Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Tale of Two Grants – Part Duex

From my understanding...

As far as the "Wright-Dungan" grant is concerned, the goals and objectives are much more narrowly defined than as described in the previous Gadfly post. This proposed study aims to synthesize the work of previous studies that are mostly just sitting on shelves. This includes the Transportation/Land Use Study (formerly the Sustainable Development Study... who knew? only those who ACTUALLY read it or even better SERVED on the committee ...and which somehow in the public discourse turned into the "Transportation Study" but I digress…); the Build-Out Study completed by Behan Associates in 2007; and the New Paltz Open Space Plan adopted in 2006. These already conducted studies (and others, please chime in) are meant to provide a roadmap for collaboration between the Town and Village, primarily focused on the Rt 32/Main Street "T" corridor/growth zone as identified in the "Transportation Study" with particular attention on planning, zoning, buildings, and something else I can not recall at the moment. In actuality it may be called the “Wright-Dungan-Osborn” grant with a little bit of Kitty Brown thrown in for good measure as all four of these people have played a significant role in moving the application forward.

As per the requirements of the grant application, both the Town and the Village have passed resolutions in support of the endeavor, including a commitment from both municipalities to contribute to the grant writing costs. I did hear the Town resolution needed some tweaking, but that it would be passed in time for the grant deadline which is January 14th. Given the history of acrimony between the Town and Village, I find it quite nice that they were able to broker an agreement and move forward with this application for funding.

Turning to the "Healey-Hokanson" application, I have less particular knowledge of the actual application. However, I can say this... It appears they are looking at a High Priority Planning Grant, which is a rolling deadline, not hard-and-fast like the above Jan 14th deadline:

"High Priority Planning Grants are for a city or a county charter revision that includes functional consolidations or increased shared services; municipal mergers; consolidations or dissolutions, countywide shared services or the transfer of local functions to the county, and multi county or regional services. For village dissolutions or charter revisions a single applicant may apply.”

Hmmm… this grant does not require a resolution from the Village? So, perhaps "Healey-Hokanson" can move forward without a resolution from the Village as long as the Town is on board? Seems sketchy for "Healey-Hokanson" to move in that direction. Regardless of the requirements, my recommendation would be to get the votes from the Village board. No rose-colored glasses here, I know it will not be easy. Nonetheless, it may be the more thoughtful and advantageous route to take.
My second reaction to this approach is somewhat academic, but what the heck, that is who/what I am. My feeling is that to enter a study with a preconceived notion of the result is problematic. Why propose a study of Town-wide Village? Purport to study the situation and all it entails with all the many particularities, please, propose to study empirically evaluate all the possibilities and make a recommendation/action plan that best benefits the populace based on the evidence compiled by the study… Who knows what the answer may be, but don’t put the horse before the cart. This is especially pertinent when statewide officials are recommending a dismantling of the differences in the regulations that apply to differing local municipalities. Why fight to be a Village when the definition may be on its way out?

All said, I applaud both initiatives because they display the energy of our local paid and unpaid leaders/volunteers to move to find a better way for our community, however you chose to define it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tale of Two Grants

There's a mad dash in New Paltz to grab some cash from a New York State grant fund aimed at helping local governments become more efficient. The money looks like it's going to survive Albany's deep budget cuts, and two different applications are vying for approval by the two New Paltz governments. If our fearless leaders can weigh these proposals in an objective way, we'll probably get some money to look into a simpler New Paltz.

Despite all the budget cutting by the state, it looks like the 21st Century Demonstration Project is alive and well. David Paterson is looking at a lot of ways to cut costs, and he's serious about getting taxes down as part of his plans. I don't like Paterson's property tax plan very much, but this program takes a look at another way to cut costs: eliminate redundant services - the problems that arise from overlapping governments that occasionally don't communicate well.

These types of grants have popped up before, but this time there may be two different proposals jockeying for position. Terry and Toni each appear to be supporting one of the applications, and it's not clear if there is support for either one by both governments. I had a chance to talk with some of the principles, and I got a sense of what the two applications are looking to do.

Consolidation of Services is what Jonathan Wright and Terry Dungan want to study. Wright feels that a feasibility study that looks at different ways to share services throughout New Paltz still makes sense. He told me that he'd like the study to look at all options, from simply improving communication to a complete unification, and formulate the best plan for New Paltz from the study findings. If unification would create the most cost savings and strengthen the protection of the village core through more effective zoning, he would support that option; but he doesn't rule out that a full study might not point to a different solution altogether. And of course "unification" can mean a few different things: the village could be dissolved, the village could expand to encompass the entire town, the entire process could be determined by the outcome of an Othello game . . . who knows? Jonathan tells me that both boards are poised to pass the necessary resolutions supporting the application by their joint meeting on January 21.

However, not everyone thinks more study is necessary. That's why there is also a proposal to create a
Townwide Village, as suggested by Pete Healey and Toni Hokanson. Healey's vision for this grant money is to use it to formulate a plan of action for unification of all government services under the village, because villages are not subject to the highly restrictive New York State Town Law. He would use the grant to work out the exact plan of turning two governments into one, figuring out how much it would cost and how long it would take. Healey reasons that unification will need a referendum, so it makes sense to obtain a grant to find out what unifying would actually cost, and actually save. It's kind of like studying all the options, except Pete would like to drill down on the one that he thinks makes the most sense and not focus the grant money elsewhere. He tells me that Toni is helping to write this application, and that he feels it's the most cohesive proposal.

Now this looks like it's going to be a terribly dramatic fight to the finish, and if this were a newspaper article I'd probably be trying to gear up the drama - anything to help you make it to the dry, tedious finish. After all, this two applications are both going after the same money, and even though these grants are non-competitive, it's pretty unlikely the state would give us the money for both projects. "s#it or get off the pot," they'd say. Either one isn't going anywhere if it can't garner the support of a majority of each of our governments. So what are the chances of them both getting the green light?

I hope the chances are pretty good. I'd like to see both applications get submitted. I don't expect us to get the money twice, but if we have two proposals I think it will improve our chances that they'll like at least one of them. Either way, it's free money. If we get the Wright-Dungan plan, we'll look at all the options, figure out the best way to go and, if it's necessary, we'll have a referendum. However, if the state likes the Healey-Hokanson option, we'll lay out a unification plan and bring it to referendum. If we get a referendum it will pass if and only if the plan saves people money and preserves the community character, a tough bar to pass. Why not give ourselves the best chance possible to use free money to make the best possible plan for everybody?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Field Trip to the Recycling Center

So I made a video about going to the recycling center. If I go back I'll try to interview Laura Petit, maybe learn some things I didn't know about the program.

