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CAYUGA COUNTY
Cayuga County legislator faces backlash over racist letter to The Citizen

Cayuga County Legislator Andrew Dennison insists he's not a racist and isn't resigning after writing a letter to The Citizen in which he criticized the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. 

The letter, which was published Friday, drew outrage over the Ira Republican's comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests happening across the country and efforts to remove statues of historical figures who were Confederate leaders or slave owners. He also panned calls to abolish police departments and claimed that racism is "a two-way street." 

Auburn/Cayuga NAACP President Eli Hernandez released a lengthy statement condemning Dennison's letter and demanding his resignation. 

"In a time when our country is experiencing political and racial unrest, elected officials should carry themselves with respect for the citizens they represent. They should join with those citizens to author hope and to be about the work of systemic change," Hernandez said. "In a letter to the editor, Cato's elected legislator Andrew Dennison shared his true divisive beliefs. The language and outbursts are unbecoming of an elected official." 

One of Hernandez's complaints about Dennison's letter is that it contained false information, specifically Dennison's claim that nine unarmed Black people and 19 unarmed white people were shot and killed by police in 2019.

According to the Washington Post, which has been tracking fatal shootings involving on-duty police officers since 2015, there were 999 people shot and killed by police in 2019. Fifty-five of those people were unarmed — 25 were white, 14 were Black. 

But for all police-involved shooting deaths, there is a racial disparity. The rate of Black Americans shot and killed by police is more than twice the rate for white Americans. 

"The real scourge on this nation is that white people in positions of authority can discriminate, disenfranchise and kill Black Americans with impunity — a scourge Legislator Dennison is apparently unwilling to address," Hernandez said. "His letter is merely the latest in a matrix of attitudes, behaviors and actions that make it unsafe for Black and Brown families to live in peace in this county." 

Over the last few days, there has been bipartisan criticism of Dennison's letter. Assemblyman Gary Finch, a Republican, rebuked the county lawmaker in his own letter to The Citizen. Finch wrote that Dennison "seems eager to celebrate the worst parts of our past." He also called Dennison's claim that racism is a two-way street "gross." 

Other local leaders have slammed Dennison. Dia Carabajal, a former Auburn city councilor who is now running for state Assembly, urged the Cayuga County Legislature to censure Dennison and demand his resignation. Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter called for Dennison's resignation. The Democratic members of the Auburn City Council chided Dennison for his letter that "included racial stereotypes, outright lies and a hostile tone that is an affront to the values of freedom and equality we share as Cayuga County residents as well as American citizens." 

In an interview with The Citizen, Dennison said he's not resigning and accused his critics of twisting his words. He said he wasn't referring to Cayuga County residents when he called protesters "idiots." He added that he supports the recent racial justice demonstrations that were held in Auburn. 

"I'm not a racist," he said. "I'm a realist, which is why I said the things I said." 

Dennison argued that a small percentage of people in every profession "suck," including police officers. But he believes that most police officers are good at their jobs and are being unfairly targeted. 

The nationwide protests began after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, who was Black, died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The officer, who was fired, has been charged with murder. 

"What happened to George Floyd was absolutely wrong," Dennison said. "That cop should spend the rest of his life in jail, but that shouldn't be the poster thing for all cops. It's just ridiculous." 

He repeated many of the same claims that were in his letter, but added that he never wrote that "Black lives didn't matter." He said he's had Black friends over the years, even though Cato is a predominantly white town. 

"They can twist whatever I said however they want, but I've had just as much good feedback as I have had bad feedback because I think there's a lot of people out there who want to say the same thing," Dennison said. "They just don't." 

Members of the Cayuga County Legislature haven't commented on Dennison's letter. Cayuga County Legislature Chairwoman Aileen McNabb-Coleman wrote in an email to The Citizen Monday that half of the legislators met Sunday and the remaining members gathered Monday to discuss the matter. Neither of those meetings was previously announced. 

