In the last two issues of Saratoga Today there have been four letters related to the Ethics Boards decision regarding Joanne Yepsen and Saratoga Hospital. The first two letters appeared simultaneously last week. They were from Ken KIotz who is a former Democratic Mayor of the city and from John Herrick who is chairman of the Saratoga County Republicans. Mr. Klotz gives a full throated defense of Mayor Yepsen and criticizes the other Democrats on the City Council for their criticisms of Mayor Yepsen. Mr. Herrick lays out a case as to how he sees the Mayor as having violated the ethics code and calls for her to resign. In the subsequent letters published this week, Commissioners Madigan and Mathiesen respond to Mr. Klotz. Together, these letters pretty much lay out the issues as viewed from a variety of perspectives.
Klotz Letter: Ethics and the Code of Conduct in Saratoga Springs
I vividly remember attending a workshop on ethics conducted by the New York Council of Mayors for newly-elected officials after I was elected Mayor of Saratoga Springs in 1999. The speaker opened by emphasizing the complexity of the topic, asserting that some actions many people would see as ethically suspect were in fact entirely permissible, while other actions that seemed innocent actually ran afoul of ethical regulations. The issue is not as simple as it might appear.
State Municipal Law recognizes this in Article 18, identifying the goal of establishing rules of conduct that are “not only clear but reasonable,” one that will permit elected officials “to share the normal benefits of the democratic society and economy they serve.” “Real conflict must be rooted out, without condemning the inconsequential.” As a resident of Saratoga Springs I have an interest in low taxes. This does not create an impermissible conflict of interest for me as Mayor when I vote for a low-tax budget.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen has supported herself as a professional consultant for over fifteen years, specializing in advising not-for profit organizations. In the course of her professional career she has worked for most of the major not-for-profit organizations in Saratoga Springs, often pro bono or for reduced rates, and has served on several of their boards. These organizations include among others Saratoga Arts, Saratoga PLAN, Saratoga Shakespeare, Saratoga Springs-Chekhov Sister City, Inc., and Saratoga Hospital. She has long been an advocate of our local not-for-profit institutions and supported them for their vital contributions to our community’s quality of life.
I find it understandable that in a casual, informal, off-the-cuff setting she should mention her continued availability to pursue her routine professional activity. And when an issue concerning Saratoga Hospital before a city board became increasingly controversial, I find it understandable too that both the Mayor and Saratoga Hospital agreed that these informal contacts should be broken off to protect against even the appearance of a conflict of interest. But I disagree with the city’s Board of Ethics claiming a violation of state ethics rules of conduct for these contacts, which is not a “reasonable” application of rules that specifically exempt “inconsequential” actions.
And I strongly disagree with the City Council’s majority harassing the Mayor mercilessly on the subject, disrupting meeting after meeting with bullying and insults that make a shambles of the City’s own Rules for Conduct at Public meetings. These rules, passed unanimously by the same individuals currently on the Council, correctly identify the Mayor as the presiding officer, as is clear from the City Charter. Rule 3b then reads as follows: “Council members shall make every effort to avoid interrupting another Council member’s speaking. In situations where interruptions become frequent, the Mayor…shall have the authority to determine the order in which Council members will peak.” These rules have been violated dozens of times by sitting members of the Council at recent meetings.
I urge residents to view the videos of recent Council meetings and judge for themselves whether this is the way they want to see the City’s business conducted.
Mayor, City of Saratoga, Springs, 2000-2003
Herrick Letter: Yepsen Should Resign
The Saratoga Springs City Council has voted to approve a $12,000 payment for the personal attorney of Mayor Joanne Yepsen. The mayor hired the attorney, on her own, to represent her in an ethics hearing prompted by her actions seeking personal employment with Saratoga Hospital, when the hospital had pending business before the City Council.
There are two problems with taxpayers footing the bill for Mayor Yepsen’s personal attorney. First, the mayor did not follow the City’s required purchasing practices when hiring the attorney. Had she followed proper purchasing practices, taxpayers would have either gotten a better deal or, more importantly, been saved $12,000 if the purchase order was rejected.
The second problem is the actual vote, which was 3-2 in favor of paying the attorney. Mayor Yepsen inappropriately participated in the vote to hire an attorney to represent her during a city ethics probe, clearly a direct benefit to her personal interests. Mayor Yepsen should have recused herself from the vote due to the obvious conflict of interest. Once again, Mayor Yepsen has put her personal interest before that of the taxpayers.
It is very clear that the hiring of the attorney was to give her representation during the ethics investigation regarding her conflict of interest as her role as mayor and her efforts seeking employment with Saratoga Hospital. Something is clearly amiss; the city already has two attorneys on staff and insurance to cover for matters related to her role as mayor. However, insurance coverage typically does not provide for legal representation when a violation of the law, or, in the case of Mayor Yepsen, enacted Code of Ethics occurs.
Mayor Yepsen fails to understand when it is necessary to recuse herself from voting. She recused herself on the hospital project vote AFTER she was told she would not be hired by the hospital and she failed to recuse herself when the vote directly benefited her to the tune of $12,000 worth of taxpayer money. Mayor Yepsen should resign for her ethics violations and failure to put the Saratoga Springs taxpayers first.
