Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Nothing shocking

It would be nice to consider the Glens Falls Police thought at least twice before blasting 50,000 volts of muscle-freezing electricity through a suspect wearing handcuffs and taking off at a full run. It would be nice to think a long-time police reporter with the city’s main newspaper could identify the most critical part of this whole debacle rather than focusing on a sizable but relatively insignificant haul of cocaine.

Yes, it would be nice. But in reality, there was nothing shocking about the arrest story trickling out of the police department Monday morning, or the way the Post Star downplayed an officer’s reckless use of a Taser. This use was reckless enough that 38-year-old Darren Robinson, an alleged cocaine trafficker, remains in serious condition at the Albany Medical Center Hospital.

Update: Having the luxuries of facial surgery, a week-long stay at Albany Med and around-the-clock guard service ain’t cheap if you’re under the custody of the Glens Falls Police. Chances are pretty good it could cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and perhaps eclipse what the Warren County Jail has in it’s yearly budget for inmate medical care. County taxpayers should be proud of these yahoo cops, especially when they get their bill for 2008.

The incident started when police pulled Robinson over on a routine traffic stop. After securing probable cause, they cuffed the man and began to search his car. That’s when Robinson took off running. Police later claimed Robinson was trying to hurdle a cruiser that had blocked his path.

“Police had to use the Taser after Robinson jumped onto the hood of a stopped Glens Falls Police patrol car and leapt off the vehicle in an effort to get away from officers,” the Post Star article states.

Had to indeed. First of all, catching former Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the peek of his anabolic steroid abuse wouldn’t be that difficult if the guy had his arms cuffed. So it’s a bit suspect that the officers didn’t try to nab this guy the old fashioned way: by chasing after him on foot. Let’s also not forget that Robinson wouldn’t have escaped had he been placed in the back of a cruiser after the officer decided to arrest him.

By their own account, police nailed the man while he was trying to jump off the cruiser’s hood. And as physics would have it, he fell on his face. With his hands and muscles immobilized, Robinson had nothing but pavement to break his fall. Common sense and even a cursory understanding of gravity might have prompted the officer to think twice about using this tactic.

But for the police and the Post Star, none of this matters. Robinson was a crook; a two-bit con man and drug dealer at odds with the law for decades. The reporter waited until the third paragraph to mention a Taser was used and halfway through the story to note the weapon was used while the suspect was handcuffed.

Ask any agents of the law about Tasers and they’ll offer them as a non-lethal tool that prevents close-contact injuries to both police and suspects alike. Pose this same question to Robinson’s soon-to-be-hired civil attorney and you’ll likely get a markedly different answer.

Were the suspect carrying weapon or combative with officers, perhaps they would have been justified in there use. However, Robinson was frisked and cuffed before the Taser was administered. And by their own accounts, he didn’t make any hostile moves toward police, which leaves them with the ‘too fat and lazy’ defense. It’s going to be a tough lump to swallow if a guy like Robinson makes off with a multi-million dollar police brutality payout.

Update: Did somebody say lawsuit? Ali Robinson, the brother of the alleged crack dealer, is seeking an ambulance chaser to chase some cash out of the “Taser now, ask questions later” taxpayers of Glens Falls. These folks are certainly going to enjoy paying Robinson’s post-release retirement fund. Nothing like having a “crackhead with a cracked-head” and several hundred thousand dollars of settlement money running around the streets. Keep up the good work guys!

Other communities in the northeast have crafted legislation after their police began using Tasers for just about everything under the sun, whether it be herding drunks or removing protesters. Take for instance the large hippy commune some call Brattleboro, Vt., which recently adopted a Taser policy in wake numerous instances of Taser misuse instances.

Most recently, the police were filmed repeatedly zapping a pair of innocuous protesters that didn’t comply with their demands. The town’s police chief was fired over the incident and the protesters are now embroiled in a civil suit against the town.

Under the policy passed this week, Brattleboro Police can use a Taser to defend an officer or a third person from an immediate threat of physical injury, or to prevent a suicide or serious self-inflicted injury. Among other provisions, the devices are not to be used against passive resisters or to rouse impaired subjects.

Cities and towns in New York could learn from the crunchy communities to the east. Providing a guideline for Taser use would at least give cops a framework for when its proper to use them. Absent this sort of policy, officers are bound to start using the devices with alarming frequency and in ways that might later prove a harbinger for expensive litigation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

An inconvenient builder

Jim McLagan rode the golden crest of the latest moneymaking wave to wash over the American economy. Like many builders, he saw limitless money to be made as banks littered the region with home buying loans like confetti a Macy’s holiday parade.

At the peak of the city’s building craze, McLagan looked toward the end of Division Street and saw his fortune waiting in the wetlands hemmed by Newton and Outlook avenues. So when the city completed a $2.9 million sanitary sewer and water line to the area, he started borrowing. And he didn’t stop until he had amassed more than $5 million worth of loans in less than two years from Home Funding Finders, a Latham-based mortgage banker that once boasted there was no limit to their growth potential.

McLagan’s plan was simple: borrow the money, build the homes, sell them for above the market average and then pay off the loans. But what he didn’t count on is how precipitously the Spa City’s sparkling market would lose its luster, thanks to the inevitable sub-prime lending crash. Less than two years after he sold his first house on the block, McLagan was being hauled away in cuffs, charged with allegedly bilking more than $200,000 from his customers.

