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Perry White
Perry White
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Outside Looking In

Solid is as solid does

First published: April 20, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 19, 2014 at 11:26 pm
Beaver Meadows could become the paradigm for mixed-use apartments with its melding of market-rate and affordable units.

Steve Aiello is a big guy. When you look at him, the word that flashes in front of you is “solid.” When you talk to him, that’s also the word the comes to the fore.

The owner of COR Development has made Watertown something of a home away from home. While Mr. Aiello and his company have had a lot of success building things and leasing them in the greater Syracuse area, he has left quite a mark here, as well, with commercial and residential projects on Route 3 outside the city that have brought Watertown a Target, a Petco, a Panera Bread and a host of other national big-name stores. A little less obvious, but equally notable, is his Beaver Meadows apartments out behind the Target store. It is a measure of Mr. Aiello’s character that while other developers have been busy pumping up the volume on their projects or proposals, COR has erected a classy mixed-use apartment complex that has been full since before it was done.

Beaver Meadows uses an unusual theory of mixed-use apartments: 20 percent of the apartments are set aside for affordable housing, but they are not necessarily “set aside” in the more traditional sense of the word. Mr. Aiello is providing subsidized housing and market-rate housing side by side, intermingled, indistinguishable one from the other. It is the classic egalitarian housing complex.

According to William B. Eimicke, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and a former state housing commissioner under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Mr. Aiello’s model should become the paradigm for mixed-use apartment complexes. He points out that by having the subsidized apartments indistinguishable from the market-rate units, any stigma that might be misguidedly attached to the affordable units is immediately removed. Everyone is assured of high-quality housing because this year’s subsidized unit could well be next year’s market-rate apartment — and vice versa.

In fact, given what a good idea it is, it’s a little bit surprising that some dim-witted bureaucrat hasn’t come in and said, “You can’t do that — it’s just not done!”

Beaver Meadows was part of the big push for additional rental units that stemmed from the Army’s report of several years ago that the area was more than 1,000 housing units short of having enough to house all of Fort Drum’s soldiers and dependents. A number of people and agencies jumped in to alleviate that, and through a concerted local effort, that shortage has now been erased. For many of the owners of these new housing complexes, it could be time to sit back and collect the rent.

For Mr. Aiello, it’s time to move into downtown Watertown and really raise the roof. In a couple of weeks, if all goes well, COR crews will begin tearing down the deteriorating buildings that make up the Mercy complex on Stone, Massey and Sherman streets. Then he will replace them with new buildings that will offer market-rate apartments, senior citizen apartments and retail/commercial spaces on those three streets and on Arsenal Street as well.

Both the Mercy project and Beaver Meadows have benefited from support by the Regional Economic Development Council, which has wisely put money into both housing and the Mercy project. It will be money well spent in downtown Watertown, where a number of lesser revitalization efforts already are combining to make a positive change in the urban landscape. Everything going on to date, however, is dwarfed by the Mercy project — in terms of cost, of impact and of vision.

When it became apparent several years ago that Mercy was not going to survive in any iteration of a health-care facility, the complex of huge buildings in an already sorry state loomed as the biggest potential financial drain the city had ever seen. Nobody could come up with a reuse proposal that made any sense, the City Council was looking at ownership of a huge white elephant and prospects for a positive resolution seemed bleak indeed.

Then COR stepped in, and in less than a year the project has been planned, the buildings cleaned of several tons of detritus from the former owners and demolition is set to begin. Given Mr. Aiello’s track record in Watertown, buildings should start going up sooner rather than later.

And as of now, the developer hasn’t come in with his hand out. The $2.1 million the project got from the Regional Economic Development Council is not much more than a nickel in the cup of the $60 million to $70 million project. COR is making a big, big commitment to Watertown, without much fanfare and with no rattling of the tin cup that most developers do everywhere across this great land. Mr. Aiello has made no tax demands on the city thus far, and he said last week he wouldn’t unless the financial package comes to demand it.

Solid. Quiet. Unflappable. All the qualities you’d like to see in someone who is proposing a project as large — and as vital – as the Mercy proposal.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Dithering won’t fix problems between city and county

First published: April 13, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 13, 2014 at 6:13 pm

This story begins in 1992. Derek Jeter was not yet a Yankee. I was editing a daily county seat paper almost four hours south of here. Staff writer Larry Cole was covering Mayor Jeffrey Graham’s City Hall. And the county and the city entered into a simple intermunicipal agreement to jointly use the new Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building to temporarily house people awaiting arraignment who had been accused of a crime by city police.

