Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Don't Tase Me, Bro

I try to keep an open mind about what people want and why they want it. After all, if someone passionately wants something, they've probably got a good reason for it. However, a want must be a need, especially with the tight budget conditions our police force faces. It is the duty of the New Paltz Police Commission to make an informed, smart decision, and to decide whether or not the reason that the New Paltz Police Department wants tasers is warranted.

Tasers are just plain dangerous. They're bad for New Paltz. Tasers are used primarily as a riot control device. They are used to control large crowds. Sure, New Paltz sees the occasional campus protest, or small-scale bar fight, but we never have full-out riots! I certainly can't remember the last time we had a riot, nor can any other New Paltzian's I've discussed the matter with. The police show insufficient data supporting the need for a riot control device. Show me instances where a taser would have ben useful in New Paltz history, and maybe I'll change my viewpoint.

In order for Taser use to be warranted and effective, a target ideally would be middle aged, of normal build, good health, and sitting down. You would point the taser at the target's middle lower back (aka tramp stamp area). However, a taser would be used on a target who was belligerent, and unable to be restrained. These two points do not make ANY sense...they contradict each other...and they were two points brought before the police committee at their last meeting. Taser misuse can be extremely dangerous. Check out the news- a man was killed last week in Rhinebeck due to irresponsible tasing.

Ed Daley, a Bouncer at Snug's Harbor (across from Wachovia- you know the place) expressed his concern to me. "I believe that tasers would all over be detrimental for the community", he concluded after stating concerns about getting caught in a taser cross-fire while breaking up a fight. When Ed got his job at Snugs, the police had pepper spray, and he knew that there would be a possibility of him getting sprayed. However, he did not sign up for a tasing! He went on to say that tasers increase the level of intimidation that the town police instill into people, and that it would foster the exponential cycle of negative feelings. It would feed the dynamic of the community vs. police that we see so often.

Do you agree with me? Then join the facebook group, "Don't Tase Me Bro...Keep Tasers Out of New Paltz!", and write a letter to the police commission and the editor of the New Paltz Times. Also, feel free to buy a "Don't Tase Me Bro" T-Shirt (you can google it), or better yet, make your own. Check out the "Don't Tase Me Bro" video on youtube- it has little to do with the situation at hand, but it was an internet phenomenon, and shows what tasers can do to people when misused. Disagree? Head on down to the New Paltz Police Department, and ask them for some literature on taser use. They'll hook you up.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Planning lessons for the Village are all around us

Local planning boards are living in interesting times, it seems.  The town's planning board lost its chairman and deputy recently (albeit in a much more sedate way than Lloyd's chairman, who was forcibly removed), and joins the village's planning board in being short members.

Chairman Paul Brown was given praise by those he worked with, and I agree with that assessment.  Paul tried hard to find agreements among differing parties, and did his best to separate his role of facilitating the meeting from his vote as a member.  He implemented a series of checks, balances, and systems which have long prevented the town's planning board of being the victim of the administrative errors and uninformed votes which have plagued the village's planning board.  He was also careful to recuse himself from discussions of the so-called Pyramind-Benanti project, a development which proposed a new connector road off Eugene L. Brown drive on land his family once owned.

Pity the chairman of Lloyd's planning board didn't understand conflict of interest rules as well; he was removed from his position because he crossed the line between his municipal volunteer actions and his role as a real estate agent looking to make a living.  It's going to be a little bit harder for real estate agents to be appointed to planning-related positions until memory of this incident fades.  I wish they had actually removed him entirely from the planning board, but it seems local governments are extremely fearful of preventing the "people's business" from being done if they lack a quorum on that board.

I doubt the village would have taken such a strong stance if it had discovered ethical violations in its own planning board - they've been struggling to maintain a quorum on it for years, and that fear is much stronger than anything but the loudest of public outcries.  Instead, the planning board administration seems hellbent on getting projects approved regardless of the rule of law, and there's no attempt to stop it.  Take the hookah bar application, for example.  I voted for it when I was a member, but at the time I didn't know that mayor Terry Dungan considered "four and three-quarters days" to be close enough to the legally-required five days' notice to be sufficient, nor did I know that even now chairman Ray Curran has not produced any proof that the notices were even mailed out for that public hearing.

