Last May, arguably the dopiest (or at least most unnecessary) gaffe in local political memory was committed by Don Moore, the president of Hudson’s Common Council.
To a packed room of some 80 concerned citizens, Moore announced that he would suppress the public release of a much-anticipated and highly-controversal document—the City’s latest update to its draft Waterfront plan—for two weeks.
His ostensible reason? Moore stated that he did not want Aldermen’s initial opinion of the document to be influenced by comments from their constituents, a/k/a the voters. Treating his colleagues more like wards of the state, he apparently deemed Hudson’s elected officials to be so frail that they needed to consider the document “free from public scrutiny” (according to then-Register-Star reporter Jamie Larson’s paraphrase of Moore’s sentiments).
After a firestorm of protest and a raft of bad press, not to mention key excerpts of the new draft appearing anyway at The Gossips of Rivertown, Moore finally relented—belatedly releasing the already-leaked document and admitting that his initial decision was “wrong.”
As head-scratchingly clueless as that unforced error struck many people at the time, one might have assumed that Moore had learned a lesson... Learned, for example, that keeping the public out of the loop is always a political mistake, not least when a controversial, long-running decision is in the balance.
Yet tonight, Moore repeated essentially the same boneheaded blunder.
On Monday, word leaked out that attendees of a special meeting to discuss the Waterfront plan would not be allowed to speak until after the Council voted on a crucial portion of it.
Attempting to pre-empt criticism of this latest move against public participation, Moore claimed in a comment on Gossips that citizens would indeed be given a chance to participate, along with a 10-day opportunity to submit written comments—after the vote was already taken. Since there would be no opportunity for such after-the-fact comments to change the vote, the offer appeared to be meaningless.
And so it proved to be: utterly pointless.
At the meeting tonight, Moore initially indicated that there’d be an opportunity for questions and comments from the floor before a vote. But as the meeting wore on, he forced the issue to a vote without any chance for public input. He then quickly dismissed the State and City attorneys, quite obviously eager to hustle them out before anyone spoke up. Aldermen began to leave even as Moore lamely suggested that comments could now be heard. By then, the crowd was dispersing. Even those inclined to stay and comment knew that this would be an empty exercise.
Waterfront plans, even more than most legislation, are supposed to be based upon a detailed and responsive public process. By State mandate, they are meant to result in public understanding, acceptance, and enthusiasm for the final plan. The current version fails on all three counts.
In this case, Moore appears hell-bent upon ingratiating himself to a few political players—most particularly, outgoing Mayor Rick Scalera—at the expense of public trust of an empty process.
It’s often said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not learn from their own mistakes are doomed to be remembered by cheap (yet apt) puns about their last name.
Entry in the September 24th, 1609 journal of sailor Robert Juet, who was aboard the Half Moon as it encountered the flats of the “middle ground” between what is now Hudson and Athens:
The foure and twentieth was faire weather: the winde at the North-west, wee weighed, and went downe the River seven or eight leagues; and at halfe ebbe wee came on ground on a banke of Oze in the middle of the river, and sate there till the floud. Then wee went on Land, and gathered good store of Chest-nuts. At ten of the clocke we came off into deepe water, and anchored.
The five and twentieth was faire weather, and the wind at South a stiff gale. We rode still, and went on Land to walke on the West side of the River, and found good ground for Corne and other Garden herbes, with great store of goodly Oakes, and Wal-nut trees, and Chest-nut trees, Ewe trees, and trees of sweet wood in great abundance, and great store of Slate for houses, and other good stones.
The sixe and twentieth was faire weather, and the wind at South a stiffe gale, wee rode still. In the morning our Carpenter went on Land, with our Masters Mate, and foure more of our companie, to cut wood. This morning, two Canoes came up the River from the place where we first found loving people, and in one of them was the old man that had lyen aboord of us at the other place. He brought another old man with him, which brought more stropes of Beades, and gave them to our Master, and shewed him all the Countrey there about, as though it were at his command. So he made the two old men dine with him, and the old mans wife: for they brought two old women, and two young maidens of the age of sixteene or seventeene yeeres with them, who behaved themselves very modestly. Our Master gave one of the old men a Knife, and they gave him and us Tabbaco. And at one of the clocke they departed downe the River, making signes that we should come down to them; for wee were within two leagues of the place where they dwelt.