To Plan or Not To Plan!

To plan or not to plan is not really the question. Of course we should plan! But, it strikes me as problematic that both our town and school district are having such a difficult time answering simple questions about what exactly they are planning and specifically how they are paying for it all.

Amid the ethics questions raised about Ken Wishnick’s new job as Town Planner, the question of precisely what the job will actually entail has been lost. As reported in the New Paltz Times, Mr. Wishnick himself is not really sure what the position involves. While the town has already approved this new position in the budget, and a civil service job description has been written, Wishnick states, “the town board will decide the role of the town planner and it has not yet done so.” How can this be so?

The town is not the only local elected body lacking a clear articulation of what a planner could do for them/us. The school district is considering hiring a consultant to create a long-term plan. I don’t mean to sound cute, but what exactly are we planning? We have a building inventory, and we have a forthcoming educational learning plan to be constructed by the superintendent. Is this long term planning a synthesis of these two documents? Or is it more? We need additional information about what a consultant will provide: Does this involve data that has already been compiled and/or that could clearly be assembled by existing staff? What existing studies (that are sitting on a shelf or otherwise) will be integrated into this planning? How come the superintendent and her staff are not assigned the task of conducting this type of planning? And what will a paid consultant value-add to this planning process, exactly?

There are a few things on this topic I feel pretty strongly about: One, I am concerned about shipping this job out to someone external to the inner workings of the district and our community. If this process is to move forward, we need to be clear, those that are most intimate with the data, that is, the teachers, staff, parents, and the community, must play an integral role. Perhaps the volunteer Building Level School Climate Action Teams, whose task will be completed in February, would be willing to stay on and work on this project. Given the state of the economy, any tasks that can be completed by current staff or volunteers should be done so in house (so to speak). Further, while the district plans, so does the Village and Town of New Paltz and the rest of the towns that are included in the district. Any planning project needs to include input and collaboration with these local municipalities.

Second, we need better projections for our school age population. In the board’s pamphlet handed out at the Middle School forums last winter, there is chart of the projections from 2008 to 2070 which show (within the margin of error) a tiny decline in student population and reads,

“The district has conducted multiple* demographic studies, which have revealed varied statistics. After careful examination and comparison of the various studies against actual figures, enrollment is projected to be approximately 2,200 to 2,300 students annually in the next five years.”

I would like to see a very simple, straightforward analysis of the projections of the school age population for at least the last ten years to see if the current source(s) for this information is reliable. As a parent of kindergarteners in 2005 and 2008, I am highly skeptical that the current sources are dependable. In 2005, kindergarteners found themselves in classrooms of 24-26 students because the estimates were off. This past May, an additional kindergarten class was added to the expected number for this past September when pre-registration showed the estimates to be low. In August, an additional third grade class was added at the very, very, very last minute (for the earlier cohort of 2005 kindergartens) because of the inaccuracy of the projections. As Yogi Berra said, “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.” But I think we can do a better job. And, we need reliable data in order to move forward with a comprehensive plan.

Third, the Middle School location is non-negotiable. As reported in the New Paltz Times on December 11th, school board member Don Kerr, while supportive of hiring a consultant, was concerned with the time frame. If the study is to take eighteen months, “…what if the planner’s final report contradicted their decision to renovate the middle school? Kerr said he did not like that possibility.” Nor do I. Any district wide planning needs to be crystal-clear, the Middle School is staying put – this issue is absolutely not on the table. Last winter, our community (including the Village Boards and Town Boards) came out in full force to let the school board know that the Middle School – not just any one of our schools, but the Middle School – is to stay put. There is no wiggle room. (And the study needs to take a lot less time than eighteen months. As my dad use to say, “While you plan, it happens.”)

However, there are implications for the future of the Middle School site that impact the wider district. Two obvious ones are the location of the kitchen (there is only one kitchen that actually is suited to cook food, the rest merely distribute food, and the cooking kitchen is currently at the Middle School) and the old district office of which I don’t even know is possible to renovate and perhaps needs to be leveled. At the September meeting where Rhinebeck Associates, the firm hired to evaluate the Middle School, presented their work to date before the board, the firm was clear that they are only looking at the Middle School, not at the district as a whole. Is this a logical way to proceed? I am not sure, nonetheless I am not open to a process that will impede the guarantee of the Middle School staying put, along with the planning dollars promised to the endeavor. The Middle School is actually the only project even close to shovel-ready given the work already done by Rhinebeck Associates, which means we should be moving faster and focusing more on the Middle School since it is the only site realistically available for potential Obama stimulus dollars in the next year.

Which leads to my last point: Given the state budget cuts, how much money are we talking about and where will the district get the money for this service? It is my understanding that the money is proposed to be taken from a budget line that has been unmistakably allocated for study of the Middle School renovation, including an assessment of both the current status of the facilities and how to implement the actual renovation. It is unacceptable to use these dollars for different purposes. From the district website, the results of the vote to focus on the renovation of the Middle School are recapped:

“Passing the resolution means the Board will move ahead to flesh out the specifics of a plan to renovate and reconstruct portions of the Middle School using the latest “green” and energy-efficient technologies. The Board will engage professional architectural, engineering, and surveying firms to provide detailed plans and costs* that will be shared with the community as the discussion moves forward.”

While only a portion of this budget line has been spent so far, that is, the initial fact finding portion: the state of the facilities, it is the only part that has been completed, and has not even been reported to the public yet. (FYI – scheduled for February 18th .) The remaining dollars are for the remaining stages – not just current status but implementation. Implementation dollars for the Middle School project should not and cannot be pilfered from this budget line.

If you would like the school board to hear your opinions on this matter, please attend their next meeting on January 7th, 7pm at the high school.

