The campaign may seem familiar to many. A female establishment candidate is running against a sometimes brash male candidate following in his father’s footsteps in an at-times contentious campaign.
No, it’s not the 2016 presidential election – it’s the Albany Democratic primary race for mayor. Incumbent Mayor Kathy Sheehan is running against two primary opponents with major name recognition, Albany Councilman Frank Commisso Jr. and Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin.
Sheehan was first elected mayor in 2013 after serving as the city’s treasurer and chief fiscal officer since 2010. She became Albany’s first female mayor after defeating former Common Councilman Corey Ellis in the Democratic Primary.
Looking back at her first time, she particularly touted the city’s criminal justice reform. Sheehan after taking office renewed a push towards “community policing,” which emphasizes engagement and trust within communities. Albany has gained statewide praise for the change in its policing philosophy.
“We had a lot of ambitious plans and we’ve been able to implement a lot of them, for example, 21st century policing strategies and focusing on being on the leading edge with respect to law enforcement assisted diversion,” Sheehan said. “It’s crazy to use the justice system to punish people who have an addiction or mental health issue, so we’ve made real progress there.”
Additionally, when Sheehan replaced 65-year-old former Mayor Gerald Jennings after he served five terms, she focused on updating technology at City Hall.
“I inherited a computer system that was like one generation removed from Pong,” she said. “We had black and green screens and people weren’t using it because it was very cumbersome to use and it was not giving us the information we needed.”
Sheehan successfully petitioned the state for a new computer system in 2014 and last year began implementing the new system. She said the new technology has cut operating costs down by two percent.
As with many upstate cities due to weather conditions, Sheehan has also tried to address the city’s infrastructure needs. One project she touted was the plan to stop untreated water runoffs into the Hudson River.
“We all know that we want to stop the untreated runoffs – that are permitted – but we want to end those,” she said. “We’re making significant progress on that. We have a plan, it’s fundable and we’ve gotten millions and millions of dollars in grants.”
Not all of Sheehan’s priorities have made as significant progress in her first time and she plans to prioritize if elected for a second term.
Albany still struggles with abandoned and condemned properties all throughout the city and it has no clear, fundable plan to address the problem.
Buildings in Albany can remain empty for several reasons. Some are being held by the banks, also known as “zombie properties,” some buildings the city cannot find the owner as they are owned through LLCs and there are buildings that have been vacant for decades.
First, Sheehan switched back responsibility to the fire department to twice inspect the empty buildings annually. The Codes Department had been charged with the responsibility under Jennings administration, but were not doing the inspections although receive the stipend for it, Sheehan said.
Sheehan then successfully pitched the state attorney general’s office for the funding to hire an additional city employee to create a position that catalogues the empty buildings and also comes up with a plan on how to address each building. The position was created three months ago.
“In my next administration, that is going to be one of the No. 1 priorities. I think we put the foundation in place to do the work and it’s about doing that work,” she said. “It’s also not just about buildings, because … if we don’t have vibrant neighborhoods then we will have failed, because who will occupy these buildings? We have to look at connecting residents to jobs. We’re not looking to gentrify neighborhoods and push people out.”
Sheehan also touched upon creating and maintaining affordable housing in the city and connecting residents to jobs.
During the primary campaign, the use of red light cameras in the city and the new garbage pickup tax has been a major subject of debate between Sheehan and her primary opponent, Albany Councilman Frank Commisso Jr.
Sheehan said when the city requested state aid, it was pointed out that Albany is one of the only municipalities of its size in the state that doesn’t charge anything for garbage pickup. Taking that to heart, Sheehan implemented a system that charges a fee for two-family homes up to four-family homes. Single-family homes still have no tax and anything above four-family houses must use a private company.
“Is it imperfect? Of course. When I made that decision I thought I was making the least-bad decision,” she said. “I have opponents who don’t like it, but none of them have said where they’d come up with the $1.8 million in revenue we would lose if we eliminate that, because all they’ve talked about is eliminating the trash tax.”
Commisso has criticized the tax and says it puts an undue financial burden on residents. He has also vowed to get rid of the city’s red light cameras. While Sheehan has repeatedly said the cameras are about public safety, Commisso has claimed they are actually only a tool for the city to raise revenue.
“My sense is that public safety is really a minor issue here, and this was about finances,” he said in March 2016. “And we’re learning hard way now, that there’s no silver bullet in dealing with the city’s financial troubles.”
Sheehan defended the use of red light cameras and said they are in no way there solely to provide revenue.
“I don’t want to make money off of people breaking the law. I want people to comply, so this has to be an initiative that ultimately the revenue for this should be zero or a nominal amount,” Sheehan said. “It hasn’t cost us a dime and the crash data from where we put these cameras is positive and we actually saw a reduction even before they were installed, because people thought they were installed.”
Sheehan said red light cameras have made the streets safer for pedestrians and drivers, but that is still subject to debate.
All throughout what has sometimes been a nasty campaign, Sheehan at the end of the day still has to work with Commisso on city matters. Sheehan touted her willingness to sit down with any Common Council member to discuss issues, even if they disagree.
“We know that we’re working very hard for the residents of this city and we want the best for them, even if we disagree on how and I think it hurts our city when we’re seen as bickering about as opposed to working together to propose solutions,” she said before criticizing “certain Common Council people,” who do not attend meetings with her to discuss their concerns on the budget.
Sheehan then criticized Commisso specifically for his role as chair of the finance committee when she first became mayor.
“Commisso was the chair of the finance committee when I became mayor and I thought we’d be able to work together and instead what I experienced was we’d provide him with information, that information wasn’t being shared with his fellow council members and in the eleventh hour right before the budget was supposed to be passed two years in a row he launched a memo with all kinds of ‘we should cut this and we should do this,” she said. “I don’t see how that can be seen as a genuine desire to address issues with respect to our finances and moving our city forward because it’s designed to be unhelpful, it’s designed to be grandstanding.”
The Albany Democratic primary is September 12, 2017.
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