Archives for the month of: November, 2012

UPDATE, 9:10 PM

From Will Pflaum: I really want to be clear that I respect law enforcement. They are the good guys, I hope.

If you live in our area and you bother to read the Register-Star or the Daily Mail, you know that they do not meet the highest standards of journalistic excellence. It’s arguable whether they even meet the bar set by the lowest common denominator. The recent Tom Casey firing imbroglio, and Publisher Roger Coleman’s ludicrously self-serving front page rationale for it, simply underscored how badly readers and our region are served.

There are several local blogs that do a far better job of reporting honest news than our so-called newspapers. Among them are Jim Romenesko.com, SamPratt.com and Hudson Sunshine. Unfortunately, the last of these has just been shut down.

You’ll remember that in Part 2 of this “Going Backward” series I commended Hudson Sunshine blogger Will Pflaum for going after municipal attorney Tal Rappleyea and his highly questionable billing practices. His reporting was picked up by the Times Union (a newspaper several rungs up the journalistic ladder from the Register Star & the Daily Mail), the result of Pflaum’s extensive and expensive, FOIL-based investigation. Now Pflaum has gone after other officials who’ve displayed questionable ethical behavior. One of them apparently had the clout to have law enforcement step in and “express concern” about Pflaum’s latest charges. The fact that law enforcement would do this is of course ironic, not to mention worrisome.

I contacted Will Pflaum, and here is what he had to say:

Local law enforcement has informed me they have concerns about some of the matters and sources in my recent posts. Pending a resolution of this matter, I have temporarily removed access to the Hudson Sunshine blog. My expectation is that law enforcement will pursue the issues I have raised to a successful conclusion. Whether or not that occurs, Hudson Sunshine will eventually return and I will report the outcome then.

UPDATE, 5:40 PM

NB: Here’s a corrective update from Will Pflaum, sent after this post went live:

I would just say I’m down pending a law enforcement investigation. I’m hoping the cops are the good guys and they didn’t ask me to do it … exactly.

This entire scenario just seems flat-out wrong in 21st century America. If someone felt Pflaum had published something false or defamatory about him or her, the typical recourse should be an attorney’s office, not a police station. Countries like China and Iran pressure websites they don’t like—the police in upstate New York should not be doing the same thing. Nevertheless, it seems Mr. Pflaum made the decision to take his site down.

Stay tuned.

While questionable ethics and serious moral lapses continue to persist on both sides of the Hudson—see the ongoing “Sleepergate” scandal documented on the Hudson Sunshine blog, for example—we’re going to defer our own up-close look at some scandalous behavior for just a bit longer. Instead, let’s have a look at Utopia.

I’m referring to the 1516 classic published by Sir Thomas More, AKA “A Man for All Seasons” and familiar to college students everywhere. More actually coined the word “utopia” and the idealized system and society he imagined in his famous book remain as elusive as ever today. The book itself, though, has never been more accessible: now we have Open Utopia on the web, wherein the book becomes a meeting place and people can gather and exchange comments (ideally, these would be about the book and the idea of utopia, rather than the current size of the Powerball lottery).

Open Utopia is the brainchild of NYU associate professor Stephen Duncombe. Faced with a year’s sabbatical, he had planned to write a book but decided to pursue something different instead. “We live in a world where people can talk back to their books,” Duncombe says. Open Utopia embodies this concept; an article detailing the genesis and development of the project is available here.

I haven’t delved deeply into the project yet, but I think the concept of book as gathering place is intriguing (though I’m not sure whether it ultimately works; I suppose that would depend on both the book and its technological implementation). If you want to explore Open Utopia, the developers recommend Chrome or Safari (though I had no issues in the introductory pages using Firefox). The idea of utopia, of course, is always worth exploring. Some may feel Thomas More is not the most reliable guide, however—see the dark, corrective portrait of More in Hilary Mantel’s gripping historical novel Wolf Hall, for example.

Now there’s a book that doesn’t require a meeting place. You’ll find it totally absorbing all on its own, regardless of whether you’re reading pages or bits.

Today being Thanksgiving, I thought it would be appropriate to take a break from the Going Backward series and look at some of the positive aspects of Greene County. They do exist, although they are not always top of mind. So there are some grounds for optimism, even in the face of the county’s serious problems.

