Thursday, May 28, 2009

This Week's Forum West and South

Fallen Heroes Honored on Memorial Day

Thousands of residents packed streets throughout Queens for annual Memorial Day parades and ceremonies, including along Grand Avenue in Maspeth, Myrtle Avenue in Glendale and Ridgewood and Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.

In Maspeth, the community celebrated Memorial Day on Sunday with a parade for the 25th consecutive year, followed by a ceremony at Maspeth Memorial Park. Justice Charles Markey was this year’s grand marshal, and Cpl. Abe Kleiner, U.S Army Ret. WWII, was presented the Maspeth Veteran Award. In addition, St. Stanislaus Girl Scout Troop #4311, which pushed for the revival of the annual parade 25 years ago, and essay contest winners from local schools were also honored at the ceremony.

Pat Toro, president of the United Veterans and Fraternal Organizations of Maspeth, reminded those in attendance that “veterans continue to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is important for us to remember and honor those who could not return… Thank you for remembering, and to the veterans here today, I salute your service.”

A similar scene unfolded the following day along Myrtle Avenue in Glendale and Ridgewood, followed by a ceremony. Former State Senator and veteran Serf Maltese reminded the crowd that most World War II veterans are now between 85 and 87 years old and “unfortunately are passing on at a very high rate.” He reminded residents to “express your appreciation for what they did” for our nation.

Also on Monday, the American Legion Continental Post 124 in Forest Hills held its annual parade, followed by a ceremony at Remsen Memorial Park “to honor those who served our country in the defense of liberty for all.”

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Parents, Teachers Criticial of City's Handling of Swine Flu Outbreak

By Conor Greene

As swine flu continues to spread around the city, contributing to several more deaths and resulting in additional school closures, many parents and teachers feel the city isn’t taking the threat seriously enough.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott touched on the city’s response to the outbreak at a meeting on mayoral control last week in Middle Village, and Dr. Roger Platt, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health’s Bureau of School Health answered questions at Tuesday night’s Community Education Council 24 meeting in Glendale.

However, despite hearing the city’s rationale behind closing some schools while leaving others open, many parents and teachers expressed displeasures with the city’s handling of the H1N1 outbreak, which now has contributed to four deaths across the city.

“We’ve tried to be very consistent as far as the criteria for closing schools,” Walcott told concerned parents last week, adding that it is not based solely on attendance rates or trips to the nurse’s office. “I totally disagree with you that it’s not being taken seriously” he told one teacher who criticized the city’s response. “It’s important that we have a citywide standard… System wide closing has not proven to be effective.”

At CEC 24’s monthly session, which was moved to PS 113 because PS 58 was one of the schools closed due to the outbreak, Superintendent Catherine Powis reported that PS 143 and IS 73 were set to reopen Wednesday (May 27) and PS 58 was to open the following day. However, many parents later expressed dismay over the criteria used to make decisions regarding school closures.

Dr. Platt stressed that closing schools “is not going to prevent the spread of this flu through the city” and warned that he doesn’t “think that absentee rates is a good guide” as to whether a school should be shut. He also repeatedly argued that for the “vast, vast majority” the symptoms only last several days and are not life-threatening for those who are otherwise in good health. “The most important message in all of this is, if you’re someone in a high risk category… at the very first sign of illness you must contact your doctor… Those are the people we are trying to protect when we close schools.”

The doctor also noted that closing schools obviously doesn’t prevent children from mingling in other settings. “We have to be realistic from a public health perspective as to what we can accomplish when we close schools,” he said.

Nick Comaianni, president of CEC 24, said he was one of those who wanted all schools closed, at least throughout the hard-hit district, when the outbreak first occurred. “Obviously it’s easier to transmit the virus in closed quarters,” he said, adding that school closings “give parents piece of mind” knowing the building was thoroughly cleaned. “Most of these absences… are due to parents keeping their children home due to anxiety,” he said.

Dr. Platt responded that, while it is “difficult for people to accept,” there is “little or no” benefit to closing schools since the virus doesn’t live for long on ordinary surfaces. “Should we observe routine hygiene standards in schools? No question about that.” But closing and cleaning is not a strategy that is “supported by any experts… People expect it, and it does make people feel better about the schools, but it is not really useful to stop the spread of flu.”

CEC Vice President Peter Verccessi asked what percentage of students must have flu symptoms for a school to be closed. Dr. Platt said that the “rule of thumb” is for a nurse to report to the Department of Health if at least five students have a fever. At that point the school is placed on a watch list, meaning health officials “look very carefully at that school” several times a day. If two percent of the population has symptoms on a given day, or if a pattern is detected, “it is very likely [the DOH] will recommend it close.”