In the succeeding years, everything but that last fact changed. Over the past 22 years, the use of the PSB’s holding cells — which were designed into the building for just this purpose — for unarraigned prisoners, went unnoticed and unremarked. Then, suddenly, everything changed. In January, as the state Commission of Correction was auditing staffing at the jail, the county was informed that under New York Codes Section 500-C, the sheriff could not supervise prisoners who had not yet been arraigned. The law doesn’t address mingling these suspects with the general population, which would make some sense. It bans only the sheriff’s supervision of these prisoners.

And this old law has proved to be so unworkable that 14 counties have sought, and received, exemptions from it under Municipal Home Rule legislation. That means that 22 percent of the state’s counties have sought and received a pass on this archaic law.

With the state’s notification the county was in violation of this law, despite 22 years of snoozing along without a care for this arcane regulation, it became apparent that something should be done to remedy the problem. One might think that, given the 14 exemptions already granted, the county and city might seek an exemption for Jefferson County. We have a nice handful of state legislators ready to propose home rule legislation the county needs. While this isn’t simple, it isn’t that hard.

So is that what is happening? Well, no. As is often the case with government, what seems on the surface to be logical gets twisted and turned and formed into something that Rube Goldberg would shake his head at. And so it is with this situation.

We were first told that the city knew nothing of the problem until Sheriff John Burns wrote a letter giving the city until April 15 — roughly two weeks at that time — to get its prisoners out of the PSB. That is to say, out of the building city taxpayers helped pay to build.

Then we found out that, really, the city and the county had talked about this in February, and officials of both governments were working on it. Both appeared to be shocked — shocked! — when the sheriff put the city on such a short leash. So the problem has had at least three months to gestate, without any coherent solution found.

I say this because no coherent solution has been proposed. Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has promised to offer a bill that will race around behind the problem and bite it squarely in the cheeks. Her plan: require more speedy arraignments. The merits of the plan: virtually nil.

First, the state Legislature starts to open a bag of cutworms when it starts messing around with the judiciary; the state Constitution frowns on one branch dithering in the other’s business, and court scheduling is best left up to, well, the courts. And, based on statements from sitting judges, everyone is already dedicated to not letting arraignments linger longer than they must. So a law requiring them to do what they’re pretty much already doing makes no sense at all.

A far more sensible solution would be to amend state law that has already been amended to meet the needs of 22 percent of the state’s counties. It would appear to be especially relevant to work this plan since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is so dedicated to shared services; what better way to do so than to make regional municipal jails work the way the cities and counties need them to? That has a considerable logical foundation (abandon all hope...).

Sitting in the middle of this glass house, tossing rocks at the walls, is Sheriff Burns. A self-declared lame duck who won’t seek re-election, he is the one who set the short fuse on this explosion by arbitrarily picking April 15 as the date the city turns back into a pumpkin. And he is the one who convinced Mrs. Russell that she should be tinkering with the judges’ schedules instead of really trying to fix an archaic statute. And he has whined to her that exempting the country from the law will force him to ship even more prisoners to outside jails because of the overcrowding at the PSB. In the sheriff’s mind, this is really all about making life easier for John Burns for the next eight months.

Clearly, the law needs to brought into the 21st century. Gov. Cuomo should be leading the way and north country state legislators should be signing on to the legislation, if not outright proposing it. While there are hurdles to clear, they aren’t exactly building sized. Instead of standing around and wringing their hands, our city and county leaders ought to be helping our state legislators get it done. And if Sheriff Burns doesn’t like it, he is certainly free to retire before his term ends.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net

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Ah, to be in Plessis, now that it is spring

First published: April 06, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: April 05, 2014 at 11:04 pm

I was standing on my deck one day last week, and I heard something above me — a soft murmur of wings, an occasional low “wonk.” I looked up, and there was a sea of snow geese, moving along on rhythmic wing-beats, in long rows veed-out from a leader.

I leaned against the porch rail and watched, and my dog sat on the deck watching as well. Column after column of them passed over, a return migration that for me is emblematic of the end of a long winter, the proximity of a warming spring.

I’ve heard a lot of grumbling about this winter. It has been long and unremitting and cold and god-awful snowy. After a number of relatively mild, fairly snow-free winters, this one roared in early in December and kept roaring for four months.

Now, though my backyard is showing only scant patches of grass among the lingering snow, nature is reminding me that winter will end.

Along with the snow geese, whose black tipped wings stand in sharp contrast with the almost luminous white of the rest of the graceful fliers, there are many simple signs that can warm an otherwise cold heart.

