Your Turn

From the view of a Brit, drawing parallels to elections in the U.S.

Stock photo

By John Broven

Part 1 of 2

After 46 years, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is due to leave the European Union March 29 in an exercise that has been labeled Brexit. You may have heard the term on BBC World News, C-SPAN2’s “Prime Minister’s Questions” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” (HBO), or read about the ongoing saga in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Still, in general the United States media coverage has been relatively muted in what has been a complex, often hard-to-understand process. Yet there are enough parallel circumstances across the pond to warrant making it a big news event over here in the U.S.

John Broven. Photo by Diane Wattecamps

It certainly matters a lot if, like me, you were born in England and are not happy with the Brexit decision. Before I proceed with my personal observations, let me give a brief backdrop to the Brexit scenario.

Brexit is a crude abbreviation of “British exit” from the European political and economic union of 28 countries that allows seamless movement of goods and citizens between each member state. Britain’s withdrawal was determined by a referendum held June 23, 2016, in which the “leave” voters outpointed the “remain” side by 17.4 to 16.1 million. In percentage terms it was 51.89 to 48.11. The turnout was some 33.5 million voters out of a possible 46.5 million, 72.1 percent of the registered electorate. As I’ve been living over here for more than 15 years, I was not allowed to vote along with an estimated 700,000 expats and some 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Gerrymandering, anyone?

The UK referendum

I well remember the day when Prime Minister David Cameron (Conservative) announced there would be a referendum for Britain to leave the EU after he was re-elected in the general election of May 7, 2015. He had been the country’s leader since 2010 in a coalition government with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, but against all expectation the Conservatives won the election outright. At the time I asked myself, “Why call a referendum?” What I didn’t know was that Cameron wanted to quell once and for all the rebellious EU leavers in his own party and thwart the rise of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage.

To my mind, Cameron compounded his disastrous decision of placing party politics on a national stage by agreeing to put the referendum to the people in the simplest of terms:

• Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union. Yes or No.

The openness of the referendum wording gave voters, fed up with years of austerity, a chance to kick the government without understanding the full consequences of their actions. The many dire economic warnings of a precipitous EU exit, ranging from the Bank of England governor to President Barack Obama (D), were riposted as fearmongering.

England and Wales voted to leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland did not. London voted overwhelmingly to remain, but the industrial North — the equivalent of our rust belt — predictably went to the leavers. Not surprisingly, the majority of the 50-and-overs, with their rose-tinted memories, voted to leave. On the other hand, the younger generation was largely in favor of remaining, feeling more European and with less attachment to the days of the British Empire. Interestingly, the peak share of any sector came from women between the ages of 18 and 24, with 80 percent voting to remain. Yet too many millennials, as over here in the last presidential election, did not bother to go to the voting booths.

As we have seen from the HBO film, “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” the Vote Leave campaign — led by notorious Cameron-backstabber Boris Johnson, U.S. President Donald Trump (R)-acolyte Farage, prominent Tory politicians such as the overbearing Jacob Rees-Mogg and double-dealer Michael Gove — were always a step ahead of Vote Remain, led by Cameron himself, future prime minister Theresa May and reticent Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The leave effort was brilliantly masterminded by Dominic Cummings who outflanked his traditionally minded opponents by using computer algorithms devised by Cambridge Analytica, partly owned — whisper it low — by Robert Mercer from our own Head of the Harbor village on Long Island.

With new data available, Cummings understood there was a raft of disaffected voters that had been ignored by politicians of all parties for years. He proceeded to woo them with an appealing slogan, “Let’s take back control,” aided by a red bus carrying the false message that leaving the EU would save the British people £350 million a week (about $450 million), adding, “Let’s fund our NHS [National Health Service] instead — Vote Leave.” Without justification, it was said the country would be overrun by Islamic immigrants should Turkey be admitted to the EU. (It hasn’t.) It was a campaign of distorted facts, appealing to those who remembered the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves and the world map was colored mostly British Empire pink.

Earlier, I mentioned “parallel circumstances” in relation to the U.S. How about disaffected and ignored voters, a fear campaign based on immigration and Islamophobia, protest votes, absent millennials, discarded trade agreements, gerrymandering, a populist insurrection — and, I hate to say it, fake news. Does that sound familiar?

Events of June 2016

I was in England the week before the referendum and was astonished at how the youthful, vibrant atmosphere I felt on my last visit had evaporated into a sour mood. As a confirmed Europhile, I was even more amazed to see how finely balanced the polls were. The omens were not good, especially when state broadcaster, British Broadcasting Corporation, adopted a neutral stance giving equal time to both campaigns. Why did the leave campaign, with no governmental responsibility or track record, deserve the same coverage as the in-power remainers?

