Sep 28, 2020 - Uncategorized    2 Comments

Protect your vote in Saratoga Springs: Reject charter change

I’ve long criticized Saratoga Springs’ form of government in which elected council members oversee specific aspects of City Hall, creating silos of administration. But the charter change now on the ballot would replace that shortcoming with one far worse – a ward system that would drastically reduce every city resident’s representation on the City Council and make elected officials less accountable.

I’m voting no.

The claim that residents would gain better representation with wards is false and grossly misleading.

The ward system minimizes our individual clout as voters. It eliminates council members’ accountability to all but the sixth of the city that elects them. We would get to vote for a mayor and only one of six council members, with no promise that even that one candidate – let alone the other five – would feel compelled to address the concerns of our particular neighborhood. 

I looked at a map of the election districts to see how areas were lumped together in the proposed charter (in Article XI, section C) to form six wards. Here are three examples:

Ward Three stretches from the city neighborhoods around the Caroline Street School to the sprawling estates in the Beacon Hill Drive area off Meadowbrook Road and the rural developments north of Route 29 toward Wilton.

Ward Four would combine the South Side (everything south of Lincoln Avenue, including Jefferson Terrace) with all the Saratoga Lake and Lake Lonely developments, more than three miles and a world away.

Ward Six puts together the downtown West Side (including the Beekman Street arts district) with the more suburban housing around Buff Road.

You get the idea. Check out the map yourself. 

Bottom line: Every citizen should be able to vote for all of the City Council members.

There are other reasons to reject this charter change. Promised cost savings are dubious as is the timing of the ballot proposal, with people unable to assemble to discuss the pros and cons, not to mention the city budget hole caused by the pandemic. And the idea of a city manager appointed to oversee all city operations makes sense — but not accompanied by the unnecessary creation of a full-time mayor as proposed.

I could get behind a new charter with an appointed city manager beholden to a City Council whose members answer to all Saratoga Springs voters.

This charter change would radically reduce our voice. Vote no.

Aug 26, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

7 years after Darryl Mount incident, Saratoga Springs records may shed light on police conduct

Darryl’s name was held high at Black Lives Matter rally June 7 in Saratoga Springs.

We’re at the seventh anniversary of the day a Black man named Darryl Mount was chased by white police in downtown Saratoga Springs and ended up below a construction scaffold, dying nine months later from his injuries. A civil lawsuit brought by Mount’s mother against the city is still pending. A remembrance walk is scheduled for Monday.

An independent or internal investigation of the pre-dawn incident might have uncovered police misconduct — or could have cleared the officers of suspicion of wrong-doing in what they called an accident. Instead, the city refused to sanction an independent probe and lied about conducting an internal one.

No wonder at the Black Lives Matter march in Saratoga Springs this past June 7 you could see “Justice for Darryl” signs here or there, and that an event is planned for the Aug. 31 anniversary of the fatal chase. The nationally pervasive police culture of protecting your own, whether or not they deserve it, disrespects and endangers both the public and the officers doing their job with integrity.

I am not anti-police. It breaks my heart when citizens are the victims of the people sworn to protect them. And it also breaks my heart when officers who put their lives on the line are disrespected, demonized and murdered. Cases of egregious police misconduct seem few and far between in Saratoga Springs; not to jinx us, but it’s rare – as it should be – for shots to be fired in this city by citizens, let alone police.

I believe Black Lives Matter and I believe that most police officers are decent human beings.

Darryl’s name was on signs at the June 7, 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Saratoga Springs.

A protest walk is a baby step toward cultural change. This summer, the state Legislature repealed section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which means the public can finally see police disciplinary records in New York. So today I formally requested documents related to conduct complaints against members of the Saratoga Springs Police Departments — including the officers involved in the 3 a.m. Darryl Mount chase back in 2013.

My interest in the Darryl Mount case is not new. As managing editor of the local newspaper, The Saratogian, at the time, I accepted the word of the police chief and his boss that they were doing an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct.

