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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 4, 2007

Fight for Dems’
Top spot a no-decision

By Jarrett Carroll

ALBANY COUNTY — Albany County Democrats have no leader and haven’t yet decided how to choose one after a Dec. 21 decision invalidated the election of Frank Commisso as chairman.

The disputed election between Albany’s Commisso and Guilderland Councilman David Bosworth went to court after a standing vote was used instead of a weighted vote at the Sept. 27 biennial organizational meeting.

Bosworth lost to Commisso by a vote of 253 to 216.

Bosworth supporters challenged the results with many defining the division as an urban-suburban split. A weighted vote, some Bosworth supporters said, would clearly show suburban dominance. County totals in the recent gubernatorial race show not quite 30,000 from the cities voting for the Democratic ticket while over 50,000 from the suburban and rural towns voted for the Democratic ticket.

Justice Thomas J. McNamara acting for the state’s Supreme Court, the lowest court in the state’s three-tiered system, wrote in his eight-page ruling, "The election of officers undertaken at the organizational meeting of the Albany County Democratic Committee on September 27, 2006 is invalidated"The Albany County Democratic Committee is required to provide for weighted voting in all matters"a standing vote is inconsistent with a weighted vote."

Two other judges recused themselves before McNamara, who is a Republican from Saratoga, heard the case.

The committee has based its weighted votes on the Demo-cratic ballot cast in the last gubernatorial election, unless there has been redistricting, in which case tallies from an assembly election are then used. Enrollment numbers have not been used in calculating the weighted votes.

In addition to asking the court to throw out the election because a weighted vote was not used, the Bosworth slate also asked to "invalidate certain provisions of the rules [county bylaws], to invalidate a weighted vote formula circulated by the committee, and for the appointment of a referee to conduct a new election."

The petition sent to court also contained allegations that people were not lawfully appointed "because they were not lawfully enrolled in the Democratic Party or did not live in the Assembly District containing the election district that person was elected to represent."

Although McNamara made it clear in his ruling that the election of Commisso slate was invalid, and a new election was needed, he dismissed the other provisions of the lawsuit, saying, ""petitioners have not demonstrated any statutory or legal ground for judicial intervention."

He added, "There is a generally held view that courts should not interfere with the internal affairs of a political party."

Thirty-three documents were cited in McNamara’s ruling, consisting of show-cause orders and petitions to various affidavits and reply affidavits.

Three months after the original vote took place, no timetable has been set for a new election.

The petitioners challenging the election include: John (Jack) H. Cunningham, Shawn M. Morris, Barbara Smith, David A. Bosworth Jr., Matthew J. Clyne, Phillip G. Steck, Louis C. Mion, and Daniel A. Hornick.

Commisso nor his lawyer did not return repeated calls from The Enterprise.

What’s next"

With no chair managing the county party, what happens next"

"That’s the question. Normally, it’s the function of the chair to decide, but there is no chair," Bosworth told The Enterprise on Tuesday. "We have to sit down with everybody and figure it out"Hopefully, it will be productive."

Continuing, he said, "Now that we’ve gone through the lawsuit, we’ve got some very specific details to address."

This was the first contested election in the county party’s history of more than 80 years — the position is usually appointed.

Albany City Treasurer Betty Barnette took over as chair after Mike Burns died. She retired from the post in September after defeating New Scotland Democratic chair, Connie Burns, in a state Democratic committee seat election.

At the Sept. 27 organizational meeting, Barnette called for the standing vote over the weighted vote.

She could not be reached for comment this week.

The official results of the 2006 gubernatorial election have been released by the Albany County Board of Elections.

Out of the 111,509 votes cast for governor in Albany County, 80,210 were for Eliot Spitzer, who ran on the Democratic ticket.

Local results include these votes for Spitzer:

— Albany: 22,689 votes;

— Colonie: 22,142 votes;

— Bethlehem: 11,014 votes;

— Guilderland: 10,081 votes;

— New Scotland: 2,768 votes;

— Berne: 814 votes;

— Westerlo: 776 votes;

— Knox: 706 votes; and

— Rensselaerville: 585 votes.

The official totals for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial vote were 29,673 from the cities of Albany County, and 50,537 from the towns of Albany County.

These are the numbers which are used to calculate weighted votes, but, according to Bosworth, the new 2006 numbers may or may not be used in the new election for party chair.