Saratoga County Republican Chairman
I am writing in response to a letter published on August 12 in Saratoga TODAY by former Mayor Ken Klotz regarding Mayor Yepsen and her behavior in the Saratoga Hospital matter. Mayor Klotz misstated the facts in his Op /Ed piece in his zeal to continue to defend his good friend Mayor Yepsen, and he errs in several important, documented, and to date – undisputed timeline facts.
Mayor Klotz claims that Yepsen merely informed the Hospital of her “continued availability to pursue her routine professional activity”, “in a casual, informal, off-the-cuff setting”.
The fact pattern and timeline say otherwise (visit http://saratogatodaynewspaper.com/images/stories/archive/2016/email/document1.pdf).
In October 2015, Mayor Yepsen scheduled a meeting with the Hospital to solicit engagement as a grant writer, and over a period of months sent several follow-up emails pursuing a contract with them. This is neither informal nor off-the-cuff, and is a bit more proactive than merely informing the Hospital that she still performed such work.
Mayor Klotz then goes on to claim that both the Mayor and Hospital jointly agreed that these “informal” discussions should be ended due to the appearance of impropriety. Again, a look at the actual facts, which are available to all interested parties, shows that on January 14, Mayor Yepsen sent an e-mail to the Hospital inquiring as to the status of their “negotiations”, and later that day she received a response saying that due to the potential for an appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest, the Hospital was not comfortable doing business with her while she is in office.
Yepsen responded the following morning that she had already consulted her “legal team” had “gone through the proper channels” to “ensure the highest integrity and transparency” and that she was “eager to get started”. The Hospital responded again that, notwithstanding her assurances, they were not interested in engaging her services.
Four days later the Mayor recused herself from a vote on the Hospital’s PUD amendment application, falsely claiming that she was involved in ongoing negotiations with them. Furthermore, in a February 19 meeting with myself, my Deputy, and the two City attorneys – a full 5 weeks after the Hospital had explicitly refused her solicitations – the Mayor said that she had reached agreement to perform work for the Hospital, that they were finalizing the contract, and that that is why she approached the Ethics Board and recused herself from the PUD vote.
It is troubling that the former Mayor would so badly misstate facts and then claim that I and my fellow Commissioners, in our efforts to untangle the web of untruths spun by Mayor Yepsen to determine the true nature and extent of what transpired between the Mayor and Saratoga Hospital, are somehow harassing and bullying her.
So, according to Ken Klotz, refusing to be lied to is a form of harassment. I, too, encourage those interested in the truth to view the full videos of our Council meetings. The facts are clear.
Michele Madigan, Commissioner of Finance
August 13, 2016
To the Editor of Saratoga Today,
A response is in order regarding two letters to the editor that appeared in last week’s Saratoga Today. Both letters focused on Mayor Yepsen and her most recent controversies.
John Herrick, who is finishing his term as Saratoga County Republican Chairman, stated that Mayor Yepsen should resign because of her ‘ethics violations and failure to put Saratoga Springs residents first’. While I agree, as does the City Ethics Board, that Mayor Yepsen has made some serious mistakes regarding her interactions with the Saratoga Hospital Foundation during the time that Saratoga Hospital was appearing before the City and seeking her affirmative vote on a zoning issue and that the Mayor should have come before the City Council before hiring an outside law firm to defend her during the related Ethics Board hearings, I do not believe that the Mayor should resign. She is a duly elected member of the City Council who has, to the best of my knowledge, broken no laws.
As far as the $12,430 expenditure that City taxpayers will incur to pay the Mayor’s lawyers, I agree that our citizens should be angry with the Mayor, Commissioner and me, the three Council members who voted in favor of paying these fees. Despite my feeling that the Mayor should have come before the Council before hiring an outside attorney if she was expecting the City to pay for her expenses, I do not believe that City Council members, all of whom are grossly undercompensated for their services to the City, should have to pay out of pocket for legal fees related to their official duties. While I agree that, in this instance, the definition of official duties is murky at best, the solution is to make sure that such a scenario never takes place again. The City must create easily discernible guidelines for hiring of and paying for outside legal resources.
Former Mayor Klotz wrote about the many groups and organizations that Mayor Yepsen has supported through the years. He is absolutely right about that. However, he goes on to disagree with the Ethics Board decision regarding the Mayor’s activities with the Saratoga Hospital Foundation. It is hard for me to imagine former Mayor Klotz or any other current or former City official negotiating a private business arrangement with an entity that was an integral part of an organization seeking their vote without realizing the stark conflict of interest.
Former Mayor Klotz goes on to complain of other Council members mercilessly harassing and bullying the Mayor. I have received E mails from Mr. Klotz in the past complaining that I was mis-treating the Mayor when disagreements surfaced at the Council table. While I am envious of the unwavering support that Joanne Yepsen seems to enjoy as evidenced by the frequent comments of Mr. Klotz and a small number of others, I do not believe that I have ever bullied or harassed her. There have been a number of significant issues raised while Joanne Yepsen has been mayor that have resulted in our disagreements. I continue to work for what I feel is best for the Saratoga Springs community and I hope that Mayor Yepsen, my fellow Democrat, can learn from her mistakes and divorce herself from certain special interests.
Former Mayor Klotz concluded his letter by urging Saratogians to view recordings of City Council meetings. On this, we agree.
Chris Mathiesen, Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety