CANA celebrates decades of change

City neighborhood group turns 30 still seeking civic progress

KATE GURNETT Staff Writer
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B3

Date: Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ALBANY - It started in the 1970s with code enforcement. And, three decades later, it's still about code enforcement.


But as the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations celebrates its 30-year anniversary, the neighborhood umbrella group can boast of many changes spawned by its local activists. On Oct. 4, CANA will celebrate its anniversary at a reception and dinner at the University Club of Albany. Back in the 1970s, Albany had a reputation for unfair assessments, poor code enforcement and nobody to help but your ward leader. And if he didn't like you, good luck pal.


Enter CANA, as the 25-member federation is called. Created in 1976, the group began to push for civic change from better street sweeping to tighter budgets.


And in a city run by a Democratic machine, the leaders opted for a nonpartisan movement.


"We felt we could achieve more that way than through politics," said Harold Rubin, a retired state budget analyst and CANA founder. "We didn't want city services as a favor. We wanted it as a right."


The response from Albany's political bosses was decidedly negative.


They want "instantaneous and complete code enforcement," Corporation Counsel John Roe complained to Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd in a 1976 letter. Roe recom mended action "to prevent the alligators from taking over the swamp."


Some requests were simple. Like moving Zoning Board meetings to the evenings, so people who worked during the day could attend.


Others took some doing.


Creating a public comment period at Common Council meetings? "It took about 10 years to get that," Rubin said. "They had horrible thoughts about what was going to happen (if people spoke). And it didn't happen."


Another innovation: Curbing the roads through Washington Park. That stopped cars from parking on the grass. CANA also pushed for a stronger Historic Resources Commission and a public vote on school budgets.


What ultimately emerged, under the tenures of Mayor Tom Whalen and Mayor Jerry Jennings, was dialogue between residents - from uptown and downtown - and city administrators, members say. CANA got city department heads to attend its monthly meetings and answer questions, something unheard of under Corning.


But code enforcement - a central dilemma in the 1970s - remains a problem.


This year's CANA study found Albany's code enforcement system so outdated it remains "stuck in the management style of the 19th century" and lacks clear rules and procedures.


"We want a system that is impartial, whether it is a top builder that is calling in or it is Joe Blow," Rubin said recently.


Deputy Fire Chief Robert Forezzi disagreed, saying Albany's program is in the "vanguard" of other New York cities.


But lots of people still don't know who to call about code violations, Rubin said. And investigation results aren't easily found. "We want all this information available online."


Currently, residents must file a state Freedom of Information Law request to get code complaint information, which can take months. In its study, CANA found seven apartments in a Lancaster Street apartment building hadn't had occupancy permit inspections in the previous 40 months and one unit had not been inspected for five years.


So what's different from 1976? It's a change in attitude, Rubin said. "The city is interested in doing something. They seem to be more cooperative."


Take the holiday tree on Madison Avenue, said attorney B.J. Costello, president of the Pine Hills Neighborhood Association. The tree died and was taken down. He got a request for another tree.


Costello said he called General Services Commissioner Willard Bruce, who told him: I'll have it up for you next week.


"The neighborhood associations are viewed as partners, resources," Costello said. As Chief James Tuffey floats a plan to consolidate police stations, for example, he's presenting it to neighborhood groups.


"Government in Albany has come to realize they don't have to be threatened by this," Costello said. "There's a lot of citizen involvement at a grass-roots level which, prior to the neighborhood associations, did not exist. And the city has improved a lot."








Kate Gurnett can be reached at 454-5490 or by e-mail at kgurnett@timesunion.com.





****FACT BOX:****


CANA anniversaryWhat: Council of Albany Neighborhood Association's 30-year anniversary celebration. When: Oct. 4; reception at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. at the University Club, 141 Washington Ave., Albany. Details: Tickets are $25. To sign up, contact CANA Chairman Howie Stoller at 489-8636 or e-mail hstoller@aol.com, or go to http://members.tripod. com/councilalbanyna/invitation.htm.