New York Thruway Isn’t Ready For Cashless Tolls

Mass overhaul of highway’s roads and bridges should be the priority

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The old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I don’t think anyone would use that infamous expression when referencing the road conditions of the New York State Thruway. You’re probably more likely to hear things like “It was so rough I almost went off the road” or “I might need new suspension now.”

And while construction repairs and upgrades are quite regular on the 570-mile highway system, there is a lot of talk lately about a significant upgrade that actually has nothing to do with the road itself — cashless tollbooths.

Yes, the toll plazas that have littered the thruway since the first segment of the road was completed in the mid-1950s may be completely transformed in the next few years so only electronic money transfers can be used. All tolls would be paid for by either a motorist’s E-Z Pass or by photographing their license plate and receiving a bill in the mail.

The system has already been implemented in some densely populated downstate areas, like on the Tappan Zee Bridge between Rockland and Westchester counties, and is being planned in more New York City locations. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo and State Transportation Department officials have pledged to expand cashless tolls upstate so that the entire thruway is equipped with them.

Now, there’s little doubt that cashless tolling is the inevitable future of the thruway. Other states have been slowly implementing similar systems — it is currently used on the entire Interstate-90 stretch across neighboring Massachusetts. And use of the E-Z Pass over cash has soared since they were introduced in New York in 1993. Cashless tolling would also cut back congestion at busy exits and interchanges, which would improve commute times and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accidents. Who can argue with that?

So, we’ll eventually get to that point. Gov. Cuomo is correct to assert that cashless tolling statewide is a matter of when, not if.

But the underlying question is this: Is that “when” right now?

The current conditions of the road clearly answer that question.

The cost of revamping all of the toll plazas along I-90 and I-87 south of Albany would be extraordinary. The current structures would have to be dismantled and replaced with gantries that need to be wired with electronic equipment and cameras. And there would need to be offices for people to process the license plates of vehicles that come through and send bills to those drivers’ homes.

The estimated cost? Anywhere between $500 and $600 million — an amount that, adjusted for inflation, is actually 10 percent of what it cost to build the entire New York State Thruway system half a century ago. A cashless system project on a 45-mile stretch of road from Yonkers to Orange County was by itself budgeted for $31 million.

While the long-term benefits of cashless tolls make spending that kind of money appealing, that money would be better invested in projects that are more necessary right now — mainly overhauling the system’s crumbling infrastructure.

The thruway is a rapidly aging highway that requires much more attention than it is getting. Mike Elmendorf, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, estimates that the New York Thruway Authority should be reconstructing about 100 lane miles and 30 bridges every year just to maintain the interstate in its current condition. And that isn’t happening. In a lot of circumstances, some major reconstruction projects turn into simple patch work, essentially putting more band-aides on, which will end up costing more in the long run once those band-aides can no longer do the job.

Since roads and bridges are taken for granted in our daily lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how dire their situation is. A 2015 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ New York State Council graded the conditions of different types of infrastructure in New York by using a simple report card-like structure. Bridges received a grade of D+ and roads got a D-.

Specifically, more than 50 percent of New York’s bridges are 75 years old, and 2,012 of them are classified as “structurally deficient” and require consistent maintenance or improvements to safely operate for freight and commuters. And one-third of New York’s major highways are considered to be in poor or fair condition.

The thruway is a valuable artery in that web of infrastructure needs. The Thruway Authority estimates it will need $3.4 billion to fund road and bridge upgrades over the next 20 years. The current construction in Onondaga County between exits 35 and 39 — a less than 10-mile stretch — alone costs $9.9 million.

Inadequate funding and modest construction work will only leave infrastructure further neglected, meaning certain bridges could be forced to close or become weight-restricted, which would cause much more traffic headaches and economic disruption to the region than toll plazas that still collect cash from motorists.

The bottom line is this. Cashless tolls aren’t going to be that useful if parts of the road that’s being tolled can’t be used. They may be the wave of the future, but ensuring a vital piece of road like the New York State Thruway remains fully functional and up-to-date is the more pressing matter of the present.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Don’t Allow Public Corruption to Become Normalized

Overturning Sheldon Silver’s conviction sets a dangerous precedent

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Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is seen in New York City. Silver, who was convicted in 2015 on corruption charges, had his conviction reversed last week.

“Distaste.”

That’s the word of choice, it seems.

When the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in June 2016, Chief Justice John Roberts said “there is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that.”

McDonnell was found guilty in 2014 of receiving gifts, money and loans from the CEO of a Virginia-based company in exchange for governmental “official acts” that would favor the CEO and his business.  The court threw out the charges, ruling that the actions the governor took — mainly arranging meetings on the CEO’s behalf and attending public events for him — did not constitute an “official act.”

Since then, lawyers for former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have attempted to use that same argument to free the disgraced Manhattan Democrat who was convicted in 2015 of extortion and bribery and sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

And now, they have won. Last week, a federal appeals court overturned Silver’s conviction.

“We recognize that many would view the facts adduced at Silver’s trial with distaste,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes told the press after the decision. There’s that magic word again.

