Friday, October 30, 2009

Racism? orly?

Trustee Edgar Rodriguez dropped a very colorful ball during the circus that was the most recent Board of Education meeting. In amongst a series of bizarre votes and actions, some of which seem to have been made up on the spot by board members, Rodriguez gave the rest of the board the impression that he thought they were all racist. I'm sure I'll be accused of either being Eurocentric or hopelessly naive for saying so, but I didn't realize we had more than one race among the board members.

Middle School Renovation
Let's back up a bit. Edgar Rodriguez felt outnumberered on the Board of Education from the day he was elected, and from my conversations with him I believed it to be because the other members at the time were very conservative and didn't hold the same philosophies about taxation and education. The debate over the Middle School led at least two of the current members to run for the Board, and I figured that if anything, Edgar had made it into the majority of thought, but apparently the shift still left him out in the cold.

The details of the renovation have been discussed at recent BoE meetings, and last week a fellow Board member told me that Edgar was handing out information to the public that was "just flat-out wrong." In particular, he made notes in the margins of some financial statements that made claims about what the district currently owed that were incorrect - claims that were corrected at the most recent meeting by superintendent Maria Rice, and were also the focus of much of the shenanigans that occured.

To say that Edgar is not quite decided on the fate of the Middle School is both fair and understandable. He voted to move forward with renovation over building anew, a project that would have cost far more in the long run but less per year, but now he's expressing concerns about the senior citizens in New Paltz (although maybe this project will get them moving into Woodland Pond more quickly, so the first residents won't have to pay extra if the facility isn't filled up - a bizarre contract clause that the Woodland Pond Board thought appropriate to foist upon their neighbors . . . but, I digress). I would probably have trouble balancing the needs to the community, too, because the property tax model pits our children against our elderly. I get that.

Let's not let the public see this
At the last meeting, Rodriguez' ambivalence was a focus. Trustee Patrick Rausch, according to the New Paltz Times, wanted to move to executive session to work out the disagreement. That's a creative use of executive session if I ever saw one. I may just try it on the Village Planning Board. Oh, wait, that's right, they would ask me the legal justification for the motion and I'd either talk out my butt or sit there with my mouth agape, because you can't just go into executive session because you disagree. Public meetings are about public debate, right?

Then Rausch tried a different tack, suggesting that they close the meeting and enter a "retreat" to discuss their differences. The fact that they seriously discussed this possibility would lead me to believe that Rausch didn't make this idea up on the spot, but I'm still not convinced. It sounds to me like another way to dodge the Open Meetings Law, like when they denied Rodriguez the right to attend Facilities Committee meetings (even as a spectator) so that the meetings wouldn't have to be open to the public. This kind of secrecy makes me want to vote "no" on anything they bring before me - what could you possibly have to say to each other that you can't say in public? How do you intend on treating this man?

But . . . the race card?
Edgar Rodriguez, who left the meeting early after casting the only vote against not adjourning it, told his fellows trustees he would not go to a retreat with them unless they all attend the "Undoing Racism" course. He was later quoted as saying, ". . . I am getting differential treatment on the board. And I'm starting to believe that it is because of my racial ethnicity."

As I said above, I never thought of Edgar as being a member of a different race than the remainder of the school board. There are three races, I was taught, and they are characterized by physical differences. Edgar does not possess a high melanin content, broad nose and lips, and highly kinked hair; nor does he have an epicantic fold that changes the appearance of his eyes. Granted, his skin lacks the particularly pasty quality of mine, but it's no darker than that of my Italian friends, and I'm certain that I share a race with them.

Did nature evolve a race of people with a genetic predisposition for fluency in Spanish that I am not aware of? Well Dan Torres should be a member of that race and be getting similar treatment. In fact, each of the board members seems to occupy a different racial profile: woman, firefighter, entrepreneur, IBMer . . . aren't these all races? No?

I don't think Edgar is wrong to believe he's being picked on, but I think it's got nothing to do with race, ethnicity, gender, or any of those qualities which he cannot control and from which genuine discrimination springs. Edgar has sat on this board long enough to see it swing from one end of the political continuum to the other and it change from almost entirely white men to a body diverse in ethnicity and representing both genders. I think that if he's still feeling like he's left out in the cold, that it might be more about how he behaves as a trustee of the Board of Education. It's about dispensing inaccurate information, the victim mentality, and not knowing how to conduct yourself when you hold a minority view in an elected body. If you want to be a kid, go trick-or-treating. We need adults handling our schools, thank you.