I’ve seen many, many robins. Friday I saw my first red-winged blackbird, whose shrill call never ceases to suddenly transport me back 50 years to a boyhood spent, in early springs, fishing along the banks of the East Branch of the Delaware River and its many wild tributaries. The song of the blackbird was the call to the rod and reel, and the portent of baseball season arriving, and nights light enough, long enough, to fight with your parents over a silly arbitrary curfew.

As a youngster, the seasons meant both more and less to me than they do today. They meant more, because they all seemed longer. I remember when I was much younger, wondering at the adults who told me that time goes so much faster as you age. Yet, now that I have aged, I have found them to be right. As a child and then as a teenager, every season lingered long enough to receive the full benefit thereof. Spring, especially, was wonderful, with its notes of renewal and revival and return. Fishing, outdoor sports, courting rituals far more intricate outdoors than in, all contributed to make spring a wonderful time.

The seasons meant less, too, because they were so well defined and there was time to wring every special enjoyment out of each one. That period between late, late winter and early summer was perfect in so many ways. And it led into the best season of all, when there was no school and no regimentation and days twice as long as the blissfully short nights.

Today, I find myself yearning to wring every minute, every second I can out of spring. Daylight savings time helps, since I don’t mind going to work in the dark, and I must work early based on the tick-tock of the newspaper. That gives me some precious daylight time at the end of the day, when my wife and I can go for walks or for a ride.

There are many other emblems of spring that I see and enjoy — the other morning, I stopped to let a skunk roll across the road in front of me. On another morning, I saw a fat old porcupine climbing a young tree that was little more than a sapling, his weight dragging the limbs toward the ground.

I’ve seen crocuses (though nowhere near my yard), a pair of bald eagles and I couldn’t guess how many thousand Canada geese. I watched a sharp-shinned hawk skim into a sap bush last week, and the northern harrier hawks are strafing newly thawed fields across the north country, their distinctive white rump bands a kind of flashy natural beacon. And I’ve seen huge wild tom turkeys in full, magnificent display of their puffed up tails, their mating rituals in full splendor.

And from this point on, it will all just get better. Days will keep getting longer, and temperatures will continue to climb. In fact, I’m already at the point where I’m jealously guarding the spring days that have yet to fully appear. Ah, to be in Plessis, now that it is spring!

Perry White is city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net

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Campaign catch phrases explained

First published: March 30, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm

For political junkies, the race for the 21st Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, has offered a lot of early fun and the promise of a long and exciting race. It isn’t even time for nominating petitions to be submitted for the June 24 primary, and already there are solid races for three party lines.

Given all this, and given the level of campaigning already being done by at least seven hopefuls for the Owens seat, as a political public service I’m going to offer a few political catch phrases and offer you their meaning.

If Elected, I Will Reach Across the Aisle. Candidates from all parties are going to trot out this old chestnut. If you think it means a given candidate will ignore party lines to work in the best interests of the nation or the 21st district, you’re probably wrong.

The district, no matter what number it has carried, has long been largely centrist. John McHugh was a Republican endorsed by labor unions; Bill Owens was a Democrat liked by the National Rifle Association. Both of them showed that they could, in fact, “reach across the aisle” (remember those great pictures of McHugh sitting next to Hillary Clinton on a park bench in Sackets Harbor?).

Today, Owens is sadly one of only a handful of representatives who are truly centrist who might embrace positions based on their merit. Of 435 members of the House, fewer than 50 of them appear to have any commitment to compromise.

And newly elected members of the House, especially on the Republican side, have to cater to multiple factions of their own party before they can “reach across the aisle.” So be wary because anyone promising to reach across the aisle may be lining up to slap an opponent.

I Will Repeal Obamacare and Replace It With Something Better. This one is for the Republican candidates. It means that they are toeing the party line early and often.

But is it meaningful? Certainly not in the existing political climate. Obama will be in office for two more years, and he won’t let any repeal happen, even if Republicans take control of both houses.

Moreover, a majority of the American public thinks the Affordable Care Act is by and large a good thing. The most dire predictions about it — that it will sink the budget and that it will sink the job market — already appear to be false. Beyond polls that say more Americans approve of it than oppose it, 6 million people have signed up for it, and many of them publicly have said the coverage it has provided them was unavailable before and has made their lives better.

And, realistically, replacing it with “something better” isn’t going to happen. The whole issue of providing millions of uninsured Americans with coverage was impossible under eight years of Republican rule. But as public policy, it is both humane and economically necessary.

If the Republicans could have come up with something better, why didn’t they do it sometime between 2000 and 2009?

