The City of Amsterdam: FUBAR

I really try to be reasoned, measured, tempered with what I write. I try to be optimistic and hopeful. I try to be positive. But then, I read this and start to question if I am merely delusional — sitting on the Titanic and believing, “We’re not sinking; we’re merely descending into the Atlantic; but we’re not sinking, we’re merely deploying a downward trajectory. ‘Waiter, a Manhattan, dry, please’.”:

Diane Hatzenbuhler:

As for Rich and myself not being there, this was called on Tuesday night. Rich already had plans for the day. I was told by Ms. Magiletti that if I showed up I would be arrested. It was a private invitation only meeting and since it was in her building, I would be trespassing. I am the only alder person that has ever shown any interest in downtown. but Mrs. Magiletti being a personal friend of the mayor’s is more important. This is where the petty stuff comes from, and it originated with the mayor while she and Mrs. Magiletti coordinated the meeting before the end of our council meeting, which is when it was announced.

You cannot read that and not seriously consider that we have such a dysfunctional economic, political and cultural fabric that forever renders the city FUBAR from a functioning city.

I don’t drink much, and certainly not midday, but today I’m making an exception: a Manhattan, dry.

The Startup Mindset: Why a Downtown Business Association Creates the Right Model for Economic

The full story on the meeting is at the Mohawk Valley COmpass,Downtown businesses voice concerns, plan association.

I think this initiative by the downtown merchants illustrates a few key principles that I believe are important to jumpstarting the city as it’s my contention that this city, old as it is, needs to rethink of itself as a brand new startup to move forward:

1. Like a startup, the objective seems centered around solving a problem — how to support the viability and growth of downtown. As the article demonstrates, the problems are solvable assuming the stakeholders — the city, the merchants — commit to solving them. I see nothing that precludes addressing most of the issues raised. Let’s focus on solving problems versus constantly creating new problems or harping on problems no one really cares to solve.

2. In startup mode, you don’t have the luxury of kicking the can down the street — you need to make something work NOW. So it’s not good enough to wait, and wait, and wait, for public agencies or private agencies to do it for you. You have to figure it out yourself. What this initiative creates is pushback on the staid, do-nothing, fatalist attitude that so permeates the city. My hope is that efforts such as these intensify and multiply the pushback against the entrenched do-nothingness with its enmeshed wailing and gnashing on the state of the city.

3. In startup mode, you don’t have time or luxury of working with the wrong people or entities. You need to figure out who the right people are to make your startup succeed. Efforts such as these will quickly highlight who the right actors are and who the wrong actors are for economic development.

4. I expect membership in the association to be predominantly, if not exclusively, from private industry. I think it is about time that we hear the voice of entrepreneurs and business owners in the economic development of the city. It’s more than clear that the city needs fresh voices and new perspectives.

Let’s hope this mindset catches on downtown and elsewhere.

How Common Council Members and Their Supporters Smear the Corporation Counsel

First, let’s establish the meaning of ‘smear': damage the reputation of (someone) by false accusations; slander.

Next, let’s look at how Council members and their supporters consistently level false accusations against the Corporation Counsel

Smear 1: The Corporation Counsel uses city resources for personal business.

Here is an exchange between Ms. Hatzenbuhler and Tim Becker on this blog :

Diane Hatzenbuhler:
“There is not enough city work to justify a full time secretary, so therefore, the secretary is sitting there playing solitaire or on FB or doing work for GD’s private practice or as GD said, twiddling his thumbs.”

Tim Becker:
“Please state for the record, Diane, do you have any evidence whatsoever that DeCusatis has utilized his assistant for personal business?”

Diane Hatzenbuhler:
“Let us just take his personal business out of the equation since I have no proof. There is no proof since there is no accountability. ” [snip]

Tim Becker:
“Let us just take his personal business out of the equation since I have no proof.” – Un-real. I have no words. You are essentially admitting to slander here.

By her own admission, Ms. Hatzenbuhler has no facts supporting this claim. And neither does anyone else on this bandwagon but it does not stop the accusation from being leveled.

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Smear 2: The Corporation Counsel has never brought a codes case to court in X years.

