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Looking for a change

Defense attorney John Parrinello sets his sights on City Hall

by and

Talk with Republican candidate John Parrinello about his campaign for Rochester mayor, and you quickly realize that one issue dominates his focus: public safety.

Like the erratic orbit of a comet around the sun, Parrinello's mind seems tethered to the problem of crime, no matter what he's talking about. Discussions of schools, administrative appointments, or his own unique personality inevitably gravitate back to the city's rate of violent crime.

A criminal-defense attorney for nearly four decades, Parrinello has ample experience with the subject and plenty of ideas about what causes crime ("I think our number one problem is really in the poverty areas") and what will stop it.

High on his list of strategies is retaining Interim Police Chief Cedric Alexander and upping the number of police on the streets. There's also his proposal to shine spotlights on drug houses, but he has other, smaller ideas, too, like working on beautification projects at the neighborhood level "to try to change the perception of the city."

He's not a single-issue candidate. He has concerns about the schools and ideas for fixing them, although some --- like school uniforms and dress codes --- haven't gotten much traction in the broader dialogue of the campaign.

He's also concerned --- like the other candidates and in line with opinion polls --- about economic development. He favors some tax breaks to lure business ("It grieves me to do it," he says, "but you have to give to get"), and he calls the job of economic-development commissioner "one of the key positions in the city."

But even a discussion of economic development comes back to crime: "Economic development in the city has to overcome the perception of it being unsafe north of Main Street," he says. "It's the perception that people have of the city that it's a dangerous place to go, unless you stay in the East End."

Parrinello's personal story is that of a confident, strong-willed person, a Rochester native who rose from humble beginnings --- his father working three jobs --- to a career as a prominent defense attorney, an influential Republican, and head of the MonroeCommunity College board of trustees. Parrinello attended parochial schools and the University of Rochester, earned his law degree from SyracuseUniversity, and served on City Council from 1970 to 1974. He was vice mayor for the last two of those years. An aggressive, well-known lawyer, he has represented the defendants in some of Rochester's most high-profile criminal cases.

He says he could work well with Democrats --- including the influential leader of Rochester's Albany delegation, David Gantt. On the other hand, Parrinello notes, Gantt may have little affection for Democratic mayoral candidate Bob Duffy. Gantt protégé Wade Norwood lost the Democratic primary to Duffy in September. (And Parrinello himself has little love for Duffy, Rochester's former police chief.)

Often fiery in the courtroom --- and in campaign debates --- he is more moderate in extended conversations. He does not, he insists, "foresee going through and emptying City Hall" if he is elected. "There are good hardworking people" there, he says, and he would probably keep some current administrators.

Parrinello obviously enjoys the limelight: his courtroom behavior sometimes gets headlines (once landing him in jail for contempt of court), and he was apparently a hit when he appeared last year on Court TV.

If he were elected mayor, he wouldn't have to give up the limelight; in fact, he sees his role as occupying the bully pulpit, rather than being City Hall's chief administrator. He would, however, have to give up what one assumes is a lucrative law practice (Sunday's Democrat and Chronicle put his 2003 earnings at $1 million) for a government job paying just over $100,000.

"I want a change of careers," he told City.

Following are edited excerpts of a conversation with Parrinello on what he would do as mayor.

On the city budget

I would be very sensitive to budget issues, because we're within $13 million of our taxing limitation. So how do we get revenue? We need revenue desperately, and I anticipate that between the fast ferry and this new proposal that the mayor's talking about in terms of violence, we're going to have even a bigger budget gap next year than was anticipated. We have been filling budget gaps through some minor cuts but mainly through spin-ups, through borrowing money from Albany.

I don't mind going down [to Albany] and begging for more money, but I would be going down with solid ideas.

On the NET organization, we're spending $6 million. I think NET should be eliminated. The fast ferry --- because we can't get any information, I'm afraid that we're going to find out that the $40 million we borrowed, I just suspect that it's been used faster than we anticipated, which means then we would have to subsidize it out of our tax base.

