Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My last column: July 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kindergarten lessons

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

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

It doesn't have to be that way.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

We'd all be better off for it.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The three-ring circus in Albany

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

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

You can’t make this stuff up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Remembering the Shoreham protest of 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Community Mosaic

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

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Now we're seeing (Montauk) monsters in Southold

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

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

The Montauk Monster has arrived in Southold.

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

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

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

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

What to make of all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 07, 2009

When your comfort zone goes hi-tech

I've been told many times by many people that I'm a workaholic, but now I've proved it to myself.

I came to that undeniable conclusion Monday morning, sitting in the pre-op prep area at Riverhead's Peconic Bay Medical Center. There, it hit me. My agreement to Twitter my surgery (and subsequently edit and publish a video of the procedure on our newspaper Web sites) turned my medical event into a work project. I was in my comfort zone, even though I sat on a gurney in a hospital gown, with an intravenous line in my left hand, waiting to be brought into the operating room. I had a laptop in front of me and I was Twittering (reporting in short blurbs what was going on) and answering e-mails. The only thing missing was the phone.

On Monday, Dr. Agostino Cervone poked four holes in my abdomen, detached my gall bladder and pulled it out through one of the holes. The procedure took about 45 minutes. I checked in at the surgical admissions office at about 7 a.m. and was home by noon.

I felt surprisingly good, considering I'd just had one of my organs removed and had been "out" for a bit. As a parting gift, the hospital sent me home with a DVD containing a video of the entire procedure. It was fascinating to watch, albeit a little, well, gross. Part of my "project" was to edit this into a movie no more than 10 minutes long, to post on our newspaper Web sites. [Also posted on YouTube.] It's up there now for all the world to see, narrated by the surgeon himself, who came to my house Tuesday afternoon to record the voice-over. He explains what he's doing during the surgery step by step, pointing out the various anatomical features of the troublemaking gall bladder -- including the scar tissue from prior attacks I've had. The good doctor also goes out of his way to note, as he's peeling away belly fat, that I don't have much belly fat. I'm here to tell you he's just being polite.

The point of all this, other than the obvious attempt to distract myself with work from what was actually going on in my life (the motive of a true workaholic, I suppose) was twofold.

First, I wanted to report to the community on the brand-new surgical facility at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where, as luck would have it, I wound up being scheduled as one of the first patients in the new operating rooms. The new facilities were originally due to open two weeks earlier, but thanks to construction delays and bureaucratic red tape, the grand opening was put off till May 2, landing me on the table for the big debut.

Second, I saw this as an opportunity to develop our "new media" capabilities here at Times/Review. We're no longer supposed to limit ourselves to reporting in print. We've got to think of the digital side of the business nowadays. That means posting breaking news stories on our sites in between our regular weekly publication dates and branching out into audio and video and social networking. Such endeavors require dinosaurs like me to get hip about stuff like Twitter.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a Web site that you can use to send instant messages to groups of people. Your recipients have to sign up to get your updates, which they can even choose to get as text messages on their cell phones. In Twitter parlance, they "follow" you. Your messages can be no more than 140 characters long. (I can barely say good morning in 140 characters, so this is a very good discipline-producing activity.)

I'm still not too sure about Twitter. Some folks say it's the future of journalism. Frankly, I find that rather frightening. But in this world of miniscule attention spans, it may be true.

But back to the central point of my venture into new media this week. Peconic Bay's new surgical facilities are incredible. But don't take my word for it. Go to our Web sites (www.riverheadnewsreview.com or www.suffolktimes.com) and watch the OR tour video, in which CEO Andy Mitchell explains what they've done there and why. It's so next-generation that the chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins is coming to Riverhead next week to have a look, with the intention of replicating at Johns Hopkins what they've done in Riverhead. How's that for state-of-the-art?

The second video we've posted is one of the surgery itself. Be forewarned: It's not for the faint of heart. But once you get over any initial squeamishness, it really is fascinating stuff.

Technology is amazing. Not too many years ago, I'd have been in the hospital for at least a week recuperating from gall bladder surgery, which, done the "old fashioned" way -- as an open surgery -- was a major operation. Instead, I was home -- and, thanks to technology, working -- that very day. Technology, you see, is both a blessing and a curse. For normal folks, at least. For workaholics like me, it just helps keep me in my comfort zone.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Peconic Bay Medical Center

I'm in the recovery area after gall bladder surgery this morning. Thank God (and Dr. Cervone, Dr. Ward and their wonderful nursing staff) all went very well.

Peconic Bay Medical Center's new Center for Advanced Surgical Services, which opened for business this morning, is a top notch facility we East End residents should be very proud to have right in our backyard.

CEO Andrew Mitchell, his staff, and the PBMC board of directors -- and the foundation board and staff-- ought to be very, very proud. Between the new ER that opened last year and this facility, they are well on their way to providing our community with high level care right in our backyard. The old OR facilities are slated to become a cardiac surgical facility, meaning people in need of cardiac intervention (bypass surgery, stents, diagnostic procedures) will no longer have to schlep to Stony Brook or Nassau County. With the size of Suffolk County, both in terms of geography and population, these new facilities are so very much needed on the East End. Congratulations to Andy Mitchell for his vision and determination, and to the entire staff and board of directors, for bringing a world class medical center to Riverhead.

In addition to all that, PBMC is a member of the Plane Tree system, so everything is all about making patients and their families comfortable and keeping them in the loop while maintaining the patient's dignity. It's about patient-centered care.

So the new wings are pleasant, filled with natural light. The surgical waiting area has a TV monitor in it that allows family members to see exactly where their loved one is: pre-op, OR, recovery. (Patients are assigned a number, which is made known to family, so that patient privacy is assured.) Having waited anxiously when people I love are undergoing surgery, I know this feature will be very much appreciated by family members. When you're waiting for a loved one's surgery to be concluded, there's nothing worse than not knowing what's going on.

