More Craziness At The Board of Supervisors

A Picture of the Saratoga County Board of Supevisors : No Casualties…Yet

In the November 18, 2020, Times Union, Wendy Liberatore reports more foolishness at the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.

Just a brief recap:

While there are twenty-three members of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, resolutions require a weighted vote majority. This means that the value of a Supervisor’s vote is based on the number of people living in his/her municipality. In fact, as few as six Supervisors from the largest municipalities can constitute a majority over the other seventeen Supervisors.

The Saratoga County Board of Supervisors is chaired by Preston Allen who is the Supervisor from the town of Day. He represents the smallest town by population. Based on the last census he represents only 856 people. Contrast this with Supervisor Tomlinson from the town of Halfmoon. He represents 21,535 constituents. So he represents roughly 25 times the number of people that Allen does.

In the world of the Board of Supervisors, the chair of the board wheels a great deal of power. This was demonstrated by the COVID bonus fiasco which was engineered by Supervisor Allen in alliance with other Supervisors from small towns. They have basically frozen out the Supervisors from all of the large municipalities.

The Supervisors from the larger municipalities have banded together in a group called “The Saratoga County Public Health Northway Corridor Task Force (SCPHNCTF).” The group is made up of the following:

Phil Barrett, Supervisor Clifton Park

Eric Connolly, Supervisor Ballston

Tara Gaston, Supervisor Saratoga Springs

Todd Kusnierz, Supervisor Moreau

John Lant, Supervisor Wilton

Darrren O’Connor, Supervisor Malta

Jon Schopf, Supervisor Clifton Park

Kevin Tollisen, Supervisor Halfmoon

Matthew Veitch, Supervisor Saratoga Springs

Old Guard Doubles Down

In a letter to Chairman Allen dated November 17, 2020, the SCPHNCTF noted that they had been totally frozen out of the recent hiring of a county Public Health Director and the recruiting of a new County Attorney.

The letter notes a history of the current county leadership excluding the participation of the the representatives of larger municipalities. It notes that following the seating of Preston Allen as chair last January, they have been marginalized.

At the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors organizational meeting in January 2020, a number of supervisors expressed concerns regarding a lack of leadership positions, including committees, among those representing large municipalities comprising the majority of the county population. 

November 17 letter

The signatories expressed alarm and frustration at the apparent rush to fill key management vacancies at the end of Chairman Allen’s term.

For example, positions to lead the Department of Health and County Attorney’s offices have been advertised and the hiring process hastened.  Further, last week a proposed appointment to the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership was presented.  The assessment of applicants and the interviewing processes have been conducted by the same few Supervisors appointed to key leadership positions in the beginning of 2020.  These Supervisors represent a minority of county residents and none are in a position to evaluate applicants with an eye to the needs and concerns of the more densely populated areas of Saratoga County.

November 17, 2020

The letter observes that prior to the names for Director of Public Health and the representative to the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership being submitted to the full Board of Supervisors at their most recent meeting, the SCPHNCTF had received no information about any of the applicants.

It is interesting how heavy handed the old guard has been in this business. They appear to be unconcerned about poking the bear (provoking the large municipalities with the votes to take over the county board and marginalize them).

Shutting Down The Hiring Of Management Until The New County Leadership Is Elected In January

The letter supports the hiring of the Public Health Director in light of the COVID emergency. However they advise Chairman Allen that they will oppose any other appointments until January when new officers for the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors are chosen.

If new hires or appointments, other than the Commissioner of Health, are placed before the Board of Supervisors for consideration during the remainder of 2020, we will not support any proposed candidate. 

November 17, 2020

Breaking With Tradition

The tradition of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors has been to promote the chair of the Law and Finance Committee to the position of chair of the entire Board. That would mean Daniel Pemrick from the Town of Greenfield would be in line to be head of the Board in 2021. That protocol appears to be under serious threat. According to the Times Union story, Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett declined to comment on the future election of a chairperson except to observe that “there will be a vote on a new chairman at the reorganizational meeting in January.”

One can only hope that the sclerotic leadership of our county government will be swept away in January.

Update On Who Constitutes the Leadership of the Pro Charter Change Common Sense Saratoga

Sarah Burger has posted a comment advising me that her name was erroneously listed on Common Sense Saratoga as a member of the “campaign committee”. She noted that her name was removed from the list of leaders some time ago.

She has asked me to correct the record and so this post.