We have buildings that owe us large amounts of money --- Sibley's, Midtown. We have not-for-profit organizations that are sitting in buildings that are not paying us any money. I'd do a survey of not-for-profits to make sure they are truly not-for-profit, totally. If they're using part of their building for other than their stated reasons, then they should be paying taxes or some sort of in-lieu-of-tax payment.

The best example is Excellus. They have four or five executives making $1 million each; they're raising our rates at about 15 to 17 percent, and they're paying no taxes. I think there's an obligation morally to give back. Either they can pay something in lieu of taxes or they could help subsidize the rehabilitation of the 80,000 houses that we have lead paint in. Something. That makes sense, because down the line they won't have to treat the thousand children a year that are being affected.

On the Rochester school district

I am very disturbed by the schools. I don't think we're getting the product we should get for the investment we're making. And the school district, they know how to tweak you, because they're going to eliminate sports, and they're going to eliminate teachers' aides, and they're going to eliminate nurses --- so they hit all the hot spots, trying to force us to increase the budget. Well frankly, we have 33,000 students; it's costing us about $17,000 a student, which is far more than we spend at MCC to educate a person.

I don't know how much of the budget is taken up by administration. The other thing is, I think we ought to immediately look at what activities are being performed in the administrative building that we're performing in the city, so that we can join the two. I don't know any reason why we couldn't take over their budgeting. And I'm sure there are other areas.

On City Hall's role with the school district

We should go over there and talk to them: Why they aren't getting more bang for their buck? Why do they spend $600 million a year and have such a truancy problem? Why do they have such a dropout problem? Why do they need police in the schools? Why aren't students dressed appropriately? Why can kids swear at teachers in classrooms?

You can talk about it, and then ultimately --- as unpopular as it is --- you can withhold money. I'm not saying I would. But I'm saying that the ultimate leverage is the $119 million the city gives the schools. Dave Gantt was probably right; he said, I'm not going to give you the $7 million [state funds that the district wanted] unless you can convince me that you're doing the right thing.

On possible consolidations with the county

One idea is our water system. It's my understanding that at one point the county's water authority had offered anywhere from $95 million to $125 million [to buy the city's system]. Now the city does get revenue out of it, so we would have to structure an agreement where we would get enough money to replace that. Or we'd have to strike a deal to make sure that the city would get no less, and add a cost-of-living feature. If something happens to our water system --- because those tributaries are old --- then the county would take over full responsibility.

We could consolidate civil service. There would be more possibilities, I think, of consolidating services between the county and the city. I don't see any necessity to have overlapping services.

On economic development

I am not in favor of [consolidating with] GRE, the Rochester Business Alliance, or the county, because I think our economic development department should focus on bringing businesses to the city. It doesn't do us any good to bring in a high-tech company and put it in Henrietta.

I'm very parochial. I'm a city proponent. I am not interested in --- I shouldn't say I'm not interested; I am interested in the region --- but I would be charged with the responsibility of making the city economically sound.

My casino idea is --- I just think the name of the game today is gambling. I think gambling has to go in the fast ferry, and I think we have to bring a casino to Rochester. And when we bring a casino to Rochester, I think we need to strategically locate it.

Midtown is an obvious venue. Whether it goes there or not, I don't know. People have mentioned the Beebee Station; I think it's too remote, but it's not impossible.

But casino revenue is significant. In addition to casino revenue, you're talking about potentially 3,000 jobs --- permanent jobs. You would negotiate with the operator; you would attempt to negotiate a casino that would not offer so many amenities that it would discourage [other] storefront retail or food venues.

Five hundred thousand people in Toronto hold Niagara casino cards, and their easiest trip is across the lake. If you realize that going to Toronto, the ferry is filled because of a Yankees game --- we would have a Yankees game every night to attract them.

On crime and the city's youth

I want us to be tough on crime, and when I say "tough on crime," I'm talking about violence and drugs. With this recent series of violence, I stopped to think about it: the easiest way would be to impose a curfew. But I don't see it that way; I see it taking steps. The first step is to go out and talk to the kids themselves.