The great thing is, even with all the 21st century technology here, all the people who staff this place are still the same caring, friendly folks who do such a great job looking after people. They're our neighbors, and in some cases, our friends and family members. That's what makes living in our still-small town a wonderful place.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Well, somebody had to be the first patient

I got a personal tour of Peconic Bay Medical Center's new surgical pavilion last Thursday evening, guided by none other than PBMC CEO Andy Mitchell himself.

The sparkling new, bright white operating rooms are fully decked out with all the latest state-of-the-art gadgetry. OK, gadgetry isn't exactly the right word to describe the millions of dollars' worth of high-tech electronics the five new ORs come equipped with.

Each OR has a control station that's like something out of "Star Trek": a crescent-shaped counter from which keyboards, monitors, buttons and switches emerge.

Andy stood inside the half-moon cockpit flipping switches and pushing buttons, excitedly demonstrating the technological wonders of the 21st century operating room, all the while wearing the expression of a little boy playing with a remote-controlled rocket ship.

The high-intensity lights imbedded in thousands of tiny mirrors, somehow designed so as not to cast shadows. (Go figure.) The ultra-powerful high-definition video cameras that can stream live video of surgery in progress to remote locations around the world. The flat-panel high-definition monitors -- suspended from the ceiling around the OR -- on which surgeons and assistants can view, in great magnification and living color, the area being operated upon. The specially designed air flow system that prevents bacterial infection while the patient is on the operating table.

Thanks to all the new technology, surgeons in Riverhead can consult with surgeons anywhere on the planet during the surgery. They can also view tissue samples in the hospital's own pathology lab -- real-time images -- without ever leaving the OR.

The new facilities are a modern marvel, the stuff of science fiction. I was in awe.

"Have the surgeons and nurses been trained on all this new high-tech stuff?" I asked Andy, as I scrutinized the new laparoscopic equipment, which seemed to be still in its wrapper.

"Oh, yes," he assured me.

I'm glad to hear it. I have a particularly personal interest in this, since I'll soon be having my gall bladder removed in one of those shiny new ORs. It's been bothering me for more than five years, and I finally had a test performed that my doctor's been after me to get done (for about five years now). It showed that my gall bladder is essentially nonfunctioning. I knew it would eventually have to come out. Just about every woman in my family has had her gall bladder out. But I'd procrastinated and procrastinated.

What I didn't realize when I finally made a date with surgeon Augustino Cervone (who did the honors for my mother about six years ago) was that I might be the very first patient in the OR in the Starship Enterprise. The new facility has its maiden voyage May 4. I'm scheduled for surgery May 4 at 7 a.m. Now what were the odds of that happening?

I love technology. I really do. But I wish Dr. Cervone and company would have had a little more time to get familiar with all the switches and gizmos before setting about to remove one of my organs.

I can hear them now. "Hey, what do you suppose this button's for?"

Maybe that's the one that gets my innards on YouTube -- where, incidentally, you can actually view a laparoscopic cholecystectomy -- that's the official name for gall bladder removal ¬­-- courtesy of videosurgery.com through the lens of a surgeon's 10-millimeter camera. I stumbled upon that reality show writing this column the other night, when I used Google to find out how to spell laparoscopic. It was fascinating. And gross.

I realize my worries about Dr. Cervone and company being confused by all the new high-tech OR equipment are probably baseless. But what do you expect from a middle-aged woman who hasn't yet mastered the TV/cable box/sound system remote controls?


News flash: After laughing with Andy Mitchell about the bizarre coincidence of my surgery being the first one scheduled in the new facility, he asked if I'd be willing to have the procedure Twittered. Seems surgeons at Mayo Clinic are using Twitter as a teaching tool. I said sure, what the heck. And while we're at it, why not a Web cast? So, guess who's cholecystectomy will be Twittered and videocast on the Web (though probably not live)? This may be taking the concept of "new media" one megapixel too far. But it's a whole new world out there. Details next week -- or follow me on Twitter to find out @civiletti.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

After our health insurance agent, explaining Empire Blue Cross' "need" to impose a more than 24 percent premium increase this year, said the company's operating margin was 16 percent after premiums and taxes — meaning only 16 percent of its revenues are available to pay operating expenses — I decided to do a little research.

I was reminded of how Empire Blue Cross, like other health insurance giants, converted from a non-profit company to a publicly traded, for-profit company earlier this decade.

In a secret back-room deal struck by Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in 2002, the "three men in a room" and the nonprofit health care giant brokered to have the nonprofit's "social assets" (some $2 billion worth) funneled into the state treasury to fund wage increases for the powerful 1199 healthcare workers union. Surprise, surprise, this Democratic stalwart labor union, long a great friend of Assembly Democrats, subsequently endorsed Republican-Conservative Pataki in his 2002 re-election bid. The deal is explored and analyzed in this excellent article, "The Curious Conversion of Empire Blue Cross: In New York, it's all politics, all the time," by economist James C. Robinson in the journal Health Affairs (July/August 2003).

The new for-profit company that took over New York's Empire Blue, WellChoice, was subsequently purchased by WellPoint, a publicly traded for-profit California-based company. Wellpoint is one of the biggest health insurance companies in the nation.

Wellpoint's 2008 annual report shows that, while the company took it on the chin a bit in 2008 — what with the global financial meltdown and all — it still turned a profit of $2.5 BILLION on revenues of $61.3 BILLION for the year. That translated into net income per share of $4.79.

How does that stack up to other publicly traded companies? While Google ($15.80 net income per share) and big oil (ExxonMobil $8.69 per share) eclipsed most other companies' performance, Wellpoint's $4.79 net income per share was higher than any other publicly traded health insurance company I found by searching Google Finance. Other health insurer's net income per share stats: Coventry $2.54; Humana $4.26; United Health Group $2.40; Cigna $1.25; Molina $.58; Aetna $.46; Health Net $.34.

