2004: Mark Mahoney, The Post-Star, Glens Falls, N.Y.
3/1/2004
ASNE Staff
Award for Editorial Writing
Monday, March 1, 2004
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Editorial writing


Mark Mahoney

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Debate good thing for America

Our view: Speaking out is everyone's right

There's an old Monty Python skit in which a guy walks into an office and declares, "I'd like to have an argument," to which the man at the desk replies, "No, you wouldn't."

That's the odd thing about the attitude of local war demonstrators -- both those for and against American action in Iraq: They want to express their opinions, but they don't want anyone to give them an argument.

It's great to hear pro- and anti-war supporters exchanging viewpoints. It's refreshing to see veterans and others arguing vehemently in favor of the liberation of Iraq against those who feel peace wasn't given enough of a chance to succeed. It's great to hear people go back and forth over whether one can oppose the war without opposing the people in uniform.

But what's bothersome is when you hear one group of Americans say that another group of Americans has no right to express an opinion if that opinion doesn't fall in line with theirs.

It's difficult, sometimes, for people with strong opinions to separate the act of free speech from the subject matter of the speech.

One group of citizens that's particularly offended by the anti-war protesters is war veterans. Based on the subject matter, they've got every reason to be offended. Like the young men and women fighting in the Persian Gulf now, they endured hardships and put their lives on the line. Many of their brethren were either killed or maimed fighting for this country. To them, to speak ill of the fight is to speak ill of the fighters. Discord among citizens, they say, sends the wrong message to our enemies and to the people putting their lives on the line.

They feel that a country needs to present a united front, particularly in times of war. And that those who don't want to unite should either shut up or find some other country.

But maintaining unity in a society that celebrates personal freedom is no easy task.

Even James Madison, one of the most vigilant and articulate defenders of personal freedom in American history, struggled to find a balance between maintaining order and maintaining personal liberty. In the end, he said liberty must be preserved.

"Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires," he wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10 in 1787. " But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency."

If television pictures of Iraqi citizens dancing in the streets and flinging their shoes at images of their deposed dictator remind us of anything, it's that we should celebrate the freedom that being Americans allows -- celebrate the air that's essential for life in a free society.

As difficult as it is to swallow for some, discord is a sign of this nation's strength, not weakness.

Lacking Madison's historic stature, but equaling him in eloquence and wisdom, is a young soldier from South Glens Falls stationed in Kuwait. Army combat engineer Sarah Secor, like Madison, recognized the importance of preserving liberty in a free society. In a letter to the editor of this newspaper, she expressed her support for her mission and encouraged fellow citizens to stand behind the troops. But she also cheered the war protesters for their willingness to stand up for their views.

"We live in the land of the free. Thank God for that!" she wrote.

In our zeal to express our views on the war, let's remember that there's no better example of the freedoms we enjoy than a good old-fashioned argument.


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Inaction hurts local taxpayers

Our view: Lawmakers aren't doing enough to get Great Escape to collect full sales tax.

What is so hard about this?

What is so hard about forcing an amusement park to collect a reasonable and legal amount of sales tax on the actual price of admission, just like other parks are required to do?

Why is it so difficult for Warren County's two state legislators, Sen. Elizabeth Little and Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, to get some action on this issue -- which could mean $1 million or more in extra tax revenue for the taxpayers they represent?

Why is it so hard for Ms. Little and Ms. Sayward to even find out the status of "negotiations" between their own state Taxation and Finance Department and the owners of the Great Escape amusement park?

What right do the political appointees in the state Tax Department have to exclude elected state legislators from discussions with a company about paying its taxes?

And anyway, what is there to "negotiate"? A tax is a tax, and the law's the law. Enforce it. Don't negotiate it.

Why aren't our legislators demanding -- rather than requesting -- to be informed?

Why are county leaders -- facing significant cuts in state aid and raising property taxes to offset the growing cost of state mandates -- sitting quietly by while $1 million to $2 million from out-of-town visitors goes uncollected? Are they afraid that Great Escape will pull up stakes in the middle of the night like some traveling carnival and leave town?

Ask yourself if a company making millions of dollars a year here would abandon this huge investment just so it doesn't have to collect another $2 in sales tax.

And why wouldn't the state Legislature, ever on the lookout for ways to take people's money, push Great Escape to collect its fair share of tax?

Why, nearly one year after this issue was first raised, haven't we seen a resolution?

It shouldn't be this hard.

