow capo’s coke habit. In March 1999, he was found unceremoniously dumped in a Bronx neighborhood with three bullets in his head. Investigators later determined the hit was ordered by then family boss, Joseph “Big Joe” Massino, because he thought Sciascia was undermining his leadership of the family. Big Joe narrowly avoided the death penalty himself until defecting in 2005.

And if any further case need be made for Aletras’ ties to the mob, look no further than the next name listed in his pre-sentencing document. Michael DiStasio was among a group of suspected mobsters rounded up when the feds cracked open an illegal sports betting and numbers operation allegedly run by a Genovese family associate at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

On a side note, the man who will ultimately decide whether or not to seek the death penalty against Aletras is none other than U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. The last time Aletras saw Mukasey was when the then-chief judge of the U.S. Court’s southern District of New York sentenced him to nearly two decades in the federal pen. Let’s just say Aletras might want to hire the elder Richman this go round.

Aletras himself has quite a colorful legal history, albeit one that appears devoid of capital crimes until now. As a teenager, he had the dubious honor of rolling with a crew that stole three cars in under three hours after a botched gun shop burglary in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of West Babylon on Long Island in 1989. It was the second time Aletras was busted for burglarizing the shop.

Aletras was handed a 5- to 10-year sentence in 1991, but was released on parole after two years. But he didn’t stay on the streets long. In fact, he was picked up two months later for criminal possession of a stolen property and was returned to prison in 1993. He’d remain there until being paroled in February 2002, just 10 months before Arkenau’s death.

Arkenau was no angel himself. Well-published accounts of his criminal history suggest he was a prolific drug trafficker with both national and international ties. By the time he was able to legally buy cigarettes, Arkenau was already moving pounds of weed across the mid-west. In the years leading up to his death, he was reputedly dealing more than marijuana and doing business with a powerful contingent of people. And in the end, he was writing checks his body couldn’t cash.

Editor’s note: this is the first installment of a two-part examination of the slaying of Kevin Arkenau and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the events between the Spa City and Burlington on Dec. 19, 2002.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire

Picture this: You’re settling into the morning coffee when you just happen to notice smoke billowing from the back of your apartment. ‘Fancy that,’ you think, taking another sip of the post-dawn java; ‘my house is on fire.’

For anyone that has experienced an escape from a burning building, time freezes when an uncontrolled flames are lapping the edge of one’s worldly possessions. Seconds seem like hours, as any semblance of rational evaporates into the burgeoning plumes of fetid smoke. There’s a voice that says ‘this can’t possibly be happening’ while the eyes transmit images of shriveling vinyl siding peel and heat-shattered windows.

The adrenal gland kicks in and suddenly disbelief becomes primal. Save anything dear -anything near -and get the fuck out. The sirens blare through the city as a cadre of firefighters charge into action. But to the victim, everything is still moving slow; cripplingly slow.

They make their first entrance, a smashing blow through the front door. Moments later, a chair smashes out a window; an ax through another; what was once a cozy hovel is quickly turning into the block’s largest fireplace.

Then there is the hope; a scattered convoluted thought that maybe the blaze hasn’t consumed the desk with your passport; the drawer with your family pictures; the bedroom jewelry chest. Maybe the water battling down flames on the roof hasn’t trickled through the floorboards to your laptop in the living room. But this hope diminishes with each flame extinguished by the blasting hoses.

House fires suck. And for the 10 poor bastards left homeless by the Grand Avenue blaze, the suck is all too real and tangible. Anyone lucky enough to salvage anything from the disastrous blaze will have to contend with the putrid stench of char and creosote for months to come. It’s an inescapable essence that will remind them of the fateful day where their lives were put on the griddle and scrambled like 5 a.m. eggs at Compton’s.

But knocking back a few cocktails doesn’t suck. In fact, the dulling sensation of booze is often a welcome solace to those suffering the throngs of sudden tragedy. And it’s an even better way for those who feel bad for the victims to lend a helping hand.

In other words, find some time on the Lord’s day to pay homage to the recently homeless. The Local, a dapper establishment across from the fire-ravaged home, is sponsoring an all-day booze bender for the bereft in their time of need. Area vendors have donated all the fried dead birds, mind-numbing grain and pint-filling kegs for the affair, so that victims of this disaster can right themselves along their respective paths through life.

