Christmas in Niagara Falls, USA

The Niagara Falls Holiday Market is a phenomenal idea. Take a largely abandoned, gritty street not far from a natural wonder, invite locally-owned businesses and artisans like 464 Gallery, Sarah Walley, Delish, Zillycakes, Tony Walker, and others to set up in little sheds along the street, add a festive atmosphere, some concerts, a skating rink – and voila, a European-style Christkindlmarkt.

It has huge potential to help reinvigorate a dead downtown, to bring people to the New York side of the Falls for something that isn’t casino or waterfall-related, and to start a great tradition. I really wanted our visit to this market to be awesome. It didn’t quite hit that mark, but it was fun enough.

The market was officially opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The reviews on its Facebook page were unflattering – people were disappointed. Many vendors hadn’t set up yet. Some were completely absent.

We went on Saturday right at 11am when the market opened for buy local day. I’m hopeful that this event gets its act together sooner rather than later. Tony Walker was nowhere to be found. Arrowhead Winery and other local vendors we were looking forward to checking out were absent or closed. 464 Gallery had a great tent-full of locally-produced arts and crafts, and we were honored to meet Sarah Walley herself, who had a table set up to sell her famous French macarons. But Tony Walker? There was no evidence of it anywhere. Biscoff Gourmet was shuttered. I didn’t see Menne Nursery. andBuffalo was still under construction. I didn’t see the Sabres store, either. I saw no evidence of DiCamillo’s at that hour. At least two cabins were empty and without signs.

It’s always difficult to set up a new event – especially one as ambitious as the Niagara Holiday Market. It’s also seductive to make excuses such as “well, at least someone’s doing something positive in the Falls”.   And it is.

But if I was one of the merchants who was able to get it together to be up and running on November 25th, I’d be a bit disappointed that others (especially some marquee names) weren’t. We traveled out of our way to enjoy a stroll and do some shopping in a place where neither really happens, ordinarily.  It was surprisingly empty and devoid of holiday cheer.  Perhaps it would make more sense to be less ambitious in terms of time, and limit it to the three December weeks leading up to Christmas. Maybe the organizers need to crack down on late and lackadaisical vendors.  When an event has so much promise, do it right.  I want the market to work – to thrive and to become a tradition, so hopefully its organizers will learn from their mistakes.

At least one published report indicates that the market costs $900,000 to put on, and that half of that money comes from city and state government. All the more reason why this should be professionally organized and done well.

On another note, the former Oxy Headquarters building known as the “flashcube” has been “saved” by a local developer but now resembles the food court of a dead mall. One gets the sense that it’s taking up loads of super-valuable parking spots. Neither its exterior nor interior are inviting, and it joins its neighbor the former Rainbow Centre as a past-its-prime eyesore stinking up the border with Canada. It’s ugly for a simple building from 1981, and is in palpable disrepair. It’s the Bronx-on-the-Falls.

UPDATE: Full disclosure, about a month after this post was originally written, one of the market’s vendors has retained my legal services to secure payment of a contractual debt.

The Real Looters

From a New York Times profile of how multibillionaire heir and man-of-leisure Ronald Lauder avoid paying taxes on his income.

The tax burden on the nation’s superelite has steadily declined in recent decades, according to a sliver of data released annually by the I.R.S. The effective federal income tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers, representing the top 0.000258 percent, fell from about 30 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2008, the most recent data available.

And the economy tanked.

“There’s real truth to the idea that the tax code for the 1 percent is different from the tax code for the 99 percent,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “Any taxpayer lucky enough to have appreciated property is usually put to a choice: cash out and pay some tax, or hold the property and risk the vagaries of the market. Only the truly rich can use derivatives to get the best of both worlds — lots of cash and very little risk.”

The story praises Lauder for making charitable donations of money and art to certain causes, the philanthropic way to tax avoidance. However,

“It’s admirable when people back their charitable impulses up with donations,” said Scott Klinger, tax policy director of the group Business for Shared Prosperity. “But the tax code shouldn’t allow the wealthy the kind of loopholes that let them, essentially, force other taxpayers to underwrite donations to their pet causes.”