I was still in England when staunch remain campaigner and promising Labour member of parliament, Jo Cox, was murdered June 16, 2016, in her native West Yorkshire at age 41 by a right-wing extremist. Had politics become so divisive that a life had to be taken? Surely, I thought, the British people, with their long-held sense of justice and fair play, would rebel against such a dastardly act and vote for the “good guys” out of respect to Cox. The referendum campaign was halted temporarily, but a news blackout contrived to neutralize any widespread outrage at her death.

Referendum night June 23 was covered in full over here by BBC World News. Ironically, with the five-hour time difference, U.S. viewers were more up to date than the sleeping British public. I knew the writing was on the wall when early voting in Sunderland and Swindon went to the leavers. And yet Sunderland, in the relatively impoverished North East, was home to a major Nissan factory (jobs, jobs, jobs), with Swindon in the affluent South West housing a big Honda factory. Both Japanese car companies used their English bases for easy access to the European markets. What were the voters in those towns thinking by voting leave?

The leave campaign was victorious. A distraught Cameron resigned July 11, 2016, to be succeeded by May. It was up to her to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the EU, with a leaving date eventually set for March 29, 2019 — the end of this month. The protracted negotiations have been rocky, to say the least, and the outcome has still not been resolved at this late hour thanks mainly to a problem that should have been foreseen at the time of the referendum but wasn’t: the Irish backstop. Stay tuned.

Part 2 will bring matters up to date, with crucial parliamentary votes due to be held this week. John Broven, a member of the TBR News Media editorial team, is an English-born resident of East Setauket, and has written three award-winning (American) music history books.

Political cartoon by Jake Fuller. Image courtesy of SunshineWeek.org

By Donna Deedy

It’s Sunshine Week (March 10-16), time for recognizing and celebrating the importance of freedom of information  laws and open government in our democracy.

Newsrooms nationwide are participating in the weeklong event, which specifically aims to help people better understand their everyday right-to-know under federal and state laws. Sponsored since 2005 by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors, TBR News Media is joining in for this year’s tribute. 

We’re focusing on New York State’s Freedom of Information Law. First enacted in 1974, the law succinctly states: “The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is fundamental to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality.” The law applies to schools and all government entities within the state.  

We’ve taken a look at the websites of towns and villages within our circulation area on Long Island’s North Shore to gauge whether or not the process is user-friendly. 

What we’ve found is most entities acknowledge their obligation to respond to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests. The towns of Huntington, Smithtown and Brookhaven post their record access codes online, along with most incorporated villages.   Rather than posting their FOIL codes, the villages of Huntington Bay, Nissequogue, Head of the Harbor and Port Jefferson simply provide a link to a one-page preprinted FOIL request form. Port Jefferson village online code explicitly directs the public to visit Village Hall during business hours to examine its record access policy. 

Political cartoon by Joe Heller. Image courtesy of SunshineWeek.org

It’s important to note that state legislators created a special unit within New York State to answer the public’s questions and render legal opinions about open government practices. The unit, known as the Committee on Open Government, has determined government entities should not mandate the use of record request application forms. 

Villages that currently require the public to use their application forms to request records may need to revise their practices to align with state’s legal advisory opinions. 

“There’s no obligation on behalf of the requester to travel to town or village offices to view records,” said Robert Freeman, the executive director of New York State Committee on Open Government.

Fortunately, requesting records in the electronic age is easier than ever. If documents aren’t already posted online, people can simply request copies of records via an email to the record access officer. Instructions can be found on the state department’s website: https://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/freedomfaq.html#howrequestemail. The record request template clearly outlines requesters basic rights within the form letter. 

Christian Trejabal is the open government chair for the Association of Opinion Journalists.  In a blogpost for Sunshine Week he opined on the need for journalists in this day and age.

“Thousands of newspapers have closed over the last 20 years,” Trejabal said. “Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Without them, government is under less scrutiny, and that isn’t healthy for democracy.” 

If you would like to know more, visit the New York Department of State Committee on Open Government website. It provides volumes of information about the Freedom of Information Law, the Open Meetings Law and the Personal Privacy Protection Law. The committee’s lawyers can also be reached by telephone at 518-474-2518. 

Donna Deedy is currently a freelancer for TBR News Media, and has years of experience in the journalism field.

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Smithtown Town Hall. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Richard Murdocco

I want to share my thoughts regarding the recent efforts to update the Town of Smithtown’s long-standing comprehensive plan, which was first adopted in 1961.

As part of the research process for its award-winning body of analytical and reported work on Long Island’s land use and development issues, The Foggiest Idea regularly reviews the planning efforts that directly impact communities throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Located in the heart of western Suffolk County, Smithtown was at the forefront of the post-World War II suburban developmental boom, experiencing rapid suburban expansion up through the 1980s. In recent years, the town finds itself needing to balance its suburban landscape with the economic, environmental and social needs of the 21st century.