"There are still unknown factors to discuss"It is something that needs to be negotiated. A number of people want to changes the rules," Bosworth said about future talks on the new election process. "We have to get back to a middle ground."

However, Bosworth denies allegations of a suburban-versus-urban divide in the county party.

"I don’t see this as a city-suburban dispute," said Bosworth. "We have a number of allies in the city."

Bosworth cited the election of James Clancy, a suburban resident, as the county’s Democratic commissioner of the board of elections. Clancy’s victory is seen by some as the turning point of towns becoming more dominate in county politics.

"I actually had more support in the cities than the Clancy vote," Bosworth said.

"There are town committees involved, and city committees and ward committees," he continued. "My goal is to be in touch with all of the factions and foster the greatest amount of cooperation possible."

Not all Democrats agree.

Colonie committee member, Dick Barrett, told The Enterprise that there is definitely a "suburban-urban rift" in the county party, and he openly accuses the Commisso slate of "stealing" the election in the interest of city Democrats.

Bosworth said that, although he respects Barrett’s opinion, he doesn’t believe there is a "rift." He said that it is time to move forward for the good of the party at large.

Commisso has a long and impressive Democratic résumé that includes being an Albany County legislator for the last 23 years and acting as the majority leader for the past 14 years, as well as being a ward leader. He is currently the manager of the Albany Port Authority.

Bosworth is credited for turning the all-Republican town of Guilderland into a Democratic-dominated town as the town’s party chair for the past 10 years. He is serving his second term on the town board.

Both men are life-long Democrats.

As it stands now, Commisso is not acting as the official chair, said Bosworth, but, he added, Commisso is making sure the doors of the county headquarters are open each morning for volunteers.

Second accident fatal for Speanburg

By Jarrett Carroll

ALBANY COUNTY — Nearly two months after the death of Mabel Speanburg, a 60-year-old mentally retarded woman who lived in a New Visions group home, Bethlehem Police have isssued a report on the accident that led to her death.

The Enterprise broke the story on Dec. 14 that Speanburg had died on Nov. 8 at St. Peter’s Hospital, two days after suffering an accident in a New Visions van. She was on her way from the New Visions day facility on Krumkill Road to the group home on Rapp Road in Guilderland.

The police report, released yesterday, states that there have been other accidents with New Visions vehicles. It says a hospital worker stated "she received information from the Western Turnpike Ambulance personnel that Speanburg was not restrained properly and that it was not the first time this had happened with New Visions’ vans."

A former New Visions employee, who worked at the group home on Rosemont Street in Albany, recalls that Speanburg, who used to live there, was in a similar accident on Krumkill Road in early 2005. Speanburg was traveling to the day program when a car turned in front of the New Visions vehicle and, the worker told The Enterprise, "The driver slammed on the brakes"Mabel and the staff member went flying."

Speanburg received "a gash on her eyebrow and went to St. Peter’s [Hospital] where she was bandaged," the worker said.

Speanburg, who had been wearing a seat belt, should have been in the front seat or seated next to a staff member, the worker said. "Knowing Mabel," the worker said, that would have been a wise precaution. She described Speanburg as "very mischievous at times and fun-loving"very playful."

The worker believes New Visions needs more staff to run its programs properly.

Delayed report

When The Enterprise, in the second week of December, asked Bethlehem Police about the Nov. 6 accident, they said there was no written report; the police did not respond to a Freedom of Information Law request from The Enterprise for the accident report.

This week, Lieutenant Thomas Heffernan with the Bethlehem Police said the police did not know that Speanburg died until the media reported on her death.

Police then "immediately got the death certificate" and confirmed that Speanburg had died from a spinal injury resulting from the accident, Heffernan said.

Interviews were conducted, Heffernan said, and the report was issued yesterday. The report says it was written on Dec. 28 and reviewed on Dec. 31.

An original incident report was not filed because the New Visions van did not collide with another vehicle or go off the roadway during the accident, Heffernan said.

The accident report states that the officer on the scene, David T. Caputo, explained no vehicles had collided, and that "the incident did not fit the description of a motor vehicle accident," at the time, on Nov. 6, and so, "a police report was not completed."

Police also say that the worker at St. Peter’s Hospital never told them that Speanburg had died or that "death was imminent" at the time.

