According to a Wendy Liberatore story published in the April 13 edition of the Times Union, ex-County Administrator Spencer Hellwig is suing nine Saratoga County Supervisors and the county. Among those named in the suit are Saratoga Springs Supervisors Matthew Veitch and Tara Gaston.
Hellwig’s attorney, however, claims that the supervisors used the issue to “take control over county government and wreak operational havoc on the administrative staff.” And that Hellwig was used as the “fall guy” for the county’s pandemic pay problems.
The courts set a high bar for what constitutes the defamation of a “public figure.”
So first of all, is Spenser Hellwig a “public figure?”
A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate people to a public figure status. Typically, they must either be:
* a public figure, a public official or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, or
* a limited purpose public figure, those who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” A “particularized determination” is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, which can be variously interpreted:
Assuming Mr. Hellwig is a “public figure” what standard would then have to be met in a defamation suit?
In the context of defamation actions (libel and slander) as well as invasion of privacy, a public figure cannot succeed in a lawsuit on incorrect harmful statements in the United States unless there is proof that the writer or publisher acted with actual malice by knowing the falsity or by reckless disregard for the truth. The legal burden of proof in defamation actions is thus higher in the case of a public figure than in the case of an ordinary person.
I am not a lawyer but as a lay person this would seem a hard suit to prevail in.
Still, Mr. Hellwig is represented by attorney Michael Koenig with the law firm Hinkley Allen. Founded in 1906 this firm has offices across the United States. They are clearly a highly reputable law firm.
The upcoming race for Saratoga Springs County Supervisors is a study in the sad state of local politics. I recently sent questions to the Republican candidates, Matt Veitch and John Safford, and the Democratic candidates, Tara Gaston and Shaun Wiggins, regarding recent events at the Board of Supervisors.
Both events have been covered in earlier posts. One involved the violation of the Open Meetings Law by a committee chaired by Supervisor Tara Gaston. In an earlier email exchange with Supervisor Gaston she dismissed the ruling by the New York State Open Meetings Law that confirmed the violation.
The other involved the hiring of a past chair of the Saratoga County Republican Party to the position of County Administrator. I had FOILed the county for any documents associated with the selection. The only document they provided me was the resolution hiring him. So much for a search for the best candidate.
The only response that I received from the four candidates was from John Safford who is running on the Republican line. I like Mr. Safford. Although I routinely disagree with him, he is refreshingly courteous and direct. You always know where he stands. In this case he defended the county on both issues. I am including his response below.
In contrast, I wrote to his fellow candidates twice, and none of them responded or even acknowledged my emails.
I can understand Supervisor Veitch’s and Supervisor Gaston’s silence. Since they both voted to hire the ex-county Republican chair without doing a search, how could they defend the cronyism associated with this hiring?
What I cannot understand is the silence of Shaun Wiggins who is the other Supervisor candidate on the Democratic line. As he was not involved in either event, one would have hoped he would be critical and inspire support by promising to change things down at the Board of Supervisors. So much for any hope of a champion for change.
There are two more candidates running on the Working Families Party (WFP) line for Supervisor . These two are faux WFP members. The Republican Party directed members of their party to change their registration to the Working Families Party in order to secure that line in the upcoming election.
This kind of manipulation is truly disgraceful. It is meant to fool voters who think they are supporting the progressive agenda of the WFP (Single Payer Health Care, a Green New Deal, etc.) into voting for decidedly more conservative individuals who have no intention of supporting the WFP platform.
I did not send questions to the candidates who will appear on this line and do not plan to contact them as I do not want to offer any credibility to these people.
John Safford’s Answers
According to a FOIL response from the county, the only document associated with the recent hiring of a new county administrator was the Board of Supervisor resolution making the appointment.
While the failure to advertise the position and to establish a public process for hiring was not illegal, the fact that the hiring was not competitive and resulted in the appointment of a past Saratoga County Republican chairman has the unfortunate appearance of cronyism.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how this appointment was handled.
