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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 6, 2009

Robo calls need to be regulated

Friday evening, at the close of another rain-soaked day, we got a call from a distressed Providence Street resident, Cindy Peaslee.

“I’m furious,” she said.

The McKownville resident had just received a recorded political message on her phone — known as a robo call.

“Last month, the Guilderland Town Board led us to believe that they have fixed the flooding issues impacting our town,” the message said. “Western Avenue is once again closed and under water and many basements are flooded.”

The message concluded, “This fall, you can take matters into your own hands: Hold our government accountable; vote for new leadership.”

Over the years, we’ve run pictures of flooding on Route 20 more times than we care to remember. Our photographer earlier on Friday had taken pictures of cars in water over their hubcaps as Guilderland Police directed traffic around the closed front entrance of Stuyvesant Plaza on Route 20.

We’ve written about the heartbreak of families that not only had their cellars flooded time and time again but one McKownville family whose basement wall actually collapsed.

In our editorials, we’ve called for plans to solve the problem — neither a small nor an inexpensive undertaking, but nevertheless a necessary one.

We covered the July 7 Guilderland Town Board meeting where the board discussed two separate stormwater problems and, by unanimous votes, granted funds to work towards solving them. An engineering contract was awarded to study the stormwater drainage system in McKownville, and a bid was awarded for a project that will cost more than half-a-million dollars for the Route 20, Stuyvesant Plaza, and McKownville Reservoir storm drainage project.

The trickle of phone calls to our news office that followed that first one Friday night had turned to a steady stream by mid-week. We felt we’d soon be handling a flood of our own. Citizens were outraged at what they termed deception or outright lies.

The political majority of the town board hangs in the balance. The Democrats now have three seats on the board to the Republicans’ two; both parties have fielded full slates for the board in the fall elections. While bipartisan boards can foster constructive discussion and an airing of varied views, here in Guilderland entrenched bitterness and petty bickering have reigned.

 Friday’s robo message was artfully constructed to imply blame where none rightfully exists. The flooding problems predate, by decades, the tenure of those who are seeking re-election, and the bipartisan board voted unanimously at its last meeting to start work on solving the problems.

What most irked us — as it did many of our callers along with our letter-writers — was that the robo calls were anonymous. Our capable Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden, called Guilderland Republican leaders and candidates this week — all of them denied having any knowledge of who sponsored the robo call, although several said they agreed with its message.

If political discourse is to be useful, candidates must take responsibility for their views.

We have discovered a dangerous void in regulations for this form of political advertising. Political robo calls are not regulated at all, by any federal laws.

A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission told our reporter that the FTC has authority only over telemarketing sales calls; telemarketers must identify where they are calling from and if they work for the company, and they must give a telephone number where they can be reached.

The phone number from last Friday’s robo call led only to a dead end in Buckeystown, Maryland.

 Robo calls have become a central part of election campaigns — certainly at the national and state level, and now, here in Guilderland, at the local level. The Federal Election Commission regulates political endorsements on websites, newspapers, television, and in direct mailings. We’re all well aware in campaign season of the FEC regulations as we listen to candidates on TV acknowledging they have reviewed ads, or as we read the fine print in newspapers, specifying who paid for the political ad.

But, an FEC spokeswoman told our reporter, the commission has absolutely no power over political robo calls. This makes no sense. Robo calls are becoming an increasingly popular tool in campaigning and should be subject to the same sort of regulations as other political advertising. Such regulation would not limit  free speech anymore than it does on TV or websites, in newspapers or mailings. Congress should require that the entity paying for the robo calls identify itself.

In the meantime, we urge our local politicians to take the moral high ground. If you were behind the recent robo calls, take responsibility for your actions and your views. And, to those using such strategies in the future, name yourself.

You can see from the comments made this week by our letter writers that subterfuge doesn’t win support.

“I consider anonymous criticism to be despicable,” writes Doug Smith. “When a group or organization disseminates propaganda and refuses to attach their name to it, you know you are dealing with dishonest people.”

“When the caller is not identified, phone calls are harassment,” writes Sally Daly.

“I resent receiving an anonymous call telling me who to vote out,” writes Janet Reilly of McKownville. She says she is writing to ask her neighbors to get to know the candidates for town offices and make an informed choice in the fall.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We run signed letters on our pages. And we quote named sources in our stories. Read them. Learn about the candidates — about their views on issues and about the way they approach public service. Then vote.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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