So this is an all-points-bulletin to the Spa City boozers to swing by the Local Sunday for a tipple or six. For the other so-called non-drinkers, there was never a better time to start; just think: it’s for a good cause and you might just find a new hobby. Out-of-towners, you can help too: Just contact the powers that be. And for you church-going time-frugal go-getters, the affair spans from noon to midnight, so there’s really no excuse to blow this thing off. Just think, you’re doing the Lord’s work.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Look who’s teaching now

Here’s a note to the next prospective college kid giving J-School an inkling of thought: Just don’t do it. Take up something different. Maybe try majoring in underwater basket weaving or simply changing your college tuition into small denominations of bills, fold them into little paper airplanes and toss them into the wind on a blustery day. At least then you’ll have the satisfaction of not wasting time cooped up in a lecture hall listening to some hack blather on about things they simply don’t know or understand.

Take for instance the fledgling journalism undergraduate program at the University at Albany. While there are some accomplished journalists taking the lectern, there are others that might just give you the wrong impression about reporting or writing a good story. In fact, Albany’s newest part-time lecturer might just leave you in the classroom to figure it out for yourself while she goes out to get her nails done.

That’s right, esteemed beautician and housewife extraordinaire Barbara Lombardo has apparently taken a spot guest lecturing at UAlbany. Lombardo, who sometimes doubles as the managing editor of the Saratogian, clearly has time on her hands with the quality of product now being released from the Lake Avenue newsroom. It’s not like she has a whole staff of rookie journalists over there that could benefit from some coaching; or a Web design that’s gone dreadfully wrong.

Sarcasm aside, Lombardo is about the last editor in the region -perhaps even the state -who should be teaching cub reporters how to pass muster in the go get‘em field of modern journalism. Everything about her writing suggests the type of recalcitrance grown only after a journalist has fully abandoned all the principals and tools of their trade.

Lombardo does make a stab or two at giving the trade a go with her weekly -or is it monthly -column in the paper’s life section. But the end result is a domestic living piece that shows how utterly bloodless and behind the times she’s become. Then with the Saratogian’s redesign, she made another go at modern column writing in the so far ill-fated “fresh ink” blog. Perhaps a better title would be “ dried ink hopelessly crusted to the well.”

But were there an example of why Lombardo shouldn’t be teaching anything, much less fledgling reporters, it would be her latest blog entry detailing the editor’s thought process as a fire raged on Grand Avenue. Instead of racing to work and grabbing hold of the first pad-toting pen jockey she could find -or going out to the fire herself -Lombardo did what any entrenched editor would do: She took to the phone.

Let’s try to forget the fire was within walking distance of the Saratogian offices. And let’s also give Lombardo a bit of a break because she was her “first day back to work after several days off.” But seriously, when news breaks, she should at least have a mechanism in line to get the job done. This mechanism happened to be the Web editor, who apparently has a better grasp on covering breaking news than his boss. Before Lombardo could make another round of fruitless phone calls, the fellow was charging out to the fire, as she explains in hyperlink-free Dried Ink.

Students, this is what your tuition is paying for: Stories about how the Web editor, photographer and circulation department worker demonstrated how useless a so-called managing editor is with a small-sized daily newspaper. In contrast to whatever she might lecture about, Lombardo’s newsroom does offer prospective journalists an interesting opportunity to learn, albeit without much of safety net.

Judging by the Saratogian’s quality, there doesn’t appear to be much help or guidance in Lombardo’s newsroom. Reporters are taught the ropes by being thrown up against them. And in some cases, that’s the best way to learn. The key to reporting lost sometime after the days of Woodward and Bernstein and amid the days of the information-age revolution was the type of boots-on-the-ground beat-stomping work of bygone days; the time when there were blue-collar reporters and not the pseudo-intellectual white collar shills of today.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Don’t Tase me, bro

Belligerent drunks, beware: The Saratoga Springs Police have a tool to herd the ebb and flow of bibulous revelers down Caroline Street. The Post Star reports four Spa City officers will now carry the infamous electrode-firing handguns marketed by Taser International, the self-proclaimed “proven leader in less lethal technology.”

These weapons deliver an electrical punch to the nervous system of “violent offenders” through either a 35-foot-long projectile or through the gun itself, if the projectile is removed. Physiologically speaking, getting nailed with a Taser is a more painful way to reboot one’s nervous system. Those fortunate enough to experience the thrill of brushing into an electric fence, grabbing onto a live wire or sticking a digit into an active light socket can likely relate to the sensation of being “Tased.”

The difference is that a Taser projectile embeds into the body and delivers 50,000 volts of energy at a rate of 19 pulses per second every time the trigger is pulled; far longer and far more juice than one is likely to get grasping onto a split wire or an electric fence. The other main difference is that a sadistic cop can be on the other end of this device, gleefully pulling the trigger whenever he or she feels like getting a few jollies.

Advocates claim Tasers are “less than lethal” weapons and save lives by preventing cops from using more lethal forms to bring a subject under control. They also claim Tasers prevent officers from close-quarter engagement with a violent subject, thereby preventing them from sustaining injuries on the job.

