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Technology versus nature

   When I was a Boy Scout in the relative Digital Dark Ages of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn't much of a sacrifice, electronically speaking, to go away for a weeklong camp out.

   I was leaving behind perhaps five TV channels, the primitive video games on my family's Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III computer and my Sony Walkman radio/casette player.

   For Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and teens going along on family camping trips, it's an entirely different story today.

   They have to give up video-game players. Hundreds of channels on cable. Cell phones. The Internet. E-mail. Instant messaging. Text messaging. MP3 players.

   That can be difficult for this generation, who are known as "digital natives" because they've grown up with these devices and they've never known a world without this technology.

   It means Scouting is in a fierce competition for the attention of young people, who have so many potential diversions and sources of entertainment in their lives today.

   And, once Scouting organizations pull these young people in, they have to work hard to make sure the technology and the devices don't detract from the camping experience.

   Now, some technology can enhance that experience. Think of global positioning system units, which are all but replacing the humble compass. Or digital cameras and photo-sharing Web sites that make it easier to preserve and pass along memories from camping trips.

   But Scout leaders and some area camps are restricting electronic devices because they don't want kids and teens to ignore nature while absorbed in their MP3 players and cell phones. We'd like to hear from current Scouts, former Scouts, parents of Scouts or anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors.

   Is technology encroaching too much on nature? Should electronic devices be banned on camp outs? Or is there a place for high-tech gadgets in the wilderness?

   ---Stephen T. Watson

Continued repercussions for National Air Cargo

   National Air Cargo of Orchard Park is in a fight for its corporate life.

   After pleading guilty to a corporate felony for overbilling the government and paying $28 million in penalties, including $3.3 million to a whistleblower who first complained, NAC is appealing its possible debarment from doing work for the military.

   With $400 million in military contracts in recent years for shipping goods to Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is National Air Cargo's biggest customer.

   To satisfy demands from Steven A. Shaw, the Air Force deputy counsel for suspensions and debarments, company founder Christopher J. Alf has fired his top executives, including his wife, Lori.

   Sources say Shaw is also demanding that Alf step down from the company, and some form of outside board is under consideration.

   And Shaw says it wasn't just a single overbilling, as NAC admitted, but more than 2,000 times that the company delivered late but charged for on-time delivery.

  What do you think? Is National Air Cargo being singled out? Should it be prevented from further government work? Isn't the $28 million in penalties enough?

  … Michael Beebe

Public employees and take-home vehicles

  How can you tell if your employees are honest?

   That's a question local governments are grappling with as they look at the hundreds of vehicles their employees take home each day, and keep for the weekends.

  Taxpayers also provide the gasoline.

  Public employees with take-home vehicles are considered on call 24/7, like those who oversee highways, sewers and various services that are prone to emergencies. Some town supervisors also have them.

    No personal use is allowed, but government really only has an employee's word that he or she isn't padding the mileage log to hide, say, taking the kids to the dentist or … as alleged in Buffalo … shopping, transporting a sailboat after hours and dropping a child off at a private school.

   Then there is the Buffalo employee allegedly seen leaving a bar with his wife in a city-owned SUV.

   But with gasoline well above $4 per gallon, is it fair to ask taxpayers to rely on what amounts to a honor system for take-home cars?

    Some governments are starting to look at high-tech methods of tracking both take-home vehicles and the rest of the fleet. Global positioning is being used as a pilot project in Hamburg. Amherst police did it for a while.

   "It was cost prohibitive," Amherst Council member Deborah Bruch Bucki said.

   … Niki Cervantes

Is upstate up a creek without a power leader in Albany?

Should upstate be worried that state government is now being officially led by residents of downstate?    

   For only the second time in state history, all of New York's statewide officeholders and its two legislative leaders are from downstate.

   There are different schools of thought on this.

   One is that downstate interests have been driving Albany for so long now that it shouldn't really matter much.

   Another is that downstate politicians still need upstate … for votes that is … come election years.

