When Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver comes to town, it normally isn't news.
On Monday, it will be.
The powerful Democrat, who was arrested Thursday on federal corruption charges, is scheduled to be at the Capitol for the session and for a meeting with the Democratic Conference behind closed doors. What will come of that meeting was the source of great speculation Sunday evening.
The New York Times reported late Sunday night that Silver will relinquish his duties on a temporary basis as he fights federal corruption charges, according to people briefed on the matter.
A Silver spokesman declined to discuss what the conference will go over in their meeting. Assemblyman John McDonald of Cohoes said he expects the meeting to be lengthy.
"This is uncharted territory," he said. "This is a unique situation. And I know that members such as myself want to just listen and have a lot of questions."
Regardless of what happens in the conference's meeting, it will be a high-drama day throughout the Capitol.
Monday will be the first day Silver has been back in Albany since his arrest on charges that he used his position to collect $4 million in bogus legal fees from two law firms in return for bending state policy to benefit real estate developers, and directing state funds to a New York City doctor who referred mesothelioma patients to the personal injury law firm at which the 70-year-old is of counsel.
While the conference meeting is set, whether the speaker will address the media wasn't clear, though a contingent of cameras and reporters will undoubtedly stake out the speaker's office and the conference meeting.
Session is scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. despite reports that a heavy snowstorm could bury the state. While Assembly members began returning Sunday night, snow days are not unusual at the Capitol, and whether members would still be in town for Tuesday's session seemed more up in the air.
What happens in that 2 p.m. session will be big news. If Silver emerges from the conference meeting still in power, Republicans could use legislative procedure to try to push him out. The New York Daily News reported Sunday the GOP would try to attach an amendment calling for Silver's resignation to a resolution honoring Martin Luther King Jr. An Assembly Republican spokesman said the conference does not publicly discuss its strategy.
Assembly Democrats have seemingly not swayed from their support of Silver since Thursday, when the conference announced it would stand behind the longtime leader. Even as more news about the speaker dripped out over the weekend, some were vehement in their support of the Manhattan Democrat.
"It's always interesting to see prosecutor leaks and trial by press before trial by jury," Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan tweeted just after midnight Sunday.
Rumors about who could replace Silver should he leave his position were abundant throughout the weekend. Assemblyman Joe Lentol of Brooklyn told the New York Times that he would "step into the fray" if Silver resigned, but added that he wasn't campaigning for the speaker's chair. Other top names like Assembly members Carl Heastie of the Bronx, Keith Wright and Herman Farrell of Manhattan and Glick have made their way into reports, though conference members are remaining tight-lipped about whom they think a successor could be.
Regardless whether Silver stays or goes, the Assembly has work to do. Committee meetings are scheduled to begin Monday, which will get legislation flowing. The first joint legislative budget hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, kicking off an arduous budget season that is likely to be marred by questions about the Assembly's negotiating power.
"My interest is how we move forward and how we make sure we are in the best position as an Assembly and as a body and institution," Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany said.
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What happens with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's return to Albany will be the big news of the week. Meanwhile, lawmakers are scheduled for less drama-filled work on Monday and Tuesday (though snow could derail those plans). Take a look:
Family Planning Advocates of New York State holds its annual Day of Action beginning at 11 a.m. in The Well of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.
Faith and labor leaders hold a Moral Mondays vigil to respond to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's legislative agenda at noon in the War Room of the state Capitol.
The state Assembly convenes at 2 p.m. in the Assembly chamber at the Capitol.
The state Senate convenes at 3 p.m. in the Senate chamber at the Capitol.
The state Senate convenes at 11 a.m. in the Senate chamber in Albany.
The state Assembly convenes in the Assembly chamber in Albany.
The Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee holds an oversight hearing on the 2014-2015 state budget at 9:30 a.m. in Roosevelt Hearing Room C on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building in Albany.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets at 10:30 a.m. at the commission's offices at 540 Broadway in Albany.
— Matthew Hamilton and NYSNYS.com
Mayor Bill de Blasio warned New Yorkers on Sunday to prepare for what could be the biggest snowstorm in the city's history — with a potential accumulation of as much as 3 feet.
"This could be a storm the likes of which we have never seen before," the mayor told a news conference in a Manhattan sanitation garage while workers were preparing plows and salt for the massive cleanup.
They face a challenge: Snow on about 6,000 miles of city roadways — double the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning Sunday for the New York and Boston areas starting Monday night and into Tuesday. Forecasters say the storm could drop 2 to 3 feet of snow from northern New Jersey to southern Connecticut, accompanied by up to 65-per-hour wind gusts and low visibility.
The mayor said that Monday morning should be fairly normal, and schools would be open, though after-school activities were scrapped.
He urged people to return home as early as possible in the afternoon — to ease what de Blasio called the "huge problem" anticipated for the evening rush as heavy snow starts falling, and to keep streets clear for emergency crews.
The work will be divided into 12-hour shifts, with 2,400 sanitation employees on each one. Nearly 500 salt spreaders will be out ahead of the snowfall, then 1,500 plows when 2 inches of snow is on the ground.
Major highways, hospitals, schools and hilly areas will be targeted first.
Alternate side parking has been suspended for Monday, as has garbage collection. Con Edison is at the ready to repair any power lines felled by the wind, resulting in blackouts.
Despite all the emergency measures, "assume conditions will be unsafe," the mayor said. "Yes, there will be delays in everything."
At New York's LaGuardia Airport, about 25 percent of Monday's departing flights were canceled already Sunday, and about 7 percent at Kennedy International Airport.
The mayor was joined by Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and the chief of the Office of Emergency Management, Joseph Esposito.
De Blasio held up a piece of paper showing the city's 10 worst snowstorms and said this one could land at the top of a list that goes back to 1872, when 21 inches was recorded.
"My message to all New Yorkers is, prepare for something worse than we have seen before; now is the time to get ready for this extreme weather," he said, noting that it could surpass the 2006 storm when 26.9 inches of snow fell on New York City.
But at Manhattan's Penn Station, Cicero Goncalves was ready for the best: snowboarding in Vermont in mounds of fresh, soft white stuff.
First, he had to get there. And already on Sunday, travel from New York City was tricky.
Dressed for the storm in a fake grizzly-bear coat with a hood that looked like the animal's head, the 34-year-old flight attendant from Queens waited for an Amtrak train to Vermont because he expected the flight he and a friend had hoped to take would be canceled.
"We'll get there before it snows, and we're coming back when the storm is over, on Thursday," he said with a broad smile. "So we should be able to get some fresh snow, some good powder."
New Yorkers staying in the city also went into action, with preparations large and small.
A Manhattan Home Depot store sold about twice as many shovels over the weekend as it normally does.
Transit officials hoping to keep the subways running smoothly planned to use modified cars loaded with de-icing fluid to spray the third rail that powers trains.