In truth, Tasers can be lethal. In fact, the weapon has a dubious history of being connected with “apparent drug overdoses” when used against people high on stimulants or narcotics. In other words, it’s generally not a good idea to send enough electricity to stop a cow through the heart of some guy freaking out after a cocaine bender. Taser International vehemently denies their weapon contributes to these deaths –one recorded just about every week –and stridently lashes out against any source that tries to link their product with death.

Deaths aside, the real problem with Tasers is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have a concrete rule governing their use. Taser International calls the folk being shot with their weapon “violent offenders.” But what exactly categorizes someone as a so-called violent offender? Is this someone who breaks a traffic law and then punches his steering wheel after getting pulled over by a cop? Is it the drunk on Caroline Street who won’t obey a police order to move along? Is it anyone in a crowd that won’t disperse?

There have been numerous reports of Taser use at times when less than lethal force was needed. In some instances, the weapon has been deployed in cases where no force was needed: Against a pair of protesters ceasing an order to disperse; shot at a man as he was fleeing through a second story window; et cetera.

Technically speaking, the Taser is supposed to be used as a last resort before lethal force is used. Some circles place it above the use of pepper spray when it comes to degrees of force. Yet when faced with the decision of which to use, officers usually decide it’s better to shock a subject into soiling his or herself than to be washing errant Capsaicin spray from their own face.

It remains to be seen how Ed Moore’s boys and girls will wield these weapons when faced with throngs of belligerent drunks this summer. However, it is disturbing that only “a number of them” volunteered to be “zapped” with the weapon, according to the Post Star. In most departments introducing the Taser, getting nailed by one is a prerequisite so officers understand the degree of pain and discomfort it causes. Without this knowledge, pulling the trigger on the X26 is a pretty easy thing to do.

On a somewhat related note, the Post Star suggests more than one local reporter is interested in receiving a volt from these guns, but have had their overtures thwarted by Assistant Police Chief Chris Cole. This is a prime example of the retarded nature and mindset of today’s reporters; spend half the afternoon trying to fulfill every cop’s wildest wet dream. Seriously, does this look like fun?

But if you’re a member of the media and still think it fitting to get hammered by one of these things, here’s an exercise for you during the coming weekend: First, get yourself lubed up with a few dozen gin martinis and maybe a quick hit of speed. Then take to Caroline Street around midnight and see which of your fists fit best in the ear of a Taser-carrying cop. Chances are pretty good you’ll get a taste of the good stuff; maybe even a Paul Amato-style beating. Just make sure you’re allowed a wireless device to transmit the story from city lockup.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Out with the new

And in with the old. Ron Kim may have divorced the hackneyed “new blood in government” mantra once bandied about by his splinter of the city Democrats, but he sure hasn’t ditched the splinter itself. The rogue Public Safety commissioner again tabbed patronage sponge Lew Benton as the head of the latest capital committee to explore a new police station.

For those with selective amnesia, Benton was chairman of the last committee delving into options for the police station. After nearly a year of work, this committee returned $17 million plan to build a combined police-court facility on a piece of city-owned property off Woodlawn just a block away from bustling Broadway.

Among the multitude of concepts not considered by the aptly dubbed “Benton Committee” were how the new station would fit that area of the city, how Saratoga residents could afford such an expensive endeavor; what would be done with the third of City Hall vacated by the police; and what would be the impact of upkeep on a facility literally four times the size of the present structure on Lake Avenue. No, the Benton Committee soared right past these questions and went straight to proselytizing for their ludicrous concept for dramatically expanding the Spa City’s governmental facilities; and by extension, the government itself.

Kim now represents the only sitting commissioner who blindly and wholeheartedly supported the Benton Committee’s findings, despite their fantastic nature. He also has the honor of being sole commissioner who voted in favor of awarding an $8 million city bid to LaBella Associates for their plan to build a more austere building on a city-owned parking lot off High Rock and Lake avenues. Now Kim is faced with building consensus among the other four commissioners to achieve a so-called “super majority” to issue the bond.

The super majority –meaning four out of five votes on the council –would require several things that don’t appear to be in Kim’s power for the time being. The first would be to make amends with fellow Democrat and Accounts Commissioner John Franck, who was a sworn political enemy of Kim’s just a few short months ago. Then there’s the prospect of winning over the three members of the opposition party, one of whom wasn’t exactly cordial with Benton back in 2003.

Let’s flash back four years ago. Benton was thought to be the mastermind behind a plot by the Democrats to malign Skip Scirocco –then working as Saratoga’s dog catcher and supervisor –by claiming he attended county business while still on the clock as a city worker. Grand jurors later found no wrongdoing in the case and Scirocco lashed out against those who appeared to be gunning for him.

