Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Week's Forum West and South

Civic to Mayor: Clear Snow off City Property Before Threatening Residents

By Conor Greene

After the snow finally stopped falling following last week’s blizzard, Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a stern warning to property owners: start shoveling, or risk being fined.

However, in the aftermath of last week’s storm, which dumped up to 15 inches of snow on the city, many municipal-owned walkways and properties throughout Queens were not cleared, even as another storm arrived Tuesday. In light of that, the Juniper Park Civic Association is calling on the mayor “to get his house in order before threatening home and business owners” with fines.

“The mayor loves to preach but this is a good example of how out of touch with reality he really is,” said civic President Robert Holden, who on Friday photographed about a dozen city-owned properties around the Middle Village, Maspeth and Elmhurst area that remained snow and ice covered, more than a day after the storm ended.

“I’m sure that public areas in Manhattan are cleared but the mayor should try getting into his SUV and drive through Queens and the other boroughs,” continued Holden. “Most city-owned sidewalks in our neighborhood are never cleared of snow.” He stressed that homeowners who don’t shovel should be fined, but thinks the city should have its properties in order before issuing summonses to residents.

The city’s lack of snow removal was especially insulting in light of the mayor’s warning that property owners would be fined if they failed to clear sidewalks – a warning that was subsequently followed by ticket blitzes in several neighborhoods. “It’s reasonably warm, so the shoveling should be easy,” Bloomberg said during a press conference last Thursday while issuing the warning.

According to city laws, snow must be cleared from sidewalks within four hours after the snow has stopped falling or by 11 a.m. if the snow stopped falling after 9 p.m. the night before. The fine for not doing so starts at $100, and Sanitation officers reportedly began issuing tickets in some neighborhoods as soon as the grace period ended.

Residents who are unable to remove hard or frozen snow can spread sand or other material to provide traction within the same time window to avoid a fine. However, the JPCA urges residents to avoid piling snow from sidewalks on public streets or around fire hydrants.

Holden said the JPCA has received numerous phone calls from residents - many elderly - who say they have been unable to get around the neighborhood because of sidewalks and pedestrian overpasses that are either snow covered, or blocked by a mound of cleared snow. In one case, a civic member in her early 70’s said she has been unable to reach her local bus stop and get to work because of huge piles of snow blocking pedestrian areas.

Frustrated that the city is seemingly above the law, the JPCA designed a symbolic “NYC Citizen’s Notice of Violation” form as a way for residents to voice their frustration with the city as they encounter treacherous areas while traveling around the neighborhood. Holden wants this effort to also expand to other violations city workers commit on a routine basis, such as the workers he witnessed parking in a bus lane while they ran into a deli to buy bagels, or city cars that are routinely parked in front of fire hydrants.

“Why is the mayor above the law? He turns a deaf ear towards Queens and doesn’t get out of Manhattan,” said Holden of Bloomberg. “You walk around Manhattan, and there is no snow downtown or in Midtown… Pedestrian safety is not a priority, and seniors and children are not a priority with this mayor. We have no recourse – this at least is a record of complaints, even if it is symbolic,” he said of the civic’s Notice of Violations.

“The mayor has some nerve threatening homeowners – the vast majority of who are shoveling,” added Holden, pointing to a path near the Long Island Expressway in Maspeth. “This is a week now, and is the mayor’s responsibility” he said of the icy walkway. “What we’re saying to residents is, send a copy [of the symbolic ticket] to the mayor to make sure he knows about it.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Rising Republican: Ulrich Looks at Year Ahead

By Patricia Adams

Three months after a powerful re-election victory — capturing 58 percent of the vote — Councilman Eric Ulrich is meeting the challenges of his work at City Hall head on, and with a smile. “I love my job,” the 25-year-old quips, and behind the big toothy grin that accompanies the statement, is a definable air of truth.

Ulrich, one of five Republicans on the council, speaks plainly about the current economic and political climate he is facing. “The city is going through unprecedented challenges and there are so many difficult decisions to be made by the council.”

Among the most crucial are those that involve consolidating services and cuts to funding. “It’s almost like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” a look of concern appears as the newly appointed Minority Whip continues; “Do you fire cops, teachers? Do you close firehouses? The decisions we make obviously have to be the ones best for everyone, but none of them come easily or without consequence.”