News of the arrest riled many small business owners and subcontractors still in the hole thanks to McLagan’s failed speculating. But a whole new layer to the flap was added last week, when the small contractor-turned-high end builder was plucked from the clink by none other than the Spa City’s recently installed Republican mayor. Even stranger was that McLagan promptly secured the legal counsel of E. Stewart Jones, a high-toned shark who has made quite a career of defending embattled Republicans.

J. McLagan Builders began to achieve modest acclaim in 2004, when one of his showcase homes in Stillwater was given the “Best in American Living Award” by Professional Builder magazine and the National Association of Home Builders. By then, he had made a decision to market his business as a high-end custom builder.

When the vastly over-budget sewer project was completed on Bensonhurst and Outlook avenues, it had the effect of turning acres of water-soaked scrubland into prime real estate. McLagan was quick to jump onto the building fray that rapidly ensued. At the time, developing the area seemed like a smart move; the Spa City’s market was at a peak, with home sale averages hovering around $250,000 for even a modest single family.

McLagan decided to one-up this market when he started developing what was then known as the Washington Crossings development. Instead of sticking with the average, he decided to go high style; elite even. Simultaneously, he was building another project called Nielson’s Landing, a development near Saratoga Lake with homes being offered for nearly $1 million.

Initially, McLagan’s excursion in venture capitalism appeared to be paying off. The homes on Outlook Avenue were each selling for more than $400,000, which was far more than what they were valued at. But the good times weren’t going to last long.

By 2006, Banks across the region started tightening up their purse strings as fallout from the subprime lending debacle reached Saratoga Springs, where reckless borrowing caused a massive over-inflation of the housing market. At the time, McLagan ironically served on a panel discussing the buying and selling residential real estate. He advised folks to investigate contractors in advance of signing them onto a project.

“Check the builder's references and go see the homes he has built,” he wisely advised in an article published in the Saratogian.

In reality, McLagan’s world was crashing down around him. Unable to continue his turn and burn style of developing and in the hole for thousand to his subcontractors, McLagan started searching for a ripcord, which manifested itself in the company “Elite Style Builders.” Starting in May 2007, the incorporated company sold four of McLagan’s former projects for a total of more than $2 million.

Meanwhile, things were going from bad to worse for McLagan’s business. County court records show he was sued three times between March and December 2007; two of the suits were for breach of contract. Tom Thibeault, the owner of Adirondack Appliances, told CBS 6 Albany McLagan maxed out his credit and then repeatedly dodged his calls to collect. The small business owner said he eventually sued the builder in small claims court and won back roughly 80 percent of what he had borrowed.

By November 2007, McLagan’s business had no less than $40,000 worth of federal tax liens on it. The hammer finally dropped on McLagan when he could no longer build the homes he had accepted down payments on. He allegedly bilked $158,000 from horse trainer H. James Bond and another $57,000 from a Spa City couple hoping to build on Central Avenue. Sources also claim McLagan stiffed the owners of DeLucia’s deli in Ballston Spa, leaving the owners holding a second mortgage on their property valued at more than $138,000.

But here’s where the story gets bizarre. In what seems like an act of sheer political stupidity, Spa City Mayor Scott Johnson brazenly bailed McLagan out of jail. Johnson would later tell the media he received a sobbing phone call from the builder’s wife, pleading for a $16,000 loan to pluck her hubby from the clink.

The mayor claims his son had befriend McLagan’s son five years earlier and that his act was nothing more than a family friend helping out in a time of need. And perhaps this is partially the case. There are also some suggestions that McLagan recently completed a project at Johnson’s home, which further muddies the waters.

Rationally, Johnson’s act makes no sense. The mayor rushing to the rescue was either a factor of unabashed stupidity or a move to protect a guy who has a few political favors to cash in; or perhaps both. Johnson’s act has willingly armed his opposition with an election’s worth of campaign rhetoric. While some now portray this purportedly benevolent move as admirable, it will look quite different to voters in 2009, once they receive the inevitable glossy mailer boasting Johnson’s record for bailing out big development.

It should also be noted that contractors building half-million dollar homes can usually afford the $1,600 it takes to purchase a $16,000 bail bond. This is especially the case for a fellow still in possession of at least three properties on Outlook Avenue with an aggregate value totaling in the hundreds of thousands. Even stranger is that McLagan can somehow afford an attorney like Jones and suddenly has some well-known names among the city GOP coming to his defense.

In other words, there is a lot more to this story than one fat cat coming to rescue another, despite Johnson’s ludicrous assertion that there is nothing “newsworthy” about the situation. And that story may very well lie with Home Funding Finders, which has a local branch in the Spa City. After all, this was the organization that afforded more than $5 million worth of capital to a builder with a pie-in-the-sky idea to build affluent homes in a historically low-income neighborhood built over recently mitigated wetlands.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't leave me hanging on the telephone

In Ron Kim’s abbreviated world, the old proverb holds true: If you sling enough dung up against the barn door, some of it has to stick. And when it comes to fear-mongering over the city’s aging Police Department, the sophomore Public Safety commissioner is a veritable manure spreader.

Kim has found his latest rally point in his battled to get a the Public Safety castle planted in the ground. This time, he’s pointing to recent failures of the police department’s non-emergency line, which has recently left callers literally hanging on the line listening to the melodic sound of the ringing tone. The fickle bankruptcy attorney claims the problems started two months ago and have shut the system down three times since.

