Panhandling Proposals: Politicians Pretending to Do Something

The most recent public discussions about panhandling remind me of the great sage Yogi Berra’s reference to “deja vu all over again.” We’ve done this before.

Commissioner Montagnino’s New and Apparently Useless Penal Code Proposal to Stop Panhandling Gets Rejected by Council

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino, to great fanfare, announced his proposed new City Ordinance Chapter 55 titled Aggressive Solicitation to the City code.

This is a prime example of a politician responding to an intransigent problem with the illusion of a solution.

As stated by Commissioner Montagnino, this code enforcement language was taken from one adopted by the City of Rochester. He told the media that the language of the code had withstood numerous court challenges.

He conveniently passed over the history of Rochester’s code, however. It was adopted in 2004 and included special fines, but Betty McBride, a clerk in the office of the Rochester Chief of Police, told Saratoga Today:

It’s a city code, but they don’t give tickets. They choose not to. What we do is we try to help out; offer resources to get shelter, get clothing and food.

Betty McBride

So if they do not actually use the code to give tickets to enforce limits on panhandling, it doesn’t sound like Rochester’s code has any record of impacting panhandling.

At the July 2, 2022, Council meeting, Commissioner Montagnino presented his proposed code. At the public hearing, speakers spoke for and against the proposal. Most of those speaking against the proposal focused on the vagueness of the term “aggressive” and expressed concern over criminalizing the homeless and the lack of affordable housing.

When the proposal came up on the agenda, there was a rambling discussion among Council members over whether to table the proposal, fund a study, or put a sunset clause on the code. Usually, Council members in the past who wanted support for an initiative would have one on one conversations with their fellow Council members to explain their proposal, listen to and try to address any concerns before taking it for a vote at the Council table. This is a useful strategy that can result in a better proposal coming to the table that will have majority support or maybe the dropping of a proposal because these discussions made clear that it wouldn’t have the votes to pass. Listening to Council members ask the most basic questions about this legislation made me wonder if Montagnino had bothered to do this.

The most thoughtful comment came from Public Safety Commissioner Jason Golub:

The resolution failed with Montagnino and Mayor Kim voting yes and Finance Commissioner Sanghvi, Public Works Commissioner Golub, and Accounts Commissioner Moran voting no.

Mayor Kim and Chamber of Commerce Executive Todd Shimkus Repackage a Failed Policy

Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus and Mayor Kim drew extensive media coverage for a plan to hand homeless panhandlers a card rather than money. The card lists the services available to homeless people.

I ran the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (now re-branded as LifeWorks) for sixteen years and had plenty of interactions with homeless people over that time. Many homeless people often suffer from mental, alcohol, and drug problems. Still, it is the rare homeless person who has not learned through their network about what community services are available.

This card policy is especially aggravating because this same program, carried out during the Joanne Yepsen administration, was a resounding failure, and Mr. Shimkus knows this.

I have talked to one of the downtown business owners who told me that, as far as they know, no businesses are using the cards. When you think about it, how are they supposed to use these cards? Are they supposed to give a stack to each customer?

I advise anyone that handing one of these cards to an unknown panhandler is not a good idea. Giving them one of these cards rather than money invites a potentially very unpleasant interaction.

How About Deploying a Police Officer on Foot to Patrol the Downtown?

Unless a police officer observes a crime, it is difficult to successfully ticket anyone. As Commissioner Montagnino conceded during the August 2, 2022, meeting, an accusation is hard to prove without supporting evidence such as witnesses or video.

One owner of a downtown business told me there was a time when the city assigned a police officer on foot to patrol downtown. They noted that while it wasn’t a panacea, it did act to lessen the general aggressiveness of panhandlers. If Commissioner Montagnino really wants to do something, he should find a way to deploy officers on the street again.

An Emergency City Council Meeting Tomorrow Morning About What? What’s the Emergency??

A notice was posted tonight for a special City Council meeting to take place tomorrow, Saturday, August 6, 2022, at 10 AM (see below). There is no indication of what is on the agenda.

Although the New York State Open Meetings Law requires the public be notified at least seventy-two hours before a regularly scheduled meeting, this specially called meeting apparently does not have to meet this requirement nor is an agenda required to be posted.

Nevertheless, as far as I know, it is unprecedented for the City Council to set a meeting without notifying the public of what business will be transacted.

Setting meetings without advising the public of what the Council plans to do is bad practice. As noted in many posts, the current members of the Council consistently fail to meet the transparency standards they continually claim to embrace.

