Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008

Reading these long and prattling articles about the year’s events is sort of like contracting that flesh-eating zombie virus all the B-horror movies so diligently chronicle. First, your eyes glaze over. Next, your voice goes hoarse and you begin to drool. And then finally, you get the undying urge to take a pound-sized sample of flesh from the nearest reporter working on the next post-Christmas wrap-up article to go off to print.

Let’s face it: If you can’t remember the top 10 newsworthy events of the year, you probably weren’t looking to know about them in the first place. At the very least, you weren’t looking to know about them six months after the fact. That doesn’t stop every newspaper and newscast in God’s creation from expending large volumes of valuable column space or news footage toward these hackneyed projects, which only serve as an ignorance barometer for those devoid of any interest in their surroundings.

Amazingly, the Albany Times Union has somehow managed to bring this useless proliferation of old information to the online format. The Capital Region’s media giant has been re-running their top-viewed news articles of the year as updates to their Web page and in print for some inexplicable reason. The whole concept is sort of like the 12 Days of Christmas meets Letterman’s Top-10 countdown, only with about 30,000 additional words added for your reading malaise.

The Saratogian followed ‘the year in review’ format with their 1,700-word twaddle through the events of 2008. Did you miss the more than two dozen articles about Jaliek Rainwalker? Don’t worry! Did you somehow sleep through the economic collapse of the past three months? No problem! Fluctuating gas prices, Joe Bruno’s resignation and the abrupt appearance of several new city high-rises slip your mind? The Saratogain has got you covered!

Needless to say, ‘the year in review’ approach hasn’t exactly burned up the Saratogian’s readership. In fact, the article didn’t even take a stab at the “most popular” articles listed on the paper’s Web site. To put this in prospective, the article didn’t even come close to as many reads as the obituaries.

This is not to say ‘the year in review’ or ‘the best of’ stories don’t offer a function amid the flotsam and jetsam of holiday coverage. Most newsrooms are decimated by holiday vacations, which start sometime after the turkey pops into the oven on Thanksgiving and end after the last champagne cork pops out of the bottle on New Year’s Day. Not to mention, a one-day holiday usually translates to a one-week vacation in the dialect of most state and municipal workers. In other words, there’s really no way to get news out there.

Still, the editorial crew at iSaratoga sees a greater utility for the annual New Year wrap-up. Rather than reprinting or rebroadcasting old footage, these media outlets could discuss the top stories they didn’t bother to cover for whatever reason. Sure, there’s always a reason. Maybe there wasn’t enough staff. Maybe they missed the boat. Maybe the eds didn’t see it as much of a story.

So iSaratoga has decided to take a bite of humble pie and present some of the somewhere-in-the middle six stories that didn’t make it to the blog this year. Perhaps they aren’t the best of stories, but they’re ones where the snarky commentary here simply fell short:

Proctor’s Theater – CBS 6 Albany finally replaced the respective capacities of departed anchors Michelle Smith and Nicole Forige by hiring the amicable and attractive Carey Proctor. The station’s new morning anchor more than filled the shoes of Smith, the station’s mudslinging activist reporter, and Forige, who still ranks as the most sought after television bombshell on the internet. CBS almost immediately gave Proctor her own video blog, which offers foil for the one seasoned veteran Ed O’Brien has done for several years now. The station appears to have ended the new anchor’s blog. Maybe it was because she did feel like doing the 5 a.m. video blogs anymore. Or perhaps it was because Ed’s Head saw a precipitous decline in hits.

If a chip plant falls in the forest – Will anybody hear it? Many opponents of the proposed chip-fab plant in Luther Forest are asking this question as a sketchy gang of Middle Easterners arranges shell companies and offshore bank accounts. Despite blaring warning signs from the economy, original developer Advanced Micro Devices and just about anyone with a brain, state and local legislators continue to mash the rubber stamp on all of the plans for the chip-fab plant. They even gave the company another $28 million sales-tax break on top of the $1.2 billion already going toward the project. In other words, that’s about $1.5 billion in break –about a fifth of the state deficit –for a company that could leave in a decade without doing a third of what they said they would. Can somebody say Super Steel?

