Tuesday, July 31, 2007

When Pigs And Politicos Fly

Taxpayers Reach Even Deeper Into Near-Empty Pockets As Politicians Board Choppers To Attend Fundraisers Around The State, While Continuing To Dole Out Pork Back Home

As the State debt mounts, reaching unheralded highs, our confidence in government -- not to mention the balance in our bank accounts -- reaches new lows.

They travel by plane, helicopter, and "official" State-paid vehicles, to private functions, while we, the lowly taxpayers, pick up the tab.

Much like what happens behind the scenes at the all too many Public Authorities, what happens in and out of Albany when elected officials travel goes largely unnoticed by the public.

Sure, when there's a scandal afoot, we cock our heads and bend an ear. The furor quickly fades, however, and its back to business unusual, as the taxpayers' pockets are picked to pay for the elected officials equivalent of a free bus pass. Metrocards for everyone!

How much does it cost per hour, per day, per month, per year, to ferry elected officials from Albany to Manhattan, or elsewhere across the Empire State? Who is traveling, and for what purpose?

Clearly, greater scrutiny over the use of state transport by government officials is both warranted and essential. The cost, to all of us, in ignoring this problem is much too high.

In the meantime, whether you are a Senator or a Governor, instead of boarding that helicopter or summoning the State Police to take you hither or thither, consider an alternate means of transportation. Walking. Its great for the heart. There's no better way to see New York. And giving us at least that much relief in our wallets (since we cant seem to catch a break elsewhere), would save John Q. Public a pretty penny, and may even help reduce New York's astronomical debt.

Yeah, right. When pigs fly!
- - -
From The New York Times:

Officials Fly, and Voters Are Taken for a Ride


In 1994, George E. Pataki got very mad — or at least pretended to — about Mario M. Cuomo and his family using state aircraft to fly all over New York. Mr. Pataki wanted Mr. Cuomo’s job, which was governor.

Such flights, Mr. Pataki said, were an “incredibly stupid use of taxpayers’ money, like flea collars for the governor’s dog and some larger elements, like Air Cuomo, the plane and helicopters to ferry people around the state, not on government business.”

If elected, he, George Pataki, would get rid of the fleet.

That did not happen. Of course, he won the election — experts disagreed whether Mr. Cuomo went down in defeat over the flea collars, the taxpayer-financed “wee-wee pad” for his dog or his stand against the death penalty — but in victory, Mr. Pataki resisted the temptation to get rid of the aircraft that he had called a symbol of Mr. Cuomo’s “outrageous, free-spending liberal philosophy.”

It is not hard to imagine what happened next.

Not long after the election, Mr. Pataki himself was the subject of news stories about how the Pataki clan had replaced the Cuomos on board the state aircraft. With that, the executive helicopters and planes pretty much fell out of the news for the duration of the Pataki administration. (And in far less important news, the state managed to increase its debt from $28 billion to $51 billion under Mr. Pataki, much of it by simply borrowing new money to pay off old debts.)

Then Eliot Spitzer replaced Mr. Pataki and promptly rescued the helicopters from obscurity. He permitted his enemy, Joseph L. Bruno, the leader of the Republicans in the State Senate, to ride whenever he wanted. As soon as Mr. Bruno used helicopters to go to political fund-raisers, Mr. Spitzer’s people ran to the newspapers and told on him.

This treachery has shocked even the case-hardened souls of Albany politicians who have overseen decades of pillage without batting an eye. Mr. Spitzer’s critics say his career is hanging by a thread. Once a professional Good Government Type, he now will have to rebrand himself to survive, though he surely can take heart from the recovery of Rudolph W. Giuliani, another politician who got his start by scolding people about their lack of ethics.

To recap, for those who have fallen into a stupor and can’t understand what was done wrong: the Spitzer people snitched on Mr. Bruno, instead of allowing him to fly in secrecy from Albany to Manhattan hotel suites so he could collect campaign money.

State troopers drive Mr. Bruno to the helicopters and fly him to the fund-raisers. He puts in a few minutes of legislative business at these events, he raises money, and then heads back home on the helicopter. The State Police have two Bell 430 helicopters that are used for “executive transport.”

