Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My last column: July 16, 2009

It's time to move on. I guess that's what it comes down to.

I'm stepping down as co-publisher and executive editor of Times/Review Newspapers effective July 22. The following Monday, I'll start in my new role as vice president for external affairs and foundation at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.

There are myriad reasons why I decided to venture forth through this open door, not the least of which is my inability to resist an open door. For me, this open door represents new challenges and new opportunities for personal growth doing good work for an organization whose mission I believe in. It's not unlike what attracted me to Times/Review: the opportunity to do good work for an organization whose mission I believe in.

A lot has happened in the decade since I penned my first op-ed piece as a columnist for the Riverhead News-Review. In 1999, Bill Clinton was in the White House and Vinny Villella was our town supervisor. The iPod changed the way we listen to music, and social networking Web sites changed the way we interact with family and friends. Terrorism changed the landscape of our lives, from the small stuff like removing our shoes in order to board an airplane, to big things, like sacrificing some basic freedoms in the name of national security.

We survived Y2K and recovered from the tragedy of 9/11. We've elected new leaders, fought in new wars and tried our best to make sense of the rapidly changing realities of our times. The world today is a different place.

A decade is a long time. And yet, it seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. Ten years ago, my daughters, now entering their senior year of high school, were just starting first grade. For them, this decade marked the transition from training wheels to driver's ed. In 1999, my hair was still brown. (Yes, there's a connection there.)

A lot has happened in and to Riverhead in this last decade. The face of western Route 58 has changed dramatically, with the build-out of the "destination retail" zone created in the town's master plan -- also finalized and adopted this decade. During this time, the town's population has grown by more than a third. The "old Riverhead" is being swallowed up, replaced by new residents, new businesses, new opportunities and new problems. Downtown Riverhead is a poignant symbol of this phenomenon. Already entrenched in a deep decline a decade ago, downtown has since lost its longtime "anchor tenant" (Swezey's Department Store), hit bottom and (we can only hope) is poised to reinvent itself.

Then again, a lot has not happened in or to Riverhead in the last decade. And that's as much a part of Riverhead's story as anything else. The Suffolk Theatre is still dark, with each passing year of disuse bringing it closer to a date with the wrecking ball. The potential for economic development at the former Grumman plant in Calverton is still largely untapped. And we still have to leave town to see a movie. But it's not all bad. A lot of development has been averted thanks to land preservation efforts by town and county officials -- and the success of the local wine region.

Since I accepted Troy Gustavson's invitation to make a home for myself here on Page Nine -- reluctantly, too, because I didn't think I could come up with an opinion about something each week -- I've written close to 500 columns. They've touched on all sorts of subjects, political and personal. And, though I've also been a feature writer, news reporter, editor and co-publisher for the News-Review, it's this column with which I am most identified, and this column that I'll miss the most as I move on to a new chapter in life.

It's been hard being me sometimes. But I brought it on myself, I know. I've been a spark plug and a lightning rod. When you dish it out, you have to know how to take it, too. I've learned.

I have a few parting observations to make before I go. The paper you are holding in your hands is a community treasure. It and its predecessors -- the County Review and the Riverhead News -- have chronicled life in Riverhead, writing the first draft, sometimes the only draft, of this community's history since 1868.

These pages represent the collective efforts of dozens of people working long and often odd hours to produce our "weekly miracle." For every one of us, it's a labor of love. We do what we do because we believe in it. We pour our hearts and souls into it every week. And we do good work, warts and all.

But this newspaper is bigger than our collective efforts. It's greater than the sum of its parts. It's more than the current staff, more than the current owners, more than the words and the pictures printed on its pages. The Riverhead News-Review is part of the fabric of this community, as it's been for more than 140 years. So may it be for at least 140 more.