Put on your flak jacket – When municipalities or school districts hire what is called a “flack,” it often goes beneath the radar in both the news and residential communities. They answer all questions from the media, rather than have the media bother the real decision makers on a regular basis. These people are harvested from the media or are appointed as patronage positions. They’re paid decent, but usually not more than some advanced clerical positions. Yet the question remains why places like Colonie, the Bethlehem School District, Schenectady County and Clifton Park –which just added the position –all need a spokesperson to say and do the dirty work of elected officials and administrators. It’s another example of how the media is being cut out of the loop from a well-oiled propaganda machine and one funded by taxpayers.

Water under the bridge – Most would say the Saratoga County pipeline to the Hudson River is already in the ground, so why should it be of interest? Well, when the supervisor of the downstream town of Waterford is freaking out about the possibility of PCBs showing up in his community’s water system from the upstream EPA-ordered dredging project, it’s probably a good time to evaluate the situation. And that’s not even considering the fact that Supervisor John Lawler is the chairman of the Saratoga County Water Authority. The true test will be if Lawler signs his town up to drink from the Hudson once the pipeline is built.

Say it ain’t so Joe – While the esteemed Hollywood Joe Bruno was announcing his abrupt retirement, iSaratoga was asleep at the switch. Actually, the editor-in-chief was basking in the early summer sun with a trough of longnecks and a bottle of rum. Meanwhile the Capital Region’s media was bursting at the seams trying to nail every angle of Bruno’s illustrious career. What they lacked was the snarky, half-baked commentary the blogosphere so roundly offers. iSaratoga jumped into the fray a week and several cases of beer later, but the Bruno story had become hackneyed by that point. Oh well. You win some, and you lose some –at least this merry scribe predicted Bruno’s retirement far in advance of his announcement.

Carpetbagging - It’s clear at this point that Caroline Kennedy is the heir-apparent for the Empire State’s number-one senatorial carpetbagger. Kennedy has met with Gov. David Paterson and remains the one vocal candidate for Hillary Clinton’s seat, which must be filled in the coming weeks. She’s also received broad praise from some Capital Region pundits, who feel she would be the perfect complement to Chuck Schumer, the state’s ranking member and a power broker in his own rite. But Kennedy’s appointment would all but hand a very powerful position to someone who simply stood up and raised her hand when the governor was asking who was interested. Kennedy’s appointment would also overlook Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who DID take off the gloves to earn her seat in office. The appointment would also further offset the balance of power so that the downstate Democrats would have an overwhelming share of influence over New York politics.

Certainly, many more issues were overlooked by this scribe in 2008. Some are worthy of mention, others will drop down the toilet of time for a flush into distant memory. Here’s to hoping we all have a merry 2009 and we all have full goblets to drink from when the ball touches down amid the chaos in Times Square. Cheers and pass the waissail!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rescue Me

As the old adage goes: If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it. And when just about every cog in the machine is showing signs of wear, it’s generally a bad idea to replace the only one that isn’t.

Such is the case in Saratoga Springs, where just about every city department has a fair amount of dysfunction in dire need of correction. So leave it to Ron Kim, the city’s Public Safety rube, to suggest replacing what some would consider the only piece of the department that seems to be working rather well.

In a brazen moment of stupidity, Kim suggested Monday the city bid out its ambulance service contract. Historically, the city has depended on the tried-and-true Saratoga Emergency Medical Services Inc., a private not-for-profit ambulance corps that has hauled patients at no cost to the city. Kim’s perplexing decision to send the contract out to bid –for the first time in city history –opens the door for a private for-profit ambulance company to come in and offer a pitch that SEMS would be unable to match.

Kim, in his infinitely dizzying intellect, believes the city can cash in on some of the business SEMS does. Apparently, he sees unclaimed cash racing up Van Dam Street every time an ambulance makes the mad dash to Saratoga Hospital.

“Our thinking at this point is that if we’re going to copy cities around us, they bid out the service, and the cities get something for it,” Kim told the Saratogian Monday. “It’s not unlike what you do with cable providers.”

The only difference is a cable provider brings shows like “Sex in the City” and “24” into homes, and the ambulance service brings semi-conscious profusely bleeding patients to where that can receive life-saving care. In short, the ambulance service is not a revenue cash cow, nor should it be viewed as one.