* Emphasis added

Relevant links: blog about the New Paltz Middle School

Monday, December 22, 2008

New Paltz New Year

Maybe if I make a list of hopes and dreams for New Paltz in 2009 early enough it won't get lost in the thousands of New Year's posts that will hit the blogosphere next week. This past year I moved back into the village and became part of its non-renting minority, and I'm excited about what the next twelve months will bring to our village and town. Here's an impromptu to-do list for 2009:
  1. Shop local more. This could be broadened to do more business locally. We should have told our house painter where to get his paint - he didn't travel far, but even if we had paid just a few more bucks to keep that purchase in town we should have insisted. Two high school kids did an awesome job shoveling out our cars and walk yesterday, and I know that cash will be spent nearby. My brilliant wife suggested tipping the mailman with Chamber of Commerce CertifiChecks.
  2. Recycle more. Businesses aren't required to recycle and there's no good reason why not. I applaud Craig Shankles at PDQ Printing for having a strong environmental commitment, but recycling is one of those things that needs a governmental nudge before it makes economic sense.
    1. Did the EnCC get the Post Office fully on board yet?
    2. I want to visit Laura Petit at the recycling center and talk to her about what can and can't be recycled. I bring my stuff there myself, and it's stunning when you compare the list of appropriate items to the stuff that shows up in those dumpsters. Does separating at home work? I'm watching Springfield's pilot recycling program closely.
  3. Talk more about unification or whatever you want to call it. Consolidating governments may save money and may make government more efficient and may put the independence and character of the village at risk (which the Town Planning Board can do in all the ways that count under the present system). No one has any really good evidence on either side of the debate because people are stubborn and unwilling to let grant money be spent on finding out. Is Terry Dungan thumbing his nose at us to protect his fiefdom, or is Toni Hokanson rubbing her hands together gleefully at the idea of gaining more land for hers? Can we please find out?
  4. Overthrow partisan politics. The idea of even considering a person's political party in a local election is just absurd. Does it really affect how streets are plowed or parking regulated? Far too many people in New Paltz make voting decisions with political party forefront in their mind; both educated and uninformed voters do it. There shouldn't be a fully Democratic town council, and it also should matter that there is! And it's not just the Democrats doing it, either - I've taken several Greens to task for their tunnel-vision mission to avoid voting for a Democrat.
  5. Improve this blog. I may not be interested in politics but others are, so I'd like to include at least a Republican or a Libertarian in the gadfly mix. No elected official has asked yet, but if they do, should they be allowed to post? I'd also like to make a cool new banner, but first I need to find a nice picture of the ridge to use. Please comment if you own one that you're willing to donate.
Five small goals for me in my community. But hey, I have all year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

School Board should Fight for Real Tax Reform

What a mess our antiquated tax system has put upon our heads. People have been up in arms about high property taxes in New York, and then our state's unbalanced economy crashes because of a dependence on Wall Street "productivity" to sustain itself - or, I should say, to sustain the state's tax revenues. Now a governor that was pondering relief of those taxes is going to have to slash state aid to local governments and programs, including schools.

In truth, I never liked the property tax cap plan. You don't solve the problem by not letting school districts spend more money, even if things get more expensive. If you watch the New Paltz school board meetings, you'll quickly realize that much of what the district pays for is controlled by state mandates or ironclad union contracts over which they have little control (and which themselves are certainly worthy of a post). Controlling spending is definitely a good plan if you want to reduce taxes, but this is like reducing your kid's allowance by a buck a week but expecting him to pay for more expensive lunches anyway.

What I would like to see our local school board do is make a stink about the medieval system of taxation they're forced to follow - land has not been a useful measure of wealth for a couple of centuries, after all. David Dukler and friends should rally districts around the state to throw down the property tax system altogether, and replace it with something more equitable. Education is the responsibility of all of us, and should be paid for by all of us. We've heard louder and louder grousing about high taxes for years, and it's the job of our elected representatives to make sure Albany is really listening.

I'm terrified that as a senior citizen I'm going to want to vote down school budgets because I want to stay in my home, and that's a pretty crappy place to be. Governor Paterson's plan, though, is more than a bit shortsighted, and I'd like to see better.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Man with a Plan

So Ken Wishnick, former town board member and longtime REALTOR®, is set to become the town's new planner. Ken has a degree in urban planning and, as I've learned with conversations with Ken over the past few years, a sincere interest in how things work in this community. We both were participants in the Chamber of Commerce's Economic Discussion Group, facilitated by the late Peter Rossi. Ken later took up the mantle of that group, reshaping and broadening its purpose. He also renamed it, but I can't for the life of me remember what it's called now.

Kitty Brown broke ranks with the remainder of the town council in voting against hiring Ken for this newly-minted, $41,000 a year part-time job (although at those rates, I seriously should consider working part-time for the town myself). She was concerned that only two candidates had been interviewed for the position, one that would wield considerable influence over the town's comprehensive plan. Toni Hokanson poo-pooed Kitty's misgivings, saying that she ran ads in several papers and advertised it on the planner's web site, so two candidates was all they were going to get.

According to Toni, they're just waiting for the green light from the town's Ethics Committee, since Ken plans on keeping up his real estate license. After all, Town Planner is only a part-time job worth about $60,000 a year with benefits, so Ken will need to do what has to do in order to keep food on the table.

Now I know Ken, and it's very likely that he is qualified to do the job. I do have a couple of questions, though.
  1. Did you think about a consultant? What's the rush to hire a new town employee when professional planners can be hired on an as-needed basis? The village uses Greenplan, a professional planning firm right in New Paltz, and there are probably a few others in the area that could be hired for big projects, or even on retainer.
  2. He wants to keep his real estate license? Are you kidding me? Why was this even brought up for a vote? I might not have voted for Ken even if he had already given up his license, because his perspective and experience are focused on land-as-investment. This is an important consideration for a businessman, but a municipal planner must consider issues in a broader context. If the Ethics Committee decides Ken doesn't need to give up his license, someone needs to take a long, hard look at our local laws.
  3. $41K and benefits is a part time job? I can hear Toni now explaining that the town needs to be competitive. I don't buy it. At the very least you need to find enough work to keep your planner busy for forty hours a week. I don't care if he's unbending staples, Toni, just keep him at his desk for forty hours. I'll bet Paul Brown is qualified to do that job, and he doesn't have a degree in Urban Planning, and he's at town hall for close to forty hours a week for free.
The bright spot is that having a planner in place is one of the stumbling blocks that the town has used to impede any meaningful update of the comprehensive plan. There are a lot more of them ahead, but this puts us one step closer to fixing what's broken.