Commissioner Montagnino’s Dubious “Agreement” with Gaffney’s

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Gaffney’s Bar back on May 25, 2022, stipulating conditions under which the establishment could re-open. The New York State Liquor Authority characterize the agreement as “not worth the paper it was written on.”

I FOILed for the document, and it is quite revealing. Not only has Montagnino assumed authority to negotiate a settlement with Gaffney’s that only the New York Stae Liquor Authority is authorized to do, but it seems he has also wrongly assumed the Mayor’s authority to sign agreements, even invalid ones, on behalf of the city.

According to the city charter, as I read it, the Mayor is the city official authorized to sign formal agreements. Also, agreements are supposed to be adopted by resolution of the full City Council.

Now note how the document is signed: “Acknowledged on Behalf of the City of Saratoga Springs

Is this Commissioner Montagnino playing lawyer by diddling with the wording? Read carefully. He is only “acknowledging” promises made by Gaffney’s. He knows that an actual real agreement with Gaffney’s (if the city could even do this) would require that the City Council adopt a resolution affirming the action. Why he did it this way is anyone’s guess.

I wrote to Commissioner Montagnino and Mayor Kim, asking whether a document such as this could be signed by anyone other than the Mayor and whether it required Council approval. Neither of them responded.

The Document

Chris Mathiesen Pushes Back on Montagnino’s Latest Email

[JK: I recently published the email former Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen sent to the City Council regarding his concerns about the staffing level in the Saratoga Springs Police Department. I subsequently published the exchange between Chris and current Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino. Now Chris has further reviewed the statements made by the PBA at the July 5 City Council meeting and has sent the following email to Montagnino. Here are links to the original exchanges: Chris’s original email and the subsequent exchange]

Chris’s Email

Commissioner Montagnino,

After you responded to my e mail which included my concerns about the PBA presentation describing a serious staffing shortage in our police department, I began to question whether I had heard the points being made by the PBA correctly.  While I thought that I heard the PBA representative stating that there were 20 vacancies in the department, you assured me that this was not the case.

I just finished viewing the LOOK TV replay of the July 5 Council meeting.  It is much easier to decipher what was being said when viewing the recording.  The PBA representative did indeed emphasize more than once that they are facing a busy summer season with 20 vacancies in the department.  The officer went on to say that the situation is so serious that investigators may have to be re-assigned to patrol duties, thus significantly impacting that division.  It sure sounds like a public safety emergency to me.   I would continue to suggest an emergency declaration until further notice to close bars a little earlier so that some of the pressure being placed on our officers can be eased.

You mentioned the recent NYS SLA restrictions imposed on Gaffneys and you seem to infer that this will quell the nightclub district problems.  Those problems are much deeper than you seem to realize.  Having a strong police presence on Caroline Street every warm-weather weekend is vital to keeping a semblance of peace.

I was thrilled to see that the SSPD actually has funding for 80 positions.   We were never able to have more than 72 positions in our budget during my three terms.  .  Kudos to Commissioner Martin and Commissioner Dalton for achieving those much-needed increases in staffing.  But 80 minus 20 equals 60 active members which is not a very desirable position to be in for July and August .   It would work fine in January.

It is important that our citizens feel that they can trust those of you in City government. If the PBA was wrong in their count of active members of the police department in their appeal to the Council for a number of labor concessions, you should have pointed that out publicly in your response to their presentation. If the PBA is right, we do have a serious public safety emergency.

Chris Mathiesen

The Cost of Mayor Kim’s Frivolous Legal Actions Keeps Growing

As documented in this blog here and here, Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim has been spending city money pursuing pointless legal actions in a city code enforcement case involving Church Street Trust.

My FOIL requests regarding the costs of this litigation show that the law firm of Miller, Mannix, Schachner, and Hafner LLC is continuing to bill the city for work on this case. As of July 7, 2022, the city has paid them $6,575.00 and neither of the legal actions they are pursuing are over yet.

I have written to Mayor Kim and appeared at a Council meeting asking him if he can explain the purpose of these legal actions. He has not responded nor have any of his fellow Council members shown any interest in pursuing an answer from him.

The Mayor’s dogged pursuit of this case at the public expense deserves a public answer.

The Invoices

An Exchange Between Chris Mathiesen and Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino Over the Condition of the Saratoga Springs Police Department

[JK: The following is an exchange between former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and Montagnino prompted by Mathiesen’s recent email to the City Council.]