Saratoga Springs is one of the few municipalities in New York that has not suffered from the emergency medical services crisis that has wrought havoc on the state for more than a decade. SEMS, which was once an all-volunteer service, was among the more fortunate ambulance companies that made a successful transition to a paid, not-for-profit service. The fact that the city doesn’t subsidize the ambulance company with anything more than its rent at the fire department’s West Avenue substation is simply astounding.

Some will argue the not-for-profit model of the ambulance service is antiquated and in need of replacement by the for-profit model, which seems to be proliferating as operating costs choke the volunteer companies out of existence by. Generally, these folks are on the payroll of Mohawk Ambulance, a company listens carefully to the wind for the drivel now spewing from Kim’s mouth.

Simply put, Mohawk can quickly become the only option once municipality kicks a not-for-profit ambulance company to the curb. Once an ambulance company is liquidated, there’s no going back. The costs associated with creating such a service would be beyond the means of any town, city or village, much less one that’s facing a potential certain $1.9 million revenue shortfall.

Kim’s early talk has also spurred the city firefighters into suggesting they might start hauling patients from the east side of the city, where SEMS lacks any sort of rescue station. John Betor, an assistant chief with the city fire department, claims the firefighters could get into the business of hauling patients when SEMS is busy. He says the ambulance corps usually relies on outside agencies –a process called “mutual aid” –about twice a week. Because there is no other nearby ambulance service, mutual aid calls can sometimes take upwards of 20 minutes in response time, Betor explained. He suggested the city augment SEMS by having its own ambulance on the road.

“They do have times when they can’t respond and we have to wait for outside help to respond,” he said. “No one should have to wait for an outside agency.”

Here’s the problem: The city can’t afford to dabble in ambulance business. Even if there was a multi-million dollar budget surplus and property taxes were at or about zero, the city endeavoring into the meat wagon practice is a liability no sensible auditor would suggest.

In truth, the answer lies with establishing a badly needed substation on Saratoga’s eastside, and then stowing an additional SEMS ambulance at it. Strangely enough, the city has prescribed this in the latest firefighter contract, which Kim negotiated himself. But why bother getting bogged down with details.

The bottom line is tinkering with a functional ambulance service is a recipe for disaster. Once again, Kim has opened Pandora’s Box to cause a litany of problems and hassle for the city council to weed through, rather than focusing on the desperate needs at hand. As residents, we can all hope that the election November comes before Kim can get his fumbling fingers around the one cog that does appear to be working properly.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Swing for the stands

Hank Aaron knew a lot about slumps. Despite holding the home run record for more than four decades, the Hall of Fame baseball player had his fair share of games where he simply couldn’t seem to get around the bases. So he had a simple philosophy when it came to breaking out of a funk: Keep swinging.

“Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging,” he once said.

No doubt, the editorial crew at iSaratoga has undergone its own slump over the past three weeks. So much of a slump that some have even forecasted an untimely demise of this never-ending exercise in free speech.

Now you’re probably saying ‘Slump? Are you kidding Horatio? You haven’t posted once in December. This is no ordinary slump.’ True. Very true. In fact, never has there been such a long absence of posts in all of iSaratoga’s nearly three years of publication. And there’s no silver-bullet reason that would explain any of this. Part of it has to do with lethargy; some pertains to ill-timed consumption of Johnny Walker; others the general condition of life in this grand union of ours. It’s a bit hard to be cynical when the fabric of this great American tapestry is unraveling –or maybe even has unraveled.

Still, this is no time for cocktails and tears. After all, the salinity does nothing for the after bite of a good smoky scotch. So batter up, let’s swing for the stands and swing often. One of these cuts is bound to yield something other than a goose-egg.

Leading off, the Saratogian’s new Web design has added a nifty feature some other area papers have capitalized on. Aside from being more comprehensive, the site now includes a side box that allows readers to navigate the most read stories and those that have elicited comments. The Post-Star employed a similar tactic several years ago and has seen their comments balloon as a result.