Then, on the fifth anniversary of the incident, in an article published by the Times Union, I cited sworn depositions revealing that the then-chief had intentionally misled the public about an internal investigation. The deception surprised and saddened me, as the chief had earned respect with a positive track record, including work on behalf of domestic violence victims and the introduction of bodycams. But I digress.  

A few months later, planning to write a broader story about SSPD handling of misconduct allegations, I requested data on complaints between 2014 and 2018. The response came shortly thereafter, in May 2019, in the form of a press release-style statement from the chief loaded with raw data. It raised even more questions that I knew I couldn’t get answered, and I set it aside. Until today, thanks to the state’s repeal of 50-a.

The chief’s May 2019 statement reports that from 2014 through 2018, the SSPD dealt with almost 161,000 calls for service and more than 6,800 full body arrests. There were 134 force reports (only about 2 percent of total arrests) and 77 personnel complaints – that is, 77 internal investigations.

Of the 77 complaints (24 generated by supervisors and 53 by citizens), 18 were for rude behavior, 49 for “various police-related issues,” and 10 alleged excessive force.

Twenty-seven of those complaints against officers were sustained, the chief wrote: “Eight resulted in disciplinary action; two officers resigned prior to the commencement of disciplinary action; and seventeen complaints were closed with counseling or retraining for minor violations of policy.”

What was the outcome of the excessive force allegations? What disciplinary action was meted out against whom, and for what? Were there repeat offenders? Did resigning officers slip away with pensions and then go on to some other law enforcement job? Were any of the cited officers involved in the Darryl Mount case?

Let’s not speculate about what the records I’ve requested will show. The purpose isn’t to embarrass or harass good police officers, but to peel away the secrecy that taints them in the eyes of the public. I’ll keep you posted. 

Aug 25, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

R.I.P. Ray Watkin; your legacy in Saratoga Springs lives on

The Saratoga Springs mayor who sued the federal government to save the downtown post office, ran a Broadway bootery frequented by Skidmore students, and officiated at my marriage (twice, kind of) passed away Sunday, Aug. 23.

Ray Watkin at his 90th birthday party in June 2019 with the McNearys.

He was 91 and, truth be told, Raymond Watkin had a good run.

Ray will be buried Wednesday alongside his wife Joan, a talented artist who died in August 2013. Her work adorned the walls of their home, and he adored her.

Last time I spoke to him was on his 91st birthday in June. I meant to stop by to say hi. I didn’t. Least I can do it let the world know he hasn’t been forgotten.

Here’s the piece I posted in 2019 as a 90th birthday tribute:

When you go inside the 1910 post office on Broadway in Saratoga Springs, look around. Look up at the leaded glass skylight. Notice the murals on the walls from the 1930s. Admire the arches and architectural details remaining in one of the most elaborate lobbies of its kind in New York.

This historic gem exists because one local guy sued the federal government – and won.

That guy is Raymond Watkin, who turned 90 on June 9.

Watkin was mayor from 1974 through 1980. He was mayor when the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation was established and when the post office and other properties were designated components of a new Broadway Historic District. When Watkin couldn’t convince his City Council colleagues to step up, he personally sued the federal government — and literally stopped the destruction of the post office.

The turning point of downtown occurred during his tenure, as local and federal initiatives and investments began to restore and ultimately preserve Broadway storefronts, setting the stage for today’s thriving downtown.

At the time, I was a rookie reporter covering the city for The Saratogian, the daily newspaper. Back then the City Council elections were non-partisan, which seems fitting for local races, though no one loves to schmooze about politics more than Ray Watkin.

Ray Watkin’s faux marriage ceremony 42 years ago at the Golden Fox in Albany. Because he lacked jurisdiction, he married Jim and I the day prior in City Hall — and it was lovely.

I don’t think I ever got a scoop out of Mayor Watkin, but he does have a special place in my heart. In 1978 he officiated my wedding – two days in a row. As our big day approached, Watkin informed us he didn’t have jurisdiction at our wedding venue in Albany. So my now-husband Jim picked me up at the newspaper and we went across the street to City Hall, where Watkin married us in a lovely, brief and intimate ceremony. He then performed the faux formalities the following day before more than a hundred unsuspecting family and friends.