The Board of Education seems to be an illegally secretive body, but those secrets don't look like they have anything to do with race. I only wish that the much-needed shakeup on this Board could occur before the Middle School matter is voted on by the public, so that we can separate that question from these childish shenangins.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why I Like Mike

This was my nominating speech for Mike Nielson at the Democratic caucus.

My name is kt Tobin Flusser and tonight I have the honor of nominating my friend Mike Nielson for Town of New Paltz Highway Superintendent.

Let me tell you why I like Mike.

Last winter, Mike told me he intended to run for Highway Superintendent. At that time I knew very little about the job and wondered why Mike would consider this a goal to aspire to.

Looking back, less than a year later, I have to ask: who would have thought that we could all get so excited about a Highway Superintendent candidate? Who would have thought we all would know so much more about what the job entails and how significantly the highway department impacts our daily lives?

Mike made that happen. He has energized and informed the public about the vital role the Highway Department plays in so many areas - and he has clearly outlined its specific impacts on our economy, on sustainability, and on recreation in our community.

For the past few months, we have been reading in the newspaper and hearing from many of our friends about Mike’s accomplishments. And from Mike himself we have learned his clearly articulated goals for our Highway Department.

Mike grew up in New Paltz and his wife Nikki hails from Gardiner. They are raising their adorable daughter Norah, a fifth generation Nielson, only four doors down from Mike’s great grandfather’s original house on Plains Road.

I like Mike because he is a life-long resident who knows our roads well — as a driver, a runner, and a cyclist. Our community is so blessed that someone with these varied perspectives and knowledge of our roads is running for this position. Plus, Mike is an approachable guy with a can-do attitude who has pledged to work towards providing pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle-friendly sustainable roads in our community.

Mike is a courageous person who has already served New Paltz for many years in our volunteer fire department. He is also a successful local business owner. I like that Mike will take a balanced approach to infrastructure challenges with a focus on the environment and our local economy. I believe he will be a great leader for the employees of the highway department, which is one of the largest in our town.

Mike has a wealth of experience directly relevant to running a Highway Department. Through his work in his own business which he has appropriately offered to set aside for the duration of his term, his volunteerism, and his athleticism, he offers a unique combination of skill sets that are truly suited to the job he is seeking.

The fact that he is a parent, a local business owner, a life-long New Paltz resident, a firefighter, a union member, a homeowner, a taxpayer, a runner, a cyclist, a civic volunteer, and a person who is concerned with both our environment and our local economy, proves he is exactly what we need in a Highway Superintendent.

Our community needs intelligent, thoughtful, and visionary leaders to meet the specific challenges facing New Paltz. Mike Nielson will be such a leader and because he possesses the strength of character and all the necessary qualities and skills needed for this position, he will be an exceptional Highway Superintendent when elected.

It is time to rethink the road ahead.

Vote for Mike Nielson on Tuesday November 3rd!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sign Law Update

Last Thursday, I had a work commitment and was late to the public hearing on the sign law. Thanks Town Board for letting me chime in on the topic later during open public comment. In a nutshell, my concerns were: elimination of the ban on internally illuminated lights, the increase in the allowable size of signs, and finally, the irrationality of the current signage (particularly in the area of the Stop and Shop and Cherry Hill plazas) and the misconception that the proposed changes were the best way to help local businesses – that rather than focusing on illumination and size, the focus should be on a level playing field in terms of directory signage.

I did find out via Lagusta’s Facebook status that there was some civility in the room during the public hearing… “Wow. I went to a Town Board meeting tonight, listened, said my piece, listened some more, everyone was relatively polite and intelligent (including our elected officials) and I left feeling like some real progress might be made. It was totally illuminating (that was a pun--the meeting was about illuminated signage!). What's happening to this world????”