Emergency crews were out Sunday filling more than 1,000 potholes to ease snow removal, Trottenberg said. Department of Transportation employees also will make sure bridges are passable.
City buses will be equipped with snow tires or chains if necessary.
And any homeless person who shows up at a shelter will automatically be welcomed. In addition, shelters will be opened to others who are left stranded.
An armed employee walked into a Manhattan Home Depot on Sunday and fatally shot his manager before killing himself amid scores of horrified colleagues and shoppers, authorities said.
Gunfire erupted about 2:45 p.m., police officials said, sending workers and shoppers streaming out of exits and into the street. The manager, 38, was shot at least three times and he died at Bellevue Hospital Center.
After shooting the manager, the gunman, 31, shot himself in the head, police said. Two hours after the shooting, his body was still at the scene.
— New York Times
In politics and the rest of life, timing is everything.
Consider the unfortunate timing of the invitations to a pricey Feb. 9 fundraiser for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that arrived in some local mailboxes on Friday, the day after the Democrat was arrested on federal corruption charges.
The invitation to the Friends of Silver event at the Hilton Albany said support can be expressed at the $4,100 "benefactor" level, or the $1,000 "sponsor" price.
A source close to Silver says the fundraiser is still on despite the speaker's arrest Thursday. Many of the invitations had gone out before the FBI took him into custody, the source noted.
The phone number for RSVPs belongs to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Joe Morelle of Rochester. Just hours after Silver's arrest, Morelle led a news conference in which more than a dozen members of the Democratic conference expressed support for the speaker.
"There is a presumption of innocence, and we have every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fill his role with distinction," Morelle told reporters.
The chamber's Democratic leader for more than two decades, Silver is alleged by federal investigators to have taken $4 million in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees, and using his considerable powers as speaker to bend legislation and dispense favors to those who benefited his private legal practice.
Silver said Thursday that he will be vindicated in court.
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As in the production of a fine pinot noir, the case against Empire Wine could take some time.
The Colonie retailer began its long-delayed hearing before the State Liquor Authority on Friday, in an administrative proceeding that could potentially result in its shutdown.
Held in a small conference room on the ninth floor of the Alfred E. Smith Building, the hearing came five months after the SLA cited the store for shipping wine to customers in states that bar direct sales to consumers, or require out-of-state retailers to obtain permits for that privilege. The SLA pointed to regulatory language that allows the state entity to revoke, cancel or suspend a liquor license due to "improper conduct."
Empire filed a lawsuit against the SLA in September, contending that the law cited by the regulator is unconstitutionally vague, and that the office lacks the power to enforce the liquor laws of other states under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government and not individual states the power to regulate interstate trade.
The case has generated national attention within the liquor industry. Daniel Posner, a White Plains retailer, observed the proceedings for the National Association of Wine Retailers.
SLA Chairman Dennis Rosen — soon to depart to head the state's Office of Medicaid Inspector General — has forcefully defended the office's action against Empire, while insisting the authority won't be going after every New York retailer that's shipping wine to buyers in the 38 states that are currently off-limits. Many retailers ship out of state, though there is little uniformity in their policies.
Empire's lawsuit was put on hold in November, when a state Supreme Court justice ruled the store's owners would have to complete SLA's administrative process before seeking redress through its civil action. The same decision suggested the store would have a heavy burden if it intended to show that the SLA was operating beyond its powers.
Even so, a possible return to a larger courtroom appeared to be much on the mind of Empire's attorneys, who contested many of the documents entered into evidence by SLA counsel Margarita Marsico.
"This is ridiculous," said Empire attorney William Nolan as Marsico submitted a series of letters from liquor authorities in other states that described the laws governing out-of-state shipments. Nolan said Empire should have the right to cross-examine the correspondents, and said that he would seek to question Marsico, who requested the information from the out-of-state entities.
Time and again, administrative law judge Nancy Butler overruled him, at times noting that the hearing wasn't required to follow the same rules of evidence that would govern a civil or criminal procedure.
The hearing veered close to farce when Marsico requested that the public and media should be barred from hearing the testimony of Ethan Manning, an SLA investigator who sometimes joins undercover operations.
Nolan noted that his name had just been spoken on the record in the presence of several reporters; the lawyer quickly did a Google search of Manning's name that turned up photos of the investigator and a LinkedIn page listing his work at the SLA.
In the end, the media was allowed to remain in the room as Manning described SLA's investigation, which he said emerged from a complaint; he said he did not know where it had come from.
Under questioning from Nolan, Manning said SLA's interest in Empire began with a look at its computer inventory system.
"It concerned us that there might not be enough separation between the wholesaler and the retailer," Manning said of the store's online portal, which allows wholesale representatives to post information about available merchandise and suggest prices.
At times, Butler seemed exasperated by the slow pace of the proceedings. "If we keep getting off on tangents, we'll be doing this for the next two weeks," she said.
As the four-hour hearing wrapped up, the parties agreed to hold a phone conference next month to resolve Empire's request to hear testimony from as many as a half-dozen other SLA staffers.
"Let's seriously make an effort" to resolve the procedural issues, Butler said.
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There was the assemblyman who took a bribe from a carnival promoter. The former Senate leader accused of using envelopes stuffed with cash to grease his bid for New York City mayor. Or the one who went to prison for looting his own taxpayer-subsidized health clinics.
Now add Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to the list of state legislators facing criminal charges. The Manhattan Democrat who has reigned over the backrooms of Albany for more than 20 years is the sixth legislative leader to face criminal charges in the past six years.
Despite years of scandals, Albany has been slow to clean up its act. Government overhaul advocates say Silver's arrest shows why Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other leaders must do more to tighten loose ethics rules and rein in the influence of money in politics.
Since 2000, 28 state lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues, according to an analysis by Citizens Union. Silver and three others remain in office while they fight criminal charges.
"The men and women of the FBI and of my office still subscribe to the quaint view that no one is above the law — no matter who you are, who you know, or how much money you have," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in announcing the charges against the 70-year-old legislative leader. "And so, our unfinished fight against public corruption continues. Stay tuned."
Cuomo has long talked about the need to "clean up the legislative corruption in Albany," as he said in a 2013 campaign commercial touting his creation of a commission to root out corrupt lawmakers.
A year later, Cuomo shuttered the commission in a deal brokered with Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos. Cuomo shared a stage with both men Wednesday at his State of the State address, in which he referred to the three top leaders as the "three amigos."
On Thursday, Cuomo told the editorial board of the Daily News that Silver's arrest is a "bad reflection" on state government. "And it adds to the cynicism and it adds to the 'they're all the same.'"
Two of Cuomo's former election opponents — Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and Democratic law professor Zephyr Teachout — have questioned whether the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption investigated Silver's outside income before it was shut down by Cuomo.
