Sunday, December 24, 2006

Where's Montecalvo?

It's interesting that Calverton sand mine operator John Montecalvo, co-owner of Calverton Industries, did not participate in the plea negotiations between the U.S. attorney and the other four members of the "asphalt cartel." Their trial on bid-rigging charges was supposed to begin in early January. On Friday, three of the other four defendants pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in the bid-rigging scheme, according to a Newsday report. The fourth was supposed to plea, but was ill. Only Montecalvo remains. Will he go to trial or is there some other plea being worked out?

Asphalt, sand, garbage... There's a lot of overlap in terms of who owns the various companies, and some interesting connections to goings-on in the Town of Riverhead.

To be continued...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My interview wtih Mike Cholowsky

In reporting the story ("Who's minding the mine?") for last week's News-Review, I called Mike Cholowsky for comment. He called me back late Wednesday, past deadline, and I plan to report on that in the upcoming edition.

He didn't appreciate my questions, to say the least. He accused me of attacking him. Referring to his Brentwood facility, which uses rail to ship garbage (something the DEC really likes because it keeps trucks off the roads, helping to limit air pollution — now that they're forcing LI towns to long-haul thousands of tons of trash off-island!).

"I'm just trying to do a good thing," Cholowsky told me. "Why do you have to put a negative spin on this? Why do you want to attack me?"

He said his mining permit condition (prohibiting involvement in the solid waste industry, as per his affidavit) was intended to apply to the operation of East End Recycling only; it wasn't a general prohibition. I pointed out that the language of his affidavit and the special condition of the permit were both very general and made no mention of East End Recycling.

He said:

"The documents I signed with DEC regarding solid waste pertained to the overlap in East End Recycling's permit at the time. That was going to be a waste facility on Calverton Industries site. As it pertained to that and that site. It was not a general prohibition."

So why was it worded to read like a general prohibition?

"That was, those permits and requirements were, uh, you know, through the DEC. We walked through both applications, both permits."

Cholowsky explained his apparently false answers to DEC application questions this way:

"I just answered the way my lawyer told me to."

I have a copy of the criminal court docket from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York indicating that Michael Cholowsky III pled guilty to one count of "conspiracy to defraud the United States" in 2000.

Why, I asked Cholowsky, did he answer "no" to the question on the DEC application asking if he'd ever been convicted of a crime involving fraud? (The actual language of the application states "crime involving fraud, bribery, perjury, theft or an offense against public administration."

His answer:

"I pled guilty to conspiracy to make extortion payments. That application was reviewed by my attorney, by DEC attorneys, by everybody involved. I answered them as directed."

What he says he pled guilty to doesn't match the criminal court docket. But even so, how could "conspiracy to make extortion payments" not come within the language on the application?

No answer.

Of course, I also asked him how he knew Barbara Blass had been at the DEC reviewing the Calverton Industries file on the morning of Oct. 2? (As I reported in the News-Review this week, the councilwoman FOILed the CI file, spent the morning of Oct. 2 reviewing it, and got a call from Cholowsky within an hour of her return to Riverhead Town Hall that day, in which he told her she needn't FOIL his DEC records if she wanted to know anything about his business. All she had to do was ask him." Ms. Blass told me she felt the purpose of his call was to intimidate her.

When I asked him this question ("How did you know BB had been at DEC looking at his records...") he laughed for quite a while — too long, it seemed. Then he asked me, "How do you know that I knew?" And then he laughed some more. Then he told me that he really didn't know. I asked, "So what are you, psychic?" More laughter. "No, I wouldn't say I'm psychic." Then the laughter stopped and his voice just got sort of cold, and he said: "But I'm not stupid, either."

OK, then.

He called me back again within 10 minutes to make the following comments (this is how I typed what he said as he spoke, cut and pasted from my notes):

"im a little upset
my emjay project is something that im really proud of
a good concept
i got shot down in calverton
found another location
i really went out on a limb
spent a lot of money
it's unchartered territory

the trouble that i got into in 99
that was the most difficult time of my life
the worst 2 yrs of my life

im not trying to do anything wrong
im trying to do good things
i feel like anything i try to do i get attacked

i think i did a good thing
a good service
if we're going to move a million yards of waste off LI
it should be by rail

i think im doing a good thing
im not trying to hurt anybody
i don't see why i have to be dragged thru the mud & beat up
i made a mistake
i paid dearly for it
i feel like i should have a right to move on"

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sink, stank, stunk again

Incompetence or corruption? That's the question on my mind as I ponder the DEC's record of regulating sand mines in Riverhead.

And considering the cast of characters involved, I'd probably be smart to shut up and forget about it. But I can't.

We've got a sand mine problem in the Town of Riverhead, and the state DEC is right smack in the middle of it.

Beginning in 1998, Calverton Industries excavated 2.25 million cubic yards of sand out of a 41-acre site in Calverton. The company didn't bother to get the required permits from the town or the state before starting its lucrative dig — the estimated market value of the sand hauled out of there was more than $10 million. After the state DEC went to court and got a restraining order, Calverton Industries applied for a state mining permit. Meanwhile, Riverhead adopted a law banning all sand mining here.

Nevertheless, the state DEC gave Calverton Industries a mining permit. And it did so with the minimum amount of environmental scrutiny allowed by law: The DEC issued a negative declaration of significance, a finding under SEQRA that the project would have no significant potential environmental impacts and did not require an environmental impact statement.

A 41-acre hole in the ground, 40 feet deep, located in a state-designated groundwater protection district — a hole that's to be filled with waste as part of the "reclamation" process. No significant potential environmental impacts? Are they kidding?

The negative SEQRA declaration prompted the town to sue the DEC in 1999, a lawsuit the town eventually won in late 2001, when a court ordered the DEC to reconsider its finding.

But the court actions continued and so did the mining — and filling. The mining is completed now and only the filling remains. And the filling of that huge hole is what makes this story really interesting.

While, in the name of groundwater protection, the DEC ordered closed all municipal solid waste landfills on Long Island in the 1990s, the DEC issued permits for several privately run landfills like the one operated by Calverton Industries. The DEC hates it when you call them landfills; they prefer the term "mine reclamation." But they are, in fact, landfills — big holes in which waste is buried.

The type of waste is what makes the difference. Municipal solid waste, or MSW, poses a potential groundwater threat. It contains stuff that would pollute the groundwater if carried to the aquifer by rainwater percolating through the layers of soil. Other types of waste, such as concrete and asphalt made with approved raw materials, are deemed "clean fill" by the DEC, and can be buried in an unlined hole like the one Calverton Industries dug.

But make no mistake: There's plenty of incentive to bury more than clean fill in a hole like the one in Calverton. Disposing of MSW is costly — it either has to be shipped to out-of-state landfills or burned at the Hempstead incinerator; either way the waste hauler must pay significant per-ton tipping fees. If the waste is contaminated — if, say, it contains asbestos or other materials deemed hazardous — the cost of disposal increases exponentially.

Given all that, monitoring what goes into our 41-acre hole in a special groundwater protection district on the edge of the central pine barrens is pretty important, don't you think?

But day-to-day monitoring of the site is on the honor system, because a DEC inspector visits the site only once or twice a week and the town hasn't been allowed access to the site.

Now all this would be unsettling enough if it weren't for the identity of the operators of the site.

Enter Michael Cholowsky, Calverton Industries president. He testified in federal court that he bribed Brookhaven town officials to gain access to the town landfill, where he dumped solid waste in the mid to late 1990s. Cholowsky had a close relationship with East Patchogue salvage yard owner Joseph Provenzano, who pled guilty in 1999 to 17 counts of federal stolen truck, extortion, witness tampering and racketeering charges and was sentenced to eight years in jail. Evidence gathered by federal investigators established that Provenzano was using Cholowsky's hauling permit (issued to his company Sky Materials) to illegally dump hazardous waste at the Brookhaven landfill, according to reports in Newsday in 1999. Cholowsky's testimony helped send John Powell, Suffolk County Republican leader, to prison.

Cholowsky doesn't own Calverton Industries, according to an affidavit he gave the DEC in 2000. He said the company is owned by his brother, Robert Cholowsky, and John Montecalvo, a paving contractor indicted earlier this year on federal bid-rigging charges.

In the affidavit, Cholowsky swore he had no involvement in the solid waste industry and would have no involvement in it, except for handling concrete and asphalt for recycling. The DEC got the affidavit from Cholowsky to safeguard — on paper, anyway — against the dumping of solid waste at the Calverton Industries mine site. The DEC even made the affidavit a condition of the Calverton Industries permit, stipulating that the CI permit would be "deemed" automatically revoked if Cholowsky got back in the solid waste business.

But then the DEC ignored its own permit condition.

In applying for a permit to build and operate a solid waste facility in Brentwood, Cholowsky supplied the DEC in 2004 with signed contracts (signed by him!) indicating that he is in the business of hauling and disposing solid waste. The DEC then issued Cholowsky's company a permit to process 200 tons per day of municipal solid waste.

Evidently the DEC doesn't pay careful attention to the contents of its files. The application forms Cholowsky signed in 2003 and 2004 represented "under penalties of perjury" that he had never been convicted of a crime involving fraud. He pled guilty to conspiring to defraud the U.S. on tax evasion charges in 2000.

The DEC — at the highest levels — does seem to pay attention to who's accessing its files under the freedom of information laws, however. When Riverhead Councilwoman Barbara Blass foiled documents from the Calverton Industries file, DEC regional director Peter Scully reviewed them first, and even attached Post-It Notes to some documents asking questions about their contents before they were turned over to the councilwoman. A couple of those notes were left in the file and copied by Ms. Blass, who showed them to me. I was left wondering what might have been removed from the file before she was given access.