Most readers of this blog likely came to Greene (or Columbia, or Ulster) from somewhere else. In many cases, the place of origin was metropolitan New York. But I know people from England, from California, from the Netherlands … we really are a fairly cosmopolitan bunch. And those of us who did come here from elsewhere would usually say the primary reason was something along the lines of “beauty” or “lifestyle” or “peace of mind.”

It is beautiful here. We have a slower pace than many parts of the country, and many people find this very soothing. If you’re among them, then take a nice walk today and be thankful you live in a place with so much natural beauty, yet which is still under 3 hours from Manhattan.

While Greene is certainly no cultural center, there is culture in our area. Music and art fare especially well. The Windham Chamber Music Festival attracts top-flight performers to the Mountain Top every year. In fact, The Windham Festival Chamber Orchestra has a concert this Saturday evening, in Hunter. There are other music venues in the area as well, and many galleries to showcase the work of local artists.

Finally, Greene is home to some great people who are working toward a better future for the county and its residents. One thinks of Doreen Davis, who has revitalized the Democratic Party in Greene County and achieved some striking results in the recent election, particularly in Catskill (Vinny Seeley, Joseph Kozloski and Kevin Lennon all won District 1 seats in the County Legislature). In fact, Seeley (who is also Village President) and the Catskill Local Development Corporation just opened a retail proving ground called “Gifted” on Main Street. And yesterday, Seeley and others led U.S. Senator Charles Schumer on a Main Street tour.

“It’s great,” Schumer said. “It’s beautiful. It’s coming back.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Today is the first day of hunting season, something we always dread around here because of the noise and the traffic (and the frequent rudeness) hunters engender in our neck of the woods. Walking the dogs this morning, my wife and I spotted a truck parked directly under a “Posted” sign—we know the property owners, and they don’t allow hunting on their property. That’s why they posted signs in the first place. What’s more, their property is a good half-mile away from the public land that is open to hunters. So, we called the town police.

The cop’s first reaction was, “I’m not going in any woods up against a high-powered rifle”. Well, OK—we’re not asking you to do that. How about just leaving a note on the truck saying something like, “A complaint has been received and we’d like to discuss it with you.” He said he would check with his supervisor.

Several hours later, the cop called back. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I talked to the guy—he’s a big property owner around here, and he doesn’t need to trespass because he has plenty of land of his own.” The cop also said the hunter was on public land. “Well then,” we asked, “why was his truck parked half a mile away, in front of someone else’s property?” “I don’t know,” the cop admitted, “but he said he was on public land, and he’s a big property owner so I believe him.”

Our tax dollars at work. This is an excellent example of local priorities, and the consideration local taxpayers and homeowners can expect to receive if they dare question the presence of a sacred hunter. Nice work, local police department—you’ve just demonstrated that 50 “Posted” signs don’t mean a goddamn thing.

This, to me, is a minor form of corruption—the local cops being preempted by custom and the good old boy network into ignoring the law.

Here’s a more blatant example: municipal attorney Tal Rappleyea (he’s the skinny dude on the left in the photo below).

See no evil
Going along to get along? The Jewett Town Board. Credit: Town of Jewett.

According to this article in the Times-Union, Rappleyea really has a way with a time clock—he’s billed for 26 hours a day, and collected payment for 93.75 hours in a single week. Weeks in excess of 70 hours have also been logged frequently. Asked how he could regularly work such long hours, Rappleyea responded “I’m in pretty good shape”.

Now, this sort of exploitation would be absurd if it were restricted to a single town. But Rappleyea is the attorney for a wide swath of municipalities across Columbia and Greene Counties. To wit: the towns of Austerlitz, Ashland, Cairo, Chatham, Durham, Greenville, Jewett, Lexington, Stuyvesant and Prattsville, and the village of Athens. And now, Germantown as well.

Stuyvesant resident and blogger Will Pflaum smelled a rat and launched his own investigation, spending nearly two years filing Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests and suing to obtain public records. Rappleyea’s extraordinary hours were unearthed as a result. Pflaum suggests that Rappleyea was very likely overbilling the municipalities he purported to serve (jeez, ya think?), but the officials in most of the towns involved apparently perceive no problem.

This is what’s known as “going along to get along,” and it’s rife in our area. Everyone does it, don’t make waves, just mind your own business.