I'm honored and grateful to have had some small part in it. Thank you.

copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kindergarten lessons

Pet peeves. We all have them. And we all love to gripe about them. I have my own pet peeves, of course. Things like irrigation systems running when it's raining out. Neighbors that have loud, all-night parties in their yards all weekend, keeping everyone else awake. Drivers who can't seem to stay in their own lanes, whether because of alcohol, cell phones or just being in a hurry. Litterbugs. Co-workers that leave dirty dishes in the office kitchen sink. People that use power tools early on a Sunday morning. People who take things that don't belong to them.

One thing all these noxious behaviors have in common is selfishness. Selfishness is a base instinct that people are supposed to overcome in the process of maturing from childhood to adulthood. The ability to put others' needs before one's own is a grown-up characteristic. But there are plenty of people out there all too willing to put themselves first, ahead of everyone and anything else -- the essence of immaturity and, I think, at the very heart of what's wrong with humanity.

It doesn't have to be that way.

In his insightful essay, published in 1988, Robert Fulghum explained how everything we really need to know we learned in kindergarten: "Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life -- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together."

These very basic rules are words to live by. "Everything you need to know is in there somewhere," Mr. Fulghum wrote. "The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living."

If people -- and businesses and governments -- lived by the principles they learned in kindergarten, think what a better world this would be.


Another long-held pet peeve of mine (though it seems larger than the term "pet peeve" would imply) involves government "leaders" who are so wrapped up in the games of politics, they lose sight of the mission of government. Call it selfishness on steroids. We can find examples of this wherever we look, at every level of government.

It's easy for officials to fall into this trap. I know what I'm talking about. As a Town Board member, I sometimes did it myself. The game can too easily become more important than the mission -- especially when partisan politics are at play.

The paralysis in Albany right now is a great example. For years, Democrats froze out Republicans in the Assembly and Republicans froze out Democrats in the Senate. To be a member of the minority party in either chamber amounted to essentially assuming a role of complete irrelevance. (This probably explains a lot about Gov. David Paterson, a longtime Democratic senator.)

With the slim Democratic majority in place in the Senate following last year's election, Senate Republicans, for the first time in almost two generations, got a taste of what it's like being in the minority. And areas outside of NYC got a taste of what it's like having all the shots, in both houses, called by NYC Democrats. For Senate Republicans, as well as suburban and rural New Yorkers of all political stripes, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Look no further than this year's budget for an example of what I'm talking about.

"Control" of the Senate is still undecided. With one of the Democratic defectors, Hiram Monserrate, flip-flopping back into the Democratic camp this week -- Sen. Ken LaValle told me Tuesday that Monserrate "folded his tent because he was intimidated by Al Sharpton," who threatened to stage a march on Albany -- the Senate is deadlocked 31 to 31. With no lieutenant governor to break the tie, with the judicial branch apparently unwilling to jump into the internal affairs of the legislature, and with an executive for whom exercising leadership seems to be outside his political comfort zone, Albany's paralysis is not likely to be cured any time soon. That's too bad for the rest of us.

Our legislators ought to pull out a copy of Robert Fulghum's essay and learn to play nice in the sandbox. Share. Play fair. Don't hit. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Then they can have some cookies and milk and take a nice nap.

We'd all be better off for it.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The three-ring circus in Albany

If so many important things — things like the state’s economic security and the civil rights of its gay residents — weren’t hanging in the balance, what’s going on in Albany right now would almost be funny. The upstate shenanigans are certainly entertaining, in spite of the stuff that’s not getting done.

The coup that took place in the State Senate on Monday afternoon was fun to watch. (Props to the Albany Times-Union for posting on its blog raw video of what went down.) The Democrats were completely blind-sided by the power play, made possible by the defection of two Democratic turncoats. The Democratic leadership obviously couldn’t believe their ears and eyes. They resisted calling a vote on the motion to replace Majority Leader Malcolm Smith as the Senate’s president pro tem. Then, after the vote was finally called, with every Republican and the two Democratic defectors voting to oust Mr. Smith, the Dems refused to announce the result of the vote. Then, as Mr. Smith later put it, they “gaveled out” the meeting, meaning they adjourned it — or at least attempted to. The motion to adjourn, though made and seconded, was never voted upon. After banging the gavel, Mr. Smith, with 29 Democrats filing out behind him, marched out of the Senate chamber, killing the mics and the lights as they left.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Democrats are trying to figure out what to do to salvage their short-lived leadership in the Senate, which had been held in the iron-fisted grip of a solid Republican majority for 40 years. The Dems lasted just five months, thanks to the defection of two of their least stellar members.