According to the criminal complaint, the Moreland Commission requested information about Silver's outside employment — and subpoenaed his law firm. Silver fought the subpoena in court, using taxpayer money. His motion was pending when Cuomo agreed to disband the commission.
Bharara has said he's looking into whether anyone tried to interfere with the commission, and Cuomo's campaign filings show he spent $100,000 on a criminal defense attorney representing him in the matter.
A federal prosecutor who charged New York's Assembly speaker with multiple felonies called on Friday for an end to the state's "three-men-in-a-room" method of governing, saying people should get angry because sometimes it seems as if Albany is a "cauldron of corruption."
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, saying he was speaking more as a citizen than a prosecutor, told a New York Law School audience that he believes power in the state is "unduly concentrated in the hands of just a few men" — the governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate president.
"But I think it wouldn't just be me, but lots of people would have questions about three men in a room, like why three men? Can it be a woman? Do they always have to be white?" he asked. "The concept of three men in a room seems to have disappointingly taken root as opposed to being questioned. It's almost become like part of the furniture, the political furniture."
Bharara's comments came a day after state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on charges that he collected nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks since 2002 and disguised it as legitimate income. Released on bail Thursday, Silver said he was confident he would be vindicated.
The prosecutor questioned whether it was sensible to put power in the hands of so few people in a state of nearly 20 million. Bharara quipped that there were more than three men in a room in his office when it was decided to charge Silver.
"And it's weird to me a little bit that officials and writers joke about it, good naturedly, as if they're talking nostalgically about an old sitcom coming up after 'Happy Days.' It's 'Three Men in a Room,'" Bharara said in a speech laced with humor.
He said putting power in the hands of so few may discourage some people from running for public office.
"Why would you bother to run for the Legislature in the first place? Real people don't waste their time that way," he said.
The state Assembly's Democratic majority conference members went behind closed doors for two hours on Thursday morning to discuss the arrest of Speaker Sheldon Silver. When they emerged to briefly take questions from reporters, they were mostly unified in their support.
Majority Leader Joe Morelle said some members were troubled.
"I'm expressing public concern," he said. "I don't think there's any question that the members have concerns. ... They're concerned for the speaker, they're concerned for the institution."
But they were not concerned enough to suggest that Silver should step down — even temporarily — while facing federal charges that he used his power to enrich himself by collecting bogus attorney's fees.
In separate interviews, Capital Region lawmakers repeated a nearly identical set of arguments: The case against Silver is still just a complaint, and none of them have read it in any depth; he is innocent until proven guilty; and the issues before the chamber — such as school funding, criminal justice overhaul and aiding local communities — are too important to become lost in the chaos that could result from Silver's ouster and a potentially ugly leadership battle.
"I was not quick to condemn Joe Bruno, therefore I am not quick to condemn Sheldon Silver," said John McDonald of Cohoes, referring to the legal travails of the former Senate Republican leader, who faced federal corruption charges in 2009. Bruno was convicted, and that verdict was reversed by a Supreme Court ruling; a second trial ended in his acquittal.
"We've got to let the legal process play out," said Angelo Santabarbara of Rotterdam, who called the charges "troubling."
"I hope to know more on Monday," said Albany's Patricia Fahy, referring to Silver's scheduled return to Albany.
Loudonville's Phil Steck said, "I'm not a prosecutor or a defense attorney in this case," and said Silver's position is less important that the function he plays in the Assembly's work.
"He isn't the only person in the room. ... He goes with the direction of the conference," said Steck, who said Silver is unpopular in his district, which includes parts of Schenectady.
"If at some point I see that the speaker isn't standing up for our issues, that might be the time," he said.
Former Westchester Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who witnessed the unsuccessful 2000 coup against Silver led by Michael Bragman, said the timing of Silver's arrest as the state budget negotiation is getting under way presents challenges for a larger group than those in his conference.
"A change in leadership now has enormous practical consequences — not just for the Assembly but for the public as well," said Brodsky, " ... and that kind of decision shouldn't be made on Day One."
At least initially, it seemed unlikely that concern over public reaction to the arrest would sway Silver's members. Manhattan Assemblyman Denny Farrell, a senior member of the conference, cut off a reporter who asked what Farrell would say to taxpayers about the scandal.
"I don't speak to taxpayers when they ask me questions like that," he said.
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U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, voted Thursday for a GOP package of abortion restrictions coinciding with the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and the annual march on Washington by abortion opponents.
The party-line vote came a day after Stefanik and a dozen other Republican women met with House GOP leadership over a separate bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with a few narrow exceptions. The result: The vote on the bill, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was canceled.
In Thursday's vote on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, Stefanik was one of 239 Republicans and three Democrats voting yes. The legislation, which drew a White House veto threat, would codify congressional language that bars federal funding of abortion.
The law, approved by the House 242-179, also would halt tax credits under the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — for insurance that includes abortion coverage even if individuals and businesses use their own money for the plans. Only one Republican, New York's Rep. Richard Hanna of the Utica area, voted with 178 Democrats against the measure.
Stefanik was among the group of Republican women whose meeting Wednesday with House Republican leadership ended up derailing the vote on the pain-capable bill.
Stefanik, 30, the youngest woman ever elected to a House seat, "attended the meeting to help inform her opinion of the legislation and then the bill was pulled," her spokesman, Tom Flanagin, said in an email. Flanagin stopped short of stating whether Stefanik joined other Republican women in expressing opposition to the measure and urging cancellation of the vote.
Republican leaders were anxious to vote on anti-abortion legislation Thursday as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside to mark the anniversary of the landmark Roe v Wade decision. The House has previously voted on the federal-funding measure but it never became law. Federal funding for abortion is barred under an amendment that Congress must approve annually.
Republican women in the meeting Wednesday reportedly expressed misgivings over the 20-week ban because they saw the exceptions as too limited. The bill would have permitted exceptions for rape and incest but only if the victims had reported the criminal assaults to law enforcement.
According to news reports, the women Republicans were concerned that for various reasons not all victims report assaults. The Justice Department in 2013 stated that about 35 percent of rapes and assaults are reported to police.
Republicans who are moderate on social issues have expressed concern over what they view as GOP over-reach on abortion, which ultimately could play into the hands of Democrats and their "war on women'' mantra.
In an interview earlier this month, Stefanik described herself as a "big-tent, independent-minded" Republican and said that while she opposes legal abortion, she supports exceptions for rape, incest and when a pregnancy threatens the life of a mother — a position that Flanagin, her spokesman, reiterated Thursday.
Stefanik also said she supports over-the-counter access to birth control, covered by health insurance.
"I think we need to have that so we lower the number of unplanned pregnancies," she said.
Jury selection began Thursday for the murder trial of a Tioga County man whose two previous convictions for killing his estranged wife were reversed by appeals courts.
