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Outside Looking In

The challenges of freedom

First published: December 07, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: December 05, 2014 at 9:12 pm

For the past two-and-a-half centuries, citizens of this country and the loose confederation of states that preceded it have frequently donned uniforms, gathered up arms and gone off to fight for the freedoms that were eventually guaranteed in our Constitution. Hundreds of thousands have died over that time to ensure that we are free today.

And yet, we are also raised from birth to respect authority, to trust our leaders, to obey our police. For most Americans, this is a fact of life, like breathing or wearing shoes.

Unfortunately, respect for authority and protection of freedom from time to time rise up in conflict. When authority threatens freedom, hard choices must be made.

Thus far, we favor freedom. But it’s never a sure thing.

And right now, America is facing a situation that will not take much to evolve into a full-blown crisis. Police and prosecutorial events in Missouri and New York have caused many citizens of this country to question whether we have ceded so much authority that essential freedoms — including the basic human freedom to life — are threatened.

While the riots in Ferguson, Mo., that started when a white policeman shot a black teenager were initially characterized as a black reaction to white discrimination, subsequent events there transcend that narrow though important conflict. When the grand jury convened to consider this case failed to indict the officer who pulled the trigger, more than just a lily-white police force was called into question.

Then the very foundation of the justice system — the grand jury process itself — took the brunt of the controversy. Slowly, people began to think, “This may not be a black-and-white issue. It may be an issue about the systems in which we vest our greatest authority — the courts themselves.”

And it all caught fire when a grand jury in New York failed to hand down an indictment in a case in which a black man died at the hands of police who were trying to arrest him for selling cigarettes on the street.

If you thought Ferguson was bad, the incident on State Island was worse. A handful of police surrounded Eric Garner and wrestled him to the ground as a bystander with a cellphone filmed the entire event.

Mr. Garner could be heard rasping “I can’t breathe,” as one officer applied a chokehold that, everyone agrees, is in violation of New York City police rules of procedure. Mr. Garner died, and his death was there on a digital file for all to see.

The failure of the grand jury to indict in the Garner case has hit a collective raw nerve in this country. The officer who applied the fatal chokehold is easily identifiable on the recording.

There are no conflicting witnesses. It did not happen under the cloak of darkness on a quiet suburban street. It happened in one of the great cities of the world, in a country that prides itself on following the rule of law.

Now the rule of law appears to be bent nearly to the point of breaking. From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate, white and black and Hispanic and Asian Americans protested a system that denies someone life for nothing more than selling cigarettes or walking in the roadway.

This has gone way past the question of how the white power structure treats the nation’s minorities — although that is still part of the equation. It has become a searing look at the way we have stretched the limits, pushed the boundaries, of police power in this country.

As with nearly any vocation, the majority of police are honest, worthy citizens just trying to do a difficult job in the best possible way. And as with nearly every vocation, there are officers who are in some way deficient.

Unfortunately, a carpenter who isn’t that good at his job has very little potential to kill anyone. And an accountant who becomes crazed by power can’t send an innocent person to jail for life. The police and the prosecutors of this country, however, wield awesome power, and strong checks and balances are needed to limit damage they can cause and to weed out the bad apples.

Now with two men dead and a pall on the land, public officials are crying for reform and new policies to prevent such events. Unfortunately, public officials always cry for reform after these type of events.

And even if “reforms” are enacted, they are usually so bureaucratically flawed that they don’t achieve any effect. How do we avoid that?

First, we have to temper our automatic respect for authority to hold respect for authority properly exercised. And we have to demand, as citizens, that innate rights are not sacrificed to excessive authority.

Next, we have to neutralize color or national origin as a cause of action. Police have to see everyone in the same shade of red, white and blue.

This has been our challenge for 250 years, and it remains our challenge today. When YOU stop seeing white and black and brown, we will have at least a fighting chance to achieve practical equality.

Finally, we have to stop sacrificing freedoms for security. It has never worked; it’s not working now; it will never work in the future.

All it will do is give up a little privacy here, a little self-determination there, until we’ve lost all right to privacy and self-determination. Freedom does exist on a slippery slope, and we all have to work to keep it from sliding down to oblivion.

We should not countenance the intrusions from the federal government that have been made in the name of national security. We should not allow to go without protest the government’s intrusion into our private lives. We should not forgo “Give me liberty or give me death!” in favor of “America — love it or leave it.”

Our most patriotic act will be to demand that we live in a society where authority responds to the citizens — not the other way around.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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For hospitals, the past could pave the road to the future

First published: November 30, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: November 26, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Institutional memory is one of the great things about newspapers.

Unlike broadcast media, the historical record provided by newspapers stretches back, in some cases, a century or more. And the people who spend a long time at a given newspaper develop a historical perspective that is hard to match.