Interestingly, about an hour after the councilwoman returned to Riverhead Town Hall following her appointment at the DEC to review the FOIL documents, Cholowsky called her to tell her that if she had any questions about his business, all she had to do was call him and ask — she didn't need to FOIL records at the DEC. How did he know where Ms. Blass had spent her morning that day?

That's just one of many, many unanswered questions in this saga. Some others: Why are Ed Tuccio and his wife helping to bankroll Mike Cholowsky's financial assurance required by the DEC (to the tune of $200,000)? Cholowsky is a frequent visitor to Ed's bar on Main Street, Tweed's. So is his assistant, Jill Lewis, who left her job as Riverhead deputy supervisor one day and was back in Town Hall the next working for Mike Cholowsky's Sky Materials. So is Lewis's former boss, Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society — which has had oddly little to say about the Calverton Industries sand mine over the years, in spite of its location at the edge of the pine barrens core preservation area. So is Anthony Coates, who rents an apartment from Mr. Tuccio above the Main Street bar and who was a partner of Cholowsky's in Peconic Golf Partners, which proposed digging a 60-acre "lake" at EPCAL a few years ago. Coates was also very involved in running a campaign for supervisor last year by Cholowsky's partner in a fuel oil business, Councilman Ed Densieski.

When Ms. Blass objected to "settling" the Calverton Industries case after the town had won its court decisions, and demanded that the settlement agreement grant the town access to inspect the site — to monitor what was being buried in the town's special groundwater protection area — Councilman Densieski lashed out at her. "I have three words for this resolution," he said at the April 16, 2002, Town Board meeting. "Stinks, stank and stunk."

Well, Ed, you can say that again. Something sure smells in this whole deal, and it's more than the load of dead fish dumped in Barbara Blass's driveway on April 18, 2002, the morning that page one of The News-Review carried the "Stinks, stank, stunk" headline over a story about Ms. Blass demanding accountability at the Calverton Industries sand mine.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Caveat emptor

Both my grandmothers were opposed to restaurants — eating at them, that is. For one thing, no restaurant chef could whip up food that truly tasted homemade, they used to say. For another, when you eat out you just never know what you're getting. More specifically, you never know who's handling and preparing your food, and whether they're, well, clean.

I could literally count the number of times I saw either of my grandmothers eat out. Special occasions, usually, and then they'd pick at their food, a look of consternation on their faces. Never, ever, would they eat at a fast food joint!

Needless to say, I don't have the same attitude about eating out. Sometimes eating out or getting takeout is my salvation. And though I'm not a fast food fan myself, my kids would live on Wendy's and pizza — and Taco Bell — if I allowed it.

But Nana was right. When you eat out, you just don't know what you're getting. The current E. coli outbreak at the Taco Bell chain is a good example. Nana cooked for herself and made just about everything from scratch. There's no hope of doing that in the context of my lifestyle. Though I have been known to make my own tacos.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The future of our community hospitals

Significant changes may be in the offing for health care delivery systems on the East End. The much-anticipated report of the Berger commission was released today and it recommends a structural consolidation of the three East End hospitals, with the possible subsequent addition of Brookhaven Memorial. The commission says the hospitals should have one governing board empowered to develop and implement a strategic plan for all facilities. If the hospitals balk, the state health department will not approve any future "certificate of need" applications, which effectively puts them out of business. So they really have little choice but to comply.

This could be interesting in terms of future management of the hospitals. Would they have one CEO instead of three? Will it be one of the CEOs currently running the three independent facillities? Nobody at the hastily convened press conference at Peconic Bay Medical Center wanted to discuss those specifics, so we won't know for a while how this will play itself out.

One CEO said the cost of implementing the commission's recommendations could run to $25 million. Who will foot that bill? The hospitals are certainly in no position to bear that burden. Is this another unfunded mandate from state government? (Like dozens of

To their credit, and to the credit of State Senator Ken LaValle, the East End hospitals are already well on their way to doing a lot of what the Berger commission is recommending, in terms of structural consolidation and affiliation with University Hospital in Stony Brook — the county's ONLY tertiary care hospital.

When you think about it, it's absurd that Suffolk County — which is how many times bigger than Nassau geographically and which has a population that's now bigger than Nassau's — has only one tertiary care center. One for the whole county! Nassau has several such facilities. (North Shore, LIJ, Winthrop, St. Francis, maybe NCMC too.) Wouldn't it make sense for there to be such a center for the eastern part of the county, including the twin forks and eastern Brookhaven? Geographically, Peconic Bay Medical Center is the right place for it. But as far as I can see upon a cursory reading of the commission's 240-page final report, there's no mention of establishing a tertiary care center in eastern Suffolk. That's too bad.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Black Friday

I was never much of a shopper. My favorite stores are bookstores, hardware stores and stationery stores, in that order.

I'm not a sale-chaser or coupon clipper. And I'm certainly not one to get up and line up in front of a store in the predawn hours, waiting for the store to open, because of some spectacular sale. I'll do it for my kids — to get that Wii, for instance. But to score some hot deal? Nah.

One of my relatives told me yesterday that she and her sister were planning to be at some store (I forget which) this morning at 5 a.m. She loves Black Friday. Not so much for the sales, but for, as she put it, "the thrill of the shop." I can't relate. I dread shopping, unless it involves browsing around a bookstore, a hardware store or a stationery store.

This morning, I glanced at some newspaper inserts as I sipped my first cup of coffee. I noticed Best Buy has a big sale going on. A 32-inch LCD HDTV for $479. Hmm. We're in the market for a TV, so I decided to stop at Best Buy on my way to the gym. It was a casual, spur-of-the-moment decision. At 5 a.m., how many people would be at Best Buy in Riverhead? I'd breeze in and out and go work out.

I am so naive. You'd think after my Wii experience last weekend I'd know better.

At 5:30, a half hour after Best Buy opened, there was a line of people, 3 and 4 abreast, waiting to get IN to the store! The parking lot was jammed. The line went all the way around the corner of the building, past where the people had been camping out in the hopes of scoring a PlayStation 3 or a Wii last week! And it was still dark out! Amazing!

I went directly to the gym. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was shocked to see a line of people waiting for Staples to open at 6! Holy cow!

I went into the gym, feeling like an alien creature. (And grateful for it.) I climbed aboard the Cross-Ramp and ran my butt off for 30 minutes. On the way home, dawn had broken. Every parking lot on Route 58 was jam-packed. Target. Toys R Us. Filled to the brim. Amazing! I guess there are a lot of folks around who love the "thrill of the shop."

What time does Borders open today?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wii for people like mii

We have a Wii. Procurement was not easy. Getting up and out at dawn wasn't enough. It took a lot of luck.

But our Wii, whose name is George, now lives in our TV room, where my children can be found, even as I write this, standing in front of (rather than sitting upon) the couch, flailing their arms about wildly.

The Wii (pronounced "we") is Nintendo's new video game system, replacing the Game Cube, which sits, cast aside, passé, in the corner of our TV room. You can play Game Cube games on the Wii, you see. It is that clever.

The distinguishing feature of the Wii, the one that sets it apart from Sony's PlayStation 3, is its wireless game controller that detects motion and rotation in three dimensions. The really neat thing about that, gushed my 14-year-old daughter a year ago, when she first started talking (incessantly) about Wii, is that it allows "old people like you, Mom" to play video games with ease.

"You know how you're so spastic operating the controller?" she asked me excitedly. Like I'm going to admit to being spastic at anything.

"No," I insisted. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, come on, Mom," she insisted, laughing hard. "You can't play Tony Hawk. All you do is crash. And you can't get Dash past the first intersection in The Incredibles without getting creamed. You can't even play Klax."

She was right. It is true. When it comes to video game controllers, I'm hopelessly, totally spastic. There were no video games when I was a kid. I didn't touch a controller until adulthood. That makes all the difference. At least that's how I explain my spasticity to my kids. They find it entertaining. Sometimes they ask me to play with them just so they could get a good laugh and make fun of me.

"Nintendo made Wii for people like you," Katie giggled. "You don't have to push buttons. You just move the controller around." Wii would be such a hit, my daughter predicted, Sony (maker of PlayStation) will go out of business. If I owned Sony stock, I'd sell it.

Revolution. They code named it Revolution while it was in development. That's how significantly different it is, my daughter advised solemnly.

While Katie was counting down the days till Nov. 19, the day Wii would go on sale in North America, I didn't think much about Wii until I saw a tent city sprout up around Best Buy last week, where people camped out for days hoping to buy PlayStation 3 on Nov. 17.

As the big day for Wii approached, the frequency and urgency of my daughter's reminders about Wii increased.

"We're not sleeping in the parking lot outside a big box store, absolutely not," I said firmly. "No way."

Surely, there would be plenty of opportunity to buy Wii before Christmas. Isn't that the point of timing its release in mid November? This is all hype. I reminded her how we'd spent the night in Borders last year — until midnight anyway — just so we could buy the new Harry Potter book the moment it went on sale. They would surely run out of them immediately and permanently — or so she feared. The next morning, Wal-Mart had eight-foot-tall stacks of them. We could have gotten our beauty rest.

But what if...? What if there won't be any more Wiis any time soon? That thought jarred me awake before 6 a.m. Sunday morning. I was at Wal-Mart one minute past its 7 a.m. opening. And the Wiis were all gone. People had camped out the night before, to be able to get tickets distributed by Wal-Mart an hour or so before the store would open. A ticket secured a Wii. Wal-Mart only had 20 Wiis to sell. Twenty? If Wal-Mart only had 20, this was serious.

A lady in Wal-Mart told me Kmart had them, but only the "bundle," which came with games and cost a lot more. The Wii base price is $249. The Wii "bundle" was something like $489. I went to Kmart anyway. A sign on the door said Wii tickets would be given out at 6 a.m. Too late again. I headed for Target, wondering when this ticket system thing had taken root in the American marketplace.