As I am engaged in the management of small governments on a day to day basis, I can give an answer to both of your questions from a professional point of view.
The circumstances surrounding the Covid bonus pay incident was a clear indication of the kind of hubris that attends almost all administrations that have attained a level of hegemony and longevity that often blinds the actors to reality. On a state level, the administration of Gov. Cuomo comes to mind. That being said, (and whether or not you think it was transparent) the incident resulted in a decisive action resulting in the removal of a long employed professional manager. Concerning the hiring of a new administrator, I will agree that politics was involved but not necessarily cronyism. Since the entire balance of the Board was thrown out of kilter with the Civid incident, I think the Supervisors needed to act quickly to get someone they knew and trusted on board and I think that is exactly what they did.
I would encourage everyone to help the city update the 2002 Open Space Plan by taking the community survey by April 16th. Information from the city website and a link to the survey are below.
Open Space Survey Released!
For many, access to parks and open spaces are important to their quality of life. Saratoga Springs is working on updating the 2002 Open Space Plan and is asking for your input through a community survey. Survey results will aid the City in updating the 2002 Open Space Plan and establish open space goals for the next five years. The Open Space Plan Update will inventory open spaces; identify special areas for protection, preservation, conservation, parks, active and passive recreation; and establish priorities and potential funding to guide future acquisition and preservation.
Community members can participate in the survey through the link provided on the project website at www.saratogaspringsopenspaces.com. The survey will close on April 16th, 2021. Your participation and voice is important. We look forward to your response!
On March 31 the City Council met to adopt a police reform plan as required by an executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
For an hour and a half the public offered spirited comments that ran the gamut from civil but frustrated to unrestrained anger. Some of the public comments were disturbing, and there were several incidents in which members of the public interrupted remarks being made by the City Attorney.
At the center of the conflict was the refusal of the Council to issue a blanket adoption of the 50 proposals coming from the Task Force.
The language in the resolution states:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the City Council, in accordance with the Saratoga Springs City Charter and Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order No. 203, accepts the identified Task Force recommendations as contained in the enumerated sections of the “Reinvention Plan: Toward a Community Centered Justice Initiative” (A true and complete copy of which is annexed hereto):
The focus of the conflict is over the word “accept.” The advocates for the Reform Task Force want the word “accept” replaced with the phrase “adopt and ratify.”
There are two widely divergent views regarding the Council and the resolution.
The Council saw themselves as in favor of the Task Force recommendations but unwilling to commit to wholesale implementation without in some cases a more careful evaluation and clarification of what would be involved in putting the proposals into effect.
For example, in his remarks to the Council, City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis observed that the recommendation to divert seized criminal assets to non-profits would violate the terms of that program. He also identified elements of the proposed citizen review board that would need to be addressed (video below).
The Task Force And Their Supporters
The supporters of adopting the reform proposals in their entirety exactly as crafted by the Task Force were, to say the very least, suspicious of the intentions behind the resolution. It was clear in their remarks that they saw the language of the resolution as a way to delay and undermine the work of the Task Force.
Social MediaAdds to the Problem
Not surprisingly some recent postings on social media have contributed to the environment of suspicion. With stunning speed an edited version of Commissioner Michele Madigan’s remarks appeared on Facebook that evening following the meeting. At the end of this post is a link to a Facebook page called “Peoples [sic] Voice.” The professionally crafted video alleges that “…members of the city council threatened to use police if protests continue in saratoga.”
I encourage the readers of this blog to view Commissioner Madigan’s comments which are included below to determine for themselves whether she used her remarks to threaten people. For me her remarks were an appeal to work together.
Following are video clips of a few of the people who spoke at the meeting that are meant to give the reader a sense of both the arguments made as well as the tone of the meeting.
These are raw videos. I have not gone through the process of writing a commentary about the accuracy of the statements below. I have previously covered many of the problematic allegations in earlier posts, and City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis addresses others in his remarks which are also included below.