Calvin Harris, 55, is accused of killing his estranged wife, Michele, 35, on Sept. 11, 2001, at their home in the Spencer, northwest of Binghamton. Prosecutors said the woman was killed while the couple's four young children were asleep upstairs.
Her body has never been located, and authorities have not found a murder weapon, though they said small blood spatters were found in the house.
Harris, who was not indicted in his wife's death until September 2005, was convicted the first time in June 2007 and again in August 2009.
Harris' first conviction was set aside when new evidence surfaced. Broome County Judge Martin Smith dismissed the second-degree murder conviction after a surprise witness came forward after the trial and said he believed he saw Michele Harris with someone other than her husband hours after she had supposedly been killed.
At the second trial, a Tioga County jury deliberated for almost nine hours over two days before finding Harris guilty of second-degree murder.
In October 2012, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's top court, ordered a new trial.
Jury selection in the latest trial is expected to continue into next week. It is being held in Schoharie County due to fair trial concerns.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to keep the board that oversees horse racing in place for another year if he and lawmakers don't develop an extensive reorganization plan by the end of this legislative session.
The proposal, tucked into Cuomo's budget briefing book, says that the ''maximum term'' for directors of the New York Racing Association be extended from three to four years.
Facing chronic deficits and rattled by a betting payout scandal in 2012, NYRA that fall was put under state control, with the idea that the governor, Legislature and the association's appointed 17-member board would reorganize the operation and take it private again in three years.
Cuomo at the time had appointed Cornell University President David Skorton chairman.
But Skorton recently stepped down because he now runs the Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian Institution.
With a search for a chairman ahead, the plan to extend the special board's control for a year was viewed as a way to buy time in case a reorganization plan isn't completed soon enough.
Also in the budget is a proposal to expand the type of games used in video lottery facilities, known as racinos, that are connected to harness tracks.
The plan would allow games that require some level of ''skill'' and ''player interaction,'' according to the budget bill language.
The language appears to allow multi-user video slot machines, with results shown on a communal screen.
It allows for more potential winners and is viewed as an alternative to playing machines on a solo basis.
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Cuomo up, Silver down on 'New York Now'
Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," a state Emmy-winning coproduction of WMHT and the Times Union. Highlights include:
WMHT's Matt Ryan surveys a furious week at the Capitol, from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's unveiling of his "Opportunity Agenda" to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's arrest Thursday on federal corruption charges.
TU State Editor Casey Seiler convenes the Reporters Rountable with Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio and Ken Lovett of the Daily News to discuss whether Silver can survive politically, and what his arrest means for the impending state budget negotiation.
"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. on WMHT Ch. 17.
Cops: School bus drags student about half mile
AVOCA — State Police say a student was dragged by a school bus for nearly a half mile before the driver stopped.
Troopers say the student from Avoca Central School in the Finger Lakes region suffered minor injuries to a foot Tuesday when she got stuck in the door while it was traveling on a two-lane highway.
Investigators believe the girl was hung up by her book bag and the driver didn't realize it right away. She was treated at a hospital and released.
It's at least the third time that's happened in the past month in upstate New York. The first two were in Madison County in late December, but neither child was hurt and neither driver charged, though one resigned.
— Associated Press
NYC schools revamp management structure
NEW YORK — Chancellor Carmen Farina is reorganizing the management structure for New York City's 1.1 million-pupil public school system.
Farina announced Thursday that she'll do away with a system of 55 school "support networks" put in place by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Under the new system, accountability will be returned to local superintendents for each of the 32 districts.
During the Bloomberg administration, each school was a member of one of the 55 networks.
The networks were supposed to provide support and mentoring to principals.
Critics said the networks were ineffective, especially for struggling schools.
The networks will be replaced by seven geographically based Borough Field Support Centers.
Farina said the new system will create consistency and clarity.
It will go into effect in the 2015-16 school year.
— Associated Press
Federal authorities are expected to arrest Sheldon Silver, the powerful speaker of the New York state Assembly, on corruption charges Thursday, people with knowledge of the matter said, in a case that is likely to throw Albany into disarray at the beginning of a new session.
The investigation that led to the expected charges against Silver, a Democrat from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who has served as speaker for more than two decades, began after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in March abruptly shut down an anti-corruption commission he had created in 2013.
Details of the specific charges to be brought against Silver were unclear Wednesday night, but one of the people with knowledge of the matter said they stemmed from payments Silver received from a small law firm that specializes in seeking reductions of New York City real estate taxes. The total amount of the payments was unclear, but another person has said the payments were substantial and were made over several years.
Silver failed to list the payments from the firm, Goldberg & Iryami, on his annual financial disclosure filings with the state, as required.
Several months ago, prosecutors in the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, subpoenaed documents from a personal injury firm that also paid Silver, income that he did disclose, one person with the knowledge of the matter said. Like others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because the charges had not been announced.
Silver on Wednesday was in Albany, where he attended Cuomo's State of the State address and had a prominent seat on stage next to the governor. It was unclear when and where Silver, 70, would be taken into custody.
His lawyer, Joel Cohen, declined to comment Wednesday night.
Last month, Silver did not respond to questions about the investigation or his relationship with Goldberg & Iryami, including how he had been paid by the firm, when the payments had begun and what work he had performed. In the past, he has maintained that he properly disclosed all of his income.
A lawyer for Jay Arthur Goldberg, a partner at the law firm, did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment. J. Peter Donald, a spokesman for the FBI, and James Margolin, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment.
State lawmakers who are arrested can continue to serve. Upon conviction of a felony they must leave office.
The investigation involving Silver picked up where the anti-corruption panel that Cuomo shut down, the Moreland Commission, had left off. The inquiry focused on the outside income earned by New York state legislators, who are allowed to hold part-time jobs in addition to their legislative duties.
Silver has long been the most powerful Democrat in New York's Legislature. His arrest would immediately turn on its head the annual legislative session that began only this month, as well as the long-established hierarchy in the Assembly.
The speaker since 1994, Silver is a consummate backroom player, one of Albany's "three men in a room," along with the governor and the Senate majority leader, who negotiate the state budget and work out deals on important legislation.
During his career, he has developed a reputation as a skilled negotiator as well as an inscrutable and unmoving force in a capital that has seen governors and other powerful legislators felled by scandals and missteps.
Along the way, Silver has been a lightning rod for criticism, including accusations that he has been tolerant of sexual harassment in the Assembly.
He has also been criticized for his outside law practice, a lucrative career that supplements the $121,000 he earns as speaker.
In 2013, Silver earned at least $650,000 in legal income, including work for the personal injury law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, according to his most recent financial disclosure filing.
But what he does to earn that income has long been a mystery in Albany, and Silver has refused to provide details about his work.
The New York Times reported in December that federal authorities were investigating substantial payments made to Silver by Goldberg & Iryami. Silver is not known to have any expertise in the specialized area of the law in which the firm practices, known as tax certiorari.