Of course, the number of comments never ensures they’re worth reading. But occasionally, they make for a hell of a read. When South Corinthian Michael DiGioacchino announced he’d challenge relic Jim Bowen for Saratoga County Sheriff next year, the coverage in the Saratogian roused a few people that painted a less than endearing picture of the prospective Republican candidate.

Apparently, DiGioacchino’s wife found herself embroiled in a quasi-road rage incident with a fellow motorist. But instead of calling 911, she called her husband, a member of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department, who was nearby at the time. DiGioacchino confronted the motorist –who later turned out to be a neighbor –and at least identified himself as a cop. The authorities were contacted after a heated exchange between the candidate and the offending motorist, but no arrests were made.

The dispute is relatively trivial with the exception that DiGioacchino chimed into the comment section himself to weigh in on the matter. Granted, he did so in a very tactful manner. However, it’s a bit odd for a candidate to go on the defensive online with an anonymous poster just days after he announced his candidacy. Of course, when a candidate shows up to a press conference looking like Eliot Ness and then comes off as a vigilante the next week, it’s probably best to nip that one in the bud.

But the sheriff’s challenger isn’t the only one to grab attention in the online comments section. The widow of Michael Arpey –the drunk driver who killed a popular Saratoga High School football player last spring –seemed to swat the online hornet’s nest when she decided to sue the two bars that fed her hubby drinks prior to his wreck.

Unfortunately, the Saratogian reporter really didn’t investigate the lawsuit very thoroughly, or contact any of the victims in the case. In fact, the reporter didn’t even bother to call the attorneys listed for the plaintiff and defendant, the owners of the City Tavern and the poorly named It’s Confidential, or Jummel’s as the locals once called it.

Obviously, the widow Arpey or the ambulance chaser that put her up to the lawsuit didn’t think it through too well, seeing as though it was her husband who made the semi-conscious decision to get behind the wheel after a night of boozing. It’s unlikely the barkeeps at either establishment poured this bibulous man into his truck and then put it into gear for him to swerve home; or in this case, into a poor kid simply trying to make it home after visiting a friend. But let’s not digress.

Those commenting on the article roundly miss its dramatic shortcomings and instead broadly castigate the widow for her frivolous suit. This was countered by someone ‘in the know’ who suggested the widow would do something altruistic with whatever settlement she feels is due. Another less rational person suggested that all bartenders in the downtown region “are poorly educated;” a statement which this humble moderator takes issue with.

When it comes to smarts, folks don’t get much smarter than the standard bartender. Try juggling a few dozen cocktail orders in your head, along with their price and the ingredients, while some jackass blathers on about his ‘killer’ day at work. Then add in a cute blond flashing the ‘do-me’ face at the end of a three-deep bar, and you’ve got a profession that takes more know-how and savvy than your standard rocket scientist. The ignorance of some is simply astounding.

Moving on today, there’s word that the city’s talk with the police hasn’t brought them any closer to reaching a contract. That on top of the dilapidated station has caused morale to plummet, according to PBA President Ed Lewis. Morale has declined so much that the PBA negotiating team simply can’t bring themselves to meet with the city the day before Christmas eve.

“That’s two days before Christmas, so I figured we’ll wait until after the holidays,” he told the Saratogian Wednesday.

Now let’s stop here for a minute. Cops typically speak a similar, but different English than the vernacular. Words like ‘transport’ are used instead of ‘taking,’ or ‘lacerations’ instead of ‘cuts’ and so on. So in translation, by ‘wait until after the holidays’ Lewis means ‘all of us not making overtime have off until New Years’ Eve and there’s lots of wassail to drink,’ both of which are clearly more important than working out a contract. Cheers guys!

City residents can at least revel in the thought that Public Safety Lapdog Ron Kim won’t be negotiating this contract. Mayor Scott Johnson has hired a private attorney at $250 an hour to represent the city in the talks, if they ever happen. While this might sound like a lot to be shelling out for something a sitting commissioner should technically be doing, it’s for the best. At least now, the city will have someone who might argue for concessions in the contract, rather than opening up the coffers for the thieves in blue.

Well, that’s about all the swinging this hammer has in it for the day. Hopefully, a few of those pitches reached the warning track. And hopefully this will satiate the dwindling masses of iSaratoga’s regular readership until this humble moderator can pull his cranium out of the holly.

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