5 times we went to bat for our readers: Venugopal

We at lohud/The Journal News started this year with the launch of an expansive project and passionate conversation about Rockland’s largest and most controversial town: Ramapo.  A team of Journal News/lohud reporters spent months exploring issues ranging from a lack of zoning and safety code enforcement to government inaction and cultural differences.

The Ramapo project found that beneath the usual storylines of racism and anti-Semitism, the real threats to the community were loose zoning, lax enforcement of fire and building codes, and out-of-control development. It’s a conversation we hope to continue under the newly elected town leadership and we will be looking for signs of progress.

In 2017, we’ve gone to bat for readers many times. Some efforts have been inspired by the news cycle, while others have been conversation-starters about long-simmering issues. In some cases, we followed up with high-profile events such public forums to bring the community into the discussion.

So, in addition to our coverage of Ramapo, here are four more times lohud went to bat for its readers. 

2. Ruining Mount Vernon

In April, we delved into the dysfunction plaguing city government in Mount Vernon. We looked at it through the prism of Memorial Field. The once glorious symbol of athletic achievements and cultural celebration had been reduced to acres of rubble, a mound of contaminated dirt and debris, that could cost $2 million to clean up.

In a two-part special report, we first presented the rich history of the city and then reported on the problems within city government. We invited members of the community to a forum onthe political situation and how to move forward. A spirited discussion ensued. Part of our mission is to help people become more engaged in their community, and will continue to keep tabs on what’s working and what‘s not.

3. Purple Heart finds family

In July, we helped spread the word about a mystery worth solving: to find the rightful owners of a Purple Heart, the military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed in action.

The medal had been found by Joseph “Dusty” Ridlon about six years prior in Central Nyack, covered in dust by a roadside.  After unsuccessful attempts to track down the family of  “B.J. McNamara Dec. 9, 1943,” it sat in a box on his counter. Until July.

“One day I was cleaning, throwing things out, and there it was,” recalled Ridlon. This time Ridlon gave it to a friend, who turned the medal over to C.R. and R.O. Blauvelt American Legion Post 310 in Nyack.

The post historian, Jim Leiner, scoured military archives, old newspapers, historical accounts, Census records and more, even involving U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer‘s office to help solve the mystery.

Less than 10 days after The Journal News/lohud ran a story about the Purple Heart, the family of Staff Sgt. Bernard J. McNamara, who was wounded in a historic battle and captured by the Nazis, was reunited with the prestigious award. Schumer presented it to them.

“It’s overwhelming,” said McNamara‘s son, Brian, a Bronx man who served in Vietnam. “We say in the Army we never forget our buddies. You never leave them behind, and this is just proof of that.”

4. Documenting Hate

The first half of the year saw an uptick in hate crimes and bias incidents in the Lower Hudson Valley, mirroring a national trend. The incidents included a dozen trees found spray-painted with swastikas in the woods in New City.

Nationwide, no reliable data exists to provide a complete picture of hate crime in America, and no government agency documents lower-level incidents of harassment and intimidation. In July, the Journal News/lohud teamed up with other media across the country in the Documenting Hate project, led by the nonprofit ProPublica to track the prevalence and nature of hate crimes. The project aims to fill in our knowledge gaps and increase public awareness about this timely and important subject.

5. Cashless toll fees

After more than a year of smoothly cruising over the “cashless” Tappan Zee Bridge, and then the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, the ride suddenly got bumpy for many commuters.

Envelopes with hefty fines for unpaid tolls started arriving in the mail. Missing the first two invoices would prove costly: a 60-day delay meant $100 in fines. Cashless tolling on the bridge, which started April 23, 2016, was proving to be a major headache for many. One Pearl River resident, John J. Power, said his son‘s $490 worth of tolls became nearly $7,000 in fines. The state Department of Motor Vehicles also suspended his registration.

In November, we asked readers to share their experiences via email and through Facebook to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation. We received hundreds of responses from readers. We dug into the issue for weeks, covering a range of aspects and seeking answers from the Thruway Authority.

Thruway officials responded, saying that when a vehicle owner calls about violations —  — they will offer to waive violation fees if the driver signs up for E-Z Pass, provided their bill has not yet gone to a collection agency. Our Editorial Board suggested commonsense solutions, including more frequent and clearer road signs, making invoices stand out and making the process of paying and disputing fines easier.

“We agree with your suggestions, and are currently assessing those and other ideas,” wrote Matthew J. Driscoll, the Thruway Authority‘s acting executive director. We are planning to hold a panel discussion with experts on Jan. 9 to help people navigate the complicated cashless toll billing and violation system. We will announce those details soon.

In the meantime, let us know if you have received a toll violation. Email us at digital or call and leave a message.

Our mission is simple: to help find solutions to the problems people face across the Lower Hudson Valley. 

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is an engagement editor and member of the Editorial Board for the Journal News/lohud. She also serves as an ombudswoman for the paper.


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