Corruption viewed (if viewed at all) apathetically seems to be the norm around here. Kudos to Mr. Pflaum for digging into this particular instance. We need more people like you to stand up for integrity, challenge “business as usual” and make sure the laws on the books are actually enforced by the people who are supposed to be enforcing them.

Why does Greene remain such a backward county? In the 13 years I’ve lived here as a full-time resident, I have seen almost no progress on any front. Quite the contrary, in fact—Greene continues to rank in the lower reaches of New York’s 62 counties by almost any important measure. And Greene continues to vote for candidates who are unlikely to help change the situation, and did so once again in the 2012 election.

Let’s take a moment to look at Greene’s status within New York State. In population, it ranks 51st. In the percentage of its residents who have graduated high school, it ranks 50th. In terms of health care outcomes, it ranks 52nd. The practical consequences of these rankings mean that Greene is not a good place to earn a living, not a good place to start a business and not a good place to grow old. There are few jobs of any kind, and almost no good-paying jobs. There is a substandard communications infrastructure, and a serious lack of true broadband service. It’s necessary to drive long distances, both to earn a decent living and to avail oneself of decent shopping. Nor are medical services readily available, even though Greene has among the highest percentages in the state of citizens who are 65 or older (this, despite the fact the county is not a healthy place for them to live).

You’d think that Greene would want to move up in the state, and in the world. But every time an election rolls around, Greene votes against change. For example, the county re-elected Pete Lopez to the state legislature, based mainly on the fact that he is a nice guy, and drives all over creation to attend every inconsequential gathering and say hello. It doesn’t matter that Lopez hasn’t managed to achieve any significant improvements for the county—in fact, that’s probably a point in his favor. Similarly, Greene voted the newly “moderate” Chris Gibson back into office, even though Gibson is likely to undercut the safety net of Social Security and Medicare that so many Greene residents—very definitely part of Romney’s scorned 47%—depend on. On the other hand, Greene voted against Cecilia Tkaczyk for state senate, because she is progressive enough to actually want to do something about the quality of life in this area (there is a chance Tkaczyk may still pull out a victory, despite Greene’s opposition).

And of course, Greene voted for Romney/Ryan.

Greene County fits the mold so memorably described in Thomas Frank’s classic book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which the machinations by which ordinary people are led to vote against their own self-interests are laid bare. Greene votes from a base of ignorance and gullibility, over and over again. The county’s voters are its own worst enemy.

Next time: Corruption and Apathy

Sources: ProximityOne; Population Health Institute, University of Wisconsin

America dodged a disaster last night, managing to avoid what would likely have been four years of catastrophic misrule. Yet despite Mitt Romney’s shape shifting and evasions, and despite the Republicans’ desire to feed the rich at the expense of every pressing national priority, the election was close. Too close. We as a country are starkly and rigidly divided, and those of us on the blue team are breathing a sigh of relief today.

Worth a Thousand Words
A campaign victory image posted on Facebook.

The relief is likely to be short-lived, though. We face enormous challenges as a nation, and our divisions hamper our ability to face them. Still, I’m grateful that President Obama remains at the helm as we move forward.

Local election results were mixed. More on that in a future post.

The heading of this post is an entreaty for everyone, but it’s especially aimed at Greene County residents, who have seldom voted wisely in the past. Deep-red Greene County is one of New York’s most backward areas, and I would argue that this is due to in large part to long-term Republican control. There has been a prevailing county ethos against change or progress of any sort, which is why the county’s officials are often so laughably inept.

If you’re happy with this backward status—no hospitals, no jobs, inadequate services, crappy broadband—then go ahead and vote for a friendly, “nice-guy” Republican like Chris Gibson or Pete Lopez and help make sure things stay just as they are. The rest of you, read on.

At the national level, Republicans would continue to do to the U.S. what they have done at the local level for Greene County: set us back. It’s vitally important to move forward as a country … but it’s equally important for us to progress right here, where we live. The recommendations below reflect both priorities. Please don’t forget to vote all the way down the line—make sure you cast your vote for local candidates, as well as those running for national office.

