Tuesday, August 14, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Richards on the Malgieri, Ansbrow hires

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 1:52 PM

For Rochester Mayor Tom Richards, it may be a case of be careful what you wish for.

Richards said in an interview today that he encouraged Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to find a high-quality person to manage the district's finances so Vargas could concentrate on other things. Richards said he even tried -- unsuccessfully -- to find someone for Vargas.

Everyone knows by now how the whole thing turned out: Vargas ended up hiring city budget director Bill Ansbrow away from City Hall. But not before Vargas asked the mayor if it was OK to approach Ansbrow.

"Not that he needed my OK," Richards said. "The attitude I had about it is, 'Y'know, I'm not in favor of it. But if that's something Bill decides he wants to do, you could make a pretty good argument that it's in the city's general best interest that he do it. I'm not going to try to convince him to do otherwise.'"

"Having the school district well-run financially is very much in our best interests," Richards said. "Remember, the school district is technically part of the city. And so the school district's financial performance affects our credit rating. Ultimately, if the school district gets into financial trouble, we go with them."

But there's more to it than finances, Richards said. The overall picture for the city will not substantially improve until the school district improves, he said.

The school district's other big -- and controversial -- recent hire is Patty Malgieri as Vargas's chief of staff. Richards, who was city attorney when Malgieri was Rochester's deputy mayor, said he had nothing to do with that hire and that he's not going to second-guess Vargas.

"Those are choices he has to make and he has to live with," Richards said. "But they're both quality people with relevant experience, and I think that's good for the school district."

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Fracking fight — state vs. local

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 11:26 AM

Officials in many New York communities have already passed laws to keep high-volume hydraulic fracturing outside of their limits. But the bans and moratoriums have raised a big question: if the state ultimately allows high-volume fracking, will the local protections survive?

Ultimately, the courts will decide the matter. In fact, earlier this year a judge upheld a ban in the town of Dryden (see this article in Businessweek), which was encouraging to fracking critics and some local-level government leaders.

This uncertainty over land-use restrictions and fracking isn’t unique to New York. Pennsylvania is several years into a shale gas drilling boom, but it’s still sorting out a variety of laws and regulations, including the issue of local fracking restrictions or bans. In one very pertinent example, a Pennsylvania court overturned a state law banning local limits on fracking. A Brookings Institute blog post puts the land-use questions into context:

“This [Pennsylvania] ruling serves as a reminder that few governance issues are as contentious as governmental battles over land-use decisions,” says the post. “Federal and state policies that restrict land-use preferences have routinely been assaulted by waves of litigation, many aiming to return authority to private and local hands.”

The post also says that the fracking-related land-use debates happening in New York and Pennsylvania are likely to go national.

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NEWS BLOG: Romney, Ryan, Medicare, and risk

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 10:51 AM

I dunno; maybe some political reporters are sensing something I'm not.

I keep reading stories and blogs hinting that Mitt Romney has taken a risky - possibly fatal - step in choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate. The reason: Ryan's hope to partially privatize Medicare.

In their Politico post this morning, for instance, Alexander Burns, Maggie Haberman, and Jonathan Martin say that they've interviewed more than three dozen "Republican strategists and campaign operatives." And while those Republicans are putting a happy face on the Ryan selection, off the record, they say "Romney has taken a risk with Ryan that has only a modest chance of going right -- and a huge chance of going horribly wrong," Burns, Haberman, and Martin write.

"They're worried about inviting Medicare -- usually death for Republicans -- into the campaign," the journalists write. "They're worried it sidetracks the jobs issue. They're worried he'll expose the fact that Romney doesn't have a budget plan. Most of all, they're worried that Romney was on track to lose anyway -- and now that feels all but certain."

Maybe so. But I'm not so sure. Ryan's plan to reform Medicare is crafty, and it's cynical: He doesn't want to change Medicare for anybody who's getting it now. His change will affect people years in the future.