Earlier this month, asked to shed light on the federal investigation into the payments, Silver responded by saying that there was simply "nothing to shed."
Amid the investigation, there had been no serious signs of dissent among Democrats in his caucus. Silver was easily re-elected speaker this month when the Assembly gathered in Albany to begin the new legislative session.
"To all of you, I humbly offer my heartfelt thanks, and my promise to honor your support and your friendship at all times," Silver told his Assembly colleagues.
Silver promised to "uphold the tradition of this body and honor at all times the legacy that we have inherited."
NEW YORK — The New York City jails commissioner has fired five correction officers and a captain an administrative law judge recommended be terminated for the 2012 beating of a handcuffed Rikers Island inmate in a now-shuttered dorm for mentally ill inmates.
Joseph Ponte's decision Wednesday comes nearly four months after the judge was swayed by the city Department of Correction that Hinton was beaten after being carried hogtied into a cell for refusing to be escorted. Hinton was left with a broken nose, a fractured back and a badly swollen face. The judge found the guards fabricated a story that Hinton put one of them in a chokehold to justify the use-of-force.
"The vast majority of correction officers perform their duties with the highest level of integrity and my decision makes clear that there is no room for this type of behavior on Rikers," Ponte said in a statement. "We must have a higher expectation of performance in situations like this, and while acknowledging how difficult the officers' job is, we must also accept the need to earn back the faith and trust of the community we serve."
Surveillance video apparently shows the 6-foot-3 Hinton — described by the judge as a Bloods gang member with an attempted murder conviction — carried into his cell by Capt. Budnarine Behari and other guards where they beat him while an officer stood calmly outside the cell, the judge wrote in her decision.
Correction officials have not released the video, which was played publicly at the officers' administrative disciplinary tribunal, despite requests and an appeal by The Associated Press under state open records law.
Behari's attorney, James Frankie, called Ponte's decision "disappointing" and said he would appeal.
Norman Seabrook, who heads the 9,000-member Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said union lawyers would appeal the decision either in the state courts or to the civil service commission to get his members' jobs back.
"The commissioner has made a decision, and we will vigorously defend them," he said of the officers.
Martha Kashickey, who is representing Hinton in a civil lawsuit against the city, said she hoped Ponte's decision would send a message that inmates' lives matter. Hinton is currently serving time in state prison for a parole violation.
"We sincerely hope that this is the beginning of justice not just for Robert Hinton but for the hundreds of inmates who are abused and ignored in our jails," she said.
Rikers, the city's sprawling jail complex in the East River, has come under increased scrutiny in the past year and federal prosecutors last month sued correction officials to speed up reforms to quell what they've called a pervasive "deep-seated culture of violence."
Hinton's case provided a small window into the world of internal discipline at the department of correction, where most cases are settled in exchange for the forfeiture of vacation days and unpaid suspensions while the details of what occurred and the names of those involved remain secret. The Associated Press reported in September, based on data obtained via a public records request, that of 2,007 administrative cases brought before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings in the past 4 ½ years, only 97 resulted in a written report and recommendation.
Wednesday's decision is the first time Ponte fired corrections staff after an administrative law judge recommended it in a use-of-force case. He has fired eight other employees on the recommendation of a law judge for other charges.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's combined State of the State address and budget proposal described a $141.6 billion spending plan and revealed his approach to two of the most pressing topics of the political season: public education and criminal justice reform.
In the plan's most attention-grabbing element, Cuomo handcuffed $1.1 billion in education funding to passage of a set of reforms. Without passing the changes — to teacher evaluations, the current cap on charter schools and more — school aid funding would go up just $377 million, the amount it's set to rise based on the state's regular formula.
The budget also includes Cuomo's plan for spending $5 billion in financial settlement funds that represent a one-time shot of cash. The largest chunk (slightly more than $3 billion) would go to infrastructure and other investments, including $1.3 billion to help the Thruway Authority hold tolls steady while paying for part of the new Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Another $1.5 billion is earmarked for Cuomo's proposed upstate revitalization competition, and $850 million would pay down federal expenses.
"One of my colleagues, who is an assemblyman, we were talking about this outline of these issues the other day, and the assemblyman said, 'Wow, this is going to be really hard because these issues are not New York issues. These problems are all national problems,'" Cuomo said in his address Wednesday afternoon at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. "He's right; they are national problems. But he's wrong if he thinks that we can't solve it."
Cuomo's "Opportunity Agenda" was a one-of-a-kind presentation that wrapped together the kickoff State of the State and the down-to-business executive budget presentations. Wednesday's speech was largely budgetary, with education and criminal justice as its big policy reveals.
Criminal justice has been a Cuomo focus since a Staten Island grand jury decided in December not to indict a New York City police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner. On Wednesday, Cuomo proposed a seven-point justice agenda that included the establishment of an independent monitor to review cases of police-involved unarmed civilian deaths and potentially recommend to the governor a special prosecutor for such cases; allowing district attorneys to issue a grand jury reports for such cases; and funding replacement bulletproof vests, body cameras and bulletproof glass for police cruisers.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos seemed cautious of some of the proposals.
"I think the grand jury system the way it is right now functions fairly well," Skelos said, noting that without any details or legislation it was difficult for him to comment.
Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she was happy that the governor is touching on issues like education and criminal justice.
"Clearly, the fact that he is talking about people needing equal access to justice and feeling that they're getting it is an important part of what we've been saying as a conference," she said.
The state District Attorneys Association offered cautious praise, while advocates — including rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter — called Cuomo's justice reform package a huge step forward.
Still, there was opposition to the moderate governor's overall priorities from both his left and his right.
Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary last year, compared the Cuomo address to President Barack Obama's Tuesday-night State of the Union speech. "Barack Obama starts off with populism, really engaging questions about the widening divide," said Teachout, "and Andrew Cuomo starts off sounding like Ronald Reagan — it's about trickle-down ideology. They're both talking about the economy, but they're two totally different visions."
Rob Astorino, the Republican Westchester County executive who challenged Cuomo in November, said that while there were positives such as a proposed small business tax cut, a regional airport plan and education reform, there was a lack of rhetoric on cutting state-mandated expenses piled on local municipalities and schools.
"His proposal is nothing more than just games — it's just gimmicks, it's taking and giving, it's moving around pieces on a puzzle," Astorino said. " ... It's not going to stop the increases on property taxes and why people are moving out of the state."
Many pieces of Cuomo's speech were revealed in a steady stream of leaks and news conferences over the past week, including his property tax credit program, a new minimum wage boost and the establishment of a legislative/executive pay commission.
In the coda to his speech, Cuomo left policy behind and offered an emotional tribute to his late father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, that included a snippet of his famed 1984 Democratic National Conference speech and a direct address to the former governor.