So when I edited the story Tuesday about River Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center forming an affiliation, it occurred to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s the lead from a story, datelined Alexandria Bar, by Times reporter M.B. Pell that ran on Oct. 12, 2002:

“Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg is helping to draft a proposal to keep Edward John Noble Hospital open and plans to develop a partnership with that hospital’s new board if the hospital is not closed in the upcoming months.”

Huh. Imagine that. Rural hospitals in the north country realizing that some level of sharing of services is necessary for them to survive is not such a new concept after all.

But wait — there’s more! Guess when the story that supplied this lead ran:

“A radical restructuring of health care in the north country which would see Watertown’s two hospitals merging and outlying facilities reduced to little more than emergency room clinics was discussed in a hushed-up meeting Saturday.”

This decade? Last decade? Sometime in the 1990s? Nope — this was written in October 1989.

Clearly, the crisis in rural health care is no new problem. As early as 1982, E.J. Noble Hospital in Alexandria Bay was in dire financial straits, borrowing money at interest rates — 17 percent in a couple of instances — that would put today’s borrowers in a complete swoon.

The six hospitals that were considered in the Fort Drum service area — Carthage Area Hospital, Samaritan and Mercy in Watertown, the E.J. Noble hospitals in Alexandria Bay, and Gouverneur and Lewis County General hospitals — lost a collective $4 million in 1987. And at the time, $4 million was a more significant figure than it might be today.

A study commissioned by these hospitals recommended a significant restructuring, with Samaritan merging with Mercy and the other four ceasing most complex health care procedures and acute care services in favor of urgent care and clinical functions. That series of recommendations was immediately rejected by five of the hospitals (Samaritan had no reason to complain). And another recommendation, that Lewis County General Hospital be converted to a private nonprofit was rejected by county officials as being, well, just silly.

More than 25 years have passed since that report was kicked to the curb, and where are we?

Mercy Hospital has been demolished. River Hospital’s financial struggles continue and it is now joining hands with Claxton-Hepburn in Ogdensburg. Carthage Area Hospital has closed most of its outlying clinics and formed a management agreement with Samaritan just to keep its doors open. E.J. Noble Hospital of Gouverneur no longer exists; the hospital that occupies its former spot, Gouverneur Hospital, is under the control of Canton-Potsdam Hospital. And Lewis County General Hospital has reached a crisis point in its continued municipal hospital status because it cannot wean itself from the state retirement system and its burgeoning costs.

Hospital administrators come and go; doctors come and go; services come and go. Medical technology marches on, and with it the costs of health care race ahead. Patient treatments advance, and the needs to provide those treatments take more and more resources to obtain.

The financial straits of small hospitals is a constant, however. Third-party payments continue to shrink while salaries and benefits rise.

Efficiency has become not just important but critical. Many believe the best path to efficiency and sustainability is through consolidation and shared services.

But then, many believed that a quarter-century ago. We lose sight of the past because, no matter what, we live day to day. It is easy to forget the struggles of the past because we are so busy struggling in the present.

There are some small glimmers that maybe this time the long-term solutions to rural health care needs are within reach. Affiliations and alliances are a healthy first step. We can only hope that the parochial pretenses of the past will be overcome to keep rural health care services available to all.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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When buy, buy, buy turns into bye-bye

First published: November 21, 2014 at 11:44 am
Last modified: November 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm

A story in Monday’s Times by Alan Rizzo gave a thoughtful look at a series of recent business closings in St. Lawrence County, and Alan’s reporting found this: St. Lawrence County is not setting a standard for a stagnant economy.

Instead, the businesses that closed, including a music and video store, a handful of restaurants, an office supply store and the Sears store at St. Lawrence Centre Mall, all were victims of circumstances largely beyond their immediate control.

The closing of the Sears store is a result of a shifting retail economy that has favored steeply discounted brick-and-mortar operations like Walmart over traditional department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney. Most of the old retail giants are either gone or deeply retrenched; Sears, which tried to reinvent itself, then bought out the Kmart chain and then tried to reinvent itself again, has hung on but barely. And to stay alive, the chain has maintained a trend of periodically closing poorly performing stores.

The St. Lawrence Centre store was a victim of that policy, but it fell into the paradigm because it has been a long time since the promise of St. Lawrence Centre has been realized.

People in Massena speak fondly of the boom years when the mall was buzzing and there were people spending money in and around Massena. Some of them either can’t see or won’t recognize, however, that an era closed for the town and much of northern St. Lawrence County when GM, then Reynolds, bowed out.

What was once a bustling industrial center that employed several thousand workers became an Alcoa town with a few hundred workers. When those high-wage, secure union jobs started to disappear, the ripple effect began to build.

Now, what were institutions in Massena are gone. Along with Sears, the village has lost Violi’s Restaurant, Ponderosa Steakhouse and Guy’s Restaurant. The Office Max is also closed.

Restaurants are a tough business. The three that closed in Massena are iconic; one is part of a highly successful chain.

But the food business is fickle. And more than almost any other, it is at the mercy of the economy as a whole.