This is a link to the original Mathiesen email:

Former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen Calls Police Department Situation a Crisis

The Subsequent Emails:

From Montagnino

Dr. Mathiesen:

To say that there are 20 “unfilled slots” is a little inaccurate. Full staffing, as you know, is 80 sworn officers. From that number must be deducted seven who are currently in the Academy and therefore unavailable for actual service, on duty, for the City. From that number must also be deducted an additional five who will be starting training at the Academy later this month. Thus, 80 is reduced by 12 to 68. Of those, one has been on disability for years but yet continues on our books. That reduces the “net” number to 67. One of our officers is on “loan” to a DEA task force and has been for several years. That reduces the “net” number to 66. Another officer is currently assigned to the Police Academy as an instructor. That reduces our “net” number to 65. Just this week, an officer returned to service after a lengthy period of reserve military deployment. His absence from service here in the City had reduced our “net” number to 64. We have an officer out on Family Medical Leave. That reduces our “net” number to 63. We have only three or four truly “unfilled” slots at the present time. 

The seven officers in the Academy will be graduating on August 4. They will each be assigned a Field Training Officer and will be on duty from that point forward. There is no “public safety emergency” nor is one expected. (As an aside, you suggest closing the bars at 2 am.  Please note that the Memorandum of Agreement signed by Gaffney’s, the City’s largest bar, as a condition of their re-opening, bears my signature as well. That Memorandum is incorporated by reference into Gaffney’s Chapter 136 license and requires them to close their doors at 1:30 am.)

As to the 12-hour shifts, these were adopted by the previous administration despite an exhaustive federal study highly critical of such long work hours. Particularly where overtime shifts run to 16 hours and can run back-to-back-to-back with only eight hours off between shifts, the present system is an invitation to danger from fatigue.

I turn to your questions regarding recent retirements and resignations. Much has changed in recent years regarding public perceptions of law enforcement. Nationwide, police departments at the local, county and State levels have seen record numbers of retirements and resignations. Simultaneously, applications are drastically diminished in numbers. This nationwide phenomenon is occurring here in the Capital Region as well. Albany, for example, lost 90 (yes, ninety) police officers in 2021. Every department in this area is suffering from a diminution in its ranks.

Under the current collective bargaining agreement, our Police Officers are the lowest-paid in the area.  When you couple this with the fact that every other police department is short of officers, it is no surprise that officers leave for better pay. Indeed, in the last week a recruit who had been given a conditional offer of employment with SSPD informed us that he had accepted a position with the Saratoga County Sheriff because their pay scale is significantly better.

In addition to our low pay scale, we were unable to attract lateral transfers because, until July 5, we were hamstrung by a policy under which an officer joining SSPD was required to start at the base level of pay, irrespective of how many years’ experience that officer may have had. Thanks to the City Council’s unanimous approval of a Memorandum of Agreement with the PBA offering pay scale commensurate with years of service to laterals, we expect to be able to attract experienced officers from other departments. However, as long as SSPD remains the worst-paid department in the area, the likelihood of our being able to attract qualified, desirable transferees remains small.

The proposed MOA would increase the attractiveness of service with SSPD. This would help us retain officers as well as recruit officers. It would allow us to be more selective as well. It would also offer the opportunity to “cast the net wider” in order to attract a more diverse pool of new officers. (You are no doubt aware of the fact that SSPD has only one Officer of color, and he was sworn in more than 18 years ago. how is this situation acceptable?)

A close examination of the proposed MOA also demonstrates that there is a significant increase in shift differentials. This is no accident; this is by design. The goal here is to incentivize senior officers to bid for the “off shifts.” As I pointed out at the last City Council meeting, the eight officers involved in the Akron shooting of Jayland Walker were working the midnight shift and their average time-in-service was two and one-half years. The senior officer involved had only six years in service. The least experienced officers should not be the only ones on duty during the most dangerous periods of the night.

On a final note, I would point out that there is something fundamentally unsettling in the fact that the overwhelming majority of our Police Officers cannot afford to live in the City they serve. This wasn’t always the case. Less than a generation ago, City residence was a requirement of service with SSPD and yet the number of applicants far exceeded the number of positions available. Today, however, at a starting salary of $50K, how can a Saratoga Springs Police Officer dream of buying even a starter home in this City?  Nancy and I bought our first house in Saratoga Springs in 2002 for $110K. The seller had paid $90K only three years before. That house is now on the market for $300K. Is it any wonder one of our Officers recently left to take a position with the Warren County Sheriff when that position pays more money in a county with a significantly lower cost of living?