Thought I’d share these couple of stories on the occasion of Ray’s 90th, to publicly thank him for a memorable marriage ceremony and for his legacy to the city.

Jul 16, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Local newsrooms ‘operating on fumes and idealism’ while hedge fund profits

This is the image on the Twitter account for a reporter who cares about local news, even though his hedge fund owners don’t.

Dan Barry’s recent New York Times piece about the lone reporter for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., struck home.

The Mercury is owned by the same hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, that gutted The Saratogian, where I worked for 38 years, along with The Record in nearby Troy, and virtually every other newspaper it’s acquired, large and small. Alden   also owns significant shares in big newspaper chains and is salivating for more.

Newspapers are distressed properties that vultures like Alden will mercilessly squeeze to death. Alden’s newspaper division made $160 million in the 2017 fiscal year, with double-digit profit margins from some of its newspapers, Barry reported, while the hedge fund continues to strip its newspapers bare. Its motto could be: All the news we print’s for profit.

The focus of Barry’s story is reporter Evan Brandt, whose beat in Pottstown includes more than a dozen local governments and school districts.

Sounds familiar.

Here, a handful of writers and editors are attempting to cover an impossible number of communities in and around Saratoga Springs, Troy, and southern Saratoga County for online and print editions. It’s tempting to call this a fool’s errand, but the journalists are no fools, just people who believe that knowing what’s going on in your town is important — even though their bosses could not care less.

These and other local newspapers, as Barry writes, are “operating on fumes and the idealism” of their own Evan Brandt.

This may not convince you to pay for your local news, but I hope it will help you to understand and appreciate what the less than barebones staff is up against.

May 28, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Changing culture of race relations, one horrifying video at a time

We’ve been reminded yet again this week about the power of video and social media to expose crimes and cruelties that would otherwise have been swept under the rug by the perpetrators and their official protectors.

The latest were the white Minneapolis police officers responsible on Monday for the needless death of a black man picked up outside the store where he allegedly passed a fake twenty-dollar bill. Witnesses who could have refuted the officers’ false report would have been too easily discounted without the weight of video.

The morning of that same day, in New York’s Central Park, a white woman urgently told 911 that her life was being threatened by a black man. The man’s cellphone video told the truth — an entirely different story about a decidedly non-threatening bird watcher merely asking that her dog be leashed.

And it wasn’t until May, after video was released, that three white men in Georgia were arrested in the Feb. 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was guilty of jogging while black.  

A list of examples could go on and on, and not just involving police and not only blacks. Our society has a long way to go to control, let alone extinguish, the fear and hate that are the backbones of racism.

What is the role of the news media in helping to change the culture? That question was addressed during the taping of The Media Project, a weekly show on local public radio WAMC, 90.3 FM. It airs at 6 p.m. Sunday, 3 p.m. Monday, and is accessible after Sunday anytime on wamc.org. This week’s panelists are myself (a University at Albany journalism teacher and former executive editor of The Saratogian and The (Troy) Record; Times Union Editor at Large Rex Smith; Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC; and Judy Patrick, formerly editor of the Gazette and now with the New York Press Association.

How can the media report on our communities in ways that do not stoke mistrust and animosity, but rather move toward greater empathy, respect and understanding for others?

We discussed the question but could not satisfactorily answer it. I’d be interested in what you think. 

A longstanding shortcoming in the media, regardless of good intentions, is the overwhelming whiteness of its decision-makers, as well as a tendency to tip the scales of trust to people in positions of authority. Getting at the “truth” can be elusive and obtaining official records, including video, in controversial cases is not easy – but worth the effort.

“Videos paint a story inside of a culture where a lot of the public has been trained and encouraged to not believe black people,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, in the New York Times.

The unvarnished truth of videos — whether recorded by victims, police, bystanders, journalists, or security cameras – and the ability to spread them over the internet are game-changers. We need them not only to bring individual cases to light, but to bring about long-term, cultural change.