So seems to me that how voters in, say, Florida, react to the Ryan pitch (and to Obama's scary ads attacking Ryan) will depend on how altruistic those voters are. If they believe everybody ought to be able to receive medical coverage when they're old, they won't like the Ryan plan. On the other hand, if their sentiment is more along the lines of "I've got mine...," then Romney's not taking much of a risk at all.

We shall see.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

NEWS BLOG: The Ryan Choice

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 11:19 AM

Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan has certainly livened things up. And for a while on Saturday, I agreed with the commentators saying it's a good choice: good for the country. Their reasoning: now we can have a national debate over substance.

But after spending much of yesterday reading about Ryan and thinking about what his selection may mean, I'm not so sure. I'll have more about this in my weekly Urban Journal column, which I'll post on Tuesday night, but at the moment, I'm worried - about what the selection says about Mitt Romney and what it says about the future of the Republican Party.

During a casual discussion about Ryan in our newsroom earlier this morning, news editor Chris Fien had an interesting - and important - question: Does this mean the Romney campaign has given up on the center?

That leads to another question: If so, can Romney win?

And then another question: Is there much center left among American voters? Are there enough centrist voters that the Ryan choice will affect the outcome of the election?

We'll find out in November.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Malgieri contract under fire - and so is Vargas

Posted By on Fri, Aug 10, 2012 at 11:12 AM

Since being named Rochester schools superintendent in April, Bolgen Vargas has been extremely popular with most school board members. But the honeymoon is over. In a special meeting last night, the board went into executive session to discuss Vargas's decision to hire former deputy mayor Patricia Malgieri. And it didn't go well.

Malgieri has been a strong critic of the school district, and most board members are furious that she was chosen for a key district position. In an interview this morning, board member Van White said some board members are considering defunding the position. They will be meeting with Malgieri to discuss some of their concerns, he said.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," White said. "But I have some significant concerns about how this relationship can benefit the children in the city school district."

Even before board members went into executive session, tempers flared - about the Malgieri contract and about several other issues.

In a nearly 20-minute exchange, White and board member Mary

Adams complained angrily that Vargas had not followed through on a board directive involving professional development of teachers.

In late March, Vargas had agreed to have the staff at the Freedom School - a pilot program designed for very low-achieving students - to provide teachers district-wide with professional training this summer. Board members say the training was supposed to focus on building cultural sensitivity and engaging parents. Vargas, they say, was also supposed to restore the Freedom School program at East High, where it operated for two school years before the district shut it down a year ago.

Freedom School, White said, has been successful in getting parents to become more involved in their children's education, something that has eluded the district for years.

But Vargas didn't pursue the program with any vigor, the board members said, and now it's too late, because school opens in about three weeks. Vargas countered that his staff has been overloaded and stressed, and that the person who was going to handle their request has just started working with the district. He had expected some understanding and flexibility from the board, he said, because of the "mess" he inherited in the district.

He also said he wanted to pursue a professional development program that has "integrity." That comment seemed to infuriate both White and Adams.

White said this morning that the superintendent has developed a pattern of deflecting the board's directions on policy decisions. And his decision to hire Malgieri, White says, was not in the spirit of working as a team to solve the district's problems.

Regardless of who is right in the controversy over Malgieri, though, Vargas has put the board in an awkward position. Vargas has the right to hire whom he wants for his senior, cabinet-level positions. But White says the Malgieri contract and those of three other new administrators committed the district to unprecedented demands. For instance, Malgieri is guaranteed a job for two years unless she is guilty of outrageous behavior - committing a crime, for instance. Most cabinet-level employees work at the will of the superintendent, White says.

But if the board attempts to defund Malgieri's contract, it could open the district to potential legal action, and the public relations fall-out would be a disaster.

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Does it matter if a minority recruit comes from the city?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2012 at 1:03 PM

While most everyone has been celebrating the indisputably good news that minority participation in the Rochester Police Department is up, I remembered a fact I learned not long ago: that many, if not most, of the RPD's minority recruits traditionally come from the suburbs, not the city.

That's true of the current recruit class. Sixteen of the 28 recruits -- 57 percent -- represent minority populations. (That's the highest percentage anyone can remember, by the way. Historically, it's been below 25 percent.) But only six of those 16 live in the city.