I was personally stonewalled to the point of throwing in the towel and resigning from the planning board because I couldn't find out what I needed to know to make informed votes, and I was tired of fighting for the right to make my several hours a month of volunteer time remotely productive.  I know that for every case which is public shown to be deficient, there are probably many more which nobody has noticed yet.  For fear of losing its quorum, the village board is allowing its planning board to be run in such a cloak-and-dagger manner that its remaining members are not even aware of how much they do not know.  Chairman Ray Curran has repeatedly thwarted any attempts to shed more light on the proceedings, threatening to resign if the meetings are televised and denying without good cause my repeated requests for a public comment period at planning board meetings - something which Paul Brown had on the agenda for his entire tenure, and something  I hope his successor continues.

I don't believe the village is going to find and retain qualified planning board members as long as the board itself is run in secrecy.  The mayor tells me that there is very little that the village board can do; it cannot force a public comment period or demand that planning board members have the right to participate in off-line discussions, for example, because the planning board's independence is protected by law.  He has yet to explain why the village board took the weasel-like non-action of simply not bothering to renew the chair's term of office last June.  They could have either reappointed Mr. Curran (if they support his methods) or removed him (if they did not), but instead they chose to simply abdicate their responsibility.

Until the village learns some lessons from nearby towns, planning is going to continue down a dark, mysterious road that is fraught with bungled projects and uninformed votes.  How much longer will the village board permit this miscarriage of planning to continue?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Settling in at NPHD

Between the blizzard and the flood, when life was mostly unfrozen and nearly dry, I visited our new highway superintendent at his job.

Among criticisms of Nielson during the campaign were concerns that his job as a Kingston firefighter would prevent him from overseeing emergencies on New Paltz roads.  This last winter storm of this season brought more snow to New Paltz than any since 1996, and heavier snow than we've seen since the 1970s, according to Nielson, who has spent time getting to know the veteran highway superintendents in the area.

He was happy to show me around the facility, from the massive salt barn to the gigantic trucks that were purchased during the Reagan administration and still do the bulk of the plowing.  "A lot of what we do each day is pretty routine," he explained to me.  "We try to start all the trucks and, if we're lucky, we can get two of them running.  Then we pull the rest of them into the garage and fix them."

The highway department does have a number of newer vehicles, including 2008 truck which was acquired for the superintendent's use, and several pieces of heavy equipment.  However, the heavy truck capacity of the department at this time is lacking.  For example, it takes two trips to the department's garage to sand all the roads west of the Wallkill, because none of the trucks the department owns is rated to carry that much weight.

It looks like Nielson wants to create a plan to replace the aging fleet without facing taxpayer backlash; he told the town board he'd like to replace the deputy superintendent position with a part-time secretary, freeing up resources to get what amounts to a second foreman while cutting his payroll down by about twenty grand.  That's probably no more than a quarter of what a new triple-axle truck would cost.

Any vehicle replacement plan will have to be approved in the next budget, and Nielson says he's starting work on that as soon as possible.  First he's focusing on putting systems into place, such as a daily prioritized task list and a longer-term project list that can be used by the crew to identify the most important job to do next.

So what types of things has the new superintendent learned since he took office?  Not surprisingly, a lot about plowing.  "Mailboxes are a funny thing," he told me.  "By law they should not be in the town's right-of-way, but if they aren't the post office isn't going to deliver to it."  Pushing snow with up to 26 tons of force, a plow doesn't actually have to touch a mailbox for it to be destroyed by its passing.  Nielson told me he also understands why it's common for trees to be pushed out of the way by plows during a storm - it may not be the best tool for the job, but there's no time to bring in heavy equipment while the snow is still falling.

Nielson couldn't comment on the recent termination of one employee and suspension of another, but from what I've seen any allegations of his actions being a vendetta are beyond the pale.  He's already clocking over 45 hours a week and I'm sure he wouldn't create more work for himself like that unless there was good reason.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When Democracy Fails - What's Next?

Two hundred and thirty four years ago, our fledgling republic was founded on the democratic principles of government of the people, by the people, for the people with liberty and justice for all.

The word 'Democracy' is of Greek origin (dēmos the people+ -kratia power, rule') and ancient Greece itself was, perhaps, the best known example of a civilization governed by 'direct' or 'pure' democracy - where, quite literally, the country was run by those who chose show up and get involved.