   Then there is the "We're all one state" theory. That is promoted by Gov. David Paterson and other downstate leaders who say the future of the state overall depends on the ability of upstate to rebound economically. To that end, the theory goes, it does not matter where the state's leaders reside, but only that they show fairness to all ends of the state while recognizing that upstate has unique needs that need to be addressed.

   But upstate business leaders, and politicians speaking privately, remain cautious and, several said, scared.

   They worry: Can statewide officials and legislative leaders who spend most of their days in the skyscraper canyons of Manhattan and nearby suburbs on Long Island really relate to upstate?

   … Tom Precious

More to be done on School 67 case?

   Last November, a special education teacher at Buffalo's Discovery School 67 reported to her principal that a teachers aide fondled a 4-year-old autistic pupil in the school lavatory.

   School officials ruled the claim unfounded and did not report it to police or the boy's South Buffalo parents. But the teacher -- Charlene Harris -- persisted in pushing the case, and eventually got results.

   The aide, John Colazzi, was charged with felony sexual abuse. Joy C. Trotter, who initially ruled the allegations unfounded, was fired by Superintendent James A. Williams.

   The boy's parents, angered that they were first told about the alleged abuse nearly four months after it was reported, are preparing to file a lawsuit against the school district.

   On Thursday, District Attorney Frank J. Clark issued a report stating that Carmela Botticello, the Discovery School principal, should have reported the allegations to police immediately, even if she had doubts about their validity.

   While Botticello's respsonse does not warrant criminal charges, Clark urged school officials to take a closer look at the case and decide if she should face departmental discipline.

   Clark also recommends a series of reforms to ensure that alleged cases of abuse are reported promptly, and that school staff members are aware of their responsibilities under district policy and state law.

   Given the series of errors along the way, is the case now being handled properly? Has Clark given school officials a blueprint for a better system of reporting? Can some good come out of what appears to be a very serious blunder?

   -- Peter Simon


An up-close -- too up-close -- view of D.C. guns

   WASHINGTON -- The deep, abiding effectiveness of D.C.'s ban on handguns came clear to me on a winter's night 10 years ago when, as I walked home after a Syracuse-Georgetown game, two thugs jumped out from behind the bushes in front of me. One of them quickly pulled out a shiny silver pistol and aimed it at my chest and demanded my money, my watch, my coat and my eyeglasses.

   "Put that thing away!!!" I screamed. "DON'T YOU KNOW IT'S ILLEGAL???"

   Just kidding. In reality, I didn't say anything. I just gave them my money, my watch, my coat and my eyeglasses.

   I've viewed the D.C. handgun ban with a bit of a sense of bemusement ever since … but now it's clear the U.S. Supreme Court thinks even worse of it. The high court overturned the ban on Thursday, and in the process said, for the first time, that the Constitution's Second Amendment protects the right to
keep and bear arms.

   The ruling produced all the predictable harrumphing from interest groups on both sides of the issue, but ultimately it's likely to produce much more: a thorough, case-by-case legal review of gun control laws nationwide.

   Here in D.C., though, I find it interesting that the street where I got mugged -- known a decade ago as "urban pioneer territory" -- is now smack dab in the heart of the city's hottest neighborhood.

   Employment is up and and people are moving back into town, and it's been 18 years since we've had a mayor caught with crack.

   And crime, of course, is down from its levels of a decade ago --but I have to wonder: how much does the gun ban have to do with it?

   -- Jerry Zremski

Commencement: bitter lesson or a new day?

   Jayvonna Kincannon will walk across the stage of the McKinley High School auditorium today to receive her high school diploma. It's been a tumultuous school year for her - and for the Buffalo School District.

   What are the lessons you hope she takes away from her senior year? How can the school district - criticized in a special investigator's report issued in April - also benefit?

   --- Mark Sommer

Roadblock to reducing teen carnage

   State lawmakers react to headlines and news stories all the time. Such was the case this year at the Capitol, when lawmakers in both parties introduced more than a dozen measures to try to reduce the carnage on the state's roads at the hands of teen drivers. 

