An open letter to the Citizens of Saratoga Springs: April 19, 2016
When the call came in from Saratoga TODAY reporter Arthur Gonick last Thursday, I was at a dinner in Troy with other regional Mayors accepting an award on behalf of Saratoga Springs as one of the 22 cities across the nation who ended veterans’ homelessness by the end of 2015. After the dinner, I listened to the message and was stunned to hear that a “story” that I was the subject of was going to run in the paper the following day and they had gone to press without even giving me a chance for a comment, response or clarification of the facts. In my dozen years of public service, I’ve never not had a chance to respond to an article relating to me or, at the very least, asked for a comment prior to publication.
After reading the April 15th article published by Saratoga TODAY entitled “Recusal Or Refusal”, I feel compelled to not only defend my actions but to provide important details that were missing from the reporter’s story and to correct the record.
As the Mayor of Saratoga Springs, I take offense to any suggestion that I conveniently avoided taking a public stand on the Saratoga Hospital rezoning and expansion project. If I didn’t want to deal with controversial issues and think I could make a positive impact, I would not have run and won twice for Mayor. As it relates to the recent article in Saratoga TODAY, that appears to be the author’s suggestion. However, that is not what happened.
Since Saratoga TODAY did not provide me opportunity to respond to the tone of their article before the story was printed they didn’t know that I have had a long-standing relationship with the hospital both as a fundraiser and community leader. They also didn’t understand the full extent of precautionary steps I took and the advice I sought with the City’s Ethics Review Board in order to avoid any potential conflict of interest I may have had with the hospital’s rezoning proposal. Instead Saratoga TODAY chose to first write the story, complete with editorial connotations, and then offer me a chance to respond.
Therefore, as a follow-up to the “facts” presented by the April 15th article, I’m more than eager to explain my actions and reasons for excusing myself from any discussion involving the hospital’s plans. Additionally, I have a few thoughts of my own as it relates to the unseemly politics of this whole issue.
First, it’s important for all to understand, I’m the proud co-owner of a small independent business that specializes in working with non-profit organizations in developing effective strategies for the management of fundraising activities. The Mayor’s position is considered “part time” and pays $14,500 per year and therefore additional income is essential. Over the years, I have established a successful business relationship with many organizations in New York, including Saratoga Hospital. I have been hired twice over the years by the hospital foundation to conduct board trainings and prior to that served as a hospital foundation volunteer board member for nine years. But, for all my years in public service I have never had one instance where I have had to recuse myself from a public vote because of a potential conflict of interest.
Ethics is a high priority for me. In my first term as Mayor, I re-establish and reconstituted the important role of the City’s Ethics Review Board with several new appointments and updates to the requirements set forth in the City’s Ethics Code. This term, I arranged a thorough ethics-training program presented by Mark Schachner, an expert legal advisor, for our land use board members. I have high ethical standards for myself and expect that of others. That is why as soon as I realized the potential conflict of interest between my consulting work with the hospital and the city business; I sought advice from our City Ethics Board to ask for an official opinion.
Once the hospital realized the potential conflict, they also took action simultaneously. They wrote me an email indicating they would discontinue conversations about our possible working relationship while I am serving as Mayor. Having already met with the Ethics Board that same day, I immediately shared this follow-up information I received with them to consider in their deliberation.
After performing a thorough review of records, and after considering the legal implications involved, the Ethics Board issued a determination and opinion, advising me that in my official City role I should recuse myself from any discussion or consideration related to the hospital’s rezoning and expansion project.
Contrary to the impression that may have been created by the Saratoga TODAY article, I have been more than transparent and cooperative in sharing all information and correspondence related to the preliminary discussions with the hospital, all information regarding my discussions with the city’s Ethics Board and my ultimate decision to recuse from all discussions related the hospital’s rezoning plan. Aside from my private business relationship, past and present, my duty as a public official was to seek advice from the appropriate City Board and act accordingly. And, I did just that.
To suggest that the hospital’s decision not to engage my services at this time, by itself, somehow erased the potential conflict and instead caused me an opportunity to participate in the City Council’s discussions involving the hospital’s rezoning request is simply wrong and in direct conflict with advice and recommendation I received from the city’s Ethics Board. The Ethics Review Board determination made it clear, that given that the earlier discussions that already occurred with the hospital, regardless of their final email to me discontinuing those conversations, recusal was advised.
Here the facts are clear. In accordance with the timeline of events as described by Saratoga TODAY article, it wasn’t until late in the year 2015 that the public fully understood that the hospital was acting on a project rezoning proposal that had been inserted into the draft Comprehensive Plan update. As government officials, we all need to find more effective means to educate ourselves and the public on the numerous projects being presented that may affect their neighborhoods.
Throughout this whole process, I’ve held myself to a high ethical standard. In this particular instance, given my business affiliation past and present with Saratoga Hospital, I was compelled to step aside on any vote pertaining to their proposed project and rezoning. I take great pride of serving as Mayor of this city and I did not take the recommendation by the Ethics Board or my personal decision to recuse lightly.
Sadly, the failures in this process are that the Saratoga TODAY article appeared and drew harsh conclusions with no chance for me to directly respond or correct the accusations. The deliberate actions taken by fellow City Council members in running to the press with documents they believed to be incriminating, calls into question their true motivations.
There are always lessons learned and room for improvements in every process. In my role as Mayor, I will continue to conduct City business professionally in a manor that best represents the overall interest of our City, its residents and taxpayers.
– Joanne D. Yepsen
Mayor, Saratoga Springs