“You can’t leave police, fire and EMS hanging,” panicked the Public Safety windbag. “We’re talking about emergency situations.”

Emergency situations indeed. Let’s back up a bit for those folks on the little bus: the city police have experienced recent problems with their non-emergency line. In other words, the standard 911-emergency dispatch that most people call when the need help is still functioning fine. This system is county-based and then dispatches police or emergency services via digital radio.

Another important thing to note is that most people, when faced with a life threatening situation, prefer to dial three digits that have been ingrained into their memory for a lifetime instead of flipping through the phone book to find the seven-digit number of the Spa City cops. In an emergency, most people would no sooner call the police department’s main line than they would the fire station down the street.

Amazingly after two years in office, Kim still doesn’t realize this. What he also apparently doesn’t realize is that the phone problem he claims to be an ongoing problem “since December” has actually hampered the line since September. But these must be superfluous details in to include in Kim’s world.

So if this phone situation was as dire as Kim or The Saratogian claim it to be, then why wasn’t something done in September? Could it be that Kim and now-deputy Eileen Finneran were too busy playing partisan politics -and proselytizing on the steps of City Hall -to administer needed repairs in their respective offices? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kim also didn’t miss a beat to throw in a quick dig at the Johnson administration for this perceived failure of the phone system. In discussing the issue with The Saratogian, he claimed former Mayor Valerie Keehn took the bull by the horns, “identified a solution” and was just about to make the repair when the evil mayoral administration of Scott Johnson came in. That’s when everything went to hell.

Instead of moving forward, Johnson called for a more thorough study of the entire City Hall phone system, with the thought of upgrading the whole building. This seems to make the most sense, seeing as though the building’s phones are more than likely antiquated by the digital dial-by-name systems of today. Mind you, the situation facing the department shouldn’t go uncorrected; it just fiscally behooves the city to find a sensible solution to this issue, rather than a knee-jerk fear-induced reactionary move that will likely cost significantly more and produce markedly less.

But knee-jerk reactions seem to be the modus operandi for Kim, who has used flimsy suppositions and innuendo to base most of his presumptions about the Public Safety office and the city in general. he’ll offer a more compelling reason to waste more tax dollars during the council meeting this evening. But those expecting a shred of sensibility from this guy should also expect to wait on the ringing line for quite some time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Revisionist history

Picture this: Your brash co-worker Joe swings by with a pair of tickets to the grandstand Saratoga Racecourse and invites you to meet up there over the weekend. You know the guy can be a bit of nuisance around the office, but think to yourself, ‘it’s Saratoga, how bad a time can it be?’

As planned, you show up at the front gate around noon. But Joe doesn’t show up until an hour later, by which time you’ve already purchased a ticket and downed a couple of beers. Joe apologizes for showing up late, explaining that he met a hot chick on the way in and “simply had to give her the ticket” he offered to you. ‘No big deal,’ you think, ‘it’s just Joe being Joe.’

Several minutes before the first race, Joe asks to barrow your racing forum to make a few quick picks. You agree, only to watch your co-worker grab the magazine and bolt off into a thick crowd.

“Sorry, dude, I gotta do this on my own,” he yells back. “It’s a superstitious thing.”

‘Not a problem,’ you think, ‘I’ll just bet on the second race.’ But Joe’s disappearing act extends far into the day. They’re leading the horses for the ninth race onto the track when you finally catch sight of him at one of the pari-mutual windows. Quelling your frustration, you ask one last favor of your swarthy officemate.

“Joe, could you just place this trifecta for me,” you plead, noticing there are mere minutes before post time.

“Nah, sorry bro,” he shrugs. “I got too much on my plate right now.”

He then explains how mind-numbingly stupid you are for placing such a bet and assails you for being such a neophyte when it comes to wagering. He’s in the middle of telling you how your IQ is just a few digits below that of a common thoroughbred when you decide to cut your losses and walk away.

On your way out, you miraculously find an empty window and place your bet. Lo and behold, your horses come in and you set off toward downtown with five grand burning a hole in your pocket. You pony up to the bar at Ciro’s for a victory beer, when you hear Joe’s voice piping out from behind.

“Man, oh man, were we lucky to day,” he shouts, signaling for the bartender to bring two beers instead of the one you had ordered. “See, I told you it was a good idea to follow me to the track.”

You sit dumbfounded, as the bartender pours a brewski for Joe and takes it out of your freshly won $100 bill. Meanwhile, Joe has started hitting on an attractive blond you had initially meant to buy a drink. He’s explaining to her how he brought you to the track, taught you how to bet and gave you the trifecta tip that garnered you the wad of cash.

“Yeah, we plan to split the winnings,” he tells the girl.

Sound familiar? Perhaps, if you happen to be one of the thousands of Saratoga Springs voters who received a mailing Saturday from everyone’s favorite state Senate majority leader. Hollywood Joe Bruno decided he was so instrumental in securing a deal to protect New York’s thoroughbred racing franchise over the past three years or so, that he sent a mailer out claiming victory of all things.

“This agreement is a victory for horesmen, fans, the host communities like Saratoga and the thousands of workers who depend on racing,” the mailer bearing Bruno’s smiling mug brashly states.