At issue here isn’t Silver’s release by itself. It’s successfully using the McDonnell case as a basis to Silver’s appeal. That is “distasteful.”

McDonnell’s bribery charges involved, as Chief Justice Roberts called it, “tawdry tales, Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns.” Mr. Silver’s case is quite different. He was found guilty of funneling some $500,000 in state grants to a Columbia University doctor who, in return, sent his patients to Silver’s law firm — which then paid Silver for the referrals. He also voted for state tax breaks for a real estate company, which then steered business to a law firm, from which he also received referral fees. In all, Silver pocketed $4 million in kickbacks. The nature for Silver’s defense at trial was that those actions were “legal and normal.”

It should be noted that the evidence against Silver is still damaging and if prosecutors make a better argument in a re-trial, there’s a good chance Silver will still be sent to prison. And acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim has already announced his intention to re-try the former speaker.

But even if that’s the case, there are other convicted lawmakers who may now use the McDonnell decision to help escape. And that’s what’s most concerning. Take former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted just weeks after Silver, of using his power to get his son a $78,000-a-year job to which he sometimes would not show up for. And when asked to actually come to work, he told his boss, “talk to me like that again and I’m going to smash your fucking head in.” Skelos’ lawyers have already made clear their intention to make the McDonnell decision central to their defense during their appeal.

The real consequence of the McDonnell case is that it significantly raised the bar prosecutors will now have to cross to successfully convict corrupt politicians because it significantly re-defined what it means to be a corrupt politician. And Sheldon Silver was the litmus test.

It appears now that an “official act” by a lawmaker that is deemed illegal will have to be an extremely formal action, like awarding a government contract to a friend. As a result, something like using the power of the speakership to fill one’s pockets with $4 million in kickbacks like Silver did could from now on be interpreted, as his counsel once called, “conduct that is part of the everyday functioning of those in elected office.” And arranging a high-paying no-show job for your spoiled son just because you’re the Senate majority leader, as Skelos did, could from now on be interpreted as a “normal father-son relationship,” which is what his counsel called it.

Essentially, what this means is that the McDonnell decision, amplified by Silver’s successful appeal, sets in place a dangerous precedent for corruption going forward, not just in New York but everywhere. It’s a solid defense that activity involving conspiracy, bribery, fraud, money laundering and abuse of power are not the illegal things we would normally view them as, but rather, a normal part of how our government operates. And normalizing corruption is obviously something we do not want — especially in a city like Albany where it runs rampant.

More frightening still is that politicians who have already been convicted of crimes wouldn’t be the only benefactors of this new precedent. Since Silver, a high-ranking state legislator with such a high-profile trial is now free — at least for the time being — it may embolden other members of the state government tempted by corruption to now take the risk of getting caught, knowing that they could use this case as an argument for their actions. And that includes the legislators of the future who haven’t been elected yet. We could very well be sentencing ourselves to a system of government with tentacles of corruption so tight around it that we may never be able to break them.

So, Judge Jose Cabranes, forgive us if the citizens of New York might find court decisions that set free our disgraced lawmakers “distasteful.” While the rule of law must be accepted, we have the right to be alarmed that the consequences of law can do the exact opposite of what it is supposed to do —ensure that the people get justice. Thanks to the decision regarding Silver, that justice the people deserve is being put on hold once again. And thanks to the McDonnell decision’s weight, it may never come at all.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Mainstream Media Is Just Doing Trump’s Work For Him

Press isn’t doing enough to curb president’s claims of fake news

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Over the weekend, all mainstream media outlets were reporting that President Donald Trump now has a 36 percent job approval rating, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. It was the lowest rating of any president during their first six months in office dating back 70 years. As significantly low as that is, Trump is still more popular than the media outlets that reported those ratings.

An April Morning Consult survey reported that more U.S. adults trust President Trump’s White House more than the national political media. And a recent Harvard-Harris poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say the mainstream press is full of fake news.

Trump’s constant hostile behavior toward the press is religiously condemned by journalists and news offices big and small across the country. And it should be. But aside from editorials touting themselves as the fourth estate, those journalists and news offices have also done little to win back the trust of the American people that has been waning for decades. And in some cases, they only end up enforcing the idea that the media is only out to get Trump and bring him down. They are essentially proving him right, on accident.

That’s how the president was able to tweet out a video of a WWE broadcast that was edited to show Trump beating up a man with the CNN logo on his face. Sent from both his personal and @POTUS Twitter accounts, it was one of the president’s most-shared and most-retweeted posts ever.

CNN has been Trump’s favorite media punching bag lately amid the fallout of an embarrassing incident where the network had to retract a story related to the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election. An article on CNN’s website reported that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials,” which cited a single anonymous source. The story was taken off the website and three journalists, including the executive editor in charge of a new investigative unit, resigned.

Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci, who was the subject of the story, tweeted the next day “CNN did the right thing. Classy move. Apology accepted. Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on.”