And while Republicans try to spin this coup as a bipartisan reform effort, it pays to be mindful of the characters with whom they’ve cast their lot. Democrats Pedro Espada of the Bronx (sort of — he might actually live in Westchester, outside of the district he represents, a teensy-weensy legal problem) and Hiram Monserrate of Queens are the party’s weakest links in the Senate. One’s under indictment, the other’s under investigation. They’re not exactly good-government reformers. But then again, good-government reform is not something that springs to mind when one thinks about Senate Republicans.

Except our own senator, Ken LaValle, of course. When I caught up with him Tuesday morning, he was not only delighted with Monday’s coup (especially how he and his colleagues kept it under wraps for weeks, “with members not telling their staffs, or even their wives”) but he was gleeful about the reforms enacted by the 32 senators who remained in the chamber after Malcolm Smith packed up his toys and stomped off the playground in a huff. They include: banning the majority leader from serving as president pro tem; imposing a six-year term limit on the president pro tem; and equalizing the distribution of resources among Senate members, regardless of party affiliation. After 40 years of choking out Senate Democrats, the Republican members got a taste of their own medicine these past five months, and they didn’t like it.

Mr. LaValle said the “thing that’s been gnawing at” him was the way the budget got done this year, and how badly Long Island got hurt. The last straw, he said, was the MTA bailout payroll tax, especially how school districts were not exempted from it. “It was just crushing,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether this “coalition government,” as Mr. LaValle called it, will get anything accomplished during the remainder of this year’s legislative session. Mr. LaValle is hoping to reinstate the STAR rebate program before the recess. And who knows what will become of the gay marriage bill (which, ironically, Mr. Espada sponsored but which Republicans, including Mr. LaValle, generally do not support).

It remains to be seen whether the Senate can even meet. The keys to the Senate chamber are in the hands of the senate secretary, a Smith appointee named Angelo Aponte, and he’s refusing to unlock the chamber doors — figuring, I guess, if he locks the insurgents out, they can’t convene. Never mind that the state constitution requires the doors to be kept open “except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”

I know Angelo Aponte and he’s not a stickler for details — such as what the state constitution might say. He’s actually the reason I left NYC almost 25 years ago. He was my boss at the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, where I was a staff attorney in the general counsel’s office. His idea of legal counsel’s role was to provide legal justification — cover, as it were — for whatever he -— the commissioner — wanted to do. He would scream at us to find him a “hook” to hang his hat on. Somewhere in Albany this week, he was no doubt yelling at some young lawyer to provide the rationale for keeping those doors locked. I can almost hear his voice bellowing out, “Find me a hook! Find me a hook!”

I remember precisely the moment I decided it was time for me to move on. It was in the basement of the old building at 80 Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan, where, ignoring my admonition that he had no legal right to do what he was doing, the commissioner of consumer affairs took a crowbar to the video game machines we were storing, pending administrative hearings. The machines had been confiscated by our enforcement agents for unlicensed operation, and Aponte had decided our agency was entitled to the coins locked inside them. I couldn’t find him his hook. I didn’t even try. He had no patience for my lecture about constitutional due process rights. He had his crowbar. I returned to my office before the first machine was cracked open and drafted my resignation.