My heart sank when I saw the line of people outside Target. I'd missed the boat again.

The mother of one of Katie's friends was bringing up the rear. She looked as happy as she could be under the circumstances — in a line outside Target at 7:15 on a brisk Sunday morning, coming off a night shift at work, no less. But she had a ticket. And to my amazement, I would get mine. Number 61. Target had gotten a shipment of 67 Wiis to sell. I arrived in time to get ticket number 61. Five minutes later and I'd have been out of luck.

I was excited, but couldn't share the news with anyone at home. They were all still asleep.

Most of the people around me in line were parents in pursuit of Wii for their kids. The young people who'd camped out at Target all night were at the front of the line. Other parents came from Springs. And Sag Harbor. And Orient. We had one thing in common: spoiled children. We chatted about the revenge we would exact.

The best revenge, I decided, would be to actually win at Wii. So Sunday afternoon found me "boxing" with Katie, punching the air with my Wii controllers (one of them is called a Numchuk) trying to land a good punch on Katie's character on the TV.

Katie clobbered me. Knocked me out, in fact.

Turns out I'm just as spastic with the Wii as I am with a traditional video game controller. What a surprise.

© 2006 Times-Review Newspapers

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Holiday weeks

I've been distracted— so much going on. Managing a company with a staff of 60 is quite the enterprise. As former GE CEO Jack Welch, whose book, "Winning" I'm listening to right now, says (repeatedly) it's all about the people. That is just so true. Having the right people in place is what makes a business succeed or fail.

We're very fortunate at Times/Review to have so many great people. You'd be hard pressed to find people more dedicated and hard-working than the staff that produces and distributes our four newspapers. They are fantastic and I am often awed by how they do what they do. Sure, we have our ups and downs, and we make our mistakes. We're human. But as a group, we get it done and, I'm proud to say, most of the time, do it very, very well.

Thanksgiving week and the week after are a rough time for us. We're off Thursday and Friday. So that means we have two "short weeks" in a row. This week is one of the toughest of the year, because we have to produce our papers a day early. So today is Wednesday at Times/Review, even though the rest of the world thinks it's Tuesday. Getting it done this week means staying in overdrive for three straight 14-hour-plus days. Then next week, it's more of the same— somewhat easier because losing a Friday isn't as stressful as losing a Wednesday, our normal production day. Holidays take on a different meaning in this business.

But I'm not complaining. This is about as fun and exciting as work can get. Every week, every day is different. And you're doing something that makes a difference in your community. That's what inspires and infuses us with energy, feeling that what we do really matters, that people count on us to know what's going on, to help them navigate through their busy lives.

As we approach Thankgiving Day and I take time to count my blessings, I count among them working with such a fantastic group of people to contribute something meaningful to the community we call home.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Affordable housing - are there really any answers?

We've had a back-and-forth debate on affordable housing on the letters pages of The Suffolk Times in the past few months. A retiree from East Marion, John Copertino, has been a vocal opponent of municipal-sponsored affordable housing initiatives, like the Factory Avenue plan in Mattituck, claiming that these housing developments will cause taxes to rise and hurt seniors on fixed incomes. He's also said things like the younger generation needs to learn the meaning of sacrifice and suggested that if the young people can't afford to live here they should quit whining and move away. (He notes that he couldn't afford to live where he preferred to when he and his wife were just starting out, so they moved to a more affordable location and he commuted a greater distance to work, etc.)

While I don't agree with Mr. Copertino, I also don't see any real solutions to the housing crisis on the horizon. A dozen or two subsdized homes here or there won't make a dent in the problem. And it IS a crisis. Because communities need a diverse demographic to maintain good health. And our community is poised to become very unhealthy in that respect.

Riverhead's stated plan to build rental housing downtown could help young people (and seniors for that matter). But what about the American Dream of home ownership? Is that lost forever on the North Fork for the generation now coming up and starting their own families? My kids are young teens. I'm figuring there's no way they're going to be able to afford to buy a house in the community where their family has lived for generations. (While I'm a transplant — I grew up in Brooklyn and Coram — my husband has lived in Riverhead his whole life, as did his parents. His dad's mother's family, the Young family, were some of the first settlers of the North Fork.) This is our home, our town. We want to spend the rest of our lives here, but not if it means sacrificing being around our children and grandchildren. I think that if things were not so out-of-whack on Long Island, our kids would at least have the option of settling here too. But that's out of the question as far as I can tell. My hope for the long term future is that they choose to plant roots not to far from each other, so that we may follow them and be near both of their families, and be able to know our grandchildren growing up.

What's happened to real estate prices on LI represents the free market economy at its worst. It's supply and demand. The location of this little spit of land, next to one of the greatest metropolises on earth, surrounded by beautiful bodies of water, make it a most desirable place. For people like me and my family, that means being priced out of the market.

The ramifications of this state of affairs are far-reaching. For business owners, it means being unable to find qualified people to fill skilled labor jobs. I have personal experience there too. We can't recruit people from out of the area because they can't afford to buy a home or live here. We must "hire from within" and the pool of applicants is shrinking. For people like Mr. Copertino, it will eventually mean a crisis in the shortage of people available to do the work that needs to be done for the seniors on fixed incomes. The firefighters, rescue volunteers, nurses, nurses' aides and other health care workers, the auto mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and all other home improvement contractors, landscapers — the WORKERS — are going to become more and more scarce. And (thanks to the supply and demand economy) expensive. Some people decry the "illegals" working locally and advocate shipping them all back to Mexico or Guatemala. Not so fast! They're going to be the only people left who are able to do the work that needs to be done. And things that people volunteered to do (fire and rescue services) for instance, will have to be done by paid municipal workers. And that will make local taxes go up.

So, we NEED young people here. And we have to figure out a way to make it feasible to stay here. Living in Dad's basement isn't the answer. Neither is 22 "affordables" here and there. This is something I've beent thinking about for almost 20 years now. (Riverhead did its first affordable housing development during my term on the Town Board.) I don't see an answer yet.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Mark Houraney saga

Mark Houraney is the poster child for everything that's wrong with the Calverton Enterprise Park.

He wanted to run the airport there, and Councilman Ed Densieski and Supervisor Bob Kozakiewicz wanted him to do it — in spite of a clear message against an airport by the voters in a referendum several years ago. So they made sure not to call it an airport, but they were intent on putting in place all the trappings of an airport. And that included a fixed base operator — the guy with the right to sell fuel, maintain a terminal, maintain the runway and control access to it. Enter Mark Houraney. While they weren't calling him the FBO, the management agreement they negotiated with him and were set to approve in the spring of 2003 was actually an agreement to make him the airport's FBO.

Mr. Houraney believed he was going to make a ton of money at it. The dollar loss he claimed in his breach of contract action in federal court was $50 million.

He was so eager to begin — and so certain the deal was done — that he started marketing his plan on the Internet before his management agreement was approved — publicly, at least — by the Town Board. The Town Board had one brief public meeting on the deal, which is how I learned of it. But the whole thing was negotiated behind closed doors, in executive session, or privately in officials' offices. It was a done deal, until we published a front page story on Dec. 19, 2002, disclosing it for what it was, using Mr. Houraney's own words from his Web site. There, he offered Calverton to business executives as an alternative to New York City's crowded airports, just a short helicopter ride from Manhattan. He also offered jet charter service into and out of the site. And aircraft fueling, storage and maintenance.

So, just as the Town Board was poised to ink Mr. Houraney's 20-year management agreement — which, among other things, gave him the exclusive right to develop regulations governing the use of the runway — without ever airing the terms of the that agreement in public, The News-Review went to press with the story of what Mr. Houraney was actually planning to do at EPCAL, drawing attention to the fact that the town was proceeding without a bidding process, which seemed a clear violation of applicable law. And people went ballistic.

Mr. Houraney's plans — hatched, it seemed to us, with airport proponents Ed Densieski and Steve Kirschenbaum — sputtered, stalled and skidded off the runway.

But Mr. Houraney had ensconced himself in an office at the top of the old Grumman control tower, which he was leasing from a company that had purchased the building from developer Jan Burman — the man who bought the entire developed area at EPCAL, known as "the industrial core," from the town for $17 million, dubbed "the great Grumman giveaway" by Koz and Ed in their successful 1999 election campaign.

Mr. Houraney was there because, without much public attention, the Town Board in October 2002 had already signed a runway use agreement with him. From his perch atop the control tower, he pursued his plans, even though the FBO deal wasn't signed. He bought equipment, including fuel tanks. He applied to the FAA for various approvals, some of which Mr. Kozakiewicz signed off on as town supervisor. And he had, pursuant to his runway use agreement, the right to use the runway.

2003 was a bad year for Mr. Houraney. First, The News-Review stalled his FBO plans, which, it turned out, were permanently scuttled. Then things went sour between him and Steve Kirschenbaum. It's still not clear to me what their relationship was or how Mr. Kirschenbaum fit into Mr. Houraney's airport dreams. But they did share that airport dream. And in furtherance of that dream, they planned the New York Air Show, which Mr. Kirschenbaum and his airport ally Joe Van de Wetering pitched to the Town Board as a fundraiser for Central Suffolk Hospital, where Mr. Van de Wetering served as chairman of the board of directors. For that "good cause," the town gave the air show use of the facility at no charge, except the reimbursement of town police costs of $50,000.

