Times Union Doubles Down on Its Attack On Michele Madigan

The Times Union’s apparent obsession with Michele Madigan has reached a new level of craziness. 

Commissioner Madigan has put off appropriating money in the capital budget for the greenbelt trail until the grants that the city has applied for are awarded.  Ms. Madigan has made it clear that she is in support of the project but as the chief financial officer of the city she believes that the city should not commit its own funds until there is a viable fiscal basis for going forward.  Given the costs and scope of this important project, Ms. Madigan’s deferral seems wholly reasonable.  I expect that she will be supported in her budgeting at Tuesday night’s meeting by a majority of the Council.  The Mayor has indicated that in spite of the fact that the grants remain an unknown she wants the city to move forward anyway.   

There is little question that the relations between Commissioner Madigan and Mayor Yepsen are not cordial.  It seems to me utterly unreasonable for the Times Union to cast this disagreement, though,  as driven only by petty conflict and to characterize Commissioner Madigan as the villain whose policies are put forward because she has (in the words of the Times Union) an axe to grind.

I have to wonder,  where is the Times Union getting their analysis from?

What follows is the Times Union’s editorial and Commissioner Madigan’s rebuttal.

The Spa City’s priorities

By TU Editorial Boardon October 27, 2016 at 2:37 AM

As the Saratoga Springs City Council prepares to vote next week on a budget that includes – and excludes – some noteworthy projects, council members might consider how this might read in, say, a promotional brochure for the city.

As things are looking, it will read like this:

“Saratoga Springs is investing in its historic City Hall, with almost $750,000 in renovations to the finance commissioner’s office that include a new private bathroom and break room for the staff and some ceiling work.”

With some tweaks to the budget, on the other hand, it could read like this:

“Saratoga Springs is investing more than $830,000 in its citizens and its future, starting work in 2017 on a Greenbelt Trail that will eventually create a 24-mile walking and biking trail. The first phase of this more than $16 million plan will be a downtown connector linking parts of the trail in the heart of the city. The local commitment will leverage millions more in state, federal, and private investment.”

We’re all for preservation of historic buildings like City Hall, but clearly, the Greenbelt Trail would be a boon for the city and its residents, and yet another attraction for the many tourists who visit in the summer. A feasibility study of the trail estimated that it would mean several million dollars a year in health and environmental benefits.

A committee comprising the mayor and representatives of the four departments, in fact, ranked the connector project seventh on a list of 22 capital projects; the work in the finance commissioner’s office ranked ninth. There’s nothing to say both can’t be done.

But Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, whose job it is to merge the recommended capital budget with the proposed operating budget and present the council with a comprehensive budget proposal, has her own priorities – and they don’t include the Greenbelt Trail.

Her stated reason is that she can’t justify borrowing $833,000 unless the city knows if outside grants will come through. The city doesn’t expect an answer from the state until December, nor from the federal Department of Transportation until early next year.

We’re not buying it. It’s no secret that Ms. Madigan is at odds with Mayor Joanne Yepsen, for whom the Greenbelt Trail is a priority. This smacks of petty politics at their worst – a worthy community project that would benefit the entire city financially and in terms of quality of life sidelined by a single public official with an ax to grind.

Because of the quirks in Saratoga Springs’ system commissioner form of government, the budget is normally presented in its entirety for an up-or-down vote. Mayor Yepsen suggests that rather than force the council into an all-or-nothing decision, the operating and capital budgets be voted on separately. It’s a fair approach – one that would allow the council to tell Ms. Madigan to get her priorities straight.


Commissioner Madigan Responds

A recent Times Union Editorial took me to task over two of the 30 plus projects that currently sit in our Capital Budget (Finance Department Renovations at an estimated cost of $750K) and Capital Program (Greenbelt Trail Connector at an estimated cost of $2.3M, of which $833K would come from the taxpayers).  The Editorial reduced my entire proposed budget down to these two projects and pitted them against one another as if there is some kind of rift between departments, and giving the impression that the City Council must choose between these two projects.

The budget I proposed for the taxpayers and residents of Saratoga Springs consists of a $45M Operating Budget, an $8.4M Capital Budget, a Debt Service Budget, and the Water and Sewer Budgets.  I presented this “comprehensive budget” with no increase in property tax rates for the taxpayers of our city.   The various budgets include funds for many high priority projects, funds for essential city services, wages and benefits, infrastructure and safety needs. It is important to remember that adoption of the city’s budget will  require a majority vote of the Council.

I immediately responded to the Times Union’s first inaccurate article about the City Hall Finance Department renovations, which falsely claimed that I was getting my own private bathroom and kitchenette (for my exclusive use) with the following letter http://www.timesunion.com/tuplus-opinion/article/Letter-Maintaining-City-Hall-essential-9240182.php.  It seems I need to respond yet again.  I’ve been offering weekly public tours of the Finance Department since the publication of the first inaccurate article; many have participated in these tours and all have concluded that this space – which occupies approximately 1/3 of the first floor of City Hall – is “desperate” for renovations.

The $2.3M Greenbelt Trail Connector, which began under Mayor Scott Johnson in 2013 (and for which I’ve publicly stated my support, repeatedly, on the record), has always been presented to the City Council as a project that would be primarily funded by grants and that the City would not be expected to commit any of its own funds until this grant funding had been secured.  As a procedural matter during Council discussions of grant applications, I always ask for the record “is the City expected to provide any matching funds? If so how much, under what form, and does this obligate the City financially if we are successful at receiving the grant?” This is my duty and obligation as a Finance Commissioner exercising her fiduciary responsibilities to the City and its taxpayers.  Since its inception the plan has always been that we would not move forward on the Greenbelt Trail Connector project until the applied for grant funding had been secured – which is expected in 2017.  Therefore, this project is still in our 6 year Capital Program, which means we still plan to move forward with it, but is not included in the proposed 2017 Capital Budget.  It would be irresponsible for me to propose that we borrow funds in 2017  – and ask our taxpayers to make principal and interest payments on those borrowed funds during the year – for a project that may not even move forward until 2018 or thereafter.  I have stated, for the record, my support for amending the Capital Budget in 2017 if our grant applications are successful, as has Mayor Yepsen and at least two other Commissioners.  I do not anticipate that getting the required votes to make this change in 2017 if the sought after funds are secured will be a problem, but I do not speak for the entire City Council.