Yep, characters all around. And so, the three-ring circus that is New York’s excuse for a state legislature continues to entertain. The Democrats claim that everything the Republicans did after Smith “gaveled out” and they walked on Monday doesn’t count because the session was adjourned. The Republicans argue (and they have the rules of parliamentary procedure on their side) that the meeting was not adjourned because there was no vote on the motion to adjourn. They want to reconvene, but they may have to find someplace else to do it, because they’ll probably need a crowbar of their own to get the chamber keys out of Aponte’s hands.

Where this all leads remains to be seen. But one thing’s a pretty safe bet: Good government and the interests of the people of the state will not prevail.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Remembering the Shoreham protest of 1979

I still can't get over the idea that I'm old enough to look back on a time 30 years ago. But it's really amazing that 30 years ago, I was already an adult -- of sorts; from my perspective at 51, 21 doesn't seem too "adult" to me, even if that's technically true.

Thirty years ago yesterday I was one of the 15,000 to 20,000 people who marched in Shoreham to protest the nuclear power plant then under construction. It was a historic event. Never before had such a large crowd gathered anywhere on Long Island to protest anything. Throngs of people jammed the narrow, winding roads in the community surrounding the power plant. I was excited to be one of them, and had been looking forward to it from the moment I'd heard it was going to happen.

So were a lot of people. A nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island in western Pennsylvania saw to that. On March 28, 1979, one of its reactors suffered a cooling system malfunction that caused a partial core meltdown. Two weeks before the accident, a movie called "The China Syndrome" was released. It was about a meltdown at a nuclear reactor eerily similar to what happened at Three Mile Island, only much worse. The accident at Three Mile Island, combined with the hit movie (whose box office was enhanced by the real-life scare in Pennsylvania, no doubt) helped raise public awareness across the country, and anti-nuclear activists took advantage of that by staging the massive June 3 march and protest.

In truth, I was excited to be part of any big protest. I was too young to participate in the political activism of the 1960s and watched with fascination and awe as the events of the civil rights, women's rights and anti-war movements unfolded, each with its own massive protests and demonstrations -- people getting together for a cause, making their voices heard, showing solidarity against "the establishment" and effecting social change. The no-nukes movement, part of the larger environmental movement, would give me and people of my generation a chance to speak out on an important issue, to work for social change and environmental justice.

I was such a romantic. But the march was anticlimactic for me.

It rained all day that Sunday. The crowd was orderly and quiet, save for some "hell no, we won't glow" and "no nukes" chants. I didn't get arrested for storming the gates, or see anyone get arrested for storming the gates. In fact, I didn't even see the gates. There was such a crowd in those narrow streets, I never got anywhere near the gates. In fact, I didn't lay eyes on the plant itself until years later, in 1985, when I'd moved back to eastern Suffolk after spending six years in NYC. I drove down the town beach road in Wading River to look at the power plant's imposing concrete tower. It was winter, and the area was desolate. I remember feeling spooked by it.

In the years following the march, I would not become an environmental activist, though I would always remain keenly interested in environmental issues. That September, I started law school. And except for one demonstration at the United Nations, I wouldn't be part of any large-scale protests again ¬ -- until two years ago, when I went to a peace march in D.C.

Activism does create change. And Shoreham is a case in point. When the tide of public opinion turned against the nuclear plant, LILCO had a losing battle on its hands. Though LILCO didn't make out too bad: It sold the new public power authority an aged transmission system for a very hefty price -- and kept the income-producing generating facilities for itself. The ratepayers got shafted in that deal. And the taxpayers got shafted after the tax litigation was settled, creating a disastrous situation for the Shoreham-Wading River school district, the effects of which its residents are still coping with today.