The seven and twentieth, in the morning was faire weather, but much wind at the north, we weighed and set our fore top-sayle, and our ship would not flat, but ran on the Ozie banke at halfe ebbe. Wee layed out anchor to heave her off, but could not. So wee sate from halfe ebbe to halfe floud: then wee set our fore-sayle and mayne top-sayl, and got downe sixe leagues. The old man came aboord, and would have lad us anchor, and goe on Land, to eate with him: but the wind being faire, we would not yeeld to his request; so hee left us, being very sorrowfull for our departure.
At five of the clocke in the after-noone, the wind came to the South South-west. So wee made a boord or two, and anchored in fourteene fathomes water. Then our Boat went on shoare to fish right against the ship. Our Masters Mate and Boat-swaine, and three more of the companie went on land to fish, but could not finde a good place. They tooke foure or five and twentie Mullets, Breames, Bases, and Barbils; and returned in an houre. We rode still all night.
The General Worth hotel (where this was taken) was demolished shortly after Jack Boucher took this photo, to make way for a supposed Dairy Queen which never materialized... Via the Library of Congress.
The Gossips of Rivertown has posted absentee ballot tallies for the contentious Hudson mayoral primary. As expected, these did not change the lopsided primary day outcome, since Nick Haddad prevailed among the absentee voters, adding to his already statistically-insurmountable lead. But there’s another story buried underneath the raw numbers of the absentee ballot count.
Public documents (see this PDFobtained via a Freedom of Information Law request to the Columbia County Board of Elections) show that Haddad’s primary opponent, Time & Space Limited co-director Linda Mussmann, arranged to have several other people’s ballots mailed to her via a Hudson post office box: P.O. Box 343.
That’s where it gets interesting, because P.O. Box 343 is also an address used by Time & Space. TSL is a non-profit organization—tax exempt because it seeks to advance the arts and culture, along with other educational purposes.
These and other readily-available public records indicate that voters’ absentee ballots, TSL contributions, nonprofit IRS filings, as well as political donations all lead back to the same metal box at the Hudson Post Office.
Below is a detail of records obtained from the Board of Elections, which shows one of at least three voters whose absentee ballots were mailed c/o Linda Mussmann at P.O. Box 343:
Again, that request was for someone else’s ballot, not her own... Next up is a page from the TSL website, instructing donors to mail checks to P.O. Box 343:
NOTE:The street address listed above on TSL’s own website is actually incorrect; the correct street number is 434. Meanwhile, P.O. Box 343 appears on other pages at the TSL site as well.
Similarly, here is TSL’s 2008 filing with the I.R.S., again showing P.O. Box 343 as the organization’s mailing address:
(That last one is especially ironic, considering that Mussmann had been posturing as the only true Democrat in the race—even as her partner was donating to a GOP judicial candidate. Personally, I happen to like and respect that particular judge; and unlike so-called “yellow dog” Democrats, I don’t expect people to be party-line donors. But Mussmann can’t insist that others bake ideologically-pure cakes if she’s going to eat them, too.)
Nonprofits are supposed to be very careful about keeping this stuff separate, and are required to limit and report any possible lobbying or other political activity. Free speech allows a nonprofit to show a movie with a political viewpoint. Likewise in his or her separate private life, the director of a nonprofit is free to be as political as s/he likes. It’s the mingling direct politicking for one’s own candidacy with nonprofit resources that likely would be raise eyebrows at of the I.R.S.
Mussmann and/or Bruce could in theory pay for that Post Office box out of their own funds, rather than charitable contributions, and declare its use a donation to TSL. Even so, such overlapping use won’t pass most people’s smell test. It’s needlessly sloppy, when the problem could be cured easily and afforably by just opening a separate box for political stuff.
In the past, TSL’s co-directors were somewhat more careful to at least avoid the impression of overlapping political and charitable activity, even if it was going on behind the scenes. For example, a $300 contribution Mussmann made in 2009 to her own Bottom Line Party was properly attributed to her home address on State Street, not P.O. Box 343.