People who can barely buy groceries and gas are unlikely to be going out to eat. In a place the size of Massena, it doesn’t take a lot of changed dining habits to make a once profitable restaurant find itself gasping for air.

The general downturn of the U.S. economy five years ago has led to an unfortunate circumstance for rural regions: The recovery from that recession has been urban-centric, at the expense of small cities and towns. In New York state, for example, pockets of prosperity appear in metropolitan New York, in the Albany region and in Buffalo. Elsewhere, jobs continue to be lost; the north country joins Central New York, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes as areas that have not substantially recovered from the loss of jobs and wages that have now stretched across half a decade. And there is very little relief in sight.

Add into this mix the fundamental shifts in consumerism that have hit the world’s economy, and more pain accrues. Both Office Max and Northern Music and Video, and to a lesser extent Sears, are largely victims of a new world of mercantilism driven by technology.

Amazon.com has put the squeeze on everything from music stores to bookstores to department stores. There is virtually nothing you cannot order through Amazon. And its use of cookies and the storage of customer information presents an insidious push to buy more and more of what you need through the online behemoth.

If I sign on to Amazon from any computer on which I’ve visited it before, it welcomes me by my login and encourages me by pushing before me items similar to things I’ve purchased — from cameras to books by my favorite authors. Amazon truly understands a key element of online purchasing: the more automatic you make it, the easier it can be done, the more compelling it is to buy, buy, buy.

With just about every album, CD and DVD ever recorded available through Amazon, with an easy-peasy ordering regimen, with delivery right to the front door — how does a Northern Music and Video compete? Indeed, how does a Borders compete?

The answer is, they don’t. If an operation as big as Borders is overwhelmed, what chance does a small store in an upstate village have?

At 72nd Street and Broadway in New York City, on a corner next to a bustling subway stop, there was for years a Tower Records store. I had friends who lived on the Upper West Side. And when I visited them, I always browsed through the three floors of records, tapes and CDs that ranged from oratorios to the Manhattan String Quartet to Madonna.

Today, that space is occupied by an Urban Outfitters store. Tower Records, once an industry giant, is no more — at least as a physical presence.

It was bought out of bankruptcy after all the stores closed and is now run, by new owners, as Tower.com. Thank Jeff Bezos and Amazon for that.

Northern Music and Video could not compete with the warehousing and distribution genius of Amazon, the ease of music downloads from the Apple Store or the scores of other online sources that are out there, fulfilling consumers’ dreams through data stored in your own computer and the speed of UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.

Believe me when I say those of us in the newspaper business are aware of the rush of change through technology. Digital gurus tell us every day, “Adapt or die.”

We are scrambling to do that. We may succeed because there is no real alternative to journalism, but it is no sure thing.

For Northern Music and Video, selling common commercial items, no matter how arcane bassoon reeds may be, there was no way to adapt. And that is just a shame.

Perry White is the snow-weary managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Thank God! I can use my snowblower again

First published: November 16, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: November 14, 2014 at 5:25 pm

That’s better.

Thursday’s little reminder of what the north country serves up for winter was a needed kick in the teeth for what has been, by and large, a glorious fall.

At my house, when I got home about 5:15 p.m., my Subaru sedan clawed its way into the driveway and bucked a little but still got me into the garage. It wasn’t automatic, though, because the frame of the car was almost up on top of the heavy, wet snow.

While the scanner buzzed with scores of mostly lesser road mishaps, folks in our newsroom attributed it to “First Snow Syndrome” — that frequent collective memory lapse in which people have somehow forgotten, since last March, that snow makes the road slippery. If you were one of those whose car slid off the road, got stuck in the mouth of your driveway or had some other mishap requiring a tow, you’ll get better at this as the season progresses. Or at least, most of you will.

I had been enjoying the fall. It was mostly warm, mostly dry, more often than not shirtsleeves or light jacket weather. I can remember more than one year when I had to get the snowblower out in October. So all in all, going this long is probably like living on borrowed time.

The heavy, wet snows of early in the season are a great test of your snow-clearing process. It will definitely give that snowblower a workout. And if you’re like me, I’d like that test drive to come at a time that, if there is a problem, there’s ample time to get it fixed before the season starts in earnest. If you have decided that you’re going to save the money you paid to that plowing service last year, it will also give your cardiovascular system and your possibly atrophied digging muscles the kind of test that can tell you if you made such a wise choice in trying to save a few bucks.

And an early snow even tests your plowing contractor; if he’s a no-show now, you may want to resume your search for a reliable plow man or dig the snowblower out and tune it up.

Last winter tested everyone’s resolve. At one point, I had to blow my driveway and walk clear eight times in five days. And during that 48-inch monster snowfall (yeah, I know — it was 9 feet at the Rodman post office), my snowblower wouldn’t start and I was forced to borrow my neighbor’s machine to get enough space cleared in the driveway to get to work (and to haul my cursed machine to the small-engine shop).