I Will Do Whatever It Takes To Protect the 2nd Amendment. Without explanation, of course, it has no meaning. For the right side of the aisle, it means not ever supporting any gun laws even if they make sense. Remember when Charlton Heston whipped the National Rifle Association into high dudgeon over a proposal to ban “cop killer” bullets? I’ve read the 2nd Amendment many times, and nowhere does it guarantee Americans the right to possess armor-piercing ammunition. Or own a fully automatic weapon. Or have a 50-shot banana clip. Those are all things that can be banned without attacking the 2nd Amendment.

In fact, from a purely philosophical standpoint, putting reasonable controls on gun accessories should take pressure off gun owners in a couple of ways. It shows they are reasonable in agreeing to protect the public and law enforcement. And it reduces the level of opposition from the people concerned about the unfettered proliferation of weapons.

But for Republicans, the 2nd Amendment catch phrase is only valuable if its practical meaning is “I will support no gun control legislation.”

For Democrats, it means they got a shotgun when they were kids and they still hunt and they hope they never have to take a strong stand on a controversial gun-control proposal.

There are a lot more, and perhaps we’ll address them as they come up. But it never hurts to take that campaign statement and spin it around and look at it from a bunch of angles. That usually helps reveal its true meaning.

Perry White is city editor of the Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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A tale of two hospitals

First published: March 23, 2014 at 12:39 am
Last modified: March 23, 2014 at 12:38 am

This is a tale of two hospitals.

Both are in the north country, and they are the only two municipally owned hospitals left in the state. Massena Memorial Hospital is owned by the town of Massena, and Lewis County General Hospital is owned by Lewis County. Both are struggling to find a working model that will allow them to survive. They face the same challenges: declining federal insurance program payments and rapidly escalating state pension system costs. The rising costs of equipment, supplies, salaries and almost everything else are not being met with rises in revenue.

At that point, however, despite the similarities, the hospitals diverge widely. While Massena Memorial officials are working as hard and as fast as they can to turn the hospital into a private nonprofit facility, Lewis County General Hospital is not even taking a serious look at privatization.

In Massena, the hospital reported a record net operating loss in 2013 of $3.3 million. It lost $2.3 million in 2012. Its state pension system costs rose from $124,200 in 2002 to $4.4 million in 2013; it will be $4.8 million this year.

Everyone at Massena Memorial who has looked at the numbers seriously sees a facility that cannot continue on the present path. While employees are rightfully concerned about the potential loss of membership in the state pension system, many of them are starting to understand they have a great deal more to lose if the hospital shuts down.

Hospital CEO Charles F. Fahd has seen the handwriting on the wall and has led the movement to privatization. Reluctantly, town officials are now agreeing that the hospital cannot stand as a municipal facility. And the state Health Department has affirmed that it, too, supports privatization.

Then, there is Lewis County General Hospital. It, too, has seen plunging federal program reimbursements and rocketing pension costs. There, the pension bill has gone from $1.6 million in 2009 to $4.8 million in 2013, and is projected to reach $5.6 million this year. It posted a $5.2 million operating loss and “owed” the county $6.1 million in late 2013 in money the county has fronted the hospital.

Yet, as we reported a couple of months ago, the hospital board of managers took a deep drink from the Kool-Aid bowl and passed a feel-good budget that shows a solid profit this year, based on a number of revenue enhancements that as yet have no basis in reality.

The county Legislature acts like someone sneezed in the salad bowl if the word privatization is brought up. And yet...

Just last week the hospital agreed to pursue an affiliation with St. Joseph’s Hospital, Syracuse, in an acknowledgement that perhaps it cannot get by all on its own.

While all this is going on, a regional health-care study commission is working on a plan that would rearrange the seating chart for north country health-care facilities. Many of the most at-risk hospitals — Carthage Area Hospital immediately comes to mind — will be told firmly what the future will hold. Since all the hospitals in the state operate under the authority of the state Health Department, this commission’s report is likely to carry the full weight of the state.

And what will happen? It’s impossible to tell. But it’s safe to predict that in Massena, privatization will be part of that hospital’s rescue plan. As will some type of affiliation with another facility.

That would leave Lewis County General Hospital as the only municipal hospital in the state. The last one. And there is a reason all the municipal hospitals that used to exist, do not anymore. The reason is, the model is broken.

Lewis County legislators can thump their chests and proudly promise to keep the hospital county-owned. But change is coming, whether those legislators want it or not. And it seems to me that a goal that would far better serve the people of Lewis County is keeping the hospital open — even if it means swallowing pride and stepping into the 21st century.

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Time for Philadelphia village taxpayers to say ‘whoa’

First published: March 16, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 15, 2014 at 11:20 pm

The U.S. Census Bureau says there at 1,291 people living in the village of Philadelphia as of 2012.