In any case, Mussmann made a major strategic miscalculation in her fourth quixotic mayoral run with her intense focus on absentees. The results suggest that far too much campaign time was devoted to an effort which only delivered at best a 20-vote bump up. Visiting voters at home, talking them into having her “carry” their ballot, picking it up at the BOE, taking it back to the voter, standing around waiting for them to fill it out, and then delivering it back to the Board is an arduous means of winning votes if you have limited time and space to work in. (In a number of instances, Mussmann even went to voters who had already designated someone to carry their ballot and actually been issued one, and got them to sign a second request for a second ballot. This tactic’s main effect was to anger those whose ballots she had “scooped” to work against her, a net loss to her final tally.) In a close election, it might have looked like a clever, if Macchiavellian, move. As it turned out, the effort just caused her to neglect more wholesale forms of campaigning.
The election law certainly allows voters to designate someone to “carry” someone else’s ballot, with permission. Normally the practice is benign: for example, an elderly voter in an assisted living facility might want her nephew to pick up and bring the ballot to her. But historically in places like Hudson, a handful of political operatives (most notably here, 5th Ward Alderman Bob “Doc” Donahue) have had long lists of non-relatives for whom they carried ballots.
In past election cycles, Linda Mussmann protested this practice as a shady and even potentially corrupt one, as it can place undue pressure on the voter to fill out their ballot a certain way. The person “helpfully” delivering the ballot can gain an advantage by delivering endorsements along with the ballot, and potentially intimidate the voter as they fill it out. Yet there Mussmann was, straining to turn a tactic once used against her to her own advantage.
Mussmann probably lost as many votes as she gained in that process—while Haddad was busy successfully wooing over 350 Democrats with calls, mailers, TV ads, events, appearances, and face-to-face talks. With hope this fourth failed mayoral run (and sixth electoral bust) will mean the end of Mussmann’s by-now futile campaigns... or at least cause her to be more careful about which addresses she uses on official forms.
’Tis the season when the leaves float down, and the campaign signs sprout up. It’s also the season when the partisans of various political candidates agonize waaaay too much over who has more lawn signs. In fact some campaigns think of little else but their signs—at the expense of the actual work of winning over voters.
The annual sign routine is predictable:
Candidate Joe gets his signs up first, causing the supporters of Candidate Jane to freak out.
Jane overcompensates by trying to put up twice as many signs as Joe, escalating the sign wars.
Now it’s Joe’s supporters’ turn to freak out, so Joe orders another 100 signs to catch up, making Joe and Jane roughly even.
Both teams suddenly realize that if they put TWO signs on each property, it looks like they have double the support! Then they realize that three is better than two. And four is better than three. (Five, however, makes the property owner look crazy.)
Jane’s cousin gets caught with a trunkload of stolen Joe signs, creating a bunch of bad publicity for Jane.
Meanwhile, the local zoning enforcement officer (a member of Jane’s campaign committee) decides to enforce a little-known local law, requiring Joe to take down his signs because they are 3.25 inches too tall.
The ACLU steps in, with a letter (correctly) denouncing the local sign ordinance as un-Constitutional; the ZEO backs off; Joe gets most of his signs back up.
After the first week of this annual ritual, voters stop even seeing the signs, as they become just another feature of the roadscape.
All of this distracts from the mechanics of wooing voters, turning them out to the polls, and getting elected.
Finally, after months of sign wars, your local election occurs. The votes are tallied. Turns out that having more signs had nothing to do with who actually won. The outcome could be predicted as reliably with a coin flip. Because no one—well, almost no one—decides which candidate to support because of a sign.
People understandably love to count election signs, since they’re often the only visible portion of a local campaign. (Debates, if any, are usually poorly-attended, with mainly the inner circles of each candidate attending.)
But signs tell you virtually nothing about a campaign, except maybe which side assigned a more obsessive-compulsive operative to putting wax-coated cardboard placards all over town. I’ve seen plenty of elections around here—for example, in Claverack, Hudson and Taghkanic—where the candidate with more signs lost, sometimes by a lot.
A few people put up signs because they actually feel strongly about a candidate. But rarely does more than a tiny sliver of the voting public actually display signs for either side. Some are apathetic. A few don’t want to have an argument with their neighbor. Others simply want their allegiances to remain a private matter, especially in the event that the other team wins, and appoints a new tax assessor.
Still it is almost impossible for a candidate’s friends and core supporters to turn off the sign hysteria. In the minds eye, if you see three signs for Joe in a given neighborhood, it is natural to conclude that “everyone” in that neighborhood supports Joe, though only 3 out of 30 houses are sporting his colors.