Well, you may say, you chose to live in Adams. And that, of course, is true. The 10 inches of snow I got at my house yesterday was down to a couple of inches just past Adams Center; being at the base of the Tug Hill Plateau has its winter challenges. Although, to be fair, Mannsville has it worse ...

But if things go well over the next few weeks, and by well, I mean if the sale of our home goes through at the same time that the purchase of a new home in Watertown is successful, we’ll be moving from Latitude 43 degrees, 48 minutes, 35.75 seconds to Latitude 43 degrees, 57 minutes, 59.10 seconds. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but it can make a world of difference to the Lake Effect Gods.

There are some other benefits as well. The proposed new house has a driveway that is no more than 30 feet long and 8 feet wide. The driveway I’ve been clearing lo, these many winters, is 80 feet long and 30 feet wide at its widest point. The sidewalk in front of the new abode less than 50 feet long; in Adams, I have 125 feet of sidewalk.

You see where I’m going here. Winter doesn’t have to be as hard as I’ve made it. And let’s be honest: Winter is a young man’s game. I’m ready to retire my Team Adams snowblowing jersey (well, it’s really a heavy snow parka) and enjoy winter as a spectator sport.

If you see me there in February, yet again blowing the driveway clear, well, best not to stop to chat.

Perry White is the snow-weary managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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And now, the inside scoop on Election 2014

First published: November 06, 2014 at 11:57 am
Last modified: November 07, 2014 at 3:31 pm

The nation is ashiver as the professional pundit class parse and reparse the off-year election. And there is plenty to talk about here in the north country.

While the temptation exists to focus on Elise Stefanik’s predictable yet still remarkable victory, let’s wait. It is the top of the state ticket that needs some exploration.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the man who would be king, gave a ringing victory speech that would leave you with the impression that his victory was the kind of mandate that politicians only dream of getting. But was it?

Four years ago, Mr. Cuomo crushed tea party Republican Carl Paladino, taking about 63 percent of the vote as he cruised into office. Tuesday, he got a little less than 53 percent of the vote against a surprisingly successful Rob Astorino. The challenger managed to win many upstate counties, including St. Lawrence, an upstate Democratic bastion. (More on this in a bit.)

While the governor’s rousing victory speech tried to spin the results toward him and away from the numbers, the numbers don’t lie. A Republican with better name recognition, like Rep. Peter King, would have made this race even tighter — certainly too tight for Gov. Cuomo’s liking.

Andrew Cuomo is a complex political animal. His highs and lows are all over the board. He got a same-sex marriage bill passed. And his reforms of the state’s economic development efforts, with the establishment of regional councils directing state funding, have been lauded statewide. On the downside, his bullying of the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act through the Legislature has earned him no friends north of the Bronx, and he has gained a reputation as a micromanaging control freak with a short fuse and a deft touch for vengeance.

Perhaps the governor will be able to step back, look at this election and vow to change some of his unattractive attributes. But don’t bet on it.

n n n

Tuesday also wrote a tale of two county Democratic chairmen. With Colleen O’Neill’s capturing of the sheriff’s job, Chairman Ron Cole can claim a successful election. True, the county went solidly for Republican John Byrne over Democratic incumbent 116th District Assemblywoman Addie Russell. But history was made when Ms. O’Neill became the first woman ever elected sheriff in New York state.

Then there’s St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark Bellardini. Last year, his party lost the district attorney’s post. This year, the Republicans buried the Democrats in races for the county Legislature, taking the board from a 9-6 Democratic majority to a 10-5 Republican mix. The timing couldn’t be more critical, as the Legislature will be called on early in the year to replace retiring County Manager Karen St. Hillaire.

The election was a ringing repudiation of the Democrats’ leadership of county government. For a committee chairman not to have this stick, he’d have to be covered in Teflon and dripping with oil. Democratic leadership is licking its wounds all over the country, but St. Lawrence County’s party boss is standing head and shoulders above the crowd — and that position is more of a target than a tribute.

n n n

We have a new representative in Congress, a very right-leaning young woman with lots of brains and political savvy. Her election was not a surprise, however.

The surprise in the 21st Congressional District race was Matt Funiciello, an engaging, smart, funny Green Party candidate who was by turn iconoclast, stand-up comic and earnest purveyor of an unorthodox political philosophy.

While the Green Party has been passed off as the tiny refuge of extreme tree-huggery, Mr. Funiciello did nothing to reinforce that. His beliefs are passionately held. They are in most ways populist (“We have a single-payer health care system in place — it’s called Medicare,” he told us) and the ones that people might consider out there are, well, often refreshing.

The greatest damage he did himself was writing, a few years ago, that people should question the official version of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That opinion rattled a lot of people. The emotional wounds of that event are still raw, and conspiracy theorists have been excoriated by most of the nation.