CEC member Bill Kregler suggested that the handling of the situation is being controlled by politics instead of health factors. “Our children are pawns once again on an issue that politicians are bouncing back and forth.”

At one point the doctor admitted that there is “no question” that closing every school and quarantining all students would slow the spread of N1H1. “The question is, is it worth the price?” he added, drawing yells from members of the audience who clearly feel that the disruption to the school year is warranted.

One resident asked if the city will be prepared for flu season, considering how hard this virus has hit the city during warmer months. Dr. Platt said that the Center for Disease Control is working “furiously” to develop a swine flu vaccine. He warned it “may very well come back in October” in “more severe form… That’s what people [health experts] are worried about.”

A teacher from PS 229 told the doctor that it “infuriates” her when officials say the symptoms are mild. “I think it’s being downplayed,” she said, adding that two faculty members at PS 229, including one 30-year-old teacher, are still recovering from the flu. Dr. Platt responded that the two to three days of symptoms is merely an average. “I don’t think there is any question people are sick with that illness for longer.” He also said it’s possible those teachers don’t have swine flu.

Still, despite all the assurances that this situation is not much different from flu outbreaks that occur every week, some, including teacher Rosemary Parker, remained unconvinced. “I have never seen 40 kids lined up outside the nurse’s office,” she said. “I don’t think the DOH is taking this serious enough.”

“They’ve been playing politics with our health… for two weeks now and it has to stop,” added teacher Dermot Smyth.

Jeanette Bartels, parent of three students at PS 229, said that it seems like the city is “playing with a loaded gun.” She pointed out that students are transported to schools on buses that are also used for students at schools that were closed such as PS 58. “Why didn’t we just shut the system down?” she asked, repeating a question that was asked numerous times throughout the meeting.

Gulluscio Gets Nod from Queens County Democratic Party

Will Face Ulrich in November for Council Seat

By Patricia Adams

Queens County Democrats have cleared the field for Frank Gulluscio to return to the race for the City Council seat in the 32nd district in November. Gulluscio failed to make the ballot for the special election in February and Republican Eric Ulrich landed the seat by defeating Democratic challengers Lew Simon, Geraldine Chapey, Glenn DiResto and fellow Republican Mike Ricatto.

In a party selection process held at county on Tuesday morning, Gulluscio garnered the support not only of county party brass but also from his two former challengers, Simon and Chapey. “I was running right up to the end,” said Lew Simon. “Unfortunately the many people who wanted me to run could not afford to give me the financial backing I needed.” Simon said the difficult economic times were a major contributing factor in his decision not to run. “At the end of the day, I support Frank because that is what is for the best of the party, and it’s the right thing to do.”

“I’m ecstatic that the party has come together,” said Gulluscio, “and I look forward to a good race based on the issues and the principles that people are interested in.” Gulluscio said he enters the upcoming race without a primary challenge and with much support he is pleased to have.

Incumbent Councilman Eric Ulrich says that the voters will decide who is best to lead the district as of November. "Elections are not about chances, they're about choices. The people elected me to serve them,” Ulrich said, “and I will seek re-election on my own merits and on my own record, regardless of whom my opponent may be. November is a long way off. Right now, my sole focus is on doing the job the people have asked me to do."

Both candidates have repeatedly expressed their disdain at the type of political antics that were so much a part of the special election for the seat and have vowed to concentrate on the issues and focus on the people in the 32nd Council district.

The county dems also gave the nod to mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, John Liu for city comptroller, Eric Gioa for public advocate and Helen Marshal for Queens borough president.

Debate Over Mayoral Control Continues

Vote on Extending Law Nears

By Conor Greene

With the state law granting the mayor full control over city schools set to expire, the debate over the system is underway in Albany and in town hall meetings, including one hosted by Senator Joseph Addabbo last week in Middle Village.

A 2002 vote by the state legislature established the school governance system known as mayoral control, which allowed Mayor Bloomberg to abolish the local board of educations and hire a chancellor to run the public school system. However, due to a sunset provision, the law expires on June 30 unless lawmakers renew it.

“This is an opportunity to make this process a better process,” said Senator Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) at last Wednesday’s town hall session, which was also attended by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who oversees the city’s Education Department for the Bloomberg Administration. “The legislature shouldn’t vote without input” from residents and other stakeholders, added Addabbo.