The public will probably never know how much money Mr. Kirschenbaum made off the air show. He drew payments during the planning stages and never provided the town with a complete accounting of the cash that came in at the gate over the course of the weekend. Cars were backed up bumper to bumper from the EPCAL entrance on Route 25 in Calverton to LIE Exit 68 at William Floyd Parkway. But somehow, the air show was a bust and the hospital wasn't going to see a plug nickel — until this newspaper got all over Mr. Kirschenbaum's case and he forked up a $5,000 donation to the event's supposed beneficiary. The town didn't even get its police costs reimbursed. And its pursuit of the matter has been, at best, impotent. I'm resigned to having these questions remain forever unanswered. And I guess I'm the only person in town that's still bothered by this "mystery" — and by the fact that Mr. Kirschenbaum and Mr. Van de Wetering are both principals in Grumman Memorial Park, another not-for-profit venture using town-owned land at EPCAL.

Mr. Houraney says his relationship with Mr. Kirschenbaum went south after Steve decided to take the air show fuel concession away from him and sell it to an Islip-based company for a $25,000 fee. Selling fuel at the air show was to have made Mr. Houraney a tidy sum, and he was hopping mad. Feeling betrayed, he proceeded to do whatever he could to get back at his former friend, including coming to me with Quicken printouts of the air show's operating account. I was very surprised to hear from Mark when he called shortly before the air show was to take place. Since I'd played a big part in mucking up his FBO plans, I was no friend of Mark Houraney's. Why would he be tipping me off on a story like this? The desire for vengeance will do strange things to people.

Mr. Houraney's attempts to get back at Steve Kirschenbaum didn't stop there. He called the FAA, complaining that the runway was in unsafe condition. He sent photos of town highway department workers patching potholes in the runway. He called and wrote and met with the supervisor. If he was going to be cut out of the air show, he was going to do everything he could to make sure it didn't happen.

But Supervisor Kozakiewicz had the opposite resolve. After the Field Day debacle that summer — the three-day big name concert that was canceled at the last minute because the county determined that the town didn't have adequate law enforcement plans in place — Koz, who was facing reelection that fall, could not afford another EPCAL embarrassment. (The multimillion dollar Field Day lawsuit is still pending.) The air show was going to happen and if Mr. Houraney got in the way, he would be eliminated. Figuratively speaking, of course.

And that's exactly what happened. Mr. Houraney demanded that the air show pay him $25,000 to forfeit use of the runway for the weekend of the event, as others with runway use rights had been paid to keep off the runway. His former friend Steve told him to get lost. He threatened to hold a "fly-in" that weekend. The town responded by revoking his runway use agreement — claiming that he was in breach of contract because he hadn't bought property at EPCAL. The letter advising Mr. Houraney of the revocation was faxed to his attorney on the Friday afternoon of the air show weekend.

And so, Mr. Houraney's $50 million lawsuit was born. It was subsequently amended to include a civil rights claim (and another $130 million in damages sought) thanks to stupid comments made by town officials during a closed door settlement discussion that Mr. Houraney, of Middle Eastern heritage, found offensive. Mr. Densieski said they were only joking when they made those cracks about whether Mr. Houraney would store Osama bin Laden's planes at EPCAL. Mr. Houraney didn't find them funny.

Town officials trying to accomplish something on the sly that the public had resoundingly rejected in a referendum (the airport). Closed door meetings. No bid contracts. Good ol' boy back room deals. Political ambition taking priority over public interest. A healthy dose of avarice. Pure stupidity. (Yes, public officials shouldn't make Osama bin Laden jokes to a guy of Arab-American ethnicity, Eddie, especially during federal lawsuit settlement discussions.)

For all these reasons and more, the town's handling of Mark Houraney's proposal exemplifies everything wrong with EPCAL — a textbook case of how not to manage an "enterprise zone," bungled from start (selling all the buildings and central facility for $17 million) to finish (the ultimate development of hundreds of houses there, which will certainly ensure that no meaningful industrial or economic development will ever occur.)

What a shame.

Copyright 2006 Times/Review Newspapers

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Our sample ballot slip-up

It seems we got a lot of people upset by not publishing a sample ballot in the paper on the Thursday before Election Day. I'm very sorry. We've got at least one letter to the editor this week (in The Suffolk Times) blasting us for not printing the ballot.

I wanted to get the sample ballot in a digital format, as a portable document file (PDF) which provides the best image for reproduction. Up until a couple of years ago, we had to get the paper version (we had to drive to Yaphank to the Board of Elections to pick it up, too) and then scan it to create a digital image of it for use in the paper.

Last year, I asked and got the sample ballot as a PDF — emailed to me! No wasted time or gas, and the reproduction quality was great.

This year I figured we'd do the same thing. So I called the Board of Elections and asked. I was told I had to fax a letter with my request to the BOE Commissioners and they'd get back to me. (I got the same answer to my question about what phone number we should print for voters to call if they have problems at the polls — fax the question to the commissioners! Why is it that a Board of Elections employee who answers the phones there a few days before Election Day doesn't know if the BOE has a hotline number for reporting poll problems? That's preposterous!)

Anyway, I faxed my request for the sample ballot PDF as instructed.

The BOE emailed the sample ballot PDF to me at 4 PM on Wednesday, too late to make it into Thursday's paper; The News-Review is already at the printer and The Suffolk Times is on its way!

That resulted in a number of people calling the paper to complain that we let them down — they rely on us to provide the sample ballot they like to study before going to the polls — as well as a scathing letter to the editor from someone who sees this failure as an indication that our journalistic standards are slipping.

Next year, I will try to get the PDF, but I'm going to get my hands on that paper sample ballot just as soon as the BOE will let us have it. I don't mind getting slammed for unpopular positions we take in editorials. But I hate being held responsible for bureaucratic paralysis at government agencies, especially the BOE, which should have been able to fulfill my request for a PDF within minutes. This is, as they say "the digital age." Somebody please tell the folks in Yaphank.

Regardless, I take responsibility for not having the ballot in the paper, where it should have been, and I apologize.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When the news isn't good

Sometimes this job requires really tough decisions. Every week we publish police reports that contain allegations about people that the subjects of the report would rather not have published. We are frequently contacted by people who've been arrested (or by their friends and relatives) to ask us not to publish news of their arrest. Our answer is always the same: If it's in the police blotter, we print it, no exceptions. We had an editor once in the inenviable position of having to print news of his own child's DWI arrest.

A lot of folks think we relish this. Nothing could be further from the truth. We hate it.

Then there are the less-than-black-and-white situations we have to make judgment calls on. A couple of weeks ago, we ran a story in The News-Review about the Riverhead Highway Superintendent being charged with DWI one night in the Village of Quogue. Normally we wouldn't run a story about a local resident being charged with DWI out of town. For one thing, we don't look at all the police reports other towns. But this was an elected official. And his driver's license was suspended, meaning the town highway superintendent couldn't drive a vehicle on the public highways. So it seemed newsworthy enough to merit coverage. But decisions like these gnaw at you long after they're made.

Then there was the Riverhead schools superintendent, who was apparently conducting a romantic affair with a woman on the district administrative staff. He was asked to resign as a result of the school board's discovery of this relationship. We reported it, especially because we learned that the superintendent and the employee were conducting their affair during business hours. We didn't disclose the woman's name in the paper — though I haven't met anyone in town who doesn't know who she is anyway.

But, boy, these are tough decisions. So, too, are decisions about whether to publish reports of suicides, photos of fatal motor vehicle accidents and articles about high school athletes being suspended from school.

I bought a book at the National Newspaper Association convention last year called "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper." One of the author's main points is that policies on reporting these kinds of stories must be clear, consistent and put in writing for all staff. And they should be clearly explained to readers in the paper, by way of editors' columns. That's something we haven't done enough of, and something I need to address.

The "Bad News..." book indicates that we made the right calls on both of these recent tough stories, mostly because the lives of public officials and public employees, whose salaries are paid by tax dollars, merit a higher level of scrutiny than private citizens. But that doesn't make it any easier to write and publish stories like that, nor does it make it any easier when you have to encounter the people you publish "bad news" about in the supermarket, or on your kid's soccer field, etc.

Monday, November 13, 2006

A day in the life

I'm posting because I said I would. It's not like I have anything much to say.

It was a crazy day today, consumed by "publisher duties" that would, I'm sure, be of no real interest to anyone outside of Times/Review Newspapers. But they kept me going nonstop from 8 am till 6 pm. Oh well.

I'm working on a column about the Northeast Holdings/Mark Houraney lawsuit against the Town of Riverhead. Well, "workng" might be a bit too strong; I've been thinking about it. If I'm lucky, I will have it formulated in my head enough to go with it in this week's News-Review.

Saturday's Riverhead Blue Waves football game was a heart-breaker — a one point loss in the final seconds of the game. To the team and coaches Congratulations on an amazing season, guys. An 8-0 record . It doesn't get much better than that! We're very, very proud of you! Way to BE!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Saturday morning

Time to take a breath. It's nice to shift into a lower gear — at least for a little while, until reality, in the form of mountains of dirty laundry, etc., sets in. Weekdays, I'm up at 4, spend a little time reading the news online, then head for the gym by 5. I have to be back in time to coax my daughters out of bed and get them off to school by 7. Weekends, the morning pace is slower and that's good. I'm still up ridiculously early; the internal clock doesn't re-set itself on weekends. But I can lollygag around for a while, since even the gym opens later on weekends.

Saturday morning is my day to weigh in on the South Beach Diet website. As of today, I've hit the 45 pound mark. When I saw that on my SBD online chart, it actually brought tears to my eyes. Part of me can't believe I've actually done this. That's probably because it's been so effortless. I have 8 pounds to go to reach a "Normal" BMI. If I continue to lose at the rate of one pound per week, I will reach my goal weight (160) by my one-year anniversary of starting my new lifestyle (notice I didn't say "diet"). That will be a total of 54 pounds lost since Jan. 14, 2006, when I took a look at the horrifying image of myself in a wet suit (a family snapshot taken at Discovery Cove, Sea World, Orlando FL during the holidays) and resolved to do something about my obesity. I'm very grateful to Andy Mitchell, CEO of Peconic Bay Medical Center, for telling me to read "The South Beach Diet." I never would have picked that book up without his recommendation, mostly because of its dopey name. But that little paperback changed my life.

