Category Archives: Power

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.

Sidewalks: Necessity or Amenity?

How can City Hall say that it’s preserving municipal services that “impact public health and safety” at the same time that it’s cutting the sidewalk plowing program? On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. Leaving snow on the sidewalks pushes pedestrians into the way of oversized vehicles that predictably kill and maim unprotected human bodies. Clearly, clearing the sidewalks has a positive impact on public health and safety.

And it makes even less sense when you know that City Hall has left its car-lane plowing program intact. So even my tiny redundant street will get plowed before the sidewalks on Geddes, even though way more people walk on those sidewalks than drive on my street.

The only way this can make sense is if City Hall doesn’t think people really need to use the sidewalks as much as they need to drive cars. If sidewalks are for recreation, maybe, a good way to ‘get your steps in,’ but not for the real business of transportation. If that’s true, then the people walking with cars on slick streets in winter are taking an unnecessary risk, and City Hall can’t take responsibility for that.

That’s probably a pretty good description of how City Hall’s leaders use sidewalks, but it doesn’t apply to the City at large. More than a quarter or all Syracuse households do not own even one single motor vehicle. Syracuse ranks 12th nationally for highest pedestrian commute share. The Syracuse urban ranks 55th nationally for per capita transit use. People use the sidewalks because they have to, and in the winter people walk in the street because City Hall pushes them there.

And so—like libraries, pools, and bike lanes—sidewalk maintenance gets treated like an ‘amenity’ because the people who control it have insulated themselves from the conditions that make that service a necessity for tens of thousands of people living in the City. That’s how City Hall can cut its plowing program and still pretend that it’s preserved all of the services that people ‘really need.’

What the State can do to reform policing in Syracuse

Despite all of the pressure that protesters have put on City Hall, it’s the New York State Legislature that’s really been pushing police reform in Syracuse. They acted fast to repeal 50-a and to actually ban chokeholds just days after mass protests demanded those actions in cities across the state. Now, State Senator Rachel May has written a bill that would prohibit the Syracuse PBA specifically from negotiating officer discipline as part of its contract contract with City Hall

These three actions show how the separation of powers between Cities and the State really aren’t all that separate. 50-a was a state law, so there was no way for City Hall to get around it without help from the State Legislature. Chokeholds though, are covered in individual departments’ use-of-force policies, so getting them banned had seemed like a local issue until a state law superseded all local use-of-force policies. But the State doesn’t have to confine itself to passing statewide laws—as Senator May’s bill shows, it’s entirely within the Legislature’s power to pass what are effectively local Syracuse laws from Albany.

So given that the State seems more willing than City Hall to act on police reform, it’s worth asking what else Syracuse should be demanding of its representatives in the State Legislature.

The State Legislature could make the Citizens Review Board more powerful by recreating it as a State entity (like a fiscal control board) with power over local decisions about police officer discipline.

They could pass legislation banning local police departments from using and/or owning military equipment.

They could decriminalize marijuana, seriously impeding local police departments’ ability to perpetuate the racist system of mass incarceration.

They could amend parole laws, making it possible for returning citizens to move back to their old neighborhoods and associate with their old friends without automatically breaking the law just because a broken criminal justice system has criminalized entire communities.

They could repeal the civil service law that forces Syracuse’s City Hall to hire police officers from the suburbs, ending a massive annual transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

There’s all that and a whole lot more that the State Legislature could do to meaningfully reform the system of law enforcement in Syracuse. They can do things that City Hall can’t, and they will do things that City Hall won’t.

A $45 Million Jobs Program for City Residents

Jobs are the number one issue in Syracuse. Good jobs, ones that pay well, ones that don’t require unnecessary credentials, jobs that people can get to whether or not they own a car.

In a real way, the best thing that City Hall could do for the City of Syracuse would be to run a massive jobs program.

The bitter irony is that City Hall does run an enormous jobs program, but it doesn’t do a thing for people living in the City. Every year the Syracuse Police Department spends $45 million dollars to pay more than 400 police officers a generous salary, substantial overtime, and good benefits, and 95% of the people who receive that municipal largesse live in the suburbs.

That money—about a fifth of the municipal budget—should go to employing City residents instead.

That could mean hiring City residents to work in the SPD, but City Hall has been trying to do that for years, and they’ve got nothing to show for it. State law bans City Hall from requiring police officers to live in the City, and persuasion hasn’t worked either. On the one hand, the SPD built such an awful reputation that a lot of people don’t want to work for them. On the other, the culture at SPD rejects the City residents who do actually try to become cops.

Much easier would be to take a bunch of money away from the police, eliminate a bunch of police officer positions, and create new positions in other departments to do a lot of the same work—work that shouldn’t ever have been left up to armed officers in the first place. Police are City Hall’s highest paid employees—often making more than $100,000 with overtime—so for each officer position eliminated, City Hall could hire multiple City residents at a salary of $56,000 (the County’s median household income). And since these wouldn’t be police officer positions, City Hall could restrict its hiring to City residents just as it does with civil engineers, paralegals, mechanics, and just about every other position on the municipal payroll. Call them Public Safety Officers, give them official uniforms, and have them report to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Instead of sending cops to stand around at street fairs, hire people from the neighborhood to keep an eye on things. Instead of paying out $750,000 in overtime to have police follow protesters around, pay City residents to do that same work. Instead of having cops harass Black drivers as part of the ‘war on drugs,’ hire people to watch the intersections in their own neighborhoods and ticket people for running the stop sign.

A third of the City is poor. People need work. City Hall has the money and the need to employ a lot of them, but instead it’s sending its money out to Camillus and Salina and Manlius. Enough. Fire those suburban police officers and hire City residents to do the same work.