Walcott called himself a “firm believer in mayoral control” and said there have been “significant improvements in the system” since it was established seven years ago. He cited areas such as test scores and the number of seats created through new construction as examples of progress made since Mayor Bloomberg was granted full authority. “The bottom line for me is accountability, transparency and parental involvement.”

However, many of the parents, teachers and officials who spoke later in the meeting argued that mayoral control has stifled their voices, making it hard to seek out answers from administrators and has left local superintendents with little power.

Jo Ann Berger, who has three children in PS 153 in Maspeth, said parents have been relegated to “leaving voicemails and never getting a call back” when they seek information from administrators. “There is little to no response to parents… There is no place a parent can to go” due to the elimination of local offices, she added.

Berger also took issue with the Bloomberg Administration use of test scores to gauge progress, especially since students spend three months prepping for the exams. “That’s what you are basing our performance on? I don’t think that’s fair,” she said.

Another bone of contention for many is the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), which was formed along with Community Education Councils after the Boards of Education were abolished. Under the old system, the mayor appointed two of the seven Board of Education members, while he appoints eight of the 13 PEP members.

That has led critics to argue that the members don’t hold real power – especially after three members appointed by Mayor Bloomberg were fired in 2004 for questioning a Department of Education plan. At last week’s hearing, Dermot Smyth, a teacher at IS 5 in Elmhurst, said that the teacher’s union supports mayoral control, despite several “little flaws we’re looking to address.” He argued that the panel needs “independent voices who can work collaboratively with the chancellor” instead of political appointees.

Ozone Park resident and blogger David Quintana agreed that the mayor’s appointment of eight of the 13 PEP members means “he has a slam dunk on anything he does.” He called the local school boards “the most basic form of democracy we have.” Instead, they have been replaced with “powerless” local Community Education Councils. “Parental involvement has gone down the drain under this administration.” To prevent the PEP from being controlled by the mayor, the teacher’s union has suggested that the city comptroller, the public advocate and City Council speaker each appoint a member, leaving the mayor with five appointees.

Marge Kolb, president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council, said there “needs to be a lot of adjusting” to the current system. She agreed that PEPs “should not be controlled by the mayor” and argued that some members should have educational credentials. “I don’t know where the mayor came up with the curriculum he purchased, but it wasn’t in consultation with educational professionals,” she said.

Former Assemblyman Michael Cohen, who was in office for the initial vote granting mayoral control in 2002 said he was “very uneasy voting for this bill [because] it is giving the mayor absolute control over the system.” Instead, he agreed that the city needs “accredited educational professionals to make educational policy.”

Community Board 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio said his office has received numerous complaints from parents who feel the current system has stifled their opinions. “We want to be heard. We don’t just want lip service,” he said echoing the complaints his office has heard regarding mayoral control.

The harshest criticism of the evening towards the Bloomberg Administration’s governance of the school system came from Juniper Park Civic Association President Robert Holden, who accused officials of lying to the public.

“At one time I was for mayoral control. Then I saw the mayor in action. Then I saw Deputy Mayor Walcott in action. They just do as they please,” he said before criticizing the city’s decision to build a high school in Maspeth despite strong community opposition. “You just completely lie. You don’t tell the truth, you hide things,” he said to Walcott. “We have a dictator who says you will have this whether it’s good or not.”

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said that city officials “really don’t have much oversight on how [the $22 billion budgeted for education] is spent.” She also argued that the current system “doesn’t give fair representation” to community members. She also hears “a lot of complaints” about students being “taught for tests.”

“I do believe for the most part that the quality of education has improved over the years,” said Crowley. However, she added that much of the gains are because elected officials have made education “a top priority” for funding.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that New Yorkers support mayoral control, with 55 percent saying the system should continue.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley listen (top photo) as residents weigh in on mayoral control. The Forum Newsgroup/photos by CONOR GREENE

Crime Down, Arrests Up Across 104th Precinct

Brooklyn Pair Charged in 20 Local Burglaries

By Conor Greene

Major crime is down nearly eight percent in the 104th Precinct through the first 20 weeks of 2009, residents learned at last Wednesday’s COP 104 meeting in Maspeth Town Hall. While burglaries mark the only major crime to have increased so far this year, residents learned of a major arrest police officials hope will put a dent in that category.

To date, arrests are up by 17 percent for all crimes, and up 30 percent for major crimes, which include murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft. According to Deputy Inspector Keith Green, there have been 580 major crimes so far this year within the precinct, which covers Ridgewood, Glendale, Maspeth and Middle Village, compared to 629 at the same time last year.

