Archive | May, 2013

The State Assembly Reminds you that Albany Remains Dysfunctional

21 May

Courtesy Marquil at EmpireWire.com

And to this point, it’s high time the Democrats in the Assembly grow a pair and unite to overthrow Speaker Silver’s “bossism”. To that point, the Daily News’ Bill Hammond yesterday penned the most persuasive and succinct primer on how the Assembly works and why Silver wields the power he does. It is a must-read, and the only reason why the redundant, pointless State Senate is marginally more small-d democratic has to do with the tight electoral margins and breakaway factionalism. 

By the same token, I can’t name a single, solitary accomplishment – or attempted accomplishment – that my Assemblywoman Jane Corwin has undertaken since joining that body in 2009. Indeed, her website’s welcome page refers to herself as “newly elected”, yet she’s already been re-elected once. Collect a paycheck (even though you’re a Spaulding Lake millionaire), get your health insurance, and go home. 

Albany is broken and it’s set itself up in such a way that it’s exceedingly difficult for you to do anything about it. 

Your Concerned Stock Photo Neighbors in Clarence

20 May

On Friday, Clarence households received yet another ultra-slick mailer from astroturf organization Americans for Progress opposing the school budget. This time, thanks to a tipster’s suggestion, I ran the images through a reverse image search. Who, exactly, are these Clarence residents and neighbors depicted on the flyer? After all, I’d love to speak with them about their concerns. 

As it turns out, they’re pricey stock photographs. 

(I have written about the 2013 – 14 Clarence school budget on two occasions; here, and here). 

This woman earnestly looks into the camera and tells us that local AFP astroturfers are conservatives and/or liberals – just like you and me! 

Except she’s as phony as the claim that “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a plucky local effort of concerned citizens with a PR department, a graphic design department and six figures to spare. 

Is she a former Maryland-based drug addict

Is she a joke in the Onion

Did she win big in an Alabama lawsuit

A reverse image search using Tineye reveals that this woman is a stock photo from istockphoto.com. She is described as “Forty Something Hispanic Woman” and if you want to use her image for your slick Clarence mailer, you have to pay about $70.  

The others are as phony as she. 

There’s hardhat guy. 

Hardhat guy has also been used on other websites.  Hardhat guy is also identified via TinEye as an istockphoto.com image, except the stock photo company that sells him describes him as “manual worker in hard hat and safety glasses.” He’s also a bit cheaper than his “forty something hispanic” female counterpart, above. 

The anti-school brigade has been especially concerned about seniors, and uses two pictures of local Clarence seniors. Who are they? 

You guessed it – she’s a stock photo, too. She’s the alliterative “serious senior woman supermarket shopper makes selection“. 

Finally, the senior on the front of the flyer – 

She is “Summer portrait of a lovely grandma”,

…and here she is in a story sponsored by Liberty Mutual

As I wrote late last week, it is critical that you vote yes for the Clarence school budget on Tuesday May 21st at the High School gym (Gunnville at Main). In order to right past wrongs and to ensure that the budget can maintain a steady course within the tax cap in years to come, these measures must be taken. 

The efforts of tea party activists using outside materials paid for with outside money, falsely asserting their “local” or “bipartisan” nature must be strongly rejected. Indeed, to compare the slick use of stock photography and glossy card stock from Long Island with a simply despicable sign that’s been popping up around town: 

That’s the sentiment, boiled down to a nutshell. It’s not as slick, and no expensive, tested PR department vetted the message or language, but it reflects the true grassroots effort to decimate the schools. 

Unlike the proud patriot with the black sign, the AFP’s effort is a form of concern-trolling; they pretend to be supportive of the schools, but bring up their “concerns”, masking the fact that they are not at all supportive. If they had genuine concerns, they could have picked four photographs of actually concerned Clarence residents. Instead, we have “forty something hispanic woman”, “manual worker in hard hat”, and “serious senior woman supermarket shopper”.  This is a sophisticated, media-savvy effort – not one that’s done in Clarence by local activists

This, on the other hand, is a genuine grassroots effort made in support of the school budget: 

The “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” is a group made-up and paid for by the Long Island-based Americans for Progress New York chapter, but that doesn’t justify vandalizing their signs. Not if they depict the “summer portrait of a lovely grandma” or anyone else. It doesn’t justify damaging a massive sign costing hundreds of dollars that’s conveniently sited on an abandoned eyesore motel across from the high school. It also doesn’t justify the myriad pro-budget signs that have been ripped from people’s yards and discarded. 

A teacher writes, 

Lisa Thrun needs to be exposed for what she is.  She had three children attend Clarence schools…I taught two of them …  All three then went on to higher education and have done pretty well, from what I understand …  So basically their kids had a great experience (they were all very involved in the school) at Clarence…but too bad for everyone else now?  My kids are done so now screw you?!  And then she has the audacity to say “she and her people have to remain anonymous for fear of backlash?!”  How horribly insulting I find that to the teaching profession and to Clarence…our teachers are wonderful, caring people of character …  Clarence is a small, tight-knit community…and they are destroying it…but I would never ever hold that against a student, past or present.  It goes against everything a teacher stands for.  Shame on them for those comments.

Dr. Coseo and the Board of Education also need to be called out for getting us into this disaster… so much bad decision-making and poor planning.  The Board always did pretty much what (prior Superintendent) Dr. Coseo told them to do…all “yes” people…don’t rock the boat.  

(Edited to omit identifying information)

Although the Clarence Republican Committee’s executive board decided to stay out of the school vote issue, AFP puppet Lisa Thrun has now reached out to them in a desperate cry for help. To read her own words is to be disgusted: how dare schoolkids advocate for the schools?!