Mr. Funiciello suffered some electoral consequences from that revelation. But to his credit, he didn’t try to squirm away from it; when questioned, he was forthright in explaining his position and he owned it. If only every politician would do that ...

Mr. Funiciello polled a more than respectable 11 percent of the vote. And it appears that he even pulled up fellow Green candidate Howie Hawkins, who received a little less than 5 percent of the gubernatorial vote statewide but did better in the 21st CD. Mr. Funiciello was a refreshing change from the same old, same old politics, and I hope he’ll stay active.

n n n

Addie Russell’s career in the Assembly is in serious jeopardy. While she is trailing by a mere 117 votes now, absentees are yet to be counted. There are 259 ballots out in Cape Vincent, where absentee voters have a solid history of supporting Mr. Byrne in his role as an anti-wind power town official. He could well run the table on those 259 votes, which would mean that Mrs. Russell would not be starting down by 117 votes, she would be starting down by 376 votes. That makes the climb much steeper, perhaps insurmountable.

Given the almost bullet-proof status of incumbents, how did this happen? Mrs. Russell’s vote in favor of the SAFE Act hurt her badly in this district, and it didn’t have to happen. The Assembly’s Democratic majority is such that she could have more carefully considered the will of her constituents and voted against it, knowing that would not alter the final result. Instead, she chose to hitch her wagon to Speaker Sheldon Silver, a figure not unlike Darth Vader among upstate voters. It was a huge political mistake that will probably prove fatal.

n n n

Finally, a bit about Matt Doheny. When last seen publicly, he was out on the sidewalk on Washington Street telling people that he would support Elise Stefanik for the 21st CD seat after she spanked him in the Republican primary. To make it work, he even allowed an incredible contrivance to get himself off the Independence Party line.

Because to get off the ballot in the congressional district he would have to be nominated elsewhere, the Independence Party handed him over to the Conservative Party (strong Elise backers) to run on that party’s line. Where? In Kings County, where Conservative Party head Mike Long contrived to put him on the ballot in a Supreme Court race.

Where he lost. Rather badly: his 26,774 votes finished seventh among 10. He beat Philip J. Smallman and Dennis W. Houdek, but lost to everyone else. As a candidate, he remains 0-for-lifetime.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Save the seaway — approve the pipeline

First published: November 02, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 31, 2014 at 5:49 pm

I bet you’re as tired of all the election stuff as I am by now.

So let’s think about something else. Let’s think about oil.

While the north country has usually been removed from the issues of oil production — fracking is an issue down in the Southern Tier, and rail transportation has been an issue in Albany and nobody here has to worry about the nearest refinery — times are changing. There are reports, for example, of oil tankers being spotted heading south along the Montreal/New Jersey line run by CSX.

Efforts to find out what they’re hauling have so far been fruitless, but we’re pursuing it. And the proposals for new pipelines across Canada that would run very close to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway are sounding like they’ve become serious.

What is driving this? The U.S. failure to endorse the Keystone XL Pipeline is the policy decision that most closely imperils Northern New York.

If the Keystone XL Pipeline was approved, the need for Canadian rail transportation of oil through the United States would essentially end. It also would diminish the need for trans-Canada pipelines, although it wouldn’t end all of those proposals.

This is a battle long fought by environmentalists that is really a zero-sum game. If they successfully thwart the Keystone project, the net effect will simply be to move the oil another way.

If that way is by rail, environmental hazards are multiplied by an unknown but nevertheless scary factor. Just one train derailing alongside a major waterway, like the St. Lawrence or the Hudson, could present an environmental disaster of unforeseen proportions. While pipelines are built with segmented shutdowns in case of emergency, limiting damage to a relatively small area, a couple dozen oil cars emptying their loads into the St. Lawrence would be nearly impossible to contain and clean up.

The answer of some environmentalists to this conundrum is less than useless: Good, stop using oil. This is the kind of juvenile thinking that has relegated a class of environmentalists to the tree-hugger classification.

And we don’t need simplistic solutions to complex problems. We need complex, well thought-out decisions made that may end up being a willingness to take a small environmental risk to avoid much greater environmental risks.

We need oil produced in our hemisphere and on our continent. Canadian oil is the next best thing to U.S. oil. And Canada is the most loyal ally we have.

And frankly, I really like Canadians. I’ve found them to be great folks since I’ve lived in the north country, although their driving aggravates me from time to time.

I, for one, don’t want to see a dozen oil cars derail and rupture in the middle of Adams Center. Or Philadelphia. Or Gouverneur. Or Canton. Or anywhere else.

And there is no legal mechanism to stop oil cars from using the nation’s railroads or to stop oil tankers from sailing the St. Lawrence Seaway. It’s time to make the hard decision and let the pipeline go through.