But not everyone was as gracious. Trump burned CNN on Twitter for the story and conservative commentators like Fox News’ Sean Hannity went wild with it, adding yet another monologue about what he regularly calls “the destroy Trump media.”

This time it wasn’t Trump himself lashing out at MSNBC anchors or sharing conspiracy theories that he read in The National Inquirer. This a mainstream media wound of their own doing, one that just gives Trump and his supporters more traction when they shout “fake news!” when a story unfavorable to the president is reported on in the future.

CNN credited the error to breakdown in standard editorial processes. Stories like those are usually reviewed by several departments, including fact-checkers, journalism standards experts and lawyers. And in this case, that reviewing process wasn’t executed properly.

The network can talk about its editorial processes all it wants to, but those who aren’t a member of the journalism industry are less likely to be forgiving. And CNN and other media outlets can tout themselves as martyrs of the First Amendment all they want to, but major mistakes like this one makes people more likely to feed into Trump’s argument that the press is dishonest and bias.

And unless serious change comes for the business, more mistakes like that will be made, especially if the industry continues to demand more with fewer people, further eroding public confedence in them. 

We’re setting ourselves up for that. Just recently, employees at The New York Times staged an office walkout after the company announced it would be significantly cutting the number of copy editors from its staff. Those employees understand that it is going to be incredibly difficult — dare I say impossible — to maintain the stellar editing process the Times has with so fewer people to review and scrutinize content.

The real danger here — and we’ve already seen it to some extent — is the day when “the destroy Trump media” gets it wrong so often that democracy-shifting and legitimate news stories about Trump or any other member of government are simply ignored by the public at large. For instance, the missteps by organizations like CNN have greatly damaged the coverage of the Russia investigation. And now we have the son of a former presidential candidate who at least entertained the idea of collusion with a hostile foreign power, which is a big deal, yet so many people are convinced it’s just more propaganda by fake news.

Journalists like to preach about the importance of a free press and its place in our republic. But that sacred constitutional right is only valuable if that same free press is trusted by those it was designed to protect. 

And right now, it’s not.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Lake Ontario Flooding Response Could’ve Gone Smoother

Relief to victims was tainted with politics and blame game

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An underwater boat launch is seen July 2 at Fair Haven Beach State Park.

The 4th of July has a reputation for turning small communities along the southern Lake Ontario shoreline into bustling hubs of economic and recreational activity. The Green Harbor Marina and Campground in Orleans County “usually looks like Myrtle Beach,” its owner said. Now, 24 camping sites are flooded. Sodus Point had to cancel its parade and fireworks display. And the boat launch at Fair Haven Beach State Park, which is usually jam-packed with boats, trucks, trailers and picnickers, was this year an empty parking lot with barriers blocking a launch completely underwater.

It was a sad sort-of finale to a long, painful and expensive process to provide proper relief to homeowners and businesses after months of watching lake water flood their properties. And to many, this finale is only the beginning of the recovery.

The last few months, we have seen political pandering at its best and government at its worst. We’ve seen too much blaming and not enough resolving. And it’s those small communities along the southern Lake Ontario shoreline that have paid the price.

While they’ve been trying to minimize the damage, public officials from every governmental level have been looking for someone to find at fault for the flooding. The favorite target: The International Joint Commission (IJC), the organization that prevents and resolves disputes over water boundaries between the U.S. and Canada, and their handling of Plan 2014, an initiative to change regulations of the levels of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to help the ecosystem, shipping industry and recreation.

Plan 2014 was initiated in January, mere weeks before high water levels began to impact coastal areas. Yet it was an easy answer for Republican congressmen who represent constituents along the lake. Reps. John Katko and Chris Collins religiously opposed the initiative for over a year and sent several letters to President Donald Trump this spring asking him to withdraw the U.S. from Plan 2014.

“If you raise the lake level, which is what Plan 2014 did, you get devastation. A third-grader knows that,” Collins said in May.

The other thing you learn in third grade is that significant events seldom take place all at once, and due to only one reason. Plan 2014 was a project that took years to put together but has only been in effect since Jan. 6. By that reasoning alone, it’s hard to argue that Plan 2014 had been in place long enough to raise Lake Ontario to its highest level in 100 years.

Even if that argument had some traction, it is more than likely not the only reason for the lake’s historic levels. But that’s not politically convenient. Rep. Collins seems to think that the flooding wouldn’t have happened without Plan 2014, even with record rainfall this spring and recent high water levels in Lake Erie flowing in via the Niagara River.

For his part, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spent less time focusing on Plan 2014 directly and more on the IJC itself. He sent what he called “one of the nastiest letters” he’s ever written to the IJC on May 28. In it, he suggested that the lake could’ve been lowered last fall because the IJC reported in July 2016 that water levels were unusually high and would remain so for months to come.

That letter reflected the governor’s ignorance of much of the affair, since lake levels last summer were actually lower than normal, not higher. The July 2016 news release Cuomo’s office referred to was actually dated April 2016, when water levels were high, but they dropped off when the summer drought began to wreak havoc on upstate New York. Cuomo’s accusations even rubbed our northern neighbors the wrong way, as a Canadian senator declared he was fear mongering and “spreading falsehoods.”