[JK: Several weeks ago I emailed Heidi Owen West, who is this year’s candidate for Mayor on the Republican line, seeking answers to some questions. Most important to me was clarifying her and her family’s role in litigation against the city regarding the proposed Emergency Medical station. As readers will see below, she responded that she now supports the proposed site on the New York Racing Association property.
The timing of her response is important because last week a judge dismissed the suit against the city. She responded prior to the decision, however, and could not have known what the outcome of the case would be. As there were other litigants it is possible they may appeal.]
From Ms. West March 25, 2021
Good Morning John-See answers below.
*When did you separate yourself from the lawsuit regarding the proposed Fire House/EMS station?
I began the process at the same time I announced my candidacy.
*Why did you separate? I separated after I made my decision to run for office with the opportunity to represent all Saratogians.
*If elected, would you pursue completing that same project? Yes
*If elected do you have any plans to initiate a new charter change proposal? No, Charter Change has already been defeated 3x.
*Do you support the project initiated by Michele Madigan to deploy fiber optic cable throughout the city?
I am in favor of this project as it brings much needed upgrades to our networking capability and allows businesses to stay competitive.
*Saratoga National Golf Course has in the past sought to build a hotel or some other lodging on their property east of the Northway. Would you support or oppose modifying the city’s master plan and zoning to allow for such an expansion?
I am not a fan of modifying the city’s master plan or modified zoning. I support balanced development. I am concerned about our “city in the country” as development encroaches on our neighborhoods. I believe in open space and green space and spend much of my free time enjoying our parks and trails.
From an economic standpoint the project might have made a lot of sense particularly after 2020.
From John Kaufmann March 25, 2021
Thank you for your response concerning your status as a litigant in the lawsuit against the city regarding the proposed EMS station. It has come to my attention, however, that your husband is still a participant in this legal action. Could you address this and also indicate whether you or your husband will be involved in funding the litigation.
From Ms. West March 25, 2021
My husband is in the process of removing himself from the lawsuit and neither of us will be involved in funding it.
I asked Ms. West if she would expand on her thoughts regarding the proposed EMS.
From Ms. West:
“I have always supported providing emergency services to the eastern ridge. The tremendous growth of the east side most certainly warrants it. This is about public safety. As the singular option presented to the public, and with the partnership of NYRA, it’s important our city sees this project to completion.”
I received the following comment from MLK Saratoga taking me to task for misrepresenting them in my recent post.
First let me say that I am a fan and supporter of MLK Saratoga. I applaud the work they have done in the struggle against racism and violence against people of color. I encourage my fellow Saratogians to support their work.
I also appreciate their willingness to engage on my website. The willingness of people of good faith to engage with each other over difficult issues appears to be endangered in the current environment which makes MLK Saratoga’s general work and the response to my post all the more laudatory.
The MLK Saratoga Comment
MLK Saratoga was not an organizer of last Saturday’s peaceful demonstration. Black Lives Matter Saratoga was the sole organizer. Some of our members attended and participated in the peaceful demonstration, fully supporting the intention to rally community support of the Mayor-appointed Police Reform Task Force’s 50-point Reinvention Plan. This post, including the graphic, is inaccurate and misleading. You call for dialogue yet posted false information without talking to MLK Saratoga.
Consistent with our mission, MLK Saratoga is engaged in dialogue – both publicly and behind the scenes. Most recently, we held public community forums in January during our annual Dr. King Celebration Weekend: one was “Police Reform in Saratoga Springs” with members of the Police Reform Task Force, and another was “Understanding How and Why We Protest” with area clergy, the Director of a Human Rights Commission, and social justice activists. We ended the weekend with a keynote (and community dialogue) by Loretta Ross, “Calling in the Cancel Culture.” If you had attended these forums and/or any of our events…or merely visited our website or Facebook page, you would not have posted this false information. Not only did you misrepresent MLK Saratoga, but you have whitewashed a Black-led event.
We call on you to engage in constructive community dialogue.
