As Saratoga PAC grows, critics are galvanized
City groups rise up, lobby for, against golf expansion, candidates
By Dennis Yusko
Published 10:58 pm, Monday, October 12, 2015
Manz, 54, chairs Saratoga PAC, an independent expenditure committee founded in June by mostly Republican business owners from Saratoga Springs. Backed by prominent names like developer Sonny Bonacio and Gary Dake, the president of Stewart’s Shops, the super PAC has raised $54,000 in contributions and spent $9,500, mostly to produce a 15-point “Quality of Life” survey it mailed out to 14,000 voters.
Saratoga PAC is interviewing and endorsing candidates in races for the five-member Saratoga Springs City Council, which is now controlled by four Democrats, and plans to weigh in on Saratoga County and state races in the future. Manz said the PAC was created to improve the area and counter opposition to Saratoga National Golf Club‘s proposed expansion. The club’s owners want to add hotel rooms, a spa and more to the 18-hole golf course near Northway Exit 14, but the project has not advanced because of zoning restrictions in the city’s rural outer district, or greenbelt.
“If you’re not growing, you’re going,” Manz argued recently in his upper-floor office at the Wilton Global Development Campus. “Business drives economy, and economy drives social settings.”
The prospect of a super PAC pouring tens of thousands of dollars into this small city’s political process has unexpectedly galvanized critics who say Saratoga PAC is a symptom of pay-to-play politics. In recent weeks, Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, both of whom are Democrats, pledged not to accept support from the PAC. A group called Saratoga County Residents Against PACS (SCRAP) is rallying against the PAC on social media, while Saratogians Against Vegas-Style Expansion (SAVE Saratoga) reconvened to conduct its own survey of candidates for the upcoming city elections. Neither of those groups are raising funds.
Colin Klepetar, a co-founder of SAVE, recently delivered to the City Council the names of nearly 6,000 people who opposed siting a full-scale casino in the city. Klepetar, 36, said they, too, intend to play a role in city politics. He sees parallels between a destination casino and the proposed golf resort at Saratoga National Golf Club.
“In both cases, well-positioned and financed lobby groups attempt to influence the local political process and override the citizens/residents in our community,” Klepetar said. He said the golf resort plan conflicted with the city Comprehensive Plan’s goal of keeping major development in the downtown area.
Manz said those who claim the golf resort will open the greenbelt to development were “NIMBYs.” He said the project would dedicate hundreds of acres as green space, generate tax revenue and create a world-class resort. He did not name those he viewed as obstructing the project.
“I’m not going to comment on the City Council at this point,” Manz said. “There has been a lack of real forward planning and a lack of decision-making that has occurred, which has created, to some degree, a lack of direction in the city.”
Yepsen faces a challenge from Republican John Safford, who said Monday that he believes in and supports the PAC’s “smart-growth goals.” While Yepsen backed the golf club’s effort for a zoning text amendment, she is co-founder of Sustainable Saratoga, a group that opposes the club’s expansion. The mayor recently attended fundraisers in the city with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and David Paterson, the former governor. Yepsen’s two-year-old campaign committee raised more than it ever has during the last reporting period and had $38,724 on hand, according to the state Board of Elections.
Joining Manz, Bonacio and Dake on the PAC board are Cindy Hollowood, operator and general manager of the Holiday Inn; C.J. DeCrescente, president of DeCrescente Distributing of Mechanicville; David Collins, an owner of D.A. Collins; Jeff Vukelic, principal manager of Saratoga Eagle Sales & Service; Rod Sutton, owner of Sutton and Tarantino Insurance Agency; Kathleen Smith, owner of Saratoga Arms; Gordon Boyd, founder of and consultant for EnergyNext; and Patrick Kane, a former city official.
The PAC raised $46,417 in its first five weeks, with more than a third coming from the Bonacio, Dake and Toohey families, according to the state Board of Elections.
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.
“This gives them a voice well above the citizen with just one simple vote,” said Dave Morris, a member of Saratogians for Sustainable Housing.
Manz said the PAC will announce the results of its survey next week, then put out a list of endorsements. He said the group was not targeting a political party.
“We’re not buying politicians,” Manz said. “We are voicing our opinion. And we are voicing our opinions on a number of issues, hopefully to help Saratoga to move forward.”