So when you joke and mock the Occupy protesters for being a bunch of unwashed nouveau hippies with no point or direction, consider for a moment that the system is now rigged in favor of the very rich – especially those who make money from money.  When you look at the taxes withheld from your paycheck each week, or fill out your 1040 on TurboTax, remember that you pay a larger share of your income to the IRS than the superwealthy.

Asking the Tough Questions of the Powerless and Mentally Ill

I like the Buffalo News’ new editorial direction. The mainstream media of yore would have exposed – oh, I dunno – maybe the fact that the country’s political, taxation, and entire socioeconomic structure has been systematically co-opted by the richest 1% of Americans for their own benefit, thanks to a compliant governmental structure that is able and willing to be lobbied and bought. In the past, the city’s paper of record would have proudly gone after the powerful. Pentagon Papers! Watergate! Obscure Guy at Occupy Buffalo!

Now? The Buffalo News bravely questions the claims of military service made by Christopher Simmance, an Occupy Buffalo protester who suffers from PTSD, and has been fighting the federal bureaucracy for years trying to get incorrect records corrected.

Simmance is not a leader – putative or otherwise – of Occupy Buffalo, nor is he in any position of power or influence over anybody. As far as I can tell, he’s a troubled Army veteran who is upset about the direction of the country, and sports a backwards Kangol cap.

Did Simmance serve in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan? I mean, IT WAS IN A MOVIE! I know that the Buffalo News didn’t have the answer, but insinuates that he didn’t.

Setting aside this article’s questionable prioritization – questioning the powerless rather than the powerful – the article doesn’t conclusively rebut any of Simmance’s claims. Instead, it employs the Glenn Beck-trademarked trick of question-asking to discredit by innuendo.  I don’t get it. Here’s a Twitter back and forth that Steve Watson, the article’s author, and I had:

View the story “Steve Watson on Simmance” on Storify]

If the News had unearthed actual facts to dispute Simmance’s claims, then it’d be a story. Without them, it’s just a smear.

A shameful one at that.

Up next: an Orchard Park working mother of two claims to go to a gym three times a week to work out. But does she? She claims to do Zumba, but Zumba is mentioned on TV ads!

No Justice for Jamey

Yesterday, Amherst Police held a brief press conference to inform the public that no charges would be brought against any of Jamey Rodemeyer’s tormentors. Jamey, you’ll remember, was the 14 year-old Williamsville North student who took his own life after having been bullied relentlessly for being a little bit different. I wrote about Jamey’s suicide here, and published the stories from some of his former classmates in this post, along with a brief analysis of some of his Tumblr posts, which showed that – beyond bullying at school – this was a deeply troubled young man who wrote about cutting himself, and about horrible things he said his parents had told him.

Amherst police found that bullying that leads to suicide is difficult to prosecute – the principal witness is dead, and you can’t base a criminal case on hearsay. Many of the alleged bullying incidents were never contemporaneously reported to school authorities, and the time had passed to prosecute anything that happened during middle school.

It would appear that legislation is needed if bullying-rising-to-the-level-of-harassment is adequately to be prosecuted. There are measures pending to strengthen cyberbullying laws (something the police said wasn’t happening to Jamey on any sort of a regular basis), but the more important avenue is prevention.

While cyberbullying is the focus because it’s something relatively new, the real goal ought to be to provide kids with a safe, comfortable place to learn. The Rodemeyer case took school districts and parents by surprise, and to my knowledge only the Orchard Park system has a comprehensive, ongoing anti-bullying system in place, which demands 100% participation and buy-in by students, faculty, parents, and administrators alike.

While I think that school harassment should be prosecuted, and that the laws should be amended so that a victim’s death doesn’t halt any such action, school districts across the state should adopt and implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

Developed by Clemson University and the Hazelton Foundation, this program doesn’t just rely on placards and occasional “No H8” assemblies.  Instead, it includes a weekly curriculum with restorative justice elements and frequent class meetings. Every adult in the school is trained in the program, and it has a proven track record of reducing the frequency and severity of bullying events.

