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January 1, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

January 1, 2006

A Great Day For Terrorism

(A description of the swearing-in ceremony for the Common Council members.)

Went with the wife last Friday to Albany City Hall to witness the swearing-in of the Common Council Members. The entire City government was present, along with many of the leading citizens of our neighborhoods, plus anybody who wanted to gawk. We were packed into City Hall like anchovies wearing bulky winter coats, but with elbows.

As per tradition, the normal illegal search and seizure procedures at the front door conducted daily by misguided Albany Police officers was notably absent. This proves beyond argument that the purpose of these daily violations of the Fourth Amendment are not done to prevent “terrorism.” After all, what better time for terrorists to come barging into City Hall with guns and bombs than when the entire City government is assembled?

Fortunately, al Qaeda did not show up. Mayor Jerry Jennings held the swearing-in on the ground floor for his two favorites, newly elected City Court Judge Helena Heath-Roland, and for Betty Barnette who is, in case you’ve forgotten, not merely the embattled head of the Albany County Democratic Party but also City Treasurer. The Mayor gave a speech, which we missed, and then did the swearing-in, followed by thankfully brief speeches by the two office holders.

The real event took place upstairs in the Common Council chambers, where President Helen DesFosses presided for the last time. Helen can be credited with not only turning the nothing job of Common Council President into a vital and noticeable position, but also with using that position to open up the Common Council to the public and making the Council follow proper procedure, probably for the first time since the English snatched Albany from the Dutch. All of us who care about the City owe her a debt of gratitude.

Limited space dictated that a smaller crowd packed into the Common Council chambers. We common folk were confined to the nether side of the rail, from which the benches had been removed. Inside the rail privileged friends and family members sat with the office holders. Me and the wife zipped upstairs at the first opportunity and snagged a spot along the rail, so we got a good view of the entertainment.

Mayor Jennings acted as the master of ceremonies. The maintenance guys had hauled out the Three Royal Chairs and placed them in front of the bench. These are the chairs you can see in old formal photographs of long dead civic leaders, the middle one is for the Mayor, one is for the CC President and somebody or other is supposed to sit in the other chair. They look like they are more appropriate for kings and princes wearing crowns than elected officials. The Mayor briefly tried out his chair with a self-conscious grin before the ceremony started, after that they went unused.

Mayor Jennings gave a short speech in which he made one comment of substance. He mentioned that in response to the initiative begun early in December by CANA (Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations) that he would be looking at creating a comprehensive planning initiative for the City. Very interesting.

First, Comptroller Tom Nitido was sworn-in up above and behind the bench by City Court Judge Margaret Walsh, his family beside him. He received polite applause. Next, also beyond and above, incoming President Shawn Morris was sworn-in by outgoing President Desfosses, which was met by sustained whoops and applause by the crowd. (Remember: Shawn received more votes than the Mayor did in this last general election, and Shawn had to face actual opponents.) Shawn gave a short speech in which she did not shrink from mentioning that Albany had problems, but with the new Council we could look forward to solving those problems. During the speech, The Mayor did a magnificent job of keeping his grinding teeth inaudible. The speech ended with more whooping and hollering from us common masses.

Then came time for the Common Council members to be sworn-in down on the floor, the Mayor presiding. In past years the Mayor would swear-in the CC members down on the first floor of City Hall en masse, this year they got the individual attention that they deserved. And so, the members were sworn-in in order, starting with the First Ward.

That would be Dominick Calsolaro, the CC member who holds the coveted title of Most Likely To Be Thrown Off A Cliff By The Mayor If Only He Could. Dominick, of course, earned this title by hard work, independence and a dedication to his constituents and to the City, qualities that The Mayor does not admire in a Common Council member. One could plausibly say that Dom has spearheaded a radical transformation of the Common Council from a rubber stamp outfit that toadies to The Mayor’s office into an independent and effective legislature, a process that is still unfolding.

The Mayor threw his arm around Dominick, and we could hear the Mayor say with a grin, “Sometimes, this job can be hard.” We couldn’t quite catch what else he said, but we later learned from Dom that The Mayor also made some sort of comment about clearing up the growing controversies over the Albany Pine Bush Dump (euphemistically called “The Landfill,”) not to mention the attempt to locate a new dump down in Coeymans.

Dominick later joked that he hoped no one had taken a picture of The Mayor with his arm around him because, he said, if it got circulated his constituents might think that he had sold out to The Mayor. (Such an impression might very well cost him votes. That’s how much we love The Mayor in the First Ward.) What a picture. The Mayor, much taller, chiseled profile and nicely tanned, looking like he wants to bite the top of Dom’s head. And Dom, who is, sad to say, not very photogenic, standing on one leg and grinning like an idiot.

No matter, we don’t need no pretty boys representing the First Ward. Dominick, true to form, defied The Mayor’s injunction against giving a speech, thus setting a precedent for the rest of the members. He took pains to mention that the constituent sitting beside him, Winnie Deyo, was NOT his mother, who is recuperating from a fall. Our best goes out to Mrs. Calsolaro for a quick recovery. And of course, we joined in with the loud cheering and enthusiastic whooping for Dominick.

The most incredible cheering came for the new Third Ward member, Corey Ellis. He takes his seat as a member of the Working Families Party, the first party other than Democratic to take a seat in the CC chamber since 1923, when Uncle Dan kicked out the Republican Machine and replaced it with his own. (Jerry Jennings served a brief term as an independent before he became mayor, the first non-Democrat since 1923.)