Town Supervisor Toni Hohanson reported that she went around town and measured the brightness of existing externally illuminated signs. According to her very unscientific, but much appreciated informal study, only one sign in town currently meets the proposed new requirement for illumination - “(the) average level of illumination on the vertical surface shall not exceed three (3) foot-candles”. The one sign was the college sign on Rt. 208. Hmm… I know this sign, it is very dimly lit sign – which prompts a few questions:
1) Does this mean that any new signs – externally or internally lit – will need to be this dim? If so, good.
2) What does this mean for any currently existing signs? How long till business owners will have to comply with these new standards?
3) Any chance we could require these lights have zero carbon footprint? As in, be solar powered – if they are so dim, is this not possible?
4) Um, why bother fighting for illuminated lights if they are so dim?

In the debate on the sign law revisions, a huge misconception arose about opponents' collective opinion of the signage in town. Let’s be clear –opponents do not like the signage in our town, especially in the “Stop and Shop” and “Cherry Hill” area, and the concerns voiced were out of a fear that the proposed changes would make the situation worse – not a blind acceptance of the status quo. Of course, we want to make the signage better – less ugly, more rational, more helpful. Further, I would fully support a sign law that gave preferential treatment to local businesses, but I have no idea if you can legally do that.

Brighter is not necessarily better – nor is bigger. How can we maintain the community character we all cherish, support our local businesses, and make our town more navigable for residents and visitors alike? Those are the fundamental questions that need to be addressed, and the first set of proposed revisions to the law did not satisfactorily do that.

One other afterthought on this debate about revising the sign law: Joyce Minard and Craig Shankles are great citizens who do a TON for our community – I respect them both a great deal, but to only have business people on the sign law committee was a big mistake. It was only Joyce, Craig, and Toni Hokanson on the committee. There should have been at least one historic, one environmental/green, and perhaps other voices represented. This process might have been a little less contentious had there been a greater diversity of opinions on the committee. At a minimum, the appearance of stacking the deck with a business perspective would have been avoided.

After the public hearing, the board spent a considerable amount of time revising the revisions presented to them and have sent out the new copy to their lawyer. I am not sure if there will need to be another public hearing, but if so, we will post the announcement here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Vote for Our Hot Local Farmer

Vote for Billiam for Favorite Hot Farmer.

How will your Halloween be?

New Paltz does Halloween very, very well, but I don't know that anyone's ever tried to quantify how well. I've been writing a series of articles on Halloween in New Paltz, and I need help to write one on trick-or-treating. Would you please share this survey with anyone and everyone you know who lives in New Paltz?

Take survey here.

"NO" on the Library

I respect my fellow Gadfly's opinions, but on this matter we must differ. Here's the letter I wrote to the New Paltz Times explaining why:

I'm an avid reader and I spent a good chunk of my childhood trolling my local library for new books. The librarians all knew my name and were happy to suggest titles I might like. My parents voted "yes" for the library's budget every year when it came up, as we lived in a community that had a library which taxed the residents directly and submitted its annual budget to the voters for consideration. And yet, when a kindly supporter of Elting called me to ask my intentions on the upcoming vote, I was on the fence. I've done more reading on the subject and reached a difficult conclusion.

I support funding Elting Memorial Library. I think we can afford to give them more money than we do now. But Proposition 414 is not the way to do it.

This proposition asks, "Shall the annual contribution of the Town of New Paltz provided in its budget for the Elting Memorial Library, a free association library, located at New Paltz, New York, be increased by one-hundred fifty-one thousand ($151,000.00) dollars annually to three hundred twenty-one thousand ($321,0000.00) dollars annually?" Unlike the mechanism that our library (and all town departments and other outside agencies) presently use, this would not be revisited every year. The library would get that same $321,000 every year unless and until a new proposition was passed by the voters to change it. We would no longer have the ability to ask our library's Board of Directors how they've been spending our money, which is a standard to which we hold our fire and police departments, the ambulance corps which is contracted to rush us to the hospital, our schools and the good people that keep our roads paved and free of obstructions.

I'm prepared to swallow a bigger chunk of library funding in my taxes, but I don't expect the increase to be quite as high as Prop 414 is asking -- mostly because I don't expect our Town Council to support such an increase in an election year. It's not very fair to the library to stake its fate on the political climate, but it's also not very fair to suggest that we should accept an "opt out" tax increase (since we would have to "opt out" by passing another proposition) when every other level of government as some sort of "opt in" mechanism in the form of an annual budget that is either approved by voters or by duly-elected representatives of those voters.

