Category Archives: Power

What’s the rush on redistricting?

Last week, Onondaga County Democrats and Republicans each released their own proposals for new County Legislative districts. Both parties recommended big changes to the current map, but they disagreed on several major details. These disagreements show that we need to slow this process down and apply New York State’s newly enacted non-partisan standards to achieve a fair outcome.

Take the dispute over the district encompassing the rural southeastern portion of the County. The Democrats’ map groups the southeastern towns of Lafayette, Fabius, Pompey, and Tully with the southwestern towns of Skaneateles, Otisco, and Spafford. But David Knapp, Chairman of the County Legislature, insists that this would “disenfranchise rural voters” because “the needs of someone in the lakeside community of Skaneateles are not the same as those of a resident in agrarian Lafayette.” Instead, the Republicans grouped those southeastern towns (Lafayette, Fabius, Pompey, and Tully) with small portions of DeWitt, Onondaga, and Manlius.

But it’s not exactly clear what that fixes. The needs of the suburban residents of the Village of Manlius aren’t obviously closely aligned with Apple Valley either. The point seems to be that the southeastern towns should have their own district, and if that means padding their small population with densely settled slivers of the Towns of Manlius, DeWitt, and Onondaga, then so be it. Nevermind that this also ‘disenfranchises’ the people living in those communities, to use Mr. Knapp’s definition of the word.

Or look at the disagreement about how to draw districts in the growing northwestern towns of Lysander, Clay, Camillus, and Van Buren. The Democrats’ map covers those towns with five legislative districts, but Kevin Hulslander, the Republican Chair of the Reapportionment Commission, claims that underestimates the rate at which those towns will grow over the next decade: “We’re establishing seven districts in the towns where the growth is to accommodate for the growth. Map number one [the Democrats’ proposal] includes only five districts. So, at the very core of what our job is here, map number one fails.”

But again, this is not an obvious solution. Demographic trends in Onondaga County are in such flux that it’s very difficult to predict exactly which towns will grow (or shrink!) over the next ten years. The census bureau predicted that the City would lose population between 2010 and 2020, and they were wrong. Cicero had—for decades—been the county’s fastest growing town, but it’s not anymore. If the Census Bureau cannot accurately predict which parts of Onondaga County will grow and how, then it’s very doubtful Mr. Hulslander can either.

Of course, decisions about who deserves representation—Lafayette or Manlius—and which parts of the County are most likely to grow—Van Buren or Syracuse—have partisan implications. The City and several inner ring suburbs are home to more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the opposite is true in the exurbs and rural parts of the county.

What Onondaga County needs are non-partisan guidelines that can ensure a fair process for drawing these legislative districts. Luckily, New York State has provided just that. New legislation directs all counties to draw districts according to existing population figures—not anticipated ones. The new legislation also says that legislative district lines should follow pre existing, broadly understood, meaningful boundaries such as town lines or school district catchments rather than trying to group people based on any individual politician’s idea of which communities are more deserving of representation.

Onondaga County’s Reapportionment Commission and Legislature should take the time to properly review this new law before deciding on any redistricting proposal. We need a fair and transparent process. There’s no rush. Let’s get this right.

False hope for the viaduct

Assemblymember Bill Magnarelli just wrote an op-ed arguing that we can’t move forward with the I-81 project until there’s consensus. This is wrong, and we need to move past the false hope that the I-81 project can possibly please everybody.

The Assemblymember pointed to widespread criticism of the recently release Draft Environmental Impact Statement as evidence that NYSDOT should not move forward with the Grid. People living in Pioneer Homes deserve better mitigation during the construction period; car drivers may have to stop at red lights; fewer people may drive directly past the Mall; car exhaust may cause students at Dr. King Elementary to develop chronic respiratory illness. 

From the Assemblymember’s perspective, these criticisms all point to his preferred outcome for this project: the status quo.

“We can have connectivity within the city, including walking and bike trails, and continue to keep the city connected to its suburbs and the rest of the region. These are not mutually exclusive… What we need is a community grid in conjunction with a rebuilt viaduct, tunnel, or new bridge to keep traffic flowing through Syracuse.”

