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                                                                             Helen R. Desfosses

                                                                             January 31, 2003

                                                                             Speech to CANA





          LISTENING TO THE CITY:  WHY, HOW, AND WHAT?                                     


Listening to the city—why?  NYC story


     A while ago, I heard about an entire issue of a scholarly journal that will soon come out called “Listening to the City:  Pushing the Boundaries of Public Participation and the Future of Democracy.”  The issue was inspired by the “Listening to the City” events in NYC on in July 2002, and the online version later, which involved 500 group facilitators helping 5300 people to participate in shaping the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan .  Perhaps the largest event of its kind, it provides an opportunity to reflect on public participation in cities today—and particularly in Albany .


I  Listening to the city—how?


        Right now, we have several methods of listening to the city—in person, through contact with elected officials and formal and informal forums and meetings, like attending Neighborhood Association meetings and having people speak at the Common Council’s public comment period; we also have electronic mechanisms.  These are in the early stages in the city, but I am proud to point out that last year, for the first time, all our Common Council members had e-mail and all these addresses have been published in our Common Council calendars.  We also put representatives of the citizens on boards, the 12 C-1 Neighborhood Districts, the task forces and commissions, and people can always call in to the Mayor’s radio show or visit my web site,, or corral any of us in the supermarket.                    


      I would like to see us do more-- e.g. partner with the 26 neighborhood associations themselves, as Rochester has done; send out communiqués and questionnaires and surveys (Hong Kong)  with the many mass mailings like water bills and taxes the city send out; take our meetings to the citizens. We need to  remember how distant government can seem.  Also, in these times of budgetary stringency, we need to maximize the opportunities for synergy and contributed time, energy and ideas by our citizens.


     I would also like to see us do more electronically in terms of e-government.   Many improvements have been made.  However, the city’s web page,, does not make it easy to find information on the Common Council.  We need more links, and more information about what the Common Council does, how to access the city code, our latest agenda, etc.  Our City Clerk and our legislative liaison, Tracy Webster, have been working on this with the city, but we look forward to more rapid success in 2003.  This e-communication with our constituents is simply too important. Furthermore, we need to explore electronic service delivery, steps to treat information as a public resource by investigating electronic transcription systems that will put our proceedings immediately on-line—in written and perhaps audio form, and using computers to more effectively represent our constituents in the 21st century.


     2) A more active Common Council is underway.  Hundreds and thousands of people speak at our public comment period.  We have a new Common Council Office in City Hall for the Council and the public, staffed by our new full-time legislative aide.  We are also exercising our new powers of advice and consent under the new Charter for the Mayor’s appointments to the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Planning Board.  He has already sent his proposed names to us, and hopefully, we will have some process of obtaining public input. Our 45-day period of advice and consent ends March 7, and we have two meetings before that:  February 20 and March 3. if you’d like to attend.


         The appointment by the Common Council of a new City Clerk, Joseph Rabito, represented another step in the Common Council’s exercise of the powers that it legally has, some of which have been on the books for decades, but have not been exercised by Albany ’s Common Council in recent memory.      


     Regarding reapportionment, the Council appointed a reapportionment commission, and adopted a mission statement to guide the commission in its work.  At this point, the Common Council is geared to adopt new ward boundaries for the city in full compliance with the new charter and state law, probably at its February 20th meeting.


          Regarding the budget, the Common Council took several steps in 2002 to continue its multi-year process of significantly increasing its budgetary role. The Council has worked on establishing a legitimate review process of city budgets and departmental plans, with ample opportunity for discussion and presentation of new ideas.  In 2002, the Council for the first time offered recommendations on how the budget should be presented and is poised to assume a more direct role in monitoring the budget throughout the year. 


          Specifically, in 2003, the Council noted the need to augment the city’s cash reserves, and acted to raise revenues through increased parking fines and enforcement, as well as a flat ten percent increase in the majority of the fees charged by the City Clerk’s Office and the Building Department.  Furthermore, during the Council’s budget process, several ideas for increasing revenues and cost savings were raised.  As the Common Council expressed in its memorandum to the Mayor accompanying its amended 2003 budget, the Common Council plans to work with city officials in 2003 to investigate the following ideas:  “1) concurrent with the Council’s enactment of a ten percent increase of many of the fees that the City Clerk and Building Department charge, (which are also fixed in City Code), the Council expects all City departments who have discretion in setting fee schedules to examine those schedules and implement a commensurate increase for the 2003 fiscal year, where appropriate; 2)  whether the City can more effectively use its power as a volume purchaser to achieve savings on equipment purchases and service contracts; 3) whether greater standardization in purchasing practices and uniformity in vendor contracting can achieve both efficiencies and savings in equipment purchases and service contracts; 4)  whether the City should establish a centralized warehousing system for commonly used office supplies; 5) whether additional savings can be achieved through the development of an in-house centralized printing operation;   6) whether savings can be achieved through greater efficiencies in postal practices and uses.