That makes it fairly small, by any measure. And, according to the Census, it isn’t rich: the median income of $43,487 is only 78.7 percent of the statewide median of $55,246.

And the downtown area of Philadelphia is — and I’m being gentle here — not the mercantile heartbeat of the northern part of Jefferson County. There are a couple of pizza shops and some convenience stores and a few other things on Route 11, but if a Philadelphian wants to spend any money, it will be a lot easier to do it in, say, Watertown.

Into this sleepy milieu pops a plan by the village Board of Trustees to build a $1.25 million village hall. Or at least, to borrow that much for a new village hall. That debt will equal $968.24 for every resident of the village. For a family of four, it would be the equivalent of buying a used car. Except it won’t get that family of four anywhere they can buy groceries, see a doctor or catch a movie.

The first time I tried to visit downtown Philadelphia, I turned off Route 11 onto Sand Street and ended up out in some lovely, remote countryside on Garden of Eden Road. So I backtracked and finally found North Main Street and I got to see what I was looking for. Which, and I don’t say this in a pejorative sense, wasn’t much. I remember saying to my wife, “well, it’s got more commercial property than Mannsville.” That’s still true today.

But one thing Mannsville doesn’t have is a million-dollar village hall. In fact, there aren’t many million-dollar village halls anywhere in the north country — at least, not in villages the size of Philadelphia.

Just outside of the village, Indian River Central School has one of the finest public facilities in Jefferson County, with a nearly professional level theater and great meeting rooms and lots of neat stuff. I point this out because, with that so close to the village, should the Board of Trustees actually have to take up any business that would draw, say, the entire population of the village, it could be accommodated at the school.

Your average village board meeting, on the other hand, could probably be held in a large utility closet.

So, one would do well to muse, why would this village need THAT village hall?

Apparently, no one in Philadelphia village government has heard that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is bending over backwards to reduce the size and number of local governments across the state. And they are likewise apparently unaware that the governor’s budget proposal offers tax incentives for municipalities that engage in shared or consolidated services, and tax penalties for those who ignore such measures.

In Philadelphia, if there is indeed a need for a new village hall, it would seem that this might be an opportune time to explore a consolidation with the town of Philadelphia. Trustees have already talked about sharing Department of Public Works space with the town Highway Department. Why not all town and village space?

The first proposal considered by the village board was for a magnificent $2 million building. That apparently was too much. So, it’s fair to ask, why is $1.25 million also not too much?

This is what Times staff writer Gordon Block reported from a recent village meeting: “It’s exciting in that we’re seeing some development in the village,” Mayor Matthew J. Montroy said. “Hopefully that ball will keep rolling.”

Somebody really should tell Mayor Montroy that a municipal building is not development. A Walmart is development. A housing project is development. Even a new gas station is development. A new village hall is just a great excuse to meet in a brand new meeting hall every month. So let’s say that in the next 30 years there are 1,000 village meetings there, between the trustees and the planning board and so forth, and let’s say that the interest rate is 3 percent, meaning that in 30 years the village will pay about $3.7 million for the building. That means the cost to the village for each meeting is $3,700.

Those numbers are simplistic only because it doesn’t account for the use by the village clerk and police and so forth. But it does serve to point out that for a village the size of Philadelphia, this is a truly expensive proposal. It’s the kind of proposal that needs some creative people to find cheaper alternatives. It’s the kind of proposal that buries taxpayers in debt and makes them think twice about staying in the village.

And it’s the kind of proposal that should be seriously challenged by taxpayers who have long ago reached their limit.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Press shouldn’t be the target in the fight against terrorism

First published: March 09, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 08, 2014 at 11:02 pm

National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander told the Guardian newspaper this week that he looks forward to U.S. legislation that would address “media leaks.”

The general, who mercifully is due to retire in the coming weeks, said that such legislation, which would apparently be directed at the sort of leaks that have emanated from the secret files Edward Snowden has leaked and is still leaking to the press, would make it easier for his agency to enter into secret agreements with private entities to get access to otherwise private business records.

The general’s position, it appears, is that if it weren’t for the damned media, the NSA could do just about whatever it wants to do.

In any sane universe, that viewpoint should provide all the reason needed to quickly bury any proposed laws to make publication of true information a crime.

There are a lot of people in this country who are making a lot of noise about the First Amendment as it relates to freedom of religion and the Second Amendment as it relates to the right to keep and bear arms. It seems the understanding of the importance of the part of the First Amendment that relates to freedom of the press has receded a bit, and Gen. Alexander’s suggestion that the old alien and sedition acts ought to be resurrected show that some top U.S. officials don’t have any problem with that.