Thousands of workers? Is the senator referring to the thousands of workers who faced the possibility of unemployment just two weeks earlier thanks to his reckless dickering with the franchise agreement? And is he alluding to “the host communities like Saratoga” that faced the prospect of the first racing blackout since World War II, as a result of his stubborn and dated brand of partisan politics?

Bruno has a lot of gall making any such claim, especially since he was sole reason Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s franchise agreement with the New York Racing Association was stalled for six months. Bruno’s paltry achievements over this time were securing a NYRA oversight board and trimming five years off the original 30-year agreement, so we call all look forward to seeing this battle unfold a bit sooner next time. Good work, Joe. That was really worth spooking everyone unfamiliar with how Bruno and his cronies conduct business.

The most ridiculous part about the whole racing stand-off was that the concessions Bruno gained could have been hammered out last summer, were he not obsessed with the so-called trooper-gate and his Times Union conspiracy theories. After all, it’s a safe assumption he knew Spitzer was going to choose NYRA long before an announcement was ever made. Instead, Bruno sulked like a scolded child to a public that had grown all be disgusted with the franchise volley. Bruno even had the audacity -the unmitigated chutzpah -to propose his own racing deal in the weeks following the governor’s pitch.

There was no mystery about it, Bruno wanted a private organization running the tracks. His rumored front-runner was the embattled collective of Empire Racing, a Pataki Administration front-runner that quickly fell out of favor with Spitzer following an overhaul of all the groups principle interests.

So Bruno played a top-speed high-priced game of chicken with the governor, forcing negotiations into the classic Albany ‘three men in a room’ scenario over a period of time when the Legislature was vastly out of session. Oh, the irony of three power brokers creating an oversight board in a smoky backroom deal. On a side note, it will be interesting to see what other deals were made in at the same time in that same backroom.

Bruno probably would have continued his obstructionist behavior had it not been for NYRA drawing a line in the sand last week. Or perhaps the senator was motivated by a long-time ally Charlie Wait -a power broker in his own right -deciding to bitterly castigate him for the lack of a franchise deal. In other words, Bruno was only motivated to reach an agreement when people genuinely started freaking out.

Now, Bruno is using his typical Hollywood tactics to portray himself as a protectorate of the Spa City’s interests. The hope is that the public is far too fickle to place his name with the sole reason Saratoga’s number-one tourist draw almost went dark. In a way, it’s Bruno’s revisionist history; he’s repainting these bitter events in a vain attempt garner political capital.

Hopefully, the general public isn’t fooled by Bruno’s shtick. It’s painfully obvious the senator was on the losing end of battle he could have ended back in September. And hopefully, people will remember how quick dear Uncle Joe was to throw Saratoga on the high-tension wires of politics instead of doing what was best for the city.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Judge not lest ye be judged

Politics are already at a simmer for the city’s soon-to-be vacant judge position. The long-awaited Republican schism has formed in the push for the bench seat now occupied by longtime city court Judge Douglas Mills. Yep, they’re scrambling to become the next proselytizing pontiff to slip on the black robe a belittle the Monday morning parade of beer-addled wall pissers and insubordinate Broadway skate rats. What a job.

In fact, it’s so good a job the city Republicans are now split and bearing their incisors at one another, in a fashion some overzealously believe to be reminiscent of the cataclysmic implosion that befell the city Democrats over the past two years. But while any rift between the live-by-the-sword GOP’ers is relatively uncommon, it’s a bit far of a reach to compare any such political transgression as being on par with what happened to the mules.

The Republican flap involves part-time city court Judge James Doern and former city Matt Doresy. City Republicans narrowly advanced Dorsey’s candidacy, despite Doern serving nine years on the bench as Mills’ understudy. But Doresy is witty. Doresy is charismatic. Doresy is the guy that playfully roasted city Mayor Scott Johnson before the State of the City address earlier this month. Well, kiss my grits.

Naturally, the newspapers jumped on the divergence of viewpoints. The Saratogian claims a dozen GOP’ers stormed out of the vote in protest and suggest the party may be in “disarray.” The Times Union reports “Democrats may not be the only divided party in the city.” Yes, it’s the first visible crack to show in the Republican machine, which has historically done a superb job at keeping its rank-and-file members in line.

Though it’s reasonable to deduce both candidates are well qualified for the job, Doern certainly has the inside edge when it comes to experience. But this edge seldom makes a difference when one has the inside edge with the GOP machine; something that Dorsey certainly has. He served as the city’s attorney under former Republican mayor Michael Michael Lenz and was at one point mentioned as a candidate for Bobby D’Andrea’s state Assembly seat.

Don’t think the Republicans are alone in their haggling over Mills’ successor. In an apparent spin off from the nuclear-strength implosion that ripped through the city Democrats last fall, a minor eddy is forming in party again over the judgeship. Though party insiders have all but handed the nomination to state Supreme Court attorney James Montagnino, there’s one dark horse who thinks he’d do a better job.

Peter Tulin’s name has again surfaced in context with an election, a concept that is every bit as mind-boggling as the notion that more than 60,000 voters pulled the lever for him during the state Supreme Court election last fall. Tulin fired off a rather brash missive to city Democratic chairman Lou Schneider last month, basically faulting him for the collapse of the party and all but calling for his resignation during a committee meeting slated for this weekend. He also laid into the party chair for not giving his Supreme Court candidacy more support.

