Here are five stories, in no particular order, that immediately came to mind when I was asked to assemble a list of the most important, interesting, or impactful pieces of journalism I produced this year.
Back in May, I requested from the state Inspector General’s office a list of all closed cases since the beginning of 2016. A few months later, I received a spreadsheet with hundreds of cases, identified by the state agency and the type of potential wrongdoing (“fraud,” “misuse of state resources,” “contracting,” etc.). I then picked out a few, more or less at random, and requested the case files.
One case file really stuck out: Four SUNY New Paltz policemen were caught, via hidden camera “installed by administration,” allegedly sleeping on the job. Unspecified “disciplinary actions” were taken, and the officers weren’t happy about that, according to the initial, anonymous complaint.
The cops “created a hostile work environment by retaliating and sending false emails or post cards [sic] to the Chief at his private residence as well as posting false claims about current state employees on social media and in the press,” the complainant said. (The university auditor, in a letter to the IG, said the college did not agree that the ex-employees were creating a hostile work environment.)
Had I not gone down the FOIL rabbit hole, I’m not sure this story ever would have been publicized. The idea of contributing to the public record in this way is invigorating, and I hope to contribute more stories like this in the new year.
(2) Troy ethics commission hasn’t met this year (6/21/17)
“Regrettably, they often fall into disuse and become less than fully staffed,” Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, told me, speaking of local ethics commissions. “Laws rarely allow them to be proactive. Attention turns to them in crisis or when a problem arises. Then after it is addressed, disuse and decline recurs.”
Just two weeks after we published this story, the Troy mayor’s office announced three new appointments to the city’s commission. Other appointments followed, and the body was slated to meet earlier this month. (It didn’t immediately return an email sent Friday asking if it actually did meet—but here’s hoping!)
I have no evidence that my story goaded the mayor into reviving the commission. And merely shedding light on the entity’s temporarily dormant state is nothing compared to the hard work of reviewing stacks of annual financial disclosure forms, as its members must do. Nevertheless: I was pleased the story generated some interest, and do not expect to re-run the headline next year.
(3) What’s next for Troy’s One Monument Square (10/16/17)
“I’m just stunned, but I guess I shouldn’t be, because it’s typical Troy,” Vic Christopher told me after the Times Union reported that the deal to build a multiplex at a keystone site in downtown Troy had fallen apart.
This was the fourth attempt to build something at the site since the old city hall was torn down in 2011, amid high hopes. By now, everyone in Troy seems to have an opinion on what might be best at that location.
That’s part of the problem. But it also meant that many folks were willing to speak on the record about what might come next. “I think there’s so much happening in downtown Troy that’s positive and great, that a long-term asset, like a public space, will be much more beneficial than the hundred apartments that can fit on that site or the 20,000 square feet of retail,” one developer told me. After all the failed attempts at building large, complex, commercial projects, perhaps the idea of something like a public park will gather more support in 2018.
(4) SUNY’s many affiliates revealed (4/11/17)
The State University of New York is vast—everyone knows that. But many people are not as familiar with the elaborate system of nonprofits affiliated with its 64 campuses that, altogether, control billions of dollars.
There’s about two hundred of them, according to a spreadsheet we obtained from the university controller. Some exist primarily for fundraising purposes, others for running campus cafes, and still more for student housing.
Watchdogs worry, not without reason, about the inherent corruption risk in SUNY having so many quasi-public offshoots. Indeed, a few months after this story, two former University at Buffalo administrators pleaded guilty to stealing money from an affiliated faculty-student association.
The Troy Local Development Corporation, a city-affiliated nonprofit, doled out small grants (under $5,000) for several years to property owners to spruce up their facades. I compiled lots of data to see how the program worked.
Participants, understandably, really liked the program—so much so that 13 of the 90 total applicants obtained more than one. Given the limited resources of the relatively small economic development agency, this seemed questionable. And certain neighborhoods almost completely missed out on the bounty.
But notwithstanding these critiques, the program unquestionably did a lot of good. “I find this grant a helpful investment of public funds as it raises all local property values, and brings pride to the community, which is a recursive benefit to us all,” one local business owner told me.
“It’s a little guy thing, and we don’t do a lot of little guy things,” the LDC chairman once said. For now, the program’s on hold because the LDC is strapped for cash. If it returns, we’ll be sure to watch how it plays out.