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State's phoning while driving law gets no respect

      Which is the most-ignored law on the books: The 21-year-old drinking age for alcohol? The ban on gambling on sporting events?

   For my money, it's the ban on driving while talking on a cell phone, without a hands-free device, in New York State.

   It seems half the cars on the road have drivers holding a cell phone up to their ears, and that doesn't count the Bluetooths or the texting -- legal in this state -- that you'll see.

   (Am I one of the scofflaws? I can't claim to be as pure as the undriven snow, but hopefully no Michael Phelps-type photo will pop up in a British tabloid).

   The general flouting of the cell-phone ban isn't stopping the National Safety Council from calling for a wider, national ban on all phone use by drivers.

   This ban would go beyond the law in any state, and advocates say they realize the difficulty of getting it passed this year or in the near future.

   They hope to work state by state, perhaps starting with bans on cell-phone use by teen drivers or drivers of buses and other multi-passenger vehicles.

   Do you think a ban on cell-phone use by drivers is a good idea, even if it covers the use of hands-free devices too?

   Do you ever talk on a phone, or text, while driving? And do you think doing this affects your ability to concentrate on the road?

   -- Stephen T. Watson

...but is it affordable?

   WASHINGTON -- The era of big government is back.

   For proof, look no further than the fiscal 2010 budget outline that President Barack Obama released yesterday, which is nothing short of his entire campaign agenda put into dollars -- trillions of them.

   Funding for cities would be increased dramatically. So would funding for the environment and clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Plus there would be a $634 billion "down payment" on health-care reform.

   Oh, and this $3.55 trillion budget includes a record $1.75 trillion deficit. That means, in essence, that the nation would be borrowing nearly half the money it spends.

   Can we afford it?

   -- Jerry Zremski.

Read the full story.

Johnnie B. Wiley: a case of extreme neglect

The underutilized Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Pavilion has been the victim of significant neglect over the years. 

That extends to an unused $2 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was approved in September 1992 and became available in March 1995 after paperwork was completed.

There are now plans to refurbish the baseball and football/soccer fields, and running track.

Some critics charge the facility's historic neglect is because its located in the heart of the predominantly African-American East Side.

   -- Mark Sommer

Read the full story.

The teachers strike back

Relations between the Buffalo Teachers Federation and Buffalo Public Schools' administrators and the board are now affecting the school year itself, as Peter Simon reports in a story today.

With Labor Day as late as it can be this year, on Sept. 7, some suburban school districts are breaking with tradition and starting classes before the holiday. Buffalo officials planned to do the same.

However, the teachers' union's governing council “overwhelming rejected” the proposal, not because it considers it a bad idea, according to union president Philip Rumore, but because of  “anger and resentment” toward school officials.

Rumore stresses that children would get the same number of instructional days during the school year under either calendar, but that they would be distributed differently. But Superintendent James A. Williams says an earlier start would give pupils two more school days before state assessment tests are given in January, and also be a boost for the district's athletic program.

So, while the adults in the school system continue to bicker like kids on a playground, the children could suffer.

(This is usually the point where someone steps into the scuffle and tells both parties it is time to settle their differences and try to get along, for everyone's sake ...)

First responders carry a heavy burden

   Unlike most of us, who run away from crashes, fires and accidents, first responders run to them.

   Is it any wonder then that the police officers, fire fighters and other emergency personnel who responded to the crash of Continental Flight 3407 in Clarence are showing signs of post-traumatic stress.

   After all, how do you deal with the deaths of 50 innocent human beings, each one of them the son, daughter, mother or father of someone left behind?

   How do you get beyond the task of combing through debris and rubble in search of human remains?

   And how do you address the sense of helplessness that comes with knowing no one will be found alive?

   Those are the questions counselors, therapists and family members will try to answer in the coming weeks as Erie County's first responders start to recover from the Feb. 12 crash on Long Street.

   Do you have a message for the men and women who sacrificed so much over the past 12 days?

   -- Phil Fairbanks

Read the full story.

Hate strikes out - twice

   Two Western New York communities. One overwhelming response.

   When a Topeka, Kansas.-based hate group picketed in Clarence and near a church on Main Street in Buffalo on Sunday, hundreds of people were there to send them a message: Get out.

   In both places, some counterprotesters donned white plastic angel wings. In both places, they managed to draw the gaze of observers from the three members of Westboro Baptist Church, who came to town to picket in the place where Continental Flight 3407 crashed and at a memorial service for one of the crash victims.