My Democrat Dilemma

Instead of going to the New Paltz Democratic Committee meeting tonight I am going to stay home and write about what I call my Democrat Dilemma.*

New Paltz has a reputation for being a progressive community, but it was not always this way, at least electorally. In 1999, Sue Zimet was elected Town Supervisor on the tails of her successful work with in the anti-Walmart campaign. On the night of her election there were conservative Democrats at Republican headquarters sympathizing with the Republicans and grieving the election results.

In 2003, in the village we elected the first Green Party mayor in New York State. We are the home to one of the very few communities across the nation that has ever had an elected official solemnize gay marriage. However, since Jason West lost his reelection bid in 2007, the local Green Party has lost its steam. Aside from getting Edgar Rodriquez on the school board in 2007, and despite a competitive run by Margaret Human for Town Board, the local Greens have not gained any local seats since 2004.

Most of the local Green Party people I know are ideologically pretty much equivalent to most of my progressive Democratic friends. So, how come progressives don’t flock to the Green Party? How come they, like me, are registered Democrats?

  • Greens are Spoilers. Brittany Turner’s late entry into the recent Town Board race reinforced the spoiler argument. A steadfast environmentalist with an impressive civic resume - Democrat Bob Hughes - lost by about 30 votes to a more moderate Jeff Logan. Brittany garnered about 125 votes. Her presence in the race was indicative of the same math that came into play when Gore and Kerry lost the presidencies in 2000 and 2004. Old school Democrats have not forgotten or forgiven the damage they found Ralph Nader guilty of inflicting: eight years of George W. Bush. The local Greens gained no new friends as a result of Brittany’s short campaign, and perhaps may have even lost of a few of their own.
  • Infiltration! The progressive Democrats I know that sit at the committee table all believe the only way to beat the system is from within. Registered Democrats in general question the efficacy of the Greens with their outsider status. While the Green Party’s platform may be quite in line with their own vision, they believe the only way to achieve the goals of such a platform is within one of the two mainstream parties. As one Dem committee member likes to say, “You have to be in the house, not out on the street.”
  • Primaries and Caucuses. I was registered independent for many years, but when I moved in the summer of 2007 I switched my status to Democrat so that I could vote in the Ulster County D.A. primary that fall and the presidential primary the following spring. I figured I would switch back to independent after the primaries, but at times I have considered going Green. Yet, I still find myself a registered Democrat.

I am not a member of the New Paltz Democratic committee. Last fall I started going just to check things out and have found these meetings to be equally boring and scary…

When Sue Zimet joined the New Paltz Democratic Committee in the late 1990s the table was chock full of conservative Democrats. And while yes, there may now be more progressive members on the committee and in elected positions in both the town and the village, what has it gotten us?

For example, with such overwhelming Democratic presence, how can it be that we have no wetlands protection law in either the town or village? How come it took like what felt like ages to get the village employees a signed union contract? And as Don Kerr recently said on New Paltz News – I paraphrase - why with all of our elected town leaders being Democrats is the Crossroads development even on the table? (Although I must give a shout out to our mayor and village board members who have been highly critical of Crossroads: Terry Dungan, Michael Zierler, and Shari (ok, Holden) Osborn.)

There are some weird dynamics going on right now. Our current Town Supervisor Toni Hokanson, who will be up for reelection next year, will be lucky to get the Dem votes from her peers at the committee table who oppose Crossroads, but ironically these very same people are aligned with the conservative old school cadre – which is pretty much lead by the Nyquists, both formally and informally since Corinne Nyquist is the Chair and Tom Nyquist (the incumbent mayor that Jason West ousted) is the temporary Treasurer. I posit that because of her stance on Crossroads, in the general election, Toni will get the support of conservative Democrats, many Republicans, and perhaps senior citizens irrespective of party. But who will the Democratic electorate support at the caucus? Will a progressive candidate emerge to steal the stage? Will perhaps even a Green storm the caucus and grab the nomination? (Margaret Human nearly did so in 2007.) And what about the two town board seats that will be up?

So, I guess I will stick it out with my Dem registration status so I will be permitted to continue to be pesky at the committee meetings. You can only attend if you are a registered Democrat; to which Rachel Lagodka (a registered Green) can attest is strongly enforced as she is regularly kicked out (it is often the only fun of the night). Despite my misgivings, I have been trying to get young upstarts like Dan Torres and Jeff Fonda to come along. Maybe, if you are like minded and are registered with the party, you would like to join me sometime? The meetings are held the second Thursday of the month at Village Hall.

And yup, I think I really want to keep my ability to vote in the 2009 caucuses… But I must say the Working Families Party is looking better every day. What’s a gadfly to do?

* I just heard through the grapevine, there is a sign on the door to Village Hall, tonight’s meeting was canceled due to weather.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Village Crosswalks Continue to be Dangerous

Does anyone else remember when we had signs in the middle of our village crosswalks reminding drivers that they have an obligation to yield to pedestrians? It's a frustrating issue that has gotten only marginal newspaper coverage. The signs were put out by the DPW and brought in at night by the police. Apparently they didn't want the job anymore, so it stopped happening.

I was a member of the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee for its first year, and Alan Stout is being kind when he implies that they've only been trying to get those signs back since the summer. It's been high on their agenda since day one, and it boggles my mind that they have been thwarted for so long.

So here are the reasons I have been told about why we don't have signs to keep our citizens and shoppers safe as they cross various parts of Main Street:
  • They must be brought in at night and the police doesn't have the manpower.
    • Even though volunteers have been approached
    • Even though the DOT will permit them to be out all night
  • The DOT has to give permission before we can put them back
    • The village board claims they sent in the request, but sitting around and waiting strains credibility when people have phones in their offices . . . how about calling to see if you can walk this one through?
  • A town in Texas was found liable when a drunk driver hit a boulder that was in the middle of the road
    • I don't want to embarrass the elected official who made the comparison between a plastic sign and a boulder in writing, but it's tempting
  • They make it too difficult to turn for trucks
    • They're plastic signs, remember?
  • They cost too much to replace
    • The cost about three hundred bucks apiece. How much are you willing to spend so senior citizens can feel safe crossing from Starbucks to P&G's?
  • The village Department of Public Works is concerned about their plows
    • Don't put them out in the snow.
If you're an elected official in the Town or Village, please remember that the police and DPW are your employees. If it is good for our community, go ahead and tell them to do it.

