2006-12-15 / Community

Two Give Up Fight To Keep ‘Member Items’ Secret

By Howard Schwach

Audrey Pheffer
Audrey Pheffer After years of trying to hide “member items” from the public, the New York State Legislature was recently ordered by a State Supreme Court judge to release the information about our legislator’s spending on pet projects, which amounts to about $170 million a year, to the public.

Even after the ruling, however, legislative leaders fought disclosing the information, first refusing to release the names of the organizations that got the money and how much each received, and then publishing it on their websites in such a way that made it difficult for newspapers to find out just who spent what on what organizations. The Wave has been attempting to get individual lists from our three state legislators – Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, Assemblywoman Michelle Titus and State Senator Malcolm Smith for more than three weeks.

Titus has still not responded to The Wave’s request for the release of her individual “member items” list even though both Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and State Senator Malcolm Smith released their information to The Wave.

Why the effort? A quick scan of the lists provided by both Pheffer and Smith show that the great majority of the expenditures made by the two under the “member items” program go to community organizations that provide necessary services to the Rockaway community.

Pheffer’s list, for example, includes &11,000 for several services at the Jewish Association For Services to the Aged (JASA), money for both parochial and public schools for after-school programs, athletics and computer equipment, $3,000 dollars for the Beach Channel High School crew team, funds for the little league and the Broad Channel Athletic Club, $3,000 dollars for the Bayswater Security Patrol, money for each of the four local volunteer fire departments as well as funds for such arts groups as the Rockaway Music And Arts Council, The Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Museum.

Senator Smith gets far less money than Pheffer because the Democrats are in the minority in the Senate and money has been doled out by the leadership based on loyalty to the ruling party.

Smith provided money for the Arverne Housing Tenants Association, Beach 41 Street Tenants Association, Deerfield Civic Association, Jewish Community Council of the Rockaways, Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation, Redfern Tenants Association, Rockaway Sports Association, St. Gertrude’s 50 plus club and the Vietnam Veterans of America. None of Smith’s disbursements are for more than $2,000.

And, although Titus has so far refused to honor our request, The Wave has learned through the Assembly’s website that she has given relatively large amounts of money to ACORN, the controversial housing and education advocacy group, to homeless veterans in an upstate county and to the Rockaway Peninsula Civic Association for its David Dinkins Center.

According to the website, a dozen Assemblymembers, including Titus, but not including Pheffer, gave $75,000 to the center for “academic instruction, sports and cultural activities, regular counseling and other services for in-school children and youth in the Far Rockaway community.

Although it is already December, and the school year has been ongoing for four months, Hilda Gross, who is listed as the David Dinkin’s Center director told The Wave this week that there have been no activities in the Dinkins Center this school year.

“We plan to begin our activities with PS 183 sometime around January 15,” Gross said. “Teachers for our after-school program are very expensive and we haven’t been able to hire any for what we can afford to pay.”

She expects to have fifty students in her program by the end of January. That would bring the cost per student to nearly $1,500 per student, a cost that educational experts say is high for an after-school program.

The Assembly’s “member items” list ran to 2,700 pages long. The Senate’s is considerably shorter because the Republican leadership takes most of the money for its projects.

And, although most of the money distributed by the state legislature goes to worth community organizations, there are many detractors to the entire program.

“We don’t question the substance,” says Rachel Leon of Common Cause. “We question the process of how these member items are doled out. It is all about power and seniority.”

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