Otherwise, we may be calling for volunteers to start cleaning terns with our own bottles of Dawn.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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A little primer on ballot propositions

First published: October 29, 2014 at 11:04 am
Last modified: October 29, 2014 at 11:04 am

Next Tuesday, for the voters who actually make the minor effort to get to the polls, at the top of the ballot they will see three statewide propositions. I’ve had a couple of calls requesting that we synthesize these into an understandable precis, and I will attempt to do that — adding a thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessment all my own.

Proposition 1: Reapportionment

Proposition 1 would at the start of every decade create a commission to draft a reapportionment plan for the Legislature.

If you’ve seen an Assembly District map of St. Lawrence County, you might consider this a good proposition. And it has admirable goals: among other things, it would require the commission to consider geography and the concept of “communities of interest”; it would ban the creation of districts to diminish the political power of racial or national groups, such as Hispanic communities; it would encourage compact districts that contain contiguous political units, such as Lewis and Jefferson, or St. Lawrence and Franklin, counties.

However, the process of forming the commission works to diminish its independence; eight of 10 members would be appointed by the four legislative leaders (in other words, two Republicans and two Democrats) and the last two members would be appointed by the first eight. The potential for a politically swayed and polarized commission is enormous.

The commission would create a primary plan and present it to the legislature. If it is accepted by the Legislature and signed by the governor, it becomes law. If it is rejected by either house, it is returned to the commission, which formulates its second-best plan and submits that to the Legislature. If that is subsequently rejected, the Legislature takes over the task, held loosely to the principles adhered to by the commission.

However, the Legislature has never adhered to any principles in its reapportionment efforts. Political horse-trading results in the travesty of four different Assembly districts carving up St. Lawrence County. There are few processes in New York more deeply in need of reform.

Unfortunately, this proposition doesn’t offer real reform, it offers rancid old wine in a new bottle. It should be roundly rejected so that a meaningful reform can be found and adopted. Two thumbs down.

Proposition 2: Going paperless

Proposition 2 makes a lot of sense. It rewrites the Constitution to take the Legislature into the 21st century, reversing 200-year-old practice with modern technology.

To consider legislation today, printed copies of proposed laws must be delivered to the desks of every legislator at least three days before consideration. Given that the legislature churns out thousands of bills in every legislative session, this is an enormous cost to the taxpayers of the state.

And, if this proposition is passed, an unnecessary expense. The proposal would allow electronic versions of the bills to be the legal equivalent of a printed bill. This is one of the largest single paperwork-reduction proposals the state has made, and voters should merrily embrace it. Two thumbs up.

Proposition 3: Smart-schools bond

Proposition three will appear as the “smart schools bond act” on the ballot.

It would permit the state to issue bonds in the sum of $2 billion to fulfill a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to equip all schools with up-to-the-minute technological equipment, ranging from smartboards to computer infrastructure to tablet computers.

Spending could be directed to high-speed broadband or wireless connectivity, modernization projects for pre-kindergarten programs and replacement of temporary classroom units. It could also go to install high-tech security features in schools.

It gives the Legislature the power to authorize schools to spend funds from the proceeds of the bond.

There are scads of problems with this proposal. Bonding for equipment whose predictably useful life is less than the term of the borrowing is pure folly, for one thing. Money used for classroom technology, including servers, desktop and laptop computers and tablets, is buying products whose useful life is measured in years much less than a decade. Consider, if you will, the age of your personal computing gear. I have a seven-year-old desktop computer that no longer has the ability to be upgraded to the newest operating system. It is a dinosaur in the computer world.

The computers, and especially the tablets, sold next year are going to be functionally obsolescent before the next decade — some of them well before the next decade. Borrowing to buy them is a very bad idea.

The same is largely true for the “high-tech security features” detailed in the proposal. If it’s high-tech today, it’s obsolete the day after tomorrow.

And the other items, which involve capital projects to add space and get rid of all those ugly “portable classrooms” out there, should not be made part of the state’s long-term debt. They should be funded as standard school building aid, paid out each year. This will eventually mean that $2 billion in aid will cost the state — $2 billion. I know that makes sense, but consider: bonding $2 billion for 20 years will cost the state, in all likelihood, nearly $4 billion.

More than 20 years ago, Andy Cuomo’s dad, Gov. Mario Cuomo, put together an environmental bond act proposal that failed. It was one of few bond acts he proposed that the public rejected, and the most successful argument against it was that the state could commit the annual principal payment to environmental projects and over 20 years get the work done without the debt — and the considerable cost of the debt.

The same argument always applies, but it applies most in Proposal 3. This is a proposition the voters would do well to reject. Two thumbs down.

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Canton/Potsdam school merger plan must succeed

First published: October 26, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 24, 2014 at 6:36 pm

School mergers are a testy subject.

Schools are part of the holy triumvirate of community, along with village government and fire departments.

Those that have them don’t want them tinkered with.

Unfortunately, tinkering is sometimes necessary.

And in extreme cases, you might need to blow up the whole shebang and start over.

This week, straw votes will be taken in the Canton Central and Potsdam Central school districts on the merger of those two schools.