Signs also go up for a host of reasons that have little to do with popularity. They go up first on the lawns or houses of relatives of candidates, and their allied commiteemen. Then they go up because someone didn’t want to say “no” to an operative with a supervisory role over that person’s job. They go up on certain attorneys’ and insurance agents’ houses who depend on municipal or County work, even if they plan to vote for the other side. And so on.
So long as both sides have a reasonable presence on the street, the exact tally of who’s ahead in the Sign Wars tells you nothing. The only time to freak out about signs is if the only sign up for your candidate is on his own house. Then you might worry, as that absence probably reflects a much larger problem of organization that goes far beyond getting signs printed and distributed. On the other hand, your candidate may be lullling the other side into complacency, as s/he diligently and quietly knocks on the door of every single local household, building a giant electoral advantage which only becomes visible on Election Day.
Sure, once in a while someone comes up with a truly clever or winning sign design which truly captures voters’ imaginations and gives them some slight advantage. That happens maybe once in a lifetime, and usually is a symptom of the candidate’s prowess, not its cause. As one consultant put it:
Lawn signs are another case where more is less as candidates try to outdo each other to see who can plaster a neighborhood with the most signs. It’s a stalemate of mutually assured destruction: Competing campaigns drain their budgets as they litter the landscape with a blurry sea of colorful cardboard largely ignored by commuters and other passersby.
And what about our neighbors who actually choose to post political lawn signs in their front yard? I say this: Free speech is awesome, but we already know who you vote for, and you’re not changing anyone’s mind. Let it go.
So wherever you may live, please don’t get too worked up about who appears to have more signs. If you care about a candidate, badgering them about the other guy’s signs does not help. Instead, organize an event at your home, or make calls on their behalf to voters, or write a personal letter to your five best friends, urging them to join you in voting for your candidate.
In a local election, the only reliable sign that your team may win is that John or Jane isn’t investing too much of their limited money, time and thoughts on campaign signs.
The following article appears in the current issue of Our Town: The Columbia County Quarterly, and will appear here in four installments over the next two weeks. Links to the previous two installments: Part I | Part II | Part III
What will local media look like in another ten years?
In September 2009, a Wall Street Journal article by Daniel Akst began, “If you think your local newspaper is bad, I’m here to tell you that life without one is worse.” Akst built a modern house in northern Dutchess, where a news vacuum has been created by the closure of several papers.
He held up the Register-Star as a model: imperfect, yet vital.
“Nobody will mistake the Hudson and Catskill newspapers for the Washington Post,” Akst wrote, noting that:
The Register-Star has just four reporters, one photographer, and a three-person sports staff shared with the Daily Mail, where the printing occurs. A network of freelancers helps by covering small towns, but there is no copy desk, and editing is scant. Cost-cutting has reduced publishing frequency to five days a week from seven, and in a pinch, publisher Roger Coleman has found himself shoveling snow outside the office (where a neighbor once tried to tip him). His administrative assistant is also human-resources director and classified-ad manager. The offices, on Hudson’s antique and gallery studded Warren Street, are frankly a dump...
Nonetheless, as a local media orphan, Akst concluded that Columbians were still blessed. He told me via e-mail, “The intensely local Register-Star, half-starved though it may be, is infinitely better than no paper at all. Low pay and high turnover have plagued small papers at least since I started my career at the Hudson Dispatch in 1978, where the same issues prevailed.…Ideally, a paper like the Register-Star would be owned by its editor, who stays put, knows the community, nurtures talent, etc. Unfortunately, such people don't have the scratch. The challenge, then, is for outsiders to find a way to keep these institutions alive in the face of harsh economics and—let’s face it—reader indifference.”
Can the Register-Star and Columbia Paper survive? They now face competition from brightening stars on the horizon: blogs and social networks. Rapidly-proliferating and increasingly user-friendly services allow ordinary people to report their own news and announce their own opinions, without having to jump through the hoops of establishment media.
At minimum, such pipsqueaks and upstarts can serve to keep the bigger print bullies more honest and accountable. From Blogspot to Facebook, anyone can set up shop as a reporter, by accident (you’re the first to snap a phone pic of a tornado whipping across local cornfields; you post it to Twitter) or by intention (you set up a Tumblr account to watchdog the local Zoning Board of Appeals). Meanwhile, pretty much every town has at least one Yahoo or Google Group, where people trade scraps of local news, debate issues and wonder where to find a reliable plumber.
