Bob Manz Testifies To The Faithful
Apparently Money Does Not Buy You Style Or Happiness
Bob Manz Reveals The Winners
Ever since it was formed, the Saratoga PAC (Political Action Committee) has generated an unusual level of interest, as well as speculation about its ultimate objectives.
Its stated goal is “to advocate positions on local, county and state legislation that will foster, encourage and support a balance between expanding economic opportunity and protecting our environment while enhancing the economic well-being and quality of life in Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County.” In the first few weeks of its existence, it raised over $46,000 from individuals and businesses. To help guide its agenda, it mailed 14,000 questionnaires to registered voters in Saratoga Springs. In additional, this “Quality of Life Survey” was posted online for anyone to fill-out.
October 20th was the day when the results of the survey would be revealed at a fundraiser at the Holiday Inn on South Broadway, along with candidate endorsements. John was otherwise engaged and asked me to attend.
As I entered the hotel’s parking lot, it soon became apparent that all of the public spaces were full. Could there be a special event in progress? Let’s find out. I drove around the block, parked in front of the Gaslight Apartments on Federal Street, and walked back to the hotel.
Out front, on the Broadway sidewalk, there were a handful of demonstrators from SCRAP (Saratoga County Residents Against PACs), an organization that was formed as a response to the Saratoga PAC. Their press release said, “Protesters will call for all local candidates and elected officials to pledge to reject the money of this Super PAC, and ask voters to reject candidates who are willing to accept dark money from this or any Super PAC.”
As a point of fact, Saratoga PAC is not a “Super PAC.” That’s the colloquial term for what Federal election law terms an “independent-expenditure only committee.” The latter is an entity that may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but which may engage in unlimited political spending independently of those campaigns. The money sources behind Super PACs are often cloaked in secrecy.
The Saratoga PAC operates under New York State election law as an “Independent PAC.” While independent expenditure committees cannot give money directly to candidates, they can support them through an unlimited supply of independently purchased advertisements and campaign mailings. They are also obligated to reveal the names of their donors, as well as the amount of their contributions. You can visit the New York State Board of Elections Candidate and Committee Search Page, enter Saratoga PAC in the search box, and follow the links to their latest disclosure forms.
Since just about everyone who attended the meeting entered through the lobby, which is set back from the street and hidden from the sidewalk by foliage, the demonstrators were pretty much ignored. In practical terms, it seemed to be an exercise in frustration.
Entering what would normally be a banquet hall at 5:30PM, there were 80 or 100 people in attendance and the party, fueled by a table of crudités and a cash bar, was in full swing. There was a minimum $25 contribution requested to cross the threshold, so it’s safe to say that at least $2,500 was raised that night from the crowd. Including the latest (September 30th) filings with the State Board of Elections, that brings their total contributions to around $53,000 (we don’t know exactly how much has been raised since October 1st).
I was only there for a few minutes before PAC Chair and founder Robert Manz, President of the D.A. Collins Construction Co., came to the podium in the back of the room and made a brief PowerPoint presentation. He began by outlining the results of the survey mentioned above. He reported that there was about a 10% response rate, which he thought was “above average.” In fact, the response rate for surveys varies all over the place and without a basis for comparison, say, with a similar survey distributed among a similar population about similar topics, that figure has to stand on its own. Turning it around, one can also say, with some accuracy, that there was a 90% rejection rate.
There were 15 questions on the survey and Mr. Manz continued by revealing what the respondents considered to be the city’s two least relevant issues. These were were prohibiting businesses from using plastic bags and restricting property owners from storing boats, trailers, and RV’s in their front yards.
He then presented what the respondents considered to be the city’s most relevant issues. In descending order, they were (1) the state of water, sewer, and sidewalk infrastructure, (2) the revitalization of South Broadway, (3) helping to the homeless and dealing with panhandlers, (4) a presumed tie between approving a zoning change to allow the proposed expansion of the Saratoga National Golf Club and creating more jobs to attract and keep younger residents, and (5) making the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. The actual tally indicated top support for these measures from about 54% of all respondents.
He continued by talking about the process of interviewing the current roster of candidates for public office. In effect, they were asked to answer the same questions which were posed by the survey. The public and candidate responses were then compared and candidates whose views most closely paralleled the public response were selected for endorsement. These were Republicans John Safford (Mayor) and Richard Wirth (Public Safety), plus Democrats Michele Madigan (Finance), Bill McTygue (Public Works), and John Franck (Accounts). In addition, Cynthia Young, Republican candidate for Malta Town Supervisor, was also endorsed.