When people talk about the tension between segments of the city population and the police department, they talk about race, yes, but also class, economics, and a lack of geographic and, more important, cultural knowledge of the city. Put race aside, and don't those other issues still apply? A Latino from Gates isn't more likely to have an intuitive understanding of the city simply because he or she is Latino, right?

I ran my argument by Mayor Tom Richards and City Council President Lovely Warren, with interesting results. Both said that finding qualified minorities in the city can be a challenge: they might not be able to pass the entrance exam, or they might have criminal records, to cite two examples.

"I've got to get people in here who can qualify for these jobs and are prepared for them," Richards said. "I suppose you could say that if I took some guy off the corner of Conkey and Clifford, he would know more about that neighborhood. But I can't get him in to be a policeman in today's environment. You have to have a whole bunch of things to qualify and, quite frankly, we need that, because we're putting a lot of faith and confidence in these people."

But Richards said that place of origin aside, it's important for city residents to see people who look like them on the police force. He also mentioned the public safety school being formed this year, which will help city students obtain careers in police, fire, and emergency communications.

Warren said that some of the minority recruits are relatively recent transplants from the city and maintain their city roots and ties.

It's against state law to require members of the police and fire departments to live in the city. Rochester was able to get around that this year by requiring RFD applicants to reside in the city in order to take the entrance exam. After applicants passed the exam and were sworn in, they could move anywhere they wanted, Richards said.

Partly as a result of that tactic, many more city residents came out to take the fire exam than in past years. But the situation with the RPD is a bit different, Richards and Warren said, because the requirements are different. And the fear and animosity some in the city have for police do keep people from joining.

There may be ways to incorporate some of what the RFD did -- the whole recruitment process was overhauled -- into the RPD, Richards said, and the city might look into that.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

NEWS BLOG: State audit mildly critical of some Rochester practices

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 2:24 PM

The state Comptroller’s Office has released an audit report on the City of Rochester containing mild criticisms over the awarding of contracts and potential conflicts of interests of City Council members.

The report says city officials did not solicit competing offers before awarding a $600,000 construction contract in the 2010 to 2011 fiscal year. The contract went to the Clark Patterson Lee engineering firm for a road project in the area of East Avenue and Broad, Chestnut, and Court streets.

In its response, the city says that competitive proposals were solicited for one phase of the project, but not another. It is common practice to stay with the same firm, the city’s response says.

We believe that this process ensures that the city obtains the best engineering services throughout the project,” because the firm already has the necessary expertise and knowledge, the response says.

And they can always find another firm if the work is unsatisfactory, the city says.

The city’s response is signed by Mayor Tom Richards and City Council President Lovely Warren.

The audit also criticizes Council members for failing to disclose their roles in various nonprofit organizations with legislation pending before Council. Several Council members are involved in nonprofit groups in Rochester: Elaine Spaull is head of the Center for Youth, and Adam McFadden leads Quad A for Kids, to cite two examples.

Council members are not required to abstain from voting on the legislation, the audit says, but they are required to disclose their interests in the contracts.

In its response, the city says that one of the instances was simply a paperwork error, and that in the future, “Council will fill out disclosure forms that will be filed with the City Clerk when an interest in legislation is noted.” The city’s law department will review the forms and decide if a Council member needs to abstain from a vote or to disclose an interest.

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NEWS BLOG: Your spree-killing survival guide

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 10:28 AM

The new millennium’s “duck and cover” is here except this time, the threat is within. The City of Houston has produced an unsettling six-minute videoon what to do if someone starts shooting in a public place. And, to my surprise, soiling yourself isn’t one of the steps. Neither is shooting back - so we know that the NRA probably didn’t contribute any money to the production. (The video was made with funding from the Department of Homeland Security.)

The video is set in a nondescript workplace, although I suppose the advice applies to any public space. It advises a three-tiered strategy: run, hide, fight. The obviousness prompted one commenter to ask, “Is the next one about what to do when the power goes off?”