"Pop, wherever you are — and I think I know where — for all the ceremony and the big house and all the pomp and circumstance, please don't let me forget what makes New York New York," Cuomo said.
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The proposed budget includes $15 million for the Port of Albany for enhancements to its southern dock designed to make it ready to handle the projected increase in volume of containerized cargo resulting from the Panama Canal's planned 2016 expansion. Increased grain capacity will be one of the results.
The wages of "management/confidential" state employees, a non-unionized class that has complained for years that their pay has not matched those of their colleagues, would see a 7.18 percent salary increase over the course of the next four fiscal years.
The New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga Race Course and two more tracks, will spend another year under state control. Cuomo engineered the takeover of the troubled entity in 2012.
The state University at Albany will be the home to a new College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity. The school, projected to open next year, will grant advanced degrees in both academic and professional aspects of law enforcement, public and international affairs, counterterrorism and forensics. "It's a big deal for us ... a game-changer," said UAlbany President Robert Jones, who said the college will use $15 million in planning money, which was appropriated last year to build the college and create the new curriculum. The new building will likely be located near the Harriman State Office Campus adjacent to the State Police Headquarters, Jones said.
Previously announced, Cuomo will propose $152 million in improvements to the Harriman campus, including demolition that will allows the state to seek proposals for private development on 30 acres.
Cuomo said that holding the line on state spending at 2 percent was essential to his economic development agenda, which focuses on lowering property taxes, bringing high-speed Internet service to every corner of the state and using the state university system as a job-creation engine.
The governor said it was local property taxes — not corporate income taxes — that was killing the business environment in the state. The governor is proposing a $1.66 billion property tax credit program that would result in an average savings of $781 for 543,299 upstaters who qualify.
Cuomo would further increase the minimum wage, now set at $8.75 per hour and slated to rise to $9 per hour next year, to $11.50 in New York City and $10.50 elsewhere in the state by 2017.
He also suggested lowering the income tax rates on small businesses from 6.5 percent to 2.5 percent over a three-year period.
Cuomo also pushed his previously announced plan to entice telecom companies to install broadband Internet everywhere in the state with a $500 million incentive fund. Cuomo said 4,000 businesses in the state have no access to high-speed Internet, and that the worst areas are in rural upstate areas and poor New York City neighborhoods. "Let's get New York state fully wired," Cuomo said.
The governor also continued his emphasis on taking advantage of the economic development potential of the SUNY campuses, noting that Stanford University was behind much of the success of Silicon Valley. "That was an academic exercise," Cuomo said. "That can happen here in New York."
NYSERDA, the state's energy division, would create a $20 million clean-energy technology competition called 76West that would be designed to attract clean-tech companies to the state's Southern Tier.
And Cuomo said that New York should push hard to establish business ties with Cuba as the Obama administration eases up restrictions on trade with the island. "We want to be one of the first states into Cuba," Cuomo said. "Let us open the markets."
Cuomo wants to change the formula for teacher evaluations. Under the existing system, 20 percent of a teacher's score is based on state testing, 20 percent on a local standard and 60 percent on qualitative measures such as classroom observation. The governor wants to see the formula changed to one depending 50 percent on state testing (or, in certain cases, some other standard that measures work over an academic year) and 50 percent based on at least two observations performed by an administrator, an independent evaluator or an appointed faculty member at a SUNY or CUNY school of education.
While teachers can now attain tenure after three years, Cuomo would push that to five years and require them to maintain ratings of "effective" or "highly effective."
On teacher removal, Cuomo would reform the "3020-A" hearing process by creating a presumption in favor of administrators in cases of educational incompetence — teachers would have to prove their evaluation score was fraudulent — and an expedited 60-day process for teachers accused of physical or sexual abuse of a child.
The $100 million Education Tax Credit would benefit individuals or businesses who donate to "public schools, school improvement organizations, local education funds, and educational scholarship organizations."
Cuomo wants to increase the cap on charter schools by 100 schools (to 560) and end regional caps to make the number a statewide tally. New York City has only 24 charter slots remaining under the existing system.
His plan would set aside $20 million for a "Teacher Excellence Fund" that would provide supplemental pay of up to $20,000 for high-performing teachers who work in "struggling" schools.
Cuomo will propose legislation that would give the State Education Department the power to put failing schools or even districts into receivership, with broad power to overhaul the institutions.
Cuomo called for passage of the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented immigrants or their children to be eligible to apply for financial aid when entering New York state schools.
Increase partnerships between local colleges and their communities to better provide students the experience and skills they need to enter the workforce and fill job openings. Some schools are already doing this, but this specific proposal would encourage community colleges to push for more collaboration with local businesses.
Beginning the partnerships through programming that begins in early stages of education and continues on into the career. Cuomo cited Pathways in Technology Early College High School or P-TECH as a great way to help students build college credit and establish a career path.
Making experiential learning a requirement during college through internships, cooperative education and other learning opportunities. This would provide students with the "real-world" experience they need to move from college to career, according to Cuomo's proposal.
Consolidation of administration for both SUNY and CUNY, which is set to be completed by the end of the year in an attempt to save money and be more efficient with university programming. The changes would integrate human resources, information technology departments and others into one staff.
In the wake of last year's riots in Ferguson, Mo., and unrest related to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Cuomo proposed establishing a statewide Reconciliation Commission to address police-community relations in affected neighborhoods, and wants to craft programs that assist law enforcement with minority recruitment.
District attorneys would be given the power to issue a grand jury report or letter of fact in cases of police-related deaths of unarmed civilians that results in no indictment from a grand jury, or in instances when the case is not presented to the grand jury. Also, an independent monitor with criminal justice experience — such as a retired judge — could be empowered review such cases. The monitor, who would be provided with access to police files and grand jury information, would be allowed to recommend to the governor the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Race and ethnic data on summonses, misdemeanor arrests and other police actions would be tracked and made public.
In response to December's killings of two New York City police officers, Cuomo called for funding to provide replacement bulletproof vests, body cameras and bulletproof glass for police cruisers in high-crime areas.
To pay for state safety planning efforts related to a surge of crude oil trains coming from the Midwest, the state would raise the tax on oil shipped through the state, as well as on oil imported for refining in New York. The fee would increase to 13.75 cents per barrel, from 1.5 cents for trans-shipped oil and 12.25 cents for imported oil. It would be the first such tax increase in 15 years, and would help support the state Oil Spill Fund, which cleans up petroleum spills when owners will not.
Eight new workers at the Department of Environmental Conservation and six new workers at the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services will be dedicated oil spill planning.
Also, the plan would increase the Environmental Protection Fund from $162 million to $172 million for a variety of programs, including solid waste, parks and recreation, and open space protection. The EPF, which held $153 million in 2013-14, is funded primarily through the state Real Estate Transfer Tax, which is expected to generate nearly $1 billion in the current fiscal year and continue to grow as the real estate market recovers.