Here is an accusation by Ms. Hatzenbuhler:

As for codes. GD did nothing with codes in the first 3 and a half years in office. Nothing was sent to court as he found nothing but problems with the accusatory statements.

Fact:

From 2008 through 2011 (Ms. Hatzenbuhler’s time period for her accusation), a total of $11,850 was collected through codes for housing related fines. In 2009 and 2011, a total of 54 housing cases were brought to court (according to NY State Court Records).

——-

Here is an accusation by poster ‘Luis':

I suppose no one sees something wrong within the city law dept.? It’s not the work load because we have never heard of a city code enforcement case settlement with a landlord in Amsterdam now in 7 years.

Here is an accusation by ‘Rogo':

when is last case corp council went to court. I might be wrong but let me no answer

Fact:

From 2008 through 2014, a total of $119,342.10 have been collected through codes from a total of 474 codes cases. Of the $119,342.10 , $60,850 are housing related fines. (Figures from NY State Court Records and City of Amsterdam public documents)

Apparently 474 codes cases and more than $119 thousand in fines is equivalent to zero.

What’s even better is that Ms. Hatzenbuhler and other critics claim Counsel brings no cases to court. Here is Ms. Hatzenbuhler in her own words:

“GD has also personally insulted and belittled the codes officer in the court, which I do attend and have witnessed.”

So Ms. Hatzenbuhler verifies Corp Counsel is physically present in court but, per Luis and others,  he never brings court cases to court. Houdini would blush at this feat of illusion.

———————————————————–

 

Smear 3: Corporation Counsel will not prosecute cases due to slumlord clients.

Yet another accusation by Ms. Hatzenbuhler:

Current corp counsel has shown no interest for the past 3 and a half years, but now he is going to change?? I do not think so. He represents two of the city’s biggest slumlords, one of which is on Forest Ave. (Although I am sure he will say he does not represent them at the current time)

Luis:

Has anyone seen his client on Forest Ave. make it’s way to court for the exterior junk and removed sprinkler system? Of course not, look who’s in charge.

Yes the Corp. Counsel determines which cases proceed to court by approving their submission. Has anyone seen his client on Forest Ave. make it’s way to court for the exterior junk and removed sprinkler system? Of course not, look who’s in charge.

Fact:

Corporation Counsel has publicly recused himself from the case due to an attorney-client relationship. As is ethically and professionally proper conduct, Corporation CoOunsel has rightfully removed himself from the case. Therefore, it falls upon the Common Council to bring any case forward through an outside attorney in this case.

Here is the very public statement on the matter from Corp Counsel (Recorder August 28, 2014):

The city wants to enforce a code violation against a current client of mine, and also a former client with regard to defending code violations before I was the city attorney,” Corporation Counsel Gerard DeCusatis said. “So I can’t be involved because it’s a conflict of interest, so they need to hire outside counsel for that.”

Attorney Ronald Schur, of Mayfield-based Schur and Rose PLLC, was authorized in the council’s resolution to represent the city in a legal case, which involves alleged city code violations against an unnamed resident.

Schur’s payment for the representation will not exceed $2,500. City Controller Matthew Agresta said he was worried Schur would “go through $2,500 quickly” and there would still be more work to do on the case.

Fourth Ward Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said she’s going to visit Schur at his office and talk about the city’s financial issues regarding this case so that the city doesn’t spend too much money on outside counsel. She said action has to be taken against the alleged code violator. “We cannot let them stay there and destroy that neighborhood anymore — it’s been going on for 15 years,” she said. “We’ve got to start somewhere and [the Codes Department] has done everything they possibly can.”

Remember, the above quote from Corp Counsel is from August 2014, 8 months ago. Now Ms Hatzenbuhler claims , falsely again, that Corp Counsel will not admit to clients as former or current even though the public record makes quite clear that that is precisely what Corporation Counsel said. Furthermore, Corporation Counsel specifically advised the Council to proceed with an outside attorney due to this conflict of interest.

Now that it is 8 months later and the Council has not taken any action, Ms Hatzenbuhler levels the accountability at the Corp Counsel when it is more than clear that accountability lies squarely at the feet of the Common Council. Why has the Council failed to support codes and pursue the case? Why is the Council not subject to the same accountability they seemingly expect of everyone but themselves?