But remember that nightclub fire where most everyone rushed to the same door, even though there were four possible exits? People don’t always behave rationally in emergency situations.

You should get out as quickly as you can, the video says. Try to get others to leave with you, but don’t let them slow you down, either. If you can’t get out, hide - and silence your cell phone so the noise doesn’t give you away. If you have no other choice, “fight,” the video says. “Act with aggression. Improvise weapons. Disarm him. And commit to taking the shooter down, no matter what.”

Improvise weapons”? Looking around my desk right now, I see tissue, hand lotion, and an outdated list of phone extensions. Maybe I can use my ear buds as a garrote.

The video’s production values are pretty good - better than anything Joel Schumacher has ever put out, for my money. The most startling thing is the absolute vulnerability of the victims. Everyone likes to complain about the state of the country, but no one expects a one-man armory to breach their cubicle walls. Really, how could you live that way?

The most disturbing thing to me, though, is the video’s existence: the need for such a thing implies that spree killings are here to stay; more or less a permanent part of American culture. And that makes me never want to leave the house again.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Russian trial centers on speech issues

Posted By on Tue, Aug 7, 2012 at 3:20 PM

In Russia, three women are on trial for performing a protest song in a church. The whole case is a good reminder why the First Amendment exists in the United States and why the separation of church and state should be protected.

The women are members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot and best I can tell, they’re facing a government trial for blasphemy; an article in the Guardian says that the official charge is “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred or hostility.”

In February, members of the group went up to the altar in a Russian Orthodox cathedral and performed what media are calling a “punk prayer.” They were protesting Russian President Vladmir Putin, who at the time was running for reelection (he was reelected in March). A BBC report, published today, says that the women were reacting to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s public backing of Putin’s reelection bid. The women are facing several years of jail time — the trial and arguments wrapped up today — for what was essentially political commentary.

Yesterday, The New Republic published a narrative that shows just how absurd and confusing the whole trial has become. This paragraph was particularly enlightening:

“When the judge asked the girls how they plead, Alyokhina, a small, mousy girl with a poof of dirty blonde hair, said she wouldn’t plead at all as she didn’t understand what the indictment even meant. When this devolved into a shouting match with the judge—the first of many—Alyokhina demanded, ‘Why doesn’t the court take my words into account?’ She was ordered to sit down.”

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NEWS BLOG: HBO documentary showcases gay activist Vito Russo

Posted By on Tue, Aug 7, 2012 at 10:14 AM

Vito Russo is not a household name. He’s not even well known in the gay community, though he should be. The gay activist, who died in 1990 of AIDS, was extremely influential in getting mainstream media to change its approach to covering LGBT issues.

Vito,” a new documentary for HBO, aired for the first time late last month. HBO is still showing it, and it’s definitely worth watching.

Perhaps best known for his 1981 book, “The Celluloid Closet,” Russo spent five years researching movies from the silent era to the contemporary, and what he uncovered was revelatory.

Russo found that gay characters were seen in movies as far back as silent films, and they were presented in generally positive terms. But in the 1930’s, as the government began enforcing a strict code of what Hollywood filmmakers could show, the subject of homosexuality was severely censored. And gay characters began a slow metamorphosis into comical sissies, misfits, and psychopaths. Film, being the powerful medium that it was for decades, left many Americans with the impression that gays were to be feared or pitied.

Even more troubling, Russo’s work revealed how many in the LGBT community had learned to view themselves with the same biases.

But Russo’s work didn’t stop with the publication of “The Celluloid Closet.” After the death of his boyfriend from AIDS, Russo co-founded ACT Up in response to the federal government’s slow reaction to the disease.

ACT Up approached protests differently than the sponsors of the peaceful marches and rallies of the past. Activists began targeting specific individuals and companies with their protests, bringing them unwanted media exposure.

ACT Up was credited with getting drug companies to lower their prices for the few drugs available to treat AIDS at the time. And it spurred the federal government to intensify research and hasten FDA approval of some drugs.

Russo was only in his mid-40’s when he died, but in a relatively short time he destroyed long-held beliefs about gay people. And he changed the LGBT community forever.

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