March 14, 2007

Speaker dispels Muslim myths


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Omer Bajwa, director of outreach for the Middle Eastern Studies department at Cornell University, speaks about Islam at Homer High School Tuesday morning.

Staff Reporter

HOMER — When students told a speaker at the beginning of a school-wide assembly Tuesday at the high school that the word Islam makes them think of terrorists, AK47s and bombs, the speaker was not surprised.
Islamic religion and culture expert Omer Bajwa told the students he understands their reactions.
“I appreciate your candor,” he said. “You are not alone.”
Bajwa, 30, of Ithaca, spent an hour and a half discussing commonly held stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.
Those stereotypes have little to do with Islamic theology, describing just a small percentage of Muslims who are extremists, he said.
Bajwa, a Muslim who moved from Pakistan to Endicott in Tompkins County when he was 3, is the director of outreach for the Middle Eastern Studies department at Cornell University. Bajwa has a bachelor’s in English from SUNY Binghamton and holds master’s degrees in communications and Eastern studies with a concentration in Islamic studies from Cornell University.
The idea of Bajwa speaking at Homer about Islam, which is part of the global studies curriculum, has upset some parents and community residents over the last five months, causing the school to postpone the talk from late October until Tuesday, but students interviewed after the assembly said they were glad Bajwa came to the school.
Early on in Bajwa’s presentation, he showed common images in the news media portraying Muslims. One of those images is of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, staring blankly at the camera. He is wearing a turban, has a long beard and dark skin and has a machine gun.
“He symbolizes sort of the archetypical Muslim,” Bajwa said. “He’s the face of Islam for many people around the world.”
But in truth, Bajwa said, Bin Laden only represents 0.1 percent of the Muslim population. Islamic theology does not preach violence, he said, but doing what God wants.
As in Christianity and Judaism, two other monotheistic religions, God wants people to live humbly, help others and give to charity,_he said.
Bajwa played some musical prayers that communicate those desires and explained how the five pillars of Islam, which include fasting during the month of Ramadam, praying and taking pilgrimages, teach people to appreciate what they have and to be patient, just as Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism do.
Bajwa also explained how jihad does not mean “holy war” as many think, but a “struggle in the path of Islam.” He said to most Muslims that struggle means working hard to be a good person, but to a few that means a physical struggle against what they think is tyranny and oppression in the world.
“They are idiots perverting the teachings of Islam,” Bajwa said. “It’s unfortunate the 0.1 percent are the ones that are making hell for us.”
After the talk, Natalie Bush, a 16-year-old sophomore, said Bajwa’s presentation made her realize that not all Muslims are bad people or that different from Christians and Jewish people.
“I won’t judge them as much as I used to,” she said.
Deanne Stafford, 14, said she liked how Bajwa shared elements of Islamic religion and culture with the students, such as the musical prayers.
“I felt like I was in the Sahara Desert or something,” the freshman said. “That made it more interesting.”
Junior Travis Bonawitz, 18, said the talk further solidified his desire to become a photojournalist. In that profession, he can provide the images showing the complexities of Islam and groups of people in general.
“Then I can show the bad and the good,” he said.
High school Principal Fred Farah said after Bajwa’s talk teachers polled their students to see what they thought of it. Teachers got good feedback from their students, he said.
“What I’m hearing is comments from teachers that are overwhelmingly positive on the part of the kids, indicating they learned quite a bit and dispelled misconceptions and stereotypes,” he said.
Farah said about 800 students attended the talk Tuesday, and that about a dozen students opted not to attend the event and have a study hall instead. He said about 20 guests, including parents and Board of Education members, also attended the assembly.
Bruce Tytler, chair of the social studies department at the high school, said he’s proud of his colleagues for organizing the event. They saw a need, Tytler said.
“Our students aren’t much different than any school upstate,” he said. “We recognized the students held misconceptions so we tried to shed some light on some of the misplaced beliefs.”