The Assemblymember then implies that this outcome—one which has been opposed by the City’s elected leadership for a decade—would work for everybody:

“I do not believe that a consensus for this project has ever been reached by the city, suburbs and outlying towns in our region. Given the amount of federal monies available, why don’t we have an option that satisfies everyone’s needs?”

There is no option that can possibly meet everyone’s “needs,” and to see why all you have to do is read through the Assemblymember’s list of concerns. A new viaduct would certainly save car drivers from the terror of traffic lights, but it would also increase air pollution at Dr. King Elementary. A tunnel (it’s okay, you can laugh) would definitely keep cars moving past the Mall, but the interchange with 690 would be even bigger than what we have today, and it would create a blackhole in the middle of town where no one would ever have cause to walk or bike.

Assemblyman Magnarelli is wrong: competing interests want mutually exclusive things out of this project. There is no way to reconcile all of the concerns that different members of different communities have expressed about NYSDOT’s current plan for I-81.

In fact, the DEIS has received so much criticism because it is a misguided attempt to find a “consensus” solution. The Grid should resemble a normal city street in order to accommodate local street life while discouraging through traffic from bringing air pollution, noise pollution, and traffic violence into the City. Instead, NYSDOT is offering something no one wants—the West Street Arterial but bigger—in order to appease powerful people like the Assemblymember who have demanded that the Grid accommodate high-speed high-volume car traffic.

There is no possible solution that can please both the Mall and Dr. King Elementary’s community. They simply want mutually exclusive outcomes from the I-81 project. That’s a hard truth because it requires our leaders to make a decision that will be unpopular with some people, but it’s the way things are. Anybody who continues to nurture this false hope—that if we just had more time, if we just thought a little harder about it, if we just spent more money, then everybody could be happy—is ignoring reality.

Dirt Bikes and Traffic Violence

City Hall’s “crackdown” on dirt bikes and ATVs demonstrates how an overreliance on policing can crowd out more effective methods of achieving public safety. The crackdown—an annual Spring event—includes more officers patrolling city neighborhoods trying to ticket or tow dirt bikes and ATVs.

Why this specific class of vehicles? As Mayor Walsh put it, “The return of warmer weather is bringing back behaviors that make our streets unsafe and create disturbances to quality of life… dirt bikes and ATVs are dangerous.”

Clearly, Syracuse does have a problem with traffic violence, and it does make us all less safe. Ask anybody who gets around on foot or on a bike or in a wheelchair and they’ll tell you—it’s dangerous just moving around town. Every day brings close calls, and the only reason more people aren’t injured and killed is that so many have been scared from even trying to navigate the streets in the first place.

Look at this problem through the lens of policing, and the solution is to stop rule breakers from doing illegal things. There are laws against driving dirt bikes on city streets, so a police-driven city government will fixate on that rule breaking and try to stop it. They’ll bring out helicopters and raise fines and issue press releases and announce that they’ve taken important steps to improve public safety by dealing with illegal behavior.

This is a campaign against deviance. Dirt bikes don’t fit into the way the streets are supposed to work, so they’re illegal, so the police department will try to remove them and restore traffic to its normal equilibrium.

But anyone who’s experienced traffic violence knows that the normal equilibrium is really unsafe. Too large cars travelling at too fast speeds on too wide streets—it’s all extremely dangerous and it’s all perfectly legal. James Street is so deadly that City Hall’s official advice to cyclists is to avoid it, but when a car driver hit 13-year-old Zyere Jackson out front of Lincoln Middle School in 2019, SPD determined that no traffic laws had been broken.

The real problem is that the streets themselves are built to be dangerous. Engineering standards governing intersection design, lane width, and signal timing all prioritize vehicle speed. The entire street network is designed and built to maximize traffic throughput at unsafe speeds, and that’s what makes the streets unsafe.