It faces an uphill path because, for some, the thought of merging those two exceptional districts into one is akin to Tony Bennett marrying Lady Gaga.

It shouldn’t be. School mergers, in large part because they are so controversial and so difficult to see through to approval, are never just tossed out there on a whim.

By the time a merger study is conducted, someone’s district is in real trouble, either financially, academically or both.

I graduated from a tiny school, and the current superintendent of that district told me in an email that the district is on the verge of financial bankruptcy.

As sure as night follows day, that will be followed by academic bankruptcy, because school districts can’t fail.

Children must be educated, despite the tax cap law, despite the gap elimination adjustment, despite the dwindling pool of students in nearly every district.

Canton Central is right now looking over the brink.

It has slowly, steadily eaten through its fund-balance cushion until now; it is but a year away from having no fund balance at all — having, in fact, what would be a negative fund balance.

But since school districts cannot have unbalanced budgets, that lack of money to help the district carry through will have to be met by cuts.

Cuts in staff, cuts in programs, cuts in activities, cuts in replacing worn buses.

The two districts have created a presentation with a chart that shows the projected district fund balances through 2022-23.

If you look at that chart and cipher out what it really means, it’s tough to see how anyone who cares about children could oppose this plan.

Let’s put the chart into terms that people can understand.

In 2016-17, Canton Central will have to close a budget gap of $2 million.

That equates to, in all likelihood, the end of athletics, the end of most extracurricular events and staff cuts.

Students who have been in classes with 20 or 24 other students will find themselves in classes of 30 or more.

Music, drama and academic clubs are all at risk.

In 2017-18, the district will be $3.5 million in the hole.

Since sports, extracurricular activities, clubs and some electives are already gone, the district will have to cut more teachers, cut some programs, turn some programs into alternating year schedules, cut nonteaching staff, cut bus runs to the bone and so forth.

In 2018-19, the hole will grow to $5 million.

I can’t even imagine what’s left to cut.

But whatever it is, there will be blood on the floor.

Students will have no offerings that are not absolutely mandated under state law or regulation.

College acceptances will begin to suffer because the students will be competing with others from school districts that have not been forced to cut out everything but the water fountains.

No athletes will be signing letters of intent because there will have been no teams on which to showcase their talents.

Marginal students will suffer as nonmandated programs are cut, and exceptional students will suffer from the loss of opportunity.

A whole series of classes will watch their educations slowly circle the drain as the district gets caught in a vicious downward cycle.

And Potsdam students will be only two years behind.

By 2017-18, Potsdam Central’s cuts will start to emulate those already done at Canton.

And by 2022, both districts will be in the same dreadful situation.

This is the new reality of education in New York.

Consider this: With the 2 percent cap on levy increases, most districts in the area will exceed the cap with just the increases in retirement costs and health care costs.

That will mean either that dwindling fund balance will be further depleted to stay under the cap or cuts must be made to make up for the rising benefits cost.

When residents of the Potsdam and Canton school districts go to the polls this week, take a look at the numbers.

Understand what they mean:

These aren’t the meaningless figures of federal deficit spending because schools can’t spend more than they take in.

Canton has no cushion, and Potsdam has not much.

And if this merger fails, students are going to very quickly find that the education they have come to expect is going to be drastically less than it was before.

And the only people they’ll be able to blame are the adults who seem to care so little about them.

Perry White is the managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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Ebola pandemic is a possibility

First published: October 19, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 17, 2014 at 6:10 pm

Like a slowly rising sea, Ebola has begun to make people turn and look — and not like what they see.

The prospect of a deadly pandemic is believable simply because it has happened before. The Black Death, a plague of a rapidly spread bacterium, killed between 75 million and 200 million across Europe from 1146 to 1353. It took Europe 150 years to regain the population loss; the episode had human, environmental and economic consequences that we can’t even now imagine.

And, of course, popular culture has found low-hanging fruit in the concept. Steven King’s book and movie “The Stand,” an allegory about good versus evil, is likely the best known of the genre. But other books and movies have echoed a similar theme: A disease sweeps across the globe, wreaking havoc and threatening society as we know it.

There is no sign at this point, of course, that the outbreak of Ebola stubbornly spreading globally from West Africa will become another plague. But to deny that the situation is dangerous would be the height of folly.

On Wednesday, World Health Organization officials predicted the outbreak would expand from 1,000 infections now to 10,000 cases by December. When things multiply by a factor of 10, it doesn’t take long before you’re talking real numbers.

The problem with Ebola, it appears, is that despite the miracles of science that we have come to expect, there is no easy cure. And as the cases of the infected health care workers in Dallas show, treatment has risks.

On CNN on Tuesday, chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by trade, donned protective gear, put dye on his gloves and then used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol to remove the gear. It left dye on a forearm and on his neck. It was a chilling example of how easily contact can spread and how difficult it is to take all the steps necessary to keep that from happening.