From: Greg and Lisa Thrun <EDIT>
To: Greg and Lisa Thrun <EDIT> 
Sent: Saturday, May 18, 2013 3:18 PM
Subject: Your help is needed

Dear Clarence Republican Committeemen and Committeewomen,
I am writing you today, to ask for your help in the upcoming school budget vote on Tuesday, May 21st at the Clarence High School Gym on Main St. from 7 am-9 pm.
 
As you know, many in our community are very upset about the 9.8% school property tax increase and how that will affect their families and businesses.  It is not just the higher tax rate that is the concern, but the unwillingness of the Board of Education and the Clarence Teachers Association to take the necessary measures to avoid cuts to student services and teaching positions in the very near future.
 
The issues and solutions outlined by Citizens for Sustainable Schools (EDIT) have started the conversation about ensuring the quality of education with a tax rate we can all afford.  The path the district is on is unsustainable and measures must be taken now if we are to continue to offer a Clarence education our town is known for. 
 
There have been some lawns signs and emails circulating that are meant to distract from the conversation and claims that the funds for the efforts are coming from outside sources.  The truth is that we heard from seniors that are worried about losing their homes, families that are considering moving out of state because they can no longer afford to pay the high taxes, and small business owners that are concerned that a 10% increase will force them to pass the costs on to customers and make them less competitive.  They offered their services, money, and time to help educate the public about the issues and to stop this excessive tax increase.
 
The district and the union has been organizing for months prior to the budget being formally adopted.  An art show, an all elementary school track meet, and a chicken dinner has been lined up which will make it very difficult for others to get into the polling place.  Superintendent Hicks and BOE President Mike Lex have been holding meetings with every PTO, Booster Club and even the Post-Prom Party Committee.  They added a last minute concert where only a few songs were played but a pro-budget pitch was included.  There are PTO Facebook pages that have posts with accusations and links to articles with wrong information and have gone so far to word emails that can be construed as endorsements for specific candidates.  Now you may have received a knock at the door by students asking for your YES vote.
 
We do not underestimate the organization of the union or the advantage the district has with communicating with the school community.
 
The GOP is the party of lower taxes and limited government, understanding that those principles lead to the betterment of a community, state, and nation.  Although the executive board has decided not to tackle this issue, we are asking for all of you as individuals to help with phone banking and door to door efforts.  Your neighbors, business associates, and fellow residents are taking a stand —please join them.
 
We will be holding a phone bank from 5:30-9pm on Monday at an office location to make GOTV calls.  Phones are limited so please call for a time slot and location.  If you would like to make calls from home, we can email call lists.  We can also make arrangements to drop off flyers and maps.
 
We understand that this is a controversial issue, but how can any of us stand on the sidelines when members of our community will be hurt by this and while the education of our children will face future risk?
                                   
Sincerely,
Lisa Thrun
H: 741-****
C: 604-****

As soon as I find out which office hosts this phone bank, I will expose it, and I will urge people never to patronize it. Guess what? Also, I suspect that our local AFP stooges vandalized their own sign in order to get on TV and make budget proponents look like thugs. AFP has spent tens of thousands – maybe more – to try and defeat the school budget. The schools are a huge part of what makes Clarence what it is. Your property values reflect that. 

Vote yes on Tuesday, and vote DePasquale and Andrews. The reasons why are here. 

Vote “YES” For the Clarence School Budget on May 21st

17 May

Of all places, Clarence has become the tea party battleground over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s property tax cap. An outside, ultraconservative, anti-government lobbying group is using Clarence as a test case to try and defeat school districts’ efforts to pass budgets that will maintain school services. Its propaganda is downright Orwellian in style and content.

On Tuesday May 21st, Clarence voters will go to the polls to vote on the 2013-14 school budget. Turnout is especially important, because it needs a 60% margin to pass. Luckily, most Clarence residents know the importance that the school system has to the town’s identity and growth. Under the proposed budget, a home with $100,000 assessed value will pay about an additional $11 per month. Note that seniors qualify for the enhanced STAR exemption, which exempts the first $63,300 of property valuation from property taxation, easing their overall property tax burden.

Last week, I uncovered the fact that a local leader of the Koch brothers’ astroturf group, “Americans for Prosperity” claimed responsibility for the slick ads urging every Clarence household to vote “no” on the school budget.

For the uninitiated, “astroturfing” is a propaganda effort that is designed to obscure or mask who’s behind it, in order to give off the appearance that it comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. Through astroturfing, the false sheen of grassroots independence lends credibility to statements made.

In other words, astroturfing is legalized deception used to alter or bring about a specific political outcome. The current edition of the Clarence Bee has a story about it, quoting AFP’s local contact thusly,

…the reason she and others associated with the flier chose to remain anonymous is because many of them have children enrolled in Clarence schools and are concerned about backlash. The reason she agreed to be interviewed was because her name was already out in the open.

Unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers, she said that Citizens for Sustainable Schools is not affiliated with Americans for Prosperity and hopes that the fliers will focus attention on the district’s finances.

Anonymity is the right to be free from accountability. If you won’t publicly stand by your position, what good is it?

While the AFP and its local member deny that AFP funded and produced the mailers, the facts don’t bear that out. The AFP’s Long Island HQ had immediate access to information concerning the local activist claiming responsibility for the mailers. It’s all a construct aimed to keep people in the dark about the outside influence.

At least when the state teachers’ union NYSUT speaks up, NYSUT has the courage to identify itself.

From a perspective of fiscal conservatism, it makes absolutely no sense for the AFP – or a resident – to propagandize for the rejection of a school budget hike of about $11/month for every $100k of assessed value in a very school-oriented town, while likely spending tens of thousands of dollars on slick mailers to every town household, and a shiny full-color, 4-page insert in this week’s Bee.

