Due to a growing number of concerned citizens, Albany has started a brand new grassroots political action committee called, Albany Community Together. The committee will be responsible for holding Albany City Council accountable for the decisions they make regarding pressing issues involving the community. Earlier this summer, the city council found themselves up against its own citizens when they chose to vote against changes supported by minority groups.
“We were having some issues with the City Council, and noticed that there wasn’t a consistent presence showing up to hold the council accountable for the things that they say or do,” said ACT board member Jerred Taylor.
He was referring to a series of incidents from June and July 2017. On June 28, the Albany City Council voted down a proposed municipal code language change that was endorsed by local minority communities and their allies. Ward III Councilman, and semi-villainous old man, Rich Kellum, was the most vocally opposed, equating these changes with the social justice group, Black Lives Matter.
As unfortunate as these events were perceived to be, the Albany community became energized around this issue. City Council meetings became standing room only events.
“The community really turned out,” ACT Community Liaison Alicia Bublitz said about the July 12 meeting, “The public comment section that evening was really powerful.”
During the proceedings and discussion, Councilman Kellum attempted to defend himself from the perception of insensitivity in his previous remarks. He spoke about how he once had a “lady friend who’s first name was Maria,” and that he once hired a gay woman and “learned way more than he wanted to know about lipstick lesbians.”
Ironically, many citizens of Albany learned exactly as much as they wanted to know about Councilman Kellum on that evening.
In that same City Council meeting, community organizer and ACT director, Keith Kolkow was granted a proclamation from Mayor Sharon Konopa to observe Albany Pride Week, coinciding with the pride march that Kolkow had organized. In the following work session, the City Council attempted to take away the mayor’s ability to make proclamations.
Kolkow, Taylor, Bublitz, and some other concerned and probably horrified residents of Albany, decided to band together with a concise mission: to make Albany politics more accessible and transparent to its citizens.
“These things have been happening for years,” said Taylor, “wherever you digest media, we want to make sure you see that these things are happening.”
ACT wants to put the existing council members on notice. They want to to entice, enlist, and educate potential candidates for replacement. That’s right, the three E’s.
Leading up to the 2016 election, information regarding Albany City Council candidates was not plentiful.
“Everybody’s candidate statement sounds exactly the same,” said Bublitz. “Everybody is interested in education and public safety. It was really hard to tell who shared values with me.”
This lack of information usually benefits the incumbent. It can be difficult for new candidates, who lack funding and name recognition, to present their ideas to their potential voters. ACT intends to empower new candidates with both promotion and funding. Empower is another E word, so I guess there’s four.
For new potential councilors there could be some major hurdles, according to Alicia Bublitz. Governing can be boring and toilsome.
“It’s not exciting hashtag-worthy type of stuff, but it keeps a city running,” she said, “this is going and renewing the garbage contract and the insurance policies on our firetrucks.”
Bublitz emphasizes that taking public position may be dangerous as well.
“Suddenly your phone number is public, your address,” she said. “Sadly, we are not past burning crosses in this country.”
Somewhere between the two extremes of snooze-fest work sessions and possible hate crimes, lies the real essence of public service, which a solid chance to make a difference.
“It doesn’t take much on the local level to ruffle feathers and make positive changes,” said Taylor.
It takes all kinds to run a town. Keith Kolkow, with his dedication to activism and historical preservation, Alicia Bublitz, with her enthusiasm for the mundane yet important mechanics of small town governance, and Jerred Taylor with his big picture perspective on how to enact political change are the kind of folks that keep a small community afloat. ACT is looking for other civically minded people to join up, and to bring their specific interests with them.
The U.S. can be a politically divided place, and Albany is certainly no exception. Our current political climate has only exacerbated this divide. Albany Community Together thinks the largely non-partisan nature of local issues can help heal some of that division, and make Albany a better place in the process.
By Jay Sharpe