But you should.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prior restraint — the ability to restrict what publications can print before it is printed — is generally a violation of the Constitution. The court has long recognized what the founding fathers knew to be true: one of the best ways to keep a free nation free is to have a robust and unfettered press. Over the past 250 years the medium has changed, but the need for a free press has not.

After the attacks of 2001, this country got a little less free. In the scramble to protect us from terrorists, the freedoms we had long taken for granted were eroded. We used to believe, for example, that our beliefs and our associations with others were our business and ours alone. With the development of the Department of Homeland Security and the rise to the top of the intelligence heap of the NSA and its handmaiden, the military Cyber Command, those freedoms are less certain and are regularly violated by the government. Ironically, it was Edward Snowden’s decision to leak information from the secret files he gathered that brought out just how badly those freedoms are being trampled.

The press in this country has long been the source of nearly all the information that serves to give this nation the most important balance against the abuse of power — the awareness of a free electorate. The greatest check on a government heading out of control is the information held by the governed. We cannot make corrections in our leaders if their excesses, abuses and outright crimes are not brought to light. And in just about every case worth mentioning, it is the free press that has carried that water bucket.

If the New York Times had not published the Pentagon Papers, the war in Vietnam could have slogged on interminably. If the Washington Post had not said to hell with its fierce critics and forged ahead with its investigation of a “second-rate break in”, the crimes of Richard Nixon’s administration would never have come to light. And if The Guardian, and later the Post and the Times, had not published Snowden’s files, the raw, surging power of the NSA would have continued apace.

In all my discussions with people of a diverse political philosophy, I have yet to hear anyone say “Boy, I’m glad they’re monitoring my cellphone use without my knowledge!” That isn’t to say there is no one who believes that; it takes all kinds. But the majority of people understand that the government has to be a body beholden to law, just as we all do as individuals. I would be arrested for tapping a phone call without the sanction of a court; the government must be held to the same standard. If it isn’t, the whole concept of a nation of laws is stood on its head.

Gen. Alexander has, throughout the Snowden incident, maintained a bellicose and arrogant certainty that he is right, no matter what cockamamie idea he wants to put into play, and everyone else is wrong. In his totalitarian world view, “media leaks legislation” is a great idea because it helps his narrow agenda. But great wrongs have often been done in the name of a greater good, and that has not made them any less wrong. The First Amendment protection of the free press is in the first amendment written because it shares primary importance in keeping the nation free. No legislation should be tinkering with that goal.

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21st district Democrats need some adult supervision

First published: March 05, 2014 at 9:10 am
Last modified: March 05, 2014 at 9:29 am

The now-long running farce that is the Democratic Party’s half-hearted effort to retain control of the 21st Congressional District seat held by William L. Owens has moved from perplexing to absurd.

The 12 Democratic Party county chairpersons within the vast 21st district met Feb. 12 in Elizabethtown and when they emerged from their meeting, they announced that a little-known film maker and organic grocer from Brooklyn, Aaron Woolf, would carry the party’s banner in the race.

Mr. Woolf went underground before the meeting was over, and has remained there since. For the past 21 days, he has granted no interviews, made no public appearances, generated no press releases, provided no insight into his political philosophy. At a closed county party meeting in Potsdam last night, he emerged from his cocoon for about 120 seconds to say, in effect, “no comment”.

For the past three weeks, Democratic Party leaders in the district have tolerated Mr. Woolf’s reticence. Vague statements of support have been issued by party leaders, including St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini and Jefferson County Chairman Ronald Cole. Those statements are eerily similar, as if Mr. Woolf is the Manchurian candidate and the county chairmen have been brainwashed with him. You have to wonder if they’ve all swallowed the KoolAid.

Unfortunately, this is not some town council election. The 21st Congressional District covers a vast swath of New York state and its representative has to carry the political water for the entire north country, from Vermont to Lake Ontario. To drive from Wilton, Saratoga County, to Cape Vincent, Jefferson County, across the district, it takes four hours, 23 minutes and spans a distance of 226 miles, according to Google Maps. The district’s interests are varied, regional concerns fluctuate and its people don’t have the easiest lives in the state — it is a district of significant need.

Bill Owens understood this. When he committed to the race in 2009, he jumped into it with both feet. He very quickly discovered the feelings of the people in Willsboro, and of the people in Henderson. By the time the 2009 special election rolled around, Mr. Owens had done the work, met the people, shaken hands, kissed babies, eaten chicken and in general let everyone know he was one of ours.