Dr. Mathiesen, I take you at your word when you say that you are offering constructive criticism. I ask you to consider the fact that, if we take the federal government’s inflation figures as accurate, the Collective Bargaining Agreement under which SSPD Officers are now serving has their annual cost-of-living increases of 2% outpaced by a factor of four. I ask you to consider the fact that the cost of housing in our City has increased at an unprecedented rate. I ask you to consider the fact that law enforcement — once considered among the most honorable professions — is now under enormous societal pressures. I ask you to consider the fact that our SSPD Officers are currently paid less than any other police officers in the area.  I ask you whether our City deserves to keep the best people in our uniformed services. And then I ask you how we can not honor the good-faith request of the men and women of our PBA who seek a slightly better quality of working life and a little bit better remuneration.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Jim Jim Montagnino

From Mathiesen

Commissioner,

I don’t disagree with many of the points that you have made in your reply.  

I am happy to hear that we are no really down 20 slots in the department as was stated by the PBA reps.  It would have been a good idea to clarify that information at that time.

Of course we want the police to be adequately paid and of course we would like to be as successful bringing ethic and racial diversity to the department as we have been in bringing gender diversity to all levels of the department.  I strongly advocated for higher starting pay for our officers when I was Commissioner for many of the same reasons that you cite.  And yes, the pandemic and the current social climate has had an effect on recruitment and retention in departments across the country.  Other than the failure of City officials to more adamantly counter the outrageous claims over the past two years that our police murdered Darryl Mount, what sets our department apart from others?  Why is our department losing members to other departments when that has not been the case in the past?   Yes, the cost of housing in certain parts of Saratoga Springs has increased significantly but this is not true city-wide.  Also, there have been more workforce housing units constructed in recent years just for individuals in the early stages of their careers such as police, nurses and teachers.  Also, during my administration, very few members of our police force actually lived within the City limits for a variety of reasons (only one of which was the cost of housing).   That’s true of officers in many other departments.

Don’t we need to know why the rate of pay in Saratoga Springs is suddenly no longer competitive?  It would be a great idea to provide an analysis of the salary scale of other area departments and then see what needs to be done to adapt a more adequate set of salaries for our officers and investigators.

Chris Mathiesen


Former Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen Calls Police Department Situation a Crisis

Chris Mathiesen served three terms as the Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety. He copied me on an email he sent to the City Council. It reaffirms the concerns many of us have about the crisis our police department seems to be experiencing.


Members of the City Council,

I was very surprised to hear during the PBA Presentation to the Council on Tuesday evening that the SSPD has 20 unfilled slots.  That’s very alarming and, as far as I know, without precedent.  None of the concessions to the PBA proposed by Commissioner Montagnino will remedy this situation any time soon.  Given the fact that the City is now entering its busiest season,  this is truly a public safety emergency.   I would suggest that a Public Safety Emergency be declared immediately with all City businesses that serve alcohol being required to close at 2 AM on weekends and 1 AM on weeknights until further notice.   Those last call restrictions are consistent with those in other counties across New York State.

During the PBA Presentation, I was surprised that more questions were not asked by Council members.  Why are the reasons that the PBA contract signed barely more than a year ago not include these concessions?   Is there any possibility of keeping the present contract with the 12 hour shift?  Have any consultants been contacted to see if the 12 hour shift system can be tweaked to make it more workable?   Has the City’s Human Resource Department been consulted in order to better explain why so many members of the SSPD have retired or moved to other departments so suddenly?  How did the SSPD salary schedule become so non-competitive with other local police departments and why did this occur?   Can the salary schedule be re-worked so that it is competitive with other local departments and the County sheriff’s department?  Are there other reasons for losing SSPD personnel over such a short period of time?  Why were the number of training sessions previously cut?  What are the costs to the City payroll of having 52 days a year (Thursdays) where the SSPD would be overstaffed as proposed with the 10 hour schedule?     Could there be a better explanation of the disadvantages of lateral transfers?

I am quite familiar with SSPD personnel management from 2012 through 2017.  We had very qualified applicants interviewed and we could be quite choosey in determining who to hire.  Once carefully vetted, most of those candidates made it through the Training Academy and eventually stayed with our department.   Very few transferred to other departments.   Our department was thought to be a desirable place to work for a police officer.   Our pay scale, opportunity for overtime and our benefit package was at least on par if not better that of other local police agencies and of the sheriff’s department.  Isn’t it important to determine exactly what has happened to suddenly make the SSPD such an undesirable place to work?