The whole issue centers on Great Escape's silly definition of "general admission." Park officials claim that only $2.80 of the $33.99 admission price is for actual admission to the park. The remaining $31, they say, is for the price of the rides themselves, which is not subject to sales tax.

The logical conclusion to Great Escape's definition of "general admission" is that you could get into the park at that price, as long as you don't ride the rides. But you can't. All parkgoers pay the combination price for admission and rides, regardless of whether they ride the rides or not.

For each ticket sold to the park, the county and state now split 20 cents, for a total of $180,000 a year.

Allowing for discount admissions, if Great Escape collected sales tax on the average admission paid by its 900,000 annual visitors, Warren County could see an additional $500,000 to $1 million in sales tax. At the same time, the tax would only add about $2.40 to the park's highest admission price.

Instead of crossing their fingers and hoping it all turns out OK, our elected officials should be actively fighting for that money. When they were campaigning for votes, they promised to act in the best interests of us -- the taxpayers.

It's time they made good on that promise.

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A chance to learn from baby's death

There are a lot more ways to silence a baby's screams than just falling asleep with your hand over its mouth.

You can ignore the desperate pleas of an abuser's own sister when she claims that her niece is being sexually abused and neglected.

When a police officer calls to report a suspected offense, you can refuse to look up the person's criminal record or make a couple of phone calls to find out if there have been any earlier allegations.

Or you can procrastinate the prosecution of a serious infant assault case for years, until the suspect disappears into the crowd and the case sifts to the bottom of the priority pile.

Fred Beagle suffocated his 7-week-old daughter Jade by placing his hand over her mouth until she died. He, alone, is directly responsible for the infant's death, and will serve 5 to 15 years in prison for his actions.

But there were plenty of people over the years who were in a position to prevent the tragedy, had they simply taken a bit more time to follow up on abuse allegations against Mr. Beagle and taken more seriously the threat to children in his care.

Massachusetts prosecutors had the best opportunity to intervene five years ago.

Mr. Beagle was arrested on felony charges in 1998 in connection with the suspected abuse of his son, then less than a year old. During Mr. Beagle's recent murder trial in Warren County, the district attorney's office spelled out more than a dozen incidents documenting the abuse, which included six bone fractures and 27 bruises. In 2001, a Massachusetts psychologist issued a report on Mr. Beagle and his then-girlfriend, stating that "any child in their care is in lethal danger and at the highest level of risk."

Yet even now, the case, incredibly, has yet to be prosecuted. If Fred Beagle is in prison, he can't father a child, and he can't abuse the children he already has.

Fast forward to 2002. Four weeks before Jade was killed by her father in November, Fred Beagle's sister was so fearful for the baby's safety that she called police. Police found no physical evidence the child had been abused, but an officer reported the case to the state Child Abuse Hotline.

The Office of Child and Family Services has five criteria for triggering a child protective services investigation; although the criteria appeared to have been met, the office said it was not and therefore no report was made.

What would it have taken for someone to express just a minimal interest in the case, such as phoning the sister to find out why she took such a drastic step as calling police on her brother? Or maybe they could have checked up on Mr. Beagle's criminal history.

They would likely have discovered the pending felony charge from Massachusetts and learned that two children had been ripped from his custody because of fears for their safety.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and no one likes to be second-guessed for spot judgment calls they might regret. But there are lessons to be learned by the miscalculations in this saga - lessons that might prevent another Fred Beagle from slipping through the cracks, and spare another infant from sharing Jade Beagle's fate.

Every credible allegation of abuse should be treated as if the child was in real danger, at the very least with a few appropriately placed phone calls. No allegations should be dismissed until they can be completely discounted.

If the process is the problem, fix it. If miscommunication is to blame, hold a meeting and work out a better system. If money is lacking, lobby for more. If not enough incentive exists to investigate all legitimate complaints, take a look at a photo of Jade Beagle.

It was in the paper. Right next to her obituary.

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Lake George movie deal is goofy

Our view: Disney-owned radio station should run film fest for free

M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Mickey Mouse is a good way to sum up the silly situation going on in Lake George regarding a Disney-owned radio station's plan -- then un-plan -- to show free Disney movies in Shepard Park.

When Mayor Robert Blais first announced Albany radio station WDDY's offer to hold family movie nights in the park, including providing free popcorn for the kiddies, everyone thought it was a supercalifragilistic idea.

The village would get one of those wholesome, tattoo-free family events it's always after, and the fledgling radio station would get access to a small world of potential new listeners.

But just as suddenly as the idea appeared, the beauty turned to a beast.