“It was a blatant political ploy to smear my name in the community by Lew Benton, John Goldberg, Robert Davis and a few other political activists,” an angry Scirocco told Capital News 9 in 2003.

True, water does pass under the bridge. But if you’re Skip Scirocco, four years isn’t a long time to hold a political grudge, even if it was Benton’s faction of the Democratic Party that helped him win election. So it comes as a bit of a surprise Kim would involve Benton in anything other than collecting his thousands of city dollars from a blatant patronage position Administrator of Parks, Open Land and Historic Preservation. On a side note, what exactly has Benton done at this position lately?

As a consolation prize, Kim invited the other four members of the council to nominate their own members to the new-and-improved Benton Committee. But that’s not enough to overshadow Benton being involved a second time despite his obvious shortcomings on the first committee. Not to mention, one would think Kim in his second term as public safety commissioner could rifle through his rolodex and find someone other than an entrenched Democratic insider who was likely the driving force behind many of the divisions from his previous term.

Monday, January 14, 2008


These days, you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting the latest incarnation of a news conference over Jaliek Rainwalker’s disappearance. From searches across Washington County to candlelight vigils in Greenwich to a crackpot lady screaming on a street corner in Albany, the 12-year-old who quietly vanished in November has left his mark on the local media.

These news agencies –spanning from television to print to AM talk shows –can’t seem to turn away from the story even though the reports these days lack any sort of viable content whatsoever. Take for example the latest news dribbling out of the sphincter known as News 10 Albany. Three days ago, the station promised “new developments” in the case, which police couldn’t divulge. But because they were new developments –as opposed to the old developments the station airs every newscast –News 10 even bothered to contact Jaliek’s limelight-loving adoptive “maternal grandparents” about the breaking news.

Update: State police have slated a news conference regarding the investigation of Rainwalker’s disappearance late Monday afternoon at the Greenwich Police Department. Quick, to the newsmobile!

And the weekend-long Jaliekfest didn’t end there. The station joined just about every other branch of the local media at the foot of the Albany Housing Authority on South Pearl Street Sunday, where Doreathea Brace, the aforementioned crackpot, joined Dennis Smith and Barbara Reeley, the aforementioned adoptive grandparents, in the search for the missing tween. Just in case you missed it, here’s a brief summary of what they said: Adoptive father Stephen Kerr killed Jaliek.

This may sound a bit repetitive for some, seeing as though Reeley took to the airwaves Friday all but swearing her son-in-law murdered the orphan in cold blood. Brace, who was once referred to in print a “3rd Ward gadfly” of Albany, gained her moment in the spotlight after a chance meeting with Kerr as he put up reward signs around the city. In potentially Pulitzer footage captured by New 10, Brace lambastes Kerr for killing his wayward son.

For those outside of Albany’s 3rd Ward who might not remember Brace, she’s the same woman who once championed herself as a neighborhood activist. At one point, she advised the city’s black community that they’d be better served if they started a race riot.

“It’s been a long time since there’s been a riot here,” she told the Times Union in 1991. “When we start tearing up (stuff) we’ll get better taken care of.”

Just the kind of person needed in the porridge that has become the omnipresent and somewhat unprecedented search for Jaliek. Often times, missing children get a mention in the press and then a picture of themselves planted on the back of a milk carton. Not Jaliek. Since his disappearance, the boy has been dedicated a task force, a Web site and even his own novel now being penned by a pair of off-Broadway playwrights from downstate; just the type of writers that might be able to add some insight-free drama to the situation.

Then there’s the other side. Kerr and wife Jocelyn McDonald decided the best way to coax the boy out of hiding would be to offer the first-ever regressive reward for information regarding his disappearance. Offer a tip this month, it could garner you a $20,000 reward. But wait until February and you’re only going to get $15,000. Delay until June and you’ll end up owing the family $5,000 for each tip. Bravo, guys. You’ve set a new low standard for missing person’s rewards.

What is most disturbing about the Rainwalker disappearance is it doesn’t seem like anyone cared enough about him before he vanished. At least, not enough to prevent him from bouncing around the foster care system for the better part of his life. The boy was allegedly born to a crack-addicted mother and was abandoned by no less than three adoptive families –now known as the Find Jaliek Task Force –after they were unable to quell his “angry outbursts.”

So what happens if Rainwalker is found alive? Does he go back into the foster care system, only to be spit out thoroughly maladjusted at the age of 18 and primed to bring his outbursts to the rest of society? And if he’s found dead, who will be the ones crying the loudest, the very people that either could do or did nothing for him in life?