When Mario Cuomo was governor, the state estimated that an hour in a helicopter cost about $2,000. The state no longer tracks those costs. Remarkably, neither did the attorney general, who this week somehow managed to issue a 10,000-word report on the “alleged misuse of New York State aircraft and the resources of the state police” without mentioning how much it cost the police — and the public — to fly politicians on a state aircraft.

The attorney general happens to be Andrew M. Cuomo, son of the former governor, and himself an occasional passenger on what was known in its day as Air Cuomo.

For commercial helicopter use, the base cost is $1,250 an hour, according to David Wyndham of Conklin & de Decker, a firm that consults on aviation costs. That cost easily rises to $1,600 an hour when insurance and pilot salaries and benefits are included.

The true costs of these trips, though, are not just airfare. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to pay off old debts by borrowing $14 billion. This borrowing brought little in the way of new facilities for the public, but generated about $85 million in fees for underwriters and lawyers. They, in turn, gave $4 million in political contributions and lobbying fees. Today, that $14 billion is part of a debt crisis at the authority that could drive up bus and subway fares.

When politicians get a ride to a fund-raiser, the public can be paying for years.

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Friday, July 27, 2007

The "Bully" Pulpit

A Report From The Special District Public Hearings

Well, at least some attempt was made to keep the public in public hearings.

Show up. Sign in. Be seated. Just don't say too much when you step up to the mike!

Laura Mally, no stranger to the scene as a community activist [check out our postings], got up to say a few words. Stan Lundine, of the State Commission, tried -- in the interest of expediency -- to shut her down.

Oh, you'll never quiet the likes of Laura Mallay, Stan. NEVER!

How effective this Commission on Local Government Efficiency will be in the end remains to be seen. Two things, however, are perfectly clear: It was public outrage, demonstarted through outspoken citizens such as Laura Mallay, that got things started as concerns the efficiency and effectiveness of the special taxing districts the Commission now seeks to examine and reel in. And it will take public support, and the continued vocalization of our grievances, to change a system of local government that has badly failed all but those who are beholden to the fiefdoms the Commission now hopes to shed a cleansing light on.

You go, Laura Mallay. Let's keep the public upfront and talking in this great debate.

And note to Stan Lundine: You may serve at the pleasure of the Governor as a member of the Commission. That Governor, be reminded, serves at the pleasure of US!
- - -
District battles form special bond
Joye Brown

Stan Lundine, the former lieutenant governor of New York, basically told Laura Mallay of (South) Hempstead to shut up yesterday.

He wasn't mean, he wasn't tough. And his laudable goal, as chairman of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness - whew! - was to keep the line of witnesses moving so an unexpectedly large number of Long Islanders could testify at its meeting at Hofstra University.

Line 'em up, knock 'em down. But make time to praise any elected official who happens to saunter into the audience. That's what commissions, or any political entity, for that matter, tend to do at gatherings such as these.

But let's jump back to Mallay.

No, let's jump back even further, to a year ago, when Hofstra's Suburban Studies Institute called Long Island's first-ever summit on Nassau County's special taxing districts.

Laura Mallay was in the audience for that summit.

So was Terry Tietjen of Hicksville.

Gina Previte, all the way from Medford, was there too.

At that time, none knew the others.

Mallay rose to challenge the way things worked in her special sanitation district, which charges more for services than town-run ones. Previte testified about the outrageous cost of operating the Gordon Heights Fire District, which covers a little over a mile and, it could be argued, shouldn't even exist.

Tietjen didn't testify. But she listened, and listened hard. For years, she had been fighting for the administration of Hicksville's Fire Station 2 to change its expensive, clubhouse ways.

"I was so happy to find out that I wasn't the only one fighting," she told me yesterday.

Fast forward to this year's meeting of the state commission at Hofstra.

Mallay, Tietjen and Previte now support each other and share strategies. And they are no longer alone.

In the hallway yesterday, Previte and Tietjen talked, with passion, to Long Island fire officials who attended.

Mallay, for her part, is more than comfortable taking on sanitation district commissioners.

Thanks to them, things are changing. Really changing.

