Friday March 1 residents and business people took the opportunity to meet Senator Michael Balboni during an "open house" held at Port Washington Public Library. The idea for the open house came from the success of the satellite office set up by the senator in Manhasset after the tragedy of Sept. 11, to make important information more accessible to the many devastated families. This was the first open house of its kind for the senator and prior to the event he described it as, "an opportunity for me to bring my senate office to Port, and to meet with constituents who need assistance or information."
This was also an opportunity for parents to enroll their children in Senator Balboni's "Olympic Reading Program" which he recently initiated in celebration of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The program requires children to read three books and keep a reading journal and on completion they will receive an official State Senate Olympic Reading Certificate, signed by Balboni. Pre-readers can also enroll and work through the project with adult assistance; details and enrollment forms are available on the parents counter in the children's room at the library.
Balboni and his staff received constituents in the third floor Learning Center at the Library and listened to their concerns and ideas about pending legislation as well as offering assistance and guidance on personal issues influenced by state government. By 12:30 p.m. a line was forming and the thoughtfully provided Dunkin Donuts coffee and snacks proved popular as people waited patiently. Many constituents took the opportunity to ask for advice or support on personal issues such as medical benefits and state pensions. Other inquiries were more broad based and covered a range of subjects, including the environment, childcare, traffic and parking, veterans' issues, pensions and health insurance.
Patti Wood, executive director of Grass Roots Environmental Education, a non-profit organization, spoke at length to the senator on the issue of pesticides and the serious effect they have on our health. Ms. Wood was especially concerned that parents are unaware of the very serious nature of the childhood diseases caused by pesticides such as leukemia and brain cancer. Wood said Balboni showed great interest in the topic and indicated he would like to discuss the issue further and asked her to provide scientific studies on the link between childhood diseases and pesticides. She said the senator "didn't just listen but genuinely wanted to know more" and was very pleased with her time spent at the open house.
Dan Donatelli, president of the General Council of Homeowners Association, a group representing 24 civic associations on the peninsula, brought traffic concerns to the senator. There are sections of Port Washington Boulevard, between Campus Drive and Willowdale Avenue, that do not have central turning lanes and Donatelli says this is the cause of a higher than usual instance of accidents. Donatelli asked the senator for support in introducing these central turning lanes and said the senator was "very helpful and attentive." The senator also told him that several other constituents had raised the same issue. Donatelli has already heard back from the senator's office that the Town of North Hempstead, who will work with the State DOT on the plans, has been contacted regarding these proposed changes.
Mr. Larry Glass represented nearly 1,000 people when he spoke to the senator's Chief Counsel regarding a bill that will enable administrators, who have worked in New York City and paid the additional pension rates, to collect the benefits. Currently administrators who have transferred to working outside of the city have lost their rights to the additional pension benefits even though they have previously paid into the system. The senator was very supportive of the bill, which was proposed last year by Senator Marcellino, but was not passed because time ran out before the senate could vote on it. The senator told Glass he will vote in favor of the bill and that he may even consider co-sponsoring the bill this year. Glass said he was, "happy and so far hopeful" with the senator's response.
Other constituents who took the opportunity to speak with the senator were Marlene Selig, executive director of Port Washington Children's Center and her colleague, Co-President of the Board of Directors, Pamela Tarica. The women are concerned about the eligibility level for childcare subsidies in Nassau County, which excludes many families from subsidized childcare; currently a family of four with an income of $40,000 is above the eligibility level. Ms. Selig said money is available in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Fund, which the federal government allows to be used for childcare subsidies but that the state senate would have to vote it through. The senator told Selig that the eligibility level may appear unreasonable in this area because of the unusually high cost of living, but that it is not an issue in other parts of the state. Ms. Selig is not sure if the senator will be able to help with this issue but was pleased with his response. She also gave the senator a valentine from the children as a thank you for his help in the past when he has obtained New York state legislative grants for special projects at the center. These have allowed them to build the playground and renovate the space in the Land Mark building.
One constituent wanted to thank the senator for voting in favor of the Women's Health and Wellness Bill, which requires health insurance to cover important regular screening tests for women such as mammograms, pap smears and bone density testing for osteoporosis. This is an important bill, which has been voted on several times but has not been passed due to the controversial question of birth control, which divides the state assembly and the Senate. The assembly's version of the bill requires all health insurance policies and medical facilities, to provide coverage and dispense birth control for women. The senate version however includes a "conscience clause" that allows institutions to opt out of providing birth control on grounds of religious affiliation. Balboni supports the bill with the inclusion of the "conscience clause".
A similar issue brought to the senator was the question of the bill for emergency contraception in the emergency room, (EC in the ER). This bill was sponsored by assembly member Susan John and passed by the assembly in January 2002 by a vote of 132-to-10. The bill requires that all emergency rooms, regardless of the hospital's religious affiliation be required to counsel rape survivors about emergency contraception and offer it immediately on-site. At the time of going to press the senator's office had not had the opportunity to comment on this issue.
According to Balboni's office and the constituents I spoke to, the open house was deemed to be a success. One constituent said, "there was a constant stream of people and it was pleasantly surprising to see so many people take the senator up on his offer to talk to him and his staff." Due to the success of Friday's "open house" plans are being made to hold similar events in other parts of the senator's constituency, possibly Floral Park and Great Neck.