It is disappointing that Cuomo has spent so much energy writing nasty letters to the IJC and burning the organization in front of television cameras but almost hindered financial aid to those impacted by flooding — which people with eroded yards and entrepreneurs with closed businesses probably care more about at this point instead of who or what is responsible for it.

Yes, the governor promised around $7 million in funds this spring, but balked at a $90 million relief package that was passed unanimously in both the state Assembly and Senate in the closing days of this year’s legislative session.

The session ended with Cuomo considering vetoing the bill due to a lack of specifics on where the $90 million would be coming from. Cuomo eventually signed an amended package last week that gives $55 million in funding instead, though that amendment was only possible because of the state Legislature’s extraordinary session at the end of June, which Cuomo called to extend the New York City mayor’s control of its educational system, not because of unfinished Lake Ontario flood response business.

Still, some are worried the $55 million won’t be enough or that there will be complications and clashes over how the money is divided up. New York is also in the process of applying for federal aid from Washington, but some also worry the state’s slow and careful approach to that may cause it to be forgotten over time.

And with all the hot air that’s been produced lately, there’s been almost no talk about efforts to help prevent similar flooding from occurring again.

It’s too bad, really. The families and businesses along Lake Ontario will now get a better opportunity to get things back to normal, but how we got here could’ve gone much cleaner. If we need a reason to be embarrassed by government, look no further than the sandbags and closed boat launches that line miles of shoreline in central and western New York.

We should be thankful for the many people who have gone out and beyond in this crisis. For months, there have been many inspiring stories about hometown citizens and volunteers working round the clock to do what they could to stop the rising waters from damaging their neighbors’ homes and community hotspots. Decent human beings are usually capable of taking hard times in stride and pulling more than their usual weight when they need to, especially when it involves the place they love and call home.

If only our politicians could do the same.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” byclicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Time For Term Limits in Albany

Restrictions on leadership posts would be a small step toward curbing corruption in the Legislature

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New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is seen in the Assembly chamber at the Capitol in Albany.

Surprise! The latest state legislative session in Albany ended with no ethics reform measures whatsoever. Hell, it had hardly even been mentioned since the session began in January.

That’s not to say there weren’t at least some efforts from some lawmakers small efforts, but at the rate the Legislature moves, we’ll take anything we can get.

One of those efforts came from the Republican-controlled state Senate. While several of its members face scrutiny over receiving stipends for leadership positions they do not actually hold, they overwhelmingly supported legislation that considerably restricts the powers of those same leadership positions.

Back in April, the Senate voted 49-9 on a bill that would place eight-year term limits on leadership posts in either legislative chamber, including the temporary president of the Senate, Assembly speaker, majority and minority leaders and all committee chairmen.

Bravo.

The bill died in the Democratic-led Assembly.

Boo.

Not only that, but this is actually the third time the Senate has passed similar legislation and the third time it has failed to go through the Assembly and come out the other side.

It doesn’t help that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has made no secret his disapproval of term limits in general, and has maintained that position in his two-and-a-half years as speaker.

“Term limits is not something that the conference supports,” Heastie said in December, referring to the Assembly’s Democratic majority.

Heastie’s standing on this issue is incredibly disheartening, given the reason Heastie is speaker in the first place.

His predecessor, Sheldon Silver, was convicted last spring on charges of extortion and fraud, just one legislator in a long list of Albany corruption cases in the last decade. He was found guilty of using his powerful position to pressure outside organizations with business before the state, or as former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara called, “monetizing” the speakership.

The former Manhattan representative had been a member of the Assembly since 1977, and was elected speaker in 1994, meaning he spent 20 years holding a heavy hand in what went on in Albany.

Many suspect that long of a time with so much power emboldened Silver to use the post to his advantage for his own financial gains. Term restrictions would ensure that a fresh face would inherit that powerful position and others like it at most every eight years, in an attempt to stop it from turning into a power center and corrupting its holder.

Silver is the prime example for a sound argument on term limits in the leadership and he’s hardly the only leader who’s faced corruption charges. When Heastie replaced Silver after his resignation, he vowed to work hard to change the system in Albany that leads to political misconduct.

Why he and other Assembly Democrats can’t see this as a way to do that is as frustrating as it is disappointing.

Speaking of changing the system, term limits wouldn’t just help prevent individuals from becoming entrenched in power, but they would help shake up the way power itself is cycled in the Legislature the cycle Silver, and now Heastie, are part of.

New York’s “three men in the room” form of governing is appalling and has been going on for far too long the three men being the Assembly speaker, Senate majority leader and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has put forward his own form of term limit legislation. Those three men essentially dictate all major legislation through secret negotiations and backroom deals, constantly leaving other lawmakers and the public in the dark until the last minute. A much more occasional rotation of people in those positions would give more legislators a voice in formulating state policy.

