February 17, 2007

Making a difference

Longtime SUNY Cortland professor and activist Bill Griffen dies

Bill Griffen

Cortland Standard
Bill Griffen stands at a spot on the SUNY Cortland campus where he and his mother posed for a photo before he started attending classes there 50 years ago.

Staff Reporter

Bill Griffen had been a teacher, a neighbor and, perhaps most importantly, a friend to Jo Locasio over the course of about three decades. Describing how she felt about his death Friday, she reached back to something her mother used to say.
“Grief is the price we humans pay for love,” Locasio said. “And if grief is the price we pay for love, then we all have a lot of that today.”
In the end, Locasio said Griffen had been a “noble, noble man.”
The former SUNY Cortland professor and social activist, who lived on Palmer Road in Tully, died Friday morning after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 78 years old.
“He was kind of like Gandhi — he showed courage and bravery by being gentle and kind. He handled tough situations, never with anger, but with humor,” said Betty Bierman, who shares a home with Locasio on Song Lake Road in Tully. “He always had a way to circumnavigate a bad situation or defuse it.”
A baseball enthusiast and jazz drummer, Griffen was as well rounded as they come, even making bids for U.S. Congress in 1968 and 1990.
“He was always ready to help get your car started, or anything like that, and he was always ready for a party, too. He was always the first to get all the kids together for a ball game. He never lost the kid in himself. That always made the children love him, and me, too,” Bierman said.
“He took a great many pictures of great blue herons and dragonflies. He would come popping up from beneath a bush with a camera in his hand when you least expected it … He was always in my garden, taking bees’ and dragonflies’ pictures, and he would always share them.”
As a colleague and friend of more than 30 years, former Cortland resident John Marciano, who now lives in Santa Monica, Calif, collaborated with Griffen on papers and books, and the two taught classes together.
Marciano said when the two traveled to conferences, Griffen would always schmooze jazz musicians and end up sitting in with them, often as the only white guy in a group full of black musicians.
“We hit it off as brothers, we were both in the anti-war movement, we loved working with students. He was warm, genuine, we could spend hours talking about serious things on the way to conferences and also listen to some great jazz,” Marciano said Friday evening. “And he had a great sense of faith and optimism that people could make a difference in the world. And he saw that, especially with his work in the South. He saw the changes that could happen.”
Throughout his 51-year career at the college as a Foundations of Education and Social Advocacy professor — making him SUNY’s longest-tenured professor — Griffen challenged students and the world at large.
“He had an amazing amount of patience. Because you know, raising the issues he did in classes, challenging the traditional values of the country. When you raise those issues with students, of course sometimes it can be very difficult. He certainly raised contentious ideas, but he was not a contentious person, he was not a bitter person,” Marciano said, adding that his friend would never shout someone down to win an argument.
Associate professor Joseph Rayle, a friend and current chair of Griffen’s department, said his own thinking had been altered by working with the much-older but always dynamic Griffen.
“The fundamental question that he wanted students to ask is ‘What is education for?’” Rayle said Friday. “How education affects the rest of our society, and how we kind of unintentionally create a culture of consumerism. I think it’s very safe to say that he wanted to shake up the status quo.”
He was a social activist for issues in both his community and in the larger world, and as Bierman said Friday afternoon, “He tried to right any wrong he saw happening to people or to the earth itself.”
In the early 1960s, the death of a former student, Bill Moore, while registering black voters in the South, propelled Griffen into action as a civil rights activist in Fayette County, Tenn., also registering black voters. Later, the Vietnam War would prove to be another catalyst for Griffen, who formed the Cortland Citizens for Peace organization that would be active throughout the war.
In an August 2006 interview with the Cortland Standard, Griffen estimated that he had been arrested about 40 times for acts of civil disobedience.
Griffen would prove to be both an environmental advocate and a local resource for all who were concerned with issues of human rights.
Local activist Ruth Grunberg of Cortland said the regular Saturday protest of the Iraq War, in front of the Cortland Post Office, today would be in honor of Bill Griffen.
Having known Griffen for about 25 years, as a friend, neighbor, and colleague, Marley Barduhn, the associate dean for the college’s School of Education, said he was the kind of person that you were better off for having known.
“He focused on really important social issues, and he not only spoke about them, he put them into action with his work during the Civil Rights Era. I think there are few who would commit himself as fully to his cause as that, because he knew it mattered,” Barduhn said Friday.
“Bill is a larger-than-life presence in all of our lives. It’s pretty trite when you say that there’s no one like this, but there really is nobody like this. He was a joy — he had a love of life that was just huge, and that carried over into everything he did. He did it with a passion, he did it with zeal, he didn’t do anything half-heartedly.”
Despite his protest activities, Griffen was wholly devoted to his family, Barduhn said, remembering that Griffen scheduled his protest activities around when he would be accompanying his daughter, Amy, on college visits.
After providing some names of close friends, Amy Griffen offered a brief statement on behalf of her family.
“His family was never neglected for even a moment — that’s how incredibly well rounded he was,” Amy Griffen said, her voice choked with emotion. “He was the best dad in the world.”