I offer the following as the source of my confusion over the role of MLK Saratoga in the recent protest. It has been my understanding that Holliday Hammond plays a leadership role in the organization. While the MLK website does not provide any information in the ABOUT page about the who is responsible for the site or who is in the leadership, Hollyday Hammond has spoken on a number of occasions on behalf of MLK Saratoga in the past. Ms. Hammond played a prominent role in the presentations made in Congress Park at the demonstration on Saturday, March 27, 2021. Working on these events takes more time than people can imagine and I have great respect for the work she has done. That and the prominence of the poster below at the event which I had understood to be a product of the work of MLK Saratoga in promoting the adoption of the police reform proposal led me to erroneously assume that MLK Saratoga played a role in the leadership of the demonstration.
Still, my confusion is no excuse for not having contacted MLK Saratoga to confirm their role. I would just note as an offer of constructive criticism, it would help if the group identified who is in the leadership of the organization and how to reach them. Even the email taking me to task is simply signed as from the organization.
Dialogue and Clarification
In the comment the author(s) wrote: “Not only did you misrepresent MLK Saratoga, but you have whitewashed a Black-led event.“ I am not clear as to what is meant by “…whitewashed a black-led event.” In the spirit of dialogue, it would be helpful if the author(s) would share with myself and the readers of this blog what is meant here.
Where Does MLK Saratoga Stand On The Issues Of Safety and Civil Disobedience?
The central point of my post was my concern over minimizing the risk to the participants in the demonstration, the bystanders, and the police. I continue to believe that coordinating protests with the police is imperative if we are to protect people. People marching in the street need protection from the danger of belligerent counter protesters and the risk of someone being hit by a motorist.
I also think that it is absolutely critical that, to the extent possible, people who wish to commit civil disobedience be trained. I should not need to argue this point with people following in the tradition of Martin Luther King. The Southern Leadership Christian Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were leaders in this country as regards training. They insured that those participating in their demonstrations were properly prepared. They knew that without training the arrest of demonstrators by police could descend into forms of resistance that jeopardized not only themselves but their comrades, bystanders, and the police.
When a group like MLK Saratoga encourages people to participate in a demonstration, I believe they take on the responsibility of insuring, to the extent possible, that the participants come to no harm. MLK Saratoga can use the respect they enjoy in our community to help protect people.
I respectfully ask that MLK Saratoga address my concern.
Does MLK Saratoga think that the March 28, 2021, demonstration should have been coordinated with the police?
In light of the fact that the demonstration took over the streets of Saratoga Springs without a permit or coordination with the police, it was an act of civil disobedience. Does MLK Saratoga think that training for the event was needed?
What role, if any, does Saratoga MLK have in minimizing the risk to demonstrators in actions that involve parades and sit down actions in intersections?
Should they be talking to the leadership of demonstrations such as the March 28 action to determine if proper preparation for safety has been planned for?
The Beginning Of A Dialogue
It is my hope that MLK Saratoga will continue this dialogue by responding to my questions. I know I have a lot to learn and I know that MLK Saratoga has a lot to offer. I expect others who follow this blog site can contribute as well.
According to an April 2 article in the Times Union, John Witt “chopped down a forest in Greenfield for his Old Stone Ridge subdivision to provide views of the Green Mountains. But the site plans approved by the Greenfield Planning Board did not show clear cutting. By the time the code enforcement got a stop-work order, the trees were gone.”
The Current Controversy
Statement From President of Saratoga Lake Association President:
The Saratoga Lake Association took the first steps to stop clear cutting of forested lands above Saratoga Lake. On March 31st Charles Malcomb, a partner at the Hodgson Russ law firm, issued the attached demand letter to the Town of Saratoga to stop the clearing at the proposed Cedar Bluff Subdivision. In the letter Malcomb states the current actions by Witt Construction are without any required approvals and are being done in order to sidestep the review process. He further points out that the actions “are in flagrant violation of the Zoning Regulations, the Town’s subdivision laws and SEQRA” (the State Environmental Quality Review Act). The Town has ten days to respond to the Lake Association’s demands.