While that was almost the end of the presentation, it’s not the end of the story. Saratoga PAC has never mentioned who authored the survey and to get a better idea of how objective it might be, I sent a copy to Thomas Restaino, a long time friend, who was a founding partner of the BRS Group, a market research firm based in San Francisco. For 35 years, surveys were his business.
This is what Tom had to say:
“First, the scale used here is one that I have never seen before and am pretty uncomfortable with for several reasons.
“Does ‘Not Relevant’ mean ‘Not Applicable’ or ‘Not Important At All?’ If Not Applicable, that should always be offered as the last choice, not the first choice. It seems unlikely that it was meant this way, but some people might interpret it as such. Its wording does not fit in with the other points on the scale.
“But here is the greater difficulty — it’s probably meant to indicate ‘Not Important At All.’ That would be in keeping with the wording of the other four choices, and would probably be read that way by most respondents. But, as written, it entirely lacks the polarized connotation of its favorable counterpart, ‘Extremely Important – Key Issue.’ In my opinion, it’s simply too ‘soft’ a term to use as the low interest choice. Bottom line, I think that people will be confused. It’s unclear to me how it would play out in bias, but it would probably affect the absolute numbers more than the relative numbers (i.e., the ranking of the issues). That’s a somewhat hopeful spin on the problem, however.
“Finally, the scale is skewed to the positive. For example, the mid-point is ‘Important,’ when it should be a neutral statement.
“Switching over to the issues themselves, they certainly seem like a worthwhile cross-section to consider. However, they intermix process-oriented steps (e.g., develop a plan, fund a review) with content (e.g., restrict property owners, prohibit businesses). I do appreciate the uniqueness of each issue and its particular chronology, but my concern is the apples/oranges comparison. By casting some issues as studies and others as actions, is there really a level playing field? I would have stripped away the dimension of planning vs. doing for the sake of a more accurate assessment of the core issue’s perceived importance.”
As I see it (and I used to work with Tom at a non-profit research organization in New York City), the core issue is question number 7: “[Do you] approve a zoning change for Saratoga National Golf Club to enable the creation of a 5-Star resort golf destination, helping the region compete more effectively for conference and tourism revenue.” This is one of the problem issues in the survey’s format that Tom refers to. In the industry, this sort of question is characteristic of a “push poll,” which Wikipedia calls “an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll.”
So, armed with the results of a survey which was arguably worded in ways that are not consistent with accepted practice, and with a slide of the long-vacant Spa City Diner on display to his left, in conclusion Mr. Manz said said that the PAC’s goal was to change local zoning laws and revise the Comprehensive Plan to make it more favorable to development. It’s a comment that seems to have slipped by the other reporters in the room. To that end, the PAC has endorsed candidates who are on the record as favoring the Golf Club’s zoning variance and who will presumably be sympathetic to similar revisions elsewhere. Could we have expected any other outcome?
Consider this: Of the $52,000+ dollars contributed to the PAC to date, this is where most of the money comes from:
- $9,251.54 comes from Mr. Manz’s own company, D.A. Collins Construction, its subsidiaries, his family, the family of the late D.A. Collins, and a couple of companies that his son, Zachary Manz, is associated with.
- $6,020 comes from the Dake family, principals in the Stewarts chain of convenience stores.
- $5,050 comes from Sonny Bonacio of Bonacio Construction.
- $5,020 comes from Michael and Linda Toohey (he’s an attorney whose specialties are listed as Land Use & Zoning, plus Real Estate).
- $2,500 comes from James LaVigne, principal of Gavin & LaVigne, a firm that finances capital projects for hospitals and nursing homes.
- $2,010 comes from the Roohan family, who have real estate interests, both owning and brokering.
- $1,000 comes from Charles wait, Chairman and CEO of the Adirondack Trust Co.
- $1,100 comes from Saratoga Pelican Associates, the holding company that owns the Holiday Inn.
- Finally, another $5,000 was split between Jeffrey Vukelic of Saratoga Eagle and from the DeCresante family, both of whom are beer and beverage distributors.
That’s $31,051.54 from eight families or company groupings in the construction, real estate, and finance industries and another $5,000 from two beer distributors. In effect, only 10 contributing families or related business groupings account for 72% of Saratoga PAC’s funding. The first group clearly wants more leeway to build whatever they want, wherever they want it, and the beer distributors have a grudge to settle with Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who wants the bars to stop serving alcohol earlier in the evening.
There you have it. As a publicity stunt, the survey worked. A lot of people talked about it, as well as the PAC, itself. It got plenty of newsprint devoted to it, as well as some television time. As for what was revealed, except for specific endorsements, the outcome and where the funding presumably will be spent was not unexpected. “You pays your money and you takes your choice.”