As of this writing, no other information about the meetings or any potential action against Dennison has been released. There is a special legislature meeting scheduled for Tuesday. 

"We are eager to respond to both the letter and the public outcry," McNabb-Coleman wrote. 


Local
EDUCATION
Cato-Meridian students take graduation 10 at a time amid COVID-19

CATO — Principal Danielle Mahoney began her address to graduating Cato-Meridian High School seniors by reflecting on the history they’ve already lived through.

“Seniors, you’re a very unique class,” Mahoney said.

The 76 seniors in the Class of 2020 who graduated high school Sunday morning finished their secondary educations during the COVID-19 pandemic. And they were also born during the events of 9/11, Mahoney pointed out.

“Both events will make the history books and live on in our lives for years to come. These events have and will continue to make you resilient and determined,” she said.

Sunday’s commencement was unique for another reason: its format. For the first time in about 50 years, Mahoney said, Cato-Meridian seniors participated in an outdoor graduation ceremony.

To hold a limited-capacity event, the entire commencement ceremony was held on the field of the athletic complex and live-streamed on the school’s website. The seniors who attended sat spread out from each other in the bleachers as they waited to receive their diplomas on a stage—which was set up on the athletic track.

They graduated by alphabetical order, in brief individual ceremonies by groups of 10. Family members of the seniors in each group were ushered in and then out of the seating area so the next slate of families could enter.

The segmented ceremonies were done in order to accommodate state mandates limiting graduation audience capacity and limit potential spread of the coronavirus. The audience size was intimate enough that administrators could do a roll call to make sure family members were present before each group walked to the stage.

Each group heard brief remarks from different student and administrative leaders, including Superintendent Terry Ward and Student Council President Jayla Phillips. Valedictorian Hailey Salmonsen and Salutatorian Courtney LaForce also had the chance to speak during one of the seven individual group ceremonies.

Jack Heins provided another twist on the festivities. In full Scottish attire, the pipe major for the City of Syracuse Highland Pipe Band played bagpipes to lead each procession from the bleachers to the seating area next to the stage.

Mahoney’s remarks also focused on the new memories students made while adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic that kept them out of classrooms since March — experiences like virtual learning and a parade in honor of the Class of 2020.

“Regardless of the path you take next, I wish you well. You’ve made us extremely proud and I’m confident you’ll make everyone proud as you pursue your chosen career,” she said.

Gallery: Cato-Meridian High School Class of 2020 graduation

Nationals slugger Ryan Zimmerman said he is still trying to decide if he wants to play this season amid the coronavirus pandemic.


Govt-and-politics
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STATE
Cuomo: NY to crack down on illegal fireworks after numerous complaints

It has been a statewide problem, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants it to stop. 

Cuomo on Monday said that he is directing the New York State Police to create a fireworks enforcement detail that aims to prevent illegal fireworks from entering the state. The action is in response to numerous complaints across New York about the use of illegal fireworks. 

While some fireworks are legal in New York, larger fireworks that tend to be used in professional displays are illegal. But many New Yorkers travel to other states, namely Pennsylvania, to buy fireworks that can't be sold in New York. 

Cuomo said the state police's enforcement efforts will focus on routes between New York and Pennsylvania, where several fireworks stores are located near the border separating the two states. 

"This is illegal and it's dangerous, so we have to stop it," Cuomo added. 

There have been social media reports across New York that residents are using illegal fireworks. In Cayuga County, local authorities said last week that fireworks complaints have increased tenfold this year. 

In one case, fireworks near Auburn Community Hospital delayed the departure of a helicopter transporting a patient to another hospital. 

There have been complaints about fireworks because they can trigger anxiety, especially for military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and pets. In Syracuse, authorities there have said that some residents will report the sound of fireworks as gunshots. 

One possible explanation for the rise in fireworks usage is the COVID-19 pandemic. With limits on gatherings and concerns about the virus, many people are choosing to stay at home. And with many firework shows canceled this year, some residents are deciding to put on some displays of their own. 