This ridiculous form of power brokering can itself be a contributor to abuse of power and create crooked politicians. Indeed, the last five (FIVE!) Senate majority leaders were all indicted on corruption charges and the most recent one even advocated for term limits.

The thing that makes term limits so necessary now is the explosion of careerism in New York politics in recent decades. State senators are now serving twice as long as they did in 1965 and the average tenure in Albany is now more than 10 years. This is mainly because incumbents have been able to quash most of their competition during elections in recent years. A good portion even run unopposed each cycle. In 2016, less than a handful of the more than 200 incumbents lost re-election.

Years and even decades in the Legislature can mean years and decades in leadership positions. And with no term limits, little or no chance of losing the seat and no other significant ethics measures, it leaves many avenues for bad intentions to go on undetected.

Well, there’s nothing we can do at the moment about the strength of incumbents. And there’s no significant ethics measures, nor a sign there will be any time soon.

However, what we do have is one legislative chamber willing to make term limits a reality. Maybe eventually it may be wise for us to consider term limits for all legislators, but restrictions on leaders would be a good start, and again, we’ll take what we can get.

On that, the Senate has done its job. Now it’s time for Democrats in the Assembly to do theirs.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

I Just Moved to ‘One of the Worst U.S. Cities to Live In’

Website’s ranking of Syracuse doesn’t say it all

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The skyline of Syracuse, New York is seen.

I had barely been a Syracuse resident for five days. It was the first hour of the first day of my new job here. I was scanning the website of CNY Central, the television station where I now find myself working at. And what’s the big headline I see at the top of the page?

“Website ranks Syracuse as one of the worst U.S. cities to live in”

Quite the glowing endorsement for your new hometown, isn’t it?

If I hadn’t spent my first 22 years of life as a central New York native and had no knowledge of the region at all, I probably would’ve been wondering: Luke, what the hell were you thinking?

The salt city was ranked by the website 24/7 Wall St. at no. 31 on its list of worst U.S. cities to live in with a population of at least 65,000. They were arranged based on things like crime rates, employment growth, attractions, educational attainment and housing affordability.

In regards to Syracuse, the website cited the city’s high poverty rate, struggling job market and cheap housing prices for its placement on the list.

Now, there are naturally going to be those who completely agree with the city’s standing and wonder why the hell someone like me would move here. Others would defend the city until hell freezes over — and if you’re here in late January, you may very well think that it had already.

I don’t think anyone denies that Syracuse has its problems — as every city does — or that its struggles are unique in upstate New York. Rochester was ranked no. 32 and Buffalo no. 22 on 24/7 Wall St.’s website, after all.

And that includes me. I’ve used this column to criticize the city and its way of doing things several times in the two years I’ve been away. I spent that time in the Capital Region as the Monday editor at a daily newspaper there, all the while making sure to keep close tabs on the latest news and politics of this area.

There’s a lot of things I would like to see change here. I would like to see special attention given to re-energizing the area economically. Yes, industry defined the city for more than 100 years, but what can we use to redefine it in the 21st century?

I would like to see a mass overhaul of the area’s aging infrastructure, including the reconstruction of Interstate 81 through the city done carefully and correctly.

I would like to see a more community-to-community effort to combat poverty and the heroin epidemic.

And maybe most importantly, I would like to see more reasons for 24-year-old recent college graduates like myself to move here and fewer reasons for others to leave, as so many people have done in the last few decades.

Yes, I wish some things here were different. But does that mean I think it’s one of the worst places in the country to live in?

It’s probably too soon for me to answer that question definitively. But I don’t believe my current opinion will change as the weeks and months here move along.

I’ve already had Hoffman hot dogs, been to Onondaga Lake Park and shopped at Wegmans. I get to work among a great collection of journalists — both veterans of the field who I grew up watching every morning while I ate my cereal and young professionals I’ve crisscrossed with in the New York media market since college who are now making a living. And there’s just something I like about the buzz of Destiny USA during the holidays and excitement around the New York State Fair at the end of summer.

All of that certainly doesn’t seem too bad to me.

Plus, statistics, studies and rankings of worst cities to live in are hardly the reasons we use to decide whether to live in Syracuse or not. And in case they are, try this one. Earlier this year, Syracuse was ranked no. 49 out of 589 cities for top places for recent college graduates to live in and work.

As a young media professional and new resident of the city, I think I like that one better.

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/WTVH CBS 5/WSTM CW6) and contributing writer at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

What Mass Shootings Have Done to Our Minds

Frequency of violent acts has changed the way we think

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I’m not exactly sure when it happened. It was sometime last summer.

I was in the grocery store — in the pasta aisle — and while attempting to locate a jar of Prego marinara sauce on the shelf among an army of traditional sauce, my thoughts took a drastically different direction from my grocery list.

I looked in one direction, toward the front of the store, and then the other, and without any context, thought this: What if an active shooter was in here? What would I do? Where would I go?

I had absolutely no rationale to think that at the moment. There was no immediate danger, nor any sign of it. It’s hardly the first time I had such a thought — and I know I’m not alone — but it was the first time I really grasped the seriousness of it, and what it really meant.