Here are BlueInGreene’s recommendations:

President:   Barack Obama
U.S. Senate:   Kirsten Gillibrand
U.S. House of Representatives, 19th District   Julian Schreibman
N.Y. State Supreme Court, 3rd Judicial District   Richard Mott
Stephan Schick
N.Y. State Senate, 46th District   Cecilia Tkaczyk
N.Y. State Assembly, 102nd District   Jimmy Miller
Greene County Legislature
Unopposed   Harry Lennon
Larry Gardner
District 5 – New Baltimore   Jim Van Slyke
District 1 – Catskill   Kevin Lennon
Joe Kozloski
Vinny Seeley
District 6 – Ashland, Jewett, Prattsville, Windham   Sondra Clark

Chris Gibson’s attempts to soft-pedal his voting record and present himself as a moderate took another hit yesterday, when some 40 protesters gathered on a cold November morning to “rally for the truth” and expose the Congressman’s true colors on women’s rights. The Hudson rally was sponsored by Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York.

Women Are Watching
Women Rally Against Gibson. (Photo: PPA)

M. Tracey Brooks, president of PPA, told the Register-Star that Gibson has voted in support of every bill “that has made it more difficult and life-threatening for a woman to access abortion, and he’s done it consistently.”

The newspaper’s coverage was somewhat undercut by giving extensive space to Gibson spokeswoman Stephanie Valle, who attempted to rationalize or explain the contradictions between Gibson’s voting record and some of his recent statements, for the most part unconvincingly.

Gibson’s distortions of his record on women’s rights and freedom to choose are only his latest attempt to present himself as something he’s not. He has also presented misleading accounts of his positions on the Federal budget and Medicare, among other issues, as he tries to fight off a strong challenger in a new Congressional District.

Denying your own record is not a valid basis for re-election. Follow the lead of the women who braved the cold yesterday morning (and who would be left out in the cold by Gibson’s real policy choices). Vote for challenger Julian Schreibman on Tuesday.

Congressman Chris Gibson has consistently tried to hide or distort his voting record during this campaign, and with good reason—it’s not a record he could reasonably run on anywhere.

One of the most outrageous examples of Gibson’s “repositioning” as a moderate concerns his supposed support of a woman’s right to choose. He now says he is in favor of reproductive rights, in favor of choice.

This is a lie. Even worse, it’s a lie that is being reproduced in various media outlets. The Albany Times Union, in its unfortunate endorsement of Gibson, repeats Gibson’s claim that he “supports a woman’s right to choose abortion”.

In reality, Gibson’s voting record has earned him a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Political Action Committee, which endorsed him two years ago and is endorsing him again now. In contrast, Gibson has a zero rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America. His opponent, Julian Schreibman, has a 100 percent rating from both groups. And Julian Schreibman offers the kind of forward-looking leadership and support for working- and middle-class families that our district needs.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York, a volunteer-based, grass-roots organization, is holding an anti-Gibson rally tomorrow morning to get the truth out. After the rally, which is planned for 11 AM in Hudson, volunteers plan to conduct a door-to-door canvas to continue to bring the truth to voters.

They could use your help. Please call 518-434-5678, x133 for complete details, and plan on attending the rally tomorrow morning.

Last year, Greene County and surrounding areas were hard-hit by Tropical Storm Irene. There was loss of life, and much of the damage caused by that storm more than a year ago has still not been repaired.

This week, when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast, our area was luckier, although there was flooding and some homes and businesses did incur damage. But New York City and New Jersey, which had escaped the worst of last year’s storm, took a tremendous blow this time, with many deaths (41 in the city alone, as of today) and horrendous, historic damage, currently estimated at $50 billion.

A parking garage near Wall Street
A parking garage near Wall Street.     Damon Winter/The New York Times

Would you be surprised if another major storm hit the Northeast next year? No? Then why aren’t we talking about it? Why isn’t climate change on the political agenda?

Speaking of politics, there was a refreshing break in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Both presidential campaigns were suspended, Obama’s for a day longer than Romney’s. There was even some bipartisan cooperation between President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who hailed Obama as “outstanding”.

What’s really refreshing, though, is yesterday’s surprise announcement by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he is endorsing President Obama—because Obama is more likely to take on the challenge of climate change than Romney, who now denies the issue, in line with Tea Party orthodoxy.

Way to go, Mayor Bloomberg. If Hurricane Sandy turns out to be an “October surprise” that helps get Obama re-elected, then maybe the country will finally start taking climate change seriously.

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