Those mailers and the accompanying website are professionally done, not the sort of haphazard stuff our local, genuinely grassroots tea party groups come up with. The language they use is as slick as the paper they’re printed on. This entire effort – the language, the quality of the mailers, the timing of the issuance of these materials – underscores that a larger, wealthier organization is attempting to use Clarence as a test case to combat any effort to raise school taxes above the Cuomo cap.

So, I think you’re being lied to.

The reason why AFP’s “local grassroots activist” is “unable to provide details on the funding for the mailers,” has to do with the fact that the funding comes from outside the area and is inconvenient for her. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” isn’t “affiliated with Americans for Prosperity” because “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” doesn’t exist and tried to keep its AFP association a secret.

Turning now to the merits of the debate – outside influence and money notwithstanding, local people who are upset over the increase have presented valid concerns.

Here are the facts:

1. Even with the proposed increase, school taxes are down overallIf the proposed school budget is passed with a 9.8% increase, the Clarence school tax rate will rise to $15.52/$1000. That is lower than 2007 ($15.86/$1000), and over a dollar per $1000 lower than they were in 2003 ($16.85/$1000). In the last 4 years Clarence School District has lost over $13 million in state and federal aid.

2. Clarence Schools are noted for their efficiency and excellence

Business First ranks the Clarence Central School District as the second best in WNY. It is 93rd out of 98 in per pupil spending, and 92nd out of 98 in cost effectiveness. 92% of Clarence HS graduates attend college.

3. Clarence Central School District has cut jobs

The 2011-13 budgets reduced 60 full time employees. The 2013 – 14 budget reduces another 24. It is a lean and efficient organization.

4. What your YES vote means

– Keeping our music teachers, choruses, orchestras, and bands.
– Keeping music instruction in the high school.
– We won’t just offer kids the bare minimum music curriculum mandated by the state.
– Keeping AP classes and electives.
– Keeping athletic programs at their current levels. Keeping nurses in the schools. Maintaining property values.

Rebutting the opponents’ points and questions:

1. Why don’t the teachers contribute more towards their health care? That would eliminate the gap!

Clarence teachers contribute 8% towards their health care now, and that will increase to 10% in 2014-15. That contribution rate is on par with the average for school districts in WNY. In the contract negotiated in 2012, the teachers agreed to contribute more toward health care over the length of the contract. Some argue that even this is not enough, but under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, existing contract terms and conditions remain in place after the expiration of the contract, unless a successor agreement changes those terms. The Taylor Law makes it very difficult to get large concessions in a single contract bargaining cycle. The district has the objective of continuing to press for more contribution to health care, but it has to happen incrementally over multiple contracts. A contract cannot be reopened without the agreement of both sides and even if it could be reopened, the Taylor Law keeps all terms in place until both sides agree on changes. The administrators have agreed to two salary freezes in the last three years. They also agreed to contribute to their health care in the contract settled this year.

Some argue that the union has made no concessions, but that is not true. The union agreed to a lower salary increase this year than would have been in place under the Taylor Law – the first time that has occurred in Clarence. Three years ago, teachers, administrators, and service employees agreed to enter into a self-funded health care system, which is the most cost effective way for the school district to provide health care benefits, saving the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It is not accurate to claim that if teachers and administrators contributed 25% to health care that the deficit would be closed. We began this year with a $6.5 million deficit. Even if teachers and administrators paid 50% toward health care it would not close that gap.

2. Why not just cut more from the administrative side?

It bears repeating that Clarence has been ranked as the 6th most efficient school district in terms of administrative functioning. A central office administrative position was cut last year, which should further enhance the Business First efficiency ranking. The central office has fewer administrative personnel than any other comparable district in the area, and is not overstaffed.

3. The District should offer an incentive for higher-paid, older teachers to retire!

The District attempted to negotiate a retirement incentive with the Clarence Teachers Association, but an agreement that would have reduced the deficit could not be reached.

4. The District is spendthrift, with a 50% increase per pupil over the last 10 years!

New York State does not calculate per pupil spending by simply dividing the budget by the number of students.

– General Education Spending: Clarence: $8,493 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $12,377 per pupil
– Special Education Spending: Clarence: $15,192 per pupil, Similar Schools Group: $35,924 per pupil
– Total Expenditures: Clarence: $14,551, Similar Schools Group: $22,962
– Budget expenditures have increased over the last 10 years, especially with respect to benefit costs. Clarence is tightly budgeted and when compared to similar schools and based on the NYS average, Clarence is more efficient.
 
UPDATE: 5. Median School Tax Bill in Clarence is much higher than Williamsville!

The AFP flyer in the Bee used this argument. There are many more million dollar homes in Clarence than in Williamsville, so by using the median they basically compared taxes on a $400,000+ home in Clarence to a $200,000 home in Williamsville.  For the real tax information look at the facts from Erie County: Click here to view Erie County’s Real Property Tax Rates

6. Enrollment has dropped and the District hasn’t adjusted for this.

Enrollment has dropped 9% since 2007. Almost all of that drop (288 kids) has happened at the elementary level, and the district has reduced 15 elementary teachers over the past three years, accounting for that decline.  In fact, at an average class size of 23 students, the 15 teachers would account for a decline of 354 kids – so it is not accurate to state that the District has not made adjustments to declining enrollment.  It is not possible to close an elementary school at this time, and elementary enrollment would have to drop to approximately 1800 before closing a school could be considered – this year’s figure was 2,051. The elementary enrollment drop is projected to stabilize in 2016-17 at around 1,900 kids.  The middle school will start to decline in 2015-16 and the high school will remain relatively steady for the next 5 years.  It is not accurate to say the district has not adjusted for enrollment decline.  