We were eternally challenged when it came to filling all 72 slots in the department.  Just when we thought that we were close to our goal, someone else would retire or, in rare instances, leave the department for other reasons.  However, we never had anywhere near 20 vacancies.  We instituted the 1 year and 6 month bonus payments to those who gave prior notice of retirement so that those anticipated vacancies could be filled more efficiently.  We did reluctantly utilize a lateral transfer once in order to quickly fill a slot but that worked out quite badly.  I can relate to the difficulty of keeping all slots in the department filled but I cannot relate to a vacancy of 20 positions. 

Please take my comments as constructive criticism.  I know what it’s like to be subjected to unfair and constant criticism.  I have grave concerns about a department that, at one time, worked so well and is so vital to the success of our City.

Chris Mathiesen

Council Plays Santa Claus to Local Businesses: Grants Use of City Land without Knowing Its Value

Santa

The Saratoga Springs City Council is giving out agreements for the use of public property like they are Santa Claus. At the Tuesday, July 5, 2022, Council meeting the members of the Council and the City Attorney admitted they had no idea what the value was of the three properties the city owns that they agreed to allow city businesses to use. This ignorance didn’t stop them from granting permission anyway.

The idea that the city needed to transparently establish a reasoned basis for what to charge before approving the use of public property for local businesses was lost in the kind of rambling and unfocused discussion which seems to be the standard for this current Council.

Newly appointed Department of Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub asked the Council to approve three resolutions authorizing the Mayor to sign agreements for three downtown businesses to use public city property for their private use. Two agreements extended existing agreements.

  1. The Adelphi Hotel had a previous five-year license for a section of city sidewalk for which they paid $2500.00 per year. They were seeking to extend that lease at the same rate for another five years.
  2. The public alley known as Lena Lane has been leased since 2012 by two businesses which each paid the city $2,000 a year. One was Hattie’s, now referred to as JBA Restaurant Corp in the new lease agreement, the other was a bar which is now occupied by another establishment called The District. The two current businesses now abutting that alley were seeking to extend the lease for another five years at the same rate set ten years ago.
  3. Flat Bread Social on Henry Street was seeking the rights to operate their eating and drinking establishment on Short Alley for three years at $2,000.00 per year.

The Standard For Determining How Much To Charge

City Attorney Tony Izzo told the Council that the law requires the city to sell or allow the use of public property based on its fair market value or by establishing that the public good that would result from the sale or lease equals or exceeds the fair market value.

Here is the direct quote:

“The rule of course is that when a government sells or leases public property it should be an approximation of fair market value unless there are facts that indicate the benefit to the public in a particular situation is equal to or greater than what would have been obtained on fair market value and governments have a lot of flexibility in determining when that situation exists…”

Tony Izzo, July 6, 2022

The following is a clip of this blogger asking Commissioner Golub to either table the resolutions or amend them to only one-year agreements while the Council establishes a method, open to the public, to determine what should be charged.

Did the Council then table action until, at a minimum, the fair market value could be determined? In a word: No.

In this clip, Mayor Kim asks City Attorney Izzo how the city arrived at the fees for the original agreements with the Adelphi and Hattie’s, admitting in effect that he has no idea what the properties involved are worth.

In turn, Tony admits he doesn’t know how the fees were originally established.

Here is the excerpt from the video.

The Abuse of the Concept of Public Good

In the rambling discussion that followed, Commissioner Moran, Mayor Kim, and Commissioner Golub claim that these restaurants provide a public good because they employ people, and they bring in sales taxes. Commissioner Moran asserted that if the Flat Bread Social didn’t utilize Short Alley, the homeless would use it, so Flat Bread Social is performing a public good. Commissioner Golub expressed the need to support local businesses.

This line of reasoning reflects a lack of understanding of what constitutes the “public good”.

Here is the definition of the “public good” according to the Oxford dictionary:

1. In ECONOMICS, a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or a private individual or organization, “a conviction that library informational services are a public good, not a commercial commodity”

Oxford Dictionary

Let me be clear. I do not oppose the city allowing restaurants or any other business to use city land. What I unequivocally oppose is providing land to particular businesses without providing to the public and other businesses a consistent standard so that everyone knows what the terms of use are and how they were arrived at.

When the current elected Council members (Commissioner Golub was just recently appointed) campaigned last year, they accused the previous administration of cronyism without ever giving any evidence of this. What they do not understand is that the road to cronyism is paved by doing exactly what they have just done: giving out public resources to particular businesses without clearly established standards. Their clear indifference to standards is the path to trouble.

Readers of this blog know that I have asked Commissioner Moran in person and in emails how he arrived at the permit fees the city charges to restaurants to use the city’s sidewalks and parking spaces. After six months of asking I have been unable to get an answer.