I have nothing against Wellpoint's shareholders. For all I know, I may — indirectly, at least — be among them, if one of our company's 401k mutual funds might hold shares in the corporation. But something is wrong with a health care system that allows private for-profit companies to turn a profit of $2.5 BILLION on the year and still hit its policy holders with 25 percent increases. Especially when the policy holders are already paying outrageous premiums. With that kind of an increase, our plan's family coverage premium will shoot up to more than $17,000 a year. And our company's contribution towards that premium — shrinking, proportionate to the total premium every year, because we can't keep pace with these kinds of increases and stay in business — is TAXED by the state as income to employees.

Our healthcare system is sick. And it's killing US.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

There's something in the water

Sometimes, some things in Southold are hard to understand. Like how the Town Board can discuss something for an hour and the only resolution it reaches is to have another meeting to discuss it some more.

Last week's Town Board work session left me rather perplexed, which is, sorry to say, not a terribly unusual occurrence.

I don't understand how board members could in good conscience refuse to allow good drinking water to be supplied to residents in need.

I'm talking about residents of Aldrich Lane in Laurel who are forced to use bottled water because they can't sink good wells on their property. Some of them have drilled multiple wells to no avail. Some have been using bottled water for more than 15 years.

The Suffolk County Water Authority wants to run a transmission main down Aldrich Lane to provide the residents there with safe drinking water.

But Aldrich Lane isn't on the town's water map. And the board is hesitant to amend the map to add Aldrich Lane to it -- to provide the folks who live there with good drinking water. The board is so hesitant, in fact, that it didn't even bother to answer SCWA CEO Steve Jones' letter about the Aldrich Lane problem -- sent last August. And when he came to last week's work session to solicit an answer from the board, he still didn't get one. All he left with was a request to resubmit the well test data he provided last year, which some board members said they'd misplaced. And, for good measure, he left with some snide comments about not trusting the county health department's water analysis reports because the health department, as an arm of county government, isn't "independent" of the county water authority. They're both affiliated with the county, he was told, so they're probably in cahoots.

Mr. Jones seemed understandably exasperated.

Town government is charged with protecting the health, safety and welfare of town residents. That's its top job as a municipality. Why wouldn't they want to provide residents whose wells are contaminated with nasty chemicals with safe drinking water? What is really going on here?

I mean, I get it. I understand that the board is using the town's water map as a shield against development, hoping to accomplish by hiding behind the map what it ought to accomplish by good planning and zoning. The reasoning goes something like this: since approval of development proposals depends on a good supply of potable water, and since potable water from private wells is very hard to come by on the North Fork, development on the North Fork can be held in abeyance if public water isn't made available to developable land.

But that's not what's going on over on Aldrich Lane. There is no developable land there to worry about. The farmland along Aldrich is already protected. And the Water Authority is proposing to run a transmission line, not a distribution line, which means, according to its agreement with the town, only existing homes with existing private wells can tie in. So the proposed Aldrich Lane water main can't possibly induce development. Then why not come to the aid of residents in need?

If I read the board's recalcitrance correctly, the answer is "on principle." If we agree to amend the water map this time, the thinking goes, what happens next time? You give 'em an inch, they'll take a yard. Before you know it, public water will be flowing throughout Southold and then condos will start cropping up all over and, in the blink of an eye, we'll look like Riverhead.

The phrase "opening the floodgates to development" got a lot of air time in Southold Town Hall last week.

The discussion caused one official to wisecrack that the Town Board was "zoning by water." That official was right. The town is attempting to do, with its water map, what it can't find the fortitude to do with its zoning code: limit development by limiting the maximum number of dwelling units that may be built in the town. In a word -- a very dirty word, indeed -- upzone.

Sooner or later this water map gambit is going to be up. A court could change things very quickly.

The Town Board agreed to -- surprise -- discuss the proposal further at a future meeting. In the interim, Aldrich Lane residents must buy expensive bottled water to avoid drinking well water contaminated by Temik, excess nitrates, lead and other toxic chemicals. And that's just not right.

Copyright 2009, Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Freedom of information, but at what cost?

A funny thing happened in Riverhead Town Hall during "Sunshine Week" last month. Our town government tried to pull the curtains shut. Funny? Not really. Ironic? Yes. Especially when Supervisor Phil Cardinale touts the value of open government and signs e-mails with a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis: "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

Let me explain.

In researching a story on Gov. David Paterson's plans to cut spending on the state's Empire Zone program, reporter Tim Gannon submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for annual reports filed by businesses receiving Riverhead/Suffolk County Empire Zone credits. The plan announced by the governor would have pumped up the required job creation and investment minimums for these businesses, and we wanted to see where our local Empire Zone beneficiaries stood on these criteria. So Tim filed the FOIL request asking to review the records.

Tim was later told that since the records he requested had the businesses' tax ID number on them, which is "confidential," he couldn't simply look at the records in the town's file. They would have to be copied and "redacted" to remove the tax ID numbers.

Accordingly, the 25-cents-per-page copying fee provided by the state's FOIL law would be charged. Since the reports we wanted to review totaled 522 pages, we'd have to pay copying charges of $130.50. In addition, he was told, we would have to pay for three hours of one employee's wages, plus benefits, for the time it would take to copy the records. That would be an additional $178.49. Grand total to inspect reports required by law to ensure accountability to the taxpaying public: $309.

The person in our town's "open government" conveying this news to Tim was none other than the town's "FOIL appeals officer," deputy town attorney Dan McCormick.

The law is plain: "the fees for copies of records which shall not exceed twenty-five cents per photocopy not in excess of nine inches by fourteen inches, or the actual cost of reproducing any other record" which can include "the hourly salary attributed to the lowest paid agency employee who has the necessary skill required to prepare a copy of the requested record."

Incidentally, the cost of reproducing those "other records" is limited to "salary" and does not include benefits. Not incidentally, if the hourly wage (even with benefits) of "the lowest paid ... employee" at Town Hall "who has the necessary skill required" to run pages through a copier and cross out a tax ID number is 60 bucks an hour ($178.49 divided by three), it's easy to understand why the cost of government is out of control. But that's another column.

