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No knockout blows in first Democratic Albany mayoral debate

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No knockout blows in first Democratic Albany mayoral debate

At Thursday night’s Democratic debate, the three Albany mayoral candidates—incumbent Kathy Sheehan, Common Councilman Frank Commisso, Jr., and Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin—drew distinctions between their prospective agendas while engaging in limited explicit critiques of one another.

The debate, held at The Linda on Central Avenue by public radio station WAMC and WNYT NewsChannel 13, covered a wide array of topics, including city finances, schools, and infrastructure. The three moderators asked the same questions of each candidate and did not interject or query certain points, though they did provide Mayor Sheehan the opportunity to respond to Commisso on two occasions.

In one rebuttal early in the debate, the mayor pushed back on Commisso’s characterization of a consultant’s report on city finances—one that “projected annual General Fund budget shortfalls in the range of $20.8 to $23.5 million if no corrective action is taken”—as a rather ominous “audit.”

“It was a management report, and it did not find a deficit,” said Sheehan. “It merely identified—as we do every year, as every municipality does—the gap between revenue and potential increases in your operating expenses. That’s what a mayor has to do every year.” The city secured $12.5 million in state aid this year, a positive outcome Sheehan attributed to “a very strategic approach—opening our books to the state, making our case, [and] making investments that allowed us to become more effective and efficient.”

None of the candidates committed to cutting public safety departments, one suggestion in the consultant’s report. Commisso and McLaughlin both criticized the city’s red-light camera program, which seems to have fallen short of initial projections

“The placement of the red-light cameras was…predominantly in areas where people can least likely afford to pay for a $50 [or] $75 ticket,” McLaughlin said. “We did not respond to what we heard from the community as it related to…the placement of them.”

Mayor Sheehan said the cameras, in tandem with four-second yellow lights, have made intersections safer and emphasized that “the program doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.” The declining revenue was “always projected,” she added, since the cameras engender greater compliance over time.

On topics that might, broadly speaking, belong to the category of economic development, candidates proposed new policy ideas and highlighted past accomplishments.

Commisso said that as mayor he would review financial incentives given to luxury housing developers and restructure the city’s now-quasi-public economic development agencies, making them more accountable to the mayor and Common Council.

Sheehan defended Capitalize Albany Corporation and the city’s IDA, touting the latter’s relatively low “cost-per-job-created” ratio. In addition to the city-wide rezone, the mayor cited her facade improvement grant program, which doles out matching funds to local property owners to spruce up exteriors, as an example of a successful initiative that benefits small businesses.

Council President McLaughlin twice floated the idea that the city could broker some sort of agreement with SUNY Polytechnic Institute—which received a $207 million state-funded bailout earlier this year (and may need another next year, Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle recently reported)—to “help us with our infrastructure.”

In the last question of the evening, candidates were asked why Albany should be a “sanctuary city,” a designation generally understood to mean that a city will limit its cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Mayor Sheehan signed an executive order in April essentially reaffirming this status.

Sheehan emphasized that her executive order followed the recommendations of the state Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the city police department. 

“If somebody contacts the police, we are not going to have them be in fear that they can’t report a crime because we’re gonna inquire as to their legal status,” Sheehan said. “We should not be forced by our federal government to undertake an unfunded mandate of enforcing immigration laws.”

Neither McLaughlin nor Commisso expressed the same degree of support for the policy.

McLaughlin said that while she shares Sheehan’s reticence to expend city resources on a federal responsibility, “I also recognize that if anyone is here illegally, if anyone is here who commits a crime, we should make sure that they have to answer for their activities.”

She added, however: “We cannot afford to be afraid to be a sanctuary city because someone does not understand what that means and how it can be a positive for our community.”

Commisso said that if the Albany police department had a suspect in custody accused of committing a serious crime, and “the federal government [were] to ask our police department for a 48-hour detainer, I would comply.” He characterized this practice as a kind of pragmatic way to maintain current levels of federal funding for law enforcement.

The Times Union is hosting a debate between the same candidates on Aug. 29 at 7 P.M. at the new Hearst Media Center. The Democratic primary is Sept. 12.

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