Sometimes the most significant events are overlooked when they occur and their importance only becomes evident much later. This post is about one such event. The topic of this posting probably will not appear in any of our newspapers or on television but its far reaching repercussions make this one of the most important blogs I have written.
This post is about Mayor Yepsen’s appointments to our land use boards at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Under the existing City Charter the Mayor of our city enjoys the unrestricted power to make appointments to our land use boards. There are no requirements that the Mayor advise the public of the choices prior to their appointment. No approval from the other members of the City Council is required
The enormous power of our land use boards only becomes apparent to many in the community when they find themselves affected by a major land use decision. The neighbors of Moore Hall have had that education. The neighbors of Saratoga Hospital are starting down that road to enlightenment. Those who have been involved in the conflict over the attempts to commercialize the city’s greenbelt have learned this lesson.
While the City Council plays a major role in many aspects of land use issues, the boards are just as, if not more, powerful. If the hospital gets its approval for their expansion from the City Council, the Planning Board will be affecting how traffic will flow. They will decide whether to accept proposals for blasting in the area. They will make similar decisions about what happens with Moore Hall and they will decide many, many issues if Saratoga National Golf Course gets approval to become a resort.
The terms for the members of both the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board are seven years. Scott Johnson who served for multiple terms was able to fill both these boards with his appointments. He chose people whose loyalty to the real estate industry was beyond reproach.
It was the hope of many of us that when Mayor Yepsen was elected she would reconstitute the boards with people who were independent of the zealous development industry and whose decisions would show greater sensitivity to the citizenry at large. It was understood that given the terms of these board members the changes in their composition would take many years.
Last night Mayor Yepsen announced her latest appointments and any illusions that her reelection would result in a shift in the make-up of these boards were dashed.
Mayor Yepsen Reappoints William Moore to Continue as Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals for Seven Years
Mr. Moore was originally appointed to the Zoning Board Of Appeals by Scott Johnson. Moore is a real estate appraiser. Like many of the real estate people who serve on the land use boards, the people who come before him are often potential clients. As should be obvious, this places Mr. Moore in an interesting position. Were he to routinely rule against the people in the real estate industry coming before him, it would do little good for his business. On the other hand, being a good old boy who regularly assists them places him in a particularly good situation for later business.
I was able to observed Mr. Moore first hand as he chaired the meetings regarding the Bonacio application for variances for Moore Hall. Mr. Moore’s bias towards well connected applicants was stunning. Mr. Moore has the applicants for variances sit at the table with the ZBA members. In contrast, any who oppose the variances are relegated to the seats beyond the railing. If you sit in the “gallery” you immediately understand your status as compared with those who are privileged to sit up close and personal with the board.
Mr. Moore made no attempt to limit the time of the attorney representing Bonacio at the meetings in spite of the fact that the attorney’s remarks were often not germane to the specific standards of the variance under consideration or were wholly redundant. In contrast, when it came time for the public to comment, Mr. Moore sternly advised them that they would be limited to two minutes each. He then attempted to cut off the attorney representing the neighbors when he had used up his two minutes. Only an angry response from the many neighbors at the meeting along with some who offered to give up their time to the attorney allowed the neighbor’s representative to finish his remarks.
During each of the meetings Mr. Moore took the opportunity to praise Mr. Bonacio’s proposal. In hindsight, this pandering was particularly disturbing because Mr. Bonacio had recently completed building Mr. Moore’s house. Not only did Mr. Moore not recues himself from a decision affecting someone he had so recently had a business relationship with but he saw no need to advise the public of the potential conflict of interest. Even later when this was brought to his attention he did not see any problem with his relationship with Mr. Bonacio and his review of Mr. Bonacio’s projects.
After it was disclosed that one of the members of the ZBA had joined Mr. Bonacio and his attorney for drinks following one of the meetings about the Moore hall project, Mr. Moore showed a complete indifference to the concerns of the neighbors. In fact, he publically shared a laugh with the lawyer for Mr. Bonacio over the incident.
Mayor Yepsen has decided that Mr. Moore is the best person in this city to lead the Zoning Board of Appeals for the next seven years.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen appoints Jamin Totino to a seven year term on the Planning Board
Mr. Totino is Director of Student Academic Services at Skidmore College. Link to Skidmore Profile
Mr. Totino was originally appointed to the Planning Board by Democratic Mayor Valerie Keehn. With Keehn’s defeat, Mayor Johnson began filling vacancies to the city’s land use boards with appointments who had ties to the real estate and development industry. Mr. Totino, an affable man, developed a cordial relationship with his new colleagues. In fact, he cooperated with them so well on votes and connected socially so well them that he became the development community’s favorite Democrat I am told. He apparently was considered so reliable that Mayor Johnson chose to reappoint him when Totino first term was up.
Totino resigned before his second term ended. Eventually the long and often dull meetings became too much for him. He did not have the incentives of business opportunities that his other friends on the board enjoyed.
More recently, Commissioner Scirocco appointed Totino to the Comprehensive Plan Committee. As the readers of this blog may recall, the Committee had a series of votes meant to facilitate more intense development in the greenbelt by allowing Planned Unit Developments (PUDs). This proposal was repeatedly defeated in seven to six votes. This article by Tom Dimopoulos gives a good overview. Link To Story
Then Mr. Totino, Todd Shimkus, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Jaclyn Hakes, the consultant working with the Comp Plan committee met together at the Mayor Yepsen’s invitation. At the next Comp Plan meeting, Mr. Totino, who had consistently voted against opening the greenbelt to more development suddenly and surprisingly changed his vote.
The public outcry at this Comp Plan Committee vote was so intense that it prompted Commissioner Mathiesen to introduce legislation banning PUDs in the greenbelt. At a standing room only meeting the Council unanimously adopted Mathiesen’s resolution.
Shimkus was furious. He complained bitterly that the Mayor could not be trusted which simply reaffirmed the rumors about her involvement. To say the least, it was an embarrassing moment for Totino. Nevertheless, he sent out an email in which he defended his vote using the exact argument put forward by the Chamber that PUDs provided the tools needed for flexible development.
Mayor Yepsen believes that he is the best person that she can find in our city to serve on the Planning Board for the next seven years.