County fails to respond to lawsuit threat

Staff Reporter

The county Legislature has let a deadline pass to respond to an impeding lawsuit over its abandoned purchase of south Main Street properties without any formal discussion of how to reply.
The attorney who has threatened the lawsuit on behalf of two property owners said Friday afternoon that he had not heard anything from the county.
“I will report to my clients that nothing came back to us, and I’m sure probably next week they’ll direct me to do that,” Cortland attorney Russell Ruthig said of his promise to file suit.
Legislators argued over whether discussion of the lawsuit should be done in public at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting Friday morning. The meeting was ultimately adjourned without any discussion — public or private.
The Legislature’s decision at its Jan. 25 meeting to revoke its initial agreement to purchase nine parcels of land along south Main Street for a total of $894,000 has been challenged legally by attorneys for four of the six property owners involved in the deal.
Ruthig has said the county’s original decision to purchase the properties in December represented a binding agreement.
The committee meeting was to be the first opportunity for legislators to formally discuss the potential lawsuit, but discussions broke down when committee members could not agree on whether to go into an executive session.
County Attorney Ric Van Donsel requested the closed-door session at the end of the meeting — citing discussion of a legal matter, a typical reason for going into executive session — but a number of committee members said they would prefer to discuss the potential suit in public.
“This has been a very public issue from the beginning, so I don’t see why we couldn’t talk about it in open session,” Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) said after the meeting.
Committee Chairman Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) disagreed.
“This is a legal issue and if our county attorney says it needs to be discussed in executive session, I believe that’s the case,” Van Dee said afterward.
After brief and heated discussion during the meeting, Van Dee asked who on the committee was in favor of an executive session, and received no response.
The meeting was quickly adjourned, leaving committee members and a number of legislators in attendance still unsure on where the county stands legally.
“As I understand it, nobody wanted to go into executive session, so we just didn’t talk about it,” Legislator Newell Willcox (R-Homer) said after the meeting. “We need to though, and we need to do it openly and I’m willing any time — morning, noon or night.”
Legislator Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville) agreed, and suggested that the county still needed to consider ways of avoiding a lawsuit.
“It definitely should be done publicly,” Ross said. “I still think we need to talk about purchasing the property and then discuss what to do with it — we definitely don’t need a lawsuit.”
The full Legislature meets next at 6 p.m. Thursday.


County bond rating upgraded

Move will save county $650,000 in interest payments on recent $9.8 million bond

Staff Reporter

The county has effectively pulled itself out of a significant financial rut, the county auditor told the Budget and Finance Committee Friday, resulting in an upgrade of the county’s bond rating.
Standards & Poor’s Credit Market Services (S&P) has upgraded the county’s bond rating to “A+” based on its improved financial condition and improved management practices, auditor Dennis Whitt said. That is considered an upper medium grade, with AA and AAA, the highest grade, above it.
In 2003, another bond rating agency, Moody’s Investor Services, had downgraded the county’s rating two steps, from an A2 to a Baa1. Moody’s uses a different grading system from S&P, Whitt said, but essentially S&P’s recent upgrade boosted the county three steps above that rating.
“Basically you’re better off than you’ve been since 2003,” Whitt told the committee, saying that better oversight by the Legislature, the correction of minor accounting issues in the County Treasurer’s Office and the building up of the county’s fund balance had contributed to the better bond rating.
The improved bond rating allowed the county to receive interest rates ranging between 3.99 percent and 4.05 percent for a recent $9.8 million bond, County Treasurer Don Ferris said, down from an estimated 4.5 percent interest rate it would have received with the lower rating.
This will result in approximately $650,000 in savings, Ferris said, over the course of the 21-year bond, which was taken out to pay for the building of a new county recycling center and the county’s $7 million share of the Tompkins Cortland Community College expansion project.
The drop in the county’s bond rating in 2003 had been due primarily to shaky finances in the county as a result of high Medicare costs, and the questionable practice of using fund balance to limit tax increases prior to 2003, Ferris said.
“At one point we had used up most of our fund balance to keep the taxes down,” Ferris said, pointing to 2000, when the county spent $3.7 million, or 85 percent of its fund balance, to help balance the budget. “That’s just not sound practice, to use it all up in one year.”
Ferris pointed to increased oversight of spending, primarily through the creation of a county administrator position and through more legislative involvement, as reasons the fund balance was able to grow.
The county’s general fund balance stood at around $8.9 million at the end of 2006.
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) was pleased with the improved bond rating.
He, too, credited increased oversight, and suggested that the county’s decision last November to hire CPA Rick McNeilly to help correct some accounting issues in the Treasurer’s Office was a good one.
McNeilly reported to the committee last month that the problems — primarily with balancing a handful of accounts, and closing some long-term capital accounts that were no longer active — had been rectified.
“It was never politics, we were just trying to do what’s right for the county and work with Don to make sure we get that stuff fixed,” Van Dee said.
Whitt credited Ferris for working with McNeilly to resolve the issues.
“The books are all closed, there’s no problem in the Treasurer’s Office,” he said. “Things are better in the Treasurer’s Office than they’ve been since I’ve been here.”
Ferris said that his office, now that it’s caught up, should not have trouble staying up to date on accounting procedures.
He said he was hopeful the county could keep its bond rating high.
“We’re back where we should be, but now the real task at hand is to stay there,” Ferris said. “We can’t get back into the habit of using our fund balance to keep taxes down.”