More problematic is that no one on the so-called task force or in the Kerr household or in the media seems to be able to grasp the fact that kids like Rainwalker disappear all the time. They come from mangled families, get chewed up by a mangled system and ultimately land mangled in life. It’s a sad tale often repeated throughout inner-city regions across the nation and not one anyone cares to think about too often.

But instead bringing this message to the public, the media –mainly those of the broadcast ilk –has decided to focus on these shameless self-promoters as they queer a missing person’s investigation. It’s the kind of story that has people broadly tuning out the television news as a reliable source to learn the day’s transgressions.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Don't kill the messenger

But you can sure give him a good ribbing. In wake of the colossal disaster better known as the Saratogian’s new online site, its fledgling Web editor has taken to cyberspace in an apparent appeal to the paper’s swelling number of detractors.

Unfortunately, the news he’s bringing ain’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bleak for those who were hoping the new site would miraculously revert to its former manifestation. In about two weeks worth of missives to the public, the Web editor confirms what many tech-savvy folks have known all along: the mind-numbing misers at the Journal Register Company are mainly to blame for the molasses-like pace of the Saratogian’s new site and that of its sister paper, The Troy Record.

Amazingly, a user can fully load all Web sites belonging to The Saratogian’s competitors before its own lethargic site can finish loading the Associated Press videos no one ever watches. Even when the site finally does boot up, the content is so badly skewed it’s nearly impossible to navigate with any degree of accuracy. Stories aren’t listed chronologically and many are missing. The archives –one of the few valuable tools the paper once boasted –are indefinitely disabled. And if there is any Sunday news content, it’s lumped in with Monday’s postings, which usually go online Tuesday.

To some extent, the Lake Avenue follies don’t seem to be playing an active role in the new site’s spiraling descent into ruin. In fact, it’s tough to gauge exactly what role The Saratogian editors played in the grand scheme of the so-called redesign. By the Web editor’s own admission –and in classic Saratogian fashion –he only received his post the day before the paper launched its calamitous updated site, which was largely engineered by corporate. He came aboard the sinking ship before ever accruing any experience with the program he was hired to administer; or even as a Web editor for that matter.

“I got cursory instruction on application with which we manage content my first afternoon in the office –along with the rest of the newsroom,” he stated in a blog entry. “The site went live my second day on the job.”

So in other words, management entrusted the redirection of the paper’s future life blood to a candidate grossly inexperienced for the task at hand. Mind you, this has nothing to do with his ability to learn or work in the future. But in terms of management’s leadership, it’s probably a good idea to pay the extra money and get someone who isn’t learning Web design on the fly, especially if your paper’s site is regularly getting nuked out of the water by a local weekly founded not even three years ago. Pundits call this “a sound business decision,” which is a phrase that must read like Chinese to both the nimrods running the paper and the foolhardy penny pinchers at corporate.

Still, the fledgling Web editor seems to think there’s an even split between readers who like and dislike the site. Mind you, even if the new site did load in a flash, the content posted on it is so convoluted that even a bleach-skinned techie toiling amidst the bowels of some darkened subterranean uber-server would be hard pressed to find information on it quickly.

More than a month has passed since the redesign and there doesn’t seem to be any reprieve for online users. The aforementioned editor made an honest attempt to describe why the site content becomes such a malaise of useless information, but simply came across as ignorant to the real problem: local content isn’t being added on a regular basis or in a way where it can be access. This was something even the diminutive site from before had going for it.

Another key problem no one at the Saratogian seems to realize is that there are hardly any folks who navigate any local newspaper Web sites for news from the AP. In fact, when a story breaks outside of the coverage area, most folks simply use a remarkable advent called Google News, which doesn’t take a half-hour to load, is easily searchable and provides results that can be filtered in several different ways. On a more personal note, try Barb. You’ll be blown away.

So to read that the new Web editor is busying himself with putting up “more AP stories and photos, filling in some of the pages that drop lower on my list of priorities” is a bit disheartening to say the least. To put this in an analogy, not too many people are concerned about dusting knick knacks after a fire rips through their house.

The JRC firestorm did some pretty massive damage to the Saratogian’s once secure niche in cyberspace. Now is the time to start bailing out the ruins and building it anew; a great start would be to impress upon corporate the dire circumstances caused by their slow-to-load site; one disgruntled reader on dial-up even lamented he is now unable to load the page, much less read anything on it. Then in the local arena, to inform recalcitrant editor and documented technophobe Barbara Lombardo of her need to get more local stories online instead of garbage video files no one watches.

Most of all, it’s the public’s job to get on the messenger so that he perhaps understands the tenuous situation facing his publication, which already boasts a print circulation dropping by up to 500 subscribers per year. There’s no need to bludgeon the poor fellow; rather give him a bit of guidance so as to make an ounce of change that the site might serve the community better. And most of all, to make it known among the hacks at JRC their buggering is about to make the term profit seem like a distant memory.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Just say 'no'

To drugstores, that is. While authorities continue to wage a cripplingly expensive crusade against drugs, the stores that legally sell them are spreading across the streetscape like a particularly nasty strain of Ebola infecting everything in its path.