As policymakers, it is critically important to be cautiously skeptical when it comes to the ambitions and motivations of those who will seek to use this process to transform the town. As you’re well-aware, Smithtown has been unchanged for decades. While partly due to political inertia, there is some merit to the municipality’s long-standing maintenance of the status quo -— from the planning perspective, the town has been essentially built-out for decades.

In 2015, I argued this point on the pages of Long Island Business News, writing that “…with its road network overburdened, water quality declining, and limited vacant open parcels that would allow for transformative development, Smithtown isn’t so much the ‘town that time forgot,’ but rather, the ‘town that has reached its limits.’”

Community-based plans should be driven by policy solutions that are both data backed and grounded in public input, not shaped by those who have something to gain by advocating for strategies that allow for additional growth. It is my hope that the document eventually adopted reflects the realities Smithtown faces, as well as some of the still-relevant recommendations that were made in the 2015 Draft Town of Smithtown Comprehensive Plan Update that was never formally accepted.

Smithtown’s latest road map will be an opportunity to strike the right balance between maintaining the community’s quality of life, while charting sustainable and viable solutions for the area’s future.

I applaud the municipality for undertaking a renewed comprehensive planning effort and look forward to following the progress that is made in the coming months.

Richard Murdocco is the founder and president of The Foggiest Idea Inc.

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Smithtown school district's administrative Joseph M. Barton building on New York Avenue. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Tim Small

The Town of Smithtown has begun efforts to expand its town hall. Specifically, conceptual plans are being developed to add wings to the existing building. Most recently, the town sought appraisals for four satellite, or annexed, buildings as a first step in consolidation. No doubt consolidation of office space will increase efficiency and improve external user’s interaction (regarding “one stop” vs. being shuffled from one building to another). A vacated annexed building can consequently be used for redevelopment (e.g., further redevelopment of old Nassau Suffolk Lumber property), transit-oriented development (e.g., Long Island Rail Road adjacent apartments) or parking.

The Smithtown United Civic Association supports efforts and has advocated for consolidation and resulting efficiency for some time, but expansion of the existing town hall is not the only option. Specifically, utilization of the existing New York Avenue School must be formally explored. Proper business cases must be developed, become completely transparent and the best option for Town of Smithtown taxpayers (e.g., town vs. school tax) selected.

The Smithtown school district can function without the New York Avenue School building, as best evidenced by its recent attempt to sell the property. Not much has changed, except the school board membership. The school district had only informal discussions with the then town leadership, and as legend goes, was told to seek dense redevelopment. The bid by Southern Land Development was met with very strong opposition, forcing it to withdraw its bid offering. Leadership was embarrassed, in a he said, she said situation between town leadership and the school district. Consequently, no trust and no open communication has subsequently transpired, only legal posturing.

Clearly, an opportunity for the school district to reduce operating expenses exists, especially valuable during times of declining enrollment, increased labor costs, reduced state aid and increasing taxes. Yes, school district relocation costs must be understood and properly funded in the process. Clearly, an opportunity for town consolidation exists, arguably enabling redevelopment and launching the long overdue downtown revitalization. Yes, the New York Avenue building needs some remediation work, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that people are currently occupying the building. We need to call upon our elected officials and school board to seriously consider this option.

The school building, also known as the Joseph M. Barton building, sits on 13 acres, was built in 1924, and is about 76,000 square feet in size. It was built as a secondary school, used as a junior high school and became the district’s administrative offices in 1986. Today it serves its function as the district’s central office, adult education programs and board of education meetings. The site also includes athletic fields used by many, such as the Smithtown Kickers Soccer Club. The grounds are the last available green space within the downtown business district. It sure seems like a great opportunity exists to repurpose this historic building, while preserving open green space.

The concept of a town buying a school building is not new to Long Island. We need only to look to our neighbors in the towns of Huntington, Islip or Babylon. As an example, the Huntington Union Free School District sold its building on Main Street in 1978 to the Town of Huntington for $1.

Before moving forward we need transparent business cases developed for each option so that the right decision for a Town of Smithtown taxpayer is selected. We need to hold all of our elected officials accountable. The Smithtown United Civic Association is committed to creating the necessary visibility, driving accountability and facilitating the necessary dialogue. Maybe we need to start by getting everyone in the same room. Any objection from either town or school board?

We live in a wonderful community. We love our schools, local businesses and our beautiful homes. Please help and show support by attending town board meetings. If you can’t go, call or write our council members and let them know you share the Smithtown United Civic Association vision. We need to explore the New York Avenue School purchase and preservation of the last available green space in downtown Smithtown. Together let’s make Smithtown an even better place to live.

Tim Small is president of the Smithtown United Civic Association.

An adult male yellow-rumped warblers in spring or breeding plumage.