The following is a video clip of the full discussion the Council carried on over the leasing issue.

The city has a real estate committee that has operated to determine the price of public properties sold to private individuals and companies. City Attorney Izzo suggested the real estate committee might take the leasing task on. Commissioner Golub offered to meet with Tony about pursuing this. Nevertheless, the Council vote was unanimous to approve these long-term agreements without further study.

A Hopeful Trend

I followed up the meeting by emailing Mayor Kim asking for information on the real estate committee. I asked:

  1. Who is on the committee?
  2. When do they meet?
  3. Are their meetings covered by the open meetings law?

Given that numerous emails with questions that I have sent to Mayor Kim have not been responded to, I was encouraged to get a timely response from Tony Izzo at the Mayor’s behest. I hope this is the beginning of a trend.

According to Tony, the real estate committee was established in 2004. The City Attorney acts as chair. The other four members are selected by the other Commissioners.

These are the current members:

Carrie Schermerhorn (Accounts)

Michael Veitch (Public Works)

Karen Perrino (Public Safety)

Laura Townsend (Finance)

The committee has met as recently as June 15. Tony wrote that they generally meet on the first Thursday of each month unless there is no business.

Tony noted that strictly speaking this committee is not required to adhere to the New York State Open Meetings Law but that the city charter states, “Every agency, board, commission, and other entity shall conduct business in accordance with the provisions of the Open Meetings laws of the state of New York.”

I went to the city’s web page of agenda and minutes and could not find anything related to this committee. Apparently they are not adhering to the charter’s requirement that the real estate committee be dealt with according to the open meetings law. It appears the failure to adhere to the charter in this particular case is not unique to the current administration.

I wrote back to the Mayor and Tony asking whether they planned to include the notices, agendas, minutes, and video for the real estate committee in the future.

Where Does It Stop?

Retailers downtown might ask, why is it only restaurants that get to access the parking spaces in front of their operations to enhance their business and profits? I am sure that many retailers would be happy to pay $1,000.00 to control the parking spaces in front of their store for their customers.

The city is basically giving away the parking spaces in front of those restaurants that want to participate in Commissioner Moran’s outdoor dining program. We have no idea what those parking spaces are worth. The restaurants not only get the parking spaces, but the city purchased the barriers that go in front of them and bear the cost of delivering them, picking them up and storing them. We have no idea what that costs the city. Do Moran’s permit fees cover these expenses? We have no way of knowing.

Now the city has gone beyond granting permits for seasonal use of city property to renewing and making new long-term agreements with certain businesses. It’s time for the city to establish procedures and standards for the private use of public property in Saratoga Springs that are transparently arrived at and fair to all the businesses involved as well as the Saratoga Springs taxpayers.

Commissioner Montagnino Gives Away the Kitchen Sink

Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino has carried on a dubious campaign to reverse the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) recently approved contract that established twelve-hour shifts. In order to reduce the shift hours he “negotiated” a contract with the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) that is generous, to say the least. His presentation at the June 21, 2022, City Council meeting drew a skeptical response and never came to a vote.

The language in the proposed contract had an effective date of July 2, 2022. As the next Council meeting will be on July 5, 2022, it appears that Commissioner Montagnino was overly optimistic. Apparently, he had expected the MOA to be adopted at the meeting where he introduced it, but that didn’t happen. Instead, his proposal met with uncharacteristic pushback from the Mayor and Finance Commissioner.

Some Background

In 2021, during the last administration, the city negotiated an agreement with the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) to change the shifts from eight to twelve hours, something the PBA had wanted for a long time. The agreement was seen as advantageous to both the PBA and the city. The PBA wanted the longer hours because it would allow for more days off. The city saved money because the final agreement had the patrol officers working eighty-four hours every two weeks at straight pay. This meant that the city saved four hours of overtime every two weeks per patrol officer. Over time, that adds up to substantial savings for the city. Montagnino’s new proposal would scrap this agreement.

Commissioner Montagnino Takes on a Dubious Fight

Commissioner Montagnino, with only a few months in office, decided to unilaterally change the 12 hour shifts back to eight hours. He claimed the long shifts were dangerous in spite of the fact that the New York State Police, among others, have been operating on twelve-hour shifts for some twenty years.

As the city and the PBA have a written contract, Montagnino’s attempt to unilaterally impose the shift hours reduction ran into a brick wall. The union “grieved” the decision. There was no way that Montagnino could ignore a signed agreement. He then assumed the role of city negotiator and reopened the city’s contract with the union.