Now I'm off to the gym, a daily physical routine I've become sort of addicted to. I alternate between weight training and working out on the cardio equipment every other day. On Saturdays I often do both, which is what I intend to do today. I never imagined myself as a gym rat. But hey, life is full of surprises.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Enough about grandmothers

If I hear or see Nancy Pelosi referred to one more time as "a 66-year-old grandmother" I'm going to scream.

How many grandfathers are members of the House of Representatives? Can you recall ever — ever — hearing a member of congress described as a "grandfather?" And I'm not talking about the fill-in details at the end of a story. I'm talking about a sentence high up in the story, the woman's initial description, as in Bob Herbert's op-ed column in yesterday's New York Times:

"Also in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the 66-year-old grandmother who had been portrayed as some kind of raving San Francisco radical in countless Republican campaign ads..."

In the past few days, I've seen references in the media to newly elected congresswomen as "working mothers." I'd like to know: Is there any other kind? And why aren't there any "working fathers?" We all know the answer is because fatherhood has not traditionally been considered a full-time job, the man's occupation. Motherhood is, of course, the main gig for us double-Xers. The rest we take on at our own peril.

Then, of course, there was the president's feeble attempt at humor during his press conference Wednesday afternoon, when he said he told Ms. Pelosi he'd give her the names of some good Republican interior decorators to help her with her new office.

Yep. I'm sure decorating her new office is her top priority, Mr. President, right up there on her agenda for the first 100 hours. Maybe that was just wishful thinking on W's part, but it was a sexist remark nonetheless.

It's 2006. Are you as aghast (and annoyed) as I am that things like this are still being said/printed/talked about?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

When things go whoosh

I am a lousy blogger. I'm good with essays and I've got a decent touch for columns. But blogging? I've discovered this old dog needs to learn a new trick or two when it comes to adapting to this unique literary form.

Blogging requires frequency and regularity. Blog readers and subscribers want to know that a blogger will have a new post on the Web at regular intervals. But I have a conceptual difficulty to overcome. I have a hard time writing unless I've actually got something to say.

Another problem I have with blogging is the idea that it's OK to post little blurbs about things. Me? I sit down at my keyboard and don't come up for air until I've got a thousand words on my screen. The first draft usually comes out of me in one big whoosh. It's almost involuntary. It usually happens first thing, in the predawn darkness of my kitchen. It's an idea that's been knocking around in my head for several days that erupts into a column, even before I've poured my second mug of coffee.

After the initial spewing forth, I read what I've written and start editing, whittling it down to a manageable 650 words or so. Usually the editing process takes me longer than it takes me to write the first draft. That's because the real work is in the reworking — the scrubbing, polishing and finessing. That's also the fun part for me. That's my chance to try and make my writing sing.

Often I'm reminded that I'm just plain tone deaf. But sometimes, well, it can be sweet.

A blog is a different animal, though. That much I've learned. It's not just putting my column on the Web, which is pretty much what I've been doing since I started my own blog back in August 2005.

A blog is supposed to be more spontaneous than any column-writing I've ever undertaken. It should be informal, less structured, more conversational. And it's supposed to be interactive. That is, bloggers are supposed to engage readers in discussion — a back-and-forth exchange between blogger and reader and among readers themselves.

To this end, posting short, informal entries regularly — daily, even — is crucial. And that's where I fall flat on my face. Maybe it's my lawyer background that compels me to be long-winded. Maybe it's just that I'm such a creature of habit and my habit is to write 700-word columns. But I've got a hard time with brevity. And spontaneity. Not to mention forgoing all the editing and polishing. I've got to learn to go with the initial whoosh (and have shorter, more frequent whooshes) and leave it at that.

But what's the big deal? Why should I care? Is blogging so important anyway? Blogging, along with all the other bells and whistles of the World Wide Web, is the way of the future. They've even got a cool name for it as it relates to the craft we practice here in the newsroom: citizen journalism.

When it comes to journalism, everything about the Web requires lots of big changes in how we do what we do. Brevity is just the beginning. Interactivity is key. No longer do news editors alone define what is and isn't "news." People are no longer "readers" on the receiving end of news editors' decisions. Now they are "users" who get to pick and choose their "content" from a variety of sources. And in this brave new world we live in, "users" are even able to create "content" themselves and put it up on Web sites for all to see — and comment on.

In other words, the monopoly previously enjoyed by the news media on the identification and reporting of news is now a thing of the past. This isn't all bad — even if you're in the news business. But there are certainly some dangers. We've all learned that the Internet is not always the most reliable source of accurate information. A lot of the stuff floating around out there isn't vetted for accuracy. Rumors spread like wild fire — and the fire is fueled by the anonymity of the Internet.

Travel on the information highway is fast and treacherous. The trick for journalists is to take advantage of the great things the Web has to offer — for example, new sources of information, an incredible opportunity for research, the ability to reach the entire world with a story or image — without compromising the standards that make journalism more than rumor-mongering.

The trick for me, in particular, is to let go of some old habits. I'm starting tomorrow. I'm going to blog often and blog briefly. No more 700-word essays on my blog. No more simply posting the columns that I write for our newspapers. From now on, my blog takes on a life of its own. I'm scared but willing. Come along for the ride. Go to and — whoosh. Interact with me and with each other. It is the 21st century, after all.

© 2006 Times-Review Newspapers

Thursday, October 12, 2006

What a sorry episode

I can't stand it when people gossip about other people's sex lives. When you live in a small town — which still describes Riverhead, sort of — whispered rumors like that spread like wildfire.

My tolerance for that kind of salacious gossip is low because I was the subject of plenty of it myself. Heck, as a young, single town councilwoman 15 years or so ago, my sex life was legendary — according to the rumor mill. I heard rumors that had me carrying on with people I had never even met, let alone been intimate with. I'm fond of saying that if I'd had even half as much sex as I was rumored to have had back then, I'd still be smiling.

So I put no stock in rumors of this sort. And when I first heard the gossip about the "real reason" for school superintendent Paul Doyle's abrupt resignation last week, I discounted it completely. But holy cow, did that rumor spread. It was not only all over Riverhead within hours, it was even being repeated to us by a superintendent in another school district.

I decided to do what a responsible reporter should. When I reached Mr. Doyle by phone to interview him about his resignation, I told him what I'd heard and asked him to comment. I was expecting an indignant denial of the rumor that he was asked to resign because he was having a sexual relationship with a district employee. Instead, he said: "People are going to say what they're going to say."

Ordinarily, I couldn't care less about this kind of thing. It's none of my business — unless, of course, my husband or daughters are involved.

How Mr. Doyle spends his private time or who he spends it with is his private business and has no place on the pages of this newspaper, assuming no laws are being broken.

But the distinguishing factor here is the notion of private time, since it seems the superintendent's indiscretion included not only a district employee, but also time spent during the regular business day, when district taxpayers were paying him — both of them — to work. That's a problem.

Another, maybe even bigger, problem is how district officials handled this situation. District officials hired a private investigator to follow the superintendent. They then confronted him with evidence obtained by the investigator and sought his resignation. I suppose that's a perfectly reasonable course of action.

But I have a hard time accepting that district taxpayers will continue to pay this man's salary, with benefits, through the end of the year — to the tune of some $48,000. That's three months' worth of his annual salary of $180,000, plus health insurance premiums at $1,000 per month. That's more than what some district taxpayers have to survive on for an entire year. That is absolutely unconscionable.

School board members, who should be held accountable to the public for their handling of this, won't talk to us about it. Mum's the word. It's a personnel matter, not for public discussion, they say. Malarky, I say. Having a sexual relationship with a subordinate is grounds for dismissal, doubly so if they are cavorting during business hours. His behavior exposed the district to a possible sexual harassment claim, as well. Instead of punishing this errant behavior, the Riverhead Board of Education chose to reward it by "reassigning" the superintendent to his home through Dec. 31. In other words, he got a free pass. And we're paying him for a three-month vacation, to boot.

Why? It was the path of least resistance. Terminating the superintendent "for cause" would take time and money — lawyers' fees, plus the superintendent's salary during the termination process. It could cost the district tens of thousands of dollars. Paying him a three-month severance to "make him go away" was a "business decision" the board had to make. Some board members expressed regret that they felt they had to choose expediency over what's right. They also said they were warned by district legal counsel not to speak to the press about the circumstances of Mr. Doyle's departure, or they could be "sued personally."

This whole sorry episode leaves me wondering what else our school board might be willing to sweep under the rug for the sake of cover-your-backside expediency or for fear of being sued.

© 2006 Times/Review Newspapers

Friday, October 06, 2006

Protecting our schools

What is going on? Has the world gone mad?

Well, yes. And not just for the usual reasons. There's the war in Iraq, turbulence in the Middle East, nuclear muscle-flexing in Asia, global terrorism — all the usual signs and symptoms of malady in the human condition.

Then there's the likes of Charles Roberts, the 32-year-old psychotic who went on a rampage in a one-room Amish schoolhouse Monday, slaughtering five innocent little girls before turning his gun on himself.

The horrific incident in rural Lancaster County, Pa., once again drove home a point for people like us here on the North Fork: No place is safe.

We live in a quiet, rural area. Our kids go to nice schools, where things like this don't happen.

That's what we tell ourselves.

