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.