In addition, the budget would set aside another $50 million to protect farmland from development pressure through purchase of conservation easements from property owners. $20 million would be targeted to farmers in Hudson Valley and $30 million would be aimed at farmers in the Southern Tier.
Another $100 million would be added to the state Superfund program, which pays to clean up polluted industrial sites.
Spending at DEC would increase 1.2 percent, from $887 million to $898 million; increase 8.5 percent from $292 million to $317 million at the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and decrease 9.4 percent from $127 million to $115 million at the Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Support for the EPF boost came from environmental groups including The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, American Farmland Trust, The Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, and National Audubon Society. The groups had been pushing the governor to increase the fund to $200 million.
The New York Farm Bureau welcomed farmland protection funds, but called for a "statewide approach, committing resources to better infrastructure, greater market access and critical research and development."
Health & Human Services
The budget calls for a 3.6 percent increase in state spending on Medicaid, to $17.1 billion. State Health Department spending would rise 6.2 percent to $4.3 billion in 2015-16. A 3.8 percent decrease, to $8.9 billion, is proposed in human services funding through seven other agencies, including those that provide cash assistance and other supports to low income, elderly and disabled New Yorkers.
$400 million would go to upstate health systems to support debt restructuring and capital projects that promote regional consolidation among hospitals and physician groups.
An increase in all health insurance premiums, which the budget says would average less than $25 per policy annually, would provide revenue to sustain the state's online health exchange without federal subsidies.
The plan seeks investments to connect electronic health records statewide, and investments in services to help caregivers, including in-home programs and respite services.
To help end the AIDS epidemic, funding would go to programs that identify undiagnosed New Yorkers and link them to treatment.
There is $440 million in investments for new housing programs, including $183 million on services for homeless New Yorkers, with funding from the JPMorganChase mortgage settlement.
The state would achieve savings of $1.2 million by discontinuing the Physical Profile Website, which allows consumers to look up information about their doctors. Much of the information is duplicated on other publicly accessible websites, according to the budget proposal.
A change in the Mental Hygiene Law would allow for local directors of community services to authorize immediate placement of someone abusing alcohol or drugs in a hospital or other treatment facility.
Cuomo wants to explore state regulation of electronic cigarettes, and urges the Legislature to pass the Child Safe Products Act to regulate toxic chemicals in children's toys.
The governor's agenda calls for enacting juvenile justice reforms recommended by a Cuomo-convened panel, including raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 and taking all 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult jails and prisons..
Cuomo repeated his call for the Legislature to pass the full Women's Equality Act, including a codification of Roe v. Wade that Senate Republicans have rejected for the past two years.
Cuomo also wants to take SUNY's recently adopted policy for campus sexual assault and rape, including the adoption of an "affirmative consent" policy for sexual encounters, and apply it to all colleges and universities statewide.
Cuomo wants to amend the state's human rights law to add gender-identity and -expression protections.
He would also amend human rights law to allow all students in public and private schools equal protections against discrimination and bullying.
Contributors: Larry Rulison, Brian Nearing, Casey Seiler, Brittany Horn, Claire Hughes, Matt Hamilton, Keshia Clukey
Better public education starts with better teachers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his 2015 State of the State address, as he called on the state Legislature to adopt new education reforms if they want their school districts to see a significant increase in funding.
In an 11-point list, Cuomo detailed his plans to increase the rigor of public education through higher standards for teachers and reforms to teacher tenure, plus bonuses for high-performing teachers, increasing the number of charter schools and the expansion of mayoral control over failing school districts, among others.
There was a carrot to go with the stick: The reforms would result in an increase of $1.1 billion in state aid if the Legislature accepts his package of reform proposals. But if they reject it, schools will only see $377 million.
"For too many, (education) is now the great discriminator," Cuomo said. "Students in failing schools lag well behind in almost every academic category. ... Over the last 10 years, 250,000 children went through failing schools while the New York state government did nothing, and that has to end this year."
Cuomo cited the teacher evaluation system as ineffective after recent data showed that 98.7 percent of high school teachers were rated "effective," yet only 38 percent of high school students were found to be college-ready.
But what the governor called his "Opportunity Agenda" was seen by many as a mixed message to teachers and the students they educate.
New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said she found the proposals "ridiculous."
"The statistics that the governor showed today as it related to teacher evaluation model and student success actually speak to the fact that the governor doesn't really understand what's going on in the classrooms," Magee said. "It doesn't speak to the English-language learners. It doesn't speak to the students with special needs. It fails to speak to where those students started and the amount of progress or growth these students achieved."
Cuomo's new evaluation formula would place half the teacher rating score on state test performance and the other half on at least two in-class observations.
Teachers that receive two ineffective ratings in a row could be removed from their job, unless they can prove that the data is factually inaccurate, Cuomo said.
"Who are we kidding, my friends?" he said. "We need real, fair, accurate teacher evaluations."
Many of the proposed reforms fall in line with a recent set of policy proposals from the State Education Department, which was responding to the Cuomo administration's request for more information on the public education system and the policy driving it.
In a 20-page response, Chancellor Merryl Tisch and the Board of Regents said many needed changes could only be accomplished by Cuomo and the Legislature.
Cuomo referenced the Education Department's suggestions repeatedly while announcing his reforms, and reiterated his belief that more money doesn't necessarily equal better programs.
School districts across the state are performing poorly while receiving more money per student than the state average, he said.
Various organizations took issue with his funding numbers, including Alliance for Quality Education, a labor-supported group that advocates for increased school aid.
Its executive director, Billy Easton, said that while Cuomo's budget proposal increases money for education, it is only half of what the Regents and more than 80 legislators have called for.
The proposal "slams the door on the education of thousands of students across the state," Easton added.
Within the Legislature, many already saw the need for increased state funding to public education. As many noted after Cuomo's address, no one wants the state to have a bad education system.
"I think everybody agrees we want great teachers, we want our students to have the best, and we all believe that funding matters, especially in high-needs districts," Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said.
But she acknowledged that money — in large amounts — is needed in order to help get students where they need to be.
"There are so many things that resources would help, so we can't say money doesn't help — because on some levels it does," Stewart-Cousins said. "But we also have to realize that we do have a problem in terms of making sure our kids our competitive in this very, very global and competitive market. We have to do things differently, and we have to do things smart."
It's uncertain how Cuomo's package will be received in the Republican-controlled Senate or the Democrat-dominated Assembly, where special interest groups will be pressing for and against numerous elements of Cuomo's overall education package.
In a bid to balance support, Cuomo included the Democrat-backed DREAM Act, which would open up high education aid for the children of undocumented immigrants, and a tax credit to encourage donations to public schools as well as educational entities that's been sought by backers of charters and religious schools. Cardinal Timothy Dolan supports both measures.