The Evolving Leadership of Common Sense Saratoga

As with any organization, Common Sense Saratoga has been evolving. As I do not regularly check the site there may have been more iterations. The original “Founders” were:

The latest list, captured on November 15, 2020, characterizes the group as the “Campaign Committee.” On at least one occasion the committee list was not available on the site. Its membership has changed at least three times.

As Ms. Burger stated in her comment, her name no longer appears. New on this latest committee list are Tony Krackeler and Joanne Kiernan who are on the city’s School Board.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: Well, It’s Over

On Friday, November 13, 2020, the chairs of both the Democratic and Republican Saratoga Springs Committees acknowledged the defeat of the charter change proposal.

Wendy Liberatore, the Times Union reporter, quoted Sarah Burger, chair of the Democratic Committee as follows:

I think right now, people need a break. There is charter fatigue…It’s time to refocus our attention to next year’s election and finding candidates.

Sarah Burger, Chair person of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee

Ms. Liberatore’s story contained no reference to the Common Sense Saratoga group. Given her close relationship with CSS, it is not as though she does not know how to contact them. No one would accuse them of being shy about contacting her. Why the silence?

Common Sense Saratoga has had the following post up on their site since the election:

Well, all the votes (early voting, election day in person, and absentee ballots) have been counted. The city Republican and Democratic chairs have acknowledged the election results. It is true that the results have not been officially certified but that is a formality that will occur at the end of November.

The people behind Common Sense Saratoga would be the first to complain about President Trump’s resistance to acknowledging his loss to Joe Biden. If they had won, it would be writ large all over their site.

Interestingly, the city Democratic Committee which endorsed the proposed charter did not include mention of its defeat in their recent newsletter.

This is a fitting way to end their campaign.

Neighbors of Saratoga Hospital’s Suit Dismissed By Judge

[JK: This post has been edited to include the courts decision]

In a decision dated November 9, 2020, Judge Ann C. Crowell has dismissed the lawsuit brought by the neighbors of Saratoga Hospital (the petitioners) against the city (the respondent) in their effort to block the Hospital’s expansion.

The neighbors challenged the city in court on a number of grounds:

The Decisions Were Arbitrary and Capricious

The petitioners argued changing the zoning for the parcel from UR-1 (Urban Residential) to OMB2 (Office Medical Business) was arbitrary and capricious.

The judge concedes that “Whether an OMB2 zoning designation is applicable to the future land use category of Institutional in the Comprehensive Plan is debatable.”

She then cites this precedent decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department in July of this year.  In New York, the Appellate Division is the court that would hear an appeal from a matter decided by a lower Supreme Court justice and the Third Department is the department covering Saratoga County and 27 other upstate counties::

A town’s zoning determination is entitled to a strong presumption of validity; therefore, one who challenges such a determination bears a heavy burden of demonstrating, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the determination was arbitrary and unreasonable or otherwise unlawful.

Matter of Troy Sand & Gravel v Town of Sand Lake

And this precedent:

Thus, when a [petitioner] fails to establish a clear conflict with the comprehensive plan, the zoning classification must be upheld.

Matter of Youngsworth v Town of Ramapo

and:

All that is required is that the court be able to satisfy itself, based upon a review of all available evidence, that such plan [the comprehensive plan] in fact exists and that the municipality is acting in the public interest in furtherance thereof.”

Matter Skenesborough Stone v Village of White Hall

I am told that the standard “beyond a reasonable doubt” is common in criminal cases but highly unusual in civil cases. Unfortunately, for the plaintiffs, they were unable to establish an argument that met this demanding a standard. 

So while the judge acknowledged that there was enough merit to some of their arguments to be considered “debatable,” their claim apparently crashed against the rock of having to be proven true “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Designation of the Parcel Was Spot Zoning

The plaintiffs alleged in their suit that the designation of the parcel in the zoning map was “spot zoning.” In her decision, Justice Crowell noted:

Spot zoning is defined as the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area for the benefit of the owner of said property to the detriment of other owners.

Matter of Rotterdam Ventures, Inc. vs Town Board of Rotterdam

The justice noted that:

In evaluating a claim of spot zoning, the courts consider whether the rezoning is consistent with the comprehensive plan, whether it is compatible with surrounding uses, the likelihood of harm to surrounding properties, and the recommendations of professional staff.