7. Wages and Benefits are growing at Unsustainable Rates.  

Pension and health care costs have gone up exponentially over the past 10 years.  Pension costs are established by the State Comptroller and TRS Board – they are based on a state constitutional funding level and are highly influenced by stock market investment.  The school district and state municipal governments have no control over them.  There is a 5-year average of investment income for pension costs and the stock market crash of 2008 is still being factored into the total.  It will be that way for one more year and then the pension costs will begin to come down. Last year, there was a new tier added to the pension system that contained costs for all new members.  10 years ago pensions were 0.36 of payroll, next year it is 16.25% of payroll.  That is a 451% increase in 10 years.  It accounts for a big portion of the budget costs.  This is an issue to take up with the State Comptroller and TRS board.  Anyone promising to fix it at a school board/school budget level doesn’t understand their limitations.        

School Board Election: DePasquale and Andrews

As the signs on lawns indicate, there’s a school board election on Tuesday, as well. A large slate of candidates are competing to fill two empty slots. The well-funded forces opposed to school excellence have identified two candidates, whose absurdly large lawn signs litter the town. I asked Brendan Biddlecom of Keep Clarence Schools Great about the school board candidates, and he noted that the large number of candidates threatens to split the pro-school vote. (Note: this is what a real grassroots website looks like – a Google site and online petitions).

To that end, candidate Matt Stock yesterday withdrew from the race, noting the, “abundance of candidates who share my concerns about the preserving the well-being of the district. In an ordinary election, this would be a great thing. Unfortunately, this year we also have two candidates who do not share my views, or the views of other pro-education candidates”. Stock added, “[t]here is also an unprecedented amount of outside money attempting to negatively influence the election. These two factors mean that there is a real risk of ‘splitting the vote’ and having candidates elected that do not have the support of the majority of voters”

Keep Clarence Schools Great has gone one step further and formally endorsed the candidacies of Tricia Andrews and Joe DePasquale for the school board. In his withdrawal letter, Stock endorsed them, as well. Noting the unique situation this year, Biddlecom wrote that, “for the last three years, the school system has been under a steady assault, and now we’ve reached the breaking point. An overly conservative financial management strategy exhausted reserves and helped create the situation we’re in now.”

By coalescing support behind two pro-school candidates; DePasquale works in IT and volunteers with the little league football league, and his wife is a teacher. Andrews is a former teacher who has been active with the Harris Hill PTO for the last seven years, and has served as its president for three. As Biddlecom once told the Bee, “I think we need to move beyond this sense of self-preservation and look at the schools as being part of the fabric of our community and understand that even if you’re going to look at it again through a completely self-interested perspective, having quality schools should be a concern of yours.”

There is no slippery slope argument at hand, or indication that this is the start of endless cap-busting tax hikes year after year. This is a one-shot deal that’s needed to get the school’s fiscal house back in order. Please vote YES on Tuesday May 21st at the High School Gymnasium. Turn-out is critical. Please make sure you go, and make sure your friends and neighbors don’t forget, either.

Why Policy Matters

16 May

It sure has been a crappy few weeks for the Obama Administration, right? Starting with the Senate refusing to pass a really minimal gun control legislation – carefully crafted in a bipartisan fashion, we now have revelations of the IRS targeting tea party groups, and the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records via subpoena.

It’s funny, because one of the attacks on Obama is that he’s perpetually in campaign mode. Problem is, he wins campaigns; if he was in campaign mode, none of this stuff would be a big dealIts messaging has sucked, lately, and Congressional Democrats tend to suck, as well. 

The background noise during all of this is the right-wing’s incessant attempts to manufacture a scandal out of the 9/11/12 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi.  Literally every single allegation-cum-conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked to the point now where (a) it’s palpably all about Hillary 2016; and (b) chief scandal author Darrell Issa has finally reached a last-resort argument, whereby calling the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” is an impeachable offense, because the Administration should have called it a terrorist act. I kid you not.  

The CIA and State Department’s editing and re-editing of a post-attack talking points document is not a cover-up or a scandal – it’s what diplomats and spies do. This is why the Wikileaks publication of secret diplomatic cables is, in my opinion, a bad thing. We oughtn’t broadcast what our diplomats or spies are doing. In an interesting twist, the Republicans demanding the public release of Benghazi-related information were quite outraged by the Wikileaks diplomatic cable release. 

The Republican narrative – despite all evidence to the contrary – has been that the White House intervened to make Obama look good. The evidence reveals that the CIA and State were squabbling over post-attack documents so as to provide information without compromising any extant interests or missions. 

The AP investigation and the IRS targeting are brand-new stories, the details of which are not fully hashed out, but they certainly look bad, and the Obama Administration is uniquely susceptible to outrageous criticism because of the right-wing narrative that Obama is a tinpot dictator, despite being limited to two terms and a do-nothing Congress. 

The IRS absolutely should not be targeting tea party groups or liberal groups, for that matter. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of what happened. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, it quickly became chic to set up a tax-exempt political advocacy group. I want the IRS to look into the activities of those groups to ensure that they comply with extant regulations on maintaining tax-exempt status, just as much as I want the IRS to crack down on, e.g., tax-exempt “churches” that overtly engage in campaigning and politics. As long as it’s done in an evenhanded, non-partisan way.  The Treasury Inspector General reports that the IRS scrutinized certain 501(c)(4) applications using “inappropriate criteria”. 

Targeting tea party groups is as bad as targeting AARP, safe sex advocates, Greenpeace, the NAACP, and Emerge

In fact, a few left-wing groups were subjected to the same scrutiny as right-wing groups, and while some tea party applications for a government tax-free subsidy were delayed, only Emerge – a left-wing group – had its application denied

What’s nice is that everyone hates the IRS, Obama demanded the Treasury Secretary seek the resignation or dismissal of the acting IRS Commissioner.  