Along with Speanburg, the other passengers in the van were three females, aged 73, 54, and 32, and one male, aged 48, the report says; none of the other passengers were treated by medical staff for injury.

The report says, that, at 3:21 p.m., Speanburg was riding in a New Visions van eastbound from the Krumkill Road day facility to her group home on Rapp Road in Guilderland. Jessica Dwyer, 22, was driving the van when an unidentified vehicle coming from Beldale Road cut off the line of traffic in front of Dwyer, causing her vehicle to "stop abruptly to avoid a collision," according to the report.

Dwyer safely stopped without going off the road or colliding with another vehicle, the report says, but the sudden stop caused Speanburg to "fall forward."

Although the police report says Speanburg fell out of a wheelchair, Heffernan told The Enterprise yesterday that Speanburg fell forward from a "bench seat."

"When the operator of the van stopped abruptly, Mabel was thrown forward, hitting her head," Heffernan told The Enterprise yesterday. "I believe she hit it on a metal bar."

Speanburg, who was still "alert and conscious," was treated at the scene by Albany County Paramedic John Davis for facial lacerations and a possible neck injury, the report says, and transported to the hospital by the Western Turnpike Rescue Squad.

Bethlehem Police stated that Dwyer checked the wheelchair locks and seat belt restraints for all five passengers before she left New Visions, and that all the restraints were secure.

"Dwyer said that Speanburg was physically capable of releasing or unhooking the seat belt and must have," the report states.

The allegations

New Visions workers have alleged in the wake of the accident that the facility, formerly known as Albany ARC (Association of Retarded Citizens), is understaffed.

Workers told The Enterprise, as reported Dec. 14., that employees have been intimidated and there have been managerial cover-ups.

Executive Director Andrew McKenzie denied all of the allegations and said that the incident was still under investigation. To release information, he said on Dec. 13, would be "inappropriate."

Furthermore, McKenzie said that Speanburg’s death, nor any other incident, at New Visions, was ever "covered-up."

A New Visions worker this week wrote to the Enterprise editor, saying that McKenzie called a staff meeting last week and alluded "that the use of a resident’s death to bring attention to the staff’s union activities was in poor taste and an abuse of the resident’s memory." (See letter to the editor.)

Currently, there is an ongoing attempt to unionize workers at New Visions by the Civil Service Employees Association. A campaign is underway to unionize all 49 NYSARC chapters in the state, including New Visions in the Capital District.

According to some New Visions’ workers, union representatives are talking with employees at various New Visions houses.

New Visions has about 450 employees to serve a little over 600 clients in 22 group homes and 30 apartments as well as in a day facility. Clients are transported in 68 company vehicles.

McKenzie did not return a call to The Enterprise yesterday.

Although McKenzie declined to comment on specifics of Speanburg’s accident previously, the Bethlehem Police report states that both McKenzie and another New Visions worker, Lisa Gathen, "responded to the scene" of the accident.

McKenzie and Gathen told police at the accident scene that there are safety procedures in place before a vehicle leaves a New Visions facility, according to the report.

"One of those steps taken is that two separate employees check the wheelchair restraints and the passenger restraints of each passenger," New Visions staff told police, the report says.

Lieutenant Heffernan said yesterday, that, "as it stands now," police are not investigating any negligence on the part of New Visions.

The investigation remains open, however, said Heffernan. New Visions is currently conducting its own investigation, McKenzie said. It has not submitted a report to police and McKenzie gave no timetable for its completion.

"Based upon our investigation at this point, it doesn’t appear that charges will be brought"They’ve been very cooperative with us," Heffernan said of New Visions. "Our investigation will remain open until their investigations are closed"My detectives will be following up with them when they do."

Heffernan said he does not recall any recent investigations into any New Visions accidents, and said that he has not looked into any additional accidents at New Visions as a result of Speanburg’s death.

"But not every accident report comes across my desk," Heffernan said, adding that New Visions main facility is in North Bethlehem on the borders of two other municipalities — Guilderland and Albany.

Speanburg was buried on Nov. 13 at Memory’s Garden at Watervliet-Shaker Road in Albany. She was one of three children born in Colonie to the late William and Mildred Speanburg.

None of Speanburg’s family could be reached.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer contributed to the story.

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