Mallay ran - and lost, by 1,282 votes to 633 - a race to become a sanitation commissioner in (South) Hempstead.

But she didn't give up. She's a trustee of a new group, Residents for Efficient Special Districts.Tietjen rose yesterday to read a list of hard-won achievements, from tripling voter turnout for fire commissioner elections to bringing enough community pressure to bear to reduce the district's budgets two years in a row.

As for Previte, she and the other residents of the Gordon Heights Fire District are still waiting for relief. One neighbor told me she had been fighting to abolish the district for 20 years.

On Tuesday, before the hearing began, I asked a commission staffer what they had heard from Long Islanders.

"We've heard the most from Gordon Heights," she said.

And, so now, the commission has heard from Long Island, New York State's epicenter of special districts, duplicative services and sky-high taxes.

But there's something the commission, local elected officials, and even Gov. Eliot Spitzer need to recognize.They're not leading the effort.

They are following Mallay, Tietjen, Previte and others who have spent their own money, put in long hours, and even, in some instances, endured bullying from the entities they are trying to change.They've made it safe for politicians to talk about the high cost of schools, of police and teacher salaries, of Cadillac benefits paid for by a public who can't even dream of getting the same thing in their private-sector jobs.

"There will be no bullying," commission member Sam Hoyt, an assemblyman from Buffalo, told Tietjen, apologizing for the abuse she said she has suffered in her reform effort.

Hoyt said the commission wouldn't be bullied, either.

Let's see what time brings.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

Scandal In Albany Warrants Full Investigation. . .

. . .Just Not By The State Senate

Clearly, there should be an independent investigation into what has come to be known as "Choppergate."

The key word here being "independent."

To have the State Senate, controlled by Joe Bruno -- whether the victim or the exposed here -- would be akin to having the fox investigate a raid on the chicken coop by the hawk.

No good can come of a cover-up of this botched attempt to discredit Bruno, a foiled quest that, it would appear, needed no assistance from the Governor's office, Bruno's days numbered, one way or the other.

To have the Senate investigate, however, serves neither the ends of justice nor the good of the people of the State of New York.

Sitting as a Kangaroo Court, the Senate GOP will be quick to condemn the Governor, right or wrong. The good old boys will tell us -- via craftily staged press conference designed for maximum impact -- exactly what Spitzer knew and when he knew it.

Anything to save face for a faltering Bruno, a man with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and to thwart the possible loss of the State Senate to the Dems in 2008.

Meanwhile, the people's work will come to a halt -- or at least continue at the snail's pace our State Legislature has become infamous for -- leaving the taxpaying public where it has been relegated for years -- nowhere.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo started the ball rolling. Now, by appointment of an independent commission or counsel, he should continue to shed light on this most serious infraction.

And the Governor, anxious to put this scandal behind his administration, should welcome the opportunity to clear the air, and cleanse the repugnant atmosphere that has putrified government in Albany -- a government marred not only by scandal, but by the marked inability to get very much of anything done -- for far too long.

Open government, responsive and responsible, transparent and true to those it is designed to serve and protect, requires no less.
- - -
From Newsday:

Spitzer-police issue won't vanish without probe

This isn't going away. Gov. Eliot Spitzer can deny that he knew anything about the manner in which his senior aides were using the State Police to embarrass Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. But without an independent investigation that includes a review of his role in the matter, as well as that of his top aide, Richard Baum, this is going to fester and affect everything that he wants to do.

We say this in sorrow, not in anger. Spitzer appeared to be a bright, shining light in Albany's perpetual darkness. He has great ideas, unlimited energy and a desire to reform. But the charge here is a most serious one. Abusing the power of his office, especially with the State Police, is not a trivial matter.

And there are too many questions that have not been answered. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation opened the issue, it didn't close it. The refusal of Spitzer's top aides, including Baum, to testify in Cuomo's investigation is troubling. And so is the governor's rush to have the matter closed, and his staff's taking refuge in claims of executive privilege. Now the state Ethics Commission, which has subpoena power, will investigate. If the right people are involved, that may be enough. If not, the governor - if he has nothing to hide, as he insists - should invite Cuomo to appoint a special counsel. Or Spitzer can himself appoint a commission headed by officials known for their independence.

