There was reason to believe that there might be an update about the senior center at last night's Common Council Youth & Aging Committee meeting, but no update was offered. Instead, after hurrying interim youth director George Bednar through his report, covering several months, committee chair Wanda Pertilla (Second Ward) recognized Quintin Cross, who had packed the room with members of the Staley B. Keith Social Justice Center leadership team, including retiring HPD police chief Ellis Richardson (out of uniform), and other supporters, including TSL co-director Linda Mussmann.
Cross and company were there to protest the lack of programming at the Youth Center. The Youth Department has seen significant budget cuts in the past few years, but according to Cross, "It's not about money. It's about vision." He spoke of the "Youth Department Assessment Report" completed by Rose Longo in October 2011, saying that the report, which cost the City $5,000, was the "game plan," but there had been no implementation. Cross called the Youth Center a "dismal failure," and asked of Bednar, who had earlier reported the participation of only 4 or 8 kids in some programs, and Pertilla, who told of going to the Youth Center during its evening hours to find staff there but nobody else, "Why aren't people there if your programs are working?"
Other audience members, most of whom cited some affiliation with the Staley B. Keith Social Justice Center, took up themes introduced by Cross. A man who revealed that he had just left prison claimed that there are many people from Columbia County in state prisons. "They had no help," he said. "That's why they ended up in prison." He more than once called the situation "a travesty," implying that the Youth Center was failing in its mission, and said "elected officials should be blamed." From other members of the audience there were complaints that all programs were "recreational" or athletic, there were no programs for girls, the center offered nothing for children with disabilities, the center's recruitment and outreach efforts were inadequate and ineffective, the department's website was never updated, no mentoring programs or homework help were offered. (Related to the topic of academic support, it was pointed out that there were 240 kids on the awaiting list for after-school programs at the Hudson City School District.) When Bednar indicated that the Youth Center now had three working computers, life coach Nicole Vidor expressed amazement, calling it a "1957 Youth Center."
Although most of the criticism was general discontent with the programming for kids provided by the City, some of it was directed specifically at Youth & Aging Committee chair Wanda Pertilla and youth commissioner Gerald Wood. Vernon Cross, identified on the Staley B. Keith Social Justice Center website as a founder of the organization, took Pertilla to task. "What part of the Second Ward do you represent?" he demanded to know. "How did you allow this to happen?"
Pertilla, who is in her third term as alderman, defended her record, saying she worked hard for the Second Ward. "I come, I fight, I advocate," said Pertilla, going on to tell how she speaks to the mayor for her people. She clarified that it was the mayor not she who had control over the staff and operations of the Youth Center and that her responsibility as chair of the Youth & Aging Committee was fiscal oversight, making sure that money was spent wisely. Cross, however, persisted, demanding to know: "What are you doing for the Second Ward when it comes to the Youth Center?" A few speakers made reference to six years in their comments, as did some signs in the room, but it was not entirely clear if the reference was to Pertilla's tenure in office.
Youth commissioner Gerald Wood also came under fire. Pertilla called him "ineffective," noting that "he should be here tonight." Later Linda Mussmann called for his dismissal, alluding to the fact that in the 2013 budget, commissioners are receiving an annual $1,000 stipend.
As the committee meeting, meant to last only 45 minutes, extended to twice that time, audience members began to express dissatisfaction that committee members--Pertilla in particular--seemed more defensive than responsive. Milandou Badila (a.k.a. Young Paris) observed, "People are coming here because something is wrong, and it doesn't appear that you are getting it." Later, when Badila asked each committee member to say what he or she was going to do, Pertilla demurred, saying she needed to "go home and digest."
Quintin Cross's closing point was both revealing and portentous. "Every person of color in this room voted for that mayor," he declared, referring to Mayor Bill Hallenbeck, "so we can demand that he act."
Just before the meeting was adjourned, Supervisor Ellen Thurston (Third Ward) wanted to know "what is the next step forward" and, after commenting that the Youth Department had "lost touch with the community," recommended appointing an advisory committee to provide regular input. No next step, however, was defined or agreed upon.