As for the phone records scandal, there is a legitimate debate to be had about government access to journalists’ source information, and the balancing of equities between investigating leaks of classified information and shield laws. But you can’t have a legitimate debate in a climate of alleged scandal.  Because this isn’t a “scandal”.  This is what law enforcement does, every day – gather information as part of an investigation using whatever legal means possible, and the law allows this when all other avenues to learn the information have been exhausted.

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.

Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. “The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made … when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it,” he wrote.

He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. “Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaida plot,” Brennan told senators.

These are stories about tone-deaf executive branch overreach. Yet what the government did in this AP phone records case is likely completely legal. The government didn’t spy or snoop on the AP – it obtained phone records from the phone company. Under the law, the government is allowed to obtain information from third parties, and there is no 4th Amendment problem.  Furthermore, you don’t hear a lot of Republicans in Congress making noise about it – how do you demonize the mainstream media every hour of every day for years, then suddenly pivot to its defense to score a few points against Obama? The right’s animus for Obama is only matched (or exceeded) by its animus for fact-based reportage. 

This is why elections matter, this is why policy matters, and this is why legislation matters. This is why whom you send to Congress matters. 

For instance, in 2007, a bill in Congress called the “Free Flow of Information Act” would have required the DOJ to first obtain a court order before obtaining phone records or otherwise pursuing journalists’ sources to investigate criminality. Although it passed the house, it failed to make it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate to a vote. Put bluntly, Republicans killed the media shield law that would have prevented the DOJ from doing what it did to the AP. 

Benghazi? Republicans have consistently voted to de-fund the security for diplomatic missions abroad

For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.

Ryan, Issa and other House Republicans voted for an amendment in 2009 to cut $1.2 billion from State operations, including funds for 300 more diplomatic security positions. Under Ryan’s budget, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes State Department funding, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.

So, facts matter, and policy matters, and you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. 

Oh, also this week, Congress voted for a 37th time to repeal Obamacare. So, you know, jobs & growth agenda? Not so much. 

Best of Buffalo: Food Dissent

15 May

The Artvoice Best of Buffalo 2013 winners were announced Monday, and I suppose it’d be gracious to congratulate the winners, so congratulations. 

But voters, jeez have I got some bones to pick with you. 

BEST BBQ
Fat Bob’s Smokehouse

Best BBQ? Fat Bob’s location might be swell, and its food may be passable, and it might have a lively bar scene, but best BBQ in Buffalo? Absolutely not. The best BBQ joint in Buffalo is Suzy Q’s – hands down, and it’s not even a competition. This scrappy little joint up near the GM Powertrain plant is a diamond in the rough, which serves up smoked pork, beef, chicken, and Polish sausage that’ll make your taste buds sing and a grown man weep. 

BEST BRUNCH
Betty’s Restaurant

Not quibbling with this result, although it’s not my first choice. But do people even do brunch anymore? Is this still a thing? 

BEST BURGER
Grover’s Bar & Grill

This is a knee-jerk reaction people have, but it’s totally wrong. Grover’s had burgers the size of frisbees, but although the meat is still big, it’s not like it used to be. At a recent visit, the meat was gray and dry and totally unsatisfying, especially given the lengthy wait. Ruzzine’s Rock Bottom directly across the street is infinitely better.  The Roaming Buffalo makes a fantastic burger. Vizzi’s is good. People swear by the Sterling Place Tavern. But Grover’s? Only in your memories, not in real life. 

BEST CHEAP EATS
Mighty Taco

Mighty Taco deserves to be on no list. It is emergency food; when you’re too broke or too drunk to eat anywhere else. 

BEST COFFEE
SPoT Coffee

If I can make it better at home, it doesn’t belong on a “best of” list. I can make better coffee at home. 

BEST DINER
Lake Effect Diner

I have a problem with Tucker Curtin after his lobbying against the food trucks. I’m not a big fan of rewarding anticompetitive behavior. 

BEST FISH FRY
Papa Jake’s Saloon

Wiechec’s. But really, best fish fry is who can best dip a frozen fish from SYSCO into a Pitco Frialator. 

BEST ICE CREAM/FROZEN YOGURT
Anderson’s Frozen Custard

Are you out of your mind Buffalo? Anderson’s is fine, but my God the ambiance in there is 70s Burger King. The ice cream is ok, but it’s not the best in Buffalo. The best ice cream being made in WNY right now is Lake Effect Ice Cream out of Lockport. They make wonderful, rich ice creams and create innovative flavors.  Get your heads out of your asses. Hell, even for custard, Abbott’s and Hibbard’s are way batter. 

BEST ITALIAN
Chef’s Restaurant

I love Chef’s as much as the next fat white guy, but it’s not the best Italian food in WNY. Not by a long shot. It is a spaghetti parm factory. San Marco (caution: annoying noise)? Mulberry? Lombardo’s

BEST PANCAKES
Amy’s Place

I’m not in college anymore, so The Original Pancake House

BEST PIZZA
La Nova

Not remotely. Romeo & Juliet’s, Trattoria Aroma, Siena, 800 Maple, Rocco’s, La Hacienda of Niagara Falls, Pizza Oven, Elm St Bakery all make pizza that’s head and shoulders above La Nova’s floppy stuff. 

BEST SUBS, BEST PLACE TO EAT AT 2AM
Jim’s Steakout

I don’t know from after 2am, but the best subs are at DiBellas and Weggies

BEST STEAK
Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More

There’s room for improvement. 