The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School occurred four days before my 6th birthday. I distinctively remember the now infamous TV images of students fleeing from the school in terror and thorough searches of my backpack at the entrance of my own school for days afterward. I was much too young at the time to comprehend the gravity of the situation, but the vision of those moments runs strong in my mind.

Nearly 20 years later, I’m an adult working in a newsroom. At The Post-Star, I heard and read about the violent acts of our time right as they happened — events that no longer put Columbine in its unique place in history. My third day at this job was the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting. My last week at this job was the most recent workplace shooting in Florida.

And several times at this job, those thoughts I had in the grocery store returned — not just because of the job I’m in, but because of the job I’m in.

Just three months prior to my hiring, I visited the site of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, the French newspaper where assailants killed 12 of its office staff. It was an incredibly eerie experience.

I have a copy of a Charlie Hebdo edition at home.

Because of the recent extreme hostility toward the press we have seen, and after reading so many inflammatory comments about my newspaper on our website, more than once I found myself at my desk wondering which exit I would run to should a gunman find their way through the door.

That door’s closer, but it would leave me more vulnerable, I thought. That one’s got more chances for cover, but it’d might as well be a mile away.

I have to admit I got nervous every time a customer at the reception desk raised their voice or appeared overly agitated.

It’s incredible. It’s frightening. Yes, 18 years after Columbine, the world is much different. One year after Pulse Night Club in Orlando, things have changed. Mass shootings have become something we expect. They have changed the way security at closed locations is handled. They have changed training scenarios for individuals from police officers to teachers.

But they have also changed us. And not just politically.  

They have become a staple in the back of our minds. They can infect our subconscious when we find ourselves at a school, movie theater, mall, church, mosque, concert or club — or even when we’re in the middle of buying marinara sauce.

It’s no longer just those who were actually a part of these terrifying moments, like Kevin Sterne, who after being injured in Virginia Tech gets uneasy at sudden loud noises, gets anxious in large crowds and sits with his back to the wall at restaurants so he can see the entrances and exits.

It’s you and me. It’s all of us, whether we really notice it or not.

When I think about it, I can’t help but think of the “duck and cover” generation — those who grew up being regularly drilled to get under desks or get to bunkers in the event of a nuclear holocaust during the height of the Cold War.

It became part of the culture.

This is like a 21st century version of that, if you will.

But just like the threat of a nuclear strike didn’t stop people from living their daily lives for 50 years, the threat of the next shooting doesn’t stop us either.

We still go to schools, movie theaters and malls. We still go to concerts and clubs. But the cultural impact of mass shootings has damaged our minds, and it’s because the frequency of these incidents has erased the “it can’t happen here” argument we try to tell ourselves.

I’m sure there are people in Orlando, Newtown and Charleston who probably thought that.

And that’s why I can’t brush off thoughts of the same carnage happening while I’m looking for sauce in a small grocery store in upstate New York, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

I’m not sure how long this will go on. I don’t know how long it will be before the places we associate with routine or recreation are no longer places of screams and flying bullets.

I don’t know when our minds will recover.

But I do know, sadly, that it won’t be for quite some time.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Should Targeting Police Be a Hate Crime?

New York legislation has good intentions,
but would have bad consequences

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When I was young, I hardly ever played video games.

I still don’t.

One of the few I did occasionally play with friends in which I even remember the title to were those in the infamous Grand Theft Auto series.

One of the distinctive features of that game is the penalty for shooting at and killing police officers. On the “star scale” of being hunted by law enforcement after a criminal act, causing the death of an officer increases the amount of stars a player gets significantly.

There’s a reason for that.

Even at a young age, something stirs in our self consciousness about the immorality of harming those whose daily profession is to uphold the law.

But last year, more than 60 police officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty, the most since 2011.

That is no video game.

And that is why the New York state Senate recently passed a bill that would label the assault of a police officer, EMT, or other first responder akin to a hate crime. The Community Heroes Protection Act was introduced by Sen. Fred Ashkar of Binghamton, a former Broome County undersheriff, and passed 56-6 with broad support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

The measure is obviously in response to the recent cold blooded killings of law enforcement we’ve seen in the news in recent years, most notably the five killed in last year’s attack in Dallas and New York’s own Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were shot point-blank in the head while they sat in their patrol car in 2014.

Up front, the bill should be applauded. The attacks I mentioned above, and others like it, were committed not because any of those police officers were remotely attached to the controversial police killings of black individuals we hear so much about, but because they were merely police officers.

They were targets simply because of their chosen line of profession.
Those are acts that simply cannot be justified. And the vast majority of law enforcement who are faithful in their positions need our protection as they have become new bulls’s eyes for savage assailants.

Any attempt to label the Senate’s bill as anything but an effort to condemn killings of police is grotesque. David Andreatta, a columnist at The Rochester Democrat and Chroniclecalled the bill “a ploy to pander to political constituencies.”