The Jamey Rodemeyer tragedy has many in the community demanding justice for anyone who may have contributed to his feelings of despair, self-hatred, and hopelessness. I wish that these kids could be made to understand what their words have done. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, and civil litigation would be likewise difficult to pursue. The whole case has an aura of unfinished business about it, and society should demand better.

Baum: You’ve Been Served

I actually interviewed at the Steven Baum foreclosure mill last year. I knew they did foreclosure and collections work, but didn’t know the full nature of what they did. I answered an ad for a litigation attorney, dressed up for it, and met with two women who were dressed in sweatshirts and jeans.

They asked what I liked about being a lawyer. I replied that I enjoy representing and helping a diverse roster of clients through a difficult time.  I like using my mind, my research and writing skills, and the fact that every day is different – some days you’re in court, some you’re in depositions, and on other days you’re just pushing papers around. As far as trying cases, it’s simply a fun thing to do, to direct your half of that production for a jury.

The women explained that they don’t try cases there, “litigation attorney” ad notwithstanding. Every day consisted of a lawyer drafting identical boilerplate documents and managing a huge roster of foreclosure actions, mostly from the comfort of their own office. You don’t meet your clients – you just deal with banks and roll the cases through the system, one by one.

Having indirectly expressed the fact that I hated that sort of daily sameness, I didn’t expect a call back, nor did I receive one.

With the news yesterday that the now-embattled Baum firm is closing in the wake of scandals involving not only a tasteless and hateful Halloween party, but an allegedly predatory way of doing business, the awkward failure of that job interview was retrospectively awesome.  The Baum firm appeared to be a bad actor, and its way of doing business was coming back to haunt it. A lawyer friend of mine sent this to me:

Several years ago, I had my first case with the Baum firm. The residents in a three or four unit apartment complex had found a notice of petition and petition for a post-foreclosure eviction on the foyer stairs in their building.  None of them were served with the pleadings, nor did they receive the 10-day notice of the pending action. All of the papers were made out as against the pre-foreclosure owner/landlord, naming him as a resident of the property, along with his wife, a neighbor and any number of “John Doe” respondents.

When I called the Baum firm, the lawyer I spoke with (I forget the name) was adamant that service was proper and wanted to focus solely on how we could get my people out with a minimum of fuss. They had affidavits of service showing someone served the property owner (who had moved to South Carolina about three years ago), his wife (ditto) and the woman who lived at a next door address for (I believe) at least a decade, all as residents of the subject property.

I objected to this purported service, in our conversation, stating that none of my people had received papers and none of the named people resided in the property. The attorney I spoke with stated, basically, that he had affidavits of service so the action was going forward.

It wasn’t, per se, improper. He did have the proof of his case and it was on me to make the objection. If we had gone to court, I would have, and I wonder how it might have worked out. Instead, all of my people ended up leaving for new housing as the landlord was letting utility service lapse prior to the scheduled court date.

As a lawyer, though, I feel that I can’t just plow ahead. My clients sometimes lie and sometimes they don’t know the truth. If someone brings up a major issue in the case I’m working on, I feel it’s my professional and ethical duty to react appropriately. That might include being noncommittal to opposing counsel but researching behind the scenes. But it shouldn’t mean disregarding what I’m told and turning a blind eye to alleged abuse of process service or improperly commenced proceedings. The willingness of this Baum attorney to base a case on clearly fraudulent affidavits of service gave me an initial impression of this firm that I feel is only proven by all the news stories I keep seeing about their ongoing conduct.

If you take a look at the images that accompany the linked-to stories about the now-infamous Halloween party, you’ll note that the Baum employees were specifically mocking foreclosure defendants who claimed not to have received service of process – a key issue in any such case.

However, I’m torn on this one. I’d rather have seen Baum enter into a deal with Attorney General Schneiderman to pay a fine and reform the way it does business – to work to modify notes to keep people in their homes, with the understanding that abandoned homes, bank-owned foreclosures, and homelessness are to be avoided if possible. Because ninety people are losing reasonably well-paying white-collar jobs here in western New York, I’m not cheering the demise of this firm – yes, there’s a poetic justice with respect to the heartless and unfunny people who mocked the homeless and the victims of the foreclosure crisis, but that wasn’t representative of all the Baum employees who work there now.

