ALBANY: Shawn Morris, candidate for Common Council President spoke at the July Save the Pine Bush dinner at the First Presbyterian Church. Four candidates are running in the Democratic Primary for Common Council President; all were invited to speak, but only Shawn Morris attended the dinner.
Shawn began by describing the Common Council President’s roll in city government. The President has three functions: 1) to preside at the Common Council meetings, 2) sit on various City Boards and 3) to succeed the Mayor in case the office becomes vacant. Noting that, “these tasks do not take up many hours in the week,” Shawn feels that the role of Common Council president is what the person holding the position makes of it.
The Common Council president, according to Shawn, should lead a change in the priorities of the city: “so that we are focusing on a livable city, on an affordable city, on making it a city where people want to live, not just commute in and out of.”
Representing the seventh ward, which includes the neighborhoods around Delaware Avenue and New Scotland Avenue, Shawn has been a member of the Common Council for twelve years. During her time as a member, she has been a very strong neighborhood advocate. She has been focused on making sure the communities in our cities are good places for people to live. “Sound simple? But this has not been a priority for quite a while,” she said. As Common Council President, Shawn would lead a change in priorities.
As an elected official, Shawn has always considered herself environmentally friendly and feels environmental conservation is important.
Shawn has been a resident of Albany since she came here to attend college in 1975, and feels she “grew up” with Save the Pine Bush and has followed Save the Pine Bush’s activities and has admired the commitment of Save the Pine Bush. As a legislator, she felt that it took a little bit of a process before she really understood all of the nuances that the Save the Pine Bush really pushed for. She confessed that if you dig really deep into her voting record, you would find a few early votes that “maybe weren’t quite” what her votes are now. She explains that it took a process for her to understand about the Pine Bush; and it was because of Save the Pine Bush coming to the Common Council and repeating over and over about the importance of Pine Bush preservation that she understood. She compared this process of talking to politicians to be much like talking to teenagers (she has two), that sometimes you have to repeat yourself again and again for the message to sink in. Shawn emphasized that she understands importance of preserving even small parcels in the Pine Bush.
Also part of Shawn’s political education was the carelessness that some people and businesses treat the environment and the City. Too many businesses operate on the assumption that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission, so, for example they go ahead and pave part of the Pine Bush, without the proper approvals. Since its already, paved, well, what can the City do? The developers may say, lets move on, its done. Well, according to Shawn, “This is not OK.” And it is time for the City to begin to enforce its laws, whether its in the Pine Bush, or our neighborhoods, or absentee landlords. The people who violate these laws just can’t say they are sorry, they need to make it right.
She clearly sees a relationship between suburban sprawl and the Pine Bush, saying, “The more we are building in the Pine Bush, the less we are building downtown. . . The more we are spreading out, the more we are losing in our City. . . We need to have a strong, living presence in the urban areas of the City.”
Of course, no dinner is complete without a grilling of the speaker by the attendees. The questioning was begun by Gene Damm who inquired about the Pine Bush landfill. Shawn responded by saying that she needs more information, but the people in the City who have the information, are not sharing. The City has put all of its eggs in one basket, proposing to build a landfill in the Town of Coeymans. Also, the City keeps finding more little crevices to fill in the current landfill in the Pine Bush. The landfill issue puts the City in a critical situation, because not only does the City make money on the landfill, but if the City can no longer operate a landfill, it will lose the revenue, and have to pay to have the City’s garbage disposed.
Lynne Jackson asked Shawn directly how she plans to vote on the proposed hotel in the Pine Bush that is proposed to be built on land that Crossgates illegally bulldozed and made into a parking lot. Shawn firmly stated that she would vote against the hotel in the Pine Bush. Besides the Pine Bush issues, she feels that this is another case of the City not enforcing its laws.
Lynne then observed that the current Common Council president, Helen DesFosses, welcomes the public to the Common Council meetings, unlike other municipalities that Lynne has visited. Lynne asked if Shawn would continue this tradition. Shawn replied, “of course”. Currently, she is on a committee that is reviewing the rules of the Common Council. One of the things that she and the other committee members agree on is preserving the public comment period, and to continue to make it welcoming to the public. Sometimes, she observed, people come to the Common Council with a question, but Common Council members are not permitted to speak during the public comment period. She and the committee are looking for ways the Common Council can address questions raised by the public during the comment period.
In response to a question from John Wolcott, Shawn observed that all of those hotels out on Washington Avenue Extension in the Pine Bush, were supposed to increase the City’s tax base, but she certainly has not seen an increase. The way to increase the tax base is to re-build parts of the City, and to do more code enforcement, according to Shawn.
Tom Ellis and Jim Travers raised the issue of the landfill proposed for the Town of Coeymans. Tom Ellis noted that the citizens of Coeymans have held up the landfill for 10 years, and that there is no way that a landfill will ever be built in Coeymans. He also suggested that the City charge to pick up trash and garbage, and pick up the recyclables for free.
Shawn explained her strong support for open government. She feels that citizens should not have to use the Freedom of Information Act for every little bit of information — the information citizens seek should simply be on the City’s website.
One of the issues on the Common Council is that more independent Common Council members are needed. Shawn suggested that people should find out if there is a contested Common Council race in their ward this year, and carefully consider the candidates and if they will be independent. There are a lot of things that the Common Council could do, but that does not do because there is not a majority of independent members. To pursue issues, a majority of the members must agree. For example, there need to be enough votes not to approve the budget until the Council receives the information it requests.
“I want to thank you for helping me to develop a good perspective on both conservation issues and urban issues and really realizing that these two are really intertwined issues . . . and that they are both an important part of our life,” said Shawn.
Printed in August/September 2005 Newsletter