The Ethics Board: Designed To Hide Rather Than Reveal Or Whatever Happened To The Yepsen/Saratoga Hospital “Inquiry”?

I recently emailed Justin Hogan who is chair of the city’s Ethics Board.  I was inquiring about two matters.

First was a follow-up regarding the Ethics Board’s decision on the issue of ex parte contacts.  In an earlier blog I have discussed this extensively.  Basically, according to the standards issued by the New York State Department of State, discussions between applicants to land use boards and members of land use boards are considered improper if they occur outside of a regularly scheduled public meeting or are in correspondence not available to the public.  Some months ago the Ethics Board had issued an opinion that was inconsistent with this principle.

The Second was over when he expected the board to reach some decision regarding the complaint (The Ethics Board uses the euphemism inquiry) made to the board over the apparent solicitation for business by Mayor Joanne Yepsen to Saratoga Hospital while the hospital  had business before the City Council.

Mr. Hogan replied in a manner consistent with my past experiences with him.  He avoided acknowledging the question related to the Mayor.  He referred me to the Ethics Boards procedures and advised me to check their agendas.

I subsequently followed up with him and asked what the procedures were for scheduling meetings.  He responded by citing the same procedures again.  This time he included that they are only required to meet quarterly.  He said that they try to post the agendas on the city website as soon as they are circulated.

The sustained pattern of these kinds of responses prompts the suspicion that Mr. Hogan, who is employed by a firm that does lobbying and public relations for politicians, seems disinclined to make his board cooperatively accessible to the public.  With that in mind, I decided to explore in general, how his board functions and in more particular, how I might successfully attend a discussion of the ex parte issue, should they decide to address it again.  It turns out that, assuming the Ethics Board even takes up the issue of ex parte, it will require considerable luck to successfully attend the meeting.

There is no way to anticipate when the Ethics Board meets

Section 3.0  of the Ethics Board procedures is entitled LOCATION, DATES AND TIMES OF MEETINGS.  Under item 3.1 it states:

3.1 There shall be regular and special meetings of the Board of Ethics conducted consistent with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law

One might deduce from the term “regular” that this board meets on a predetermined day or days each month as does the City Council and the other officially sanctioned boards.  Apparently this is not the case with the Ethics Board.  Going back to March, the committee has met on February 1, March 10, April 12, and May 2.

February 1 was a Monday.  March 10 was a Thursday, April 12 was a Tuesday, and May 2 was a Monday.  To date, no agenda has been posted on the city’s web site as to when or if there will be a June meeting.

They could, like most boards, use a particular day of the month, and in the event that they have no business, post that the meeting will not occur.

According to the Ethics Board procedures:

3.3 The City Attorney’s office shall arrange for the posting of public notices of meetings of the Board in such locations as are reasonably calculated to inform the public who desire to attend the meetings.

There is nowhere on the city website devoted to the Ethics Board that advises you where to look for the postings of their meetings.  It seems the only way to find out if a meeting is occurring is to discover an agenda has been posted which contains the time and place of the meeting but as we shall see not much else.

Unlike every other board in this city the only notice to the public is an agenda that should (not must) be posted three days before they meet.

The following from section 4 of the board’s procedures addresses agendas:

4.0 PREPARATION AND DISTRIBUTION OF AGENDAS FOR MEETINGS

4.1 The chair of the Board of Ethics shall establish and distribute the proposed agenda for regular meetings of the Board.

4.2 To the extent practicable [my emphasis], the chair shall distribute the proposed agenda and relevant materials to the members of the Board of Ethics not less than three days prior to the date of the meeting at which the agenda will be considered. No item on an agenda shall be ineligible for consideration by the Board solely on the basis that the agenda and materials were distributed less than three days prior to the date of the meeting. [my emphasis added]

So this section has the stern admonition that the agenda shall be distributed “not less than three days prior to the date of the meeting…”  Unfortunately, it also has the caveat that this will be done “To the extent practicable.”  I cannot think of any other board or the City Council with this kind of caveat.  But this is not enough.  The chair, Mr. Hogan, still has the right to add items for the meeting to address even after the agenda has been distributed.

Since on its face, the agendas appear to be the only notice to the public of their meetings, if this is true, the public only has three days notice as to when the Ethics Board is going to meet (remember there is no given day of the month) so in order to attend their meetings one would have to check the city website almost daily.  In fact, there is nothing on the city website that indicates when these agendas were posted so there is no way of telling whether they met the three day notice goal.

The Agendas Offer No Insight As To What Will Transpire At A Coming Meeting

The next issue is the utter lack of specificity in the agendas.  The following are the published agendas for the period March through May.

Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics

Agenda

Monday, February 1st 2016, 5:00 p.m.

Public Safety Conference Room, 2nd Floor, City Hall

  1. Approve meeting minutes
  2. Executive Session: discussion of submitted inquiry forms
  3. Old business
  4. New business

Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics

Agenda

Thursday, March 10th 2016, 5:3 0 p.m.

Public Safety Conference Room, 2nd Floor, City Hall

  1. Approve meeting minutes
  2. Executive Session: discussion of submitted inquiry forms
  3. Old business
  4. New business

Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics

Agenda

Tuesday, April 12th 2016, 5:30 p.m.

City Council Chambers, City Hall

  1. Approve meeting minutes
  2. Review submitted inquiries
  3. Old business
  4. New business

Saratoga Springs Board of Ethics

Agenda

Monday, May 2nd 2016, 5:30 p.m.