It was clear from the outset that the city would have to pay dearly if it wanted to renege on its agreement with the PBA after less than a year.

It also was just one more of a growing number of decisions by Montagnino that was creating a toxic environment in his department.

The Police Department has been hemorrhaging staff and rather than focusing on addressing this, Montagnino entered into yet another contentious, unneeded conflict. Even if the concept of shorter shifts had merit, the timing of this move is hard to defend coming on the heels of demotions in the department, interfering with ongoing police cases, and oh, yes, adding adultery as grounds for dismissal.

Montagnino, having announced his plan to shorten the shift hours, was unable to retreat. The result was a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that was Christmas in June for the police union.

What The New Contract Would Add for Officers

The proposed agreement includes:

  1. An increase in the patrol officers’ salaries for 2025
  2. A major increase in the bonuses paid to officers working the less appealing shifts for nights and weekends.
  3. Making Travers Day, in effect, into a holiday with double pay from 9:00 AM on that day to 5:00 AM the following day. Even more, if an officer works overtime.
  4. An annualized bonus add-on to salaries based on longevity. So for example, a police officer who is in their sixth to ninth year is paid $75.00 times the number of years. An officer in their ninth year makes an additional $675.00 per year. the bonus goes up to $200.00 after twenty years so an officer in their twentieth year gets an added $4,000.00.
  5. The overtime rate is increased.
  6. There is a fitness requirement which under the current contract grants four hours off would now get eight hours off.

There may well be more, but I am not sure as I don’t have a great deal of expertise in reading contracts.

Union contracts are complex. They require not only a deep understanding of labor and municipal law, but also require the ability to crunch the financial numbers to avoid folly.

In these two clips, Commissioner Sanghvi questions some of the benefits.

In the most recent podcast of Talking Saratoga, Dan De Federicis also casts doubt on the financials Montagnino claims are the cost of the proposed contract. Mr. De Federicis had a career as a New York State Trooper and served as the union president of the NYS Troopers from 2001 to 2009. He also earned a law degree, so he knows something when it comes to police contracts.

In the following video clip, he and Robin Dalton challenge Commissioner Montagnino’s handling of this self-inflicted fiasco.

Will a Generous Financial Package Bring in Quality Officers?

One of the arguments made for these generous pay increases is that it will attract trained experienced police from other departments to join the Saratoga Springs Police Department. I am comfortable in principle with that argument but as a result of Commissioner Montagnino’s mismanagement morale is at an all-time low in the department. The SSPD is now badly understaffed and in at least one case an officer worked two sixteen-hour shifts back-to-back. I am not sure how successful the city will be in attracting officers as long as Montagnino is Commissioner of Public Safety.

Did Montagnino Ignore the City Charter?

Section 3 of the city charter gives responsibility for negotiating union contracts to the Mayor. Section 3 of the city charter states:

Title 3, I 

The Mayor shall, in consultation with the Council and professionals retained by the Council for the purpose, conduct collective bargaining with City employees’ bargaining units. The Mayor may delegate this authority as the Mayor deems necessary. The Council shall approve collective bargaining agreements and auxiliary agreements before they take effect.

The city used to engage outside labor counsel to handle the actual negotiations but under Mayor Kelly, in order to save money, she put together a team consisting of herself, the city attorney, and the HR director to deal with negotiating contracts.

Neither Montagnino nor Mayor Kim respond to my emails so I do not know if Kim actually delegated negotiating authority to Montagnino or if Montagnino just went ahead on his own and entered into these talks.

Mayor Kim Doesn’t Get It

In this video clip, Mayor Kim insists that the city limit negotiations to just the change in hours for shifts before considering additional benefits. He doesn’t seem to understand that the PBA is happy with the current hours. Without an incentive, there is no reason why they would change. Trying to limit the negotiations to just the hours for shifts is futile.

Commissioner Sanghvi Doesn’t Understand Where to Find the Current City Contract

In these two video clips, Commissioner Sanghvi complains that Dan Mullan Jr., the president of the PBA, has not provided her with a copy of the current contract between the city and the PBA. As the city is a party to the contract, the city already has one. All she needed to do was ask the City Attorney for it.

So Where Is Black Lives Matter?

One of the bizarre aspects of this story is the apparent free ride that Black Lives Matter provides Commissioner Montagnino.

During the last administration, BLM excoriated that Council for failing to acknowledge their allegation that the Saratoga Springs police murdered Darryl Mount. They also repeatedly demanded that the city defund the police.