Judge Crowell

Essentially the court’s decision in evaluating the claim came down to this:

Fundamentally, and relevant here, if a zoning amendment is consistent with the municipality’s comprehensive plan, it is not spot zoning.

Dodson v Town Board of Rotterdam

As the designation of the area in question was designated OMB2 in the comp plan their argument was dismissed.

The Hard Look Standard

The petitioners alleged that the city failed to consider the adverse impact allowing the use of the parcel for a large medical building would have on the area. This is what is meant by taking a “hard look.”

The State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) requires that a set of questions be answered as to the effect on land use decisions.

The justice wrote:

Judicial review of a lead agency’s SEQRA determination is limited to determining whether the agency identified the relevant areas of environmental concern, took a “hard look” at them, and made a “reasoned elaboration of the basis for its determination.”

Justice Crowell

The court’s inquiry is whether there is a rational basis for the decision or whether it is arbitrary and capricious.

Justice Crowell

Judge Crowell noted that the city had the benefit of and considered the PUD application submitted by Saratoga Hospital for the development of an office building on the parcel. The PUD application provided extensive studies of traffic, water, archeological impact, etc. At the time, following its review of the PUD the planning board did a SEQRA review and determined there would be no adverse impact of the proposed PUD.

The long and the short of it is that Justice Crowell found that the city’s SEQRA review and Full Environmental Assessment Form were sufficient to determine that the city had met the requirements for a “hard look.”

Segmentation

The petitioners contended that the city “impermissively segmented” the SEQRA review.

Justice Crowell wrote:

Segmentation is the division of the environmental review of an action in such way that the various segments are addressed as though they were independent and unrelated activities, needing individual determination of existence.

Justice Crowell

This addresses the problem where in order to hide issues of impact that a large project might entail, a developer tries to mask the issues by breaking up the parcels of a project into separate applications.

The judge identified that the 2015 PUD application made clear the overall plan the hospital had.

She noted:

…respondent (the city) has adequately and rationally determined that a later review will be no less protective of the environment than a speculative review with no clearly defined project in existence.

Justice Crowell

The justice accepted the city’s representation that when the hospital submits its plans for their project the city will be able to address any potential environmental issues it may have.

The Corruption Argument

The plaintiffs alleged that the decision was “unlawfully tainted” by campaign donations made to elected officials by the hospital and its supporters.

While the receipt of campaign contributions casts a cloud over many aspects of government decision making at all levels of the government, the receipt of campaign contributions does not create an appearance of impropriety necessitating the annulment of respondent’s determination.

Justice Crowell

Interestingly the justice wrote:

Petitioner has affirmatively stated that their claim is not based upon the General Municipal Law or the City Ethics Code.

Justice Crowell

It appears that they admitted that this request to have the city’s decision vacated was not based on any actual law.

Violation of the Open Meetings Law

The petitioners asked that the decision be vacated because two of the members of the City Council discussed the amendments to the zoning map privately in early December of 2019. They claimed that this was a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

The Open Meetings Law requires that a quorum of a public body cannot gather without proper prior notice to the public, public access to the gathering, and a record of what transpired at the gathering.

As two Council members do not constitute a quorum, this would not constitute a violation.

It Aint’t Necessarily Over

While the court dismissed their suit, the plaintiffs have a right to appeal so this case may not be over.

The Charter Advocates Last Hurrah Said It All

The rejection of the proposed charter by the voters of our city was the inevitable result of the deeply flawed leadership of those who crafted the charter and managed the campaign for its adoption.

In the final days before the election they posted a video on their face book page, It’s Time, Saratoga, that revealed more about themselves than the charter they hoped to pass. I will use the acronym of their website (ITS) to refer to them in this post.

The target of the video was Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan and its message was that she is the local incarnation of President Donald Trump.

The video utilized footage from an earlier attack ad produced by her opponent during the 2015 campaign for the Commissioner of Finance position.

Like their websites, the ITS video shows a high level of technical skill reflecting the considerable amounts of money the advocates were able to raise in their effort.

The reader may well ask, what a meanspirited attack on Commissioner Madigan has to do with convincing the voters of the merits of their proposed charter?

The answer is “very little.” This video was a self indulgent expression of the visceral anger the ITS people have toward Commissioner Madigan. It was meant to hurt and humiliate, not to educate.

Commissioner Madigan is not the only public figure who has been a target of this group’s enmity, but it is safe to say she enjoys the status of being at the top of their list.