Think about it. In order to look at records the very purpose of which is accountability to taxpayers, the government demanded $309 -- misinterpreting a law written to ensure public access to records.

The public shouldn't have to pay one red cent to look at those records and see if Empire Zone businesses are doing what they're supposed to be doing with our tax dollars. Forcing the public to pay more than $130 in copying fees (never mind the illegally demanded $178.49 for staff time to do the copying) is contrary to everything the disclosure laws are supposed to accomplish. What's the point of requiring public disclosure if the government can effectively prevent the public from the information being disclosed by charging exorbitant fees to access the information?

Bob Freeman, the executive director of the state's committee on open government -- a post he's held since its inception more than 30 years ago -- said Riverhead is all wet. The law doesn't require the town to "redact" tax ID numbers for corporations. The public has the right to inspect the reports and shouldn't be forced to pay for copies of them. And if copies are requested by the public, the town has no right to charge staff salary costs to make the copies.

But the town's FOIL appeals officer doesn't get it. He even argued with Mr. Freeman and insisted to us that it's Freeman who doesn't know what he's talking about. McCormick agreed to waive the staff salary charge "this time" but said he "reserved the right" to impose this charge in the future. He said he would research the matter further.

So editor Michael White took this up with Phil Cardinale, figuring he's got a loose cannon in the town attorney's office and that, believing in open government as much as he says he does, the supervisor would want to straighten him out. Mike asked for assurance that McCormick would be set straight and wouldn't pull this with members of the public seeking access to public documents. Instead of an assurance, the supervisor sent Mike a lawyerly response saying that McCormick "acknowledged" the legal charge was 25 cents per page.

"It has been my intent since I became supervisor to keep town government open and to err on the side of greater openness," Mr. Cardinale wrote in an e-mail.

Now the supervisor needs to make sure his FOIL appeals officer walks the walk. Judging from another citizen's recent experience with Mr. McCormick on a FOIL issue (see Guest Spot, below), I'd say either McCormick still doesn't get the "sunshine is the best disinfectant" stuff -- or Cardinale is saying one thing and doing something else.

If you've experienced difficulty accessing public records in Town Hall, or if you've been told you had to pay copying and salary charges just to see records, I'd like to know.

Send me an e-mail: denise@timesreview.com.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Feds sink Broadwater plan

By Denise Civiletti
Times/Review Newspapers
Broadwater Energy’s appeal to the U.S. secretary of commerce has been denied, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced this morning.

The commerce secretary’s denial marks the end of the administrative process for Broadwater. The fate of the energy company’s plan to build a natural gas terminal in the middle of L.I. Sound now rests with the courts. Several court actions are already pending and a new one challenging the commerce secretary’s decision today is expected, opponents of the proposal say.

Broadwater Energy, a joint venture of Shell Oil and Transcanada Pipelines, wants to moor a 1,200-foot-long floating natural gas terminal in L.I. Sound, about nine miles off the coast of Wading River. The terminal would receive shipments of liquefied natural gas from oceangoing LNG tankers, heat the LNG to return it to its gaseous state, then supply it to the metropolitan New York area via a new 23-mile subsea pipeline that would connect to an existing gas distribution system.

The Broadwater terminal would supply the region with about 1.3 billion cubic yards of natural gas daily. Proponents of the plan argue that the region needs to increase its natural gas supply, and Broadwater would add consistency and stability to the regional supply, resulting in lower consumer energy costs. Opponents argue that the facility would increase our nation’s dependence on foreign fossil fuel energy sources, industrialize L.I. Sound, disrupt water transportation, harm the commercial and recreational boating and fishing industries and damage the Sound’s ecosystem.

Opposition to the Broadwater plan was swift and widespread upon its announcement in Nov. 2004. Suffolk County, as well as the towns of Riverhead, Southold and East Hampton brought lawsuits attempting to block the proposal. Although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved Broadwater’s permit application in March 2008, it was subject to a ruling by the N.Y. secretary of state that the plan is consistent with the state’s coastal management policy. One year ago, Gov. David Paterson announced the state’s rejection of Broadwater’s proposal. The energy company then appealed to the U.S. commerce secretary to override the state’s objection, as federal law allows.

Opponents hope the secretary’s much-anticipated decision will be the death knell for the Broadwater plan. One leading opponent of the proposal, Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based environmental advocacy group, hailed the decision as a triumph for democracy.

“This truly is David winning over Goliath,” Ms. Esposito said.

Broadwater could appeal the commerce secretary’s decision in federal court. Broadwater senior vice president John Hritcko Jr. could not immediately be reached for comment.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), long an outspoken opponent of Broadwater, said the commerce secretary’s decision was “the final nail in Broadwater’s coffin.”

The Department of Commerce concluded that the project’s adverse coastal impacts outweighed its national interest, Mr. Bishop said in a statement. He said the decision was made in part because the terminal’s location in an undeveloped region of the Sound would “significantly impair its unique scenic and aesthetic character and would undermine decades of federal, state, and local efforts to protect the region.”

“I am delighted and I think we can finally put this behind us and address Long Island’s energy needs in a more acceptable fashion,” said Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Civic Association and a driving force behind the Anti-Broadwater Coalition. “This is great news,” he said. “Christmas has come early on Long Island.”


Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Are we getting what we pay for in Albany?

By the time this goes to press, the State Legislature will most likely have adopted -- albeit a little late -- its record-breaking 2009-2010 budget: a $132 billion spending plan that raises total spending by more than $10 billion (8.5 percent) over last year.

The budget will include more than $170 million in so-called member items, most of which are and will remain unitemized in the budget documents. They will be doled out by members of the Senate and the Assembly, with little opportunity for advance public scrutiny, in proportion to the members' political muscle in the state capital. Basically, it's a $170 million slush fund for state legislators to use as they see fit.

This, quite understandably, has a lot of people oinking about "pork barrel spending" in Albany.