What Ms. Hatzenbuhler, her fellow Common Council members, and their supporters seek is to question the Corp Counsel’s competence so they can deflect attention from their very own incompetence: by failing to properly staff codes, by cutting resources to the Corporation Counsel and by advancing their political agenda above the public interest.

It’s that simple.

Why Brian Williams Is Not ‘The’ Bad Apple in the Media Apple Barrel

Media -- Bad Apples

Media — Bad Apples

Here is an excerpt of NBC News official statement on Brian Williams:

While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.

Note the charge against Williams — “misrepresented events” — and note the consequence –We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. .

While it’s evident that Williams erred and subject to censure, it’s not at all evident why Williams should be the only media figure subject to this ostensible standard on ‘misrepresented events’.

What immediately comes to mind is this comment from David Gregory, also of NBC News and formerly of Meet the Press, when asked the role of journalists and media in checking facts:

Now, NBC’s Meet the Press moderator David Gregory tells The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz that fact-checking is an “interesting idea” but that his program will not follow ABC’s lead. “People can fact-check Meet the Press every week on their own terms.”

Where I struggle to make sense of the media standards on truth, facts and proper representation on events centers on accountability and responsibility as a member of the media– whether you are a news caster, a journalist, an anchor, broadcaster, and editor, or really anyone in the media business who must present information to the public.

If Brian Williams faces consequence and censure of his actions by promulgating a false personal story, what about the many others who do nothing to fact check easily proven events (or easily refuted ‘facts’)? Are they not also guilty and complicit in the media of pushing false information like Brian Williams? Why does Brian Williams get held to a standard of facts and representative reporting when other media people and channels (print,radio,TV,digital) seemingly can continuously peddle in misrepresentation and misinformation on a consistent basis?

For this to work, either ignorance of truth, facts and the process to establish such must be so widespread as to render the media landscape laughably inept, or, I’ll daresay, that the media tolerates and accepts misrepresentation in so far as it does not impact their brand and their revenues.

What Brian Williams did was embellish a personal story — with recent suggestions of more than one– to burnish his brand and differentiate himself amongst his peers and competitors. This strikes me as a profoundly selfish act, meant to advocate for no one and nothing beyond Mr. Williams himself. While Williams gained personally, I don’t believe that his embellishments substantively changed or altered public policy in a meaningful way. If we now turn to David Gregory and the long running Meet the Press or any similar program, we should note that the misrepresentation and misinformation spewed forth typically not only benefits the person but more often than not, serves to achieve some policy or political objective held by the person misrepresenting. In other words, the misrepresentation,misinformation and and, yes, lies promulgated entail much bigger risks and costs to the public than Mr Williams selfish actions. If I play a role in media and freely allow misrepresentation, misinformation and fabrication  of events under my watch to go unchecked and unquestioned when clearly this occurs with unrelenting frequency, how am I any less culpable than Mr. Williams? Why should I not face censure and forced exit from the media stage and platform like Mr. Williams?

Yet, the self-realization on the gaming of media discourse never falls upon the media itself and certainly not on consumers of media. As consumers, we largely accept the misrepresentation and misinformation regularly doled out by the media under the auspices of ‘getting both sides’ or the laughable ‘fair and balanced’ as what is rightfully the role of media. In other words, we really can’t expect media to help us figure out events and issues as properly presented versus misrepresented; as fact versus conjecture; as truth versus lies. No, their only and oft stated role is to present both sides of events and issues with a shrug of their shoulders when it comes to facts and truth. After all, the public largely accepts the false premise that media and journalists must present both sides in any debate as the truth must necessarily lie somewhere in between, never strictly on one side or the other. Why should we expect anything more if we accept the default posture of media as something that takes no responsibility for sorting out fact from fiction?

I’m a bit surprised that the acceptance of ‘the both sides’ kind of media never falls upon weather reporters. As a resident of the Northeast, I might actually embrace a forecast of sunshine and sweltering heat as a counter to the consistent, and irrefutable correctness of a forecast with snow and cold. Under the media’s argument that the truth of the event really lies ‘somewhere between’, I can simply average the temperatures of 5 degrees on the low side with the 85 degrees on the other, and thereby ‘rightfully’ conclude that the ‘true’ temperature must be 45 degrees. Such a ridiculous conclusion naturally arises from such logic but is seemingly embraced as acceptable and righteous in almost everything except for weather reporting.