We really have too many fiefdoms represented to make this idea happen. Unification, anyone?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Main Course Mayhem on Millrock Road

Butch Dener isn't very happy with the Village Planning Board.

He's angry that Bruce and Vicki Kazan have had "stumbling blocks" placed in front of their project on the corner of Millrock and Main. In part I agree with his letter (which I won't bother linking to, due to Ulster Publishing's mysterious policy of taking stories down from the website after a period of time, a policy that bespeaks a lack of understanding of the internet . . . but, I digress), but not entirely. Let's look at some facts:
  • The Kazans had their project approved some time ago, and it's just about complete. Butch could have written his letter of praise regardless of the most recent PB meeting.
  • Bruce came back because he's looking to get a special use permit - essentially, change the agreement he made with the Village - to allow a tenant that will be selling artisinal breads.
  • Residents of Millrock Road, long opposed to this building, believe that a business that falls into the "grocery" definition of the code would increase the shortcut traffic along Henry W. Dubois and down Millrock.
Like Butch, I love the design of the building and applaud the Kazans' interest in keeping business local. I also happen to love the kind of bread that this potential new business wants to sell and will probably frequent it as often as my wallet and waistline allow, as I stated for the record.

I also happen to agree with Butch that the meetings are a bit . . . inconsistent. He makes particular reference to my fellow member Marion Dubois and her interest in the project:
"She (and the chairman) allows the residents to address her during the meetings, which is against all known policies and procedures. That alone is a conflict. But she, herself, lives on that street! Another conflict. No wonder she listens to these folks, she is their neighbor and friend."
Comment from the public
Now let's talk about this back-and-forth at meetings. I've had that type of dialog at Town Board meetings when I have submitted public comment, so it's not exactly unprecedented, whether or not it's good practice. I would prefer to have a formal public comment period at Planning Board meetings, because it would give community members an opportunity to weigh in on matters that are not set for a public hearing, but when I have suggested that all I get are blank stares. I've had to call people on my own time to ask them their opinions on various matters in the past, just because I really want to know what New Paltz is thinking.

A public comment period would not only allow community members to share their views at each and every meeting, it would allow the Chairman to refuse comment during the remainder of the meeting without being perceived as unfair or arbitrary. Ray Curran tries very hard to balance community input with running an orderly meeting, but I don't know if it's possible without using all the tools available to him.

Butch also remarks, " Do these Millrock Road geniuses really think that cars will turn down their street from Henry W. DuBois Drive to get to Bruce's business? Gimme a break. No! They won't."

Butch, I don't know which New Paltz you're living in, but my New Paltz includes a Main Street that is all but undriveable for many hours each day. As I stated at the meeting, I have avoided Main Street for years by using Henry Dubois, and most other residents do as well. The traffic and land use study, best-known for recommending a one-way Main Street, pointed out what we are all doing this. Take North Putt Corners to Henry Dubois, and make whatever turn will bring you closest to your Main Street destination.

The neighborhood is concerned that there will be additional traffic, putting their eighteen children at risk. Honestly I'm not sure if they're right, but Bruce's figures, pulled from a standard (but generic) traffic study manual, simply don't address how much of that traffic will be taking that shortcut.

I wish there was a middle ground between Bruce's figures and hiring a traffic consultant. I'm hoping that consultant doesn't have to do much work to tell us what we need to know, because if it costs too much it may mean we lose a tasty tenant for this location. But I can't make a decision that doesn't weigh all the factors.

Increased development in the village core is preferred to paving over more former farms and untouched natural areas. This building is already approved and nothing that we do is going to change that, no matter how badly Marion Dubois and the other residents of Millrock Road may want that. Barring any really scary information about traffic, I'm going to support the special use permit - as long as it won't open the door to a QuickieMart-type place, which I think would be a very bad idea.

If Bruce is on the agenda for December 16, I hope many people come to the meeting. I'd like to see a show of support for a good project like this.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Good isn't always good enough

Last night I found myself in the uncomfortable position of voting "no" on a good project. The Jewett Family Farm was seeking to get a lot line revision approved by both Town and Village planning boards (something that, as I remarked at an earlier meeting, is one of the best arguments for unification that I've heard all year). They will be giving some land to the Historical Huguenot Society and taking some back in return, more or less formalizing how the land has been used for some time anyway.

Most of the land involved is encumbered by a conservation easement which was created as part of the well-publicized Two Farms Campaign back in 2007. That easement permitted two home sites, and this modification would be transferring one of those between landowners. The easement isn't ready for review yet, and I didn't think it was particularly good planning to approve an application without knowing all the details. I was cast the only "no" vote.

Not the only lone "no" in November
My former colleagues at the Town Planning Board were asked to recommend a variance to the Zoning Board of Appeals with virtually no information. This is again a case where the application could very well prove to be a good idea; Hampton Inn wants to build a hotel at the old Frito-Lay site, and is looking to go one story taller than code allows. They provided a few pictures, but no formally prepared drawings or analysis. Jonathan Wright was the dissenter in that case, feeling that it's madness (my word, not his) to recommend a variance from our laws if we don't know whether or not they could make a go of it under existing zoning, especially when we're talking about the gateway to New Paltz.

The New Paltz Times also provided sketchy details about chairman Paul Brown's lone dissenting vote in the case of Dawn Brown's application to turn one lot into three on Springtown Road. Neighbors have been mighty concerned about the increased flood potential that new buildings would represent in this area, which probably should never have been developed in the first place for that reason alone - building on a flood plain is a common form of human stupidity, though, so we can't fault our forebears for not having foresight. My prior conversations with Paul Brown don't shed much light on his reasoning - he is generally in support of development, but has expressed an interest in finding ways to keep more development out of this sensitive area through a "transfer of development rights." If I had to guess, I would think that he justified being the only member voting to approve the site plan because he feels that an individual's right to choose the destiny of one's own land should not be influenced by, well, anything at all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bill Mulcahy has good points and bad about Channel 23

Bill Mulcahy wrote a letter about Public Access TV that was published in this week's New Paltz Times. Since Ulster Publishing doesn't keep pages on their website forever (and my email to publisher Geddy Sveikauskas clarify the policy has as yet not been responded to), I'll reproduce it here rather than linking to it:

Channel 23 is mired by 'censorship,' local politics

I was happy to read last week that Don Kerr is "working tirelessly" to end his "tyrannical rule" over our public access channel (Time Warner cable Channel 23) on weekends.