And while this practice is ripe for abuse by unscrupulous politicians (What? Unscrupulous politicians in Albany?), it's also something of a scapegoat and a distraction from what's really ailing the state's fiscal condition.

I'm certainly not defending the practice of legislators setting aside that kind of dough to be quietly divvied up behind closed doors in ways that reward supporters, spread good will on the home front and help ensure incumbents' re-election.

But -- time for a reality check, folks. That pretty much describes the entire budget process to a T, doesn't it? Closed-door meetings in which the state's power brokers divvy up the pot in ways that reward supporters and special interests, spread good will on the home front and help ensure incumbents' re-election. If this practice were limited to the $170 million in "member items," we taxpayers would have it made. Instead, Albany's long-standing budget-making tradition -- the practice of "three men in a room" brokering deals with millions -- uh, make that billions -- of our tax dollars, got worse instead of better under one-party rule in Albany this year, despite the Democrats' promises of open government, transparency and accountability. This year, now that Democrats have control of the Senate (tenuous as it may be) there was no counterbalance to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The other two men in the room -- a weak and ineffectual Gov. David Paterson and a weak and ineffectual Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith -- went along to get along. They both need Silver to survive, politically. He was calling the shots all the way. When the deal was done, it was, as usual, presented for the inevitable rubber-stamping by the full chambers. And inevitable it is.

The State Senate's Web site has the various budget documents posted for public inspection. That's a good thing, of course. But I dare you to go make sense -- real sense -- of any of it. Color me crazy. I tried. I scrolled through hundreds of pages of appropriations bills and budget schedules. Lots and lots of numbers for countless numbers of programs, agencies and budget lines. Numbers so big, they begin to lose meaning. A 100 million here, 200 million there, pretty soon you're talking real money. It's genuinely mind-boggling.

One thing that stuck with me following my attempt to understand the state budget deal: It costs New York taxpayers nearly $200 million just to fund the operations of the State Legislature. Member and staff salaries, stipends and fringe benefits, travel, supplies, printing and postage (to send us those attractive, well-timed "legislative reports" just before the biennial elections, boasting about what a fine job they're doing fighting to protect taxpayers). Then there's overhead, like utilities, "telephone and telegraph" -- telegraph? really? -- and millions in unspecified "contractual expenses." So many questions, so many numbers, so little time and opportunity for answers. For instance, since taxpayers are spending upwards of $145 million on member and staff salaries and benefits, why are we also spending $13 million on something called the legislative bill drafting commission? Isn't bill drafting part of the members' jobs? And what about more than $900,000 for the "legislative messenger service" or the $213,000 for the "legislative health service?" That's more than $1 million to run documents and dispense aspirin for our "representatives."

Why are we spending so much dough on 212 legislators, their staffs and all the bells and whistles that go along with it, when, in the end, it all comes down to what one man, Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver, wants, anyway? The rest is all window dressing. Very expensive window dressing.

So in a budget that eliminated STAR property tax rebates and failed to address inequities in state aid to education, I'll take those local member items, thank you very much. They represent a few crumbs relative to what we send to Albany, but at least it's something.

Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at civiletti.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is denise@timesreview.com.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why'd we have to go and change things?


Change is never easy. We all know that. Sameness is comfortable, especially when you're getting a little long in the tooth, as I am.

Since we unveiled the redesigned Suffolk Times two weeks ago, we've had a number of questions, comments and complaints that I'd like to take this opportunity to address.

Why did we do this? Why not leave well enough alone?

It's true, we had some pretty good-looking newspapers to begin with. And although I don't like change any more than anyone else, we decided the time was right to spruce up and freshen their look. Apart from the introduction of color photography in 2003, the paper hadn't had a comprehensive review from a design perspective in more than 10 years. A lot has happened to newspapers and newspaper readership in that time. We need to try to stay current in order to serve the needs and tastes of a changing demographic. We can't just say, "We like things just the way they are," and leave it at that, for that's the first step on the road to extinction. Imagine if we'd refused to use four-color printing, and kept everything black and white? That may have made some people happy 10 years ago, but how old and stale would we look today if we hadn't changed with the times?

Why did we have to go out of the local area to find a design consultant?

One reader wrote to say she was disappointed we didn't employ a local graphic artist or design firm. While there are indeed many talented graphic artists on the East End, we needed to find people specializing in newspaper design. We searched among nationally recognized newspaper design consulting firms and settled on Creative Circle Media of Providence, R.I., headed by a very bright and dynamic guy named Bill Ostendorf. They not only worked with us on layout and design, but they also ran on-site workshops for our staff to help us improve photo editing, caption and headline writing, and storytelling.

Was this redesign project an attempt to cut costs?

Absolutely not. In fact, the contrary is true. It cost money to do it, in consultant fees and the cost of our new fonts. We believe in our papers and we believe in reinvesting in them to maintain and improve their quality.

Some people have commented on the newsprint stock we're using. The newsprint stock hasn't changed in several years. Several months ago, we did switch from the bright-white cover paper to newsprint. That was indeed a cost-saving measure, but it had nothing at all to do with the redesign project. We took note that none of the other newspapers in the East End market used the heavier, bright-white paper stock on the cover. We also took note of the excellent reproduction capabilities of our printer, which also prints the other East End weeklies. And we decided to take this step -- the savings from which, quite frankly, helped us preserve a job in this very tough economic time.

What happened to The Suffolk Times' 'signature' Page One photo by Judy Ahrens?

This is a tough one, since we all appreciate the beauty of the North Fork and enjoy how Judy captures its beauty with her award-winning photography. While we haven't banished them from the cover, we decided not to run these large feature photos every week on Page One, in order to present more than one story on the cover. Simply stated, we wanted to mix it up a bit. I agree that it's changed the look of the paper and I appreciate Judy's artwork as much as anyone else. That's why today, for instance, we've got a beautiful floral shot by Judy on Page One of our Life and Times section. But we thought it was time to try to get more news on the front cover some weeks.

