•By LIBBY CUDMORE•Hometown Oneonta

George Siatos retorts to Council member Chip Holmes, who ordered him out of Council Chambers after he declared more muggings would have to happen before City Hall quells rowdy students. (Ian Austin/HOMETOWN ONEONTA)
George Siatos retorts to Council member Chip Holmes, who ordered him out of Council Chambers after he declared more muggings would have to happen before City Hall quells rowdy students. (Ian Austin/HOMETOWN ONEONTA)

The room was packed. The mood was tense.

“I resent being held hostage by these students,” said Lisa Yelich, Elm Street. “I’m being told I have to keep my lawn furniture chained to my porch, that I can’t have flower pots because they’ll get smashed or stolen – this is the city I moved into?”

“My porch furniture was stolen,” added Kim Baskin, Cedar Street. “I woke up to find my hanging flower baskets smashed in the street. This is the worst it’s ever been. It’s out of hand.”

“Metaphorically, maybe we need a few more muggings, maybe of the politicians!” said George Siatos, Gardner Place.

That provoked Council member Chip Holmes: “Sit down!” he told Siatos. “You are out of line!”

The occasion was the regular Common Council meeting Tuesday, Sept. 16.

Mayor Miller, himself a former Hartwick College president, had invited a conversation between residents, students and college officials after concerns about OH! Fest and student behaviors were voiced at the last council meeting.

“The events of the last few weekends have caused us to expand this conversation,” he told the gathering. “Our two concerns are the residents, who live here and pay taxes, and concerns for the students who are engaging in these high-risk behaviors.  The worst nightmare for the colleges would be a tragedy that we might have had some opportunity to intervene on beforehand.”

Sitting in the crowd, SUNY Oneonta President Nancy Kleniewski looked concerned as resident after resident stood to tell of students urinating and vomiting on their lawns, of vandalism and destruction, of house parties and fights, like the one in the early hours of Sunday morning, Sept. 14, that left one student in critical condition.

Since both colleges returned, Assistant Fire Chief Jim Maloney reported an uptick in calls to the campus. “We had 44 EMS calls and four fire calls to SUNY, two EMS calls and nine fire calls to Hartwick,” said Maloney. “We’ve had 24 EMS calls off campus.”

Police Chief Dennis Nayor agreed that there had been a larger volume of calls than normal in the weeks since students returned.

“Mrs. Baskin hit the nail on the head,” said Council member Mike Lynch. “Something is going on that’s different this year. It’s a behavior problem, and we have to figure it out. We have thick skin in Center City. We don’t call the cops if someone’s playing their stereo loud at 10 p.m. When we ring your bell, you know it’s a problem.”

Said Kleniewski, “The college takes this behavior very seriously. When students are arrested, they go through a campus judicial process, and they don’t get arrested again – it’s a deterrent.”

The college also offers alcohol education to incoming freshman, provides counseling to students struggling with alcohol or drug dependencies, and offers on-campus alternatives to going out the bars, she said.
Meg Nowak, Hartwick College vice president for student affairs, said, “At the beginning of the semester, freshmen meet with Hartwick staff, police and a public defender to discuss their rights and responsibilities as residents and how to be good community members.

“We hold our students accountable for their actions when we’re notified of them.”

One of the biggest concerns facing the council is the rise of house parties since closing three bars in 2012 pushed students into neighborhoods. “Social media is making this worse,” said Council member Bob Brzozowski. “With greater surveillance of the bars, they’ve moved to the houses and there’s less control. I don’t know we solve this problem.”

“I don’t know how to solve it tonight,” said Lynch. “But we have to be careful going forward.”

Even after Miller closed the public comment period, conversations continued in the hall. The meeting continued as scheduled, although to a less crowded room.

And after everyone else had left, one last student stood up. “My name is Manny Alban and I’m a senior at SUNY Oneonta,” he said. “I want to apologize on behalf of my 12,000 fellow students. But we are not guests here – we are just as much residents as you are, and we want to increase the communications between us. We’re not all bad.”

“You represent your constituents well,” said Miller.