If the Board of Directors of the library feels that the town government is unwilling to share its expenses fairly, I respectfully suggest exploring the option of establishing a library district. Then the library would have the right to bring its case directly to the people -- and every year, the people would have the right to say "no."

“YES” on the Library

When I step into the polling booth this coming Election Day, before continuing down the ballot to make my candidate selections, I'll be voting “YES” on referendum number 3: Proposition 414.

A “YES” vote will ensure that our local Elting Library has the adequate funds to: preserve and increase its inventory of books and materials, continue to provide cultural and educational programs and events, increase its hours (in particular, to Sundays), provide free access to books and inter-library loans from 66 libraries across our region, and maintain staffing to do all of these things. A rejection certainly threatens the library’s ability to provide these services and might even cause it to close.

Why is the library requesting this funding? Most libraries in our region receive 90% or more of their funding from their local municipal budgets. The Town of New Paltz, for the past five years, has provided a much lower amount - 48% of Elting Library’s operating budget. A “YES” vote brings our library’s funding in line with its regional neighbors.

Since the new library building was constructed (which by the way is fully paid for), as a result of the expansion of space and services and the decline in our economy, library usage has increased tremendously. We need our library now more than ever – for children seeking books and after-school programs, for people seeking employment or better employment via available newspapers and online resources, for community organizations in need of space to hold their meetings and events, and for people seeking free educational, cultural, and intellectual resources.

Some people are concerned that the library will get this money no matter what happens in each budget cycle. But that cuts both ways, it also means they cannot receive any budget increases without coming back to the voters. Others have proposed that we take more time considering alternatives. While other models for funding libraries do exist, such as becoming a public library or creating a library district, this is the solution that our library is presenting to us now so that they can keep their doors open for the next year – and it is the right choice, right now.

If you want our library to stay open and be fully functional for the next year, then on November 3rd vote “YES” on the library referendum. Elting Library is a gem in the heart of our community. Let’s make sure it can continue to thrive.

For more info, visit the library webpage.

And of course, after voting “YES” for the library, don't forget to pull the lever for Mike Nielson for Highway Superintendent while you're in there.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Keep the Town Sign Law “As Is”

It is not uncommon for municipalities in our region to ban internally illuminated signs. In Ulster and Dutchess counties, the following municipalities do not allow them: (Towns) Amenia, Clinton, Dover, Gardiner, Hyde Park, LaGrange, Milan, Rhinebeck, Shawangunk, Stanford, Unionvale, and Washington; (Villages) Red Hook, Rhinebeck, and Wappingers Falls. In the City of Kingston, they are prohibited in the RFR district. In 2001, New Paltz was a trendsetter when it passed our current sign law banning illuminated signage. But now, the town is considering revising the law to allow them.

Why do communities ban internally lit signs? There are many reasons, including, but not limited to: negative impacts on community character, negative consequences for attracting tourism, and light pollution. As a result, it is also bad for business.

New Paltz has a unique community character, built out of a rich history and an active citizenry that has worked hard to maintain this uniqueness, to not have our town turn into “anywhere America”. New Paltz’s attractiveness to tourists is built upon this character, and will be diminished by the “strip mall” appearance lighted signs bring.

Internally illuminated lights along our main street corridor will diminish our distinctive character. Maintaining this character is critical to the success of our local economy, and keeps our town attractive to residents and visitors alike. Eight years ago, our town leadership worked hard to craft and pass a sign law that reflected this community character, and we should keep those laws in place.

There is a public hearing this Thursday 10/22 on the proposed new sign law, Town Hall at 7pm.

School Code of Conduct update

I stopped by the district office yesterday and spoke with the District Clerk. She confirmed that my request for information about how the code of conduct is implemented was received (I wasn't sure, having never gotten any response to my email), and that the data I requested couldn't be compiled until next month. The Health Advisory Committee needs to meet and discuss some kind of error in the code first, apparently.

Maybe it has to do with the wisdom of having a zero-tolerance policy?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is this Legal?

(A letter from the incumbent Town of New Paltz Highway Superintendent to this week's New Paltz Times)

Do you want to know the truth about the New Paltz Highway Department and how it is run and how it works? Do you want to make an educated vote on Election Day -- one that you know will affect your community and you as a taxpayer?