Yes, Spitzer is right, the people's work must be done. The State Police caper must not be allowed to derail agreements on campaign finance reform (as minimal as it is), capital improvements or a slew of other business that still needs to be done in Albany. But the reality is this: It's not enough for the governor to clear himself. And until someone else does, it's going to be a huge drag on his commendable agenda.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Suozzi Calls For "Consolidation" Of Special District Elections

Yawn. . . .

It won't happen today. It won't happen tomorrow.

Such is the sentiment of Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who has called upon the State Legislature -- that bastion of expedience and oversight -- to adopt measures that would require New York's so-called "special districts" to hold elections on one, perhaps two, days.

Currently, special districts -- which include water districts, fire districts, and sanitary districts, each with "locally" elected commissioners -- hold elections on different days throughout the year. Water and fire districts typically hold their elections in December. Sanutary districts hold elections at varying times throughout the year.

While we agree with Tom Suozzi that the entire process of special district elections is absurd, his call to action most warranted, we have to shrug our shoulders here and say, "so what?"

Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESD) have been calling for elections on a single day since the inception of that organization, and we at The Community Alliance have done likewise, this even before RESD was a glimmer in Laura Mallay's eyes.

So far, pleas from watchdog and good government groups have, for the most part -- the machinations of commissions and blue ribbon panels aside -- fallen upon deaf ears in Albany, and, locally, town and special district officials appear content to turn a blind eye tooward public sentiment that cries out for consolidation (at the very least) of special district functions.

So, the next time Mssrs. Bruno and Silver dain to meet, perhaps someone would be so bold as to whisper in their ears -- the time for action on these special taxing jurisdictions is at hand.

Might we suggest that all special district elections be held on that same Super Tuesday in May when School Districts and Library Districts throughout the State hold their votes.

There's safety in numbers, after all -- and voters, as well, who should have their say over something that is said to exude local control, are more likely to come out on that Tuesday in May rather than that Tuesday in September, or that Friday in July.
- - -
Suozzi pushes for fewer election days
By Reid J. Epstein

Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi on Monday sent letters to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the county's Albany delegation asking for a law consolidating special district elections into one or two dates.

Suozzi made the announcement at a Mineola press conference during which he released a report describing what he called the "crazy quilt" of special district elections in the county. According to Suozzi, there is an election every 10.9 business days in Nassau.

"We have a crazy system here," he said. "It doesn't make any sense at all.

"The report's release comes on the eve of state-commissioned hearings on special districts Tuesday and Wednesday at Hofstra University. Suozzi, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and other experts are scheduled to speak Tuesday.

Suozzi said he will ask the commission for an unspecified amount of money to help consolidate local governments.The report examined election dates for 71 Nassau districts that have the power to levy taxes, though eight of the districts either could not be reached, declined to tell Suozzi's office the date of their elections or had yet to schedule an election.

Five water districts and one sanitary district refused to release information about their election days or budgets unless Suozzi's office filed a freedom of information request, according to the report.

Independent fire districts were not included in the report because by state law they hold elections on a common date, the second Tuesday in December.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.
- - -
The New York State Commission of Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness (we know, we know. A glaring misnomer) is holding public hearings on Long Island as we blog.

On Tuesday, July 24 (1:00 PM to 5:00 PM) and on Wednesday, July 25 (9:00 AM to 3:00 PM) hearings will be held at the Monroe Lecture Center Theater at Hofstra University.

On Tuesday, there will be presentations from Nassau and Suffolk County Executives as well as a panel on school issues. On Wednesday, there will be a panel on the many layers of local government on Long Island - counties, towns, villages, school districts, fire and other special districts - as well as a Commission meeting.

There will be some time on both days for brief testimony and responses from the audience, but time constraints may not permit an opportunity for all to testify. However all persons will have the opportunity to submit written testimony. Written testimony should be submitted by e-mail to localgov@empire.state.ny.us.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Missed "Benchmarks" Closer To Home

Legislative Dysfunction Not Limited To Iraq

Much has been made in the media about the failure of the Iraqi government to meet the so-called benchmarks set by the Bush Administration -- those post-surge signs from Bagdhad that signal a readiness on the part of the Iraqis to hold their own.