   Around the country, states have been moving to more restrictions for teenage drivers, bowing to research that shows more training over a longer period of time and fewer distractions while driving can sharply reduce the fatality rates.

   But an effort to address the problem died this week with the end of the legislative session. Now, at least one angry parent of a dead teen is vowing revenge: he wants to target those who killed the measures at the ballot box this fall.

   Teen driving issues raise emotional issues on all sides of the debate. Some say the government already overregulates drivers, and that parents need to do a better job of both training their children to drive and monitoring the driving behavior --  from who gets in the car with them to how late they are out -- of their young drivers. Still others --  if reaction to past stories from readers are any indication -- believe today's  teens  are less focused, easily distracted and don't want to take the time to learn how to drive safely.

   Safety officials say the government has a role, and point to research that has persuaded  many other states to move ahead of New York when it comes to restricting teen drivers in their early years on the road.

-- Tom Precious

Brown fires one of his 'best and brightest'

   The best and brightest.

   That's what Byron W. Brown promised voters he would bring to City Hall if elected mayor.

   The day before his inauguration, he tapped Richard M. Tobe to become his economic development czar in a newly reorganized department that would also oversee permits and inspections. The appointment drew praise in business and government circles.

   Flash ahead 30 months. Brown is forcing Tobe to quit. When pressed for answers, the mayor refused to criticize Tobe's performance, saying the commissioner did "good work."

   But Brown talked in vague terms about wanting to move in a different direction, stating he plans yet another reorganization of a department that he retooled in early 2006. He said he wants the city to be even more aggressive in trying to land new development and create jobs.

   Over the past 16 months, there have been no fewer than five different sets of rumors suggesting that Tobe was on his way out. It became an inside joke when a reporter would show up in his third floor office and ask about the latest rumblings.

   But the rumors become reality on Monday. Brown told Tobe on Friday that he wanted him out. Tobe will stay on the job until Independence Day.

   What happened?

   Until several months ago, Tobe was one of the mayor's closest advisers. But even casual City Hall observers could see that relations had cooled in recent months. Meanwhile, numerous City Hall sources indicated that Tobe's relationship with First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey became strained. The mayor dismissed those claims as "nonsense."

   What do you think spurred Tobe's ouster?

   -- Brian Meyer

Adding up the numbers

   We know where Joann Massaro's Quick Draw players are going.

   The Niagara Falls bar owner says her Quick Draw sales are down because her customers are heading to the Seneca Niagara Casino.

   But what about those who used to play more Daily Numbers, Win 4, Pick 10, Take 5 or Lotto?

   When it comes to buying lottery tickets, Western New York isn't keeping up with the rest of the state.

    Lottery sales increased 26 percent throughout New York between 2002 and 2007, pouring more money into the state's education coffers.

    But that wasn't the case in Western New York.

    Here, the lottery hot spot was Allegany County, where sales went up 5.4 percent. Erie and Genesee counties showed a modest 3.9 percent increase. Sales in Niagara County were pretty much flat, going up just 1.6 percent.

   And sales in  Wyoming, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties actually dropped over the five-year period.

   Some blame the area's declining population.

   Or its ailing economy. As one merchant told The Buffalo News, given the price of gasoline, people just don't have extra money for lottery tickets the way they use to.

   Others point to the expanding gambling economy … video lottery terminals, horse racing, lottery games as well as casinos.

   "It's the casino," said Massaro, whose bar is a short distance from the Seneca Niagara Casino. "My Quick Draw is down I would say $2,000 a month. You'll have six people at the bar, and four of them will start talking and they all go to the casino. It's got a lot of my business."

   "A lot of people who came here to play Quick Draw stop by the casino," added Pete Paonessa, who owned the bar for decades before selling it to Massaro in 2001. "At the casino, you get food cheap, drinks free, you can smoke and [your chance of winning] money is better."

   Do you agree? Or do you suggest other reasons for sagging lottery sales?

    … Susan Schulman/ Patrick Lakamp

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