By John Turner

On an Indian summer kind of morning in mid-October, I decided to explore the Preserve owned by the Village of Nissequogue at the end of Long Beach Road, on the north side of Stony Brook Harbor. I was hoping to see a lingering diamondback terrapin in the marshes fringing this side of the harbor. 

As soon as I exited the car in the small parking lot, flanked by coastal plants, there was flittering movement all around — movement that I half expected given the time of year. The ceaseless motion was in the form of a dozen or so small birds, and I knew I was witnessing the seasonal invasion of the “butter-butts,” or as a friend calls them “budda-butts” — a species that, whatever you call it, is formally known as a yellow-rumped warbler due to the conspicuous and distinctive bright yellow rump patch on the top side of the tail base.   

At any one time there were half-a-dozen birds flitting in the red cedar trees and groundsel bushes, and one hovered over the top of a seaside goldenrod plant for several seconds, presumably attracted to small, late-season, nectar-seeking insects in the bright yellow flowers. 

adult male yellow-rumped warblers in spring or breeding plumage.

The butter-butts were joined by half a dozen even smaller birds that flashed yellow too; not from the tail but from the top of the head. These were golden-crowned kinglets, a species that competes for the title of North America’s smallest songbird (hummingbirds are smaller but are not songbirds). It is closely related to the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird that breeds north of Long Island but passes through these parts during spring and fall migration. This invasion will last through the winter until next spring, when the warblers and kinglets depart northward to their breeding grounds.    

Yellow-rumped warblers are one of 54 colorful species of warblers found in North America, of which approximately three dozen occur in the eastern half of the country. This group of birds has often been referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world,” given their resplendent plumage patterns of orange, red, yellow, blue and green colors in between. Their passing through Long Island during spring migration, when males are in their gaudy breeding plumages, is one of the highlights to a birder’s year. 

Warblers, as a general rule, flood out of the middle and northern portions of North America, overwintering in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the southern United States. They do so because their food source — almost entirely insects — disappears with the cold weather since to stay in cold climates would be to risk starvation. The yellow-rumped is an exception and regularly overwinters throughout the United States. Why is this so you might reasonably ask? It’s due to the species unique ability to sustain itself by eating a type of food that other warblers and most other songbirds apparently do not or cannot — wax.

The wax is in the form of a waxy outer coating on berries, and there are two plant species on Long Island that best fit the bill, producing large quantities of waxy fruits — bayberry and poison ivy. Wax is difficult for birds to digest, and only a couple of dozen species worldwide have become adept at capitalizing on this novel food source, including our butter-butts.

An immature yellow-rumped warbler, also referred to as YOY – a young-of-year bird.

Scientists studying the phenomenon of wax digestion in yellow-rumped warblers have found several traits that allow wax assimilation — very slow digestive times with the wax broken down in the gizzard, high bile salt levels in their gall bladders to more effectively break down the wax into its fatty acid components and, remarkably, the ability to move partially digested foods back into the gizzard from the intestines to further break down the wax (which partially explains the slow digestive times). It can take a small warbler upward of four hours from when the wax berries are eaten until the digested remains are excreted. In contrast, songbirds eating sweet fruits in the summer and early fall can pass the material in as little as 20 minutes.   

Further south in their winter range, from New Jersey southward, yellow-rumped depend more upon wax myrtle, a close relative of bayberry, that also has wax-covered fruits. The bird’s association with this plant is so strong that for many decades the yellow-rumped warbler was known as the myrtle warbler.   

In the western United States, the yellow-rumped warbler is joined by its close associate: the Audubon’s warbler, which looks very similar to the yellow-rumped, except that it has a yellow throat patch while the yellow-rumped has a white patch.  

Golden-crowned kinglets apparently do not eat waxy fruits and survive the winter eating dormant insects, their eggs, spiders and oozing sap. If you pay close attention, the males can be separated from the females — males have orange-tinged head crowns while females have yellow. This bright orange coloration is the reason why this species in Europe is not called a kinglet, although it’s the same species, but instead the rather descriptive “firecrest.”

You can see kinglets and butter-butts until early spring — then they both wing back north, throughout New England and across much of Canada, for the breeding season. Here they’ll raise their next generation of birds that will brighten our winter days with a little dash of yellowy sunshine a year from now.  

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

All photos by Luke Ormand

Vivian-Viloria-Fisher. File photo by Kyle Barr

By Vivian Viloria-Fisher

New York State lawmakers are moving forward with a number of progressive changes to our election laws. Democrats are to be commended for keeping the promise they made to New Yorkers to make it easier for all of us to exercise our right to vote.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher was a Suffolk County legislator from 1999-2011. Photo from Suffolk County Democratic Committee

But Albany has not yet addressed fusion voting. New York state is only one of eight states where fusion voting occurs. Voters come across fusion voting or cross endorsements when they enter the ballot box and see a candidate’s name on several lines on the ballot. This occurs most often in judicial races: candidate Jane Doe is on the Republican, Democratic, Conservative, Independence, Working Family and possibly other lines. The voter might ask herself, “What difference will my vote make?” Good question, since cross endorsements generally take the choice out of the hands of the voter and into the hands of party leaders.