May 11, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Veitch, Gaston trying to hold Saratoga County accountable

Thanks are due to Matt Veitch and Tara Gaston — the two people elected to represent Saratoga Springs on the county government level – for their perseverance in trying to keep citizens informed about what Veitch aptly described as a “breakdown” at the county. There is indeed a disturbing breakdown of accountability, procedures, and representation in Saratoga County government.

Thanks also to John Kaufmann, whose Saratoga Springs Politics website includes conveniently edited segments of Veitch and Gaston’s reports to the City Council. They are short, easy to digest, and revealing. Well worth your time.

I listened in on a late April meeting of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors that ran well over three hours, about half of which consisted of inadequately justified “executive sessions” – meaning the public was shut out. Some supervisors were at the county board meeting and others participated by phone; it was often difficult to hear what was being said and impossible to know who was talking.   

When all was said and done, several participating supervisors seemed even more confused and frustrated than I was. They couldn’t get a straight answer to straightforward questions about time-and-a-half pay someone had authorized for certain county employees ostensibly related to COVID-19. Questions like: How many employees, which employees, the cost, and when and how the employees were notified of the start and stop of this extra pay. Not to mention who obligated the county to this without going through normal channels, and why it was granted in the first place, especially to well-paid salaried staff.

The situation was so inexplicably tortuous that the supervisors narrowly agreed an external investigation was needed to get to the bottom of it. Significantly, Saratoga Springs Supervisor Veitch was the swing vote. He and his colleagues reasonably expected the ultimate selection of an investigator to go through the usual processes. Instead, a contract was quickly signed without notifying Veitch and other supervisors, without addressing the scope of the investigation, the cost, or the firm selected.   

Meanwhile, the county board chairman, Preston Allen of the town of Day, has canceled yet another regular monthly county board meeting. These could be conducted remotely with or without video, for both elected and citizen participation. This is a time for government leadership, not for ducking basic accountability.

Apr 30, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Forget the letter; focus on long list of big reasons to vote Trump out

My Coronavirus Aid Relief check was directly deposited, but it turns out there was no escaping the Sharpie scrawl: Our federal tax dollars were spent sending ourselves a letter from Trump letting us know how pleased he is about the money.

To be fair, the letter (English on one side, Spanish on the other) sounds nothing like Trump. It credits Congressional bipartisan support for the aid and takes a positive tone. Still, believing its only purpose is to generate undue credit, the letter is a source of aggravation.

That’s my mistake. With so many major reasons to want Trump gone, I must not get distracted by things like a letter or a totally not sarcastic suggestion about medicinal disinfectants.

For starters, here’s an extremely incomplete list of bigger fish to fry:

His lethal mishandling of the coronavirus, purposeful refusal to provide federal leadership, and bold denial of own recorded words and actions. 

His insistence, totally false, that dismantling of the Affordable Care Act would still protect people with pre-existing conditions.

His heartless destruction of the lives of immigrants and their families. He lied about the cruel and poorly executed separation of families at the Mexican border.

He gleefully incites violence, hatred and incivility against groups of people – immigrants, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, journalists, Democrats, anyone who dares to criticize him.

He used anti-Semitic tropes last August, saying Jews were “disloyal” if they voted for Democrats. And he still defends his statement that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 Charlottesville rally where white supremacists marched as they shouted, “Jews will not replace us.”

He ferments distrust and hate of the media in the manner of authoritarian regimes. He shrugged off Saudi Arabia’s murder of a reporter for the Washington Post.

He proudly promised to protect LBGT citizens, then undid hard-fought rights and protections.

He signed executive orders to benefit oil pipelines and remove Obama environmental protections. He has weakened the Clean Air Act. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement addressing climate change.

He has committed shameful and impeachable offenses by the score.

Trump gets away with all this and more because others in government – like Mitch McConnell – who share some, if not all, of his policies and believe their self-interests are best served by pandering to the president, laying low, lying to the public, or all of the above.

