Interesting in 2011: Mike Guidice & Jen Pursley Guidice

Mike & Jen Guidice (photo-Patrick Dodson).jpg

Hounds on the Hudson owners, and Albany chickens proponents, Mike and Jen.

All this week we'll be highlighting some of the interesting people we've gotten to know over the past year.

We've known about Hounds on the Hudson Mike and Jen for a while, but this year the owners of the local dog walking company became known more for chickens than for dogs.

When the city of Albany took away the chickens they'd been raising for years in the backyard of their Grand Street home, Mike and Jen, along with councilman Dominick Calsolaro and a group of dedicated volunteers, worked to amend a 10-year-old law that prohibits farm animals from being kept in Albany in order to allow for small urban chicken coops.

Word spread quickly through social media, and for a while it seemed that everywhere we went someone was talking about urban chickens. But the issue sparked other conversations about participation in local government and what it really means to be a progressive city. Regardless of the outcome, it was interesting to hear the various opinions.

The Albany chickens group campaigned, refined their ordinance and finally got it passed by the common council, but in the end Jerry Jennings vetoed the law and there were not enough votes on the council to override.

So after all of their efforts, Mike and Jen did not get their chickens back. We've been wondering what they did get out of the whole experience, and what, if anything, is next for Albany chickens.

You put a lot of effort into writing a new ordinance for urban chicken keeping and trying to get it passed, and you came really close. Do you think you made a difference?

Well, you still can't have chickens in Albany. But we made an impact, I think. I could be wrong, but it seems like the Albany chickens campaign encouraged a lot more engagement in city politics than before. It was kind of a fun, simple, maybe even silly issue that a lot of people happened to be really interested in. When the original bill was passed in 2001 that banned all farm animals, no one showed up in opposition. I don't think that would happen today, and it's not just because having backyard chickens is more fashionable. From the sustainability camp to the individual rights camp, people genuinely wanted to see this thing pass. It seemed like those involved really enjoyed the process, too. I think our campaign showed ordinary folks that it's possible to get involved on a local level and make a change. In addition to good, old-fashioned on-the-ground work, we also used social media in a way that hadn't really been used before with politics in Albany.

At best I think we inspired a lot of people to participate in local government. People connected to the issue and it ruffled some feathers, which I think is good. The Albany chickens campaign was an issue that facilitated a lot of good public conversations about local food networks, creative land use, and sustainability. We will continue to see these ideas in public discussions, whether its the 2030 plan or other manifestations. These are important issues to discuss and I think that Albany chickens contributed a vision of how sustainability can look on a very local level.

What did your experience teach you?

Not to hire sketchy contractors who are later going to rat out your chickens! Ha ha, no. But it did teach us a lot about the way our city government works and where the current administration is at. Prior to getting a cease and desist order, we weren't really engaged in local politics. I knew my council member, Dominick (because he's so awesome), but I didn't know who most of the other people on the council were. I had no idea that there were elected officials who had concerns about citizens having the ability to change laws! It was really eye-opening. The whole process of creating a law --from drafting a bill to committee meetings to the final council vote and then of course the possibility of a veto -- was something new to me.

I also learned a lot of new chicken puns. Who knew there were so many?

The Albany chickens campaign taught me most about how powerful a tool social media can be on a local level. Really, the whole campaign came out of an afternoon of tweeting about our chicken problems with the city. We never expected it to grow into the media event that it did. The whole campaign was very organic and I learned quite a bit about how a campaign like this works. It also made me realize how accessible aspects of our city government are, namely the Common Council. Through the campaign I found many of the council members willing to take the time to talk with us and saw our discussions have real effects during the legislative process. Also, everyone who worked for Albany chickens remained largely positive and tried to work with the opposition that was presented during the process, which really seemed to benefit us. It opened my eyes to how powerful a positive campaign (that earnestly listens to opposition and is willing to change) can be.

How did what happened with Albany chickens change your perceptions about how things work in Albany?

Well, the result didn't really change any perceptions. We were aware from the beginning that the mayor's administration is pretty closed to meaningful discussion around important issues and that many decisions are made behind closed doors. But I also had a perception that the legislators were that way too, and that's just not true. Many of our council members (about half) are truly engaged with their constituents and care deeply about positive change and the growth of our city, which is very encouraging.

I think Jenny really says it best there. Taking part in the legislative process also gave me an understanding of how a local ordinance is changed. Committee meetings, public comments, override votes -- these were all new to me. I gained a deeper understanding of how the council functions.

What surprised you?

Honestly, the veto really surprised me. Not when it actually happened, since it had been leaked a few days before that the mayor was going to veto it, but when we first got word that it was going to happen. Given how popular the campaign was and how much support and coverage it got, it was pretty surprising to have it axed and especially for the weak reasons that were given. In retrospect, it really shouldn't have been, but at the time I thought, "Wow, who knew our city government was this ineffective?"

What's next for you?

Well, next has already happened. We have had a busy year and welcomed a healthy baby girl, Astrid, into the world this past fall. Our business, Hounds on the Hudson, has grown quite a bit, too, and that has taken a lot of work and dedication. All the while, our participation in local issues that are important to us and our community has not let up.

Since chickens, we have spoken out on the funding cuts to SNUG and added our voices to the thousands calling for a ban on hydrofracking, among other things. I have attended dozens of meetings and have really developed my understanding of local government (both the players and the process). So from here... there are lots of places to be involved in local government and countless causes and issues that would benefit from increased attention from the public. I hope to continue to help inspire and foster that participation. I'm looking forward to the local elections for mayor and Common Council in 2013 and you can bet that we will have a lot to say when the time comes.

Immediately after the Albany chickens campaign, we got to work on a new campaign, Albany Votes, in an effort to increase participation and transparency in local government. We did some work in creating a website and hosting some events, but we really hope others will come along and run with it. There's a lot more work to be done, but we're busy people and don't have time to do it all ourselves. Of course, we continue to stay engaged on local issues --attending meetings, participating in public dialogue, writing letters, making phone calls, showing up to vote, etc, in addition to running a business and raising a family.

How do you plan to use what you've learned?

The Albany chickens campaign set up up a new template for engagement around local issues. We have seen other campaigns borrow from our playbook and we think that is great. Jenny talks above about the Albany Votes campaign and we hope that people get involved. Albany Votes, much like Albany chickens, is an organic process more than an organization. It has really been shaped by the individuals that have already dedicated time and effort into providing interactive ward maps, knocked door-to-door for voter registration, web development, and so on. If the ideas of government transparency and accessibility light a spark in you, then please get in touch with us.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Also interesting in 2011:
+ Sarah Gordon from FarmieMarket

Earlier on AOA:
+ Interesting in 2010
+ Interesting in 2009

photo: Patrick Dodson


Thanks for recognizing Mike and Jen for all of the good work they do in our local commuunity.

rockinest people of the year!

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