With all of Don's contributions to this community, like his being on the school board and his recent elevation to the chair of the school board's Facilities Committee (which deals with multi-million dollar contracts with construction contractors, engineers and architects), I don't know where he finds time to be the sole programmer of the public access channel on weekends.

Unfortunately, I cannot also praise the way the Public Access TV (PATV) Committee is being run by Don Kerr and his co-chairperson, village representative Andrea Russo.

For the last few years, I have been the main producer of non-governmental videos on Channel 23 and produce the only live public education show ("New Paltz News" - 7 p.m. on Fridays). You would think that would get me some appreciation from the Town Board and PATV committee co-chairpersons for the many public meetings, hearings and live shows that I have videotaped at my own expense.

Just the opposite is true. For example, when I videotaped the recent (Oct. 27) Public Access TV Committee meeting, I was treated with more than the usual hostility by the PATV co-chairpersons. They made a point of making me videotape the meeting from the public seating area. Shortly after the meeting began, Town Board member Kitty Brown ambled in and sat herself directly in front of my camera. She refused to move even after I asked her to. I took this to be a gesture of Kitty's contempt, not only for me, but also for the public who would be viewing the video.

When the public speaking time came around, I tried to ask questions about some public access TV issues. This apparently upset Don Kerr who angrily snarled: "This is public comment time, what is your comment?"

That's funny; I didn't know that the public comment time was supposed to be a one-sided monologue with no response from the committee members. I have also noticed a coolness from Don when I have showed up to videotape the school board's Facility Committee meetings. I would think that as PATV Committee co-chairperson Don would be happy for the public to be informed of this committee's activities. In my opinion, he isn't.

At the PATV meeting, Kitty expressed her anger about an excerpt from a town videotape of a New Paltz Police Commission meeting being re-aired. I had been asked to convert Nora Strano's videotape of the public speaking time to a DVD for Channel 23 broadcast.

Kitty's outrage by the airing of a public comment time of a Police Commission meeting once again shows what some of our politicians stand for; and that is secrecy, censorship and control of "public" access TV (and other committees) by them directly and through their politically-appointed cronies.

It's time for a change.

Bill Mulcahy

New Paltz
Bill is legitimately concerned with open meetings and public access television. His willingness to record a meeting for later broadcast truly is a service to the community.

However, I can't agree with everything he has to say.
  • Public Comment. Generally, public meetings have a public comment period. This is a good thing. Some bodies, such as the Town Council, allow some leeway in this period, and will actually engage in a dialog with citizens that are commenting. This is not the norm, and it is not required. Such dialog could be disruptive to the flow of the meeting, making a long night unbearably longer for those elected officials or volunteers that are required to be there. Bill admits, and I can confirm, that he attempts to engage in such dialog without first determining if it's appropriate.
  • Role of the cameraman. By volunteering to record a meeting, one has accepted the role of silent witness to the proceedings. Having a disembodied voice issue from behind the camera can be disorienting to the viewer, and having the camera spin around to give an extreme closeup of the cameraman can be downright disturbing. I would argue that a cameraman waives his or her right to even participate in public comment. Moreover, the cameraman is not a de facto participant in the proceedings themselves, and should exercise restraint when the urge to comment or ask questions manifests. Generally it is journalists who seeks such comment; those that bring along a camera arrange for someone else to operate it.
  • Placement of Camera. If a meeting is not planned with a camera in mind, it can be difficult to find a place for it. A camera at the table must be turned to view each speaker, which can cause motion sickness in certain highly sensitive people that also own extremely large television sets. On the other hand, smaller cameras like most hobbyists own don't have the sound system to record at a great distance. Ultimately, the operator of the equipment should be willing to build bridges with the meeting's facilitators so the best location for all concerned can be selected.
I don't know much about the circumstances of airing sections of public comment from a public meeting, and I haven't seen the footage of Kitty "expressing outrage," but certainly Bill is correct that if a meeting is public, there's no reason to prevent its being recorded and broadcast.

I hope Bill continues to film public events, but I can understand if he's getting a frosty reception from time to time. There is a balance between recording the action and being part of it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Meet the Gadflies

New Paltz Gadfly isn't intended to be a solo operation - anyone who fits the requirements is permitted to throw their two cents in! Here's a list of contributors to the blog:

Terence P Ward is a freelance writer who has been slowly revising his personal history, and expects to have been born in New Paltz by 2015. Right now he's claiming to have lived here for twenty years. His user picture reflects a time when he had short hair, something he misses more and more as he tries to create a donation for Locks of Love.

KT Tobin Flusser is Chair of the Save the Middle School and is a close watcher of the New Paltz Board of Education. She is on the steering committee for New Paltz GreenWorks and has more initials than anyone else in New Paltz. KT is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at SUNY Albany, her dissertation topic is women in politics in Ulster County.

The New Paltz Gadfly seeks to be a blog that brings in views from a number of different New Paltz perspectives. Among those that have been invited to participate but have not yet done so are Butch Dener, Rachel Lagodka, Ira Margolis, and Mike Cerasaro.

Want to be a gadfly? It's easier than you think to do! There are a few simple rules you have to agree to follow:
  1. You must live in New Paltz.
  2. Your posts must relate to New Paltz.
  3. You have to post under your real name. We're all neighbors here, and the New Paltz Gadfly isn't a forum for anonymous personal attacks. Take responsibility for your words.
  4. The administrator reserves the right to delete posts that are out of bounds of good taste, which will like involve excessive profanity, unadulterated hate speech, and flat-out libel.
Think you fit the bill? Then get yourself a blogger account and slap a comment onto this post. You'll be up and complaining in no time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The New Paltz Town Budget

I haven't looked deeply at the tentative budget for the Town of New Paltz, being that those documents are longer than a DEIS and perhaps more boring, but I found a couple of interesting tidbits about it in recent news coverage. Both the Elting Memorial Library and Moriello Pool have lines that cause me to raise an eyebrow; in both cases, a lack of foresight leads to an annoying problem.