But look out: The nuclear power industry is poised to try for a comeback. Nuclear power has a very small carbon footprint. It will help our end reliance on foreign oil. It's clean, efficient and economical, industry insiders argue. But is it safe? And, even if the risk of generating nuclear power is acceptably low, what do we do with the radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants? There are no good answers to that question yet. But global warming, "peak oil" -- the declining world supply of oil -- and international politics are prodding more people to rethink the nuclear option, even though those pivotal questions go unanswered. Meanwhile, the promise of renewable alternative energy still remains largely unfulfilled, since investment in developing solar, wind and hydropower technologies was never much of a priority in America. You can't own the sun, or the wind, or the tides. Now, uranium -- that's another story.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Community Mosaic

What a wonderful event in downtown Riverhead yesterday-- the 13th annual Community Mosaic Street Painting Festival. Lots of artists creating masterpieces with chalk pastels on the pavement of East Main Street. Vendors. A full program of music all afternoon. It was absolutely terrific.

Kudos to Pat Snyder and her staff at the East End Arts Council for producing this festival and bringing downtown Riverhead to life. Pat conceived the street painting festival when she was director of the Arts Council school of the arts, just before I became the organization's executive director. We produced the first couple of these together. (Lots of trial and error!) And oh, my, what a long way this event has come. Pat and her staff have really taken it to the next level (or two!) over the years. It's so nice to see throngs of people on our riverfront, appreciating art and music and a pleasant family-oriented afternoon. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

No, we're not anti-teacher or pro-Scricca

We're working hard at the News-Review to come to terms with new technologies and figure out how to best use them in news gathering and reporting. We've enhanced the Web site in some ways already, but later this year we'll be launching a completely new site ¬­-- now in development -- that will be much more powerful, more interactive, and easier and more fun to use.

Among the enhancements we've made to our existing site is the ability of site users to comment on stories. This is supposed to help get a dialogue going in the community and (I think) improve communication between readers/users and the newspaper staff.

"Experts" tell us we (at the paper) should respond to people's comments online. We haven't done that yet. Lack of time is probably one reason why not. But as reporters and editors, we don't much like the idea of getting into debates with people about the issues we cover. Reporters of course have opinions about the subjects of the stories they write. But generally, they're supposed to keep those opinions to themselves. That's tough in the community newspaper business, where newspaper editors often double as reporters. We don't have editorial departments per se, so editors can't avoid writing editorials and opinion columns. It can get tricky. We have to be very careful about not letting our opinions seep into our news reports. Most of the time, I think, we do OK.

In spite of our sensitivity to such matters and redoubling our efforts to make sure we play news items down the middle -- especially if it's something we've opined about on the commentary pages -- people are cynical. Indeed, their level of cynicism sometimes amazes me. When people are passionate about a point of view, they tend to forget that reasonable people can, in fact, disagree.

Our editorials the past two weeks -- and the comments made about them on our Web site -- illustrate this point. (Though I should point out that in the case of education coverage, the reporter, Tim Gannon, never writes editorials, and the editors never do any reporting.) We published editorials on the proposed school budget and school board candidates. In them, we disagreed with some of the opinions expressed by the teachers' union.

"This paper seems to have fallen under Scricca's spell," wrote one anonymous poster on our site.

"Is Dr. Scricca writing these editorials herself? With the half truths that have been written in these last two editorials, it seems so. She definitely has someone's ear at the News-Review," wrote another, also anonymously.

Nobody, anywhere, has anyone at the News-Review under any spell. And certainly no one but us is writing our editorials. No one but our staff ever even sees them before publication.

Can't reasonable people disagree? And can't disagreement be expressed and debate undertaken without people smearing those who express opposing points of view?

I'm afraid the mode of communication on the Internet, with the proliferation of anonymous messages like this on Web sites, has debased public discourse -- even more than the 24-hour cable "news" networks had already done with their endless, mind-numbing offerings of people shouting at one another about this or that. That, to my mind, is a very unfortunate result of this new communication technology. When people don't have to take responsibility for what they say by putting their name to it, people will say all kinds of things. That's why we don't publish anonymous letters in our newspaper. And, although our editorials are not "signed," they are written by editor Michael White or me, or, more often, by both of us in collaboration.