I can’t speak for them, but I hardly doubt the families of those killed because they carried a badge, or families of anyone who risks their life every day to maintain stability in their community, could see this bill as simply political pandering.

While the legislation has good intentions that I feel most people can support, we must also be careful about just what is being proposed.

A hate crime is currently defined by offenses motivated by bias based on race, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability and sexual orientation. The Community Heroes Protection Act would add something to that list that comes out of left field — occupation.

And while in the context of police officers and first responders that may sound reasonable, we put ourselves in serious danger of eroding the basis of what exactly a hate crime is and harming the very people it was created to protect — minority groups.

Should this bill become law — and similar legislation has passed in other states — it could potentially lead to more occupational groups requesting similar protection, essentially equating someone who’s born Jewish or disabled to someone who chose a career field that is associated with occasional danger. And that’s not something we should be doing.

It’s also a slap in the face to police reform groups who feel the hate crime system hasn’t been properly enforced in many of the cases we’ve seen of deadly confrontations between officers and young black men. Their concern with this legislation is absolutely justified.

Plus, there are already New York laws that enact specific penalties for criminal offenses against police officers, firefighters and paramedics. And as the personal-finance website WalletHub recently found in its in-depth analysis of 2017’s Best & Worst States to Be a Police Officer, New York is actually the third safest state in the country to be an officer.

Protecting law enforcement and holding them accountable are two very distinct and legitimate issues. No one wants to be treated unfairly or physically harmed just because of the color of their skin or uniform. No police officer wants to be part of tomorrow’s headlines anymore than a black person wants to be part of a deadly statistic.

There are ways to help ensure that neither becomes the case. But I’m not sure if the Community Heroes Protection Act is one of them.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Cuomo Is No Cheerleader For Democrats

Governor should help his own party in the Legislature before Congress

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seen with U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has continuously dismissed any ambitions to run for president in 2020. But since Donald Trump’s election last fall, the Democratic governor has been steadily wading further into national politics.

Last week, he made a big splash.

Appearing with none other than U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in Manhattan, he launched an ambitious campaign to replace New York’s eight Republican congressmen with Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

Cuomo said New York’s Republican delegation doesn’t represent the state’s interests and are “political pawns of the ultra-conservative puppet masters in Washington.”

Now, if Cuomo is seriously eyeing the White House, providing a path for a Democratic coup of the House of Representatives in a year and a half would certainly create whispers amid Democratic statesmen and donors about his potential. 

And that path runs through New York. Realistically, there are at least six House seats in the state that are definitely in play in 2018, which is about a quarter of the amount Democrats need to take back the majority.

But no one — either now or after the election regardless of the result — should make the mistake of labeling Cuomo a noble cheerleader for Democrats. Indeed, Republican House seats in New York have swelled from just two out of 29 in 2009 to eight out of 27 now, a time period that covers Cuomo’s entire tenure as governor and then some.

But Cuomo is being criticized — and rightfully so — about his sudden calling to help unify Democratic control at the federal level when he hasn’t been too energetic or successful with it at home.

In his six years as governor, he hasn’t exactly been known to stump for or endorse a lot of Democratic candidates for the Legislature. And even if he does, it hardly guarentees any security. During his 2014 re-election bid, he spent some money on down-ballot contenders and endorsed a few right at the end, but all those he endorsed lost.

In 2016, he did the same thing. A month before the election, he stumped for a few state Senate candidates. The Assembly is in firm Democratic hands and is unlikely to give that up anytime in the near future. But he hasn’t been able to gain a majority in the Senate.

And based on his lackluster efforts, it’s almost like he doesn’t want a unified Democratic government.

Because he doesn’t. He even said so. Just recently he told reporters “we’ve had a unified Democratic government in Albany. It’s not a hypothetical. We’ve had it. It wasn’t extraordinarily successful.”

If it sounds like he’s advocating for a divided government, he is. The main elephant in the room is the way he has handled the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of breakaway Democrats in the state Senate, including Sen. Dave Valesky, who caucus with the Republicans. This in effect blocks Democrats from controlling the Senate, even though they hold a numerical majority, and prevents them from having a trifecta of the state government. This has frustrated members of Cuomo’s party for years, especially Democrats in the Senate leadership, since Republicans have blocked a good portion of progressive legislation from getting to the governor’s desk.

The IDC has been deciding state policy since 2013, and while Cuomo is seen stumping for Democrats, he has been nearly completely silent on any effort to quash the coalition.

Indeed, Politico reported in 2014, quoting anonymous sources, that the governor was actually “deeply involved” in the creation of the IDC and “absolutely” encouraged a partnership that would give the opposite party control of the Senate.

There’s a reason for that. The IDC helps him politically. It gives him an excuse to liberals for why he can’t pass the standard of legislation they might demand up front. But when he does pass progressive legislation, he lets the Senate Republicans water it down enough to the point where it can satisfy moderate Republican voters while also giving him a chance to tout progress to centrist Democrats.

It’s a brilliant tactic. It shapes him to be a progressive who can get an agenda through Republican-controlled chambers. That makes him a classic Clintonian Democrat. And as we know, those are the ones who get presidential nominations.