Seems that the Iraqi legislature, prior to its adjournment for the balance of the summer (its simply too hot to work in August, after all), has only met 8 of the 18 benchmarks to date, and Americans are grumbling.

8 of 18? And that's a bad record?

Can you name 8 things that our legislatures here at home -- from Washington to Albany, Mineola to Hempstead -- have accomplished? Can you name 3? Collectively?

Would that the folks in Washington tackle but one of the substantive issues that confound us. Pick one. Any one.

Social Security. The Medicare Drug plan. The Alternate Minimum Tax. Energy crisis. Global warming. Health care. Campaign finance reform. All those children still left behind.

The list is never-ending.

Albany's not much better, thanks for asking.

Forget congestion pricing. Those three men in that room (or are we down to two now?), couldn't even agree on a bigger, better bottle bill.

In Mineola, kudos on the Social Host Law, but beyond that, they couldn't even give the County a Poet Laureate.

And as for what passes for local government (which, more often than not, fails us all), the grass and weeds are still neck-high, the litter as prolific, and the brownfields getting browner, this despite the pretty facade painted by legislation that goes unenforced, photo-filled newsletters (Kayaking with Kate was our favorite), and the Around the Town hype that bellows beautiful, but, in reality, signifies little in the way of actual accomplishment.

The big ticket items -- or, for that matter, the small ones -- go untouched. We call for action, year, after year, after year. Our local legislators nod in agreement, reacting, if at all, with Band-Aid relief over wounds that call for major reconstructive surgery.

Illegal rental apartments; more than ever. Affordable housing; less than ever. Special taxing districts; more taxes, less accountability. The cost of operating 124 seperate school districts on one island; more, more, more. The flipant reaction from Town Hall; priceless!

8 out of 18, eh? Not all that bad, when you come to think of it. Another two or three of those benchmarks under our belt, and, no doubt, we can proudly proclaim MISSION ACCOMPLISHED yet again.

Meanwhile, here at home, the beat -- if not the beatings upon the taxpayer -- goes on. Few things change, even fewer for the better. And legislators, from Washington to Hempstead, gloat over their record of "accomplishments," most of which optimistic expression bears strikingly similar tones to (and about as much credence as) Dick Cheney's remark, "We're winning the war in Iraq."

Clearing the streets of insurgents in Bagdhad? Piece of cake. Just give us some more time. Cleaning the streets in, say, Hempstead Town? Well, that may take just a little bit longer.

The apparent solution to the ills that put blemish upon blemish to our suburban quality of life -- build a municipal parking field, and throw another Victorian-style streetlamp into the lot.

Who was it who said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time?" Oh yeah. The guys who head up the communications offices at the Capitol buildings and County Seat, and the gnomes who keep the printing presses rolling 24/7 in the bowels of Town Hall.

Monday, July 16, 2007

If They Can "Fight The Blight" In Medellin. . .

. . .Why Not In Hempstead Town?

Perhaps its a matter of design, or a lack of desire. Competence -- or the lack thereof -- versus the continuum of mediocrity that keeps a one-party government in power for more than a century. A lapse in vision? A paucity in gumption?

Whatever it is that eludes the local honchos in America's largest township has not escaped the mayor of Medellin, Columbia.

Yes, Medellin -- known more for its culture of drug cartels amidst political strife and ever-present poverty than for the revitalization of brownfields and a committment to "smart growth."
Reinventing the urban landscape -- an idea that has apparently bypassed the once gloated over suburbia we call Long Island -- has slipped past Town Hall, and trickled down to the mean streets of Medellin.

Maybe Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, whose apoplectic vision befits the cataracts of a bygone era of monopolitics, can learn a thing or two from Medellin's mayor, Sergio Fajardo.

Then again, in Hempstead Town, the lessons of Mondello, rather than Medellin, are engraved in the agenda books. Pablo Escobar, if he was alive today, would probably be appointed to the Town's Zoning Board.

In the streets of Medellin, impoverished children beg for change. In the unincorporated areas of the Town of Hempstead, it is the grown-ups who plead for change -- a plea that falls upon deaf ears, closed minds, and hardened hearts.