All of which is why the cities that have had the best success reducing traffic violence have focused on street design rather than law enforcement. It’s a relatively simple thing to make a street safer with curbing, textured pavement, street trees, or any other of a number of small physical alterations that lower traffic speeds and encourage everybody who uses the street to look out for each other. Those kinds of design changes make the street itself safer, and they would do more the minimize the danger from dirt bikes than increased policing can.

When the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Syracuse turns to the SPD to solve a lot of problems, and so those problems get reduced to law-breaking. But Syracuse’s problems are more complicated than that, and they will require more comprehensive solutions. We need to invest more in municipal departments like DPW, NBD, and Parks so that they have the capacity to offer these comprehensive solutions. City Hall needs more tools to make Syracuse safer.

A police contract from the past

Mayor Walsh’s deal with the PBA pretends that 2020 never happened. It pretends that the City’s situation right now is that same as it was in 2019. It pretends that nobody marched for reform or said anything worth hearing about policing last year.

Headed into arbitration over the police contract, City Hall just wants to get the same terms that they negotiated back at the end of 2019—terms that would add millions of dollars to the police budget for years to come. As the Walsh administration’s lead negotiator put it: “There really, in our mind, wasn’t any reason to go back to the drawing board and start all over again.”

I would think it’d be obvious to anyone who lived through 2020 why a huge increase to the police budget isn’t appropriate in 2021. I would think it’d be obvious why today is different from a year ago and why City Hall had a mandate to go back to the drawing board and get a new deal.

There was a national popular uprising against the common practice of policing in American cities. The Syracuse community participated in that movement and clearly communicated that the problems with modern American policing are problems in this City too.

One of the biggest problems the movement identified is the overwhelming size of police budgets. In Syracuse—a city perennially on the brink of fiscal collapse—20 cents of every dollar goes to the SPD. This extravagance makes it impossible to provide the municipal programs and services the City really needs, and so it is necessary for City Hall to rebalance its budget by committing more resources to the community.

This was a specific, explicit criticism that Syracuse activists repeated for months. Mayor Walsh heard it, but it’s clear he did not listen. It will be impossible to invest in community programs and services if police are taking an ever larger slice of the municipal pie.

The voices that explained all this last year were powerful and eloquent. City Hall needs to pay them heed and negotiate a new agreement with the PBA.

Corporate Governance

When OCIDA gave Amazon $71 million in tax breaks, a lot of us were left wondering what Jeff Bezos—the wealthiest man on the planet—could possibly need all that money for. Now we have 2.5% of the answer. He’s going to give $1.75 million of that money back to the public as a donation to the new countywide STEAM school that will soon be operating out of the old Central High building.

But that money comes with strings attached. It’s for “robotics and computer science programs” because Amazon’s new warehouse “will depend heavily on robotics for fulfilling orders and Amazon wants to help train the next generation of workers.” And Amazon very pointedly left the A (for Arts) out of STEAM in its statement on the donation:

“We want to inspire the next generation of innovators to explore opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math, so we’re proud to partner with Onondaga County—which we will soon call home—to increase access to STEM education for thousands of local students for years to come. We hope they’ll join our team at Amazon one day and teach us a thing or two as they build their careers here.”

We’re outsourcing curriculum design to a private corporation that is explicitly and primarily interested in bending public education to serve its own interests. And all it cost Amazon was $1.75 million that we had already given them in the first place.

It’s not hard to imagine this pattern repeating in other areas of local government. Amazon paying for improved bus service to its warehouse even when that money would have a greater impact increasing service on high-ridership lines, say.

The STEAM school is still worth getting excited about, and it’s better that Amazon spends $1.75 million there than on stock dividends or whatever. But in a more just world, Amazon would have just paid its whole tax bill (like the rest of us), that would have covered almost the entire $74 million cost of building the STEAM school, and educators would have retained control over the school’s curriculum.