Elting Memorial Library

Ira Margolis complained about the ramp into the library at my first meeting as a member of the Village Planning Board. He was concerned that the configuration of the wheelchair ramp could lead a disabled person to take a serious tumble down the stairs, and he wanted the library to put in a gate to prevent it.

I can understand how that one was missed - until I heard him talk about it, it never occurred to me that it was a dangerous situation. However, it was clear as day the next time I walked up that ramp. I don't blame the library for building it as they did (it was compliant with ADA rules, after all), but I find the board's resistance to fixing it until now to be disingenuous. It was an honest screwup, but one that was pointed out quite some time ago. If the board had been forthcoming about this sincere (and dangerous) mistake, and made it known that they wanted to fix it, I think they could have found some folks willing to pitch in to make things right. Instead, they wait months and then ask the Town to make it right? I wish they hadn't tried to dodge the issue.

Moriello Pool

Okay, the question is should we allow people to barbecue there without paying to get into the pool? According to director Bill Russell, no way! He's pretty ticked off that the budget is proposing an employee to monitor a gate into the playground/picnic area so folks can enjoy those taxpayer-funded benefits without going into the pool. According to the Russell "feels the idea is a waste of taxpayer dollars because the playground was intended to be part of the Moriello Park and the public can use it throughout the year - except during the 12 when the pool was open."

Um, Bill? Can you explain to me how much barbecuing and playground activity you expect to happen the other 40 weeks a year? And whether or not it's true that the playground was intended be part of your fiefdom, Bill, did it occur to you that maybe those taxpayers whose interests you are so interested in defending should have been asked if they wanted it gated off in the first place?

Of course Toni Hokanson, defender of the majority, also feels that it's a bad idea to make facilities paid for all by accessible to all, using the same argument she uses when she tries to minimize the overwhelming public opposition to Crossroads. I'd be more willing to agree with Toni in this case if she had submitted these plans to the Town Planning Board for approval, but wait! that's not necessary for the town government to do! Good golly Miss Molly, they are not subject to their own laws!

Overall I expect that Toni prepared the best budget she could, and I'm not criticizing it. I'm just interested in the gaggle of previously-made bad decisions that this process brings to light.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Crossroads Makes No Economic Sense

Crossroads at New Paltz is a heavily opposed 58-acre development slated for prime real estate just off of exit 18 on the New York State Thruway. It's a contentious parcel of land, having been the site of an historic fight against Wal-Mart in the 1990s. Crossroads is one of the primary reasons I invited Ira Margolis to write for this blog; I know he and I have differing views on this mixed-use development, and I know it would be a lot more fun around here if other viewpoints were represented. I'm still hopeful about Ira, but I digress.

I had ample opportunity to study this project during my year on the Town Planning Board, and certainly would have voted against it had I continued in that capacity. (The reasons I had for leaving would be best left for another post, perhaps closer to the 2009 elections.) My main reasons for disliking Crossroads were simple:
  1. Economics.
  2. Economics, and
  3. Economics.
I won't deny that there are real environmental issues with this project, but they pale in comparison to the bad economic choices for the New Paltz community. Thank goodness we had a major economic crisis in this country that would throw this bad plan into sharp relief!

The Problem with a Consumer Economy
The United States is driven almost entirely by consumerism. A quarter of our GDP is driven by Christmas presents. Since World War II we have increasingly imported goods from elsewhere, because it's impossible to pay a decent wage and produce affordable product here (and one of these days I will have to talk about how unions have violated their trust and caused much of this meltdown, but again, that's a tangent for another day). We just don't make anything anymore.

Since we're so dependent on buying crap, we have gotten sucked more and more into a credit economy. No one waits to buy things until they have the money anymore. First houses, and then cars, became so costly that it seemed that borrowing was the only option. Of course now that credit is hard to come by, I'm praying that everyone will realize that, if you don't borrow the money, the prices will have to come down, since a big reason for that inflation was credit itself. It's very easy to by today's toys with tomorrow's money, at least as long as you expect to be making more money tomorrow.

Crossroads and Consumerism
So the direction of our country is towards a retail economy that can't be supported on a retail paycheck. Crossroads would bring that home to roost. New Paltz is already heavily tourist-dependent, with few opportunities to get a decent-paying job for skilled workers. The development as proposed would sacrifice one of our few chances to tilt that balance back, by giving up land that is zoned for light industrial use, and converting it into retail instead.

Mind you, there will be plenty of housing on this tract, but even the "affordable" section will be well beyond the price that one could expect an employee at, say, the Gap to afford for rent. The residents will go elsewhere to find jobs, and the employees will come from outside our community.

It just doesn't make sense in light of the flaws in our local and national economy, flaws which I have wondered about for years but many others are just now noticing. Toni Hokanson has argued that the plan would have been much worse under existing zoning, but I think that's a lousy way to govern. I like Toni and agree with many of her positions, but this one issue is going to ruin New Paltz if her defeatist attitude is allowed to hold sway. Reactive planning and zoning is exactly why Jonathan Wright has been arguing for a moratorium for years now - let's tell developers what makes sense for New Paltz first, so we don't have to consider one crappy plan after another. However, as I have found out myself, calls for a moratorium to allow us to plan intelligently fall upon deaf ears.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Candidate Without a Clue

Voting this morning was interesting, to say the least. It was my first time voting in a general election since I moved into the Village of New Paltz, so I wasn't entirely sure where my polling place was.

I cruised over to the High School where I've voted in years past, and I was surprised when I parked in the front of the building where I always had previously. Not one sign, not one poll worker to indicate where voting occurred; the front doors were locked and the stern warnings that visitors should report to the main office were unaltered. I watched several other confused voters go through the same process before I went around the back. I found out that I now vote in the Middle School, but seeing the poor organization was instructive.

The Middle School had a clear sign on the door that voters needed to enter, and I had no trouble finding my way. Writing in my choice for Town Council was not at all difficult. As I was leaving through the same door, I found it being held open by a gentleman who was speaking to someone I could not see. I assumed that he was simply being thoughtless; like most municipal buildings, the Middle School is being heated already, and his holding the door open was wasting energy. As I left, though, I saw that the unnamed man was speaking to write-in candidate Jeff Logan, who was busily tying the door open. The sign that guided me into the polling place, I noted, was now obscured by the position of the door itself.

I waited for Mr. Logan to finish his conversation. "Isn't the heat on in the building?" I asked him.