Mayor Blais read the fine print on the contract and found out the radio station was seeking compensation for its "free" movie night -- from $5,000 to $8,000, depending on which deal the village wanted to take. It turns out the radio station expected the village not only to provide the theater and the audience, but also the movie projector and the screen. We wonder if the popcorn was ever really free.

Suddenly, what started out as a win-win proposition for the radio station and the village has turned into a win situation for the radio station, but an expensive, disappointing lesson for Lake George.

With the movie night idea out there and getting raves, the village risks looking penny-wise and pound-foolish for not spending the cash for the event. If the village can't find the money in its budget, officials will have to go around to businesses, hats in hand, looking for sponsors.

It shouldn't have to be that way. And it all falls on the radio station.

First of all, money shouldn't be an issue for WDDY.

The AM station is owned by Disney, a corporation that last year brought in $25.3 billion in revenue -- thanks largely to the types of families that spend summer vacations in Lake George. This is the same Disney that charges $18 for a new video, then tacks on 11 minutes of commercials at the beginning to entice your children to nag you to spend more money on Disney products. A company that's made billions off of families shouldn't be extorting a small tourist village in the Adirondacks for $5,000 for a movie screen and a projector to show its movies.

Secondly, this event is as much a commercial for the radio station as it is for Disney.

WDDY is touted on its Web site as a member of Radio Disney. The top three performers on its play list are the D-Tent Boys, Hillary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) and Kelly Clarkson, all of whom perform G-rated bubblegum music for the 12-and-under crowd. The same audience that will watch Disney movies in Shepard Park is the same one that will listen to this radio station. Does it really make financial sense to demand compensation from the village when the station is getting all that exposure for the price of splashing some light on a wall?

There's no reason for any money to exchange hands here. Showing Disney movies in Shepard Park helps Lake George. And it helps the radio station.

Hakuna Matata.

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Another new toy for Queensbury?

Our view: Explore other options before buying Hummer

This is a joke, right?

Queensbury takes a lot of ribbing for its Taj Mahal fire stations, its fleet of expensive late-model vehicles, its indoor car-wash bay and the $50,000 rock garden at the corner of Bay and Quaker.

So obviously, when one of its fire departments comes to the Town Board seeking to buy a $47,000 Army truck to fight brush fires, they're just poking a little fun at themselves. You know, a little self-effacing humor to soften their spendthrift reputation.

If only Queensbury taxpayers were so lucky.

The South Queensbury Fire Company actually wants to replace its aging brush truck with a Humvee -- one of those big Army truck things favored by macho drivers who've outgrown their SUVs. The 8- to 10-year-old truck would cost $29,000 and be outfitted with $18,000 in firefighting equipment -- for a total initial outlay of $47,000. That cost doesn't the extremely high cost of Humvee replacement parts or the relatively low number of qualified Humvee repairmen nearby.

They say they need this specialized piece of firefighting equipment to fight brush fires, as well as to pull stuck firetrucks out of the mud and respond to plane crashes at the Warren County airport.

There are just a few holes in the arguments.

First, most brush and forest fires in Queensbury are accessible by trucks or all-terrain vehicles, and fires in very remote areas of Queensbury are rare. Aside from the occasional forest fires on West Mountain, the last real tough remote-area blaze in Queensbury was on French Mountain in 1995. Firefighters in other Adirondack towns have far greater need to access remote areas than Queensbury. Realistically, how often is one Queensbury fire company going to use one of these things?

The other arguments are equally flimsy. How many firetrucks have had to be pulled out of the mud lately? How many plane crashes have occurred at the big flat Warren County airport that couldn't be handled by existing firefighting equipment? In addition, Humvees are more than 7 feet wide, making them difficult to use on mountain trails, and they have very little capacity to transport equipment and manpower into a remote fire site.

A $47,000 Humvee might be a nice new toy for Queensbury's volunteers, but it's questionable how much use it will get outside of parades.

And you know Queensbury. If one fire company gets one, they're all going to want one.

If this go-anywhere piece of equipment is truly necessary to fight fires in remote areas of the region, then the state Department of Environmental Conservation -- which has jurisdiction over virtually all forest fires in the state -- should take the lead in purchasing one. Local fire companies could be asked to contribute something to the cost. And the truck should be kept at a location where it could reach most remote fires the quickest.

Before the town of Queensbury adds another punchline to its list of expensive jokes, it should take a realistic look at how often this piece of equipment will be used and exhaust other less expensive alternatives first.

Stories copyright 2003 The Post-Star. Reprinted with permission.

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