Change is not viewed as a positive in Kate Murray's Hempstead Town, if it is envisioned at all.

Yes, "you need to start a process of transformation somewhere." Too bad that "somewhere" is so far away from Hempstead Town, and so distant from the minds of those who call the shots at Hempstead Town Hall.
- - -
Medellín’s Nonconformist Mayor Turns Blight to Beauty
By Simon Romero

MEDELLÍN, Colombia, July 11 — Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sporting three days’ growth of beard and unruly hair nearly down to his shoulders, Sergio Fajardo looks every bit the nonconformist mathematician who spent years attaining a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.

But that was a past life for Mr. Fajardo, this city’s mayor and the son of one of its most famous architects. Now he presses forward with an unconventional political philosophy that has turned swaths of Medellín into dust-choked construction sites.

“Our most beautiful buildings,” said Mr. Fajardo, 51, “must be in our poorest areas.”

With that simple idea, Mr. Fajardo hired renowned architects to design an assemblage of luxurious libraries and other public buildings in this city’s most desperate slums. Their eccentric shapes — one resembles an immense blackened loaf of bread sliced in half — occupy areas where foot soldiers in Colombia’s cocaine wars once died by the thousands each year. But several years ago, residents here say, a tenuous peace was imposed by paramilitary drug traffickers who outfought their rivals.

Now, Medellín is no longer stymied by being described as the world’s deadliest city.

This city of about two million people had 29 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006, down from 381 per 100,000 when killings peaked in 1991.

Elected in 2003 as an independent, and riding a growing economy and this decline in violent crime, Mr. Fajardo has turned the city into a showcase for new educational and architectural projects.

He increased city spending on education, bringing it to 40 percent of Medellín’s annual budget of $900 million, while also raising spending on public transportation and microlending projects for small businesses. Five new libraries are at the center of his social policies, but Mr. Fajardo is also building a sprawling public science center and dozens of schools, and expanding public transportation by building cable cars up into the slums on the city’s hills. He contends the poor will develop the skills they need to compete through these investments in education and new public spaces, reflecting a faith in architecture to help achieve this goal.

“Fajardo is making a long-term wager by carving out a foothold for the state in areas that were neglected for years,” said Aldo Civico, who as director for the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University has done extensive fieldwork on Medellín’s violence. “You need to start a process of transformation somewhere.”

Many parts of Medellín remain far from idyllic. Police officers toting assault rifles and wearing combat fatigues still patrol many parts of the city. Downtown, just steps away from the elegant plaza filled with voluptuous sculptures by another native son, Fernando Botero, street children sniff glue out of plastic bags and snort cocaine. Some in Medellín whisper that Diego Fernando Murillo, the paramilitary warlord known as Don Berna, still controls much of the city from his cell in nearby Itagüí prison. Others say drug traffickers launder revenues into the construction boom in high-rise apartments and malls that is accompanying the mayor’s architectural reconfiguration.

And yet Mr. Fajardo’s transformation of Medellín has captivated the city and, increasingly, other parts of Colombia. His approval ratings stand at more than 80 percent, making him the country’s most popular mayor and leading him to be widely mentioned as a potential presidential candidate after his term ends this year.

“He is carrying out a redistribution of wealth without a discourse of rage,” said Héctor Abad Faciolince, a prominent novelist and political commentator here. “If Medellín cannot take these risks, then what place can?”

President Álvaro Uribe hails from Antioquia Province, which encompasses Medellín. He and Mr. Fajardo were schooled here by Benedictine priests. But Mr. Fajardo offers a departure from the staunchly conservative policies of Mr. Uribe, the Bush administration’s closest ally in South America.

Mr. Fajardo, for instance, favors a debate over legalizing drugs, a somewhat maverick position in a nation that is the world’s largest cocaine exporter. And some personal decisions, like choosing to live with his companion, Lucrecia Ramírez (near the home of the archbishop here), have drawn criticism from Roman Catholic leaders.

Ms. Ramírez is a psychiatrist who prefers the title of “first woman” to “first lady” and leads efforts to bar underweight models from Medellín’s fashion shows. She also challenged beauty pageants through alternative contests that reward knowledge of science, literature and business.