     Other important topics that came up in discussions in committee as well as in the full Council were the following:  (1) To be most mindful and cautious in regard to our debt load; (2) except in case of an emergency, operating budget items should remain in the operations budget and not be placed in the Capital budget; (3) the amount budgeted for Police overtime should be increased to more accurately reflect the cost; and (4) have department heads include a narrative description to accompany the line item budget to give better insight into significant changes and trends which are occurring.


     We would also like to point out that the Common Council desires a more active partnership role in the formation of the budget document throughout the year. At a minimum, the Common Council’s various committees should be meeting quarterly with department heads to review financial data, discuss trends and offer recommendations on the budget during the year.  We look forward to the cooperation of the executive branch in strengthening the Common Council’s involvement in the budget process. I also hope that some of the Common Council’s training funds can be used to further sharpen and expand the Council’s analysis of complex budgetary issues.




     Through surveys, such as CANA ’s and Dominick Calsolaro’s, we know that quality of life issues remain paramount, ranging from code enforcement to traffic to sidewalk repair and noise.  Through the work of individual citizens such as Leonard Morgenbesser, we know that gun violence is very important.   The Public Safety Committee of the Common Council will have an open meeting on Dominick Calsolaro’s resolution to set up a Gun Violence task force on Feb 20 at 5:30 pm in City Hall.


     The issue of the rehabbing of the Swinburne Park Skating Rink is also rising in intensity, and here the work of groups of citizens, such as was so effective around Lincoln Park Pool, and CANA , will be very significant.


     You are also concerned, and rightly so, about the renewal of the city’s cable franchise contract.  Regarding the cable franchise, several Council Members and I attended a meeting this summer of the Cable Franchise Information Group, convened by the city of Troy .  Although the city of Albany ’s contract with Time Warner does not expire until 2004, the Common Council considers it important to start right away to explore the many issues involved in the renewal.  These include whether the city is getting maximum revenue and service from its contract, how the franchise can be used to address important topics such as the digital divide, community access television, high-speed broadband access, and developing a municipal area network; and the ordinances that might facilitate a successful cable negotiating process.  The first meeting of our Public Authorities Committee, chaired by Dave Torncello, will take place Wednesday, February 12 at 4pm in the Law Library at City Hall to hear from Corporation Counsel’s office about the contract as it currently exists.  The public is welcome.


     We are also hearing from you about help for homeowners and homebuyers.  The Council passed legislation providing help for first-time homebuyers.  I would also like to see it easier to find the number for Code enforcement in the phone book, and I’d like to try to work with the new Commissioner of Economic Development, Lori Harris, on a plan to educate realtors about Albany ’s neighborhoods.  I was particularly troubled by the  quote from the new CDTA commissioner in the Times Union last week.  He noted that realtors treat Clifton Park as the “ Ellis Island ” for all new arrivals to the region. A citizens’ group, TRAC (Tackling Racism in Albany County ) is working with the Albany Homestore on two sets of activities this spring on how to buy a home and a Rochester-style program for realtors.   I also want to point out how much easier it’s been under Commissioner Nielsen and attorney Todd Burnham to get help for citizens with code enforcement problems.


     Finally, let me talk about SEMATECH and bridging the city’s digital divide.  With the advent of Sematech, which is a consortium of major chip manufacturers and associated companies, it is critically important that these issues of extending the computer capabilities of the entire city, as well as bridging the digital divide, be addressed. The Albany Common Council should work with the Mayor to develop a technology plan, as other cities around the country have done.  We should also work with the University at Albany , as well as with various regional task forces, to hold public tours and conduct an overall public outreach and education process.


    We also need to plan so that the Sematech job creation process redounds to the benefit of all our residents.  We need to make it part of any technology plan that we pass, to ensure that there is cooperation among elementary and high schools, community centers, and area community colleges and universities.  Such cooperation will give young people who might have been tempted to drop out of high school a leg up on high-paying pre-professional careers.  The good news about Sematech and related industries is that they need trained workers at all levels.  The job creation process associated with Sematech will also help us keep our college-educated population here at home.