City Council Chambers, City Hall

  1. Approve meeting minutes
  2. Review and discuss submitted inquiries
  3. Old business
  4. New business

Note both how similar and uninformative these agendas are

So, how dear reader will checking their agendas, as Mr. Hogan advised me to do, tell me whether an upcoming meeting (should I have the luck of finding out when a meeting will be held) will include a discussion of ex parte?

Contrast the Ethics Board agendas with the Zoning Board of Appeals Agenda (I have actually abbreviated the ZBA agenda for reasons of space):

Monday June 6, 2016 – 7:00PM City Council Room

Workshop

Salute The Flag

Role Call

New Business

#2894 LAWRENTZ HOME OCCUPATION

126 Crescent Street, area variance to construct a detached garage with second-story music studio; seeking relief to permit a home occupation within a residential accessory

structure in an Urban Residential – 2 District.

2894 LAWRENTZRESIDENCEHOMEOCCUPATION_APP_REDACTED.PDF, 2894 LAWRENTZRESIDENCEHOMEOCCUPATION_ADDTLINFO.PDF

#2896 ICE HOUSE TENT

[description which I removed]

2896 ICEHOUSETENT_APPLICATION_REDACTED.PDF

#2897 CITY COTTAGE, LLC LOT LINE ADJUSTMENT

[description which I removed]

Old Business

#2880 ARMER/DESORBO RESIDENCE

[description which I removed]

#2856.1 MOORE HALL REDEVELOPMENT

[description which I removed]

#2890 BARLOW RESIDENCE

[description which I removed]

#2892 RUTHMAN RESIDENCE

[description which I removed]

#2895 NEEDHAM/KILMER RESIDENCE

[description which I removed]

#2893 223 LAKE AVE. LLC HANDICAP RAMP

[description which I removed]

#2889 CDJT DEVELOPMENT MULTI-FAMILY

[description which I removed]

#2759.1 ANW HOLDINGS RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT

[description which I removed]

6:30 P.M.

Documents:

#2759.1 ANW HOLDINGS RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT

[description which I removed]

2759.1 ANWHOLDINGCONDOS_APP_REDACTED.PDF, 2759.1 ANWCONDOS_CORRTINGLEY5-23 -[description which I removed]

16.PDF, 2759.1 ANWHOLDINGSCONDOS_CORRJVALETTA_RECVD3-9 -16_REDACTED.PDF, 2759.1 [description which I removed]

Adjourned Items

#2856 MOORE HALL

28 Union Avenue/35 White Street, area variance to convert the existing building to a 53- unit apartment building; seeking relief from the minimum lot size and minimum parking

requirement in the Urban Residential – 4 District

Other Business

APPROVAL OF DRAFT MEETING MINUTES – MAY 9

NEXT ZONING BOARD MEETING: JUNE 20, 2016

Note: This agenda is subject to change up until the time of meeting. Updates will be reflected here as they arise. Check posted agenda here to verify the actual agenda prior to the

meeting. [I have made this large and bold to contrast it with the procedures of the Ethics Board]

The Minutes Of The Meetings Hide What Issues Are Addressed

Then there is the matter of the Ethics Board minutes.  I have reviewed the last four months of minutes from their meetings.  The only recording of anything that one might call substantive (if one were generous) is the one paragraph devoted to the discussion at their April 12 meeting attended by City Council members Mathiesen, Franck, Madigan, and Scirocco over the meaning of the Ethics section that deals with soliciting business.

What is really striking is their policy of referring to complaints/inquiries in their minutes using  numbers rather than names and descriptions.  As far as I could ascertain, there is no place to find out what these numbers actually refer to.  In the May 2nd minutes is the following item:

  1. All Advisory Opinions received to date have been completed with the exception of #6.

My guess is that #6 is the complaint aka “inquiry” regarding Mayor Yepsen and the hospital, but  I challenge the readers of this blog to comb the city’s website to find out what this number 6 actually refers to.

So to summarize:

  1. There is no way to anticipate when the Ethics Board will meet so you can plan to attend.
  2. The only apparent notice of when they will meet has a goal (it is not required) of being posted three days prior to when the meeting will actually occur.
  3. The agendas are so generic that one has no idea what specific actions will be considered at a meeting..
  4. Their minutes make it impossible for the  public to understand what inquiries have been submitted to the Board of Ethics.

A Quiz:

Review the four agendas above and try to determine at which of these meetings if any the Board of Ethics took up the complaint regarding Mayor Yepsen and Saratoga Hospital

More to come on the Ethics Board to come.

3 thoughts on “The Ethics Board: Designed To Hide Rather Than Reveal Or Whatever Happened To The Yepsen/Saratoga Hospital “Inquiry”?”

  1. I applaud your work on this scandal John,why are the other Council members so quiet??…Now she’s trying to sneak a charter revision by the public like Val Keehan she wants to change the form of gov’t to a strong Mayor with a six figure salary,any ideas about who she has in mind for the job?? This is being pushed forward very hard and besides it will replace Madigan and Scirocco,of course nobody knows who’s on this committee but you can bet the majority will push for a change she thinks she has a pair of loaded dice here,,,it will be a career ender for her…I’d love to hear her definition of open and transparent!

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    1. Re: The “strong Mayor” proposal (it’s the first time we’ve seen this mentioned lately — is this true?), let’s say that you’ve decided to stake out career in politics, but you’re currently working full-time in a government position that pays a part-time salary. Let’s say that you have aspirations to run for Congress, but it looks like the current holder of that office will be there for another decade or two. And, let’s say that your current free-lance occupation makes soliciting new clients difficult without raising questions about conflicts of interest. Connect the dots…

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