Cuomo can call himself a progressive. He can call himself a skillful political moderator and an expert in backroom dealmaking. He would be correct in doing so.

But going out there saying Republican congressmen need to be defeated in 2018 in order to “take New York back” is strange.

There will certainly be a Bernie Sanders wing of the party that looks at that objection and ask the governor this: Why do you feel GOP House seats need to be flipped when you can’t flip one of your own legislative bodies? In a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, why can’t New York join California and Oregon and other blue states that have complete Democratic control?

It’s something he will be seriously scrutinized for by the left if he runs for president, especially since the Democratic Party is in ashes nationwide. If he really wants Democrats to improve their standing, he should be first looking at Albany instead of Washington.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

Schools Need to Stand Up to Sexual Assault

System of reporting cases needs serious improvement

Schoolhouse Sex Assault By The Numbers

Remember back in school when you were told that if you were being bullied, talk to a teacher or administrator and don’t keep quiet about it?

Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to many schools themselves.

And sadly, this is not about bullying in the conventional way we think of. It’s a much more sinister form of bullying — sexual assault.

Yes, a term we probably associate more with college campuses is in fact no rarity in secondary education settings. And no, we’re not talking about teacher-and-student situations.

An extraordinary investigative report by The Associated Press released last month uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults of students by students between fall 2011 to spring 2015, 147 of them were in New York state. Remember, those are just the ones that are actually reported.

After the privacy of homes, schools are the second most frequent place where children are sexually assaulted by their peers.

Yes. Schools, places of innocence, places where children spend 10,000 hours between kindergarten and graduation, places where parents believe their kids to be safe, are in fact the site of many dark secrets.

The information AP reported was just as chilling as it was stunning. Here’s just a little of what was discovered.

• Student sexual assault cases happened everywhere, from upper-class suburbs to rural areas.
• All types of children were vulnerable, not just ones who have trouble fitting in.
• Five percent of sexual violence involved 5-and 6-year-olds. The percentage increased significantly between ages 10 and 11 and peaked at 14.
• Peer-on-peer assaults are actually much more common than those by teachers. For every sexual assault reported on school grounds that involved an adult, there were seven by students.

Now, this is not the peck on the lips behind the cubbies we’re talking about. Unwanted fondling was the most common form of assault, but about 20 percent of students assaulted were raped, sodomized or penetrated with an object, the AP found.

The only thing more disgusting than all of that is many schools’ incredible inability to thoroughly address this problem, both overall and on a case-by-case basis. Some have even tried to cover it up, withholding information or hiding evidence.

For instance, parents of a girl who was sexually assaulted in an Iowa school in 2013 didn’t report the incident to police because the elementary school principal said he would take care of it.

He never did.

And many of the schools that do report these cases greatly misconstrue the details. Many reports AP found that involved rape or forced oral sex were often labeled by school administrations as bullying, hazing or consensual behavior.

It’s all about preserving the image, right? No school wants to be known as the one with a lot of sexual assaults among young children. No school wants to be seen in community newspapers that parents are filing lawsuits against them because their middle school-aged child was raped on a school bus or in a locker room.

Well, while schools are busy saving face, they are betraying their most crucial task — ensuring a safe environment for student learning. They are damaging students’ childhoods, hindering their futures and betraying a community of parents who trust these institutions with their children’s lives and wellbeing, all the while ignoring bullies accused of a criminal act. Clearly, there needs to be more transparency and better responses regarding this topic.

So what needs to change?

To start, there is no federal mandate to track sexual violence in schools, though 32 states, including New York, do. However, New York does not verify what individual schools and districts report such cases.

We force college campuses to keep a public crime log, send emergency alerts about sexual assaults, train staff and aid victims. While taking care to protect victims, why can’t such standards be included in middle and high school?

New York currently also tracks cases in two different categories: sexual penetration, with or without a weapon, and other types of inappropriate sexual contact with a weapon. The state is currently in the process of amending that so that all sexually-related incidents are grouped into one category. Let’s hope other states can produce similar rules.

Maybe most importantly is the need to require training aimed at preventing or responding to student-on-student sexual assault — another item New York doesn’t currently mandate. It is bad enough for any student to go through any kind of unwanted sexual ordeal. But just imagine a child who’s just been sexually assaulted and has found the courage to speak out about it, but teachers and administrators don’t believe them or believe that child is just being “oversensitive,” as some have claimed.

In many cases, such a scenario might occur because that teacher or administrator wouldn’t know how to properly handle that because they simply don’t know how to.

When we come to a point where schools can no longer help a student, then we know it’s time for something to change.

While new federal and state measures would be helpful, the last defense will always be the individual schools themselves. Laws don’t patrol hallways or cafeterias on a daily basis, after all.

Schools should take the responsibility of reporting and combating sexual assault seriously. It might be happening in yours. There’s likely much more going on that we don’t know about than what we do. And when it involves our youth, that’s something we cannot take lightly.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88