Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Last Night at City Hall

Tuesday night's Common Council meeting lasted for an hour and a half.  A few things worthy of notice transpired. For one, the Council passed unanimously the new dog law, upping the fines for people caught failing to pick up after their pets. For another, the Council passed a law banning smoking in all public parks. The vote on that law, however. was neither unanimous nor without contention.

John Friedman (Third Ward) opened the discussion that preceded the vote by saying that all of the parks in Hudson are small, with the exception of riverfront park, and then told the story of how he left the beer tent during the Hudson Pride Rally to have a cigarette and found himself surrounded by children, so he walked outside the park before lighting up. Voting against adopting this law, he told his colleagues, is "voting against requiring adults to walk to the edge of the park to smoke." For kids, he said, "playing in streets is not an option." He went on to allege that not banning smoking from the parks "forecloses children from using the parks."

Wanda Pertilla (Second Ward) and Abdus Miah (Second Ward) agreed that it was important to pass the law for the sake of children, but Chris Wagoner (Third Ward) expressed the opinion that it wasn't the City's duty to get people to stop smoking. David Marston (First Ward) called the law an attempt to "legislate personal responsibility," telling Friedman that it was not "the City's job to use law enforcement to get people to make the decision you made," alluding to Friedman's story about how he left riverfront park rather than smoke in the presence of children. Council President Don Moore made the point that "protecting public health, safety, and welfare is our responsibility," but Wagoner predicted that, as with Prohibition, "honest, law-abiding citizens will end up having to break the law" if smoking is banned from city parks.

When the vote was taken, the law passed with 1,100 aye votes (1,011 are required). Wagoner, Marston, Nick Haddad (First Ward), and Cappy Pierro (Fifth Ward) voted against banning smoking in city parks; Moore, Pertilla, Miah, Friedman, and Bob Donahue (Fifth Ward) voted for the ban. Both Fourth Ward aldermen, Sheila Ramsey and Ohrine Stewart, were absent from the meeting.

Next to be considered was Mayor William Hallenbeck's request that the mayor's office act as the sole records access officer responding to FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests. Friedman again opened the discussion, telling his colleagues that he did not support the proposal because "putting [access to public records] in the hands of a single political figure creates the opportunity for trouble." Responding to the claim that having a single records access officer is more efficient, Friedman declared "I'd take a little chaos over a lot of nondisclosure." The majority of his colleagues agreed with him and voted to send the law back to committee. Only Donahue and Pierro voted to put the new law on the aldermen's desks.

Just before calling for a motion to adjourn, Moore brought up the topic of the Galvan Initiatives Foundation's Civic Hudson Project proposed for the corner of Fourth and Columbia streets. It will be recalled that in March the Common Council passed a resolution of support for the project, but that was back when the building was hailed as an innovative way to get a much needed new building for the police department and the city court. Since then, the funding source has made it clear it will not fund the project in the face of the police union's opposition, and Galvan has moved ahead with a plan that no longer includes the City as a partner. "What we originally supported," said Moore, "is no longer the case," and he proposed that the Common Council formally and publicly withdraw its support from the project.

Several people on the Council and in the audience seemed to find it difficult to focus on the question Moore was posing: Do we still want to be on the record as supporting this project when the nature of the project has changed significantly and the major benefit to the City has been eliminated? The conversation moved from the specific question to a broader discussion of homelessness in Columbia County, causing Wagoner to storm out of the meeting in frustration as Supervisor Bill Hughes (Fourth Ward) talked on about homeless students in the Hudson City School District, apparently failing to recognize that the Civic Hudson Project--indeed everything the Galvan Initiatives Foundation has proposed thus far--is intended for chronically homeless single adults, predominantly males, and will do nothing to ameliorate the problem of homeless families with children.