Columbia County is now enjoying a new wave of local event and news aggregators, such as Christy Collins’ CoCoToDo or Will Pflaum’s WikiCoCo News, which collect info from many area sources and make it available in one location. More ambitiously, Bob Sacks’ Copake Chronicle e-newsletter, and Carole Osterink’s Gossips of Rivertown blog in Hudson, are attempting to do more than react to existing media. They aim to break news of their own. This is the big challenge: becoming a primary source, rather than a secondary or tertiary one.
There are limitations to what one person can achieve, but already some of these sites are beating other papers to the punch. Osterink’s site is often updated two, three or four times daily, with an alert for each posting blasted out to fans via email. Largely focused on planning and preservation, roughly half of her postings are original reports on local meetings, or observations about changes to Hudson’s built environment. The others link to, or comment on articles which appeared elsewhere.
By and large, Gossips transcends mere kibbitzing on professional work, for which bloggers are often criticized. An example of Osterink’s growing influence: When Hudson Common Council President Don Moore attempted to deny the public a much-anticipated look at the City’s new Waterfront Plan, Osterink managed to publish leaked excerpts within a few days, which finally forced Moore to cave in to public pressure and release the documents.
As both a former Alderman and a publishing veteran, Osterink has lived here for some twenty years, becoming deeply involved with causes such as Historic Hudson and the Hudson Area Library. She brings to bear a wealth of surprising local knowledge, informed by experience of the world beyond her base on Allen Street. She’s not “provincial,” but her narrow focus on the 12534 zip allows the blog to develop a limited but intensely interested audience.
Often asked to run again for Common Council, her response is now invariably: “I’m having too good a time with Gossips, and wouldn’t want to be compromised by any perception of conflict of interest between roles.” (Friends are glad for Carole, but wish more Council members had her ethics.)
The immediacy of the internet, including social networks and email loops, which allow citizens to trade tips and refine research in a manner which mimics a newsroom, is now aided by the affordability of gadgets like smartphones, HD video cameras, and tablets. The barriers to entry are falling. At this blog, I’ve managed to dig up and break a few stories missed by area press, such as Mid-Hudson Cablevision’s bizarre decision to spurn a $3.5 million grant they’d applied for and received, to expand broadband Internet and cable to hard-to-reach “last-mile” customers.
The Register and Daily Mail picked up the story later that week, without crediting my research.
Sam Prattis a writer, web designer, activist, consultant, and Contributing Writer of Our Town. Formerly a writer for Esquire, New York, SPIN, MediaWeek, and some two dozen other national publications, he was co-founder and Executive Director of Friends of Hudson from 1999 to 2005. He lives in Taghkanic, works in Hudson, blogs here at sampratt.com, and recently launched clovr.net, which gathers headlines and commentary from Columbia County news, event and blog sites.
What gives you hope gives me bitterness—this balmy night, soft spring, sweet air. Life looks so little and death looks so big. You don't misunderstand me. What’s worth working for is simply worth working for—on its own present terms, on the face value of what it is. I mean, I’m not in the movement like a businessman’s in business, waiting for the payoff on the investment. The value of my commitment is not pending anything, the commitment isn't waiting to be ratified by success or refuted by failure. Life is better than death, one sides with life always.
Nick Haddad breezed past Linda Mussmann in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary in Hudson. Each of his running mates, including David Marston, Sarah Sterling, Ellen Thurston, Larissa Thomas, were likewise nominated by very large margins. Below is a table of preliminary results reported ward-by-ward by observers at the Board of Election’s initial count:
* Small numbers of votes for Bill Hallenbeck and other write-ins cast in several wards were not immediately available.
Haddad overcame an unfortunate petitioning SNAFU which had forced the unusual primary, requiring Democratic voters to write-in the name of a candidate for Mayor despite a party nominee having been designated by the Hudson City Democratic Committee.
Candidate Mussmann, who had imagined she might take advantage of the so-called “opportunity to ballot,” reportedly left the count before it concluded, as it became clear that her margin of defeat was too lopsided to be overcome with outstanding ballots, including absentees. This marks Mussmann’s sixth losing campaign, including three previous Mayoral runs, and one run each for School Board and Alderman.