But things like this didn't used to happen in Nickel Mines, Pa., either. Or in Essex, Vt., where a gunman shot and killed a teacher preparing for class in an elementary school this fall. Or in Bailey, Colo., where a man police described as a drifter took six teenage girls hostage, sexually assaulted some of them, and killed one, before killing himself. Or in Hillsborough, N.C., where a deranged ex-student opened fire at a high school, injuring two.

Every one of these incidents in the past several weeks took place at schools in small towns — towns like ours, where crime rates are low and people feel secure in their homes. And where parents didn't give the possibility of armed men invading the local schoolhouse a second thought. Until now.

No place is safe from the madness and violence in this world. Not even a place like Lancaster County, a little piece of God's green earth where the Amish, consciously rejecting modern culture, set themselves apart to live and work in peace. If Amish country is susceptible to the madness of 21st-century America, what of Mattituck, Southold or Orient?

The violent incidents in schools around the country since the new term began share another disturbing characteristic. Other than the incident involving a student who killed his principal in a rural Wisconsin town last month, this new wave of violence has been at the hands of intruders, not students. This reverses an established trend: School violence had been an "inside" problem up till now. The vast majority of the 400 or so murders in schools over the past dozen years were committed by students.

The past month put a new face on school violence. The face of a drifter, a madman, a vengeful ex-boyfriend, the face of a stranger forcing his way through the doors of our school buildings, attacking our children and our teachers, for reasons the rest of us will never comprehend. Senseless, random violence.

The new threat weighs heavily on the minds of school superintendents on the North Fork this week, from Orient to Riverhead. They're trying to figure out how to react appropriately to what's been going on, trying to make sure they're doing everything they can to prevent the unthinkable from happening here. Should all schools have security guards? Metal detectors? Should doors be kept locked? How can we protect our children?

"We think we're so far removed from the big city that we're immune," said Oysterponds superintendent Stuart Rachlin, whose Main Road, Orient, elementary school suddenly feels exposed and potentially vulnerable. "But no one is immune." He and other local superintendents are thinking and talking about tightening security at their buildings, where doors are generally left unlocked and entry to the premises monitored by school office personnel.

School officials know that they can only do so much. There is the chilling realization that, as Greenport superintendent Charles Kozora puts it, "I don't think you can really do anything that's going to curtail a madman."

Sure, there are some basic precautions that schools can take, like having classroom doors that can be locked from the inside — which Greenport installed just a few years ago — so that the school can go into "lockdown" if there's an intruder or other threat of violence.

But you can't prevent someone from shooting into the classrooms from outside, notes Dr. Kozora. Denise Civiletti

"What do you do? Install bullet proof glass? And how about the kids on the playground? How do you protect them?"

Most security measures simply give people a false sense of security, he believes.

And at the same time, they turn a school campus into a prison-like environment — there's at least one school up-island where a barbed wire fence surrounds the property, whose driveway entrance has a guardhouse. No one enters the building — theoretically — without passing through another guarded checkpoint, complete with metal detectors. Sounds like the county jail complex in Riverside. Is that the school environment we want our kids to grow up in?

Recent events make you realize "it can happen anywhere," said Mattituck-Cutchogue superintendent James McKenna. "You can have the best plans in place and there are no guarantees. At any given moment, at any given time, anything can happen."

That's a unnerving thought. But it's an honest assessment of today's reality. Ours is a violent society. Popular culture — video games, movies and music — and the media are rife with violent images. It's no longer enough to report that the limousine struck by an allegedly drunk driver on the LIE last year had a dashboard camera that recorded the crash that took two innocent lives, and that the video was shown to the jury this week. No. Now we have to post the jarring video on the Internet for all to see, as Newsday did this week, so we can all bear first-hand witness to a nightmare.

Violence — from places around the corner to places around the globe — is so pervasive that we've become inured to it. We have raised an entire generation of children inured to violence. We have probably only just begun to see the fruits of that upbringing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Same-sex marriage is here

The Henderson-Hepner wedding announcement came in, like most do, without explanation or fanfare: a written submission, reciting the basic information about the ceremony and a brief bio on the happy couple, accompanied by a photo.

Occasionally we get a wedding announcement that doesn't follow this usual pattern. They're submitted with great fanfare, most often by the mother of the bride, whose mental and emotional state can best be described as hysterical, for whom the announcement of this important milestone in her child's life is a source of anxiety as large as the event itself. And, of course, there's the occasional "bridezilla," who hasn't downshifted in spite of that marvelous honeymoon on a tropical island that really should have dissolved all the stress caused by getting married. Handling those announcements — more accurately, the people who submit them — causes much angst around our newsroom.

But the Henderson-Hepner announcement wasn't like that at all. It was a simple, cut-and-dried wedding announcement, complete with smiling photo. Yet it caused a little stir around our office here, and the associate editor sought my permission to print it.

For the first time in its nearly 150-year history, The Suffolk Times was being asked to print a same-sex wedding announcement.

Charmaine Henderson and Paula Hepner, part-time residents of Southold, were married last month in Toronto, Canada, where same-sex marriages have been legal since June 10, 2003.

I authorized publishing the announcement, and it appeared in last week's edition of this newspaper, making the Sept. 14, 2006, edition one for the history books.

Of course I knew — we all did — that there would be some negative reaction among some of our readers. And there has been, although thus far it's taken the form of one call from an extremely agitated woman who left a voice mail message for the editor castigating us for publishing such a thing. Among other things, she said that this couple's union wasn't really a wedding, because a marriage can only be entered into between a man and a woman. And she chastised us for exposing the youth of the North Fork to such sordid content. ("Don't you know children will be reading this newspaper?")

While so far we've heard from just one reader about this — and her reaction was mild compared to the angry man who came in here last week and literally threw a copy of The Suffolk Times at our five-foot-two-inch pregnant receptionist because he was mad about the anti-war column I'd written the week before — I think this issue is important enough to address here. I'm hopeful we might engage the community in an intelligent dialogue about it, on these pages and on my blog.

The Suffolk Times will print announcements of weddings and civil unions between same-sex couples.

Among the most important functions of a community newspaper is chronicling the milestones in the lives of people who live in the community the newspaper serves. On the pages of your community newspaper, you find detailed information about the lives of people who live here that you will find nowhere else: births, deaths, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, scholastic achievements. A good community newspaper reflects the demographic composition of its community. The Suffolk Times is among the best of the community newspapers in the state of New York and one of the reasons for that is our dedication to the mission of community journalism; the role of chronicler is central to that mission.

Sometimes we fall short, like failing to get a photographer to the Cutchogue Fire Department's 50th annual chicken barbecue. And we get our comeuppance when we make our missteps, by outraged readers like Denise Lademann who wrote in last week to complain that The Suffolk Times didn't cover the fire department barbecue. They are insulted by the apparent snub. (Ms. Lademann, it was not intentional, and I am sincerely sorry that we messed up.) They are passionate in their outrage, and that's good. Because that means The Suffolk Times is their paper. They expect us to be there alongside them, and they should. It's what we do and have been doing for 149 years.

There's certainly room for improvement in how we do what we do, especially when it comes to covering minority communities on the North Fork. But we never intentionally exclude anyone from coverage because they're in the minority. Among those minority communities is the lesbian and gay community that has lived and thrived here for decades. They are our friends, our neighbors, our family, our coworkers. They are our readers. The pages of this newspaper should — and will — reflect their presence, and chronicle the milestones of their lives, including ceremonies celebrating their love and commitment to their life partners — whether or not the state of New York recognizes their right to marry.

As for children reading our newspaper, that's a good thing. Reading a newspaper promotes literacy, improves academic performance and increases participation in community and civic affairs in adulthood. We're confident that a lesbian wedding announcement in The Suffolk Times won't harm the youth of our town. Other media are full of graphic and disturbing images, particularly the potent images of death and destruction in the Middle East that are printed in the daily press and beamed into our living rooms via satellite every day. I've seen how those images have affected my own daughters. As a mother, I find it much more difficult to explain murder and mayhem by religious fundamentalists in the name of God, or torture of prisoners by the United States military, than the love for one another of two people of the same sex.

To Ms. Henderson and Judge Hepner, congratulations on your marriage. Forgive me for making the announcement of your vows the topic of this column. I don't know if you realized you were blazing a new trail at The Suffolk Times with your wedding announcement, but thank you for your courage. May yours be a lifetime of love, peace and happiness together.

Copyright 2006 Times/Review Newspapers

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Five years of terror & lies

Sept. 11. Where were you? What were you doing that morning?

There probably aren’t too many Americans who don’t know. Sept. 11 is the Nov. 22 of a new generation. (And there are probably too many young Americans who don’t know what that means.)

I was sitting at my open kitchen window, sipping a mug of hot coffee, looking up at a cloudless cobalt sky, feeling peaceful and content. I remember inhaling the sweet morning air deeply, relishing it, feeling relaxed and being slightly annoyed by the ringing telephone that jarred me out of my reverie shortly before 9 a.m.

Much of that Tuesday is, quite honestly, a blurry memory, haunting images jumbled in my mind. But the emotion comes back clearly, as clear as the blue sky that morning: in a word, fear. All hell was breaking loose. Thousands of people surely had perished. Nobody seemed to know what was really going on. Who wasn’t terrified that day? That was, after all, the objective of the people who attacked us and they achieved it. They robbed our sense of security.

Sept. 11 is a turning point in our nation’s history. It is a pivotal date not only for what happened that day but for how our response to the events of that day shaped America’s — and the world’s — future.

Our response included heroism: police officers and firefighters rushed into the burning buildings immediately following the attack; volunteers from outlying nearby areas, such as ours, rushing to the scene to help with the grim recovery effort, remaining there for weeks on end; men and women in the military, and those who signed up in answer to what happened that day, shipping off to Afghanistan, and later, to Iraq, to fight the enemy that brought terror to American soil. The way Americans, New Yorkers in particular, came together after the attacks — to search for survivors, recover remains, mourn our dead, comfort the grieving, clear the rubble, pick ourselves up and move on — inspired awe and respect throughout the world.