Some important information and interesting observations did, however, emerge from the discussion. 
  • Pierro alleged that the statistics showing a decrease in the number of homeless adults in Columbia County are "misleading" because "Phil Gellert is servicing DSS." According to Pierro, the Department of Social Services, instead of housing homeless adults in motels at a cost of $64 a day, is giving them $500 a month for rent and expecting them to double up in apartments in buildings owned by Gellert, for which he then collects $1,000 a month. 
  • Moore shared the information that Lantern (i.e., Eric Galloway) "will not build such housing [i.e., homeless housing] outside of Hudson." 
  • Friedman pointed out that, according to the CARES report, the ideal number of units of permanent supportive housing for Columbia County is 25. The Civic Hudson Project involves 35 units, because, Moore explained, 35 is the number of units necessary to get funding.
  • Hughes revealed that neither the Galvan Initiatives Foundation nor the Lantern Organization has any experience operating a homeless shelter.
Haddad made an important point that seemed to fall on his colleagues' deaf ears. The developer behind this plan to create 34 units of "permanent supportive housing" (the 35th unit is a one-bedroom apartment for the building superintendent) has, through his acquisition, eviction of tenants, and warehousing of buildings, made more people homeless than the homeless housing he is proposing can accommodate.

In the end, Moore proposed that a draft resolution withdrawing support from the Civic Hudson Project would be brought to the August informal meeting.

Another Perspective: Tom Casey reports on the discussion of the Civic Hudson Project in today's Register-Star: "Wagoner removed from council meeting." Although the article takes as its focus Chris Wagoner's angry exit from the meeting, there is an interesting quote from Rick Scalera, perennial mayor of Hudson turned county supervisor and special adviser to the Galvan Foundation, implying that both Galvan attorney Mark Greenberg and Common Council President Don Moore are out of the loop when it comes to discussions about this project and intimating that he himself, whose involvement with the project is considered by many to be a conflict of interest, is in the know.


  1. We can trace contentiousness at meetings to Hudson's founders. The following is from "Sketches of Hudson," by S.B. Miller (1862):

    "At the last meeting of the proprietors there was much debate as to the proper disposition of the proprietor's minutes, accounts and other papers. Mr. [Cotton] Gelston was violently opposed to their passing into the possession of the Common Council, and in a moment of excitement made an effort to destroy them by burning. He succeeded in part, but the minutes were taken from him by Gilbert Jenkins, then a young man, after the struggle" (p. 17).

    Not to cheat a proprietor of the whole story (there's been a lot of that in Hudson lately), as their "chief scribe" Cotton Gelston had written all of the minutes and most of the proprietor's other papers too. Gelston, a man of great energy and something of a maverick, was also Hudson's first treasurer, our first postmaster, opened the first store, launched the first ship, was the first surveyor, drew the first deeds, and first plotted the city.

  2. First of all, regarding Freedom of Information Law, Hudson is required to have a central records access officer. As I've verified with Bob Freeman at the State committee which handles these matters, that is not an obligation that Hudson can skirt even if it wants to.

    Moreover, as a practical matter, Hudson already funnels all FOIL requests through a single, highly-politicized figure: The City Attorney.

    Right now, you have to separately FOIL every possible department that you guess might have relevant records, or badger the City Clerk to act as the unofficial coordinator of your request (which is not fair to Tracy Delaney). If you guess the wrong agency or department, or have no way of knowing where a record might be squirreled away, you're out of luck.

    The proposed change would use the power of the Mayor's office to coordinate requests through an office that has a bully pulpit for compelling the City's diverse agencies to comply with FOIL.

    The improvement that the proposed FOIL change would be wholly on the citizens' side, reducing the number of agencies and departments that have to be approached.

    In the end, all of those are going to ultimately bring the requests to the City Attorney, because Hudson has adopted an attitude of lawyering up on information requests, rather than one of openness.

    The “chaos" that Alderman Friedman prefers thus redounds entirely to the benefit of those in power who might want to hide information. Better to get a denial straight up, and be able to proceed expeditiously to an appeal and if necessary court action, than to have to file multiple requests and play guessing games.

    Lastly, lawws should be made based on what is right, not how one fears that the current occupants of a given office might mishandle them. The solution to that is to elect better leader, not to adopt bad policies—like the one now in place, which was put in place by an autocrat who wanted to foil the FOILers.