That’s it. Get it together, Buffalo. Don’t make me tell you how to vote next year. 

What Constitutes “Real Media” and Who Decides?

14 May
I’m not at all a sports guy, so although I follow a few people on Twitter who focus almost exclusively on sports, I don’t generally engage in discussions about it. As British satirist Charlie Brooker suggests, watching sporting events on TV is, “marginally less interesting than watching cardboard exist.”
 
But over the last few months, I had been paying a bit of attention out on the fringe of the interplay between the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington and other people who blog/Tweet about sports.  The pattern seems to be: someone takes an opposing viewpoint, Harrington writes something dismissive to bait them, they curse at him, and he blocks them. So, although I can get rather hot-headed on Twitter, and although Harrington tried to bait me a few times, I ignored it and kept pushing, respectfully.
 
I do not mean to insinuate that the Buffalo News (or any other established, professional medium) is irrelevant – others push that line, but it’s not completely accurate. Relevance is determined by the reader. The News serves a completely different purpose from Trending Buffalo or what I do, as do radio and TV. But just because Artvoice is free and public radio solicits for donations doesn’t make either one any more or less “real” than the Buffalo News.  I see the whole thing as a mosaic of information, which people are free to assemble however they want. 

The backstory begins with this exchange a bit over a week ago, 

That was it. I asked Harrington to define “real media”, but he ignored me. 

So, what happens when you ignore the bait and engage in a back-and-forth? Saturday evening, Buffalo.com writer Ben Tsujimoto had sent a couple of live Tweets about a WNY Flash soccer game…

 

 

[View the story “What Constitutes “Real Media”” on Storify]

Bernie Runs, Buffalo Shrugs (& Other Things)

13 May

1. Former head of the FBI’s Buffalo office, Bernie Tolbert, has finally stopped teasing everyone and officially entered the race for Mayor of Buffalo, running as a Democrat.  This means he’ll be primarying incumbent Byron Brown in September, and that he will be defeated. Buffalo Rising has the text of Tolbert’s announcement speech, and it focuses on education and crime, but is the same sort of talk we’re used to – technocracy and incremental improvement of bureaucratic issues. It’s a nice speech, but not one that adds a vision for a future Buffalo to the standard-issue schools-and-crime talk. 

The issues are so stark, one would think we could move beyond pablum and get into something a bit different. 

While Mayor Brown has had two terms already to do something big, he’s had little to do with anything big that’s happened. However, there is one thing he is better at than any of his competitors – building and maintenance of a formidable political machine. With the Erie County Democratic Committee likely to endorse Brown in an effort to promote intraparty peace, Tolbert’s chances are only slightly – and theoretically – above nil. 

2. But one correspondent to Buffalo Rising has identified a novel way to shuttle people to and from the Outer Harbor. Despite high prevailing winds and six months’ worth of inclement weather, he has suggested a cable car system to transport people high above the Skyway corridor from CanalSide to the empty and polluted Outer Harbor. Instead of focusing on bringing to Buffalo a cablecar system that was so popular at Walt Disney World that it was removed 25 years ago, perhaps we could spend that money to clean up the contamination on the Outer Harbor property that precludes any sort of development from happening. People on Twitter had fun with the idea on Friday under the hashtag #BuffaloCableCar.

It also reminded Chris & me of the “Detroit Entrepreneurial Guy” meme (example 1, example 2) – especially this one. Just substitute “Buffalo”. 

3. About a week ago, the Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington dismissively refused to listen to a podcast that Trending Buffalo’s Brad Riter recorded with Artvoice’s Chris Smith, arguing that it wasn’t “real media”. He and I argued about what constitutes “real media” over the weekend, with Harrington insisting that Trending Buffalo isn’t “real media”, and I argued (a) that the internet is a real medium; and (b) Trending Buffalo’s legitimacy as real media is determined by people who consume its content.  If it has relevance and popularity, it’s “real media”. Harrington insisted that blogs are a “wild west” (and I pointed out the wild west was a “real place”), which is an old argument. In the end, query why it is that the Buffalo News has its journalists blog and Tweet with Buffalo News branding if social media and blogging don’t constitute “real media”. 

Journalists can blog, and bloggers can be journalists. Whether an outlet is “real media” is, in the end, wholly up to the person consuming the content. 

I’ll storify up the back-and-forth later this week. 

Follow me on Twitter and send emails and other stuff to here

 

 

Local AFP Activist Behind Anti-School Tax Direct Mail in Clarence

10 May

A spokesman for the New York branch of the right-wing group “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP) confirms that a local AFP organizer is responsible for sending slick mailings to households in Clarence under the pseudonym “Citizens for Sustainable Schools“.  No such group exists on the New York State Board of Elections website, nor is the actual entity responsible for the mailers identified on any of its materials online, or on the mailers themselves.  The AFP is a well-known fake grassroots (astroturf) advocacy group funded by Koch Industries, which advocates for conservative policies.  It is a well-funded special-interest front group based in Northern Virginia. 

Clarence voters will go to the polls on May 21st to vote on a 9.8% school tax increase to ensure that the Clarence Schools can maintain elective courses, art, and music programs in the face of financial hardships from decreased state funding, years of small increases, and legacy costs.  The school’s superintendent produced the following video, and had the courage to put his – and the district’s – name on it. 

The vote in Clarence is critical because the proposed increase exceeds Cuomo’s property tax cap, and must be approved by a supermajority (60% of votes cast). 

Chris Trimarchi of AFP New York denied that his group had any responsibility for producing or paying for the mailers, which hit Clarence homes a few weeks ago, and again on Friday May 10th. He directed me to Lisa Thrun, whom he identified as an “activist” working in the WNY area, and gave me her number. I placed a phone call to Ms. Thrun, and will update this post when I receive a reply. 

