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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.

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January 7, 2016

Four Items For The New Year

Salaries, food and taxes, have yourself a nice hot cup of coffee
while you still can

Corruption In Cohoes For a while it looked like things were getting better for the small City of Cohoes, located on the northern end of Albany County. During the first decade of this century, when John McDonald was mayor, Cohoes saw its first population increase since the Harmony Mills clothing manufacturing complex located in the heart of town closed in the 1930s. Among Mr. McDonald’s successes as mayor was the renovation of the beautiful but vacant Harmony Mills buildings into apartments, and negotiation of substantial benefits for the City when the Canadian corporation Brookfield started up the long-dormant power plant at Cohoes Falls.

After Mr. McDonald became a member of the State Assembly in 2013, the mayor’s job went to George Primeau, who after 15 months called it quits citing health issues. So this past September there was an apparently wide open primary race (Cohoes, like the City of Albany, is a Democratic town) which was won handily by the controversial Chairman of the Albany County Legislature, Shawn Morse. There is much to indicate that Mr. Primeau carefully prepared the way for Mr. Morse, who happens to be his nephew, to take over his job.

Shawn Morse Sworn In As Mayor Of Cohoes, Jan. 1
Shawn Morse Sworn In As Mayor Of Cohoes, Jan. 1

When Mr. McDonald took office in 2000, he immediately lowered the mayor’s salary from $58,541 to $45,000 per year, which as a leading business owner in the City (Marra’s Pharmacy) he could afford to do. However, by the time he left office he had brought his pay up to $60,000 to pass on to his successor. This still left the mayor paid less than a row of senior cops and firefighters along with several City officials.

Shortly after Mr. Morse won the September Primary, uncle George Primeau indicated that he was raising the mayor’s salary to $75,000. Oh, and members of the Cohoes Common Council would go from $13,195 to $14,000. The Council approved the raises along with the creative shifting of funds and dipping into the reserves to pay for the new salaries.

A few days into his new term as mayor, Mr. Morse announced the creation of a new $60,000 per year executive secretary job, which according to rumor is very likely to go to former mayor Uncle George. What about those health issues, have we had a miraculous recovery? And the mayor’s executive assistant, a job which already exists, will be raised to $70,000.

Neighborhood In Cohoes
Neighborhood In Cohoes

But the big news is that the new mayor is firing the very successful economic development coordinator Ed Tremblay, who was hired for the job by Mr. McDonald at $59,000 per year. Mr. Tremblay is being replaced by Mike Jacobson who will be collecting a whopping $125,000 per year. Now that’s a raise. Mr. Jacobson came to this area a few years ago from Florida after leaving his job as a vice president at American Express to take a job as director of Capital District Habitat for Humanity, from which he “retired” this past summer.

Mr. Jacobson appeared at the right time for Habitat and managed to get a lot of building projects started and completed, unleashing Habitat’s built up potential. Much of his success came from Habitat’s aura of goodwill and as a launderer of tax liability, basically he knew how to ask for donations. It remains to be seen if he can manage the same success for Cohoes above what Mr. Tremblay accomplished at less than half the salary.

As director of Habitat, Mr. Jacobson did some extensive reorganizing along corporate lines, consolidating departments and apparently increasing efficiency. He also worked to take over and absorb Habitat chapters in nearby counties under one corporate umbrella. As part of this he packed up the Habitat headquarters in Albany and moved those jobs across the river to Troy.

Mike Jacobson As Habitat Director On Alexander Street In Albany (With Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin) Dec. 2012
Mike Jacobson As Habitat Director On Alexander Street In Albany (With Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin) Dec. 2012

I brushed up against Mr. Jacobson when I was serving as a board member of South End Improvement Corporation (SEIC.) He was trying to absorb SEIC into Habitat in order to gain some of that organization’s credentials for Habitat. His effort was unsuccessful, all Mr. Jacobson managed to do was to divide the board and poach the then director of SEIC for a higher paying job at Habitat, which explains her enthusiasm for his plans. (Meanwhile SEIC is under the thumb of a new director who has gutted the board, decreased the number of projects and greatly increased administrative costs.)