Trump is not the first president to lie and put personal and political gain above all else. But it is hard to imagine a more unpresidential president. Trump has dropped the bar for civility and courtesy into the sub-basement. He is crude, cruel, uninformed, narcissistic and, I hate to say it because I don’t like name-calling, an imbecile.  

The least of our problems is a letter with his signature. But I am going to keep it close at hand lest I take my eye off the ball: getting out the vote this fall to get Donald Trump – and his enablers – out of office.

Apr 21, 2020 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Call in today to hold Saratoga County accountable

You can listen at 4 p.m. today to a live meeting of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors. Here’s why you should: The people with the most power in Saratoga County government have been failing to serve the best interests of the people they’re supposed to serve. Some of their actions have been in secret, and some in flagrant disregard of their responsibilities because, sadly, they figure they can get away with it.

Government serves the public, not vice versa.

They voted huge raises for top-paid administrators for unspecified pandemic work by people who are assuredly not first responders, apparently rescinded after public exposure. They left helping the homeless during this pandemic to Saratoga Springs, even though homeless people are not restricted to city residence. The board’s Public Health Committee hasn’t met since March 4. And instead of a regular monthly public county board meeting, these “leaders” attempted to convene a “special meeting” –meaning that the chairman can severely restrict the agenda (in this case, to approve a contract for corrections officers that was news to other board members and create an unrepresentative, ad hoc COVID-19 committee). When nine of the board’s 23 members showed the gumption to vote against ratifying that inappropriate “special” meeting on Friday, the meeting was halted and a new one scheduled for today.

The Saratogian, the Times Union, and local citizen journalist John Kaufmann have been trying to tell people what’s going on, why they should care, and what they can do about it. Others are speaking out, too. Kaufmann’s latest post notes people can listen live to today’s 4 p.m. meeting and can submit comments that will be read by the clerk at the meeting by calling 1-844-855-4444 and enter the Participation Passcode 823993#. Also comments can be emailed to PWright@Saratogacountyny.gov.

Apr 21, 2020 - Uncategorized    2 Comments

When did this coronavirus nightmare begin for you?

I stuffed in my pocket the mask my primary made me wear when I visited March 2 with a lingering cough. I feel fine … despite an occasional dry cough.

I can hear my parents’ warning: Don’t give yourself a kenahora!

The saying is an amalgam of the Yiddish and Hebrew “kein ayin hara.” Literally, don’t give yourself the evil eye. Don’t be smug. Don’t jinx yourself. Don’t, I can imagine them saying, write about feeling lucky to be healthy.

Who listens to their parents, alive or dead?

Today is April 21, 2020, and I want to record my small coronavirus stories. I don’t know where to start. Certainly not at the beginning, because I can’t tell you when that was.

Was it Valentine’s Day weekend? My husband Jim and I caught up in Manhattan with pals Tom Petzinger and Paulette Thomas, all traveling Amtrak, we from Albany and they from Pittsburgh. We enjoyed Mexican muralists and lunch at the Whitney, dinner at our favorite Il Gattopardo one night and new go-to Nerai the next, a morning in the imaginatively renovated MoMA, and the original cast in a Hadestown matinee. This was followed three days later by a cough and cold that landed me in bed for a couple of days, a March 2 trip to my primary when the cough wouldn’t quit, and now, two months later, occasional dry coughs that Jim keeps count of. Luckily, for no good reason except my inability to throw anything away, I pocketed the mask my doctor had me wear for that visit.

Was it the end of February and early March, as I hemmed and hawed about what level of insurance to buy for our mid-May trip to Spain? I gambled (having what my father called book smarts versus street smarts) that travel could be safe by then.

Was it Sunday, March 8? That afternoon Jim and I shared a New Haven pizza with our son Joe, after which he walked us around parts of the city we hadn’t seen in prior visits. Then Jim and I headed up to Northampton, Mass., for a Jayhawks concert. Jim cautioned me not to cough and I noticed how the small theater was full of old people (I was still only 65 back then).