I guess I wish those individuals the best, and hope they learned something from the experience.

From Birthers to #Occupy and the Great Rejection

It’s somewhat astonishing to consider how our President with a funny name continues to engender a new and unique kind of hatred and derision among a certain population in this country. It’s not so much about his policies, (most of which they’d be misinformed about, anyway), but about the nature and location of his birth.

I’m convinced that someone could dig up a Super8 movie of Barack Obama being born, which also shops the sign indicating that the hospital is in Hawaii, with Diamond Head in the background, and still, that wouldn’t satisfy the incredibly stupid.

Despite the fact that President Obama asked the State of Hawaii to release his long form birth certificate in April 2011, dead-ender birthers still exist, and are making some distinctly ignorant noise about prohibiting Obama from appearing on ballots in 2012.  Late last week, a group of birthers, led by a California lawyer, tried to get Obama removed from the ballot in New Hampshire. When that state’s Ballot Law Commission refused to do so, birthers in the gallery started yelling “traitor!” and “treason”, because those are now shorthand for “I disagree with you!”

In the comparatively short time I’ve been paying attention to politics, the vitriol with which we attack the other side – of an issue, of an aisle – has reached quite literally comical levels. Birtherism is a mere symptom of our penchant to delegitimize our opponents, and I think it began in earnest during the Clinton administration. Our 90s two-termer carved a middle way between liberalism and conservatism, which often enraged both groups. Those on the right, however, didn’t just attack Clinton’s beliefs or policies; they attacked the very notion that he was fit to serve at all. That this draft dodging, pot-smoking, hippie womanizing liar would dare to co-opt certain Republican platform planks, and that his uppity wife might want to get involved in reforming a horribly broken health care insurance system were too much; he had to be not just opposed, but destroyed.

Just ask Ken Starr.

So, when genuine issues about the 2000 vote in Florida arose, the left retaliated against George W. Bush, whom they still consider to be the worst President ever, brought into office on gold-plated rails thanks to a corrupt, politicized conservative Supreme Court that suddenly discovered the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection clause”.

Bush won re-election in 2004, but not before a group supporting him took John Kerry’s Vietnam heroism and defiled it with lies. Kerry couldn’t just be defeated – he had to be destroyed as a person.

So, when you have a multicultural President in uncertain economic times, the crazies come out in full force. He’s a communist usurper who wasn’t born here, is an Indonesian/Kenyan Marxist hell-bent on turning Bill Ayers into the Emperor of the Politburo. It’s the second revenge of the Bushists.

Or something.

The 2012 Republican field of arguably viable candidates runs the gamut from “batsh*t insane” to “completely insincere panderer”. They have a unique opportunity to re-brand themselves and mount a serious challenge against an embattled President with very bad poll numbers and a crap economy, yet they can’t get that together.  Mitt Romney appears to be the least offensive, least insane, likely nominee. In 1996, it wasn’t much different, what with Bob Dole emerging as the least repugnant from a cast including Christianist Alan Keyes, “Single Issue Steve” Forbes, and Nazi apologist Pat Buchanan.

The tit-for-tat is phenomenal in that the same crowd that impeached Clinton over perjury in a sexual harassment civil lawsuit are now denying the very existence of “sexual harassment” as a societal ill, a crime, or a tort.

The vitriol and the deepening of socioeconomic and political cleaves that’s taken place over the last 20 – 30 years, and the lingering nature of the Great Recession and the 2008 bailouts have left us with a fundamentally broken national political system. The Occupy movement, which belongs to no one, seems to be articulating a Great Rejection in our politics and economy – a post-Reaganist re-engineering of societal priorities seems to be in order.

It’s a shame political disingenuousness isn’t an exportable good or commodity. At least then, we’d put a dent in the trade deficit.