I invite all concerned citizens to visit the Highway Garage, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and talk with me, my Deputy Jennifer or any employee. You will be provided with a tour and your questions will be answered.

If you are unable to come to the Highway Garage, call my office at 255-5050 and schedule an appointment. I will come to your home to speak with you or pick you up and provide transportation to and from the Highway Garage.

Phil Johnson, Superintendent of Highways
Town of New Paltz

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blurry Party Lines

I guess New Paltz is not the only place where there are blurry party lines.

Blaber News reports that some heavy hitter Ulster County Democrats have donated to Republican county level candidates.

I believe this includes some Democrats on the county Democratic committee. (Jeremy - can you confirm?)

And, yes, that is New Paltz's Joe O'Connor's law firm that donated to the Republican campaigns.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We need a clear plan for disciplining our kids

If you've ever watched Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader, you've probably been stumped by a fair amount of the questions that throw at the contestants. Some of them are bloody hard, but that's good - it prepares our kids for much tougher things, like reading the Code of Conduct for the New Paltz Central School District.

Some background: every year the Health Advisory Committee, a group of faculty, parents, and community members appointed by the Board of Education, review and revise the district's code of conduct. Then the Board reviews what they say, and approve some form of it.

What the actual Code ends up being is a Gordian knot of vague statements supported by endless appendices that is damned near impossible to decipher. The actual Code lays out what's expected, because it frames it in a positive light. However, this means that one might want to look up in a stressful hurry - say, what happens when you or your kid is accused of doing something wrong - you discover it all crammed in the back, as if it were an afterthought. To make things even more fun, the list of prohibited conduct is one appendix, and the consequences comprise another one entirely. What this means is that you have to find the bad behavior in Attachment C, and then cross-reference it against the list of punishments in Attachment D.

I'm sure that all of these hard-working volunteers have the very best of intentions, but it makes me recall the joke about a camel being a horse built by committee. And the organization of the document hides some even more troublesome facts.

When I was a kid, it was universally accepted that there could be no more terrible punishment than having to sit quietly in a room, doing nothing, for an entire school day. Okay, maybe some schoolwork if you were lucky enough to have a teacher send some down (and you'd be begging for that to happen after a couple of hours), but no talking, standing, moving, singing, sleeping, leaving, or enjoying was permitted. There were always tales about that really bad kid who decked the principle and got expelled, but that was serious stuff - it never happened to someone you knew or anything.

I'm finding that in the New Paltz Code of Conduct, the phrase "permanent suspension" (which sounds like Newspeak for "expelled") is popular - it's a listed consequence for twenty-four different offenses, ranging from violence and theft to lying and using an MP3 player. I emailed the superintendant on September 18 requesting some fairly detailed information about how often this and related consequences (suspension from school, as opposed to in school suspension) were actually meted out last school year; as of this writing I haven't even heard whether or not she intends on supplying me with those data.

Removing a misbehaving child from the classroom is often a good idea, and in extreme circumstances I'm sure it's useful to keep them out of the building, too. But in a world were parents have to work, being sent home isn't so much a punishment as it is an abdication of responsibility. If a kid brings a weapon to school, of course the first priority is safety, but shouldn't the second be to figure out what's up with this kid? That might be harder if they're, oh, wandering the streets for an extra four hours a day (figuring two hours a day is being spent with a district-supplied tutor). If it's serious enough to keep the kid out of school, it should also be serious enough to keep the kid in a juvenile hall or psychiatric facility. Any kid that isn't in one of those categories shouldn't be sent home as a reward for "Engaging in any willful act that disrupts the normal operation of the school community." (prohibited conduct A9).

So my concerns about the existing Code of Conduct are three:
  1. It's so badly organized as to appear to be deliberately confusing,
  2. It permits removal of children from school when that may be detrimental to both the child and the community, and
  3. It provides so much latitude in meting out punishments that a child could be expelled for lying (prohibited conduct D1).
Let's keep the kids in the classroom, or at least the school, unless it's dangerous to do so - and get those kids the help they need, instead. Understanding that the current Code provides flexibility so that an administrator won't find her hands tied when she needs to act, let's take another look at whether or not the punishment fits the crime. And to make any of that possible, let's make some real changes to how the Code reads, so that's it's understandable to the layman instead of the lawyer.

Otherwise, what are we teaching our kids?