Syracuse Stories of the Year 2011

I’ve been doing this retrospective for a few years now.

I’m going to try to do this a little differently this year. I’m going to go all theme-y on your asses!

Syracuse in 2011: “just-who-is-in-charge-here-anyway?”

Being a politician in Syracuse is like being in high school. . .
. . . and I do not mean that in a positive way. These folks are not pictures of youth, energy and idealism. Politicians in Syracuse are a bunch of back-biting, status whores–all fighting over who gets to sit at the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom. Last year’s stories were heartwarming tales of powerful and smart young women, overcoming their different party ideologies to find a way to cooperate and improve both the city and county. This year, the story is about how both Stephanie Miner and Joanie Mahoney are in open warfare with their respective legislatures. Both the Syracuse Common Council and the Onondaga County legislature are controlled by the same parties as their respective executive branches. This isn’t about ideology. It’s about hurt feelings and raw power.

In the County, Joanie Mahoney, who was never approved of by her party’s good-old boys network due to her unseemly challenge to their anointed candidate, is facing threats of legal challenges and grand jury investigations over appointments to the Legislature, to county jobs and to party committee positions. It is going to get worse, as the recent elections saw the Legislature downsize, giving the GOP a veto-proof majority–and a cudgel to beat her with for the next two budgets and over any other nit they want to pick.

In the city, the feuding has degenerated into tit-for-tat insults and spats. Close a senior center? We’ll refuse to buy your requested DPW dump truck. The Council deadlocked on appointing a replacement for former Councilor Bill Ryan, who left to work for the Mayor. The Council labored for weeks to name a replacement–the only unifying thought was the councilors’ unanimous opposition to the woman widely thought to be the Mayor’s choice–Helen Hudson. Every issue facing the city is distorted by this power calculation. The decision about a new Citizen Review Board to investigate complaints of police brutality was held up while the Mayor and Council bickered about the hiring and firing of the Board members. The Council even attempted to amend the City Charter so they could review Planning Committee cases turned down for hearings by the commission, believing the mayor has more power than they do on appointments to the commission. Upcoming discussions about the Community Development Block Grant, Inner Harbor Redevelopment and the establishment of a city/county Land Bank for tax delinquent vacant houses are all upcoming–and all have started whispered conversations about power.

Just whose fiefdom are we talking about here?
The feud erupted during the uproar following the explosion of the Bernie Fine sexual abuse case. I don’t think that I need to explain the one local story that got national coverage this year, only to point out that intense scrutiny by the national media tends to make people lose their minds. Especially people who are lose cannons even during the best of times. District Attorney William Fitzpatrick accused Syracuse Police Department Chief Frank Fowler of lording over a fiefdom, abusing his power and being unfit to be in law enforcement. When the two started duking it out over the release of records in the case, all hell broke lose. Accusations flew in the media and both sides ran to the judges. Everything got straightened out and Fitzy even started to backpedal on his statements about the Chief. But the damage has been done. Fitzy goes medieval on people’s asses when they get in his way. Especially when those people are African-Americans with their own powerful positions.

Even Nancy Cantor has the highway blues . . .
Yeah, she’s the head of the region’s largest employer and its most visible asset. She is clearly the most powerful person in town. She chaired the economic development committee that brought home more money than any other in Governor Andy Cuomo’s recent scheme to have regions compete for state largesse. But some of the natives up on the hill are restless–wondering if she’s not forcing the school to stray from its core mission. That administration/professoriate struggle for control was aired in public in an article in the national journal Chronicle of Education, entitled “Syracuse’s Slide.” This kicked off much scuffling online and in the local paper. It also resulted in a response article in the next issue of the Chronicle. A graphic portrayal of her struggles to retain control was published in the Post-Standard: an especially unflattering and not-so-vaguely sexist photo of Nancy being hoisted in the air by Shaquille O’Neal during an S.U. hoops game at the Dome.