In 2010 Suffolk County Clerk Judith Pascale (R) and county Comptroller Joseph Sawicki (R) both won their re-elections with 100 percent of the vote. In 2013, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C), county Treasurer Angie Carpenter (R) and Suffolk’s District Attorney Thomas Spota (D)  all achieved remarkable victories by garnering 100 percent of the public’s support. Of course, the support came from the backroom deals that agreed to put the officials’ names on the Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Independence party lines. Pascale repeated this feat in 2014.

Fusion voting created a Suffolk County government in which five of the six countywide positions were held for eight years by individuals who had been selected, not elected. This begs the question as to who was watching the proverbial store when both the treasurer and comptroller were beholden to party bosses or whether justice was being served when both the sheriff and district attorney — who later left office under a cloud — were ordained in backroom deals.

Minor parties gain a disproportionate amount of power by doling out their lines for patronage jobs or other political favors. Most egregious among these is the Independence Party that has no identifiable platform, and whose ranks are filled with people who believe that they have registered as Independent — unaffiliated voters only to later discover that they are part of a party.

Voters are often perplexed as to some discordant alliances reflected on the ballot. How is a Democrat endorsed by the Democratic and Conservative parties? Candidates waffle on important issues that define the basic values of the party in which they are registered in order to get on the line of a third party.

We focus our attention on the corruption and disenfranchisement on the national level, but we should not forget that all politics is local. Because of fusion voting, there is a disproportionate number of Conservative judges in Suffolk County, relative to the number of Conservative party members in the general public. In the 2018 Supreme Court 10th Judicial District race, all seven victors names appeared on the Democratic line: the top three vote getters on the Democratic and Republican lines, the next four on the Democratic, Conservative and Independence lines. Given the challenges to democratic values that our nation faces in the nominations of even more conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is mind boggling to know that local party leaders align the Democratic and Conservative parties on the ballot of the 10th Judicial District.

I have voiced my concerns about cross endorsements for many years, but now is the moment that leaders and elected officials must be held accountable and must be pressured to put an end to this deceptive practice. Let your members on the New York State Assembly and Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) know that fusion voting is contrary to our democracy’s basic tenet of a citizen’s right to vote.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher was a Suffolk County legislator 1999-2011. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018 in the Democratic primary for the 1st District.

A Coast Guard Auxiliary boat. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

By Herb Herman

On a cold evening in the fall of 2003 a few people got together in Port Jefferson to form a flotilla of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Fifteen years later, Flotilla 14-22-06, the Port Jefferson Flotilla, is still among the most active auxiliary groups in the country. Thousands of Americans volunteer as U.S. Coast Guard auxiliarists, many of whom are still actively engaged in various professions. Their common motives for joining are love of the water and wanting to participate in an activity that has great regional and national importance.

The Port Jefferson USCG Auxiliary Flotilla, 1st Southern District 14, Division 22, Flotilla 06, was founded in 2003 and now has 33 members. Since its founding, the flotilla has been active in boater education and in patrols within the Long Island Sound and in the Port Jefferson Harbor and Mount Sinai areas. Additionally, in this era of deep concern about terrorism, the flotilla engages in a program to inspect the marine-related facilities and the Port Jefferson Harbor infrastructure in order to discover and to report to the Coast Guard any vulnerability in the marine area. The Bridgeport-Port Jefferson Ferry is of particular interest to the Coast Guard and to the auxiliary.

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, created by an act of Congress in 1939, is an all-volunteer civilian branch of the Coast Guard, acting as a “force multiplier,” where auxiliary members, both men and women, frequently aid the Coast Guard in wide-ranging activities. At Coast Guard stations around the country, auxiliary members carry out watch standing, that is, they will engage in communication management for a Coast Guard station. Frequently, they work in the stations’ kitchens, helping in food preparation and service. Many auxiliary members are talented craftspeople and will frequently work to support and improve Coast Guard station facilities.

Some 28,000 auxiliary members contribute over 4.5 million hours of service each year and complete nearly 500,000 boating safety patrol missions to support the Coast Guard. Every year auxiliarists help to save some 500 lives, assist 15,000 distressed boaters, and provide boater safety instruction to over 500,000 students, adults and children alike. In total, the Coast Guard Auxiliary saves taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Auxiliary members commonly conduct safety patrols on local waterways, assist in search and rescue, teach boating safety classes, conduct free vessel safety checks for the public, as well as many other activities related to recreational boating safety. Appropriate training of our members is key to a dynamic and effective organization. Training enables auxiliary members to become valuable partners with the Coast Guard, helping them meet mission objectives. Also, we meet our commitment to be of service not only to the maritime community but the community as a whole.