In New York City, Cuomo said it sometimes "sounds like the Wild West with all the fireworks going off." 

"I've never heard it like this before," he said. "They're disturbing, they bother people and they are dangerous." 


Local
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CORONAVIRUS
Cayuga County businesses left out of phase four disappointed, but not deterred

Phase four of the state's reopening plan began Friday in the central New York region.

And though it's the last phase that has been announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, phase four still leaves several types of businesses shuttered. Malls, movie theaters and gyms were among those halted from reopening Friday due to their heightened risk of spreading the coronavirus. Cuomo, who broke the news June 23, said the state is studying how to safely reopen those businesses.

"As soon as we get some more information, we'll make an informed decision," he said.

Before Cuomo made his announcement, however, many owners of those types of businesses were under the impression they would be able to open Friday. The phase consists of the categories of arts and entertainment, which could have been interpreted to cover movie theaters, as well as recreation, which could have been interpreted to cover gyms.

Now, though, those businesses are waiting for a potential phase five or six before they can reopen. And while they're disappointed by the state's decision-making, they're not deterred.

Randy Currier, who owns Track Cinema at Fingerlakes Mall with his wife, Tracie, told The Citizen that even if they were open, they wouldn't have new movies to screen anyway. Hollywood has delayed the release of summer blockbusters like "Wonder Woman 1984" and "Black Widow" to the fall and beyond. Still, the Curriers have independent films lined up to screen when Track reopens. And Randy feels the quiet time would be ideal for theaters and health officials to iron out the necessary sanitation and social distancing procedures before audiences return in droves to see more popular movies.

Currier also believes Cuomo's handling of the reopening has made it hard to take the governor at his word. 

"He said that the pause or slowdown would come if and when we saw spikes in cases. We have not," he said. "It does illuminate the need to identify upstate as different from downstate."

That, in turn, makes it harder to plan to reopen Track Cinema, Currier said. For instance, the theater just replaced the soda and slushies in its machines, which were either expired or about to expire. The theater also has an order ready to replace its candy, 75% of which will expire by Aug. 1. Now, all Currier can do is hope Track can reopen before those concessions have to be replaced again.

When it does, Track will enter a new landscape of moviegoing. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen movie studios shift more toward video-on-demand and streaming releases in the belief that even when theaters reopen, audiences will be reluctant to go back. Currier, too, foresees some hardship in the short term. But he believes theaters will be back, if only because there's nothing like them.

"People in general like to get out and be with other people. Some say that the movie industry is doomed due to on-demand movies, but most movies are designed to be a better experience to watch in a theater," he said. "People can make meals at home, but even though the meal costs them more, they choose to go out to eat because it usually is a better experience."

Also waiting patiently to reopen is Jamie Swagler, owner of gym Swagler Strength & Performance at 315 Genesee St. in Auburn.

Though he's been able to conduct personal training in groups of four or less since that was permitted to reopen in phase two, Swagler said the pandemic has hit his business hard. He's managed with the help of SBA disaster loans, negotiations with his landlord and the fact that he works full-time in construction. But staying positive has also proven helpful.

"It's easy to get real frustrated, but you can't," he said. "I'm a big believer in controlling what you can control and not worrying about the rest. We'll just do what we can, when we can."

For Swagler, that means holding outdoor fitness classes in addition to the small ones in his gym, as well as preparing the 12,000-square-foot space for socially distant workouts when it reopens. He's sectioning off workout areas with their own equipment, cleaning spray and other necessities, significantly limiting the amount of people who are exposed to the same surfaces.

So whenever gyms are able to reopen, Swagler's will be ready.

"When we closed, we thought maybe this would last two weeks. But it turned into close to four months," he said. "Like most businesses it's been a tough time, but I think we're gonna be able to get out on the other side and get back to what we were doing."