The applause for Corey went beyond enthusiastic, it was ecstatic. He’s a generally modest guy, but he succumbed to the adulation before he sat down, stepping forward and raising his arms in the air. Well hey, why not? After the way he came from behind, losing the primary in September by a lousy 7 votes by what may have been nefarious means, only to trounce his entrenched opponent handily in the general election.

From listening around, I do not believe that anyone in City government is going to miss Corey’s predecessor, Michael Brown. Absolutely no one. Except, of course, The Mayor. Perhaps some of that adulation for Corey was gratitude and expression of relief for prying Brown out of the Third Ward seat.

Strong sustained applause for Barbara Smith, who captured the seat for the Fourth Ward. Ms. Smith has the dignified demeanor of a college professor, and the applause reflected that. This sort of collegiate dignity is similar to that of outgoing President Desfosses, so thanks to Barbara the Council will retain some of that classiness. Perhaps her dignity and her knowledge will help bring long overdue necessary changes to the Fourth Ward, and keep discussions in the Common Council on a high level. Everyone assumes that she will be a positive force in City government.

There was strong applause for Caroline McLaughlin of the Second Ward, for Richard Conti of the Sixth, who alone declined to give a speech, for Dan Herring of the Thirteenth, and for Michael O’Brien of the Twelfth. There was more whooping for Cathy Fahey, who handily won a hard and nasty battle for the Seventh, replacing Shawn Morris.

There was polite applause for new member Willie Timmons of the Fifth, who for most people outside his ward is a “mystery man.” I got a chance to speak quite a bit with him the next day, and discovered that he has been a Democratic committeeman for some fifteen years. He was moved to run for office partly because of his predecessor’s dismal attendance record in the Common Council, and because he felt that she had done little to nothing for the ward.

My impression was that he is an independent with a strong sense of right and wrong, ready to take each issue on it’s merits. He emphasized that his constituents come first above all else. It seemed to me that he had much to learn about city wide issues, but he was clearly a guy you could talk to, very personable and willing to listen. Time will tell, of course, but Mr. Timmons strikes me as nobody’s fool.

As for the rest of the Common Council members, applause ranged from perfunctory to tepid. The only exception was Jim Sano of the Ninth, who seemed to have a lot of relatives present. These are The Mayor’s pets, and they don’t have enthusiastic supporters, at least none were present. There was particularly tepid applause for newly elected member John Rosenzweig of the Eighth, who is generally known as The Mayor’s boy. Will he prove everybody wrong? Probably not, but we can dream, can’t we?

NOTABLY ABSENT: Jimmy Scalzo of the Tenth, who apparently couldn’t be bothered to attend his own inauguration. Perhaps he was afraid of being waylaid by taxpayers outraged over his leading the legally shaky spot rezoning of the empty lot on Holland Avenue to “highway commercial.” Seriously, he really did this. (I’ll be going into a lot more detail about this outrage in the next few months.) Someone suggested that he couldn’t get a few hours off from his job at Andy’s Deli on Delaware Avenue, but I can’t imagine that the proprietors of Andy’s would treat him that way.

Then it was all over except for the hand shaking, congratulations, and endless yack yack yacking. Me and the wife made it back downstairs where the hungry masses were helping themselves to the buffet. We headed toward the front door of City Hall, but first I spotted The Mayor. I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to congratulate him on his electoral win, so I got his attention and received a sustained handshake and happy new year from him.

For some reason, The Mayor can never remember my name, although I can assure you that he knows exactly who I am, what I am, where I live, etc. But the wife is a different story. “Hello Lynne!” he said cheerily and bent down to give her a hug. Then he made a serious mistake. “Is everything going OK?” he said.

Lynne knows an opening when she sees one. “No, Mr. Mayor, everything is not OK. There’s the little matter of the rezoning on Holland Ave. There is absolutely no reason for it and I don’t see why you want it.”

The Mayor sputtered a bit and said something about how it’s up to more than just him. Then he looked over at me and said, “You people are going to do what you have to do.” Huh. Not much gets by him.

But Lynne was not done. She’s good. “Then there’s the problem of the Landfill in the Pine Bush. The City is obligated to natter natter natter...” she was off and running in fifth gear. The Mayor frowned, he turned sideways to study his cell phone, he turned back to Lynne (who didn’t slow down a bit) with a look on his face that suggested ‘why must I listen to this crazy broad,’ and then his expression turned to distress.

“Look,” he said, and Lynne quieted. “I promise you, I’ll find a solution to this Landfill problem. We will. I promise.”

We stopped annoying him after that, and went to get lunch.

So despite the lack of illegal searches and seizures, despite the lack of metal detectors, and despite literally anybody off the street being allowed to waltz through the front doors of City Hall without having their inherent rights trampled upon, no bombs went off, no politicians were assassinated, there were no riots, robberies, rapes or even a rude hand gesture all afternoon. None of this happened, even though this is the one day of the year when a terrorist could have inflicted the most damage and caused the most disruption.

This begs the question, if the illegal search and seizure procedures conducted by the Albany Police at the front door are not necessary for “security,” then why is the City government having the police break the law in this manner? Are these searches and seizures done merely to intimidate the citizenry, and to discriminate against those taxpayers and citizens who are considered “undesirables?”

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