In particular, the Vessel Examination Program is a major part of the Port Jefferson Flotilla activity. Nationally, the auxiliary annually performs over 150,000 safety inspections of recreational vessels. This program provides a free vessel safety check (VSC) service to boaters to educate them on boating safety and on the equipment they are required to carry in order to be compliant with federal, state and local regulations.

The auxiliary is prevented by statute from direct participation in the Coast Guard’s military or law enforcement activities. Other than that, the auxiliary has most of the positions of the active duty Coast Guard and trains for them using essentially the same materials and standards. There are some jobs that a new auxiliarist can begin after a few weeks while there are others, such as auxiliary boat crew, that will take a year or so to gather the training and experience to pass a qualification exam. During that time a new member can be out on active auxiliary boat patrols.

The Port Jefferson Flotilla, as well as the other six flotillas in Division 22 on Long Island, is actively recruiting men and women of all ages who want to serve their community and country in this unique way. Interested parties are invited to attend our meetings, which are held on the second Wednesday of each month at the Port Jefferson Yacht Club on Surf Road at Port Jefferson Harbor. Doors open at 7 p.m. and call to order is at 7:30 p.m. For more information on the activities of the Port Jefferson Flotilla visit www.cgapj.org, email info@cgapj.org or call  631-938-1705.

Herb Herman is the flotilla staff officer for public affairs, Port Jefferson Auxiliary Flotilla 14-22-06.

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Tom Manuel, venue founder, shares firsthand account with TBR News Media

A teenager in Haiti learns how to play trombone from the Jazz Loft’s Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

By Tom Manuel

The Jazz Loft ambassadors’ annual mission to Haiti to teach children how to play instruments hit a blue note as the capital, Port-au-Prince, erupted with riots.

Elvoi, a music teacher that we had hired, shared words of wisdom with us after our trip. “Everything is OK thanks to God,” he said. “But in Haiti we live day by day, we live one day at a time.”

We had landed bright and early on a Wednesday morning, a six-person team consisting of music educators, professional musicians and an independent filmmaker from California. This was another regular trip under the banner of The Jazz Loft to continue building the music program in a school perched high atop a mountain that is making a difference in children’s lives one day at a time.

One part of The Jazz Loft’s trifecta mission is education, and we felt that our community outreach should stretch further than how we typically define community. Our definition includes thinking globally, and a partnership with True Love Missions, of Stony Brook, and their successful school in Haiti was a perfect match. Thanks to the philanthropic giving of Robert Lourie and Ivana Stolnik in addition to the generous giving which was the result of an annual fundraising concert, the Jazz Loft ambassadors embarked on their trip. Barrels of school supplies, instruments, clothing and food were shipped down in advance and the team packed as much as they could bring as well.

Tom Manuel. Photo by Leah Claire Borrie

Our days unfolded one after the next with early morning rises, hikes up and down the mountain to the school, and sometimes rides on motorbikes which rival any amusement park ride known to man. Relationships were begun or made stronger, and the universal language of music transcended that of English and native Creole. Teaching trombone was interrupted by giving out worm pills and conversations with the school principal and teachers regarding school-book needs were put on welcomed pause to feed quite hungry people. The confines of an article cannot contain nor explain the experience of a trip like this. The art of loving and being so genuinely loved in return can only be experienced by doing it.

Then 48 hours before our departure, a protest march against the Haitian government took place in Port-au-Prince. A day before our scheduled exit protests had turned to riots, and from the school high atop the mountain overlooking the city, we could see two fires that signaled something was wrong. We awoke early Monday morning, Nov. 19, ready for departure but as we assembled something was missing. The sound of Haiti had gone mute. There is an unmistakable sound of thousands of people, motorbikes, trucks and animals all joining chorus in organized chaos as the sun rises, and it had gone silent. In its stead, we heard a natural silence penetrated by the sound of vintage radios projecting singular voices speaking of riots throughout the night that had heightened. The city had been shut down. Schools and all businesses were closed. Our van was not coming, and all vehicles were banned from the roads. A call to the U.S. Embassy in Haiti signaled greater worry as it was closed.

Fearing escalation, being stuck beyond our planned time and worry over our general safety, we explored available options and were getting nowhere fast. Hours passed, our window of opportunity was quickly fading, and our final and only choices were to stay, or bribe the police to give us an armed escort to the airport. As if defying reality — because these things only happen in movies, right? — we were quickly packing ourselves into a civilian vehicle and a police truck. I wound up being the lone person in the police vehicle as there was no more room in the other vehicle. As we drove the final distance to the main drag, I thought to myself, “Am I blowing this out of proportion? Is this really necessary?”