SLA President, Eliot Cresswell, issued the following statement to the association membership announcing this initiative. Thus far the membership response has been positive and supportive.
I’m reaching out to inform you of an action that the SLA Board of Directors has recently taken. On behalf of its membership and in fulfillment of our mission, the SLA board unanimously approved the Hodgson Russ law firm to draft and transmit a demand letter to the Town of Saratoga. The letter, which was transmitted today (attached for your reference), demands that the Town stop the tree clearing at the proposed Cedar Bluff Subdivision. The letter states that the current actions by Witt Construction are without any required approvals and are being done in order to sidestep the review process. The letter further points out that the actions are in “violation of the Zoning Regulations, the Town’s subdivision laws and SEQRA” (the State Environmental Quality Review Act). The Town has ten days to respond to the Lake Association’s demands.
As you have hopefully observed, the SLA board has made it a priority to foster engagement with all relevant localities on issues of development, environmental safeguards, watershed stewardship, and information sharing. In many respects, we have been encouraged by the response to our outreach. We are building relationships with partners who share our desire to protect the lake’s health and to find ways to work together. At the same time, we have struggled to find common cause with other partners and as such are exploring other approaches to elevate our concerns. This demand letter is one such approach.
The SLA board takes our mission and our responsibility to our members very seriously. We listen to feedback and questions we receive from you and strive to make sure our actions reflect your views and goals. The SLA board does not blindly oppose development or fail to consider the rights of landowners and business interests. What we seek is for the short- and long-term health of Saratoga Lake to be a top priority for the localities around the lake and for land-use and lake-related decision making to be done in a transparent and environmentally principled way.
I encourage you to familiarize yourself with this matter and with other issues that have an impact on the short- and long-term health of Saratoga Lake. The more curious, informed, and engaged we all are, the more likely we’ll be to find solutions with shared benefit.
On March 27, 2021, MLK Saratoga and Elz Figuereo organized a demonstration downtown in support of the fifty recommendations from the Saratoga Springs Police Reform and Reimagine Task Force.
The lack of safety precautions for the people attracted to this event was deeply troubling. Mr. Figuereo has a history of this kind of behavior, but I was disappointed that my friends at MLK Saratoga would be complicit in this. In their defense, they perhaps did not really think all of this through.
Most of the demonstrators were teenagers and young adults motivated by their laudable desire to somehow bring an end to racism and the national epidemic of police violence epitomized by the death of George Floyd.
After gathering in Congress Park, the participants marched down Henry Street to Lake Avenue and then up Lake Avenue to the steps of City Hall. Following the speeches, they poured out onto Broadway. At least one car speeding through the intersection nearly hit someone. They marched up Broadway heading back to Congress Park. The rear of the march was exposed to any potential reckless or malicious driver. At Division Street, a city police patrol car and a sheriff patrol car moved in behind them to offer protection until they reached the park.
During the entire demonstration there were no uniformed police to be seen, with the exception of the two patrol cars.
Three demonstrators who I assumed to be the “security” for the march stood in the street while the demonstrators were on the City Hall steps. At least one of these people had two baseball bats in their backpack. I presume that the weapons were there to defend the group from any counter protesters.
There had been no communication with the police department regarding the coordination of this event in the interest of safety.
Fortunately for the people demonstrating there was no disturbed person in a car to run them down as has happened in other cities and there were no armed counter protesters who might shoot someone as occurred in Seattle.
I invite the leadership of MLK Saratoga to enter into a conversation about the issue of safety at their demonstrations. While Martin Luther King took great risks in the demonstrations he organized he was steeped in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. The idea of having someone armed with a baseball bat participating would be anathema to him.
Social change is about engagement, dialogue, and education. I offer MLK Saratoga an invitation to write a post for this site explaining why they chose not to coordinate their event with the police to maximize the safety of the people they were leading.