While it’s much easier to be an elected official in good times, Ulrich seems determined to make the most out of whatever these times can bear. On his agenda for the upcoming year is a pilot program he is investigating for high school students. “There is tremendous focus on Regent’s testing in our public high schools, but no focus on a crucial step in the preparation for college, the SAT’s.”

The councilman has met with executives from Stanley Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions and is currently in negotiations for institutional instruction rates with the testing experts. “Kaplan has a strong track record and they guarantee elevated scores.” The program would be the first of its kind in Queens and ongoing negotiations also include a strategic progress tracking for enrolled students.

In addition to meetings with Kaplan, Ulrich sat with each of the high school principals in his district and discussed establishing one SAT prep course in each of the 5 schools. The focus is on results and he says it’s imperative to give students who want to succeed the opportunity to do so. “For these kids a boost in their SAT score could mean admission to a more desirable college or a scholarship.” The program, which will be funded entirely through the councilman’s budget, will make the course available to those who would otherwise be unable to take it due to prohibitive costs.

Among other items on his agenda for the district is the expansion of the successful graffiti cleanup program he began back in August. “We’ve had great results and people really feel the impact of the program on their quality of life.” He is particularly enthusiastic about adding the Liberty Avenue corridor to the project and also about taking the initiative to a “higher” level. “In addition to the same type of cleanup initiative, we will expand the program to target graffiti on second floors and the tops of buildings.

Education is a priority for Ulrich and this year his plans are to direct more capital money to district schools. “I’ve met with principals and administrators throughout the district and we have successfully identified the needs of individual schools.” To that end Ulrich says he is committed to addressing the diverse needs of district schools.

On the immediate horizon for the councilman is a trip to Israel as part of a 13-member contingency from the New York City Council. The group that includes Ulrich and Council Speaker Quinn will travel to the Middle East on Saturday and return on February 26.

One of the real upsides of the venture according to Ulrich is that it is not being funded at all by taxpayer dollars. “The entire trip has been arranged and paid for by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of the City of New York.” The purpose of the trip is for council members to meet with journalists, elected officials and state leaders, police and military.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us to speak with people who deal with the looming threat of terrorism every day,” Ulrich said. “There are so many ideas and valuable experiences we can bring back to the city with us.” The delegation was chosen by the speaker and put together to include ethnic, political and gender diversity. “It’s a true reflection of the makeup of our city council,” said Ulrich, “and it’s a very unique and exciting opportunity.”

And on the more “normal” side of life for the City Council’s youngest member, he celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday evening with a few close friends and family members at a quiet dinner party hosted by wife Yadira. “I was a little disappointed they didn’t bring Tiny with them,” Ulrich says laughingly referring to the couple’s Yorkshire terrier. His joking is something Ulrich maintains everyone around him has had to get used to. “I always try to introduce a little levity and keep my sense of humor on deck. I take my responsibility very seriously but we have to maintain good spirits—we’ll get through all of this. We just have a lot of hard work to do.”

As for the whirlwind Republican climate he’s a part of, Ulrich says there’s much to be hopeful about in the future. “Electing Republicans on a local level is a testament to the decision by voters, to cross party lines and elect candidates on issues not ideological platforms.” And Ulrich says he believes strongly that the trend will continue. “I value and respect the honor that my constituents displayed in electing me. And if I didn’t deliver for them, I fully expect they would not return me to office.”

The immediate future for Eric Ulrich is crystal clear — “I have no plans beyond doing the best job I can in the Council. Anyway for me it’s not a job, public service is a calling.” And then comes the levity again—“I am sure my wife has a few things to add to the list of my future plans, and if you think you can’t fight City Hall…”

Law Aims to Close Sex Offender Loophole

By Conor Greene

In light of a news report that a registered sex offender is running a karate school in Glendale, a state Senator has introduced legislation that would prohibit convicted sexual abusers from working with children in any capacity.

This week, Fox 5 New York broadcasted an undercover investigation into Edwin Rodriguez, owner of Gem Shotokan Karate on Myrtle Avenue. The outlet reported that, nine years ago, Rodriguez served six months in jail after being found guilty of sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl. He was also sentenced to five years probation, which ended more than three years ago, and must register his home address with authorities.