Was it Tuesday, March 10? That was the last day I saw my journalism students at University at Albany in person. That afternoon I sent the class out to the Student Center to conduct quickie interviews with students about what the school should do regarding the coronavirus. The students then had to look up coronavirus news and facts online and weave them into a little story with the local angle of their interview.

Or, I could start with the morning of Thursday, March 12, when I arrived at UAlbany five hours ahead of my class, having been downtown at 8:30 a.m. to tape public radio WAMC’s The Media Project. I planned to check my mail, treat myself to a large coffee in the Campus Center Starbucks, and settle in at a computer on the sunny second floor of the Science Library. The parking lot was eerily empty at 9:30. Turned out that half an hour earlier, President Havidan Rodriguez announced that someone had tested positive the previous night for COVID-19 and classes were suspended for the day. School break was the following week, anyway, so students hit the road. The next day came the message that the second half of the semester would be finished remotely. Huh?

Stay tuned for more, or don’t. When did this nightmare start for you?

Mar 31, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

DON’T air Trump’s live ‘briefings’ – and don’t let him off the hook

NOTE TO READERS:
I have CHANGED MY MIND about these briefings, which are neither brief nor informative. I’ll set my record straight at some point, but for the moment suffice to say I totally disagree with this post! Living airing are NOT a public service. To the contrary. Anyway, here’s the original post from the start:

An email arrived the other day telling me the president is using his daily coronavirus press briefings “to spread misinformation, campaign for re-election, and bully reporters who challenge him.” 

No duh.

The email went on: “Instead of enabling this behavior, major news media outlets need to stop” their live, unedited coverage, and I should sign a petition demanding it.

Whoa. No way.  

Granted, it’s tough to watch Trump’s cavalier and dangerous disregard of facts, science, and truth; his obsessively political, hateful rants and innuendoes; his xenophobic propaganda; his inability to demonstrate leadership in any way, shape or form; his absurd failure to social distance on stage. He maliciously maligns elected officials who dare to not kowtow and journalists trying to report the truth. He is bad for the country and my blood pressure.

That’s why I stopped watching. Instead, I check in on mainstream media for a credible summary of the day’s news from rational experts and reporters.  

But while I ignore the live briefings, I don’t want the mainstream media to do the same.

Like it or not, Trump is president. To not air his briefings would leave the mainstream media open to criticism that it was stifling the president’s attempts to communicate with the country during a national crisis, and it would divert viewers to the Trump-sanctioned channel. The challenge for the mainstream media is to relentlessly, politely (to the extent possible), and unapologetically question, challenge, fact-check — and hold him and his administration responsible for what is said and done.

I’ll confess to a pang of déjà vu from when the media gave outrageous candidate Trump undeserved, priceless attention. The lesson from that mistake: Don’t silence the president, but don’t let him off the hook. 

In times of crisis, people crave leadership, information (they want to believe), and hope. Inexplicably, people are finding this in Trump. But the president’s dinnertime ramblings expose his ineptness and incompetence while lives and livelihoods are being lost, and light bulbs are going on. For instance, Trump fan Mike Francesa of WFAN is appalled at what the president says while people are dying “five minutes from where he grew up.”

Local public radio WAMC’s The Media Project (on which I’m sometimes a panelist; listen anytime at wamc.org) addressed a recent decision by a National Public Radio station in Washington State to stop airing the live press briefings (though listeners can still hear them at npr.org.)

The show’s host, Rex Smith of the Times Union newspaper, noted that the station’s action was not censorship, which is what government does when it stifles free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Rather, it was the station making an editorial judgment about newsworthiness. From my decades of running the newsroom of The Saratogian, I understand the distinction and know that such decisions are not taken lightly.

But the public doesn’t make that distinction, as Rosemary Armao, a fellow University at Albany journalism teacher, pointed out. WAMC President and CEO Alan Chartock shared on the show that his staff decided to keep airing the briefings.

They’re right. Better for the media to err on the side of airing – without letting the president and his administration off the hook.