The mechanics of exclusion

Syracuse’s zoning ordinance makes most buildings illegal. Before anyone can build almost any new building or put an old one to almost any new use, they have to get a special exemption from the zoning code in the form of a variance or permit. This seemingly bureaucratic process is actually intensely political—the zoning appeals board and planning commission have discretion to approve or deny these permits and applications, and they can be influenced by well-connected people, businesses, organizations, and politicians. Vocal interest groups disrupt the hearings, political allies call in favors, campaign contributors air their concerns over lunch with the mayor.

This is how zoning actually works—the mechanics behind the ordinance that determine what gets built and in what neighborhoods. It exposes almost all new building—from high-priced apartments to emergency shelters—to political interference, and its practical effect is to decrease housing opportunity, drive up rents, and perpetuate exclusion across the City.

Take the apartment building planned for the Temple Concord site at the corner of University and Madison. Syracuse’s antiquated zoning code still considers that to be a semi-suburban residential area, so—among other onerous restrictions—it requires new buildings to have a 77’ rear setback. That’s just not practical for the kind of land use the neighborhood needs now, so the developer is requesting a variance to build closer to the property line.

The landlord next door doesn’t like that. Sure, his building is also ‘too close’ to the property line and would require a variance to get built today, but that’s not the point. The point is that incumbent landlords don’t like competition because it puts downward pressure on rents, and so he’s using a clearly outdated zoning ordinance to try and deny alternative housing options to his potential future tenants.

It’s hard to worry too much about two landlords fighting over tenants on University Hill, but these same bureaucratic mechanics also operate in other neighborhoods where they contribute to exclusion and segregation.

That’s what happened in Westcott two years ago when Syracuse’s overly restrictive zoning ordinance kept a developer from building 32 new apartments in a neighborhood with an acute housing shortage. Household sizes are shrinking in Westcott, but the century-old housing stock is mostly homes with 3 or more bedrooms, so rents are going up and people crowd together with roommates to afford this high-opportunity neighborhood.

32 new 1-bedroom apartments would have helped the neighborhood adjust to this changing demographic reality, but Syracuse’s zoning ordinance doesn’t really account for that kind of construction outside of a few very select areas, so the project required a variance. In a politically powerful neighborhood where the loudest voices often oppose new rental housing, the project was rejected out of hand, and 32 people who could have lived in Westcott have had to find alternative housing elsewhere.

But some people can’t just find housing elsewhere. The men who stay at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter don’t really have anywhere else to go, and now that shelter itself is struggling to find a place to operate. It had intended to relocate to an abandoned building on West Genesee in the shadow of the West Street expressway, but an influential political donor with nearby real estate interests has run the shelter off with threats of frivolous litigation.

Now, those same anti-housing forces are trying to make sure their task is easier next time by amending the zoning ordinance to require a permit for any new ‘care home’ anywhere in the City. This legislation would require the planning commission to approve each individual emergency shelter, group home, and assisted living facility, and it would open all of these different kinds of housing arrangements to the same kinds of bad faith opposition that have made new housing so hard to build in any high-opportunity neighborhood in this City.

This is how zoning really works in Syracuse today. The zoning code is intentionally restrictive so that almost all new housing has to be approved on a case-by-case basis. That opens each project to obstruction from well-connected developers, politically powerful interest groups, and campaign contributors. All too often, these actors find their interests in opposition to the City’s least politically connected residents—renters, low-income families, people with disabilities, the unhoused—and they use the zoning ordinance to perpetuate systems of exclusion and segregation that make it so hard for so many to find a decent place to live in this City.

To begin to unmake those inequitable systems, City Hall first needs to reject this care homes zoning amendment. It’s practical effect will be to ban emergency housing from politically connected neighborhoods and concentrate it—along with so many other social services—in the places where no deep-pocketed donors live.

And then, City Hall needs to pass a new zoning ordinance that does away with all of this nonsense. ReZone—City Hall’s delayed plan to modernize the zoning ordinance—needs to be amended so that it doesn’t just reinstate these existing inequalities, and then it needs to be put into law so that everybody in this City can get the housing they need.

Congressman Katko, impeach this president

John Katko must uphold his oath of office by voting to impeach Donald Trump this week.