Mr. Jacobson struck me as predatory, which I suppose may be a necessary requirement for the kind of thing he does. When he had a reason to know me he was the friendliest most personable person in the world, but when that usefulness ended I no longer rated notice. That makes me wonder how much he does that to other people, which might turn out to be a real problem for him in a small place like Cohoes.

As for Assembly member John McDonald, who represents my neighborhood in Albany as well as Cohoes, I asked for his opinion on the new mayor and the big salaries. His comment was no comment. But he added, “My record of protecting tax payer dollars is clear and thirteen years long. I could only hope that record will be surpassed.”

Coffee Will Make Headlines I don’t like to make predictions, but this one seems like a safe call. In the last few years medical researchers have discovered that not only is drinking large amounts of strong coffee safe, it is actually good for you. It turns out that it has curative powers, so much so that some doctors are now prescribing coffee for patients with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver.

Your Favorite Way to start your day just got a whole lot healthier!

It’s coffee as a substance, not any one ingredient in it that is beneficial. According to Frank Hu, a nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard, quoted in Science News magazine, “It’s extremely difficult to impossible to tease out the effects of the individual components of coffee because there are so many of them. And they travel together.” Various international studies going back to 2012 have consistently confirmed results. For example, just one from the article:

Earlier this year, a European team reported that women who drank two and a half or more cups and men who drank three and a half or more daily were 72 percent less likely to develop liver cancer than people who drank less than about one-third cup a day. The study included roughly half a million healthy people monitored for 11 years.

Seriously! This is not like the longstanding story that moderate consumption of alcohol is linked with longevity, which is purely statistical. The researchers have actually teased out some of the beneficial chemical processes of coffee in the body. Among the apparent benefits, coffee prevents diabetes and may prevent Parkinson’s. Believe it or not, coffee lowers your blood pressure (after an initial spike.) And it doesn’t stunt your growth.

Coffee For Your Health

My prediction is that in 2016 the corporate media is going to pick up on this story and go crazy. In a short time the price of coffee will skyrocket and everybody, I mean everybody, will be consuming it, and there will be shortages. So we’ll all be hearing details over and over real soon and crying for a cup. Remember you heard it here first.

The Decline Of Honest Weight This past autumn the only co-op supermarket in Albany, Honest Weight, was hit with a scandal of sorts. It got a lot of publicity in the corporate media, but unless you actually shop there or are involved with the store then the issues involved probably flew right over your head. There was nothing illegal going on, it all has to do with community, integrity and, well, honesty.

Once upon a time Honest Weight was the Food Revolution in action. It started as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project that brought produce directly from farms to tables. Eventually the folks running the CSA started a market in a dingy storefront on Quail Street which seemed to keep getting smaller and smaller. The aisles, lined with bins of foodstuffs that the shopper was expected to scoop out and pour into containers brought from home, were so narrow that a chubby person had to turn sideways and inhale to let other shoppers pass by.

The Funky Old Honest Weight On Central Avenue, 2009
The Funky Old Honest Weight On Central Avenue, 2009

So when the store moved a little ways to a big old warehouse off Central Avenue it was like Wow, all this space and a big parking lot too! But soon the store ran out of space and expanded into adjacent warehouses as they became empty, and the parking lot couldn’t get any bigger. People routinely drove an hour or more to shop at the place, there really was nothing like it anywhere around here.

People tend to forget that in the last decades of the 20th Century the quality of food in regular supermarkets declined tremendously. Appearance and shelf life of food mattered more than taste or nutrition, fruit and dairy products became nearly inedible. Processed foods had become loaded with high fructose corn syrup (HFC) which is a concentrated type of sugar that overworks your pancreas and forces it to secrete way too much insulin, causing obesity and diabetes among other problems.