Well, if I keep buying them off, it’s still cheaper than property taxes
The long-delayed Destiny USA project is looking a little less moribund these days. The Pyramid Co. and its dear leader Bob Congel settled its legal problems with Bank of America–got the capital flowing again, are finishing off the 880K square foot expanded portion of the Carousel Mall (promising that its cinder block exterior is due for some renovations to make it look less like a medium security prison) and announced some new commercial tenants for the space. Completing the expansion also triggers the 30 year payment in lieu of taxes deal on the space of the original mall. If he completes the second addition, an additional tax break will kick in on the new space. He paid the city $1.5 million to extend the deadline on the second addition for another 6 months. But the dynamic retail/entertainment/hotel/green technology center monstrosity that would lure visitors from all over the northeast that he originally promised? That has morphed into either a single hotel or 300 more square feet of mall retail space.

“Gentlemen, you may now resume firing.”
In the battle to reduce random shootings and murders and protect innocent citizens from out-of-control street gangs, our neighborhoods are girding for a potential setback. The NY state anti-gun violence program SNUG cut five cities from the program, including Syracuse and it disappeared with nary a whisper of complaint. In Albany, SNUG’s results were so well received that the community rallied and succeeded in convincing the city to use its own funding for the program. Despite the marked decrease in the number of murders in our community this year, the only comment about the loss of SNUG was by Police Chief Fowler, who was quoted as disagreeing with the entire methodology of the program. The model for SNUG was the Cease Fire campaign in Chicago, which trained former gang members to negotiate truces with current gang members. It will be interesting to see if widespread release of the highly touted documentary movie about Cease Fire entitled “The Interrupters” in February 2012 will create any discussion about bringing the program back to Syracuse.

You don’t live in my neighborhood
A recent study showed that Syracuse is the 11th most segregated city in America. This fact has ramifications throughout our community. The most obvious happened this year when the Democrats nominated and elected a monochromatic slate of 4 white east-siders to run for the School Board. The school Board now has only one person of color–while the student body is 74% students of color. Segregation is bound to have a political effect on a city that is now almost entirely Democratic (Mayor, Council, City Court and School Board are all D’s.) The local Democratic Party selects its candidates using a weighted system based on how each ward votes in the gubernatorial election. African Americans have a physical presence in, at most, 5 out of the city’s 19 wards. Whites make up about 53% of the city’s population, yet make up the majority population in nearly 75% of the city’s wards.

We are not masters of our domain.
In a city where 33% of the city’s budget and 76% of the school districts budget comes from Albany, when the Governor and the Legislature leaders (the famous 3 men in a room) tell us to jump, we still ask how high. This year was no exception. Pension and health care costs continue to rise, yet sales taxes and our local share of state income taxes continue to plummet due to the collapsed economy. For local governments, this is the perfect storm of disasters. The state also passed legislation capping the amount that local governments can raise their own property taxes. The result will be layoffs of public workers, increased fees for services–at least the services that aren’t cut entirely. Syracuse is starting to see this already. The city shut down the Ida Benderson senior center it ran downtown, handing over its operation and some token funding for one year to a local non-profit. The closing of the senior center was an example of the austerity fever that will continue to plague the city. The Miner administration sees the state coming in to take over the city’s finances when we finally exhaust all our savings. With the economy nowhere near recovery, we must all start discussing how to increase local and state revenue–or else face ever more extreme cuts.

The Feel Good Syracuse Story of the Year
OK, one nice story for the road! When the NY State Legislature passed and the Governor signed the same-sex marriage bill, Syracusans Ernst Schuh and Frederick Marvin were among those that took advantage of the new law to make official their 52 year relationship. Mazel Tov!

One thought on “Syracuse Stories of the Year 2011

  1. I’m surprised Fitzpatrick didn’t call Fowler “eeeeevil in human form.”

    Some day I would like to see the Devil (in the form of Jon Lovitz) walk into his office, bet it would really freak him out.

    Thanks for the roundup. If it weren’t for this annual roundup, I would have almost no idea of what was going on in Syracuse government.


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