While I hope this saga with Brian Williams might get to a long overdue reflection on the proper role of media in reporting events and facts, I am skeptical as it appears that Brian Williams will likely be cast the role of the institutional ‘bad apple’ in the media story subject to censure so the quite rotted bushels of other media actors can retain their ostensibly unblemished hides, or to keep the apple metaphor, unblemished skins and rotten cores.

After all, if the public continues to accept the media’s role as nothing more than presenters of ‘both sides’ without ever calling out a side when they misinform and misrepresent, why should we act surprised and outraged at Brian Williams actions? I see no difference in one who misrepresents and fabricates a story of their own versus one who merely promulgates stories with no investment or interest in its truth or accuracy. They are not equivalent; they are precisely equal in their damage to the public debate and discourse.

We get the apples we deserve.

 

Image courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/Green_and_red_apples.jpg

City of Amsterdam Financials: Know Your Numbers

I kinda missed a few points in previous posts that are important in terms of the city’s financials:

From Mohawk Valley Compass, Controller reports good initial response to tax notices
, we learn that:

Agresta explained that the total amount of back taxes owed on the delinquent properties totals approximately $13.3 million. However he stressed that the figure included city, school district, and county taxes as well as accumulated penalty fees for late payments. He said he did not yet have a full breakdown of the make up of the total amount.

So when someone assigns the total foreclosures as totally owed to the city, like I suggested in my last post (even though presented with the data and I should have known better), that is wrong as it fails to account for the fact that the figure includes city plus school district plus county. It should also be noted that the city does not need to reimburse the county in case of uncollected amounts. For the school district however, the city needs to make the district whole.

Second, apparently the city levies 10% of city taxes plus the unpaid school taxes as an overlay amount thereby creating a reserve account to account for property owners who don’t pay their taxes. I’ve not seen any figure on this amount nor understand it fully but it is important to note that such an account exists to mitigate the risks of uncollected taxes.

Finally, as we learn in the Mohawk Valley Compass story, not all properties will be foreclosed as a portion will either pay in full or come to payment terms.

If you consider the points above, you will note that the potential marginal liability to the city is no where near $13 million no matter how folks characterize it as such.

Know your numbers.

Why Most of What You Hear on the City of Amsterdam Financials Is Misinformation and Just Plain Wrong

I’ve written before on how wrongheaded and misguided much of the discussion on the city’s financials truly is. There is without question a desire and intent to cast the city’s finances in the very worst light even when the basis for such claims lack any basis. “The city is bankrupt”; “the city has $27 million in debt”;”We don’t know the fund balance”; and on.

Sure, some of the statements above are true but they are true only within the context of the broad financial picture of the city. Unfortunately, the nuance and context for discussing the city’s financials get stripped away, often quite deliberately, to score political points at the expense of making informed, smart and ultimately the best decisions for taxpayers.

As a case in point, let’s look at all the statements above when put against the Concordia development project, the $30 million development spearheaded by the county and requiring the city to provide infrastructure.

Specifically, let’s look at the letter from County Executive Matt Ossenfort to the city on the issue on financials:

This $30 million project is the largest private sector investment and job creating initiative in the City of Amsterdam in years. This project is designed to provide 162 units of senior housing, create 116 permanent jobs, more than 200 construction jobs and increase the real property tax base. We can ill afford to treat a project of this magnitude with anything less than our utmost attention. Yet, despite the importance of this initiative, city leaders can’t agree on the funding needed for the extension of water and sewer lines, a necessity for the project to move forward. This, in spite of the fact that an agreement with conditioned Performance Bond can be secured that would offer ample protection and safeguards for the city’s investment.

The bold are my highlights. What this letter makes crystal clear is that all the chatter on the city’s financials give exactly zero reasons not to do the deal. In other words, the proper and best financial decision is to do the deal and most of what you read and hear simply lacks any basis in finance or fact– it’s anything but finance; it’s all political to serve the few at the expense of the many.

That’s why our city leaders quip “I don’t care” when presented with the actual financials of the deal: they truly don’t care about the financials; it’s the politics that they care about.