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Urban Journal - 12.21.05


Remember Nixon?

This is just terrifying. It was bad enough that the Bush administration fought John McCain's push to ban torture. Now we learn that he has approved government spying on US citizens with no judicial oversight. And he says he intends to keep right on approving it.

The excuse is the predictable one: we have to give up our rights to fight the terrorists. This is the method of tyrants. The president is convinced that he has the right to do whatever he likes: that he is above the law.

Even some of his Republican supporters are becoming concerned.

As for the rest of us: it's time to reread history and learn what this country was supposed to be all about.

A sinking (ferry) feeling

It's getting harder and harder to be optimistic about the ferry.

The city-controlled Rochester Ferry Corp released its 2006 "operating proposal" last week, and like its earlier report, the document is way short on information from which its owners --- the citizens of Rochester --- can make assessments about its future.

There's a budget comparison, but it's between the proposed 2006 budget and the original 2005 budget. As everyone knows, the 2005 actuals don't vaguely resemble the budget.

Several times over the past few weeks, Mayor Bill Johnson has said that he should have been frank with the public: that the ferry would need a taxpayer subsidy. "I viewed it as a death pill to say that," he told us recently.

But then he turned right around and said he's convinced that the ferry can break even without a subsidy. And the 2006 plan assumes that it can do just that.

Most worrying is the ferry corp's plan for marketing. Everybody agrees that the 2005 marketing was woefully inadequate. The ferry arrived in Rochester in 2004 to great public enthusiasm. And initially, ridership looked good. But the private owners were in over their heads. With their finances hemorrhaging, they abruptly shut down service, and the city borrowed $40 million and took the boat.

By that time, the ferry's reputation was seriously tainted. And the city's first season as a transportation operator got off to a late, shaky start.

What the ferry corp needed to do was launch a high-powered marketing campaign to get people to ride the boat. It failed to do that. And too few people rode the boat.

So how much more money is budgeted for marketing next year?

Not a dime.

The total budget for marketing for 2006 is $600,000. That will have to cover marketing both in Canada and in the US.

The ferry corp says that's not all that will be spent. There are big plans to "leverage" that $600,000, to get other people to foot part of the marketing bill. The ferry corp will ask the state for I Love New York funds. It'll look for "media partners" who will take part in co-promotions. It'll look for "selected partners" for promotional packages.

All of those are good ideas, things that can enhance the ferry corp's own advertising. But what if some of them don't come through? What if some of the prospective partners want to see a few months of successful operation before they sign on? What if they already have their promotional plans set for the spring?

What if we don't get much money from the state?

Marketing is supposed to start in February. What are the chances the ferry corp will have money and promotions lined up within the next few weeks?

What if we have to pay for most of the initial marketing out of our own pockets?

Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. Unfortunately, the city's track record on operating the ferry makes me nervous.

A word of advice to Mayor-elect Bob Duffy and the members of City Council: please, please ask some business leaders and marketing experts to evaluate the 2006 plan. Consultant Arnie Rothschild certainly has experience in marketing. But we need more eyes on this.

And we need a more solid marketing budget. How much money should be spent on marketing, regardless of its source? What will it take to get people on that boat?

And if the partnering and leveraging stuff is slow getting off the ground, if the I Love New York funds don't come through quickly, what's the back-up plan?

The Johnson speak-out

Johnson infuriated some people when he publicly criticized Duffy in this newspaper last week. It was "inappropriate," they said, for him to be speaking out.

Really? The public shouldn't know about the concerns of the man who has led the city for the past 12 years? He should keep quiet and discuss those concerns only with the mayor elect?

In his interview with us, Johnson didn't suggest that Duffy keep specific people. He said Duffy should move more slowly on some changes. Duffy, Johnson said, will be faced with enormous challenges on January 1, and the city needs to continue to operate smoothly while he learns the ropes.

Is Johnson right? Wrong? Either way, doesn't the public need to know about his concerns?

Johnson is also worried that Duffy seems to be cozying up to the business community and that the voices of average citizens could be left out. Is that a legitimate issue? Doesn't the public need to know about Johnson's concerns?

This kind of post-election, administration-change criticizing is nothing new, by the way. The late Mayor Tom Ryan lobbed his own complaints in Bill Johnson's direction --- publicly --- right about this time in the transition. Ryan had endorsed Johnson in the election. But the December 4, 1993, Democrat and Chronicle carried this headline: "Rift between Ryan, Johnson on appointees."

"Now all of a sudden he's talking about replacing the people who provided these efficient services," he told reporter Gary Craig. "It seems to me we're talking about a little Johnson patronage here."