As we hit the bottom of the street, there was an abrupt stop, and machine guns were locked and loaded, and handguns quickly appeared. We turned right, and I was amazed to see nothing but an empty street. Our speed was where the vehicle maxed out, and the sound of walkie-talkies, phones and borderline yelling filled the vehicle. The trip to the airport takes a solid hour and a half typically on a good day, and the main drag is marked by thousands of people trying to sell their wares to buyers that do not exist. Our trip that day lasted roughly 15 minutes.

Piles of debris and tires on fire occasionally blocked the road which we would veer around. Burned out vehicles and damaged abandoned police vehicles marked the journey. At one point we passed a black armored vehicle that moved down the street like a dinosaur.

A young student takes a turn with the trombone. Photo from Leah Claire Borrie

Having made this trip many times, I noticed familiar landmarks. We were getting closer and closer to the airport. The cop to my right was clicking a clave rhythm on the barrel of his gun. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was nervous or if this habit was normal. Ahead, a human-made roadblock of boulders and debris appeared causing the driver to slam on the brakes, fly into reverse and head right, the only other option available, only to be met by another roadblock.

Two police officers got out and started moving the boulders. A deafening sound, unlike any other, crescendoed and two masses of people began to converge from behind from both sides of our vehicles. It’s apparent that fear set in as the cops jumped back into the car, and we rammed whatever was left of the roadblock that couldn’t be moved.

Distance was quickly gained and this all seemed to end in an instant as we arrived at the airport and made our entrance almost seemingly under normal circumstances. Our plane took off an hour early, and within a few short hours we were home. It’s a bizarre reality, to say the least, to go from such contrasting environments in such a short period. The next days in Haiti saw increasing violence. Innocent people died. The New York Times published an article Nov. 23, but little of the drama in Haiti made it to our mainstream news.

In Haiti they live day by day. They live one day at a time. When things settle down, which they will, I will return to Haiti. I will continue to love, because in the end, even if I could move those Haitian mountains, even if somehow I could magically fix their broken and corrupt government, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. Love doesn’t rejoice about injustice but rather it rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, it never loses faith, it’s always hopeful, and it endures through every circumstance. Love makes all the difference and there are many children in a little school atop a mountain in Haiti that I love very much, and they love me. And that my friend is always worth the journey.

By Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky. Photo by Donna Newman

I like Christmas. There, I said it. This may be surprising for some people to hear from a rabbi, and it may be misinterpreted by others. But it’s true. I like the feeling of this time of year. I enjoy the songs, the lights, watching Charlie Brown and the Grinch and especially the sense of good will that exists.

I also like Hanukkah. I enjoy the gathering of family and friends, eating latkes (fried potato pancakes), lighting the Hanukkah menorah (9-branched candelabrum), playing dreidel (a spinning top game) and feeling a sense of warmth and light in the coldest, darkest time of the year.

But my enjoyment of both holidays does not mean that I see them in the same way. It does not mean that I view Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas. While I can enjoy aspects of both holidays, I am keenly aware of the need for both Christians and Jews to maintain a distinction between the two holidays, while also embracing a healthy respect for and appreciation of the practices of the other’s religion. And this begins, I am convinced, with a full understanding of what both holidays celebrate.

It is not for me to expound on the true meaning of Christmas. My Christian colleagues are much more equipped to do so. But I do know that the true religious significance of Christmas has little to do with trees and presents, songs and holiday foods. While these are lovely ways to enhance the enjoyment of a holiday, they should not replace the spiritual lessons taught.

By the same token, Hanukkah, which I am qualified to write about, is not about spinning tops, fried foods and gift giving, though these are all fun customs. It is about the story of a small group of Jews, the Maccabees, well over 2,000 years ago, winning the right to practice their religion freely, symbolized by the rededication of the holy Temple (“Hanukkah” means “dedication”). This episode has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas, and only happens to fall at the same season because it was common to hold festivals of light at this time of the year. Hanukkah is a stirring story of freedom, but it nonetheless remains a minor festival in the Jewish calendar. Its elevation to a level of such prominence is due solely to the fact that it is marketed to compete with Christmas from a commercial standpoint. And this speaks to a problem in our society in general, as well as presenting a challenge for Christians, Jews and all people of faith alike.

I address this issue to a general audience, rather than specifically to my congregation, because I believe that it is important for all people of faith, whatever their religion or heritage, to reclaim the true meaning of their holy days. Rather than falsely seeking to unite ourselves through the idol of materialism, focusing on the trappings of the various holidays, let us instead form a true bond with one another by each celebrating our respective holy days and recognizing their real significance. By doing so, we strengthen our own religious conviction and are then able to enjoy the beauty and teachings of other faiths without feeling that our own faith is undermined.