Why did we change the typefaces we use?

For headlines and such, we just wanted a fresher look. For the body copy -- the font we use for stories -- we wanted a font that was bolder, darker and easier to read. We chose one called Utopia from a field of about six "finalists."

You are now looking at the font we had been using, Times Ten Roman. It seemed to us a much lighter, harder-to-read typeface when printed side by side with the other fonts we were considering. In fact, we did a print test and a blind survey of our staff. Only three out of about 40 people selected Times Ten Roman as their preference. The majority picked Utopia, with a font called Nimrod coming in second.

Give it some time.

The consultants told us the only thing we'd hear at first would be negative reactions. People with complaints tend to speak out more than people who are content. That being said, we've had a lot of positive feedback along with the negative. To those who have called or written to say they don't like what we've done, I thank you for caring so much about your hometown paper, and I ask that you bear with the new look for a while. Give it some time. Maybe, like other changes we've experienced, you'll not only get used to it, you might even like it better.

Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at civiletti.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is denise@timesreview.com.

For 10 points: 'What is...public humiliation?'

For 10 points: 'What is...public humiliation?'


I haven't slept well in weeks, maybe months. It wasn't the redesign launch this month keeping me awake, or worries about the collapse of the world economy and the resulting disappearance of my 401(k).

Ever since I accepted the invitation of East End Arts Council director Pat Snyder to be a contestant in the East End Charity Game Show tomorrow night, I've lain awake in bed night after night, gripped by fear.

What was I thinking?

It's true enough, this is nothing new. I have a hard time saying no to people, especially when there's a good cause to help. (I did, however, draw the line at taking "the plunge" into a local body of water in December to benefit Peconic Bay Medical Center. I don't know which was more off-putting: the idea of jumping into 40-degree water or being seen in a bathing suit by hundreds of people.)

So when Pat called me up to ask if I'd be willing to be a contestant in this Jeopardy-like game show, I said, "Sure!" And regretted it before I even hung up the phone.

That was even before I found out who was making up the questions. Cutchogue resident Jeff "Doc" Greenberger, Harvard Club distinguished teacher of Latin and ancient Greek will be doing the honors. Oh, swell. The man is a walking encyclopedia.

"Don't worry," Pat assured me when I expressed the panic growing in the pit of my stomach. "He won't make the questions too difficult."

Yeah, right. I have to consult a dictionary just to read Doc's e-mails sometimes. I'm here to tell you Doc Greenberger has no idea what "difficult" means to a mere mortal like me.

For a while, I suffered in solitude, not even divulging what I'd gotten myself into to my family. I was smarter than that. I knew how my teenagers -- both of whom are among Doc's Latin students -- would react.

"LOL," said Katie. (Kids nowadays actually speak Internet shorthand. For the uninitiated out there, "LOL" means "laughing out loud.") "You?" She rolled her eyes. "That's ridiculous."

Thanks for the confidence-boost, kid.

In mid-January, I found myself seated next to Riverhead Town Councilwoman Barbara Blass at a breakfast meeting. Pat Snyder stopped at our table and mentioned the game show.

"I can't believe I agreed to do this," Barbara confessed in a hushed voice as Pat walked away. "I am absolutely terrified," she said. We commiserated. Our upcoming public humiliation would be complete and swift -- on the first round of questions, no doubt.

"Don't worry," Pat had tried to soothe us. "Each contestant will be paired with a brainiac high school student." We'd be able to rely on our student partner's mental acuity to answer questions about subjects we once may have known something about but have long since forgotten.

Great. This only means I'll have the special opportunity of embarrassing myself in front of six of my daughters' friends. So I'll embarrass them in addition to myself.

A few weeks back, I was getting a haircut. Linda Langhorn (who would prefer not to be identified as responsible for my hairdo, since my idea of "styling" my hair is running my hand through it after towel-drying) had a Charity Game Show poster hanging in her shop. She cheerfully informed me that her husband, Butch, was a contestant.

"He's terrified," she said. "He's so afraid he's not going to know anything."

Join the club.

The poster said WRIV manager and morning host Bruce Tria was also a contestant. I called him up.

"Scared? Are you kidding? I'm beside myself with fear," he said, adding, "I'm hoping to enter the witness protection program immediately after game show ends." There might be dead air on WRIV come Monday morning.

None of us has a handle on how to prepare for this thing. Councilwoman Blass thought it would be a good idea to watch Jeopardy on TV, try to play along. Big mistake. She watched it with her daughter, home from college for the weekend. "Mom, you really need help," Juliet (RHS Class of '08) informed her. "Why couldn't it be Wheel of Fortune? You're pretty good at that."

Truly. I can think of any number of game shows I'd rather compete in. Password. Family Feud. Beat the Clock. Or even the weekly NPR news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! -- all familiar territory. But testing my dwindling intellect on questions written by Doc Greenberger in categories such as "Ancient Times," "World History," "Literature in English," and "Inventions, Discoveries and Scientists"? I'm doomed.

You can come to Riverhead High School and watch us all make complete fools of ourselves tomorrow night at 6 p.m. If there's one thing I (still) know it's this: You won't be disappointed.

Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at civiletti.blogspot.com. Her e-mail address is denise@timesreview.com.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A "Sunshine Week" observation

When Congress passed the so-called stimulus package last month, the major media (Washington Post and NY Times articles, Feb. 14, 2009) reported that the bill limited executive compensation at firms receiving bailout billions.

As far as I can find, what didn't get reported (until yesterday) was a gigantic loophole slipped into the bill by Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, which exempted bonuses paid pursuant to contracts entered into between bailout recipients and their executives prior to Feb. 11, 2009. That's the loophole that allowed AIG to pay $165 million in bonuses. Dodd is now saying the Treasury Dept. made him write the loophole into the bill. Republican members of Congress are calling for an investigation.

The blame games continue. And the yappers on TV "news" shows gleefully play along.