But our response also included deceit and manipulation, which, from the vantage point of five years down the road, we can now see with clarity, if we are willing to look. We dishonor the memory of those who perished in the attacks and those killed fighting in the war that followed, if we refuse to see it for what it is and speak out.
Our government lied to us.

When the federal EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman reassured us that the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe, she was not mistaken. She was lying.

When the president told us that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by people linked to Saddam Hussein, he was lying. When he told us that Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, he was lying.

When the Bush administration, just a month and a half after the attacks, pushed the so-called Patriot Act through a panic-stricken Congress, it was manipulating us, capitalizing on our fear to wrought fundamental change in our 225-year-old democracy. In the name of “homeland security” and “patriotism,” we have sacrificed many of the basic rights that made the United States of America a free nation. The Soviets would be proud of what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have accomplished: warrantless wiretaps, searches and seizures, supported by no more than the mere suspicion of relevance to a terrorist investigation; the imposition of gag orders that criminalise revealing that a search has occurred; the right to detain a suspect indefinitely without even a hearing of the charges against him. That’s just a sampling of the wounds inflicted on American democracy by the current government as America lay injured, grieving and terrified in the weeks following the attacks.

And then there’s the war waged not to bring to justice the “evildoers” who attacked us, as the president told us, but for some other reason: a personal vendetta against the man who plotted the assassination of the first President Bush, perhaps, or to secure a strategic presence in an oil-rich region, which just happened to benefit, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, the financial interests of key decision-makers in our government.

Whatever the real motives for the decision to invade Iraq, one thing is clear: Saddam Hussein, who sits in a jail cell today, was not responsible for or connected to the Sept. 11 attacks, nor was he manufacturing weapons of mass destruction to use against us in future acts of terror. Those were lies mouthed by the president to rally the support of — to manipulate — a frightened nation. The man who is responsible for those attacks remains free and still directs a global terror network organized specifically to destroy America. Americans, meanwhile, continue to die in a war that is woefully lacking in political or moral justification. And our government says there is no way out.

And the manipulation continues, as evidenced by the president’s recent rhetoric shamelessly invoking the specter of terrorism to rally support for the GOP in November’s congressional elections.

Five years after Sept. 11, I continue to feel terror and outrage — not only about the attacks but also about what the United States government has done to the world, to its own people and to our future in the wake of the attacks.

I also feel shame. When the president lied, I believed him. I wanted desperately to believe him, to believe that America had in no way provoked what had happened, when I knew full well that failed American foreign policy had set the disaster in motion decades before and continued to fuel the anger and hatred of terrorists like bin Laden. Our failed policy continues to fan the flames — the invasion and occupation of Iraq has done more for the resolve of Islamic fundamentalists than even the “victory” of Sept. 11.

Surely we haven’t seen the last of terror on our shores. But are we willing to see the blood on our own hands for what happened on Sept. 11, what’s happened in years since and for the horrors yet to come? Maybe it’s still too soon. But by the time we gain clarity and perspective, it may be too late.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The woman in the mirror

I did something two weeks ago I'd never done before and could never imagine myself doing — ever.

I joined a gym.

It was my husband's idea. He convinced me to check it out, just go have a look-see. No obligation. I was reluctant.

And scared. Gyms, I figured, were for muscle-heads and fit chicks with tight glutes sporting Spandex shorts and perfect tans. Just imagining the kind of people I'd be surrounded with at a gym intimidated me. Going there wearing shorts — I never wear shorts in public places — scared the daylights out of me. And the mirrors. There'd be mirrors everywhere — no escaping the sight of flabby old me huffing and puffing on a treadmill.

Nevertheless, I went with him to check it out. Holding his hand tight as we approached the entrance, I told him if we joined, he had to promise me he'd go there with me faithfully.

"I'd never, ever come here by myself," I warned.

Yet there I was the very next morning, sans spouse, using the elliptical machine, my new best friend.

What — me? Intimidated?

Sure, there are some serious bodybuilders at the gym, grunting their way through workouts, bench-pressing who-knows-how-much weight. And there are also some trim, taut, Spandex-clad lovelies working out on the equipment.

But most of the people there are a lot like me — middle-aged, overweight and eager to be reasonably physically fit before — well, before it's too late.

I imagine a mantra being chanted under the collective breath of the 40- and 50- and 60-somethings working out on the cardio machines: "I don't want to die. I don't want to die. I don't want to die."

Turn the clock back 20 years, and I might have had delusions about circuit-training myself into one of those Spandex-clad fit chicks. I might have been thinking about attaining some definition in my shoulders, triceps and biceps, about firming those buns. I might have been hoping I could avoid looking — gulp — 30.

The passage of time changes your perspective. As I'm staring down 50, I'm a whole lot less concerned about how I look than about how I feel. Having shed 40 pounds since starting the South Beach Diet in January, I feel great. I was reminded just how great this weekend, as I lugged a 40-pound bag of dog food into the house. I could feel my knees laboring under its weight, and the familiarity of that sensation reminded me that a year ago I'd been carrying around that much weight in body fat, stressing my joints and muscles with every step I took. No wonder I ached so much! (And felt so old.)

At the gym, there are far more people in my camp than the fit and trim "beautiful people" whose image nearly intimidated me out of setting foot in the joint. At the same time, I've had a wonderful revelation: The vast majority of people who look like that are young enough to be my children. No need to compare my flabby abs to their firm ones. There's no bikini in my future. And the good-looking young hunks intently working out over there? This silver-haired woman working her thighs on the hip adductor machine is invisible. Growing older can be so liberating.

On the flip side, mornings at the gym can be quite the social encounter for people of a certain age. It seems like the whole town is there. I've seen people I hadn't seen in years. There are pleasant little chats between sets of reps. (I'm getting the lingo down.) Discussion of possible golf dates. (Where did I put those clubs?) And a reminder that it's nice to talk with people outside the context of an interview. (Note to self: You work too much.)

And there's also inspiration everywhere you look. It takes the form of the physically fit young men and women, whose sculpted forms are truly things of beauty. But it also takes the form of people working out there who are — easily — old enough to be my parents, and then some. It's a joy to watch them and a real boost to my own drive to stick with the regimen. That's what I aspire to now instead of Spandex shorts and halter tops: being able to work out like that when I'm 70. A mere 20 years from now. (How did that happen?)

I've also found inspiration in a place I never would have imagined: the woman in the mirror. I usually avoid mirrors, but at the gym, there is no avoiding mirrors, unless you work out with your eyes closed. Sitting two feet away from a wall covered in mirror, there's no avoiding me. I've spent more time looking at myself in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. And while I'm no fit chick — not even close — I don't look quite as bad as I'd imagined I'd look working my little-used muscles on the gym equipment.

But this isn't about looks, I remind the woman in the mirror, who wonders silently (I can read her mind) how much younger she would look if she let the hairdresser have her way with the hair dye. The woman in the mirror smiles knowingly at me. You're little secret's safe with me, she winks.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

So what would Jesus do?

Eva Piccozzi’s story about homelessness in Riverhead (on page 1 of the 8/10 edition of The News-Review) brought back memories of my own brush with homelessness.

A few years ago, there was an old Polish woman living on the streets in Riverhead. People took notice of her. She didn’t look like a “typical” homeless person, I suppose. And for one reason or another, people kept calling me to tell me about her. Even the pastor of First Congregational Church, which opens its doors for a daily soup kitchen to feed the hungry, called me to ask what “we” could do about this woman. We? I thought. You’re the pastor. I’m just a newspaper editor. Of course I didn’t say that to Pastor Wally. But I was confounded. What’s this got to do with me?

Nothing. And that’s exactly what I did.

Then one cold December day, a call came in from a guy who told our receptionist he had “a huge news story.” I got on the line.

“There’s an old Polish lady living on the streets downtown,” he said excitedly.

Huge news, I groaned to myself. Here we go again. But there was more.

Figuring someone at the Polish Catholic church in Riverhead could help, at least by communicating with the woman in her native tongue, this fellow (whom I later came to know as Stevie) had knocked on the rectory door that afternoon. His “huge news” was what had transpired as he stood on the rectory steps.

It was unusually cold for December, and the forecast called for temperatures below zero that night — and for the next several nights. Stevie was frantic that the old Polish woman would freeze to death in the alley of the Suffolk Theatre, where she spent a lot of her time huddled in the stairwell.

Stevie called to tell me that the pastor of the church had refused to help, and refused in a rather remarkable manner. Stevie said he begged the pastor for help — food, shelter, just for the night. No. He asked the pastor if someone who spoke Polish could speak with this woman, to talk to her about the coming deep freeze, convince her to go to an emergency shelter. No. But Stevie was persistent. Finally, he reported, the exasperated pastor said to him, “Look, what do you want me to do?”
“Well, what would Jesus do?” Stevie said he asked the pastor. The response was the “huge news” that prompted his call to me.
“Don’t give me any of that Jesus stuff,” the pastor replied, and slammed the door in his face. (I later called the pastor to ask about this interchange, but he didn’t take my call or call me back.)

Stevie was aghast. But more than anything, he was desperate to help this woman. “Can you do something?” he implored. She was at EastEnders Coffee House right now, he told me, having a cup of hot coffee.

I agreed to go meet her, though I wasn’t sure why. I speak no Polish. I had no contacts at any social services agency. What could I do? But Stevie’s passion, the desperation in his voice, the story he told me — what would Jesus do? I wasn’t comfortable pondering that question either. I knew I wouldn’t like the answer.