When you think about it, putting this video up on their website as their last appeal to the public to adopt the charter is kind of crazy. It unfortunately is, however, just a more extreme example of their general campaign tactics.

A Cult?

“CommonSenseSaratoga.com” is the flagship website of the campaign for charter change. Readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about the fact that this website was anonymous. They subsequently posted a list of the “founders”. Oddly the list has since been removed but I still have a copy:

  • Julie Cuneo and Ron Kim, Co-Chairs
  • Jeff Altamari*
  • Gordon Boyd*
  • Alexis Brown
  • Ann Bullock*
  • Sarah Burger (Chair of the city Democratic Committee)
  • Ellen Egger-Aimone
  • Pat Kane*
  • Bahram Keramati*
  • Bill McTygue
  • Mark Pingel
  • Bob Turner*
  • Beth Wurtmann*
  • Joanne Yepsen
  • *Indicates citizens who served on the 2017 Charter Commission.

As you can see many of these people were on the 2017 Charter Commission appointed by then Mayor Joanne Yepsen .

What is most striking is the fervor these people have for charter change. Now I think their charter is flawed, and I voted against it, but if it were passed I don’t think it would signal the collapse of Saratoga Springs.

If the reader visits the social media sites created to advocate for charter change, however, they will find a narrative that borders on hysteria. It portrays Saratoga Springs as though it were in the last days of Rome: gross financial mismanagement, votes for sale to political bosses, the city’s infrastructure on the verge of collapse, our water contaminated to the point of being a health risk.

What is really disturbing is that I think that at least some of them may really have believed all of this. It would explain their determination and their ruthlessness.

Frustrated that their warnings were not being heeded they became increasingly desperate to alert citizens to the perceived danger. Thus the video of Commissioner Madigan.

I have observed this in the past with other groups involved in social movements. They love the camaraderie. They love the excitement of the conflict. They feed off each other’s passions.

Any external criticism is dismissed as the efforts of heretics.

Internal discussion is constrained by the need for unity.

Their Own Charter A Victim Of Group Think

We still do not know who actually wrote the charter. I assume it was a subset of the group listed above.

Their own need for unity served to undermine the crafting of their charter.

What they should have done was to circulate the draft to the public to get feedback before finalizing it. This would have helped them avoid mistakes and prepare themselves with real arguments to defend the final version. Regrettably for them, they did not.

I would also note that the combative nature of their campaign was exacerbated by all the festering fights and intrigues these people have been involved in with the existing members of the Council and other public figures over the years. In my first draft of this post I tried to catalogue this history of animosity and conflict. It was a rabbit hole I decided not to climb into.

One thing is certain with a cult-like group like this, they will be back.

They would do well to heed the advice given in the Daily Gazette editorial (11/13/20): “It’s time for opponents of the commission form of government to honor the wishes of the majority of voters and stop putting charter change on the ballot.” https://dailygazette.com/2020/11/12/editorial-in-saratoga-springs-learn-to-work-within-the-current-system/?fbclid=IwAR0lN8mhWfn_8ZXM8vCwT0syxVna4MB5EP0hXJPgKV13DJV3Oip6g9QPRyM

Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan Decides Not To Run For Re-election Next November

My friend, Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, has decided not to run again for public office next year. While Commissioner Madigan often struggled with public relations, there was no one more devoted to our city. I know from experience that she spent countless hours doing her job. Her hard work was reflected in the superb shape our city’s finances were in during her term. For over eight years she kept city taxes flat while helping the city achieve one of the highest bond ratings for a municipality in New York State .

What many people aren’t aware of is that she went well beyond the normal responsibilities of her office to work on important projects.

It was her effort that was critical to the establishment of the solar array on what had been the city’s landfill. It now generates electricity representing 40% of the city’s energy needs.

She was instrumental in overhauling the city’s website including publishing budgets and making possible the on-line payments of taxes and utilities. Her work was cited by the Empire Center and the Times Union as one of the three best websites in the Capital District.

She created a Smart City Commission to assist with technology projects. We now have public wi-fi in city hall and in Congress Park.

Her project to deploy a city wide fiber optic network with SiFi Networks is moving forward and expects to have its ground breaking in April 2021.

She advocated for using properties being foreclosed on to provide affordable housing that was developed by Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Saratoga.

She had the city partner with Spa State Park in the construction of a safe, fenced in dog park.

These are just some of her legacies.

Below is the release announcing her decision.