In the United States, like most other democratic societies, a system of 'representative' democracy is employed - where elected officials are charged with the duty of government and entrusted to make decisions in the best interests of the people.

To aid in the administration of government, it is normal for some of these elected representatives to appoint certain executive responsibilities to unelected individuals in the form of cabinets, panels, boards and committees.

Examples of this model can be seen at all levels of government - from the President right down to the local village level.

And it's at the local level of the Village of New Paltz, specifically in the elected office of Mayor and his appointed Planning Board, where I feel that democracy is currently failing.

My concerns center on the approval, by the Village Planning Board, of a special use permit for a Hookah Bar & Oxygen lounge and the plethora of administrative errors surrounding it.

Mistakes will always be made - what matters is that those mistakes are corrected. However, when an administration, rather than acknowledging that errors were made and working to rectify the problem, instead does absolutely nothing to remedy the situation and even goes so far as to suppress information and obfuscate the issue in an attempt to deflect the rising tide of awkward questions and publicity, it's time for this particular Gadfly to cry Foul!

As a citizen and neighbor of the proposed hookah /oxygen bar I will admit to being vehemently opposed to it for a number of reasons. But, for this installment, rather than focus on emotive and subjective issues, I felt I should be objective and deal with the failure of our administration to do its job properly.

Rather than spend a great deal of time re-telling the discussions I've had with various members of the Village administration, allow me to simply quote the most recent letter I sent to Ray Curran, Chair of the Village Planning Board:

Dear Mr Curran,

Thank you so much for the time and courtesy you afforded to me when we met at the close of the Village Planning meeting on Tuesday 16th February.

If you recall, we spoke briefly about the proposed Hookah Bar & Oxygen Lounge at 184 Main St., New Paltz and, although you indicated to me that you felt there was no reason to revisit the granting of a special use permit, you did promise me that you would speak with the building inspector to see if new information has come to light which was not available at the time the board made their determination.

I fully appreciate that the board is under no legal obligation to reconsider this issue at the behest of members of the public, or even acknowledge their concerns, but I do feel that the board arrived at their decision without being aware of several key facts which would undoubtedly have had a bearing on the board's decision had they been aware of them at the time. As such, I implore you to reconsider your position and allow this unfortunate situation to be revisited, thoroughly examined and properly resolved.

I am aware of your concerns that the village may be subject to litigation if you should elect to withdraw or modify a special use permit that has already been granted. However, Section 212-39 B(3) of the Village Code states: "In all cases the Planning Board shall retain continuing jurisdiction" over any special use permit that is granted. As such the board is legally entitled to revisit this issue at any time.

Moreover, it could be reasonably argued that the board is in dereliction of its duty to "protect and promote public health, (and) safety", as detailed in Section 212-2 of the Village Code and § 7-700 of the Village Law, if they fail to review any special use permit which potentially presents a risk to public health as soon as they become aware that such a risk exists.

From careful review of the circumstances surrounding this case and the documentary evidence available, it is apparent that the Planning Board were not in possession of certain key facts at the time they rendered their decision. To wit:

1) The board was unaware that proper notice of the public hearing had not been given. Section 212-39 B(2) states that, "Public notice of said hearing shall be printed in a newspaper of general circulation in the Village at least five days prior to the date thereof." At the time the meeting was held on August 4th, 2009, the board was not made aware that Legal Notice of the meeting had not been published until July 30th, less than five full days prior.

Additionally, the board had no knowledge that legal notice of the meeting was not mailed to the owners of adjoining properties as is the established practice. Even as late as January 26th this year, assurances were still being made by the board's clerk that these notices had indeed been sent out - although a Freedom Of Information Law (FOIL) request made by us failed to produce the required copies of the stamped, addressed envelopes used to send the notices and it is the testimony of all adjoining property owners that no notice was ever received.

Had the board been aware of this fact on the evening of August 4th, 2009, I am certain that, as Chair, you would have moved that the public hearing be postponed and adequate notice given of the rescheduled hearing in order that any public concerns might be properly considered.

It is my opinion that this fact, in isolation, is reason enough for the board to revisit the approval of the special use permit.

