Helen R. Desfosses
LISTENING TO THE CITY: WHY,
HOW, AND WHAT?
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
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, www.albanycouncilpres.com,
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
improvements have been made. However,
the city’s web page, albanyny.org, 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
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.
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.
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.
LISTENING TO THE CITY—WHAT?
Through surveys, such as
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
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
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
Finally, let me talk about SEMATECH and bridging the city’s digital
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
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
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
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
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
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.
E-government and SEMATECH can increase citizen participation and true