   The Kansas organization, with no ties to any mainstream Baptist group, is deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and monitored by the Anti-Defamation League.

   Amy MacGregor, of North Evans, whose son Army Cpl. Jacob Pfister was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad on April 19, 2005, stood quietly near the roadside dressed in camouflage.

   MacGregor was visiting a memorial to her son at Fort Stewart in Georgia when Flight 3407 crashed, and her neighbor's sister was a passenger on the flight, she said.

   "We're here to lend support to the community, because these people they shouldn't be allowed," said MacGregor, who came with her son, Marshall Morrisey, and three of his friends. "I know they've got their Constitutional rights and they're playing on them, but this is a disgrace and we're not going to stand for it in our community.

   What do you think of the community response in both Clarence and Buffalo on Sunday?

   --- Aaron Besecker

Read the full story.

The money flows from - and to - local foundations

   Federal authorities want to make sure that private foundations can survive forever, so they require foundations to donate only 5 percent of their assets to charity annually, on average. Critics think the threshold is too low, but supporters say the 5 percent allows foundations to invest the rest of their money, so that donations will continue to flow in future years.

   As part of that desire for the giving to continue, federal lawmakers also decided that foundations can count some of their expenses as charity when calculating the 5 percent.

   And the expenses-as-charity can include compensation to foundation trustees.

   Again, some foundations say that's necessary for foundations to survive. Critics say it's double dipping, getting a tax break for using a foundation to donate money, and then getting some of those same foundation dollars back as professional fees.

    Locally, one foundation stands out - the Swede Anderson Foundation of West Seneca, run by
the Travers family. The foundation counted three-fourths of its expenses - $160,000 - as charity to meet the 5 percent minimum over a five-year period. Many of the expenses were paid to Travers family members and to the Travers & Co. accounting firm, which provided accounting services.

   Federal regulations prohibit self-dealing: the paying of professional fees to foundation contributors, managers and family members. The self-dealing regulations, however, also offer a string of exemptions that Swede Anderson and other foundations typically claim.

   "My son's an attorney. I'm a certified public accountant. We have the ability to do all these things," Peter R. Travers said. "Why would you want to pay a third party more?"

   Some want Congress to take up the issue again and enact tighter laws governing foundation spending.

   What do you think?

   Read the full story.

Making sense of the incomprehensible

By the time Aasiya Hassan was killed, she'd filed multiple police reports regarding her abusive husband and confided in friends who tried to help her. She wasn't the picture of a shrinking violet, but rather an intelligent, giving and faith-filled woman with many friends. In her own way, she fought back.

Muzzammil Hassan, her husband, is described in contrast as a reserved, money-hungry businessman with a controlling nature that occasionally spilled over into violence. Police reports suggest that Aasiya did just enough to keep herself from becoming a regular punching bag, but shielded her husband from arrest.

Now she's dead — killed in an unimaginably brutal way — and a larger community is left to mourn her passing.

In doing this story, three reporters heard from many people who wondered what more could have been done to save her, and what lessons there are to take away from this shocking tragedy.

— Sandra Tan

Read the full story.

Wheels of government and the rules for flying

We all know the wheels of government grind slowly, when they grind at all.

But why is it that 12 years after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a new certification process for planes that fly in freezing rain, the Federal Aviation Administration still hasn't acted?

Could it be the reason the FAA cites — the fact that federal rulemaking is of necessity painstakingly slow, that it is better to impose a good rule after a long vetting period than a bad one that's rushed into law?

Or could the delay stem from the fact that more than half the agency's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee comes from the aviation industry?

   — Jerry Zremski

Read the full story.

Cat killings: verdict on media hype?

   Lackawanna animal-control officer Frederick S. Grasso was found not guilty Friday on two misdemeanor charges,  for shooting to death a mother cat and two kittens last June at an Eagan Drive apartment complex.

   In a nonjury trial, West Seneca Town Justice Richard B. Scott found the evidence did not show Grasso acted criminally when he shot the cats after responding to an apartment manager's complaint they were acting aggressively toward her.

   Grasso, who still works as an animal control officer in Lackawanna, testified he was forced to shoot the cats after they hissed and spit at him and the apartment manager when they tried to access a basement area. Four other kittens survived.

   Scott ruled that Grasso acted justifiably in shooting the animals. The case outraged animal lovers and drew widespread publicity throughout Western New York.

   What do you think about the verdict? Do you think the media's coverage of this case was overblown?

-- T.J. Pignataro

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