Sunday, February 27, 2005

All Access Past

Recently the Mayor has taken to calling himself "The Inaccessible Mayor" to make light of criticism that he isn't accessible to the people of Albany. The Mayor wants you to think that because you can phone in your concerns on his weekly show that this is all the access you could need and thus any criticism that he is inaccessible is a joking matter. Some people have commented on this blog that they agree with the Mayor. Here's what I think:

If You Aren't Part of the Solution, You Are Part of the Problem.

This is what Mayor Jennings and his supporters say in response to the lack of access to the Mayor. He will say, "get involved". This is a smart thing for the Mayor to do because it deflects the criticism and appears to shift the blame of any problem in Albany to the "negative" people that refuse to get involved. I'm one of those "negative" people. Let's talk about getting involved. The Soares campaign has stated that they had approximately 1,000 people volunteer to help out on the campaign. Whether this number is accurate or perhaps rounded up to the nearest impressive number, it doesn't really matter. I was one of those volunteers. I saw a lot of other people doing what I was doing and more. Donating their time and money to try to improve their city. I knocked on doors and talked to the citizens of Albany, made phone calls, went to fundraising events. We saw a problem and we were part of the solution. We didn't need, want, or certainly get the Mayor's help on this one. And if you were paying attention, he was pissed off about that. He refused to endorse the Democratic primary winner (Soares). Let me repeat that. The leading Democrat in Albany County refused to endorse the people's choice for the DA. Why? Because the Mayor has a problem with the people when they don't do what he wants. From where I'm sitting, that isn't democracy. What we did by electing David Soares IS democracy. And it was something new in Albany. No less an expert than William Kennedy said the Soares victory was a "sea change", a historical moment as "surprising as Jerry Jennings backing George Pataki for Governor". I liked his reference point. This was big. Almost as big as when Jerry deserted the Democratic party the last time. Almost.

Now before you get started on some type of "you just did that because you don't like the Mayor and you don't really care about the city like he does" rant, let's look at some other recent history.


Perhaps you've heard of the Friends of the Madison Theatre. This is a group of people that organized to try to have some influence over the quality of their neighborhood. Getting involved. What results from their efforts remains to be seen. But I think you should read this column and pay particular attention to this section.

"Fortunately, neighborhood groups are organizing to save the Madison and the "walking style of neighborhood" threatened by a drive-through and expanded parking. Their vigorous opposition is driven in part by active professionals who have recently moved into Albany and don't accept top-down governance from City Hall."

Organizing, vigorous opposition, not accepting top-down governance from City Hall. See the involvement? See how it doesn't say "open dialogue, support and guidance from City Hall". That is because there is no such thing as dialogue with City Hall. Any dialogue is a one way conversation and it is run by Mayor Jennings. Remember that as we take this walk through the city. Next stop Arbor Hill.

Arbor Hill

I think we can all agree Arbor Hill needs help. And we know the city has a plan. But were the people of Arbor Hill involved in the plan? And how about the Mayor, his consultants and his political allies from the common council? Perhaps you should read this article. I'll hi-light some choice quotes:

"For years, residents of Arbor Hill, one of Albany’s poorest districts, have cried for neighborhood improvements: more options for low-cost housing, increased youth services and beautification projects, just to name a few."

"But members of the community say that working with the city on turning their neighborhood around has been frustrating. Typically, they say, city officials ignore residents’ ideas for improvements to Arbor Hill, instead trying to force their own revitalization ideas on the neighborhood. "

"Particularly notable absences were Arbor Hill’s representatives from the Albany Common Council, Michael Brown and Sarah Curry-Cobb. Neither returned phone calls for this story."

"When three-fourths of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee failed to show up for a committee meeting last week, residents expressed concern that the mayor’s plan to renew their neighborhood may be stalling."

Not only did the residents not get ACCESS 3/4's of the committee members and politicians didn't even bother to show up to present the plan to the community. How would you feel if it was your community? You'd probably wish you had a $1,000 so you could attend the next fundraiser for the Mayor and give him a piece of your mind.