Not everyone in Medellín, which despite its history in the drug trade is considered one of Colombia’s most culturally conservative cities, supports the projects carried out by either Ms. Ramírez or Mr. Fajardo. Old villas and trees are falling; critics say the new commercialized look resembles Miami or Caracas.

Some take jabs at his taste for expensive public works that resemble pyramids or massive abstract cubes.

“Fajardo is our pharaoh,” said Jaime Alonso Carvajal, a member of the Environmental Collective, a group that led raucous protests over the mayor’s decision to build pastel-colored pyramids along the median of a major avenue at a cost of nearly $500,000. “He is cementing over Medellín to turn us into a dust bowl.”

Mr. Fajardo says he welcomes such protests, viewing them as part of the creation of a city in which residents can intermingle anywhere regardless of their social or economic circumstances.

“It is an advance for our society that people feel safe enough to say whatever they want about me in any part of this city,” he said during an interview while strolling through central Medellín.

And as for the shapes, he said: “I’m still a mathematician. I love geometric forms.”

The pièce de résistance of Mr. Fajardo’s strategy sits on a hill in Santo Domingo Savio, a sprawling slum that is home to 170,000 people. Visitors take the metro from downtown then connect to a new cable car system that swiftly transports them up into Santo Domingo. From there, they walk through hard-edged streets until reaching the Parque Biblioteca España, designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti. There, rising from cinderblock hovels, is a hulking rectangular structure that looks not unlike some medieval citadel and includes a library, auditorium, Internet rooms, day care center and an art gallery.

It strikes those who live in its shadow variously. Yasmin Henao, 30, a maid who lives with her husband and three children in a wooden shack with a view of the library, said she was hesitant to go inside. “I saw guards at the doors,” said Ms. Henao in an interview in her home. “I don’t know if it’s a place for me.”

A short stroll away, Jaime Quizeno, a mechanic, offered another assessment as dusk began to envelope the hillside. “It looks like an enormous cloud when it is illuminated at night,” said Mr. Quizeno, 63, smiling.

“Such a beautiful thing, right here with us,” he continued. “Who could have imagined that?”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Where Planning & Zoning Don't Mix

In Hempstead Town, Even The Worst Laid Plans Get Variances

At first blush, it seems like a good idea -- the local Zoning Board also acting as Planning Board. After all, if the plan for development, revitalization, or renewal is sound, why bog down the process with too much bureaucracratic red tape?

The Planning Board draws up the plans, considers the proposals, examines the options, then, in virtually the same breath -- save a pro forma public hearing, or two -- approves the variances, the issuance of permits, and the exceptions to both standards and rule of law (if not reason) necessary to move the project forward.

Government streamlining at its best, yes?

Well, not quite.

First off, in the generally accepted scheme of things, a planning board may not consider or issue variances, hear appeals from the official responsible for zoning administration, or issue interpretations of zoning provisions. In fact, that happens to be the law in most jurisdictions.

There is, after all, an inherent conflict of interest.

It should logically follow, then (as if logic dictates any practice engaged in by local government), that a planning board and a zoning board cannot be the same entity; the same folks being obliged to pass on the legal muster of the plans offered up by that very body politic.

Next, consider that few zoning boards either know or take the time to understand even the basic precepts of planning, and you have bad plans -- or no plans at all -- being ratified by the bad planners who promulgated them.

Add to the mix the inherent politics of cronyism, favoritism, and the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" that is the hallmark of local zoning boards, and you have the recipe for disaster from drawing board to implementation.

The Town of Hempstead is not unique in this regard, where zoning board serves as planning board. [We wonder, do they get two salaries, or double benefits, for sitting as both?]

We simply use Hempstead Town as our illustration because (a) we know it all too well, and (b) it is a prime instance of where the mix of zoning and planning -- or the inherent lack thereof -- clearly does not work. At least it doesn't work in favor of residents who, by default, must endure a paucity in planning, overshadowed only by the laxity in zoning.