Ms. Thrun and her husband are quite active with AFP and other local tea party organizations.  They organized an Amherst anti-Obamacare teach-in with health reform opponent Betsy McCaughey in 2011, anti-Obama phone banks for AFP in 2012, and one of her LinkedIn profiles lists her as the local “Grassroots Chair” for the Koch Brothers’ decidedly astroturf AFP.  Ms. Thrun, as local chair of the AFP, is the named plaintiff in an AFP-backed lawsuit filed against Governor Cuomo over New York’s participation in a northeastern compact to reduce greenhouse emissions. Here is the first mailer that arrived in Clarence homes: 

 

Today’s version is very senior-centric, and contains great language about “open checkbooks”. Hope those seniors don’t have grandkids who might want an education!

How did I find the AFP connection? Simple. 

The mailers sent to Clarence homes, and the associated website are completely devoid of identifying information. “Citizens for Sustainable Schools” simply doesn’t exist, and the website’s Whois information is locked behind an anonymous registrant. 

Instead, I Googled the phrase “Respect the Taxpayers” and school+tax+new+york, which revealed phrases that were contained on the mailer: 

The thing is, the proposed increase is not outrageous, especially if it helps to protect the excellent quality of Clarence schools. A free and excellent public education is – or, at least, should be – every American child’s birthright. These things cost money – a good education costs money. No one doubts that an increase will be a hardship for some, but Clarence enjoys an overall property tax rate that is significantly lower than that of its Erie County neighbors, and part of the reason why Clarence has grown while other communities have not has to do with the excellence of our schools. 

If the budget doesn’t pass, it is likely that all bands and orchestras at Clarence schools will be eliminated, and all musical instrument instruction will cease. Those 13 educators will be out of work, having negative economic consequences. This includes the concert orchestra, symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, concert band, symphonic band, wind ensemble, 6th, 7th, and 8th Grade Band & Orchestra will be eliminated. Without passage, all vocal music classes will be cut from the middle and high school. All that will be left is the K-8 general music class – the bare minimum the state mandates. will receive ONLY a General Music class; the basic requirements mandated by the State.

On April 2nd, the Clarence Central School District has been recognized as one of its Best Communities for Music Education. Only 307 school districts in the country received this recognition.  9 of the Top 10 Seniors are music students. If the budget passes, the increase in monthly taxes would rise by approximately $11 per $100,000 of assessed value. If you own a house worth $200,000, that’s an extra $22 – the cost of a large pizza with a couple of toppings. Even with the 9.8% increase, Clarence will have the 2nd lowest taxes in Erie County.

For what kind of America is AFP advocating if it recommends effectively ending music and art education in schools? What kind of America does AFP seek if it demands that already financially burdened schools cut – with a hacksaw – to a barebones budget? At what point do we stand up and recognize that we invest in our children, and our families and our society derive a palpable, lifelong return on that investment? 

Vote yes on May 21st at the Clarence High School gymnasium from 7am – 9pm. The quality of our kids’ education, the quality of life in the town, and the town’s desirability are at stake. 

Hamburg and the Constitution

10 May

The right to blog anonymously is a right. The Hamburg School District is trampling all over that right, and sends a poor message to the students it purports to represent

I have never read the “Hamburg Educational Ethics” blog, which is written by the “Concerned Hamburger” anonym, but whoever writes it is a WNY blogger and, as far as I’m concerned, a colleague. 

I don’t know the first thing about what goes on in the Hamburg schools, but I know that the district doesn’t have to like what the author of that blog writes – in fact, they can hate it. But that doesn’t give them the right to serve a subpoena to “out” its author. 

Criticism of a school district is, after all, political speech – in 1st Amendment jurisprudence, political speech is afforded the very highest protection from government intervention or harassment. It is unconscionable that the district – which is a government entity – is so blatantly violating the 1st Amendment in an attempt to silence a critic. This is the stuff dictatorships do. It is absolutely unacceptable in this country. 

One of the blog’s anonymous commenters, who is also subject to the district’s subpoena, wrote this

Dear Readers….

Recently Concerned Hamburger received an email notification from Google indicating that the Hamburg School District, through their attorney Dick Sullivan of Harris Beach~ a commercial real estate attorney moonlighting in education and constitutional law~issued a subpoena to Google demanding the identities of Concerned Hamburger, Super and Klozman.  Immediately, Concerned, Super and Klozman, remaining anonymous,  hired a constitutional attorney to quash the subpoena.  You see readers~ we have the right in this country to voice our opinions and state the facts as we see them.  For almost three years and approximately 300K page hits, Concerned Hamburger has been operating as a citizen journalist reporting on the antics of the public faces of the Hamburg School District. Concerned is dedicated to reporting, and will continue to write on the school district despite their efforts to silence me and others.  It has been reported to Concerned Hamburger by many sources, that Dr. Joan Calkins has a vindictive and demonic alter ego.  Joan’s “other self ” has reported thoughout the Hamburg Community that she will unmask Concerned Hamburger, and she will cause financial harm to the victims of frivolous and baseless lawsuits she and Steve concocted.  Fortunately, turn around is fair play, and it seems that the plans of the District, the Bored of Education, Mr. Abramovitch and others will have unintended consequence never deemed fathomable on the onset of their witch hunt.  

Frankly, if the behavior of the the Bored of Education and Mr. Achramovitch was not so egregiously corrupt, there would be no material to report.  Instead, you the reader~of which there are many~ have been give factual, and sometimes humorous, accounts of the insidious behavior. 