Wellington Row

Let’s take a walk over to Wellington Row. Despite the “renaissance” that the Mayor says the city has experienced, the Wellington Hotel has sat vacant for the last 17 years. Wealthy investors in England bought it, kicked everyone out and want to tear it down. So they have let it decay. And the Mayor has done no code enforcement on the building in the 11 years that he's been in office. If the Mayor doesn't do this, the citizens don't have any recourse. This is his job and the Wellington is a fine example of how he isn’t doing his job. This is a building that made the New York State Preservation League’s list of Seven to Save in the year 2000. 4 years before the problems this summer. And then a decorative cornice on the top of the building began to sag. And then the next day the Mayor said the building would be torn down. A group of concerned citizens thought there should be a bit more thought and discussion before tearing down a large portion of the historic streetscape right in the middle of down town. These people took to the streets, raised their voices and waved their signs. It was the only option they had since the Mayor doesn’t allow ACCESS in this type of situation. If you waited to “phone in” to the “accessible” Mayor on his radio show, the building would’ve been torn down. This group even hired a leading structural engineer that was an expert in buildings like the Wellington. And his report said that the building didn’t need to be torn down. What was the Mayor’s response to these citizens getting involved? He was pissed off. He called them “Monday morning quarterbacks” and said, “where have they been for the last 20 years?”. It is very clear that he doesn’t want your involvement unless you agree with him. Otherwise you are an obstructionist or being negative. And when the Times Union was critical of the Mayor’s handling of the situation his response was that if the TU thought the Wellington was a problem than why didn’t they buy it and fix it up. Do you see a pattern here? If you criticize the Mayor his response is, “why don’t you fix the problem?”. Even when it’s as ludicrous as telling the TU to buy a building that isn’t for sale or equally as outrageous as even thinking that if a reporter reports on a problem, the reporter should solve it. He wants them to “get involved”? Sorry Mayor, do your job right and stop complaining or we will find someone else to do the job.

Back to Arbor Hill

At this year's state of the city address a woman from the Albany Community Land Trust, not-for-profit group that repairs vacant homes and sells them to poor families in Arbor Hill asked if the Mayor was going to let groups like hers have a seat at the table (access) for discussions on community development. The Mayor’s responded “I want people who care. I don't want obstructionists. If you are genuine, come and see me”. Translation: If you agree with me I’d like your help, if you don’t you are an obstructionist.

Center Square - Still Standing

Up the hill to Center Square. Hey, things look pretty good here. Not too shabby. What do these people have to complain about? Well they’ve got a little zoning issue on their hands. A building that was zoned for 2 family development that is owned by a wealthy local developer got approval for 13 apartment units. That is a lot of additional cars in the neighborhood where parking is already a huge issue and the people in the neighborhood are against the idea because they LIVE in the neighborhood. The zoning law says you need a variance to get anything but 2 units in the building. How do you get a variance? By going to the zoning board. A board that is appointed by the Mayor. The law says you can’t get a variance simply because you want to make more money. Which is what the developer is doing. He claims he can’t make money on a 2 unit building so he wants 13 units. And despite objection from the community, and the clarity of the law on this issue, the zoning board gave him the variance. So, what recourse do the citizens of center square have? Only one which is to take the city and the developer to court. And what did the city and the lawyers (appointed by the mayor) do? They petitioned the judge to have the case thrown out because they said the citizens in the neighborhood didn’t have “standing” and thus didn’t have the right to sue. This is big. The city told the citizens that the only power they have to affect the development of the neighborhood they live in should be taken away. If the citizens and the neighborhood association don’t have “standing” in their own neighborhood they have no rights. Then the Mayor and his appointees can give these “zoning gifts” to any developer that they want. And the developers will give lots of money to the Mayor’s campaign funds. And the local judge that the city petitioned ignored the laws and agreed with the city. Sorry citizens, you lose, you have no rights and that is how the Mayor apparently wants it. But the citizens continued to “get involved” and took it to the appellate court where wiser minds prevailed and they ruled in favor of the citizens. If they hadn’t this would’ve established a precedent for taking away the rights of any citizen to challenge zoning. That would’ve been a nice legacy for Mayor Jennings. In a city where he gets to appoint the people that make all the decisions and he has a large amount of control over all the decisions that matter…that wasn’t enough. If they won this court case he would’ve had complete control over zoning and development and the citizens would have NO voice. More details are available here.

And don't get me started about the convention center since it is very clear that the Mayor is not open to discussion on that. He has his report that he paid for that says its a good idea. End of discussion. He doesn't care if there are other reports. There will be no discussion.

And there are similar stories to tell about the outcome of the Lark Street redevelopment project, the project recently announced for the South End, the Park South project, the complete silence from the Mayor on the current voter fraud case….I could go on for a while.

Meanwhile the Mayor holds fundraisers for $1,000 a plate. Paying your $1,000 is the only true way to get access in this town. The radio show is fine as entertainment but it does nothing if you have a serious problem or want to help shape the future of the city. Perhaps now you can see what people mean when they say they don’t have access to the Mayor? Perhaps now you will see how hollow the “if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” argument is? And if not, re-elect him. And hope that your plans for the city never conflict with his. And when you are telling people to “get involved” and “be part of the solution”, remember those thousand Soares campaign volunteers. In the next 6 months I think the Mayor is going to get a little more citizen involvement than he’d really care to see.

Now, I'm going to go have a drink. Comments welcome.