He considered. "Yes, it is," he replied. He didn't look entirely sure why I would ask.

"My tax dollars are paying for that heat, and propping the door open is wasteful. If you're running for government office, you should consider that," I replied.

"Yes," he agreed. He made no effort to untie the door.

I am pleased that I chose not to vote for Mr. Logan, who has been running solely on the length of his residency. However, part of me hopes he wins. After all, it's much easier to be a gadfly if the politicians make it clear that they don't give a damn about their constituents.

Friday, October 31, 2008

One Party Rule Always Stinks

I've never met Corinne Nyquist, but I really am grateful for all that she's done for New Paltz. By not getting Jeff Logan's paperwork submitted timely, she has opened the door to a bona fide democratic election for Town Council, by not allowing a candidate to run on the Democratic line.

Understand, I have no problem with Democrats, Republicans, or members of any other party in principle. As my father used to say, "There isn't a Democrat or Republican way to collect the garbage." However, New Paltz is one of many communities that is stuck with a de facto single party system, and that doesn't encourage accountability. This year, voters will have to actually think about whom to select. It's really exciting.

But I would like to see that happen in every election, and it ain't gonna happen without some changes. Right now, most people in New Paltz vote for a Democrat, period. How can we get the voters in this community to vote for a person instead of a party? Actually, it's pretty easy.

Council districts.

Whenever a municipal government is broken down so that each member of the legislative body is elected from a specific district, it makes them far more accountable. People remember that a call to Kitty Brown got the streets plowed, or that Jane Ann Williams helped them out with a property tax question. It becomes personal, so the voters start choosing by personality.

Here's an example: Nassau County was one of the most efficient Republican machines in the country. Just as Ulster hasn't had an executive, Nassau didn't have a legislature - in that county's case, decisions were made by a Board of Supervisors, comprised of all the town supervisors that governed with a strange, weighted voting system. A court case required a legislature be created, so of course the districts were carefully constructed to guarantee the Republicans would stay in power forevermore.

It worked that way for the first term, but after that, the Democrats took the majority! Why? Because people started voting for or against the neighbor in office, not for or against the party. It just so happened that more Democrats were popular in that Republican county.

I worked on a referendum campaign for council districts in another town, back when I needed money more than I disliked being involved in politics. The standard argument against districting is that it reduces representation, because at-large members represent the interests of all, but district representatives do not. I would expect that sort of weak argument to come up in New Paltz, because the folks who prefer mindless "democracy" are generally smart enough to see how districts don't support their agenda. However, such resistance may not be unilateral, since Toni Hokanson personally told me she would support such an initiative when we were chatting a month or two ago at Bacchus.

It would be easy enough to draw four districts and see what the makeup of the town council becomes. With intelligently drawn lines, the village would always have a clear voice in the town. The village could similarly benefit from this type of enhanced democracy. Imagine having a voice for students on the village board, all but guaranteed by the layout of the districts! I didn't care for either of the student candidates last time around, but I do think that students, like other population segments, need to be fairly spoken for.

I'll be sure to give a call to the winner of the town race soon to pitch the idea.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Paltz Journal

New Paltz Journal can mean one of two things:
  1. The New York Times section that highlights interesting news in our area. It's not often used, but was jam-packed back when Jason West was making headlines coast to coast with his gay marriage initiative.
  2. The blog that is maintained by someone using the name "Malone Vandam."
I'm always interested in the former, but I don't get the latter. Several things about that site annoy me.
  1. Identity. The individual hides behind a pen name. Anonymity is probably the best and worst feature of the infobahn, and this is a case where it's a bad idea. If you're going to comment about your neighbors, can't you do it to their faces? Let me be clear, lest a reader find that blog and be confused: Malone is not, as he states in the "About New Paltz Journal" page, Joel Cairo of the consulting firm Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy. Those are names of characters from The Maltese Falcon.
  2. Comments. They're always disabled on the blog's posts. Why don't you want to hear what people have to say? What's the harm? My thought is that he or she hopes that comments will appear in other blogs, with a link back to the original post - it's a standard way to improve the traffic to a site.
  3. Scope. If it's called the New Paltz Journal, why are so many of the posts not about New Paltz? As I sit here today, I have to hit "previous entry" four times to find a single entry about New Paltz - that's around sixty posts ago, by my rough count.
Why not call it "Political Journal of Some Secretive Guy That Happens to Live in New Paltz and Doesn't Particularly Care What You Think?"
Now I'm sure I'm not one to judge. Nobody reads this blog. Only one other person knows it even exists, to my knowledge. But if they ever do, I promise that all my posts will be about New Paltz, the comments will be on, and you will know my name. I've even asked another "local gadfly" if he would like to post here, and I told Ira Margolis that if he does, I would like him to follow the same rules. (I would ask Dorothy Jessup, but I do not believe I know the lady.)
So maybe Malone Vandam has very good reasons for hiding behind his computer screen, sharing views to which no one can directly reply about any number of topics not directly related to our community. But, since I don't know who he is and he doesn't allow comments, I can't ask him about that, can I?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Local Gadfly is Born

So when Brittany Turner, in musing on New Paltz's write in campaign for Town Council, referred to me in passing as a "local gadfly," I was amused and honored. And annoyed, but not at Brittany.

  • Amused. I didn't realize I was such a pain in the ass that anyone actually ever noticed me.
  • Honored. It's a title my father would have worn proudly, so I can only imagine that he is proud of me now.
  • Annoyed. My fifteen minutes of fame is fleeting, because the online archive of Ms. Turner's editorial is not forever. I have discovered, in my secret life as a Wikipedia editor, that one cannot easily cite any Ulster Publishing article as a source there, because they eventually (read: in a year or so) take down the information! Not so with real newspapers, and a pretty crappy policy overall. Mind you, I don't care if me being listed as a gadfly is immortalized, really; the whole situation just reminded me of how cheap Ulster Publishing is that they purge their old articles from the web.
So I'm a gadfly, local to New Paltz, and the mantle of gadflydom has been thrust upon me. I figured I might best live up to these vast responsibilities by creating a blog that no one will ever notice. Yes, I could just write in a journal at home and know that nobody was reading it, but there's something satisfying about knowing that someday, perhaps long after I'm gone, my words will have meaning to somebody.
After all, Google owns Blogger, and they don't purge their database of old material.