 

Ostrowski’s Anti-Pork Lawsuit Dismissed

Libertarian activist and attorney Jim Ostrowski had been spearheading a lawsuit brought against several corporations, Empire State Development, and the state of New York, alleging that state business development incentives were violative of the state constitution. The New York State Court of Appeals put an end to that suit in a decision released today.

§8. 1. The money of the state shall not be given or loaned to or in aid of any private corporation or association, or private undertaking; nor shall the credit of the state be given or loaned to or in aid of any individual, or public or private corporation or association, or private undertaking, but the foregoing provisions shall not apply to any fund or property now held or which may hereafter be held by the state for educational, mental health or mental retardation purposes.

Ostrowski filed suit, and the defendants won a motion to dismiss, which was then reversed on appeal to the Appellate Division. At issue in the fight was whether state would continue to have a right to grant money and incentives to various private entities in order to help businesses and create jobs – it goes to the very heart of contemporary state business development strategies.

The Court explains how constitutionality is not only presumed, but that a violation must be found “beyond reasonable doubt”, because the Court had found as far back as 1976 that it will uphold “public funding programs essential to addressing the problems of modern life, unless such programs are ‘patently illegal'” The current prohibition was devised throughout the 19th century to prevent the state from being required to bail out and insure businesses who have received public monies, and to “insulate the state from the burden of long-term debt”. This is why the state created public benefit corporations and authorities. Case law has repeatedly found that public benefit corporations operate independently from the state, and that the state can grant money to them for lawful public purposes.

Because public benefit corporations are independent from the state, the Court finds that Article VII Section 8(1) does not apply to them gifting or loaning money the state has provided to them.

The Court also affirmed grants of public money to benefit things like stadiums, which may provide a private entity with a monetary benefit but also serves a public purpose. As such, county subsidies to the Bills and Rich Stadium may continue unimpeded by constitutional uncertainty. Justices Pigott and Smith offer dissenting opinions, arguing that longstanding practice does not magically render the unconstitutional, constitutional, and that the system merely rewards the well-connected at society’s expense.

It’s quite an interesting read (if you’re used to reading legal opinions) and, absent a constitutional convention, the end of the road for this particular argument.

Bordeleau v. Statehttp://www.scribd.com/embeds/73363162/content?start_page=1&view_mode=list&access_key=key-o6ro7p2n4oqko2zn2xe//

UnInformed Attacks: Engage

Check out the comments to this Buffalo News article regarding changes that County Executive-elect Poloncarz would like to make to Collins’ 2012 county budget. It involves re-shuffling existing money to fund what Poloncarz considers to be his priorities, as opposed to Collins’. The uninformed are already accusing him of increasing taxes and spending, when neither is actually occurring.

Such is the state of information in western New York.

In a post on Facebook, Poloncarz wrote,

Although this is Mr. Collins’ budget and both he and the Legislature have final say on what is passed, I hope to have some if not all of these priorities included. Considering the Comptroller’s Office has already identified approximately $5 million in overbudgeting, I believe the roughly $2 million in restorations I suggested are modest. This is in no way additional spending, simply part of my promise to spend what we have more wisely and on the things residents/taxpayers need, want and deserve from County government.

Moving

If everything goes as planned, this will be my first post as an online writer for Artvoice. Thankfully, it’s somewhat of a slow week, what with Thanksgiving and all.  Many thanks to Geoff Kelly and Jamie Moses for this unique and special opportunity.

To those of you who may be unfamiliar with my work with WNYMedia.net, I mostly write about local and regional political matters under the pen name “Buffalopundit”. You can follow me on Twitter and become a fan on the bookface. You can email tips, etc. here.

By way of background, I’m an immigrant to Buffalo – I’m not a native, and I’m not repatriated. I’m also not a sports fan, so I have little use for Buffalo’s most popular pastimes – sports and nostalgia.

By way of introduction, here’s a post I wrote in 2005 explaining why someone would pick up and move from Boston to Buffalo out of, essentially, the clear blue sky. A few things are different; the 5 year-old is now 11 and has a 5 year-old little sister. I work at a new place, but the sentiments remain the same: Read more

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