Concerned Hamburger has already spent thousands of dollars attempting to protect their rights, and it is likely the the district has spent tens of thousands on this witch hunt.   This latest stunt by Steve and Joan et. al. should shock the conscience of any reader.  Taxpayer dollars intended to go to children to support a fair and balanced education in accordance with NYS Constitutional Law instead is being used to strip  Federal and State Constitutional rights from private citizens- who are taxpayers. Steven Achramovitch ought to be fired immediately, and charges should be filed against each and every board member individually and collectively. A groundswell of anti-Joan and Steve support it growing across this community, and it appears this is only the beginning. 

Sincerely,

Concerned Hamburger 

That’s the nice thing about the 1st Amendment’s protection of political speech – if you don’t blatantly libel someone (that is, knowingly or negligently publishing a false statement of fact, depending on whether the subject is a public figure or not), you can write whatever you want. For instance, the author above refers to people as  “corrupt”, “frivolous”, “vindictive” and “demonic”. Those are statements of opinion, not fact, and opinion cannot be false or true – it is protected speech. 

A quick scan of the front page of the blog reveals recitations of facts dealing with school policy and budgeting, and opinion about those facts. Nothing appears to be defamatory or otherwise actionable. The fact that the district took action against the bloggers and not individual members who feel insulted helps enhance the Constitutional issue.

Bloggers have rights with their foundation in the 1st Amendment.  Anonymity is sometimes used by bloggers to shield them from repercussions at work. In 1995, the Supreme Court held that anonymous speech is protected speech

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

The Federalist Papers were written by anonyms. The Hamburg school blog may be no Federalist Papers, but it is still important to protect anonymous political speech, and the district’s efforts to use the courts to chill speech critical of it is reprehensible. 

While a minority of western New Yorkers expresses weeks’ worth of righteous Constitutional outrage over a gun law that only slightly tightens what were already the most restrictive gun laws in the country, this – this infringement on protected political speech deserves at least the same reaction.  

Perhaps the district’s social studies teachers can add this to their curriculum. 

The Morning Grumpy – 5/9/13

9 May

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

 watermelon_gun

1. Is Western New York interested in stimulating business? Increasing government transparency? Utilizing the power of the private sector and our universities to make the city a better place to live? If so, we could follow the lead of municipalities across the country that are taking part in the Open Data movement.

What is open data? It’s the idea that municipal data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other control. The data created, collected, and stored by city government should be made available to the public for analysis, manipulation, and development. It’s data about us and the city we pay for with our tax dollars.

Many cities have pursued open data platforms around the United States, including San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. NYC has set up a wiki to help implement its landmark open data legislation, an example that Western New York leaders might draw inspiration from, with respect to forming more collaborative and transparent processes online.

It’s important that data not just be released, but also subsequently updated. Information released usually covers the gamut of municipal data, including; crime statistics, emergency services response times, payroll, utility consumption, public transportation information, school attendance/enrollment stats, parking regulations, etc. This data can then be manipulated and analyzed by the community for greater accountability. It also provides a rich dataset for startup entrepreneurs to use as they develop technologies and applications for the market.

Here’s an awesome talk by Tim O’Reilly from 2009 that is still incredibly relevant today and explains some of the benefits of an Open Data program. Government as a platform, rather than as a finished product or service.

I think we all know that Mayor Brown wouldn’t be interested in this kind of idea, but Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz (noted technocrat and general numbers nerd) might be inclined to consider this sort of program.

2. Mike Puma of Preservation Studios would like to show you how to buy a house in Buffalo for $1.

The Urban Homestead Program that is offered by the City of Buffalo enables qualified buyers to purchase a home that has been deemed “homestead eligible” for $1.00 and there are plenty of properties left. There are three main requirements when purchasing a homestead property; the owner must fix all code violations within 18 months, have immediate access to at least $5000, and live there for at least three years. You also have to cover the closing costs of the purchase.

Check out his list and follow his links to learn more about the program and about the people who are already involved.

3. While reading a story about Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the struggle to find him a final resting place, I came across this fun fact: Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated William McKinley in Buffalo, was dissolved in sulfuric acid, Breaking Bad-style. We were some medieval motherfuckers back then, eh?

4. Teaching the fine art of cursing to your children.

First, you must obliterate any notion that words can be divided into good and bad. Any words can be used to good or bad effect. Curse words are strong words, not bad words, but they are susceptible to being made weak and dumb through overuse. To teach this is far more challenging than it might seem, because every other part of the world in which we seek to raise our children into decent adults is working against you here. And if your children inhabit that world without obedient awareness of the line between good and bad words, they will encounter constant friction.

The second thing you must do is to teach your children to recognize the nuanced differences between public and private, at least insofar as it relates to cursing. They have to understand that while public and private may be mere constructs, they are indispensably meaningful in that deft navigation of them marks a person as well-adjusted whereas flaunting them will inevitably land you in jail.

As a frequent and enthusiastic practitioner of the cursing dark arts, I want my kids to understand the power of their words and when to best use them.

5. Just wanted to share a site I enjoy reading, The Art of Manliness. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s not. It’s filled with a lot of good advice for men on how to be, ya know, men. How to buy a suit, how to find a classic shave, etc. all without taking an overtly macho and/or misogynist approach. Learn to be a gentleman.

6. If this piece of data, visualized, doesn’t stop you in your tracks, I don’t know what to say.

Fact Of The Day: The term “jaywalking” was coined by the auto industry in the 1920s in an effort to “redefine streets as places where pedestrians do not belong”

Quote Of The Day: “Complacency + Mediocrity ÷ Nostalgia = Buffalo” – Chris Smith

Video Of The Day: 38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors

Song Of The Day: “Pigs In Zen” – Jane’s Addiction

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Email me links, tips, story ideas: chris@artvoice.com