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A Conversation With Albany's Newest Common Councilor

Albany Common Councilor Sonia Frederick and Mayor Kathy Sheehan.
Albany Common Councilor Sonia Frederick and Mayor Kathy Sheehan.

After joining calls to rescind a 2016 county law legalizing the purchase of small fireworks, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan shared photos to TwitterSunday of the major cleanup project facing the Department of General Services the day after July 4. Nightly amateur fireworks in Albany and other Northeast cities remain a bane for public safety officials and elected officials — like Albany Common Councilor Sonia Frederick of the First Ward. She spoke about fireworks, the pandemic, and the city’s battle to control gun violence with WAMC’s Ian Pickus.

It's been definitely a unique and unprecedented time. And then as you know, I was also in a special election this year. So I'm new to the council going on seven months now and then I also did a campaign throughout the pandemic. So definitely an interesting last seven months.

How has it changed what you do and what you think you should be doing?

So in terms of like just meeting, we have switched to digital platforms. I go back and forth as to whether or not it's more beneficial, or it's actually the opposite. And the reason why is because I feel like more people are tuning in to our live streams, which is good compared to what we had in person. However, I think there's a different approach for public comment. And so, for the first few meetings I had in person, you know, during my time on the council before the pandemic, I really enjoyed the public comment period, because people would come to the podium, they would be able to speak, and we'd have that, you know, face to face interaction. And it received a lot of comments now because of a digital platform, and people have to dial in and choose to go on video. If not, they can just submit comments. So it's definitely a different approach. And then in terms of things outside of meeting, I find that especially with my campaign that I did, I wanted to have more like face to face and door to door interaction with my constituents. But because of social distancing guidelines and COVID-19, I feel like I've had more of a delayed relation with my constituents as much as I envisioned prior to the pandemic happening. So it's been, it's been interesting.

I remember covering your introduction to the council. You were talking about how one of the main things you want to do in the first ward is community building and outreach. So I imagine that's got to be much more difficult nowadays.

It is. It definitely is. I've tried, you know, I did some door to door more in the last month, I'd say. But I've also tried to switch to mailers and things that would allow me to although not face to face as preferred, and just try to build my network and that that community,

How much longer do you think this will be the case? I mean, I know everyone wants an answer to that question. It's a hard one.

Yeah, very hard to say. I really don't think I have an answer. And, you know, we're seeing a little uptick right now in cases. I'm hoping it goes the opposite direction soon. But if it continues on that trend, it's very hard to say how long this will go.

There's a big question about whether schools will be able to function this fall and if so, what it will look like. What are you hearing from your constituents about the coming next school year, what it might mean for their children and really what it might mean for childcare and issues like that?

Yes, I've heard some mixed reviews. The majority of what I heard is it's very difficult to try to, especially with our younger children, to try to teach via remote platforms. And there's a few things there. So if the family doesn't have good internet connection or good Wi Fi, that's already going to disenfranchise a child from being able to get the full learning. Then on top of that, if a family has two working parents or working mother or working father, and they have to juggle sending their kids to school via online platforms are teaching them things from home, that can become immensely troublesome. So I've heard more of that they're hoping it goes back to regular platform. But I've also heard a few people say that they do enjoy having their kids at home so it's a little mixed.

Let's talk about one of your bailiwicks, which is public safety. We're speaking just after the Fourth of July, and there's been so much discussion and debate this year about whether people should be doing fireworks on their own, whether they should be limited to the hours they're doing fireworks. The mayor actually shared pictures of DGS crews cleaning up the city of Albany on Sunday morning, from just the immense amount of you know, firework garbage that was left on many streets. What do you think we should be doing about this issue?

But from a personal standpoint, I do not support the legalization of the fireworks that occurred. I just see firsthand people on my street, getting woken up three, four am. And I think about people who are veterans or people with PTSD, or people that have suffered from gun violence in the past, hearing those loud booms at night and then also, our pets. Right, like I have a little guy, a Morkie. He starts howling in the middle of the night on a weeknight. I think because of that, I do not support the legalization that we've seen with the fireworks. And I think right now what's happening is our county legislator is actually trying to put something in place where it wouldn't be legal here in Albany and I'm in full support of that. In addition, one of the things that we should be doing, and that's we tried to push some information out about is, if you see fireworks, please report it to the anonymous tip line with the Albany police department. It's fully anonymous. You can just call it in. If you have an exact address, that's great if you know a general location as even greater, or well that's also great by just giving those leads it’s, I think tremendously helpful for the police department to be able to figure out and pinpoint where they're coming from. Because Ian we see that the legalization was due for sparking devices. But a lot of these devices are extremely loud. And it seems like the legalization of these sparkling devices has only led to an influx of the large commercial grade and it's really not safe. We have kids, teens, adults, who don't know how to properly handle fireworks letting off these huge, huge fireworks in the middle of night and it’s dangerous.