But at Honest Weight one could buy real organic and natural fruits and produce, along with plenty of local farm products, and nothing containing HFC on the shelves. Controversies among the voting members of the co-op were about food quality, organic versus local, human rights in production of foodstuffs, the attempt by the vegans to keep meat out of the store, those kinds of issues. Shopping there was like attending a community function. Young mothers would bring their newborns to show off, seems every time I went there I had to edge around a crowd of cooing women.

Bins At The Old Central Avenue Store
Bins At The Old Central Avenue Store

A feature of the old store was the fabulous gourmet cheese department which a friend of mine once declared to be “the best cheese case between Montreal and New York City.” That case still exists, but it has been eclipsed by the even more fabulous Cheese Traveler store on Delaware Avenue. Both cheese cases, not coincidentally, are the creation of the same guy, Eric Paul, which is why we have two great places to buy a variety of gourmet cheese in Albany.

After the turn of the century several things changed for the better in the regular supermarkets. The quality of supermarket food began to improve as consumers became more aware of what they were eating. Fruit and produce became more edible, and while HFC has not disappeared from shelves there’s a lot less of it. Meanwhile the organic designation became debased as large corporations fiddled with the meaning of the word and began to cash in, so that organic other than dairy has pretty much become meaningless.

The board of directors and managers of Honest Weight lost sight of the Food Revolution. Instead they saw how Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, which started out as little local co-ops like Honest Weight, had turned themselves into massive corporations. And they decided that there was an opportunity for this little co-op to grow big.

The New Store On Watervliet Avenue

The New Store On Watervliet Avenue

So these managers began announcing that both big chains were coming to the Albany area and might very well drive Honest Weight out of business. The only solution, they told the members, was to build a new state-of-the-art building and reorganize the store. which they did, and the new store on Watervliet Avenue is a classy place to shop.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great stuff you can get at Honest Weight that you can’t get anywhere else in Albany. For example, they have the only decent fresh fish case in Albany, the first since Cousin’s Fish Market went under years ago. It’s the place to get obscure herbs, affordable maple syrup and cut flowers that don’t wilt after one or two days.

But the epiphany came for me this past summer when I stood in Honest Weight among the produce examining an allegedly organic ordinary cucumber imported from another country that was priced $6.99. I mean, cucumbers were being harvested locally and one of my neighbors had given me some cukes from his garden a few days earlier. Later that day I went to Hannaford and bought a locally grown cucumber of the same size for 69 cents, which I thought a bit steep, but still.

Voting Members Of Honest Weight Confront The Board At St. Sophia’s Church, Nov. 30
Voting Members Of Honest Weight Confront The Board At St. Sophia’s Church, Nov. 30

So the big scandal came in the middle of October when then co-op board president Bill Frye shot off his mouth to the Hearst Times Union. You see, as the next step in their plans for world domination, the board decided to get rid of the loyal members who get a discount for working in the store, a tradition that goes back to the founding of the co-op. Straying from the script while talking to the reporter, Frye said:

"We would like to get the member workers off the floor of the store. It's very expensive," he said. "They are really not as effective and efficient. They almost have to be retrained every time they come into the store. They also like to chat."

Which is sheer nonsense. I’ve seen volunteer workers there that were so efficient that I was surprised to find out they weren’t paid and were working for that store discount. At the same time I can point out some long time paid employees who are utterly worse than useless. But the script Mr. Frye should have stuck with was also nonsense. From the article, which landed on the front page of the dead tree edition:

Most worrisome is the possibility of a claim that the co-op is violating minimum wage laws, Frye said. "The Fair Labor Standards Act requires minimum wage," he said. The savings to a member-worker, he said, might be equivalent to minimum wage, however that is not guaranteed.

Except that the State has never pursued a case like that and has since indicated that it has no intention of ever doing so. But of course that ominous threat sounds oh so legal, and they even hired some real live lawyers (at over a quarter of a million dollars!) to opine that such a thing as the State harassing the store into perdition was a very likely possibility. The membership, which was not fooled for a minute by this nonsense, instantly became furious and rebelled, demanding that the entire board resign starting with Mr. Frye.