The president lost his bid for reelection, badly, and is scrambling for alternative means of remaining in office. Simple fraud has not been working, so on Wednesday he incited an armed mob to commit an act of domestic terrorism designed to force Congress to overturn the will of the American people and install him as president despite his historic failure at the polls.

Donald Trump’s terrorists looted the Capitol. They ripped down the American flag and replaced it with fascist banners. They killed security officers who were protecting John Katko’s life. 

This is abhorrent. This is disgusting. This is treasonous. This vile act demands the strongest possible response: prosecution of every one of those terrorists, expulsion of the members of the House and Senate who goaded them on, and impeachment—at the very least—of the demagogue and would-be dictator who caused the whole seditious disaster.

All John Katko can muster, though, is this tepid statement: “I can’t support him going forward and I don’t think the party will support him going forward”

No, you don’t have deja vu. That is basically exactly what our congressman said in 2016 after the Access Hollywood tape came out, and we all heard Donald Trump brag about sexually assaulting multiple women.

And what was that statement worth? Nothing. Not only because John Katko couldn’t find the courage to vote for Donald Trump’s opponent in that one election, but also because he has voted for Donald Trump at just about every opportunity since then. Over and over and over again he’s voted against our needs and for Donald Trump’s interests in Congress, and then when Donald Trump’s name was back on the ballot, John Katko broke his word and voted for him for president.

So when John Katko says that this time Donald Trump has gone too far, who can really believe him? Who can believe that the congressman actually believes that. Who would be so gullible when the man has already admitted that he won’t take any action that could prove it?

Unless John Katko actually does something—unless he actually votes to remove Donald Trump from office, unless he actually defends American democracy—we can’t believe him. His feckless record of lies, equivocations, sly winks to fascism, and coy nods to racism do not allow us to believe him.

John Katko is not the worst person in Congress. He has colleagues who are true believers, out-and-out conspiracy theorists, unrepentant Nazis, and priests in Donald Trump’s cult of personality. John Katko is not as insane as they are.

But it doesn’t really matter because he has not shown himself to have the the strength or the character to stand up to those dangerous lunatics or their maniac leader, Donald Trump.

This is a crisis, and we need more than stern expressions of disapproval. We need positive action to secure our government against the threats that have been allowed to grow so large and so threatening over the last four years. Our congressman must prove that he is equal to the moment by taking that action, removing Donald Trump from office, and barring him from ever holding it again.

It’s time for an Independent Republican Conference

The New York State Senate will look a little different next year. Democrats will keep the majority, but Upstate will play a bigger role in that conference after key wins in Buffalo, Rochester, and another potential pickup in Syracuse. That’s got people asking whether there’s a way for Upstate to advocate for itself more effectively in Albany. There is: Upstate Republican State Senators need to form an Independent Republican Conference and caucus with the Democrats.

Republican State Senators are already familiar with the logic of this idea. From 2013-14 and 2015-16, they were this close to having a majority in the State Senate. They couldn’t control the chamber all on their own, so they allied with a few broad-minded Democrats (the Independent Democratic Conference) who were willing to provide the necessary votes to get over that important threshold in exchange for special favors and privileges.

Now the shoe’s on the other foot. There are still a lot of votes left to be counted, but it looks like progressive victories in a few key Upstate districts have will bring the Democrats this close to having a supermajority in the State Senate. With just a few extra votes, they (and the Assembly’s Democratic supermajority) could override the Governor’s veto and actually do the work that New Yorkers are calling on them to do. As it stands though, the Governor has the power to block a lot of that necessary legislation with a simple veto.

Even with their diminished numbers, there are enough Upstate Republican State Senators to provide that supermajority and override that veto. If they caucus with the Democrats and provide the crucial votes to reach that threshold, the legislature will be able to pass the laws that New York State needs without interference from the Governor.