The county legislature I mean, they kind of admitted that it's not going to happen too soon. I mean, this has become for a lot of neighborhoods, it's like a nightly situation. Even if the law is amended, it's hard to imagine that it'll go away anytime soon.

Yeah, with COVID, in the pandemic, we were not able to have the large firework display that we used to have at Empire State Plaza. So, you know, we thought on Fourth of July that many households were just setting off fireworks into all hours of the night because they didn't get to go to go celebrate as they usually did.

OK, so while you raise the issue of the police, obviously, the city has had just a rash of shootings so far this summer. At some points, it was a daily basis where someone was being shot and maybe killed. And it's coming at a time when we've had really this national debate over what we want policing to look like and so on. You're hearing calls to defund the police. We've had Chief Hawkins on the station discussing these issues, but what do you think? Wow do we make sure Albany is a safer place to be?

Yeah. So we definitely had in the more recent weeks a great increase in crime happening in our city and from what I'm hearing from the police departments, it's hard to pinpoint if everything is correlated or everything is related. But from my understanding, it's like known perpetrators in our city who are engaging in these activities. So what we can do is again, I would recommend we pulled away from the, you know, I don't want to say something I don't want to snitch. I think if we see something we should call that in. And that's the way that we're going to pull people off of the streets. So I think as a community, we can do our part if we know someone who's been involved in the violence or involved in the criminal activities, please just call it in because you know, pulling that person off the street can save a life. You can save a life of a friend, a loved one, innocent bystanders, right? And I don't want to, I'm sure none of us want to see other lives taken from our city.

Now on the other side of the coin in terms of police oversight, what should the council be doing to make sure that that trust is maintained?

Yes, so we are currently looking into legislation right now and putting things forward that would give the CPRB, Community Police Review Board, more power. So this is the independent parties and the police and they have the ability to review police cases and determine whether or not things went correctly or things need to be questioned. And so what we're really looking to do, one of the things we're looking to do is give them subpoena power. So they have more ability as an independent party or independent body to have more oversight on the police department.

And do you find that the police department or at least its leadership is supportive of that effort? Do you know?

From what I've seen from our chiefs and from other leaders that I've been in contact with personally in the police department, it does seem like they're supportive. They said it firsthand themselves, they don't know if they should be the first one to certain calls, whether it's a mental health caller. I think that nature so it's all related to police reform that we'll be doing, but I think I think a lot of the leaders there are supportive. There definitely may be some that would not want to see change. But I think what's important is the tone at the top. So from what I saw from Chief Hawkins, it does seem like he's receptive to these changes.

Last thing I want to ask you about: what did you think of the mayor's decision to take down the Philip Schuyler statue that stands in front of City Hall?

So personally, I am in support of pulling down that statue and moving it to a museum or someplace where it can be sort of history. One of my positions is I've heard the cries from the community, some team members saying we're taking down history. What the mayor's deciding to do here is actually put it into a museum where it can be public, right in a safe capacity and be out there for people to see. But it stood in front of our city hall, right in our city of Albany, and pointed down from in front of City Hall shows that, you know, we as a community in Albany, do not support the previous actions of our leaders, even though they obviously did good to our community. They also hold a really ugly past and held slaves and they really affect our African American and black population within the city. So I'm in full support of pulling that statue down and moving it to a safe museum for people to view there.

There's an argument that I've heard articulated, which is OK, take the statue down. That's fine. But what do you do about Madison Ave? What do you do about Washington Park? What do you say to that?

That is, I don't know that I have an answer to that right now. That's a hard discussion. I think we're going to continue to see changes. I think the statue is one of the first moves that we're going to do, but I don't know what comes have come to the streets or comes of, you know, things that things that give memory to previous stableness. I wouldn't say personally that we should be renaming all the streets. But, you know, we'll see as time goes on the changes that are made, and, and that's just a sliver of the changes. I think the real change comes from making our police reform and making the community and the police, the more are in tune with our African American and black community and also be more fair.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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