I'm afraid this episode is evidence of the consequences of the plight of journalism today and a harbinger of things to come. Newspapers folding up and the decimation of remaining print newsrooms (think of all the shuttered Washington bureaus!) mean fewer and fewer people are left to do the job. If NY Times and Washington Post aren't reporting something like this giant, disgraceful loophole — who will? Who will read the fine print and shed light on what government is doing with all these many trillions?

Ironic that this revelation comes out during national "Sunshine Week" isn't it?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What those earmarks mean to us (or not)

recently came across a book called "America the Broke: How the reckless spending of the White House and Congress is bankrupting our country and destroying our children's future." Of course, given the economic news we've been living with since last fall, I couldn't resist it. I was especially intrigued by the book's 2004 copyright. Had its author, an economics professor in Arizona, foreseen what we'd be going through just a few years down the road?

The short answer is no; Professor Gerald Swanson at the Eller College of Management of the University of Arizona had not foreseen the financial industry crisis that triggered the global economy's current tailspin. But what he had to say about deficit spending, the national debt, our trade deficit and the federal government's fiscal imprudence was cause for alarm -- especially since the spending practices Prof. Swanson rails against in his book pale by comparison with recent activity in Washington. I'm talking about bailout upon bailout upon bailout, followed by The Stimulus Package -- spending trillions we don't have -- followed by the $410 billion spending bill passed this week just to tide the government over till September. That $410 billion is over and above the defense and homeland security bills Congress sent to former President Bush.

The latest rage among the yapping heads on TV "news" programs these days is "earmarks" -- funding for legislators' pet projects. While the 9,000 or so earmarks in the so-called omnibus spending bill total some $7.7 billion in spending, according to the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, earmarks are, I'd say, the least of our worries. Sure, $7.7 billion is nothing to sneeze at, but, it is but a fraction of overall spending (independent of the stimulus package.) As Time magazine writer Michael Grunwald wrote: "... blaming the earmark process for wasteful spending is like blaming the Internet for porn. It is just a convenient delivery device, and it can have good uses as well as frivolous ones."

I downloaded a database of earmarks spending from the Taxpayers for Common Sense Web site (taxpayer.net) It was interesting. It's comforting to know that, while taxpayer dollars are being doled out by members of Congress, our own Rep. Tim Bishop has a place at the trough. He scored almost $10 million for Long Island, including some big-ticket funding for Army Corps of Engineer projects on the ocean and at Shinnecock Inlet. But it was bothersome to see how little of the congressman's pork-barrel spending came to our neck of the woods. Of that $10 million, the North Fork saw just $19,000 (not counting a $500,000 grant to The Nature Conservancy for seagrass research and restoration, which may help get to the bottom of the disappearing eelgrass on the North Fork.) Yes, that's $19,000 (no zeroes missing) out of $10 million.

Mr. Bishop's earmarks, according to the database, include lots of spending on the south shore: $500,000 to replace a county sewage treatment plant ocean outfall pipe; $475,000 for ferry terminal improvements in Patchogue; $190,000 for the Shinnecock Indian Nation's construction of a preschool; $2 million for work to be done between Fire Island Inlet and Montauk Point, $3.2 million for Shinnecock Inlet; $720,000 for Lake Montauk Harbor; $100,000 for Moriches Inlet; $191,000 for Montauk Point; and $119,000 for the Forge River watershed. Other projects our congressman deemed worthy of funding: $214,000 to the Stony Brook University journalism school for a partnership program to teach scientists how to effectively communicate with the public and the press; $245,000 for the Suffolk District Attorney for prosecuting gang-related firearms crimes; $196,514 for the Middle Country Library Foundation in Centereach; and $133,000 to the Smithtown Fire District for facilities and equipment.

Time's Mr. Grunwald observed: "Earmarks were made for hypocrisy; they're always reprehensible when they're in someone else's district."

Or in some other corner of your own.

Prof. Swanson, by the way, told me that the disastrous scenario he lays out in his book is still waiting for us around the corner. What we've seen in the past year is, in his opinion, only a precursor of things to come unless Congress and the president get deficit spending, our national debt, and trade imbalance under control. Unfortunately, I think he's probably right.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Politics as usual

The New York State Senate has an operating budget of $100 MILLION. $100 MILLION.

Cars, staffers with six-figure salaries, a secret TV studio, even a "Brunomobile" -- a specially equipped $50,000 van that was used to shuttle disgraced -- and recently indicted -- former majority leader Joe Bruno around after Eliot Spitzer (himself a gleaming paragon of morality) yanked Bruno's helicopter privileges. The story is mind-boggling.

And that $100 million doesn't include earmarks -- hundreds of millions more in tax dollars doled out by politicians to curry favor with constituents and special interest groups.

Nor does it include the private little slush funds these pols have in campaign accounts that they barely have to tap into for legitimate campaign purposes, because once elected and entrenched, they're basically elected for life.

How can these hypocrites talk about cutting school aid and food stamps, and continue to fund this kind of nonsense with our tax dollars?

Will Senate Democrats be very different now that they're in control? Somehow, I doubt it. I'd love to know what kind of similar exceses have been perpetrated in the other chamber of the NY State Legislature at the hands of the other party. This kind of thing, unfortunately, is not limited to one party.

We need TERM LIMITS and we need them NOW.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No time for same old, same old

There have been few surprises coming out of Washington, D.C., during the first few weeks of the Obama administration.

Our new president is a refreshing change in oh so many ways. He exudes intelligence. He can articulate his thoughts clearly. He's a thinker. And he is clearly willing to think outside the box. That's a good thing, because he's facing unprecedented challenges as president. And with the nation perhaps facing unprecedented challenges, it's good to know that the president is smart enough, astute enough and shrewd enough to deal with them.

He's not perfect and he will, of course, make mistakes. He will even suffer some disappointments. He already has. But he's already shown he's got the mettle to admit it when he does "screw up."