Times Union Watch: Taking A Non-Story And Trying To Make An Expose

As with many of Wendy Liberatore’s stories in the Times Union the one published recently about city furniture being stored behind the city’s ice rink is pretty mundane and boring and has none of the drama and scandal the headline and opening paragraphs would lead the reader to anticipate.

The story bore the following headline:

“Saratoga Springs Guarding Its Pile of Discarded Furniture”

The subheading reads:

“When asked to get a look at what the city put out, a Times Union reporter was asked to leave”

While this has a certain dramatic, Nancy Drew quality to it, given Ms. Liberatore’s history, it is hardly surprising that she is not welcome to areas not designated as “public.”

For those who didn’t get beyond the headline (which I realize Ms. Liberatore did not write) and her opening paragraphs one would be left with the impression that something shady was going on. After all it would be reasonable to think why wasn’t the reporter allowed to take a look? If one actually read the whole story, as with others Ms. Liberatore has written, they would discover that the there is nothing actually in the story to support any kind of misdeeds. It is not a coincidence that these stories often have as their sources members of the charter change group. Readers will remember the story of Bill McTygue and Ann Bullock allegedly going to the Attorney General, Dillon Moran was the source of the city water non-story, and a story about alleged misspending on the restoration of city hall extensively quoted Ron Kim and Bob Turner.

So here is the background to this latest non-story:

When the city rehabbed city hall they transferred the existing furniture to temporary storage structures located behind the city’s ice rink. A significant number of items had been damaged in the fire and were covered by insurance. Other furniture had simply suffered the abuse of time. Some of it had been the property of the courts.

Subsequently, the city purchased new furniture for their offices. In the meantime employees from the city departments and the local court offices have been visiting the site and going through the inventory deciding on which items they wanted to keep.

The city’s plan was to allow time for departments and the courts to decide what they wanted to keep and then either to donate what remained to local non-profit groups or discard what was no longer usable.

Apparently Bob Turner and Pat Kane learned of the inventory and this week (the first week in November) decided to go out and inspect the area. When they arrived they were asked to leave. Turner left but apparently Mr. Kane resisted. DPW staff ended up calling the police who escorted Mr. Kane off the site.

Some time later, Wendy Liberatore, the Times Union reporter, arrived but the DPW staff on site refused her access.

According to Ms. Liberatore’s story, Department of Public Works business manager Michael Veitch was on site and explained to her:

‘…the furniture needs to be reviewed by the departments, and court staff to determine if they have a use for it.’

“If there is a use it will be kept. After the process it can be offered up to nonprofits or discarded. Much of the remaining furniture appears to be relatively old and would probably be considered depreciated to the point of having no present value.”

Veitch to Liberatore November 5, 2020

In her story, Ms. Liberatore reported that the city had allegedly spent $324,269.00 on furniture. Ms. Liberatore had FOILed the city for all invoices associated with the city hall restoration. As the reader can imagine, there was a motherload of invoices. The reader will pardon my skepticism but as someone who has closely observed these people I think it is likely that Ms. Liberatore depended on the pro-charter people to come up with conclusions about the information rather than independently reviewing all these materials herself. It remains to be seen how inflated the numbers being thrown around here are. The charter change proponents do not have a great record when it comes to accuracy. As documented on this blog, information published on the Common Sense Saratoga site has been not only shown to be untrue but easily debunked. I would urge the readers to be cautious about Ms. Liberatore’s figures.

Ms. Liberatore reported that Pat Kane had “perused” the inventory. According to Kane, he “discovered” about one hundred boxes of records.

The city had in fact stored a large number of boxes of documents in one of the tractor trailers during the restoration of city hall. These were simply stored while the offices were being refurbished. These boxes were not being thrown away. I was told that they are being reviewed to decide what needs to be kept and where to store these. Some of these papers will need to be located where they can be accessed while others being kept to meet legal requirements will need to find a home that is both secure but does not take up the most accessible and valuable space at city hall.

Below are photos taken on Friday of some of the furniture that still remains at the site.

Working Families Party Survives Governor Cuomo’s Gambit To Get Rid Of Them

Governor Cuomo’s attempt to get rid of the Working Families Party has failed. The WFP needed 130,000 votes on the presidential line to maintain its ballot status. It garnered 284,515.

Other third parties were not so fortunate. Neither the Green, Independence or Libertarian party captured over 50,000 votes and will no longer have ballot access.