Talks fail to resolve election commissioners lawsuit against county

Staff Reporter

Despite an effort in recent weeks to resolve the matter outside of court, the lawsuit filed against the county by its election commissioners will see its first court date Friday.
Although both parties have expressed an interest in avoiding a court date, informal talks between Republican Election Commissioner Bob Howe, his Democratic counterpart Bill Wood and county officials regarding a possible settlement yielded no results.
The initial court appearance for the case, in which Howe and Wood complain that the county was wrong to have equaled their salaries at $26,384 for 2007, will be Friday at 11:15 a.m. at the Chenango County Courthouse in Norwich.
State Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dowd will preside.
Ralph Mohr, a Buffalo attorney who also serves as an election commissioner in Erie County, said that there had been conversations between his clients, Howe and Wood, and the county about settling, but with few results.
“I don’t think they’ve been fruitful, the last I heard from my clients, they haven’t been able to make any progress in discussions with the Legislature,” Mohr said.
Howe said he had had conversations with Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) and other legislators, but would not elaborate on what sort of proposals he had made.
“We’ve made proposals, we all want the same thing and that’s just that the county follow the law, but there seems to be some resistance on that, so it doesn’t give us much choice but to go through with it,” Howe said.
Brown also declined to characterize the discussions, but said that she stood by the county’s decision to remove the election commissioners from the county’s management compensation plan, which awards periodic pay raises to county employees based on length of service, and to equalize Howe and Wood’s salaries at $26,384.
“We equalized their salaries like they asked,” Brown said.
That decision, made by unanimous vote at the Legislature’s Dec. 21 session, came in response to a request by Howe that the county equal Wood’s salary — $25,616 in his first year on the job — with his own — $29,967 due to 10 years of longevity.
Howe, in the lawsuit, now charges that it was inappropriate to reduce his salary, to $26,384, in the middle of his two-year term, while Wood contends that his salary for 2006 should be equal with Howe’s.
Howe also noted that he had conversations with Tom Williams (R-Homer), who Howe said had presented some “interesting solutions,” regarding settlements.
Williams declined to comment on any suggestions, but did say he had encouraged Howe and Wood to attend a meeting of the county’s Personnel Committee to discuss the issue.



County, officer to pay village training costs

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Cortland County must pay the village an unspecified amount of money after a judge ruled the county violated state law in 2005 when it hired a village officer to work for the Sheriff’s Department and did not reimburse the village for the officer’s initial training costs.
The officer, County Police Officer Joshua Parente, must also pay the village $9,538.39 after he made an agreement to stay with the village for three years if it paid for the training costs, and his tuition at Mohawk Valley Community College, but left the department 479 days before the three year period had concluded.
The Homer Police Department hired Parente in January 2003 where he worked until May 2005 when the Sheriff’s Department hired him.
State Supreme Court Judge Phillip R. Rumsey said in his decision that Parente was advised that if he quit the department between one and two years of employment he would have to pay the village back 60 percent of his training cost.
“Plaintiff (the village) has established, through the affidavit of its Chief of Police, that Parente acknowledged having received, read and understood the provisions set forth in the Employee Handbook, including the schedule for reimbursement of training costs should he terminate his employment within the first three years, and that he ‘agreed’ to those terms,” Rumsey said in his decision.
Rumsey granted a default judgment for the amount the village desired against Parente because he failed to appear before the court and contest the complaint, the decision said.
Parente was unable to be reached for comment this morning.
Although the decision specifies the amount Parente owes, it does not state a specific amount that the county is required to pay.
County Attorney Richard Van Donsel said the decision requires that the county and the village come to an agreement about the exact amount of money owed, based on the ruling that the county is liable for 43.796 percent of books, tuition ammunition, supplies and travel costs paid by the village during Parente’s nine-month training in 2003.
“The expenses for which a partial reimbursement may be had, from the county, include the salary and benefits provided to Parente during his training period, together with the direct costs of the training itself,” Rumsey wrote in his decision.