By the end of November it was all over. The voting members organized a recall election of the board, it would take 75% of the votes to remove a board member. Bill Frye, who petulantly refused to resign from the board despite numerous calls to do so, was kicked out with 83.5% of the vote.

Five of the seven sitting members barely retained their seats with vote totals that squeaked under 75%, thanks to a substantial minority that hated the board members but felt that kicking all of them off at once would be too disruptive. But on January 5 four of those board members resigned at once, spitting venom on their way out.

Nate Horwitz
Nate Horwitz

One notable development was that at the same time there was an election to fill the three vacant seats on the board. This marked the triumphant return of founding member Nate Horwitz, who reluctantly walked away from the co-op that he had worked to build after the move to the new building. As the top vote getter and as the new board president, perhaps he will move the co-op back to what it used to be, a quality food-based community center with affordable prices.

Or maybe that’s impossible. Things have changed a lot since the 1970s, and like most revolutions that are not squashed by force or by apathy, the Food Revolution has had successes and some defeats. What Mr. Frye and the other disgraced managers do not seem to understand is that the Honest Weight revenue model stands or falls by what I call the Hippie Vibe.

It’s this Hippie Vibe, the feeling that everyone who shops at the co-op is part of something good and alternative and special, that allows the store to attract customers from far away that will gladly pay seven dollars for an imported cucumber. This indefinite Vibe translates directly into cash but it can’t be quantified, it can only be felt. Corporatists like Mr. Frye don’t like things that can’t be quantified, if you can’t put it on a spreadsheet then you can’t control it. So from their point of view the things that maintained the Hippie Vibe had to be eliminated.

Personally I think that Hippie Vibe is gone for good after this fiasco. It would be nice to see it return but I don’t see how that could be done without upending the whole operation and starting over. Meanwhile, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, both of which have arrived in the region and are located along the suburban auto slum Wolf Road, are big and fancy supermarkets, quite nice really, but they’re just supermarkets.

Garbage Tax Passes In my last post I erroneously said that the City of Albany Common Council had already approved the hefty new tax for picking up garbage, which only applies to multi-family homes downtown but not to single family houses uptown. It turns out the Council did not approve the tax until after the first of the year. I’m guessing this item was put aside so that the rest of the budget could be voted on and passed before the end of December.

The Rapp Road “Landfill”
The Rapp Road “Landfill”

The vote on the 15 member Council was 9 to 4. The members who stood up for their constituents and voted against the imposition of this tax were Dorcey Applyrs (1st ward,) Judd Krasher (11th, who is not resigning his seat and leaving town, by the way) Frank Commisso Jr. (15th! Way uptown!) and Mark Robinson (4th.) Not present was Vivian Kornegay (2nd) who according to her Facebook page was down with a bad case of the flu, and Ron Bailey (3rd) who had no reason to miss the vote that I’d heard.

In December the mayor’s Chief of Staff Matt Peters told me that the plan was to roll out the garbage tax in stages, and that at some later point single family houses would also be charged. But nowhere else have I heard that, not in the media, not in any of the emails I regularly receive from the City. I invited Matt to lay out the plan to expand the tax and close the Rapp Road “Landfill,” a plan that he described to me at a rather noisy Christmas party, so that I could publish it here on this blog but he repeatedly declined to do so.

Mark Robinson asked his fellow Council members a kind of question. "I'd like one of my colleagues to stand up here and say 'I spoke to my constituents and they agreed that this trash tax should be passed,' " said Robinson. "I'm waitin' for one of you all to say that."

Mark Robinson In Lincoln Park
Mark Robinson In Lincoln Park

I heard that. I have to say that this garbage tax has generated some of the strongest negative comments about mayor Kathy Sheehan that I’ve heard since she took office. I think the way she did this may turn out to be a serious political mistake. The plan is to send out notices to households in February, we’ll hear some hollering then.

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Posted by:Terry O'Neill
Posted on:01/08/2016
I go to Honest Weight for cheese, salt and sugar. Everything else is too pricy and phoney.

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