Now, however, Mr. Owens has had enough, and the Democratic seat he wrested from 150 years of Republican control is in the wind. With a solid Republican majority across the district, the only way the Democrats can retain this seat is by fielding a candidate that is just as committed, just as intelligent, just as aware as is Mr. Owens. The race is short — roughly from February to early November — with a huge district to conquer. With a nomination made on Feb. 12, the Democratic candidate had just 264 days to convince voters he is a man that can represent Northern New York in the House of Representatives.

Aaron Woolf, however, has frittered away 21 of those days without a single public appearance, public statement, personal acknowledgement he is ready to run and up to the task. If he waits “a few weeks” to makes his formal announcement, he will have tossed off about an eighth of the campaign with nothing to show for it. I have a pet rabbit that understands what folly this will be.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party stands mute. Where are the adults in the room? Going back not so many years, St. Lawrence County’s June O’Neill and Jefferson County’s Michael Schell had the political acumen to keep the party relevant despite its disadvantage in registration numbers. Party leaders going back only five years had the good judgment to support Mr. Owens, and that judgment was rewarded with three election victories in three years.

Mrs. O’Neill has declined to even discuss the race this year after stepping out of her party posts in March 2011. It’s too bad, because her acumen is sorely needed now.

The selection of Aaron Woolf as a candidate has been impossible to assess to date because he has offered no one a glimpse of him. With his apparent commitment to remaining hidden from public view, however, this assessment is not unreasonable: he is completely inappropriate to seek the position.

In an off-the-record conversation last week, Mr. Woolf’s charm was obvious. He struck me then as a great guy to sit down and have a beer with. But we don’t elect candidates based on their charm. We elect candidates who convince us they will represent our interests in Congress.

So this congressional race is almost certainly going to be decided on June 24, when Matthew A. Doheny and Elise M. Stefanik face off in the Republican primary. By then, the Democratic candidate will be so far behind in fundraising, campaigning and learning about the district that he can never hope to catch up.

It’s a grand scenario for the Republican Party. But for the Democrats, and for the independent voters who supported Bill Owens in past elections, it has to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

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Not with a bang but a whimper

First published: March 02, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: March 01, 2014 at 10:21 pm

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

— T.S. Eliot

BP Wind Energy this week ended a protracted effort to establish a commercial wind farm in Cape Vincent with the announcement that it is simply dropping the project and walking away.

For a number of property owners who had lease agreements with the company, this no doubt comes as bad news. Hopes of lease payments of some substance over at least 20 years have dried up, disappeared on the wind that is now not likely to produce electricity on any grand scale.

What is left likely is a bitter taste of betrayal by the company and its predecessors and the hollow feeling of defeat from not prevailing in the townwide fight over the project has been raging for most of a decade.

For the people with houses on and near the lake and river, the ones most likely to have been against the project for both aesthetic and financial reasons, there could be a sense of victory.

It would appear that BP’s decision closes the door on a Cape Vincent wind farm for the foreseeable future. The Cape Vincent Wind Farm was wounded by general downturn in the financial viability of all wind projects, and it was stabbed in the heart by the failure of Congress to renew the production tax credit, which provided wind-farm owners with a subsidy of $23 per megawatt for power produced. Without this subsidy, wind power can’t compete favorably with electricity generated by fossil fuels or nuclear plants.

The production tax credit expired on the last day of 2013, and despite intense lobbying by the wind energy industry, there is no sign that it will be renewed in the near future. This is a significant and ominous change for wind-energy advocates; the subsidy has expired before in the 20 years it has been around, but it always managed to be renewed at the last minute. This Congress appears highly unlikely to do that.

Most of the reason is financial: in an era when government shutdowns hit the headlines and sequestration puts federal employees on furloughs, the cost of the program has risen above the invisible.

With solid Republican control of the House and a less formidable Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats are a lot more selective about the battles they wage and this one looks like a loser.

Why? Because internationally, the effectiveness of wind energy as a true “green initiative” has been called into question. One major question is the cost, both financially and environmentally, of standby power. No one has as yet come up with a way to make the wind blow.

Thus the vagaries of nature conspire to make wind power intermittent, while power demand is predictably constant. Without plants fired up and ready to go on standby, the power grid could suddenly begin to starve if the wind calms.

The other environmental question is the cost of destruction of bird populations and whether the operation of windmills does, in fact, have negative effects on human health.

And, other problems the industry faces include inadequate transmission systems near where wind is most likely to generate a sufficient amount of power, and the reluctance of many energy suppliers to enter into power-purchase agreements given wind’s intermittent nature.

So the Cape Vincent Wind Farm is dead. An as yet unanswered question is whether the wind industry is so suddenly somnambulant that a proposed project in the Lewis County town of Denmark is still on the drawing boards.