Never was there a better example of the dichotomy presented by America’s secret love affair with drugs than the unabated proliferation of Eckerd, Walgreens and CVS Pharmacies littering just about every other corner of every other town in the Capital Region. And Saratoga Springs is not immune to the plague of tacky drug stores descending on upstate New York.

Developers representing the Rite Aid Corp. are proposing to build yet another pharmacy over what is now the Springs Motel on South Broadway. City planners will review Wednesday an application by the company to build a two-story “mix-use” building on the 1-acre lot overlooking the edge of Congress Park. The new structure would cover the entire motel, include seven second-floor apartments and provide 40 spaces of off-street parking an adjacent lot.

Proponents of change might point out that the Springs Motel –built in 1980 –isn’t much of a landmark to protect. In fact, some might argue the 29-room lodging is more of a 50s-era throwback that contributes to the relatively blighted atmosphere of South Broadway, which is dotted with similarly dated structures.

City leaders have long struggled to breathe new life into the area, allowing the past decade of success on Broadway to trickle further south. But it’s incredibly specious to think a pack of two-bit corporate pill pushers like Rite Aid would contribute anything to these efforts, especially when they already own an Eckerd on Ballston Avenue and less than 1,500 away from the motel.

Moreover, Rite Aid has nine locations within a 15-mile radius of the proposed building. Then add to these the CVS operating two blocks away on Broadway, two other CVS locations in nearby Malta and Ballston Spa, as well as a Walgreens store on West Avenue. Yes, pill poppers, there’s no shortage of dispensaries where you can pickup junior’s Ritlan, mom’s motion sickness Xanax and a few Hydrocodones for dad’s bum knee.

On the outside, it seems rather futile for these companies to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into what is clearly a supersaturated marketplace. But eventually, one of these companies will either go tits up or swallow one of the smaller drug pushers. Once a company emerges victorious in the market place, they will start to consolidate locations, leaving behind a gaggle of unsightly decaying drugstores in their wake.

City planners should also acknowledge the prior work of these companies in Saratoga Springs. Look no further than Congress Street to find arguably the least attractive building constructed in the city proper this century. Everything from the oversized CVS sign to the faux brick façade to the peculiar design suggests the diminutive and plasticine architectural predilections of chain drugstore companies. Members of the city Planning Board wrangled with the CVS developers for more than three years before grudgingly giving their approval; the only real concession they garnered was that the company wouldn’t include a drive-thru on the pedestrian friendly street.

Nearly a decade after the CVS plans were first puked out, the planners will have a new bone-brained plan foisted by a gang of corporate drug peddlers who already have a stake in the town. The company will likely hold out the seven units and accompanying parking spaces as a carrot and then suggest closing their store in the shopping plaza, which has had difficulty finding tenants in recent years.

However, the bottom line is that the city doesn’t need another drug store and could actually do with a few less. And given that the proposed structure doesn’t appear to add anything more to South Broadway than what is already there, the planners should view Rite Aid’s application with a good degree of trepidation. After all, how wise is it to trust a shifty drug pusher aiding society’s preoccupation with pill-form quick-fix solutions for whatever might be ailing them.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Scenes from an Italian restuarant

The glib sign on the Broadway doorway to Brindisi’s Restaurant reads “closed for renovations.” For loyal customers, it means keep coming back because the doors will eventually open again. But for those well acquainted with the comings and goings of the Spa City’s restaurants, such a message all but rings the death knell of another downtown eatery.

Update: Brindisi is swearing the place will be reopened as of the inception of February. The Saratogian reports any deal between the Circus and Brindisi has since been quashed. This is welcome news if in fact it’s true. Variety is the spice of life in the restaurant business. It’s always better to have two successful restaurants than one.

The curious case of Brindisi’s remains largely speculative at this time, especially given the recent comments delivered by its often quite visible operator, Andy Brindisi. Although the downtown business association member and vocal restaurateur told The Saratogian Saturday he intends to reopen his Italian-style bistro next month, words spoken among his staff of more than two dozen suggest otherwise.

One source said all 26 workers of the restaurant were told on New Year’s Eve the restaurant would be closed permanently and was in the process of being sold. This same source indicated the potential buyers are none other than Christel and Colin MacLean, the owners of the Circus Cafe immediately next door. Another said the restaurant was up for sale, but was unsure if there was a buyer.