“You presided over, and some say unwittingly engineered an absolute disaster for our the Democratic Party in Saratoga Springs this past November,” Tulin wrote. “Sorry to be so personal Lou, but you and I both know about the shenanigans you have been pulling behind my back for several years.”

Of course, there are many reasons why Tulin didn’t get support from city Democrats and few of them have to do with Schneider’s lack of support. When one has more skeletons than the Saratoga National Cemetery, it’s usually a good idea to remain outside of politics. Such is the case with Tulin, who had a few public and many other less-than-public intercessions.

Most voters avoid candidates who fall more than $25,000 behind in child support, have their $132,000 painting sold at auction by the state to cover such payments, and then still manage to muster up enough cash to run a cross-county election. Others find themselves a bit leery to pull the lever for a guy that recently told the press of his treatment for bi-polar disorder. From a chairman’s perspective, these are candidates to avoid like the plague. And that’s before one even scratches the surface of Tulin’s alleged indiscretions while digging some of the Spa City’s fine area drinking establishments. Hint: we’re not talking tiddlywinks here.

So those of you who had hopped to push party back-biting on the back burner might need to buck up for another nine months or so, as we wind into a contentious city court election. For those who feed off this fodder, grab some popcorn and hold tight. There’s more to come.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Google Saratoga

So it’s a late Saturday night on Caroline Street and you’ve got a hankering for naked women your sobriety just can’t seem to quench. After a few more gin and tonics, you calmly convince your somewhat-sober friend the advantages of driving your performance automobile top speed down a few exits on the Northway to Night Moves, a destination you assure is the “premiere adult club” in the Capital Region, if not the world. After a few more belts of hooch on the way down, you find yourself strutting through the club’s front door, past the burly bouncer and square into the stark pitch of a foul blackout.

Hours later, you regain consciousness outside in a weed-choked flower planter within sight of your sleek silver vehicle. No big deal, you think, hastily fidgeting for your keys; it’s not like anyone saw your car parked directly in front of a strip club. And that’s when Google Street View’s camera car rolls by.

Yes, the Capital Region’s streets are now plugged into the somewhat controversial three-dimensional mapping program launched by the company brand name that created its own word in the English and every other language. Particularly connected is Saratoga Springs, which has nearly all of its streets featured on the digital mapping service.

With the easy-to-use interface, anyone with a decent computer, a broadband internet connection and half a pulse can take a life-like trip through the Spa City even if they’re located halfway around the globe. See, representatives from the omnipresent company dispatched a vehicle equipped with a special panoramic camera to capture images from every public thoroughfare in the city.

Saratoga Springs joins the fellow cities of Albany, Glens Falls, Schenectady, Troy, and Amsterdam, as well as the large towns of Colonie, Clifton Park and a hodge-podge of what’s what around the Capital Region featured on the service. These areas are considered “Albany” by Google, which added a dozen “cities” to their map service Tuesday. To date, 29 areas in 27 states are featured with the service.

It’s an oddly detached view of the world that greets us every day, but also a record of the places that no longer stand. Take for example the fire that ripped through Corinth Tuesday, punching a pronounced hole through the face of the flailing town’s Main Street. Or the fire that ravaged the three-unit apartment on Saratoga’s Grand Street last month. What was consumed by flames is now immortalized on Google; a grim reminder of how quickly the landscape around us can change.

Likewise, even Bruce Levinsky’s wanton disregard for the historic wing of the former Rip Van Dam couldn’t permanently erase it from the cityscape. As the Google car wheeled around, the swarthy developer was still priming his wrecking ball for the 19th century structure he turned into a parking lot.

The bizarre part about cruising the streets of Saratoga Google-style is that they all seem empty. Judging by the sky and shadows, it appears as though many of the images were taken in during the early dawn hours, possibly on a Sunday, when few street dwellers are alert enough to notice a peculiar car chronicling every public space in the city limits.

Google did, however, take a bit of caution. Even though the camera crew rolled down just about every back alley and side street in the city proper, they missed the one section of Saratoga most frequently visited on a yearly basis. Somehow, someway and for some reason, the unabridged tour of Caroline Street eluded the Google camera car.

But a quick warning: Google Street View is not for the weak-willed procrastinators of the Internet world. Despite its eerie implications, the tool is strongly addictive. If Google Earth and its accompanying satellite images of the planet were a sniff, this new feature is akin to freebasing and mainlining at the same time.

Hours can melt away on this service. It’s a fuel efficient way to explore the world around without once setting foot into the arctic tundra now laying waste to our area. Mind you, this is still a poor substitute for exploring the real thing; it still takes four dimensions and proper human locomotion to enjoy all the sights and sounds the Spa City’s bourbon street has to offer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Brushes with Gangland, Part II: The bust

When dealing drugs, the first law is to never sell them to people you don’t know. The second is to avoid dealing large quantities of drugs to any “acquaintance” who all of a sudden decides to buy pounds of a given substance instead of ounces. The third law -and perhaps the most important one to heed -is to avoid all contact with police during a deal, even if it goes dreadfully wrong.

These age-old proverbs could have helped Elaina King when she and a friend pulled a purple Dodge Durango into the South Burlington Holiday Inn Express on a chilly Monday evening five years ago. Had the young marijuana mule decided to casually observe even one of these laws, she probably could have avoided becoming an unwitting cog in a gangland slaying more than 100 miles away in her home state.