The 49-tower, 79.2-megawatt Copenhagen Wind Farm faced virtually no opposition. Planned for the rolling farmland between Copenhagen and Deer River, neither the tower plan nor the proposed transmission line drew fire. From the standpoint of most of the locals, they were good to go.

Now, however, the nasty little nitty gritty, like the loss of the production tax credit and the lack of a power-purchase agreement, could be as deadly for this project as for the roundly disliked plan in Cape Vincent.

So the success or failure of commercial wind projects appears to be far beyond the influence of north country residents. Which kind of makes you wonder if the wounds of Cape Vincent, or the enthusiasm in Denmark, counted for anything at all. At this point, it appears not.

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The tolls of war don’t end on the battlefield

First published: February 23, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: February 22, 2014 at 11:06 pm

Jonathan Bret Lovejoy — born Nov. 17, 1988; died Jan. 18, 2014.

Bret Lovejoy was an Army veteran who, according to his obituary, “served his country proudly as a Military Police Officer in the 3rd Platoon, 209th Military Police Company, with service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Unified Response (Haiti).”

He died at the home of his parents in Plainville, Mass. They found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 25.

Bret was the son of my cousin and his wife. I remember how proud his dad was when Bret and his brother Nathan both enlisted in the Army about seven years ago. Nathan was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division and came to Fort Drum as an infantryman; not long after he was posted here, his parents came to visit and we all met for breakfast at a Watertown restaurant. I remember asking Nathan whether he was worried about being deployed to a war zone, and he said he would be proud to go. His dad just beamed when he said it.

Both boys — though they were surely then men in every sense of the word — got out of the Army at about the same time, a couple years ago. While Nathan seems to have survived his experiences, his brother was a very different story. After his death, his dad told me of some of his struggles — with alcohol, depression, a failed relationship. He started to go to the University of Massachusetts on the GI bill, but dropped out after a semester. Then he applied to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where he was going to learn commercial cooking.

His parents didn’t know it for months, but he never entered Johnson & Wales. His failed year at UMass was blocking his GI benefits, and his drinking was blocking everything else.

His dad said the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder were obvious. He suffered debilitating nightmares. His drinking was way out of proportion to his background. He was not the Bret that his family sent so proudly off to the Army.

He finally succombed to whatever voices were playing in his head. He saw only one end to the torment, and he took it.

Jonathan Bret Lovejoy is now many things. He is a sad, indelible memory for his parents and his friends and the Army buddies who have rallied around his memory with a Facebook page in his honor. He is a suicide statistic for the state of Massachusetts — but not for the U.S. Army, because he was no longer in the Army when he took his life. His is a veterans’ suicide, but as a cipher, he may never count against the cost of a military incursion into a lonely and distant foreign land. While he is doubtless a casualty of that war, his death will never be chalked up as a count of its cost.

This is an unimaginable burden on his parents. It took three days for Jerry to be able to send me even a single sentence about Bret, and many more days before he passed along his obituary. Now, weeks later, it must be as freshly horrible to Jerry and Denise as if it happened yesterday. In fact, it will probably always feel, in some respect, like it happened yesterday.

It is likely dozens of lives were changed that January day when Bret decided to end his. The Lovejoy family is large and extends across Massachusetts and beyond. Bret’s friends and Army brothers are scattered across the country. None of us — not family, not friends, not brothers in arms — are likely to put this completely behind us, and that is a large burden.

The burden is also America’s. It is America that Bret was serving when he contracted the disability, the debilitating disease that is PTSD. It was an articulated defense of the American ideals that sent he and his brother to that recruitment center, and it was their enlistment that fostered such pride in their dad. Now, it is that enlistment that has brought such unspeakable sorrow to two parents who would have done anything to keep their family whole.

We owe our Gulf War veterans more than we are providing them. There are men and women like Bret all across America who are unsuccesful in getting their arms around the trauma that they brought home with them. Not all of them will take the drastic step that Bret did, but many of them will suffer from alcoholism and an inability to enter into lasting relationships with another person. Many will divorce, and be unable to hold a job to the level of their qualifications. Many will suffer nightmares, many will turn to drugs rather than booze. And many — far too many — will not seek help.

There are no easy answers. But we need to acknowledge that this is a burden that all of us bear, and agree to do whatever we can to help these men and women who have sacrificed so much for the rest of us. In the absence of knowing any other way for me to do my part, I’m writing a check to the Wounded Warrior Project.

And we all can promise, should we find someone suffering the latent wounds of war, not to ignore it, to speak up and speak out and do whatever we can to ease these veterans’ suffering.

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