Notably, robberies are down 11 percent, with 83 so far compared to 93 through the first 20 weeks of 2008. Felony assaults are down seven from last year to 41, while car thefts are down slightly, with 120 so far compared to 129 last year. The biggest improvement has come in grand larceny, with 164 this year compared to 199 last year, a decrease of more than 17 percent.

Major Burglary Arrest

On the flip side, burglary marks the only major crime that has increased compared to last year, according to Deputy Inspector Green, with 164 in 2009 compared to 152 at the same point last year, an eight percent jump. However, he hopes burglary incidents slow down with the arrest of two individuals responsible for at least 20 residential breakins in the Glendale area.

Helen Velasquez, 43, and Jose DeJesus, 22, were responsible for a “very noticeable” burglary pattern between 65th and 67th streets and Otto and Central avenues in Glendale, according to Deputy Inspector Green. Velasquez, of 387 Woodbine Street and DeJesus, of 218 Boerum Street, were recently caught breaking into a home and have been charged in connection with 20 incidents. They may be charged in additional break-ins as the investigation unfolds, said Deputy Inspector Green. “That is how burglary tends to go- one or two people can really hit us hard,” he said.

Overall, burglaries have been “spread out” across the precinct, with about 70% targeting residences and 30% commercial buildings, said Deputy Inspector Green. “They really are pretty well spread out when we don’t have a pattern,” he said, noting that the current residential/commercial ratio has been skewed by the rash of Glendale burglaries. Those perpetrators were targeting residences both at night and during the day, mainly entering through windows accessed by fire escapes and roofs.

Rounding out the major crime statistics, there has been one murder this year – the unsolved killing of 64-year-old Rosario Prestigiacomo inside his home at 20-33 Green Avenue in Ridgewood. Police responding to a 911 call at about 2:15 p.m. on February 10 found the Italian landlord lying on the floor with multiple stab wounds. There were no murders at the same time last year, and all four homicides that eventually occurred within the precinct in 2008 were connected to a fatal fire on Metropolitan Avenue that investigators say was deliberately set. There have been seven rapes this year compared to eight last year, and there have been 120 car thefts so far, a decrease of 9.

Residents Express Concerns

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Roe Dario, president of the civic group Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, asked the precinct about cracking down on unauthorized commuter vans, which she said cause traffic issues.

“There are a lot of open issues with the vans, so civically we don’t want them in our community,” she said. “Hopefully we can get them out of here… We have enough traffic.” Deputy Inspector Green said the precinct is working on a crackdown of commuter vans, which must get a permit from the city to be legal.

However, there was one issue raised at the meeting that the deputy inspector declined to comment on. A resident asked about potential funding cuts the NYPD is facing due to the city’s budget woes, and rumors that civilian administrative jobs would be cut. Under that scenario, uniformed officers would be taken off the streets and put into those administrative roles, the resident claimed, asking how that situation would impact the 104th Precinct specifically.

“Right now it is just ‘a what if’ [scenario] and is not an issue I’m free to discuss,” responded Deputy Inspector Green. He told the resident he must contact NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza about that issue and noted that the precinct is currently fully staffed to the same levels as two years ago.

Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, asked the precinct to crack down on vandalism in the park. He said that several trees were recently planted throughout the 55-acre park in Middle Village and already some have been snapped by vandals. “It is most likely youth hanging out in the park,” he said, adding that there have been incidents of vandalism almost nightly and noting that the bleacher area near the roller hockey rink has become a “big hangout.”

Another resident asked Deputy Inspector Green to address speeding along 77th Place between Caldwell Avenue and 58th Avenue. “I tell you I hear the engines as they go racing down that block,” the resident said.

Finally, a resident complained about noise and disturbances at the Moonlight Bar, which he said prompted him to call the precinct and 311 numerous times. “I know it’s minor for you guys, but what can I do?” he asked the officers. He said a lot of the problem stems from the fact that the bar’s front door is often left open as a DJ plays music inside. When neighbors complained, the “owners said call the police, we don’t care,” the resident said.

Deputy Inspector Green said officers have “been there quite a bit lately” to deal with calls. He said the bar at 6058 Flushing Avenue in Maspeth “is on our list” of establishments that have received numerous complaints in recent months. He said the bar “has had problems in the past, was shut down for a while, then reopened and was okay for a while, and is now a problem again.” He said the Community Board 5 has also received “a lot of calls” regarding Moonlight Bar.