Yesterday I was at MarshallHigh School, and I had a group of mainly black students, and I was asking them about guns and the necessity of having guns. I think that you can learn a lot by talking to young people. They generally agreed that giving up guns was a good idea, but they told me that a lot of people were reluctant to give up guns because they didn't think everybody would give up guns, and if you're unarmed in the city, you're at a disadvantage today.

The second step is to reach the parents, to get the parents involved in searching their rooms. Parents need to take responsibility for two things. One is to find out whether their children are carrying weapons, and the second is to know where their children are at some designated hour. There isn't enough responsibility taken on by parents.

On reducing crime

My opponent [Bob Duffy] keeps talking about a crime commission with a coordinator, and that disturbs me. I don't know exactly what he means by that. We tried changing the structure in the '70s when we had a public-safety commissioner, and it didn't work. There was too much animosity between the police chief, the fire chief, and the public-safety commissioner, and it delayed reaction to problems.

Operation Impact --- incorporating state police, MonroeCounty sheriffs, and any other police agency --- I don't believe we need that. I think what that program indicated is we need more police presence in the neighborhoods. And statistically, that was borne out, because in 2003 we had 57 murders. In 2004, after Operation Impact was used for a while, there were 29 murders. What Operation Impact proved was that you need more people concentrated in the areas in which you have trouble.

On the controversial police reorganization

I'm very upset about the precinct reorganization. I have a different concept about precincts. I don't think we need quadrants; I think what we need is concentration. If you took a map of the city and you identified the areas where the most crime is --- maybe you need two precincts in some areas, because then you would have a police presence. I think police following crime and injecting themselves into the neighborhoods is the answer. When Giuliani [former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani] was at RIT, somebody raised the question: "You decreased crime 65 percent; murders dropped from 2,000 to 600. How did you do it?" His answer was very simple: You do it bit by bit. You do it house by house, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood until you've eradicated crime.

On the size of the police force

What the authorized strength should be depends upon crime, and you've got to tread lightly, because what you don't want to do is raise the authorized strength and get people into jobs that you can't get them out of. That is a very tricky thing.

I'm not a law-and-order candidate to the extent where you say, "We need 900 cops." Well, we don't need 900 cops. We need cops that are out there doing their job.

On fighting drugs

You need interdiction teams. You put police in disguised vehicles. I use the example of RG&E trucks; I don't mean RG&E trucks, I mean things that look like RG&E trucks. It really has two psychological things. Number one, they [criminals] don't know you're coming. And number two, every time they see an RG&E truck it's going to dissuade them, because they think that somebody's going to jump out and arrest them.

Those drug houses in which we've developed probable cause, we can bust. But with those that we haven't developed probable cause, we need to go in and put some pressure on them. And the pressure is money. There is a large source of drugs coming up here from New York City, and they're not going to come here if the money doesn't go back.

On being a defense lawyer squares with his ambition to be mayor

The fact of the matter is, I've had all this legal experience and training, so I think we're going to be further ahead. And somebody says, How can you change hats? Well, I'm not changing hats. I took an oath to do what I'm doing, and in January I take a different oath. I've adhered to the oath that I've taken to the point of being put in jail, and as mayor I would take an oath, and my oath would be to serve the city. I would serve the city with the same passion and the same preparation.

Electing a mayor

Four candidates are running for Rochester mayor in the November 8 election: Democrat and former Police Chief Bob Duffy, who is also running on the Independence line; attorney John Parrinello, a Republican; City Councilmember Tim Mains, and newcomer Chris Maj. Mains and Maj lost to Duffy in the Democratic primary in September; Mains is running on the Working Families Party line, and Maj is running on the Red, White, and Blue line, representing the party he recently formed.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Information about polling places and other voter information is available from the Board of Elections, 428-4550 (TDD: 428-2390).

City's interviews with Duffy, Mains, and Maj were conducted prior to the Democratic primary and are available on our website, www.rochester-citynews.com.

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