And if those Republicans make it explicit that they’re providing their votes as Upstaters, they’ll be in a great position to secure all kinds of investment and legislation to meet Upstate’s specific regional needs: rural and urban broadband, high-speed rail, investment in the NYS Canals as a flood control system, enhanced public transportation for Upstate’s many small and mid-sized cities, residency requirements for police… the list goes on.

So there’s something to all of this talk about bipartisanship and Upstate’s growing political power. The best way to really act on it is for Upstate Republican State Senators to form an Independent Republican Conference, caucus with the Democrats, and provide the necessary votes to override the Governor’s veto in exchange for legislation that benefits Upstate.

National Elections are Local Too

The City of Syracuse is governed by City Hall, Onondaga County, New York State, and the Federal Government. Each level of government has jurisdiction here, and each one owes a responsibility to this community that goes beyond their duty to its residents as individual voters. National elections are local elections too.

Syracuse’s population loss is such a mammoth problem and is the result of so many different factors that it’s often hard to pin on any one cause, but if the 2020 Census declares that fewer than 145,270 people live in the City, it will be Donald Trump’s fault.

First, because he intentionally sabotaged the census count in a transparent effort to deny places like Syracuse the federal funding and political representation that they deserve.

Second—and more importantly—because this racist, xenophobic President and his congressional enablers have made it almost impossible to immigrate to America. For more than 200 years, Syracuse has grown and prospered because people have moved here from somewhere else. For the last 20 years, those people have been moving here from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Sudan. Keeping people from coming to America is keeping them from coming to Syracuse, and it’s killing the City.

Coronavirus destroyed the local economy, and—because local governments fund themselves with a direct tax on local economic activity—it has destroyed City Hall’s and Onondaga County’s municipal budgets. The Federal Government at least tried to help the economy, but—for purely ideological reasons—it has ignored local governments. Congressional Republicans—including Syracuse’s representative, John Katko—are denying City Hall the relief that it so obviously needs.

This is an ongoing disaster for Syracuse. It’s crippled the city libraries (but not the suburban ones), it closed the pools during a record-breaking heatwave, it’s making it even harder and more dangerous to walk anywhere in a town where more than 1 in 4 families don’t own a car.

I could go on. There are so many ways that local issues depend primarily on the action of the Federal Government, and so if you care about this community you have to care about national politics too. Syracuse depends on it.

There’s more than one kind of police misconduct

The Syracuse Police Department’s misconduct takes many forms. This week we learned that the SPD wasted a bunch of public money by mismanaging staff scheduling early in the coronavirus pandemic, and we learned that the DA’s office finally dropped charges against the innocent man that SPD had coerced into confessing to a crime that he didn’t commit.

Fiscal irresponsibility matters. City Hall can’t afford to pay for all of the public services that Syracuse needs, so when SPD wastes money like that, they’re necessarily taking a necessary public service from someone who needs it. And, since 95% of officers live in the suburbs, every dollar spent on SPD’s payroll is a direct transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

It also matters that SPD is locking up innocent people while murderers go free. Someone killed Charles Jones. It’s SPD’s job to find out who. Instead, they picked up the first black man that they found, Robert Adams, and got him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. He spent 8 months in jail. This is the exact opposite of justice.

These are two different problems—fixing one won’t necessarily fix the other. City Hall is very concerned with the first problem because it’s connected to the municipal budget. So they’ve taken concrete steps to rein in police overtime, to get cops to live in the City.

The trap here is thinking that fixing SPD’s money problems or getting officers to live in the City will make law enforcement more just—it won’t. It’s going to take a different set of actions to enforce laws fairly in Syracuse—demilitarizing the police, reducing their interactions with the public, treating mental health and addiction as the medical problems that they are. And we haven’t seen City Hall take any concrete steps to make any of that happen.

So as City Hall pursues police reform, keep in mind all of the different ways that SPD needs reforming. Yes, the police department needs to be a better steward of public money. And yes, its payroll should help build wealth in City neighborhoods. But it’s also true that the SPD needs to change its entire approach to policing if law enforcement is really going to make Syracuse a safer better place, and no amount of budget trimming or personnel policies can make that happen all on their own.