Brindisi’s father –powerful Syracuse-area attorney Louis Brindisi –apparently had a 10-year lease on the restaurant, which is in a four-tenant building owned by longtime resident James Hogan. With less than three years remaining on the lease, an ugly legal spat broke out between the elder Brindisi, Hogan and Anne DeLucia, the owner of The Grotto nightclub beneath the restaurant.

In short, the pipes near the restaurant’s dish area leaked, causing significant damage to both Brindisi’s kitchen and the fledgling nightclub below. The elder Brindisi filed a $6 million suit, arguing the damage resulted from the nightclub’s pounding bass, which quite literally rattles the whole building every weekend evening. DeLucia countersued Brindisi for $233,000, arguing the leak resulted from a grease clog that built up and eventually caused the pipe to rupture. Naturally, Hogan immediately sought to terminate Brindisi’s lease when the suit was filed against him.

Update: for those who don’t read the comment section, the Grotto’s owner said she never filed suit against Brindisi’s and it was Hogan’s doing. She also maintains her business is good to go and will remain open into the foreseeable future, barring further flooding. Likewise, word from Brindisi is that the sale rumor is nothing more than that and he plans to be open -as the sign says -for Chowderfest next month. Man, oh man. This is like a soap opera.

It’s entirely possible these suits percolated through the justice system and ultimately lead to an agreement or court order terminating the lease. Brindisi would then be faced with finding a new home to re-establish his son’s restaurant or sell the location as it exists today. Needless to say, moving a well-established business elsewhere could cost tens of thousands of dollars before even factoring in the effect such relocation could have on customers. Supposedly, the younger Brindisi only learned of the impending closure on Christmas Eve.

Then there is the Circus. Since opening in 2004, the McLeans have done an immense amount of posturing and publicizing to routinely fill the restaurant. But the ambitious duo that once owned Hattie’s on Phila Street are relatively locked with what they can do in their location. More specifically, the Circus lacks the usable space to turn what is now a smaller-sized eatery into one of the larger nightlife destinations on Broadway. Given the past ambition demonstrated by the Circus’ owners suggests buying Brindisi’s might be a logical step in their business plans.

Update: even more murmurs are starting to drift from restaurant row. Apparently, there are five investors interested in purchasing Hogan’s building for an undetermined purpose. And who’s power-playing this deal? Drum roll please...the licensed real estate brokers who just happen to own The Circus. The rather unsightly building was constructed in the late 1940s(correction) and has a full-market value of $1.47 million, according to the city. Prior to being cut up, the building served as Newberry’s Department store. Apparently, the bar now serving the Circus once served as the store’s soda fountain.

To add even more intrigue into everything is the recent dearth of business at The Grotto on any given night. Originally, the nightclub was offered as a sort of fusion between the prototypical hip hop-blasting meat market and a rock-and-roll live act venue. But the motif never really caught on with weekend revelers and instead scared away the sparse few clubbers that once visited the spot when it was the Newberry. Add it all up and the future doesn’t look bright for The Grotto.

Were both Brindisi’s and The Grotto spaces to go on the market simultaneously, the result could be a building overhaul that would be a bustling business to rival what now operates at the City Tavern on Caroline Street. Such a business endeavor wouldn’t be for the faint of heart. In fact, to renovate the space so badly carved up would likely cost more than the $499,500 Hogan paid for the building in 1992.

But naturally, there is always an alternate reality proffered by a short mention in The Saratogian. As has become trademark with the paper’s shoddy news reporting, none of these avenues or transgressions is noted; just that Andy Brindisi has decided to embark upon a renovation endeavor and will be back in February with “special promotions” for his customers.

It’s true, January is the slowest month in the restaurant business and many owners take the time to clean, renovate or simply grab a quick hiatus from the grinding business. Then again, there are plenty of past examples, where restaurateurs bailed by leaving nothing except a short note on the front door and a gaggle of workers dangling on the unemployment line.

During the late 1990s, there was the infamous case of Graham’s in the former Putnam Market location. After spending more than $400,000 renovating the space in 2000, owner Patrick Graham allegedly went on a gambling and coke binge that ultimately left him with not even enough cash to pay his staff. Graham left a sign on the door in September 2003, saying he would “close for remodeling” and be open again in a few months. In a sense, he was telling the truth: Doc’s Steakhouse opened one year later and under new ownership.

More recently, the owners of the extremely short-lived Limoncello abruptly closed the so-called upscale Italian eatery, claiming their location in the Granite Palace was inadequate. But there hasn’t been a word about the restaurant since Giancarlo Balestra, the former partner of another well-known Italian restaurateur, closed his doors in September. And given past reviews of the place, there won’t be either.