Instead, King and another fellow named Lance Loran were forced to the ground at gun point by the “acquaintance” and another man neither of them recognized. The robbers fleeced the Durango’s keys and made off into the night with a 50-pound bale of bubonic chronic the unsuspecting couple had intended to sell them. They also lost 50 half-pound bags of hydroponic ganja they had planned to move on the weed-happy streets of Burlington.

All in all, it was a bad day for the duo, especially seeing as though the dope wasn’t theirs to begin with. In fact, it belonged to a woman named Danielle Bevins, a troubled young soul who had a smuggling safe haven on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation straddling the New York border with Canada. Bevins allegedly gave King $500 to take the Durango and the weed to South Burlington, where she was supposed to connect with a collection of dealers from the North East.

One of those dealers was Kevin Arkenau Jr., a Jersey shore native neck deep in the trade as well as a bunch of other rather unfriendly dealings. Unfortunately for King, Arkenau and his gun-toting companion weren’t in the mood to buy drugs; especially not from a pair of 20-something low-level couriers plucked from the reservation. After all, why would any self-respecting thug buy a $125,000 worth of chronic when they could viciously take it at gun point?

The robbery was simple enough. The two assailants grabbed the keys and hit the road, leaving the bewildered stoners behind at the motel. They drove about five miles away from the motel, ditched the Durango and then sped off in a rented car. The strange spectacle was observed by at least one witness, who later reported seeing “two or three men” fire out of the truck and into another vehicle.

Fortunately for the authorities, the drug robbers never realized the 26 extraneous pounds of weed they hadn’t ordered from the reservation. King naturally figured her robbers had grabbed all the weed and reported the vehicle stolen to local police. When the cops arrived, she gave a bullshit story about visiting a sick aunt and meeting with the would-be robbers to sell them her Durango, not a field’s harvest of marijuana. When the cops found her truck and a felony amount worth of marijuana, the long arm of the fed swiftly clutched King, Loran, Bevins and a host of other dope dealers operating around the border.

Among the dealers lumped in with King and Bevins was Burlington residents John Orr and Keith Morris, though loose court records seem to suggest the two Vermonters were picked up a month earlier in a federal drug net. The feds search Morris’s apartment and allegedly seized $80,550 -including $29,650 in Morris’s bedroom -and over nearly 10 pounds of marijuana. Who says dealing drugs doesn’t pay?

Orr and Morris were apparently grabbing weed from the Akwesasne reservation, an Indian reservation. In an odd footnote, Morris wasn’t a Vermont native. He had attended Colgate University for a few years before dropping out to become a snow boarder. But before making this career move in 2000, he hailed from New Jersey.

King sure did land herself in a bit of trouble. In fact, she ended up facing a federal drug rap that could have landed her a minimum sentence of three years behind bars. But her botched dope deal turned out to be a key piece of evidence that later secured an indictment against Roger Aletras, a “career criminal” with direct ties to the Bonanno crime family and the fellow who allegedly popped a few slugs of lead into Arkenau’s head several hours after the robbery.

Most media sources have all but stated Aletras popped Arkenau to make off with what local cops randomly valued as “$125,000 worth of marijuana.” But it’s difficult to imagine that a man hell-bent on killing his apparent friend over drugs would also ignore what amounted to $62,500 worth of green sitting in a duffle bag in the Durango’s back seat.

Another strange tidbit is the witness account of a third man leaving the truck, as reported by the Burlington Free Press following King’s arrest in 2002. All in all, the whole affair seems a bit too bizarre when considering the job at hand and that Aletras, the husband of a mob captain’s daughter, probably didn’t have any pressing need to murder his associate over 50 pounds of weed.

It’s possible Arkenau got in over his head with gangland. There was a lot of gambling going on, his half-brother and “best friend” sheepishly confessed to the Saratogian after Aletras’ indictment. It’s also possible Aletras was set up for the murder having double crossed the wrong people; after all, neither the pot nor the gun used to kill Arkenau were ever recovered.

Another complicating issue in the case is that the Montreal mafia -among other gangs -is known for running drugs through the Akwesasne border. More specifically, the Bonanno family was known for controlling the movement of large quantities of weed through the reservation. There’s always a chance Arkenau accidentally ripped off the wrong shipment at the wrong time. After all, Aletras’ father-in-law was fingered in murder case where a member of the aforementioned mafia and known drug czar was shot dead. But this is a reach, to say the least.

Regardless of the motives, there’s one common theme: Marijuana. Part of the blood in this case lies in a splatter on the disparity between drug laws in Canada and the United States. King, Bevins, Loran, Morris and Orr all ended up with federal felony drug convictions stemming from the case, which is a scarlet letter few successful people carry in life. Aletras now faces the death penalty -either from the feds or nervous gangland fellows who are worried about what he knows. And Kevin Arkenau, well he already cashed in his chips.

Perhaps if there wasn’t a black market for this so-called “high-potency marijuana” or marijuana in general, the path for some of these folks would have been different. Studies have shown that pot isn’t a so-called gateway drug and most of the violence associated with it is generated specifically because of its criminalization.