Commissioner Montagnino has issued a paper clearing the police for Mount’s death, and now he is proposing a major increase in pay for the PBA.

One would have expected that Commissioner Montagnino might have enjoyed at least some of the abuse heaped on the previous Council. Why Commissioner Montagnino is being spared their rath is something of a mystery.

The Great Parking Scandal Of 2022

As background to this scandal, I refer readers to this earlier blog:

There have been designated parking spaces for Saratoga Springs City Council members in the city owned parking lot behind City Hall for years. More spots, though, have now been allocated to the Commissioners’ Deputies, and it appears that Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino has acted inappropriately in designating these spaces a tow away zone.

Current City Council members seem to have an exceptionally strong sense of proprietary rights regarding these spots. First it was Finance Commissioner Sanghvi calling 911 to complain about a car parked in her space that turned out to belong to Mayor Kim’s wife. Then it was Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino declaring his parking space a tow away zone.

I have spoken to a number of past Council members, and they have all told me that, on occasion, they would find some interloper had parked in their space. Their response was simply to find another space that was available.

That was then….

Do The Council Members and Their Deputies Merit Their Own Parking Spaces?

I personally have no problem with designating parking spaces in this lot for our elected officials. They are paid a mere $14,500.00 salary and, in spite of the fact that they officially are part-time, most regularly spend many more hours in City Hall attending to city business.

I do have reservations about the Deputies now also having allotted spaces there, though, when an agreement with the City Center when it was constructed allocated sixty spaces in the facility for the city government’s use. Part of the idea was to free up the well-located city owned lot for public use.

The City Center parking facility is a mere 70 feet from the Deputies’ current parking spaces. According to one calculator on the web, it takes approximately 30 seconds to walk 70 feet. Most people who work would love to have an easily accessible free sheltered parking spot that close to their place of employment.

Why tie up the prime spots now designated to Deputies twenty-four/seven/three hundred and sixty-five days a year? For that matter perhaps the Commissioners might also want to consider using the spots in the City Center garage.

Did Commissioner Montagnino Have the Right to Designate His Space a Tow Away Zone?

Commissioner Montagnino’s Parking Space

The tow-away zone signs that have been posted are confusing. They were done by the Department of Public Safety under the direction of Commissioner Montagnino. One sign is situated in front of Commissioner Montagnino’s parking space and now another one has appeared in the space designated for the Deputy Commissioner of Accounts. Does this mean that only those two spaces have been designated as tow away zones or are the signs meant to apply to all the Council and Deputy spaces?

Whether or not you agree that these people should have the perk of private parking spaces, Commissioner Montagnino violated the city’s parking codes in unilaterally authorizing these “tow-away” zones.

The lot behind the city hall is described in the city’s code in Chapter 225-32, Schedule XXII as a two-hour lot. There is nothing in the code for this lot that authorizes a tow-away zone, let alone designates parking for public officials and their deputies.

There are a number of sections of the city code that address parking regulation.

Chapter 225-26 Schedule XXX identifies areas where parking is prohibited (the parking spaces that constitute the city lot are not included). The code lists a variety of streets that prohibit parking on one side or the other or on both sides.

Chapter 225-26 does give the Commissioner of Public Safety unilateral authority to make certain temporary regulations to cover emergencies or special conditions and also gives the Commissioner certain discretion to change hours and time limits for parking upon proper posting and in conformity with the chapter. I assume this authority is meant for things like parades, road races, festivals, etc.

Chapter 178, “Public Property,” allows for property owned by the city to be posted with a notice regarding its use, and any violation of that notice would be considered a trespass under that chapter. However, the notice must be posted at the “main entrance” or other approach.

So the city can, not surprisingly, regulate parking, but to do so properly requires following proper procedures and regulations. Nowhere is the Commissioner of Public Safety given the authority to unilaterally have his parking space or those of his colleagues designated as tow-away zones.

Hoisted On Their Own Petard

Commissioner Montagnino frequently references that he is an attorney and often resorts to legal verbiage when making points.

This recent business with parking spaces is part of a broader pattern of the current Council’s sense of both entitlement and an indifference to properly research the law before rewarding themselves with the city’s resources.

They need to spend less time criticizing past administrations and touting their rigorous administration of the city and spend more time carrying out due diligence before acting.

The previous administration, which enjoys the contempt of this current government, had two lawyers whose duties included vetting proposed actions to ensure their legality before those Council members took any action.

What Will the Members of the Council Do Now That the Violation of City Code Has been Pointed Out to Them?

Probably nothing.