From Dennis Yusko
A bruising election season may not have changed the makeup of the City Council, but it appears to have created a wedge of distrust among business leaders that formed a political action committee and City Council members who were targeted for defeat.
Formed in June, the Saratoga PAC raised more than $56,000 in campaign contributions and endorsed five contested candidates for election. Despite touting their views at public events and on websites, only one of its favored candidates won.
“We were obviously disappointed by the results, but not at all surprised,” said Robert Manz, chairman of Saratoga PAC and COO of D.A. Collins construction company. He said the PAC was “transitioning” to advocacy on a set of issues.
But it’s unclear how much backing PAC members will receive from the five-member City Council after a political season in which some the PAC worked to defeat — Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen — not only survived, but won by larger margins than two years ago. Mathiesen, a Democrat who has led the police and fire departments for four years, said Friday that the PAC had “overplayed its hand” in the campaign.
“The people who make up the PAC already have an awful lot of influence in city government,” Mathiesen said. “The results show that Saratogians don’t want an entity like that to have too much power.”
One issue that has arisen in the wake of the elections is what role Todd Shimkus, the president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, played in Saratoga PAC. The chamber claims hundreds of members who pay annual dues, and this year received $375,000 in taxpayer money from Saratoga County, up from $346,500 in 2014. Some chamber members accuse Shimkus of planning strategy for Saratoga PAC and writing blogs on its website.
One member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, discovered Shimkus’ name as an author of blogs in the domain history of the PAC’s website. Shimkus’ name was removed from the WordPress index shortly after a news website, Saratoga Grid, reported its presence. The chamber member said Shimkus had come out very strongly for projects without discussing them among members.
Shimkus, 48, directed questions about his involvement with the PAC to Manz. He said the person who created the PAC’s website accidently included Shimkus’ email address and forgot to delete it, but Shimkus did not write any of the PAC’s mailings or website postings. He said the PAC’s “media vendors” would be identified in its next filing with the Board of Elections.
Saratoga PAC joined the chamber when it formed, and its board members work for companies that are members, Manz said. He said Shimkus offered advice and counsel to the PAC whenever asked. “The chamber helped us as a startup to make some connections,” Manz said. “Todd Shimkus connected us with some people to help get a website established.”
Neither Shimkus nor Manz would address if chamber resources were used. Shimkus did not provide input on endorsing candidates, Manz said.
Shimkus worked with political PACs while employed by the Adirondack Regional Chamber and North Central Massachusetts Chamber, according to Manz and news reports. Shimkus succeeded Joseph Dalton as president of the Saratoga chamberfive years ago.
Mathiesen, a dentist who has been a chamber member for 35 years, said it made a mistake when it hired Shimkus as its director. “I think he is a divisive part of this community, and I have been very disappointed with some of the stances he has taken and his attempt to mischaracterize my position on a variety of issues,” Mathiesen said.
Shimkus said the chamber’s history of success in promoting the area “suggests that divisive is not a word that appropriately captures the great work we do.”
“The chamber is a visible and vocal advocate for our members and the communities we serve,” Shimkus said. “We support initiatives and efforts that we believe will grow our economy and improve our quality of life.”
Yepsen said Friday that while the chamber is responsible for many events that create a positive economic climate, “helping to create the Saratoga PAC does not fall in line with this mission.”
Among those serving on the Saratoga PAC board are Manz, developer Sonny Bonacio, Gary Dake, the president of Stewart’s Shops, and Cindy Hollowood, owner of the Holiday Inn. The PAC is registered as an independent expenditure committee, and, as such, can accept unlimited contributions and spend without limits. The PAC spent more than $16,000 in contributions through early October, according to the state Board of Elections.
Manz said it will now work to support issues: Improving infrastructure, revitalizing South Broadway, making streets safer, reducing panhandling and building support for a destination resort at Saratoga National Golf Club.