Were marijuana legal in this case, King and Loran would have had no reason to mule the dope; Bevins, Orr and Morris no reason to sell it; Arkenau and Aletras no reason to head north of the Tapen Zee to rob it. Maybe the worst tragedy would have been the lot of them spending a few too many years on the couch eating Captain Crunch out of the box and listening to Bob Marley on repeat with a still-smoking bong on the coffee table

But with the “war on drugs” in full effect, the sad case of Arkenau’s murder falls into the hackneyed category of another bloody tale spawned by drug-addled freaks, hell bent on smoking cannabis and ready to wreck havoc on every shred of decency in this fair democracy. His death will serve as a galvanizing reason to continue a the policies of more drug enforcement agents, more drug task forces, more anti-drug programs and more laws to preempt drugs, such as the murderous marijuana.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


It’s getting difficult to discern whether Mona Golub is a super-sized human bed pan or simply the largest public information dike this side of the Hudson River. Price Chopper’s spokeswoman and daughter of Schenectady County Overlord Neil Golub refuses to say word one regarding rumors of the supermarket’s long-lived Railroad Place location closing, even though sources and common sense indicate the store is all but demolished.

Update: Fear not, A very reliable source asserts; there will be a grocer on Railroad Place well into the foreseeable future.

Word on the street is that morning-shift workers at the affectionately nicknamed “Ghetto Chopper” found Papa Golub and one of the city’s power brokers haggling over a price for the nearly 3-acre property in the center of Saratoga Springs. The negotiations were reportedly short and sweet.

Neil Golub: How much will you give me?

Sonny Bonacio: Here’s a dump truck loaded with $20 million in cash. Take it or leave it.

Neil Golub(doing the happy dance): Sold!

So comes to an end the tenure of the city’s longest-lived supermarket. Though Mona Golub didn’t care to “share” any details with The Saratogian Monday, just about everyone can read the writing on the wall. Ever since the Spa City underwent it’s massive gentrification during the late 90s, Ghetto Chopper has been a thorn in Golub’s side and an unsightly stopper for the towering condominium empire Bonacio has erected on top of the city’s former railroad arteriole.

Update: Enter the reliable source. In a correspondence Thursday, Bonacio didn't admit to or deny being in talks about the property. But in the event he was the running, the developer assured the market would certainly stay put. And for a very good reason, too.

“...My own mother shops there every day...”

Whoa, Sonny. Were it just the public getting riled up, I’d have my doubts. But the madre? I’ll take you for your word. Hell hath no furry like a mother scorned.

Built in 1961, the 23,000-square-foot supermarket and adjoining parking lot covered up the rotting multi-track rail yard that had gone into disuse. At the time, Price Chopper was just about the most attractive addition to an area of Saratoga largely dotted with burned-out industrial buildings.

But after economic revival in the 1980s, the store’s overall shabby appearance came to symbolize the rough-and-tumble nature of the city’s west side, an area of Saratoga known for it’s lower class and minority neighborhoods. Since the building boom of the 1990s, Ghetto Chopper has remained one of only visual legacies of the Spa City’s multi-class past; a reminder that a bustling lower and lower middle class once dwelled among the downtown region.

While it may seem shabby on the exterior, Ghetto Chopper caters to a veritable melting pot of pedestrian customers that remain as loyal to the store as their own predilections; the enviro-friendly green sneaker not wanting burn fossil fuel to buy organic granola; the ten-beer Skidmore happy hour drunk, too hammered to get behind the wheel to fetch more brews; the elderly shut-in renting a cheap Westside apartment and lacking transportation to any of the larger markets; the downtown restaurant worker darting out for several gallons of a milk the chef forgot to order; the proud homeless guy looking to redeem the morning collection of cans for a Budweiser tallboy. And the list goes on.

For Neil Golub, however, the Railroad Place store represents an unnecessary expense in a market where he clearly holds a monopoly. Despite being a four-season gold mine and clearing house for what doesn’t sell at his super-center on Route 50, Golub quite publicly views the smaller Chopper as a tax drain for his empire.

The city lists the property at $1.95 million, which is a full-market value of $2.35 million. Absent any previously arranged certioraris and at this level of assessment, Old Man Golub will need to shell out about $42,000 in taxes in 2008; $10,541 to the city, $4,204 to the county and a whopping $26,579 to the school district.

Despite Saratoga’s bustling market, Golub has bitterly contested the notion his property is valuing much more than a standard dilapidated duplex with a hole-ridden roof and collapsing foundation. In 1992, he argued the property was worth about $462,000, not $1.5 million as the city claimed. Six years later, he came back with a value of $165,000.

“After seven years of non-action, our attorneys used legal tactics to bring the issue to a head,” Golub explained in a letter to the Daily Gazette published in 1999. “Local councilmen took notice and became openly hostile.”

The city then took Golub to task with his bull-shit legal dickering. Just a month after the monolithic grocer crabbed over paying more than his fair share of taxes, the city offered him $1.65 million for his property. Golub bristled at the thought and again fired back in the press.

“I have one comment: It is not for sale. It has never been for sale. It is not for sale now. It will not be for sale next week or next month,” Golub blustered. “The people in downtown Saratoga have a great need for a store and we’ve met that need even though we opened a store just down the street.”

