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Metro Ink 9.21.05 

It's the inside that counts

"Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter." Man, they just don't name tomatoes like that any more. They don't grow them very often either, and there's a good reason for that, I suppose. Tomatoes like Radiator Charlie's, known as heirlooms, have short shelf-lives, thin skins which bruise and split easily, and they tend to be downright (I'm trying to be kind here)... well, ugly.

            In a world where most people know their tomatoes as "Three Dollars a Pound" and are way more concerned with how they look than how they taste, tomatoes like Radiator Charlie's don't stand a chance. That's a shame. Because heirlooms may be ugly, but damn, they're tasty. Finding heirloom tomatoes may be as difficult as growing them, but Brian Beh of Raindance Harvest is doing his best to change that.

            "Most heirloom tomato seeds are from the late 1800s or early 1900s," Beh says. "Heirlooms are varieties that are cherished by a family or an ethnic group." Currently, he grows 20 varieties on his 100-acre farm in Webster. "The tomatoes range from low acidity to high, sweet to pungent to bitter; some have an earthy taste. It's like wine, really." Tell him what you're cooking and he'll suggest the best tomato for it.

            Beh's use of heirlooms also preserves genetic diversity. "We've lost 90 percent of our tomato and corn varieties," he says. That loss and the rise of monocultures leave crops more susceptible to disease and pests.

            Admittedly, Beh has "a passion for growing food." He also has a passion for telling the stories behind his food. Take Radiator Charlie's, for instance. Charlie was a mechanic in Virginia, probably in the early 1900s. He grew a tomato that was so popular, the sales helped pay off his mortgage. Now that's a bit of American folklore you just don't get with tomatoes known as "Three Dollars A Pound."

            Raindance Harvest is at the Rochester Public Market on Thursdays, the Fairport Market on Saturdays, and has a stand on Ridge Road in Union Hill. 509-2767

--- Joseph Sorrentino

A nagging credibility factor

A cloud continues to hang over the Rochester school district's financial management. A favorable audit in March by the state comptroller's office and last month's report by the Blue Ribbon Task Force were encouraging. But more doubts have surfaced.

            Last week, Superintendent Manuel Rivera accepted the resignation of Henry Marini, his CEO of business services.

            Marini came on board in 2001 after 11 years as a financial executive with Bausch & Lomb. He was given the task of overhauling the district's financial management, and by many accounts, he made substantial improvements. But in May, the offices of both the state attorney general and state comptroller initiated a new investigation. That has fueled more controversy, something Rivera can surely do without.

            In an interview after Marini's resignation, Rivera said the district has been aggressively improving its financial practices. "That's what the board told me to do, and that's what I told Henry to do -- and he did," said Rivera. "But he's a hard-driving guy, and his style clearly rankled the status quo."

            Rivera said he doesn't know what direction the investigation will take, but indications point to the district's practices for awarding and paying contracts for independent services.

            "We knew they [state auditors] were interested in contracts because of the type of forms and information they were requesting," says Rivera. "Once this happened, the rumor mill kicked in. And in this political season, we had some candidates who took this on as part of their campaign. A lot has been said that is completely unfounded."

            Allegations by a former city teacher linked Marini to a businesswoman who received more than $700,000 in district contracts. Questions about the legitimacy of the consultant's company began to circulate, as did claims that Marini broke up large contracts to amounts just under $25,000. Until a recent policy change, contracts of that size did not require Rivera's signature.

            A member of the Blue Ribbon Panel who reviewed the district's finances for the study says he has the highest regard for Rivera and that he has done an outstanding job in a short time. But, he says, the district is not out of the woods.

            "I wouldn't exactly give it [the district] a clean bill of health," says Paul Haney, a CPA and former City Council member. "But it is obvious that significant progress has been made. That said, the district has to be run as a first-class organization. It can't be excused just because it's an educational institution."

            Haney sites several areas he says still need improvement. For example: "When we started our review, the internal audit unit reported to Henry [Marini]. That violates every tenet of good financial control. How do you audit your boss?"

            "The situation has evolved from very poor to good," says Haney. "But it is a continuum. They are not there yet."

            Late last week, Marini released a statement refuting allegations that a large contract was awarded as a favor to a former classmate and co-worker. "The consultant and her company were hired after my colleagues and I interviewed several consultants," he said. "In no way did I profit financially from this contract," he said.

            But the very accusation of possible misconduct by a government financial official can have a serious negative impact. Rivera, clearly frustrated by the repeated investigations, said he has invested an enormous amount of time trying to repair the public's confidence in the district. The time devoted to nearly two years of ongoing financial scrutiny has taken time away from improving student achievement, he said.

            Rivera has just restructured his administration, which will result in more people reporting to him. The new investigations also make it hard for Rivera to capitalize on the support he has earned from the community --- support he needs in order to implement his ambitious agenda. And they make it hard for him to justify the need for more funds, even if the money is warranted.

Fighting the war

The anti-war "Bring Them Home Now Tour" spent a couple of hours in Rochester on September 13, stopping by Downtown United Presbyterian Church for a rally. The event --- which featured parents and spouses talking about loved ones who have been killed in Iraq or have come home severely wounded --- drew more than 200 Rochester-area residents. Next up for anti-war activists: the National End the Iraq War Demonstration in Washington, DC, on September 24. Locally, Metro Justice is chartering buses to take protestors to the event. Three buses have already been filled, but Metro Justice has created a waiting list for a possible fourth bus. To get on that list, call 325-2560.

Speaking of Heirloom Vegetables, Rochester School District

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