     The implications of SEMATECH need to be handled by us as a region.  And that is already occurring. ARISE has been critical here.  Many groups and task forces have already been assembled, not under the direction of government, but with the participation of government.  They are working on various aspects of the social, economic and transportation planning process.   You have all heard that the Austin region has literally been transformed in a decade from a region of 600,000 to one of 1,200,000.  So with Sematech North, at the University at Albany , we can expect enormous quality of life impacts on our region, ranging from increased property values to a higher tax base to, yes, more traffic jams.  A higher tax base means better schools, better roads, better services--without burdening property taxes.  But we need to begin a REGIONAL planning process immediately to ensure that growth in OUR AREA is smart growth.


    We also need to plan so that the Sematech job creation process redounds to the benefit of all our residents.  One exciting aspect of Sematech—and the most important one for a lot of us-- is that is will EVENTUALLY create thousands of high-paying jobs for our children and grandchildren. Our young, college-educated population will no longer be our major export!


    There will also be thousands of pre-professional jobs created by the industries that spring up around Sematech.  The University at Albany already has the links with Albany High School and then with Hudson Valley Community College to give kids who might have been tempted to drop out of high school a leg up on high-paying pre-professional careers that actually have a career ladder involved, and are not just dead-end jobs. In fact, HVCC is already offering the SMT degree program, a two-year program in semiconductor manufacturing technology.   No longer need the disadvantaged feel that the good life has passed them by.  And we all know that better employment prospects correlate positively with better neighborhoods and lower crime rates.  The good news about Sematech and related industries is that they need, they absolutely must have, trained workers at all levels.


     Finally, we can learn from the mistakes that Austin , Texas made TO make sure that we have a better blend of growth and stability, innovation and tradition, and to ensure that job AND SOCIAL benefits accrue to the local population as well as to newcomers to the region. With planning and MORE cooperation with COMMUNITY GROUPS AND [local] schools, Sematech could help us leap over the digital divide, rather than reinforcing it.  But we have to plan MORE EDUCATIONAL, HOUSING AND MASS TRANSIT PROGRAMS to ensure that none of our population groups fall behind, as in Austin, where the unemployment rate among inner-city residents remains [several times] higher than [that of the general population] THE AVERAGE, AND SOME ARTISTS AND SERVICE WORKERS HAVE BEEN DISPLACED.   We can become what’s called an intellectual magnet city, as are Austin , San Francisco and Seattle .  As the New York Times noted, the 2000 census showed a clear correlation between a city’s prosperity and its attractiveness to college graduates.  But planning is necessary so as not to increase chronic inequality.                                      


    Furthermore, a REGIONAL planning task force will help us cope with the transportation, environmental and social changes while deriving the maximum benefit from the economic boom.  Sematech officials were quoted in the New York Times as noting that “they saw a value in choosing an area that was not already a high-tech hub or a crowded metropolitan area.  They liked the regional cluster of colleges and universities, and the fact that the cost of living and doing business is lower here than in established high-tech capitals.”   By working together in a planning process that begins immediately, we can ensure that the benefits of our way of life continue, while jobs are created to link ALL OF us to a healthy economic future.


    Cities are durable, yet constantly in economic and demographic flux.  The 2000 census shows that Albany has lost 4.5% of its population in the past ten years.  But that is the lowest percentage loss of any upstate city.  Furthermore, we have an economic development boom going on to help reverse this trend.  Finally, our city has become incredibly more ethnically mixed and diverse, with our Hispanic and Asian groups the fastest-growing sectors of our population. We need to reach out to ensure that all of our diverse communities become an integral part of our city.  In fact, CANA might wish to host a speaker or two at one of its meetings on the demographic changes in Albany —Professor John Logan of UAlbany’s Sociology Dept and Todd Fabozzi of CDRPC.


         In my five years as Common Council President, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of increasing people’s sense of connection to, and participation in, their government. I function as a de facto ombudsman here in the city, responding to dozens of requests each day for help, information or referrals to city services.   But I also remain committed to working with elected officials and with the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations to develop new political and planning structures for empowering neighborhoods and community groups, and for connecting them to city government in new ways.            


  Albany is rich in individual contributions to the city’s vitality, from the old lady all dressed in black that I saw on Western Avenue the other day sweeping her driveway with a 6-inch whiskbroom and dustpan, to the thousands of volunteers that keep our civic life strong.  But we need an overarching empowerment structure, as they’ve adopted in cities as diverse as Rochester and Orlando , to establish neighborhood-based planning within a citywide framework, improve citizen participation, and further coordinate city services at the neighborhood level.  Vibrant cities show us that these city-wide planning and empowerment programs work best when they feature bottom-up as well as top-down interaction, focus on assets that both neighborhoods and city government can bring to the table, and involve structures for planning by each neighborhood and by the city as a whole.


     E-government and SEMATECH can increase citizen participation and true democracy in Albany , or stay at the level of electronic bureaucracy, information management, and even increase inequality.  The choice is up to all of us.