Committee to give report April 5

Staff Reporter

A breakdown of communication lead the county into the situation it now faces over a proposal to build a $5.5 million public health facility on south Main Street, a special legislative committee agreed Tuesday.
The committee also agreed that it had seen no indication of anything done illegally, but it acknowledged a number of policies and procedures that could use tightening, changing or clarification.
Tuesday was the final formal meeting of the committee, which has spent the past two months examining the failings of the proposal.
The committee identified six options for how the county might proceed as it deals with legal challenges to its decision to annul $894,000 in purchase offers for nine properties in the south Main Street area.
Those options include purchasing the properties to avoid a lawsuit and reselling all or some of them, with the possibility of a scaled-down project, or not purchasing the properties and either battling the lawsuit or trying to negotiate out of the purchase agreements.
The committee also agreed on a list of 23 recommendations for how the county can improve its process for acquiring land in the future.
All of the information will be sent to legislators by early next week, Committee Chairwoman Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward) said, and the committee will meet with any interested legislators to discuss its findings prior to the March 22 legislative session.
A special session to discuss how to move forward will be held April 5.
Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on how the county could improve its process for acquiring property, considering the numerous space needs that still need to be addressed.
Legislator Dan Tagliente (D-7th Ward) suggested the county avoid going through a real estate broker in the future and acquire property by eminent domain when necessary, while Legislator Tom Williams (R-Homer) suggested a public request-for-proposal process in which competition would keep prices down.
In terms of communication, the committee agreed that the chairman of each legislative committee should prepare a summary every month of key issues brought up in committee for each caucus to keep legislators abreast of significant discussion. Williams said he hoped all legislators would also have a voice in such projects from the beginning.
“I see the role of the Legislature as sort of the big paintbrush, the people saying let’s go down this particular path, and I see the administration as sort of the smaller paintbrush, taking care of all the details,” Williams said. “I’m not sure in my mind who was doing the bigger paintbrush piece.”
Tagliente, who was one of the first legislators to become involved with the south Main Street project, said the committee process the county has in place was responsible for some legislators being left out of the process.


Minor flood warning issued

Staff Reporter

Nothing disastrous is expected, but warm temperatures and rain will likely lead to minor instances of flooding around the county.
The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for most of Central New York and up into the Albany area today through Thursday, said meteorologist Mike Evans, of the National Weather Service’s Binghamton office.
“It’s nothing like what we had last June, but it is a flood watch and so people who live in flood-prone areas should keep an eye out for warnings,” Evans said Tuesday afternoon.
Anywhere from half-an-inch to 1 1/2 inches of rain is expected to fall today and Thursday.
“There’s a lot of ice in the streams and rivers and once it starts to get warmer, it breaks up a bit and starts to pile up,” thereby diverting the water behind the ice, Evans said Tuesday afternoon. “We consider that to probably be the biggest threat through tomorrow (Wednesday).”
Although there aren’t any reports of ice jams as of yet, county Assistant Emergency Management Coordinator Brenda DeRusso said she expects the rivers and streams, over the next three days, to reach just below the flood stage.
“The Tioughnioga (River) is registering at 3.65 feet right now, and it’s steady. The Otselic (River) is at 1.87 (feet),” DeRusso said Tuesday afternoon.
Flood stage for the Tioughnioga River is about 8.5 feet, but at times, it can exceed that depth with minimal impact, DeRusso said. It’s 9 feet for the Otselic.
“According to the information that we were given today, in our area, we were told that we have 4 to 6 inches of water in our snow pack,” DeRusso said. “For every inch of precipitation, it can bring the river levels up anywhere from 1 1/2 to 3 feet.”
Flooding along small streams and creeks will increase later tonight and Thursday, according to the National Weather Service, and heavy rains in excess of one inch could result in minor flooding along many main stem river points later Thursday or Thursday night.
There is a scenario that concerns DeRusso — when the temperatures go up to the low to mid-60s during the day and it doesn’t go below freezing at night, “that’s when we have problems.”
Cortland Assistant Fire Chief Charles Sherman said this morning that people should move items out of basements, and that those with sump pumps should have them ready to go.
“Right now, we will be watching the situation and responding with the necessary equipment and manpower if an emergency arises,” said county Highway Superintendent Don Chambers. “Right now the ditches are relatively filled with snow, so that could create some localized drainage problems.”