Outside the coffee shop, I ran into a young woman who used to help at the soup kitchen, where I also volunteered for a while. I told her I was there to meet a homeless Polish woman.

“That’s my mother,” was her unexpected reply.

I was stunned. I’d known this young woman came from some sort of troubled home. She’d been a daily visitor at the soup kitchen, there for a hot meal — but she always helped serve and clean up. And she always brought a plate of food home for her “sick mother,” who never showed up herself.

I stood in the cold air of Flower Alley, looked up at the steel gray sky and said aloud, “All right, I get it. I get it!”

And that’s how it came to pass that we had a homeless woman living with us for the winter of 2002.

It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Jenny wasn’t actually “old.” She just looked that way. Living on the street can do that to you. I drove her around to collect some of her belongings. She had some things stashed in an abandoned car on property just south of the river — she slept in the car on really cold nights. It was the warmest place she could find, in spite of its broken windows. She had a few plastic garbage bags of clothes. I convinced her to leave the tattered blankets behind. I was afraid of fleas and lice and God-knows-what coming into my house.

Over the course of the next few months, we learned a lot about Jenny and some lessons about homelessness. Like many of the homeless, Jenny was suffering from mental illness. It’s hard to tell which came first, the mental illness or the homelessness. In some ways, she was very bright, shrewd even. She wanted to work, but couldn’t find a job without a permanent address. She’d worked as a chambermaid at a local motel, and also at a couple of local nurseries. She wanted to clean our house in exchange for room and board. She did, with mixed results.

She spoke a unique mixture of English and Polish; some words she made up, I think. We learned her language enough to communicate and cohabitate. We also learned a lot about Jenny from her daughter, who was living in Patchogue at a group home for the developmentally disabled. She faithfully took the bus to Riverhead every day to visit her mother, and often spent the weekends at our house, too.

They’d lived in an apartment in a house downtown. The daughter attended Riverhead public schools, but dropped out of high school at 16 because other kids made fun of her. After Jenny lost her job at the hotel, and couldn’t find or keep another job, they were eventually evicted from the apartment. The daughter, a U.S. citizen by birth, got placed at a shelter, then at a group home. Jenny, a Polish immigrant whose visa had expired long ago (and whose Polish passport and birth certificate were long lost) had no options besides the street. She lived in Grangebel Park, in the abandoned car near McDonald’s, in the alley next to the theater. She ate at noon every weekday at the church soup kitchen. And enjoyed supper there three nights a week, as well. Weekends, she was on her own. She panhandled to get money to buy cigarettes. She attended AA meetings so she could get a cup of coffee and cookies. The people at the coffee shop gave her coffee and food sometimes. She sat at a table in the back, next to the bathroom, which she was grateful to use. Her presence there became a nuisance, though. Among other things, she smelled bad.

It wasn’t easy to convince Jenny to shower on a regular basis. “Me no smell,” she insisted. She sprayed herself with room deodorizer.

She was suffering with a bad toothache that winter. She was missing a number of teeth. She’d pulled them out herself, she said.

She liked to sit on the arm of our sofa near the woodstove and watch the fire. She talked about Poland, her mother, and the two children she said she left behind there a quarter-century ago. She claimed to come from a well-to-do family and said she wanted to return to Poland, with her American daughter — who wanted no part of it. She loved Tchaikovsky and would play my CDs at maximum volume, filling the house with music, as she stood, mesmerized, directly in front of the stereo. One day I came home and found her like that, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was unable or unwilling to tell me what she was thinking about.

She distrusted and disliked the other homeless people. Most of them were drug addicts and alcoholics, she said, and she had nothing but disdain for them. She saw herself as a victim of circumstance but saw them as a victim of their own stupid behavior. She hated living on “the schtreet-a.”

She was an interesting house guest. But she also drove us crazy. There was the showering thing. And the smoking. She would sneak cigarettes in the basement room where she slept, then adamantly deny it — though the smell was unmistakable. “Me no schmo-kee,” she’d say over and over again.

I suppose any house guest drives you crazy after a couple of months, much less one used to living in a busted-up car on the Peconic River. All in all, she wasn’t too bad to have around, though to this day, my kids still roll their eyes and shake their heads at the mention of her name.

We turned her out on the first day of spring, after a futile effort, aided by Sr. Margaret Smyth, to obtain a copy of her birth certificate through the Polish embassy. Sr. Margaret paid for a room for Jenny at a motel on West Main Street — a dark, tiny cell of a room. I drove her there, with her plastic bags, along with some basics like a frying pan, coffeepot, dishes, etc. Jenny was to find a job and pay her own way after a couple of weeks. She stood in the doorway of the room and smiled and waved goodbye. For reasons I didn’t quite understand, I found myself crying as I drove away.

Jenny never found work, Sr. Margaret eventually stopped paying the weekly rent, and Jenny was back on the street.

We might have saved her from freezing to death that winter but there were more winters ahead. What would happen to her? We didn’t really make a lasting difference in her life. The cycle continued. We see her around from time to time, on the “schtreet-a.”

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, other than for every homeless person on the street there is a story. I can’t say I learned all of Jenny’s story. Much remains a mystery. But by getting to know her that way, I’ll never view homelessness or homeless people the same way again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Still a man's world

If women were in charge, the world would be a better place.

Now that I’ve got your attention, what do you think? True or false?

Would bombs be raining down on Lebanon right now, would the death toll in Iraq keep climbing, would the world seem poised to destroy itself this way, would children be starving to death, would everything be all about MONEY, MONEY, MONEY all the time … if women were calling the shots?

While the number of women in high places in government and commerce has steadily, albeit slowly, increased over the last 30 years, it is still a man’s world, being run by men playing by men’s rules, defined by male paradigms. Look at our testosterone-laden foreign policy, for example. Or the testosterone-laden foreign policy of any other nation. Or the testosterone-laden philosophy of jihad, for that matter. The guy who’s bigger, stronger, tougher, and able to beat up the other guy, or the guy who’s sneakier and more determined, or the guy who thinks he’s got God (most definitely a male god) on his side — wins.

Even with the occasional woman, like Condoleezza Rice, involved, it’s still a man’s world. To get along in it, certainly to get ahead in it, women like Condi have to play by men’s rules in order to succeed — some would say, become “like men.” Ironically, if they’re really good at it, they get called all sorts of names, many of which can’t be printed in this newspaper, as a result.

Do women make a difference? Can they make a difference?

That was the topic for a panel discussion hosted last Thursday night at Patti B’s in Mattituck (a woman-owned business) by a group called Progressive Women in Southold Politics.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher, deputy presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, the Rev. Lynda Clements, pastor (soon to be former pastor — she’s heading upstate to answer a call to a new ministry later this month) at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, and yours truly fielded questions about our experiences as “women making a difference” in our communities. It was the first in a series of three such discussions being sponsored by PWSP, so women could “hear the stories of women who take on the issues that matter to all of us,” according to a flier put out by the group.

Personally, I was honored but astounded to be included on the panel. And I honestly felt like I was way out of my league. But I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and found myself inspired — and empowered — by the stories Ms. Viloria-Fisher and Ms. Clements had to tell. That’s the idea behind these sessions, according to PWSP organizer Leslie Weisman. Give women the opportunity to hear the stories of other women, women who are making a difference, to inspire and empower them to go out and do the same. Maybe we can change the world, one woman at a time.

Ms. Viloria-Fisher is a fantastic example of a woman successfully navigating the hazardous waters of a man’s world (county politics) who’s not following the male paradigm, playing by men’s rules, succeeding by being “just like one of the boys.” A retired schoolteacher and mother of five (yes, five) she views her role in government as a “ministry,” she told the women gathered at Patti B’s. She got involved in electoral politics as a way to better accomplish long-held goals of making a positive difference in people’s lives, and that’s what she’s been trying to do.

Ms. Viloria-Fisher is the very antithesis of a politician: down-to-earth, real, no ego, no bluster, no baloney. She spoke from her heart. She spoke about her feelings, without fear or embarrassment.

With women like that in charge, would the world be on a fast-track to hell? Doubtful. But women like Ms. Viloria-Fisher aren’t in charge, not even close to it. And I’m not certain they ever will be. The institutional framework of our society, and the world at large, is thoroughly male, designed to profit a male-dominated corporate culture. As a result, things like hunger, poverty and health care are lower priorities than missile defense systems, stealth bombers and law enforcement — as if more guns, more bombs and more cops and soldiers are the answers to everything.

I realize I’m not sounding terribly inspired or empowered at the moment, two adjectives I used to describe how I felt after last Thursday’s panel discussion. In fact, I am depressed. Things in the Middle East seem to be spiraling out of control, and the world scares me to death. The images of war and the devastation wrought by it bring me to tears daily. My heart breaks for its victims, especially the women and children, victims of circumstance, people without choice, power, or control over their own destinies, particularly in fundamentalist Islamic culture. I fear for my own children’s future.

Then I think of women like Lynda Clements, working for social justice mostly behind the scenes, and Vivian Viloria-Fisher, working for the same causes on the public stage of county politics, and outspoken women like Dee Alexander of Southold (NOW’s first executive director and a founder of what became known as “the women’s movement”), who are not afraid to stand up and demand change, who never tire of it, even after 40-plus years of working for change with mixed results. And the thousands of women like them. Maybe one day we will reach “critical mass” and turn the world on its head. Then there will be a paradigm shift, and the strength of a nation will no longer be defined by the quantity and deadliness of its weapons, but rather by the compassion and humanity of its government and the quality of life of its citizens — all of its citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, age or gender.

Ah, from my lips to God’s ears.

There’s an old saying that appeared on bumper stickers and T-shirts in the ’70s: “God is coming, and is she pissed!” Look out, fellas. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.