As for Brindisi’s, only time will tell if the rumors swelling around his restaurant prove true. In nearly a decade worth of business, his locale always seemed to have a robust crowd and one that frequently swelled to capacity when other establishments languished. But for more than two dozen local workers, the New Year might not seem much like the happy one many were championing last week.

Update: yet another news reporter jumps on the bandwagon. The Daily Gazette’s often reliable Saratoga reporter grabbed a seat next to The Saratogian’s business reporter in buying the tripe being doled out on Broadway. The stranger part is that the whole city is literally buzzing with news of the Circus owners’ pending purchase. Bravo, guys. Way to obfuscate a good story.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pass the Kool aid

Sometimes is seems as though more than two decades of immersion in hard news has started to diluted Marv Cermak’s thought process. There really is little other explanation for the Times Union columnist’s recently published notion that ousted Mayor Valerie Keehn and little-known second term Supervisor Joanne Yepsen would stand a spitting chance of stopping the Bruno-Tedisco R-train as it barrels down the tracks in Albany.

In a short excerpt injected into his New Year’s Day column, Cermak portends “Democratic insiders” are touting Yepsen as a challenger to state Sen. Joe Bruno and Valerie Keehn to run against state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco. The only lining of truth in this supposition might come from the dying words of the Keehn administration, when her supporters ominously shrieked about a return to politics as they withered into the autumn cool.

And granted, even a known rumor monger like Cermak makes it quite clear Keehn and Yepsen would be hopeless underdogs. But this would be considered a major understatement in any political circle lying between where the Senate Majority leader’s district begins around Northway Exit 16 and where the Assembly Minority leader’s district extends beyond Thruway Exit 25.

Indeed, these areas include lands quite foreign to a pair of upper-class progressives from the Spa City. In fact, one has to wonder if either of these supposed “challengers” have even traversed the ramshackle waterfront in Rensselaer and seen the gigantic bold-letters reading “BRUNO” on a towering factory overlooking the Hudson. Or if they’ve crossed over to the south bank of the Mohawk, traveled past the slums in Hamilton Hill and into the Bellevue neighborhood where James Tedisco’s modest brick home stands.

This is not to say that either legislator should be arbitrarily handed their next term in office. But the reality of the matter is that their names and faces are firmly entrenched throughout the Capital Region and in places that no level of outsider campaigning could never eclipse. No, it will take much more than a pair of prepubescent Davids armed with a slingshot of futile hopes to slay this collection of GOP Goliaths.

Oddly enough, the weakest link among the Bruno-Tedisco tandem may be Bruno himself. He has sworn enemies among the Times Union’s investigative reporters and editorial staff. They’ve managed to quite handily expose Bruno’s illicit dealings and shady dickering, even though their efforts seemingly back-fired with the so-called “Trooper-gate.” More poignantly, however, is that Bruno is rapidly approaching his 80s. Those familiar with his work at the capital are beginning to notice his age; he sometimes trips over words and often appears as a shadow of the fiery pugilist that took office more than three decades ago.

Update: In contrast to other observations relayed here, an Albany insider vigorously disagreed with the notion that Hollywood Joe has lost even a half-step to his swagger. In fact, the insider noted, the senator bounds up staircases, brandishes a wit that makes most straight razors seem dull and carries himself in conversation better than many other aloof politicians in Albany. Perhaps this is true. But keep in mind, the dude was born before the Great Depression; he’s bound to slow down sometime soon.

Still, Bruno has run unopposed in two consecutive elections and was even aided by the Saratoga County Democrats, who declined to endorse attorney Brian Premo against the senator. This doesn’t bode well for Yepsen, who barely has a voice on the Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors and was boldly castigated as a two-faced coattail rider by fellow Democrat and former Supervisor Cheryl Keyrouze.

And then there’s the other, more preposterous part of Cermak’s rumor-mongering: The candidate to challenge Tedisco will be the Spa City’s one-term mayor who almost single-handedly destroyed the city Democrats and was such a polarizing force that she all but handed the reins of the City Council to the same Republican influences she helped oust from office. Sound the laugh track.

Ask anyone outside of the Spa City about Keehn and the most likely response you’ll get is “who?” True, her hubby has some connections in Albany, but not the type that would sway his party into dumping the money it would need to get word-tripping train wreck of a candidate elected over a smooth-talking mainstay in the headlines known for bringing home the pork.

Tedisco’s challenger –if he even has one –will likely be plucked from the Schenectady County Democrat machine, one which has a lot more momentum than the diminutive, shriveled arm of the Saratoga County Democrats and a knock-kneed chairman that sat on the sidelines as the Saratoga Springs Democrats went supernova.

Yes, the Spa City got a good chortle out of Cermak this week. That is, all of the city except the bone-brained Kool-aid drinking progressive that even mentioned Yepsen and Keehn as potential candidates for state office.

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