Unfortunately, none of this may matter much. The occupant of the Oval Office may change, but the permanent government doesn't change much. For members of Congress, their staffers, lobbyists and bureaucrats, it's business as usual, more or less. The bitter partisan divide, the pigs lined up at the trough, the intransigence. These things don't change. Washington, D.C., is its own little universe.

That helps explain why Congress is so willing to sign a blank check to bail out Wall Street investment firms and banks, with almost no accountability for how almost a trillion dollars is spent. But when it comes to helping average people -- people who are suffering largely because of the mess created by the investment firms and banks -- it's time for the same old protracted debate over the relative merits of tax cuts versus spending.

The president's "stimulus" plan proposes to do what we should have been doing all along: reinvesting in America. Produce alternative energy. Modernize our infrastructure. Improve existing mass transit systems and build new ones where none exist. Make our homes energy efficient. Computerize medical records. Equip schools and colleges with computers and modern labs and libraries. Expand broadband Internet access. Invest in science, research and technology. These are investments in our future. These are investments we can't afford not to make -- and shame on us for failing to make them all along.

Instead, we chose to invest in the bottom line of monolithic multinational corporations in the false hope (or on the false promise) that their prosperity would be good for the rest of us, that their wealth would "trickle down" to us little people. Cut taxes. Let the free market operate with as little government interference (read: regulation) as possible. What's good for the barons of Wall Street and the titans of Texas and the sheiks of the Middle East will be good for you and me.

But that doesn't work. It got us where we are today. Moreover, government's hands-off approach to industry and business allowed mortgages to be "securitized" and sold in bundles of tiny pieces. It allowed financial statements to hide risks. It allowed ratings agencies to be complicit in the bill of goods sold to investors -- the triple A-rated funds consisting of funds of bundled, soon-to-be-worthless mortgage-backed securities. It allowed the Bernie Madoffs, the Enrons and the WorldComs, the revolving doors of government that allow industry representatives to oversee "regulation" of their industries and then return to industry to reap the benefits of their (lax) oversight.

Yet in spite of all the evidence that we have gotten it wrong, dead wrong, these past three decades, the talking points of people like Sean Hannity still appeal to the average American. "What historically has worked is capitalism, giving people in this country more of their hard-earned money back," Hannity said the other night, accusing the president of "fear-mongering" by saying this is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Yeah! Don't tread on us! Let us keep our money and get government off our backs and we'll be just fine. All things being equal, that could work out. But all things are not equal. We don't have a seat at the same table as the people who are carving up the American pie. I'm not sure we're even in the same room anymore.

Hannity's vision of "capitalism" is what brought us to the brink of disaster. Left to their own devices, Hannity's "capitalists" outsourced American industry and jobs, ravaged our financial system, made health care unaffordable and inaccessible, weakened consumer protection, blocked environmental protection and sucked billions out of our economy, leaving it in utter shambles. Who can reasonably believe that the remedy for what ails us is more of the same?

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

When a church says 'enough'

The Open Arms soup kitchen had been serving a hot meal each weekday to hungry and often homeless people in the fellowship hall at First Congregational Church in downtown Riverhead for the past 16 winters. To many served by this program, supported largely by donations, that meal was their only meal of the day. The hour or two during which the church opened its doors was, for many, their only chance to sit in a warm room, sheltered from the cold, snow and rain.

On Oct. 1, 2008, the church trustees sent Open Arms a letter ordering the soup kitchen to vacate its premises by Dec. 31. No explanation was provided.

Zona Stroy, a retired IBM executive who heads up Open Arms' volunteer board, was puzzled by the termination notice, as there had never been any problems at the site, she told me last week. So she called the chairman of the trustees -- twice, leaving a message each time, she said. Her calls were not returned.

Ms. Stroy said she learned by reading this newspaper that the church trustees hoped to rent out the space for more money, possibly for use as a day-care center. She remains baffled that Open Arms was never even asked if it could pay a higher rent before it was told to leave. (It's been paying $125 per month.)

Clearly, Ms. Stroy concluded, the church just wanted the soup kitchen out.

Resigned to that fact, Ms. Stroy wrote a letter to the trustees last month asking if the church would extend Open Arms' occupancy of the space until the end of March, offering to pay a higher monthly rent.

Again, no reply.

I called the new chairwoman of the trustees myself last week and left a message on her home answering machine. I never got a call back either.

Ms. Stroy has since wrangled temporary use of the unoccupied Riverhead railroad station to distribute cold sandwiches and coffee, supplied by Suffolk County Community College's culinary school for $2 per person. About 80 people have been showing up for lunch at the train station. At $2 a head, it's costing Open Arms much more to feed the hungry than before. The group has use of the train station until April. Ms. Stroy is searching out other locations, so far without luck. And she's desperately seeking financial support. (Open Arms is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In addition to the soup kitchen, it operates a food pantry out of space donated to it by First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike.)

I used to be a member of First Congregational Church. I was enticed to join by its former pastor, the Rev. Donna Schaper. We became good friends during her tenure there (late 1980s-early 1990s) and remain so to this day. She struggled as a pastor with the sometimes conflicting needs of a church congregation versus those of the world at large.

Whose church is it anyway? Does it "belong" to the families who attend services there on Sunday and support its maintenance with their weekly donations? Does it exist to tend to their needs? Or is its function to reach out beyond the congregation, to touch the lives and hearts of others, to care for the poor and the hungry among us?

These are not new questions. Some 20 years ago, Donna went head-to-head with church trustees who objected to her practice of allowing homeless people to sleep in the church office on frigid winter nights. And First Congregational is not alone in wrestling with this basic issue. At least it wrestles. Some church congregations don't even find themselves discussing such questions.

Meanwhile, the hall at First Congregational Church sits empty at mid-day. Plans to use the space as a day-care center, if they exist, are in the very earliest stages and months from fruition. There was no good reason to kick Open Arms -- and the hungry -- out into the cold this winter. Especially not this winter, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, when the needs of the poorest among us grow greater each day, and the number of people needing help is also escalating.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.