Sunday, February 24, 2013

Practice what you preach, please

As I have said before, opponents to consolidation have some good points despite the fact that some of them have their own agendas.  But despite this being a college town, apparently no one in this debate has a clue how to educate.

A letter to the New Paltz Times a couple of weeks ago put forth a beef with the process:  the writers would ask specific questions about the finances, and be told to watch the videos of the meetings if they wanted an answer.  It's not unreasonable to be irritated by that sort of response; it's lazy, it's obfuscatory, and it ignores the fact that residents who didn't have the time to attend those meetings aren't going to have the time to watch them, either.

On top of that, the New Paltz Government Efficiency Project site, which should be the central repository for all of this information, is "undergoing maintenance" as of this writing, and has been for days, if not longer.

I thought the solution to this overwhelming sea of data would be New Paltz Fact Check, the blog set up "in order to inform public discourse, policy, and decision making by providing factual, objective analysis of issues important to New Paltz," according to its about page.  But if there's analysis, objective or otherwise, I can't find it.

What I see instead is a vast number of links and documents, many of which wouldn't be available to the public otherwise.  Internal emails, commentary from a Facebook group, public comments, and letters to the editor all in one place.  It's useful to have all this information in front of me, but where's the analysis I was promised?

The problem of analysis, or lack thereof, plagues both camps during this debate.  Don't we have a college in New Paltz?  Aren't there tenured professors and licensed teachers packed thickly in our voter rolls?  Isn't there anyone willing to step up and walk the voting public through the numbers, rather than just expecting us to wade through gigabytes of data without context?

It's unacceptable to champion either viewpoint in this cause without providing meaningful education to the voters.  It's disingenuous for the "yes" camp to expect the public to support this initiative when largely we don't have the time to dig in to the mounds of data.  It's hypocritical for the "no" camp to complain about this lack of analysis, claim to do something about it, and then just add to the problem.

Voters in this community are getting the message that we aren't bright enough to comprehend this mammoth problem, but the truth is, we just don't have as much time on our hands as the volunteers and elected officials (not to mention the paid consultants) do to wrap our minds around it.

Here's an unambiguous request to any and all who are invested in the consolidation question:  don't insult the voting public, educate us.

Friday, February 15, 2013

No good idea goes unpunished

I first expressed support for unification in 2008 or thereabouts; I have always believed that simplifying our lives by having one less government to deal with made a tremendous amount of sense.

Of course, I wasn't factoring in the human element.

The egos and personalities which strut across the New Paltz stage make it damned near to impossible to come up with a solution that will work.  Much of the information put forth by the pro-unification factions is correct.  On the other hand, many of the concerns expressed by the keep-it-separate crowd are legitimate and should not be dismissed.  It's bloody hard to figure out what information to discuss when there are so many people pushing hidden agendas.

Does our mayor want to keep his job?  Of course!  He himself told me that the village is the largest entity he would be comfortable running, because he can "keep it all in my head," in his words.  He knows every drainage grate, he said to me, and couldn't imagine being an effective elected official on a scale where that's not possible.  So there's no question that Jason West is going to fight tooth and nail against consolidation.

But to suggest that West's information and arguments should be entirely discarded because he has an ulterior motive, or because he is arrogant and condescending, does not serve this community well.  Don't consider the source, just evaluate his rationale.

How about Susan Zimet?  She is unabashedly in support of a merger, and doesn't have any personal stake the way the rest of us do, because she doesn't even live here.  Succeeding in this drive will put a feather in her political cap and, in all likelihood, be used as evidence of her wonderfulness when she pursues higher office.  And pursue she shall:  Zimet has always been ambitious, and returned to town government more because the county legislature lost power in the charter government than out of a burning desire to clean house.

Does this make her positions on unification automatically worthless?  If you consider the source it does, but considering the source does not do justice to the information itself.  Like West, Zimet's talking points and actual data must be carefully looked at, whether you like her or not, whether you trust her or not.

There are other players, as well.  One group makes a logo to support a unified government, another group makes a parody, and suddenly people are talking about consulting attorneys over it.  That sort of talk is shameful, because involving attorneys in a neighborly disagreement squelches free speech.  Many of West's opponents (and Zimet's, to a lesser extent) have used the "fascist" label; the fact that the same people who call their opponents dictators seek to silence the opposition with litigation is sickening.

The fact that this process is inordinately complex makes me fear that no good will come of it.  If you want to ruin a good idea, create a committee to study it.  We created around ten committees, so I'm thinking we really wanted to make this idea unpalatable, or at least incomprehensible to anyone with a day job not dedicated to policy questions.

Unification should be simple.  In this iteration, it's been made anything but, and its supporters are trying to ram it through at breakneck speed without answering perfectly valid questions.  Unless something really big changes, and very soon, I think we would all be better off firing each and every one of our town and village board members and starting over once we've cleaned house.

Friday, February 8, 2013

SUNY puts religions on a (slightly more) even playing field

SUNY New Paltz has announced it will not close for Jewish holidays any longer.  This opens the door to real religious freedom on the campus, and should be celebrated by members of all faiths.

The idea that a public institution, open to all, should close its doors for the sake of an observance of a single faith or group of faiths is one of those traditions that's been carried on for so long that most people don't even question it.  Most peoplewho practice a religion in this country, after all, follow one of the Abrahamic faiths, those which intellectually descend from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham; these include the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic sects, among others.  Among those, Judaism has the smallest number of worldwide adherents, but closing of educational institutions in particular for its most sacred holy days is quite common in some parts of the country.

Closing for a religious observance makes sense in some cases.  I am familiar with a coffee shop that closes for Yom Kippur because it's located in a religious enclave, and the owners recognize that it doesn't make business sense to open up if 95% of the customers won't be showing up.  But generally speaking, shutting down completely because some members of the community will be engaged in observances isn't a sound practice, because it's not practical to close up shop every day that's sacred to some amount of the community.

By electing to close for the holy days of one religion, the college sent a message, intentional or not, that it valued members of that faith differently.  In truth, members of any faith can opt out of work or class obligations for religious reasons; the college is, and should be, accommodating of those requests.  But in a society that takes a long break for Christmas and closes down every autumn for a couple of high holy days, an 18-year-old freshman could easily feel uncomfortable requesting time for Ramadan, Vesak, or Samhain.  Are those days less important, because the student or staff member must make a request?  Not to the adherent, they're not.

Of course, there remains the question of Christmas, which is one of the least important days on the Christian religious calendar, but is given tremendous weight by our society.  (If you're a serious Christian, you're far more interested in the messiah's resurrection than his birth.)  For good or ill, Christmas has been secularized and subsumed by our consumption-dependent economy.  As a minor religious observance it doesn't deserve the "holiday break" it gets any more than other holy days, but as a secular celebration of gift-giving it's probably going to have a special place for a long time.  (Those Christmas traditions which are most commonly trumpeted by retailers, such as the trees, the gifts, the lights, and the carols, derive from non-Christian practices that have been conflated with the messianic birth celebration over the centuries, so other than the confusing misuse of the name, they have nothing to do with Christmas as it was originally intended by Christians.)

I hope that Jewish members of the campus community see this decision as liberating, rather than an affront.  Without the undue weight given to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews should feel more comfortable asking for accommodations to observe Pesach, Purim, Sukkot, and other major holidays which never were given to campus closure.  And it should make it much easier for members of other faiths, even more thinly represented than Judaism, to similarly embrace their faiths without awkwardness.

Good job, college.