Blagojevich vs. Paterson: Who Do We Hate More?

By Steve Tiszenkel

Racked by scandal, alienated from his state’s political establishment and facing constant calls from the media and his colleagues for his resignation, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got an opportunity he called “golden” on Nov. 4 of last year. His state’s junior senator, Barack Obama, had been elected president, and it was left to him to fill the Congressional vacancy left by the new president-elect’s departure. Many of Illinois’ top Democrats desperately wanted the seat, and Blagojevich figured they’d be willing to pay—in cash and in favors—to get it. With such power, Blagojevich thought, maybe his tenure as governor wasn’t doomed after all.

But as precisely everyone but the governor could have figured out, because he was already under investigation for assorted other crimes, the feds uncovered Blagojevich’s scheme in record time. As he adamantly refused to resign while providing no real defense for his actions, an Illinois populace that already hated their twice-elected chief executive further turned on him. By the humiliating end, as the former most powerful man in the Land of Lincoln faced an impeachment trial with virtually no chance of acquittal, his approval rating stood at 7 percent.

Nobody has ever seriously accused David Paterson of taking bribes, or, really, corruption of any sort—by most accounts, he’s an honorable, upstanding public servant. But after dealing with a high-profile Senate vacancy of his own not long afterBlagojevich, Paterson’s approval rating is an abysmal 19 percent, just 12 points higher than a man who was recently ejected from office in disgrace and immediately attempted to sign up as a contestant on “I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!”

It doesn’t seem to add up. Yes, Paterson faces a horrendous financial crisis and hasn’t done much to fix it, but the same is true of every governor in America. And sure, New York never voted for Paterson, but he did seem like a breath of fresh air after the self-destruction of Eliot Spitzer—even if he did acknowledge having a relationship with “a woman other than my wife” mere days before he was sworn in to replace our last elected governor.

What I find most confusing about Paterson’s monumentally low approval ratings is that he hasn’t seemed to do anything particularly bad—besides get mocked for his blindness on Saturday Night live—but has managed to defy the odds and accomplish some good. Most recently and notably, when commuters were held hostage by the MTA and threatened with shockingly high fare increases and service cuts that could have been devastating for working people in Queens and beyond, Paterson managed to broker a miraculous compromise that will see the cuts rolled back and the fare hikes reduced substantially. Commuter advocates complained about the compromise, but isn’t that just Paterson’s luck? It’s miles better than the alternative, which would have raised the price of a monthly MetroCard to $103.

So why is Paterson so unpopular? I’d venture it has almost everything to do with his Blagojevich moment, the Senate selection process I thought he handled beautifully but on which the local media skewered him at every turn. Political novice Caroline Kennedy, by virtue of her influential support of Obama and the most famous family name in American politics, decided she wanted to replace Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator when Clinton accepted a post as Secretary of State in the new administration. The Kennedy family has a whole lot of smart, powerful friends, and it seemed clear that some of them were working hard behind the scenes.

Though the law states that the governor and only the governor gets to fill a Senate vacancy, they expertly painted a portrait of Kennedy as frontrunner by manipulating the always-gullible tabloids—as if there could be such a thing as a frontrunner when race with exactly one voter. Though Paterson’s aides repeatedly said Kennedy wasn’t the frontrunner, and poll after poll after poll showed that New Yorkers didn’t want her in the job, when Paterson picked little-known moderate Kirsten Gillibrand instead, the Kennedy people managed to whip up a firestorm of outrage over the supposed snub and Paterson’s alleged mishandling of the situation. None of it really made sense, but in the New York media, things don’t really have to make sense.

If this had happened in Illinois, Kennedy’s people could have won the seat by writing a fat check. But they were dealing with Paterson, so they needed leverage of a different sort. They needed to threaten his young governorship with ruin if he dared deny them. And ruin his governorship is exactly what they did.

Paterson is up for re-election next year. It’s not looking good for him, even in the Democratic primary, where Andrew Cuomo is polling far higher and voters are even starting to express nostalgia for Spitzer, who’s hard at work trying to remake and redeem himself. But our governor has never really shown himself to be anyone other than someone who’s working hard for the kind of people at risk of getting left behind in 21st-century New York, the kind of people who live in our neighborhoods. I’m not here to make endorsements. Maybe Paterson is too liberal for you; maybe he’s just not your cup of tea. The statistics say you want him gone, and soon. It’s always nice to be part of an 81-percent majority, but whatever you decide, take a moment to ask yourself whether this is a governor worthy of Blagojevich-level contempt.

The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.

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