State Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) sat on the City Council for a decade before being forced out by term limits in 2001. Just a year later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he sits on a handful of committees, including the high-powered Rules Committee.And although his job now takes him from the Jackson Heights neighborhood he has lived in since he was born all the way to Albany, he keeps his ear to the ground through a series of unique public outreach programs.For almost a year, Sabini's office has organized a weekly round of constituent calls, ringing up registered voters in his district, which covers portions of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Corona and Woodside, just to ask them if they have any concerns. And in a move unprecedented in western Queens, Sabini has been sending his constituent liaison, Terry Lewis, to libraries and senior centers throughout his district to set up temporary offices for a few hours a day at locations such as the Catherine Sheridan Center for Senior Citizens and the Jackson Heights Public Library."By bringing my staff directly to their neighborhoods, I'll be better able to serve my constituents," Sabini said.Lewis, accompanied by a staff member who speaks a language appropriate to the demographics of the neighborhood, spends between three and four hours at the "satellite office" site. A one-time candidate for the Council seat Sabini vacated, Lewis sets up shop with all the forms, informational pamphlets and resources he would make available to people who visited Sabini's district office at 35-07 88th St."I absolutely love it," Lewis said. "Being effective and knowing the problems folks are having ... and being able to solve problems is absolutely amazing."In his position as constituent liaison, Lewis said he has already helped tackle some serious problems.Lewis recalled the story of a local man, active in community affairs who fell on hard times and wound up $12,000 in arrears on his water bill. Since the man, whose name Lewis withheld, had given generously to the communityÑ offering land to a church and funding food and ESL programs Ñ Sabini petitioned the city for relief, cutting the bill by two-thirds, Lewis said.The man is now one of the senator's most vocal supporters, Lewis said.In another instance, a man picked up his wife's car payments after she died, keeping the account up-to-date, only to have the vehicle repossessed, Lewis said."The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing and they botched that," Lewis said. Sabini's office pursued the case all the way to a national arbitration board that ruled in the man's favor, Lewis said.Sabini's office has access to agencies at all levels of government and a familiarity with problems that surface frequently, Lewis said, making it an effective conduit for constituent concerns."We're able to reach the important people and with one phone call we can resolve the problems," Lewis said. "The constituents are happy and the senator's being respected more."Anywhere from 20 to 80 people have visited each of the four temporary satellite offices that have already been held at senior centers and libraries throughout Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.In addition to providing outreach, the program also gives summer interns the hands-on experience they need, Sabini said."This is the first year we've tried this," said Sabini, who organized a similar outreach while on the Council. "It seems to be working out well."Since October, staffers also have taken turns calling constituents to find out about their concerns, Lewis said. In weekly shifts, two people will call as many as 100 people in a night. In total, Sabini's office has made more than 3,000 calls, Lewis said, fielding complaints that ran the gamut from bedbugs to excessive noise."Sometimes people are amazed that their senator, a politician, is calling them," Lewis said. "Usually we hear from a politician during an election time and then you never hear from them again."Upcoming satellite office events include:July 27 at the Elmcor Senior Citizens Center, 98-19 Astoria Blvd. from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Aug. 3 at the Corona Public Library, 42-11 104th St., from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; Aug. 10 at the Corona Preservation Senior Center, 108-74 Roosevelt Ave., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Aug. 17 at the East Elmhurst Public Library, 95-06 Astoria Blvd., from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; Aug. 24 at the Elmhurst/Jackson Heights Senior Center, 75-01 Broadway, third floor, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Aug. 31 at the Lefrak City Public Library, 98-30 57th Ave., from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sept. 7 at the Elmhurst Public Library, 86-01 Broadway, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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