For anyone who wonders whether planning and zoning on the same plate -- a broken plate, at that, the set having gone out of production more than a century ago -- is such a bad thing (or half as bad as we make it out to be), we point you in the direction of the nearest unincorporated business district, be that along Hempstead Turnpike, Sunrise Highway, Merrick Road, Dutch Broadway, or a so-called "Main Street" near you.

Indeed, if you reside in an unincorporated area of the Town of Hempstead -- over which the Town's Zoning Board of Appeals has primary jurisdiction for both planning and zoning -- a walk through your local business district will likely demonstrate two truths: (1) That little or no planning -- at least not in the last half of a century -- went into the development of the area; and (2) that zoning, from application through the wholesale carving out of exceptions to the long-established rules, and in enforcement of the code that, in theory, sets the standard, is haphazard, at best, and nonexistentent, at worst. [Maybe not "at worst," on second thought. No zoning at all -- as in "hands off" by the Town -- would, in many instances, have yielded better results.]

And then there's the ever-present issue of who's zoning/planning board is it, anyway, with political appointees (okay, let's call them what they are -- hacks) making the decisions on what gets built (or not) and where.

Face it. There isn't one person in Hempstead Town outside of Town Hall who can say, at least with a straight face, that Katuria D'Amato got her "full-time benefits for part-time work" job on the zoning board because of her all-consuming knowledge of the code or her abiding interest in preserving anything other than the stagnant political atmosphere that pervades America's largest township.

Indeed, it wouldn't be a stretch to venture a decent guess that a D'Amato on the zoning board -- or is it planning board -- favors not the average Joe who owns a cape on a 60' x 100' lot in Elmont, but rather, that well-connected developer, or that former Senator from Island Park who got every varience he -- and his new wife -- needed to build that McMansion on the beach.

Most residents of the Town of Hempstead probably don't know, even now, that the Town's zoning board also serves as its planning board. There's been so little planning of note, after all. Then again, given the "anything goes" zoning in Hempstead Town since Levitt built his homes more than 60 years ago, we think most residents would be surprised to learn that Hempstead Town has a zoning board.

Suffice it to say that one would be hard pressed to find code provisions that haven't been excepted, or stipulations regularly honored in the breach, with the violations overlooked, this by a zoning board of appeals that regulates development in Hempstead Town with the same zeal and aptitude that lumberjacks regulate the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest. Hmmm. Hempstead Town used to have trees, too, didn't it?

To say that the Zoning Board of Appeals of Hempstead Town has done a lousy job of it over the last 50 years would almost be too kind. To place in the hands of this very board the authority to plan for the township's next 50 years is nothing short of absurd.

To mesh planning with zoning may have, as the old adage goes, "seemed like a good idea at the time." Its not. And for places like the Town of Hempstead, it has proven to be disasterous.

Just don't take our word for it. Walk the streets in the business districts of the unincorporated areas of the township, and witness, first hand, the devastating impact of bad planning (or no planning), and zoning that serves the special interests of real estate developers and the politically well-connected, not yours.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Say No To Broadwater At July 7th Concert

Join Citizens Campaign for the Environment at Long Island’s Own Live Earth Concert

Rock on July 7 to protect Long Island Sound from her two biggest threats: Global Climate Change and the invasion of the Broadwater Energy Proposal. There are solutions. Celebrating with top musicians, elected officials, environmental leaders, and fellow Long Islanders is a perfect way to make a difference.

On July 7, 2007, Al Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection will hold the Live Earth series.

Live Earth is a monumental music event that will bring together more than 2 billion people to raise awareness about global warming. With 24 hours of music across 7 continents, and performances by more than 150 of the world's top musicians, Live Earth will engage, connect, and inspire individuals, corporations, and governments to take action to solve the climate crisis.

On Long Island the Citizens Campaign for the Environment is hosting a similar event to join this global movement; however, the main objective is to protect Long Island.

As fellow Long Islanders, we hope you will attend our Stop Global Warming, Stop Broadwater concert to protect Long Island and the Long Island Sound on July 7, 2007 at the Brookhaven Amphitheater. What better way to celebrate and defend Long Island than through music?

To view/print the event filer with all of the details, click below or enter the following address in your browser's address window:
http://www.citizenscampaign.org/PDFs/poster 81_2x11.pdf