However, while current state law prohibits Rodriguez from holding certain jobs such as teaching or even selling ice-cream, there is nothing that legally prevents him from running the karate school. When approached by Fox 5, Rodriguez claimed he only helps his wife out with the school and only teaches children while supervised.

“I don’t know what to tell you… you know it was just circumstances that happened you know I made a mistake in the past and I’m definitely not a child molester, I’m definitely not a pedophile,” Rodriguez told the station. “You know I can see why everyone would be concerned about this… I can assure you… as I stand right here in front of God that it’s nothing really to be concerned about in terms of what transpired before and what’s going on now.”

In response, state Senator Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) this week introduced legislation to prevent sex offenders from working or volunteering with children. The senator notes that prospective teachers and school bus drivers must undergo background checks, and being on the sex offender registry disqualifies them from those jobs. However, most other jobs that require substantial contact with children do not carry these protections.

“It’s outrageous that a man who committed such a horrendous assault on a young girl could have daily and close contact with other children,” said Padavan. “We cannot wait until this predator strikes again. New York State needs to close this loophole immediately to keep sex offenders away from children.”

According to Parents for Megan’s Law, the typical pedophile commits an average of 280sexual crimes during their lifetime. Rapists repeat their offenses at rates up to 35percent, while offenders who molest young boys repeat their crimes up to 40 percent of the time.

Similar legislation that would ban sex offenders from working with children was introduced in the state Senate twice in recent years, but has not made it to the Senate floor for a vote since Democrats gained the majority in Albany, according to Padavan. The state Assembly has never acted on the legislation, he added.

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, told Fox 5 that it is especially disturbing that Rodriguez put himself in a position where he is around children, instead of avoiding any controversy all together. “We are deeply concerned because this is a guy who targeted a minor and he’s put himself in a position in the community where everybody thinks he’s the pied piper… which makes him really dangerous,” she said.

Man Pulls BB Gun After Bar Dispute

A 21-year-old man was arrested early Saturday morning after pulling a BB gun during an argument outside a Glendale pub, according to police.

Thomas Falzone, of Medford, was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, menacing and criminal trespassing after Officer Jonathan Zak of the 104th Precinct took him into custody at about 1:30 a.m. Saturday near the corner of 88th Street and Doran Avenue.

The incident began when Falzone was denied entry into Yer Man’s Irish Pub because he was intoxicated, according to a neighbor. After making several attempts to enter the 88th Street establishment, he returned with a pellet gun. An off-duty officer in the bar at the time intervened, at which point Falzone fled up Doran Avenue. As a result, there was a huge response involving more than a dozen officers and several ambulances.

In the end, Falzone was arrested after the officer spotted him hiding in a backyard, which resulted in the trespassing charge, according to the 104th Precinct

Council Delegation Prepares for Israel Trip

Local City Council members Karen Koslowitz and Eric Ulrich are part of a 13-member delegation that will take part in a trip to Israel next week in an effort to boost international relations.

The trip, which is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and is not funded by tax dollars, has taken place annually for at least two decades. It will include meeting with business leaders, government officials and security experts.

“I am extremely honored to attend the JCRC trip to Israel next week. As a proud Jewish American, my long time commitment to Israel – both as an elected official and a private citizen – has given me a strong foundation and understanding of its great importance,” said Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) in a statement to The Forum. “I look forward to traveling with Speaker [Christine] Quinn and my fellow Council colleagues to learn firsthand about the struggles, challenges and triumphs of the State of Israel.”

Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who is a member of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said one of his top priorities will be to study counter terrorism measures and strategies. “To help better understand the needs of New York, I look forward to meeting with Israel security and government officials who are experts at counter terrorism and public safety,” he said. “Both Israel and the United States share common threats against terrorism and I am hoping to gain a greater perspective in security- related solutions that can be implemented in our city.”

The JCRC has been sponsoring the trips for more than 20 years to give local lawmakers a firsthand look at the situation in Israel. “Constituents of the members of the City Council have opinions on the situation in the Middle East, and we have felt for many years that it is important that elected officials see Israel with their own eyes and arrive at their own conclusions,” the group’s CEO, Michael Miller, told the New York Sun in 2007.

During that year’s trip, the 11-member City Council delegation was forced to take cover in an underground room after the border town of Sderot came under fire from a Palestinian Arab rocket, the paper reported.