Inside City Hall
By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.
For the Sunday Gazette
There’s an old saying “You can’t fight City Hall,” but you can certainly beat up on it. I see where Mayor Stratton has rightly apologized to a citizen who was accused of bombarding his staff with so many requests for information that they were finding it difficult to get their regular work done. But the Schenectady administration is very new and will soon learn that in any organization, one percent of those served generate ninety-nine percent of the inquiries.
The way the Schenectady City Council presents itself to the public, a spectacle viewable on Monday nights on Channel 16, is nothing short of masochistic. In the privilege of the floor, some citizens berate public officials without mercy, making outlandish statements that would make some of the Swift Boat veterans cringe. And even when the statement is posed as a question, the only response from the council is “Thank you, sir. Next speaker please.”
Yes, responses lead to dialogue, and extensive dialogue will often send the meeting into extra innings, but I don’t see how the Councilors can stand mute. To make matters worse, the minutes of the meetings, posted online, record every complaint verbatim, with no indication of whether the council and mayor think that it is warranted or what can be done about it.
Far worse and much better
I don’t recommend this, but other city councils go to great lengths to shield their elected officials from recorded criticism. The minutes of the Albany Common Council merely list the names of the citizens who speak, not what they say. With even greater chutzpah, Troy council minutes say only “List of Speakers on File in the Clerk’s Office.”
In contrast, the minutes of the Niskayuna Town Board are unusually complete. To access them, visit www.niskayuna.org and feed “minutes” to the search box. For a good example, see the minutes of February 24 of this year. At the top, one sees that all Board members were present, plus a list of department heads attending. At this meeting, several residents of Lori Drive press their case concerning the possibility that their cul-de-sac might become a through street. On can read what each one said, along with commentary from Supervisor Smith and other Board members. On other subjects brought up at privilege of the floor, Board members often call on a department head to give a detailed answer to some question or other. When it comes time to consider resolutions, debate is recorded, and even on unanimous motions Board members often explain their position as they vote.
A citizen seeking information from any level of government can always file a FOIL (Freedom Of Information Law) request, but for reasons I will discuss in a moment, this should be a last resort. But I love the acronym. Once, long ago, I deliberately named a computer program AMOK. I knew that management was anxiously awaiting its birth, and I looked forward to what I knew would happen. On the day of its first test drive, they ran down the hall shouting “They’re running AMOK! They’re running AMOK! In a similar vein, I imagine that somewhere in the country there is a guy, Joe Postum perhaps, who files FOIL requests so frequently that his city clerk is fond of saying “FOILed again by Postum!” (One has to be of a certain age to read this column.)
The problem with FOIL is that one has to know precisely what record you want to see. Many a request is denied with the terse phrase “no such record exists.” And there are many other grounds on which a governmental records officer can refuse your request. What I really wanted to write about this month was the intriguing mystery as to why it is taking so long to find out how much GE-generated sales tax income Schenectady County is supposedly obliged to repay. Even the number of years of alleged overpayment has not yet been revealed, but the State has refused my FOIL request and even our county officials are being kept in the dark as to how and why this has happened.
Much citizen concern centers on assessment records and practices. Assessment rolls are open to public inspection, but that inspection is greatly facilitated when a municipality places its roll on the Web. To its credit, Schenectady, Niskayuna, and Glenville (but not Rotterdam) did this three years ago but, most unfortunately, the latest rolls have not yet been provided to the library. Assessment information for all municipalities in the state, complete with names and addresses, is viewable at www.uspdr.com. I find this invaluable for finding the addresses of people who are not in the phone book, but the information is also a few years old.
One would think that the state’s Office of Real Property Services would list assessments at www.orps.state.ny.us, but they do not. But that Website does contain much valuable information about how to ascertain whether your own assessment is reasonable. It also contains links to news stories about tax practices, and some are hilarious. According to a linked story in the “Arizona Republic,” there are twin communities on opposite sides of the Arizona-Utah border where polygamy is still widely practiced. Headlined “Polygamists Seek Tax Hike,” the story describes why the Arizona Department of Education is unhappy with the financial practices of the Colorado City (AZ) Unified School District. For one thing, that district has 104 employees but only 289 students. For another, last year the district bought a $220,000 airplane. Perhaps the airplane is needed to fly the Board members with a harem to another state where they can marry multiple members of their own sex so as to form a more balanced commune.
Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion Section.