I, for one, am opposed to calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree. I am opposed to Christians feeling pressured to water down their religious beliefs because others may feel offended. But I am also opposed to anyone who mistakes proud displays of faith with the right to impose such faith on others. Celebrating Christmas, or any holy day, should be encouraged, as long as it is done with the understanding that we all choose to practice, or not practice, our faith in different ways.

Ironically, for me, Christmas helps reinforce the true message of Hanukkah, just as the true message of Hanukkah, I believe, strengthens the celebration of Christmas. We are so fortunate in our community and country to have the freedom to worship and celebrate freely. May we appreciate this freedom by expressing ourselves appropriately, while also embracing those of other faiths who choose to do the same, but in a different way. By so doing, we will truly find warmth and light at this season.

Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook.

A common grackle collects mud from the banks of the Swan River in East Patchogue to use to build its nest. Photo by Luke Ormand

By John Turner

As the famous philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching,” and between the passage of the 2,018 common nighthawks we tallied over the 41 days of the 2018 season at the Stone Bridge Nighthawk Watch, we had plenty of time to watch and observe.

One of those observations involved the daily movement of large mixed-blackbird flocks, flying north each evening, their destination being the communal nightly roost they established in the reed (Phragmites) beds at the southern edge of Conscience Bay, just north of the Grist Mill in Frank Melville Memorial Park in Setauket.

Joined by European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds, the flocks, numerically dominated by common grackles, would stream over us at the Stone Bridge and then, as they passed over the northern bridge at the northern end of the pond, descend abruptly to land on the narrow and slightly arching stalks of the Phragmites.

Their predictable movement each night of the Nighthawk Watch reminded me of another characterization, this one by the famous scientist Rachel Carson, who described the regular movement of birds such as these blackbird flocks as “faithful commuters” in the sky.

As they flew over us, the members of the flock vocalized continuously with quick sharp calls and we wondered why they might do that. One answer for the continuous calling may be a way for a bird in a flock to let neighboring birds — in front, behind and to the sides — know of its presence, helping to maintain a buffer between the birds, thereby reducing the chance of collisions.

Maintaining this space is vital given the fact the several dozen to several hundred members of the blackbird flock are moving through the sky together, at 20-30 miles per hour, separated by mere inches. Makes you wish drivers on the Long Island Expressway were so talented, no?

One evening recently my wife Georgia and I walked to the north bridge to watch the blackbirds spill from the sky into the reeds. They descended into the marsh on both sides of the meandering tidal creek that flows from the spillway at the bridge. A constant cacophony of squeaks (one call sounds like a rusty gate opening), rasps and whistles filled the air as the birds called incessantly. Having landed, the grackles and other blackbird species must now be vocalizing for a different reason, but frankly we have no idea.

Scientists conjecture that crows murmuring together at the end of a day in a winter communal roost do so to exchange information about the day they just experienced, such as what predators they encountered and food sources discovered. Could this be at least a partial answer to explain the thousands of garrulous grackles vocalizing into early evening, as they settle in to sleep for the night in the marshes of Frank Melville Park? Could there be other reasons? Maybe, but we just don’t know.

I often encounter grackles in different settings, as evidenced by a recent walk in the county park just north of the Sherwood-Jayne House. Heading up the west side of the property, I came to an opening in the forest where a small flock of 20 to 25 grackles was feeding on the ground. They systematically flipped over leaves, pieces of bark and other woodland debris searching with their beautiful golden-yellow, black-centered eye, for food which for them consists of a variety of small insects, other invertebrates like slugs and worms, caterpillars, small salamanders and fruits and seeds, which collectively make up their omnivorous lifestyle.    

If you are an astute observer of grackles you might notice that adult birds vary in their coloration. Not surprisingly, males are showier than the females, their plumage infused with a purplish iridescence. But you might occasionally see, especially during the colder months, individual grackles tending to have more of a bronzy-colored tint to their feathers, rather than purple. The latter bird is referred to as the “bronzed grackle” while the former is the “purple grackle.” For many years they were considered different species but are now recognized for what they are — interbreeding color morphs of the same species.   

If you leave the friendly confines of the Three Village area and travel to the Island’s South Shore, you might encounter another grackle species native to Long Island — the boat-tailed grackle. This larger species, a breeder amid the salt marshes of the South Shore bays, gets its name from the keel shape tail tip of the bird, quite visible when a male flies directly away from you.

Want to experience grackles and their blackbird brethren closer to home though? Just head to the bridge next to the Grist Mill in Frank Melville Park (www.frankmelvillepark.org) as dusk descends on an autumn day and face north toward the dense phalanx of reeds. If your senses aren’t overloaded by the sound and movement, perhaps you can figure out what the birds are saying to each other.

John Turner, a Setauket resident, is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

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