How soon he forgets when a dumpster load of greenbacks wheels into the Ghetto Chopper parking lot. Were Golub truly a community-minded fellow manning a community-minded corporation with the community in mind as he purports, he would have never built the Route 50 store and instead pumped much needed cash into what was once his anchor store in the Spa City. Instead, Golub is like any other corporate captain: he’s a greed-happy number-cruncher who could care less about the overall impact of his business decisions as long as it make him a dollar or several million.

Apparently joining him on the greed train is Bonacio, who still hasn’t been directly linked to this rumored sale by anything other than overwhelming circumstance. Bonacio was the developer that erected two wall-sized condominium buildings on Railroad Place. Bonacio is also the guy who commissioned the gargantuan monstrosity on Division Street right behind the aforementioned condos. And Bonacio is the guy who likes to build one property while lining up a second project to start as soon as he’s finished.

Under this thinking, he’ll finish his structure on South Broadway just in time to start demolition of the Lillian’s parking lot in 2009. Once that project is hammered into the ground, he should have all the necessary approvals in place to wreck Ghetto Chopper starting in 2010. It’s just speculation, but the type of speculating that gives poise for thought.

As usual, the people who can least afford for the market’s closure will be the last informed as much, thanks to the aforementioned public information dike. Like her father, Mona Golub is quite vicious when it comes to protecting Price Chopper’s market moves. Any scrap of information leaked from the company is done so in a carefully orchestrated way and at a point where the bartering, decision making, planning and construction processes are virtually etched in stone. The younger Golub will ensure the community has little if any say in whether the grocer remains.

Also not given much of a choice in the mater are the store’s employees, who are likely the source of the rumors printed in The Saratogian. To even the thickest of workers, it’s tough to explain away a pre-dawn meeting between the Golubs and a developer when numbers like $20 million are being batted around in the store’s pock-marked parking lot.

Hopefully, all this smoke is just the rambling nonsense of a couple of burnouts trading kicks out by the back dock during a cigarette break. Despite it’s lack-luster appearance, Ghetto Chopper truly offers an important and needed service to resident of the city. Shutting it down for another gaggle of million-dollar condominiums would be the last stake driven through the heart of the city’s working class.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Did somebody hear an echo?

Scott Johnson was settling into the third page of his lengthy State of the City address, when a shrill cry echoed from the crowd. To the amazement of the sparse crowd, a machete-wielding Valerie Keehn lunged forward and tackled the surprised mayor.

“We’re taking back this city back for the people,” screamed the former Mayor, thrusting the blade into the air. “Viva la resistance!”

Unfortunately, the events unfolding during Johnson’s speech Sunday weren’t nearly as dramatic. In fact, there was very little meat to be scraped from the bones of his speech. It was almost the rice cake of speeches: Sure your eyes are telling you there’s something there to digest, despite most of your other senses disagreeing.

Not that anyone would have noticed if he did say something of note. After arriving a fashionably late, Johnson spoke to a vastly empty room at the City Center. Unofficial tallies suggest the bulk of the audience were either politicians or political advisers of some ilk. Perhaps the lacking attendance was a factor of the pre-Super Bowl booze-a-thon unfolding everywhere in the city proper or perhaps residents have grown wise to the lacking nature of these speeches; perhaps people simply don’t care.

True, there’s usually not much of anything to be gleaned from any State of the City address in recent memory. Keehn, the only former mayor in attendance Sunday, used the speech in 2007 to show off her ineptitude speaker and to throw as much mud as humanly possible on a pair of commissioners she always seemed at odds with.

Johnson, on the other hand, didn’t seem to say a great deal. He certainly didn’t say anything that could be distinguished as a dig at his fellow party members, much less anyone on the council. The tone of the speech itself seemed somewhat conciliatory. Then again, Johnson hasn’t had much more than a month to marinate in the brine of city politics

Much of the mayor’s speech was devoted to preaching fiscal restraint and for the city’s government to end the “tax and spend” policies embraced by previous administrations. He also pledged to seek out new revenue sources and to fight for a continuance of the video lottery terminal aid from the state; a line item that accounts for 10 percent of the city’s total budget.

Johnson raised the previously partisan issue of rejoining the county’s sales tax plan. As some may recall, the city was urged out of the county plan under the mayoral administration of Democrat Ken Klotz. Michael Lenz, his Republican predecessor, had made rumbles of rejoining the county formula, but was quieted as a steady procession of scandals rendered the last months of his administration useless.

Johnson touched upon the deeply dividing issues of the new Public Safety building and plans to tap Saratoga Lake as a water source. But in each case, his comments were far from committal. He called for a fiscally sound solution for the Public Safety building and a “fresh eyes” approach to finding a new water source for the city.

Johnson also called for the creation of several committees, a tact which politicians often use to give voters the impression of forward movement when there really is none. In Johnson’s case, the committee button will apparently be used to review the future of the city’s capital projects and to investigate the burden local taxes. He also suggested putting the city’s large capital projects up to a referendum vote.

Though the jury is still out on Johnson, it’s becoming clear his agenda is somewhat aligned with the county party and in the same mix with some of the elephants stomping around in the state capital. One couldn’t ignore Johnson’s intermittent shout-outs to Hollywood Joe Bruno, the grand puba of state Republicans and obstructionist blocking a deal to keep state thoroughbred racing under the auspices of the embattled New York Racing Association.

On the other hand, hearing the mayor words in favor of fiscal restraint and the crippling tax burden facing residents was refreshing. But it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk.

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