Some observers, including 2014 Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, are still waiting for Common Core standards rejected as a whole — something Cuomo didn't mention in his speech.
Astorino acknowledged that in the meantime something must be done.
"People are failing at too much of a high rate," said Astorino, the Westchester County Executive. "Inner-city schools are not performing to where they should be."
And for now, the teachers will bear the brunt of that weight. John Ewing, president of Math for America, an organization that looks to further educate teachers, praised Cuomo's proposed expansion of the Master Teacher Program.
Cuomo touted the success of the new program, which now has more than 500 teachers who have participated, and received an introduction from one of its alumni.
But Ewing feared a draconian teacher evaluation system could do more harm than good.
"In the process, (Cuomo's) also going to get rid of good teachers because he's making teaching not very attractive," Ewing said. "Who would listen to that part of the speech and want to be a teacher? I can't imagine anybody."
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OSWEGO — A team of shipwreck hunters say they've found two 19th-century canal boats on the bottom of Lake Ontario, an unusual discovery since such vessels typically weren't used on open water.
The three underwater explorers from the Rochester area say Wednesday that they discovered the boats last year while searching for shipwrecks on Lake Ontario's eastern end. The sunken canal boats — one 65 feet long and the other 78 feet long — were found within a few miles of each other about midway between Oswego and Sackets Harbor.
Two divers captured video images of the wrecks, located in more than 200 feet below the surface.
The wrecks' identifications haven't been determined, but the explorers believe the vessels were built in the mid-1800s when the Erie Canal was widened to accommodate larger boats.
SI BP Oddo (left, foreground) with constituents (photo: BP's office)
STATEN ISLAND - Borough President James Oddo is on a mission to make local government more relevant to Staten Islanders. Rather than give a speech about his first 13 months on the job and the year ahead, Oddo opened up his office to residents on Sunday afternoon for handshakes, hugs, and information on what borough hall can do for them.
"There's a certain level of apathy that Staten Island has been known for. People just don't want to interact [with government] and we want to change that. We try to change it every day," said Oddo.
So, instead of giving a State of the Borough address, Oddo, a Republican, did something far more interactive: yesterday, he hosted "DIrect Connect Sunday" at Staten Island Borough Hall. It is one indication of Oddo's attempt to focus his borough presidency, now in its second year, on constituent services.
Many of the nearly 350 people who attended had never been past the 109-year-old building's lobby. On Sunday they explored the restored marble halls, looked at New Deal-era murals depicting the island's history, and learned more about the topography department's vault of more than 4,000 maps dating back to the 1700s. The key to the event, though, was the more current information Oddo and his staff were providing: display boards and personnel were on hand to showcase the island's current challenges and how the borough president plans to fix them. Oddo and his delegates were also there to listen.
"This is a big deal, because he doesn't have to do this," said John Healey, an accountant from Oakwood.
Visitors included the island's official NASA ambassador, an American Baptist minister, representatives of the 9/11 Flag Football League, a young boy from the Little Dolphin School, and many more.
Those who knew Oddo as minority leader in the City Council, or member of a local community board before that, said this type of accessibility is normal. The borough president is active on social media and his secretary said he responds to people with handwritten letters.
"He's such a good guy. Nothing he wouldn't do for you," said Mario Rapaglia, owner of Bario's Caterers. Rapaglia recently lost 50 pounds and Oddo excitedly complimented him on his trim jawline.
As borough president, Oddo has been using his gregarious nature to get more people engaged and make them rethink stagnant perceptions about their community. Turning around old feelings of neglect may be difficult, but he claims to be up to the task. A bust of Superman tearing open his dress shirt to go save the day sits on Oddo's wooden conference table and may serve as encouragement.
"We love to wallow in 'the forgotten borough' and we too often highlight the shortcomings that we have," Oddo said of Staten Islanders. "I am more keenly aware of our challenges than anyone, and we have them just like any other community, but we also have lots of great things."
One of Staten Island's biggest challenges is the health of its residents. In addition to some of the city's highest rates of obesity, smoking, cancer, mortality, and heart disease, the island is in the midst of a prescription drug and heroin abuse epidemic. According to Rose Kerr, Oddo's director of education, there are only 12 substance abuse counselors serving the island's 70 schools. Oddo has started many health initiatives, but the problems are too large to be fixed quickly. Kerr said the work needs to start at home.
"The families really need to know that this is a serious issue, whether it's in their backyard or somebody else's," she said.
Despite these issues, Oddo said Staten Islanders have a lot to be proud of. Once completed, Freshkills Park will be three times the size of Central Park and is expected to attract people from far beyond the city. Tech companies have begun scoping out the island for development and the North Shore will soon feature the world's largest ferris wheel, along with a new outlet mall.
Of course, any future waterfront development will be tinged with the bad memories and ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy. While Oddo said he's cautiously optimistic about Mayor Bill de Blasio's plans, the rebuilding process is taking far too long. He blames much of this on poor decisions made immediately after the storm and an overly complicated bureaucracy created by the Bloomberg administration.
"The results don't reflect the amount of energy we've all put into it, and until the results do none of us should be thankful or satisfied with anything that's happened," he said.
Though he's one of the few Republicans in local government, Oddo is open to ideas from all sides. He fondly recalls a strong working relationship with former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democrat, and the books on display in his office include authors ranging from David Plouffe to Rudy Giuliani.
Oddo said he also has strong ties to all of his fellow borough presidents. Inspired by a recent wall ball challenge between Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz Jr., Oddo may soon reignite a sports rivalry of his own. Former Borough Presidents Marty Markowitz, of Brooklyn, and James Molinaro, of Staten Island, used to compete over which of their local baseball teams won more games. The victor got to keep the Borough Cup, a trophy shaped like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, for a year. The competition was forgotten, but Oddo may look to start it up again this summer.
Until then, he has more serious matters to handle. Without a congressman, and potentially soon without an Assembly speaker that can bring as much money into the city, Staten Islanders will need more of a voice than ever.
Oddo has remained mostly neutral in recent political dramas. Mayor de Blasio, on the other hand, has come out strongly against former Rep. Michael Grimm while backing Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
"Individual elected officials should say or not say what they feel, but if they do say, they should be consistent every time they say. I don't engage in that. I didn't engage in it with Republican Grimm, I'm not gonna engage in it with Democrat Silver," said Oddo.
While Oddo wouldn't get any more specific than that, he made it clear that his long term priorities haven't changed.
"Eventually there will be a new speaker and we as Staten Island electeds will have the same mission we had in the previous iterations, and that is to get the rest of government to treat us fairly."
[This article is part of our ongoing 'State Of's series in which we're reporting on early 2015 assessments and initiatives by a variety of elected officials, from the President to the Governor, Mayor, and Borough Presidents]
by Cole Rosengren, Gotham Gazette