For the record, I think the superintendent seems earnest, hardworking and smart. She seems to be doing a pretty good job in a tough situation. That doesn't make me anti-teacher or even insensitive to their plight. My children have had some truly wonderful, amazing and dedicated teachers in the Riverhead school district. And some of them have used their classroom as a soapbox for espousing opinions about their contracts, the administration and the school board. One of them recently complained in class that my daughter's mother's newspaper was "anti-teacher." That kind of thing is just plain inappropriate. Nobody should be pulling our kids into the union-administration tug of war -- even if the kid happens to be the daughter of the newspaper publisher.

Call me idealistic, but I'd like to see the administration, teachers and parents all work together toward the common goal of giving our children the best education we possibly can, within our district's financial means. There's been way too much "politics" for way too long in the Riverhead school district -- to the point of dysfunction. And in that kind of situation, the best interests of the kids can get lost in the shuffle.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Now we're seeing (Montauk) monsters in Southold

It's no secret that the Hampton set has "discovered" the North Fork.

But this month, the migration of the Hampton scene to our bucolic surroundings has perhaps gone a bit too far.

The Montauk Monster has arrived in Southold.

No kidding. A blogger who writes under the pseudonym Nicky Papers and publishes montauk-monster.com says he laid eyes on a bloated animal corpse on the beach at Founders Landing Park in Southold last week. It bore an eerie resemblance to the now-infamous "monster" of Hamptons fame, which washed ashore in Montauk last July.

Mr. Papers (yes, I can't help giggling at his chosen nom de plume) says he was contacted by a Southold couple who made the grisly discovery at Founders Landing Park while out for an evening stroll last Wednesday.

The couple, who, Mr. Papers said, want to remain anonymous, e-mailed him through his Web site at about 8 p.m. that evening. He beat feet to Southold and by 9:30 he was snapping pictures and recording a video of the latest "monster" to wash up on a Long Island area beach. (There was the one in Montauk, one on a New London, Conn., beach and one in Rocky Point. Mr. Papers said he believes the Rocky Point carcass was a "copycat scam.") One of his pictures is reprinted here.

Mr. Papers told me yesterday the Southold couple put the carcass in a plastic bag and took it home with them. He hasn't heard from them since.

What to make of all this?

We've had a bull running loose and even some mysterious "mountain lion" sightings around here, but a monster like this is definitely something new.

Mr. Papers is pretty convinced that these carcasses have something to do with Plum Island. There may be good security on the island, which is now managed by the Department of Homeland Security. "But everyone should keep in mind that security is never 100 percent foolproof," Mr. Papers said.

That's true enough, I'll admit. But what could the explanation be? Lab animals running amok, getting into the water and drowning? Animals lost in shipment? Stolen from the lab?

Homeland Security adamantly denied the Montauk Monster has anything to do with Plum Island.

There are all kinds of theories about the monster, ranging from the aforementioned Plum Island connection to a so-called viral marketing publicity stunt for a movie to an outright fraud. Both the New London and Montauk carcasses disappeared. Maybe the Southold beast will also never be seen again. Until it turns up on the cover of some supermarket tabloid.

Poking around on the Internet for "monsters" reveals some interesting stuff for sure. There are the famous ones, such as Sasquatch and Loch Ness. Then there are the lesser-known creatures, like the New Jersey Devil and, believe it or not, the Bayview Beast. That's the name given to the big cat some people reported seeing in the Bayview section of Southold last fall. Imagine my surprise when, scrolling through Nicky Papers' montauk-monster.com site, I came across my own name (in connection with my reporting on the big-cat sightings here last year). At first, I thought I was seeing things -- possibly a side effect of the anesthesia last week. But no, there I was.

People get pretty crazy about monsters and such. So I've got to give Mr. Papers credit for trying to debunk some of these tales.

The new monster sighting right in our own backyard will whip the crazies into a lather. The media will encourage the frenzy, of course. I predict we'll soon be seeing a caravan of satellite trucks on Main Road, heading to the beach at Founders Landing. Now we have to pretend to be in the Hamptons, and act like we don't notice or don't care.