2) Having listened to the audio recording of the Planning Board meeting on August 4th, 2009, it is apparent that the board were misled by the applicants as to the significant risk of fire caused by smoking in the presence of an oxygen enriched atmosphere. The applicants led the board to believe that, as there were no oxygen tanks on the premises and the hookahs would be prepared in a part of the building separated by a fire resistant door, there would be no risk of fire. Indeed, members of the board went to great pains to ensure that the special use permit required that the fire resistant door may not be removed from the building as an ongoing condition of the permit.

However, the applicants neglected to inform the board that hookah smoking and oxygen delivery would actually occur within the same room in close proximity of each other.

As a matter of course, smoking is normally strictly prohibited where oxygen is in use. This is not because oxygen is flammable itself, but because it is one of the three requirements for a fire to begin and, as an accelerant, oxygen dramatically increases the speed at which things burn once a fire starts.

The oxygen concentrators which the applicants were proposing to use are still capable of producing 90% to 95% pure oxygen. Even at an output as low as 2 liters per minute, the oxygen delivered will saturate clothing, fabric, hair, beards and anything in the area. Even normally flame-retardant clothing can burn fiercely when the oxygen content is increased - all that is required is a source of ignition, for which the smoldering charcoal/tobacco mixture in a hookah would definitely suffice.

Add to this the fact that the building utilizes propane for heating stored in a 500 gallon above-ground tank (again, not known to the board at the time of the meeting) and the potential for disaster is immense.

As it is now clear that a very real and present danger to public safety may have been inadvertently created by the granting of this special use permit, it is essential that the board suspend or revoke the permit with immediate effect and that the hookah and oxygen bar not be allowed to operate until the board is able to fully satisfy themselves that it poses absolutely no risk to public safety - drawing upon the expertise of a suitably qualified fire prevention officer or the New York State Fire Marshal should it deem necessary.

3) At the time the board approved the special use permit they were not made aware of the nature or quantity of the emissions the proposed hookah bar is likely to produce.

The smoke produced by just one gram of Hookah Tobacco contains levels of the Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Phenanthrene, Fluranthracene and Chrysene, far in excess of the recommended maximum exposure level. The typical amount of Shisha (Tobacco Mixture) smoked in a hookah is in the region of 2 ounces (50 grams) and, by its very nature, the proposed hookah bar will have several hookahs in operation simultaneously.

The substances detailed above are known by the US Department of Health & Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to be carcinogenic (cancer causing) and their emission by a commercial entity is strictly regulated under New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's (NYSDEC's) Air Permitting and Registration Program.

Although the board did require that the applicants install a filtration system rather than just vent residual smoke from the building into the open air, they were not aware of research, commissioned by both the US Surgeon General and US Center for Disease Control, that has determined there is no ventilation or filtration system currently in existence which can effectively remove these carcinogenic contaminants from secondhand smoke.

As such, by approving a special use permit which allows a business to produce noxious and toxic fumes, the board has, in effect, granted a variance to the applicants, allowing them to operate without compliance to Section 60-3 of the Village Code which states, "The emission from any stack or premises within the Village into the open air of such quantities of dust, soot, cinders, fly ash, noxious acids, fumes or gases so as to cause injury or detriment to persons or to the public, or to endanger the comfort, health or safety of any person or the public or in such manner as to cause injury or damage to business or property is prohibited."

The Village Planning board is not authorized to grant a variance. Therefore the special use permit should be revoked and the matter referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In summary I would just like to add that I have concentrated solely on facts that I believe were not available to the board at the time the permit was approved. I have purposefully not mentioned the emotive issues of the nature of the business itself and the proximity to the New Paltz Middle School although, in hindsight, these really should have been discussed by the board during their deliberations.

I appreciate that the board is under no legal obligation to act upon or even respond to my request, although as Chair of a body authorized and tasked in Section 212-2 of the Village Code "to protect and promote public health, safety, morals, comfort and the general welfare", I believe you have a moral obligation to address this issue.

You are certainly aware that this is not the first time I have written to you regarding this matter, nor I am the only person to have done so. As such I implore you to reconsider your position and allow myself, along with other concerned members of our community, to address the planning board at the next scheduled meeting.

In closing, I must impress upon you the need to act swiftly, as the new owners have been working on the building virtually round the clock in an effort to get open as soon as possible - quite possibly believing that you would be less inclined to revoke their permit and close them down than you would be to prevent them from opening in the first place.

I thank you for your kind attentions to this matter and very much look forward to receiving your prompt reply.

Sincerely yours,

Anton Stewart

To be continued....