It is a dangerous world. According to the New York Times, Islamic State in Syria militants have control of a significant stockpile of old chemical weapons manufactured or purchased by Saddam Hussein. If stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin in the hands of that radical group doesn’t scare you, you probably don’t care about Ebola.

But anyone who doesn’t care about Ebola — and any past and future diseases that have the capability of fatally spreading across the face of the Earth — is whistling in the dark.

Right now, in this state, the only two hospitals capable of handling any cases of Ebola north of Manhattan are Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. In New York City, Belleview is the main hospital with certified quarantine rooms — and it has six of them.

Other hospitals that are ready to treat Ebola patients are in Atlanta, Omaha and Maryland. One of the nurses contaminated in Dallas is now in the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. She was flown there in a specially equipped and staffed plane.

Check your insurance policy, see what kind of coverage you have for a Medevac flight from Northern New York to Maryland, or New York City, or Omaha or Atlanta. Look for coverage for an isolation suite in a quarantine wing.

Figure out how any country, including the United States, is going to pay for the care a full-blown epidemic would require. And after you’ve done that, ponder this: How long is it going to take to develop an effective treatment, let alone a cure?

If you are even remotely inclined to pass off the threat from Ebola or some as yet unknown disease like it, don’t. Relatively common diseases brought to the United States from its first European explorers decimated the Native American population.

It took 150 years to recover from the Black Plague. The influenza pandemic of 1918-20 killed as many as 100 million people — which was 5 percent of the Earth’s population.

It can happen here; it has happened before. Let’s hope that modern science can keep it from happening again.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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A new life for an old paper

First published: October 12, 2014 at 12:30 am
Last modified: October 10, 2014 at 5:14 pm

I cut my newspaper teeth in weekly community papers. Starting more than 40 years ago, I spent 20 years at community weeklies before coming to the Watertown Daily Times.

When you learn your trade that way, you are learning at a very organic level. I have people speak to me because of my job here. But when I was editing a community, county-seat weekly, EVERYBODY knew what I did, and they never spared sharing their opinion of it, especially when it wasn’t particularly positive. When you’re doing much of the reporting, writing the editorials and sometimes delivering the papers to news outlets because your delivery guy’s van broke down, you are involved with your product in a very intimate way.

Community weeklies live because they focus on the day-to-day lives of the people in their circulation area. The Times covers an area as big as some small states, with more than 30 school districts, dozens of police agencies, scores of municipal government units ranging from counties down to water districts. The hardest job at this paper is prioritizing events to determine which get attention from the news staff and which don’t.

At the weekly paper level, the choices are fewer. And although the staff is smaller, doing news triage is not so fraught with multiple choices.

And weekly paper editors have a much greater opportunity to visit the local coffee shop, chat up the postmaster, have lunch at the diner — and in all those pleasantries, pick up news tips.

I am pointing all this out because this company has just added the Jefferson County Journal to its portfolio, and we have hired an editor who is as gung-ho about the job as anyone I’ve ever seen.

The Journal, for all its strengths, was getting tired. That’s not an indictment; it’s a fact of life. As a small family-owned weekly, it had limited resources.

If the Fowlers wanted to take a vacation, it was a major tactical task to figure out how to put out a paper while they were gone. They didn’t have a support network, didn’t have a larger organization to which to turn for help. After awhile, that is draining.

It was clear that the Journal was going to become just another dead masthead without intervention. Johnson Newspapers stepped in, and the southern Jefferson County area will continue to be served by its own weekly paper. I would like to see that happen without having to saddle the Journal with any baggage related to the larger company.

Our new editor, Heather Berry, is dedicated to keeping the Journal a hometown community newspaper. She spent her first week here touring the southern part of the county, talking to people from Henderson to Rodman. Before her second week is out, she’ll have gotten to know Worth, Lorraine, Woodville and all the other tiny places that make up the South Jeff community.

The Times is going to give Heather and the Jefferson County Journal all the support she and it need to thrive. We want to make it possible for her to focus on putting out a good newspaper, while the larger organization takes care of the support roles that have become so important in business — from computer networks with WiFi capability to taking care of subscriptions and classified ads. One immediate improvement over the old Journal we will have fully in place is home delivery of the paper so that subscribers won’t have to wonder just when they’ll see their copy arrive in their mailbox.

Another improvement is presenting pages with full-color reproduction, making the paper more visually appealing and a more modern, modular page design that is easier for readers to follow.

There is no intention, however, of making the Journal appear to be a clone of the Times. That won’t work, and that is not a goal that any of us have. While you may see some stories that appear in the Times, you will see many, many more that don’t. The Jefferson County Journal will remain dedicated to the southern portion of Jefferson County.

Our new office is on Church Street in Adams, in the old Chamber of Commerce spot. Stop in someday when you see the lights on and say hello to Heather Berry. Give her a news tip or drop off a press release. It’s your newspaper as much as it is ours.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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