Furthermore, I have been discussing all of this with members of the Greenbelt Trail Committee and Sustainable Saratoga.  They understand what we are doing here and that this is not intended to jeopardize or delay progress on the Trail Connector.

This is merely an issue of timing. I say we shouldn’t borrow the funds until we actually know we need them. The “fiscally conservative” Times Union urges me to go ahead and borrow them now, and bake the repayment of them into the 2017 property tax rate, even if we don’t yet know we need them.  I say lets wait a few months and borrow the money when we know we need it – and know how much we’ll need – there is no guarantee we will receive the full grant amount. The TU says this means my priorities are skewed and that I am engaging in petty politics.  I say that this shows the TU editorial was written without a full understanding of the issues.

Another issue that needs to be considered is that the $2.3M cost estimate for the trail is just for one of eight phases of the proposed trail. The total cost is still not known, and has not been discussed with the City Council, but latest estimates are between $16.5M and $20M.  For a full overview of the proposed Greenbelt Trail and it’s cost please visit https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BxfrGj3VKIbcMVJIa09pZjROOFU/edit

 

Joseph Levy Runs For State Senate

Our very own Joseph Levy is running for the New York State Senate on the Green Party Line.

Here is a link to the WAMC story in which he debates Republican Kathy Marchione (whose odious campaign against previous incumbent Roy McDonald was based on opposing his vote in support of gay marriage) and the Democratic candidate Shaun Francis. The story includes audio excerpts.

http://wamc.org/post/candidates-debate-43rd-senate-district

Tony Izzo: The Price of Survival

Earlier this year, I did a post on the Ethics Board’s apparent violations of the open meetings law.  The law requires that the public be notified at least 72 hours prior to meetings.  It also requires that if a public body has a website the notice be placed on the website.

In July I emailed the Mayor concerning this with copies to the members of the Council, the chair of the Ethics Board, and the two city attorneys [see below].  In the email I provided the citation of the law and I documented that from the beginning of the year all the agendas of the Ethics Board (standard practices of all the city boards is to post their agendas as their meeting notices) were posted on the same day or after the meetings.  I did this by FOILing the city for the dates the agendas were posted on the city website and comparing these with the dates when the meetings actually occurred as documented in the Ethics Board’s posted agendas.

Having had no response from the Mayor to this email for four months I decided to attend a City Council meeting and request a response on what appears to have been an ongoing violation of the law.

Following my remarks to the Council Commissioner Madigan asked that the city assistant attorney  respond.  Tony Izzo then addressed the Council.

His response was noteworthy.  First, he responded to the Council as though my inquiry were only about a single meeting.   In fact, as the email and documents make very clear, I was concerned about six months of violations.  He then conceded that the particular meeting he was referring to had not been posted on the city website but still asserted that it had been properly posted (he never explained how) by one of the members of the Ethics Board.  He offered that some sort of transition in city staffing was the reason for it not being posted on the city’s website for this particular meeting.

He then told the Council that as far as he was concerned, no violation of law had occurred.  He also told the Council that this particular meeting notice was the only one that was not properly posted on the city’s website.

As readers of this blog will know, I like Tony Izzo very much.  He is courteous and gentlemanly in all his dealings with everyone.  Tony is a survivor.  He has been the assistant attorney through multiple administrations over a period of what I believe to have been decades.  Given the contrasting personalities and egos of our past mayors, it is rather amazing.

I am sympathetic to Tony’s desire to protect the city administration as he serves as their counsel.  Regrettably his statements went beyond a reasonable defense of the Ethics Board.  As regards the law, it seems quite clear.  I include it below in my email to him.  I am not an attorney but I consulted with an attorney who served as counsel to a major state agency who confirmed my reading. 

What is beyond dispute is that the Ethics Board failed to properly notice their meetings from January to July of this year.  I expect it goes back much farther but I restricted my FOIL to just this year.  Given this fact, I am not convinced that notwithstanding Tony’s assurances, they are complying with the law even now.

I do not know whether Tony was uninformed when he addressed the Council. 

Over a week ago I wrote to Tony on this issue asking him to respond [see below].   To date (eight days later) I have not had a response to the email below.

Here is the email to Mr. Izzo:

From: John Kaufmann ]
Sent: Thursday, October 20, 2016 10:59 PM
To: ‘Tony Izzo’
Cc: ‘Joanne Yepsen’; ‘Christian Mathiesen’; ‘Skip Sciroco’; John Franck, johnfranck@your-cpas.com); ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Vincent DeLeonardis’; ‘Justin Hogan’

Subject: Misrepresentation Regarding Open Meeting Law and Ethics
Committee

Attachments: Kaufmann John – FOIL Responses

I was troubled by your statements to the Council on Tuesday night.  The Council and the people of this city depend upon the attorneys who serve the Council to be accurate both as to the facts and the law.

In reviewing the video of Tuesday night’s meeting it appears that you made two statements that are incorrect regarding the Ethics Board’s adherence to the open meetings law.

In the video regarding the contention that notices for the Ethics Board meetings were not appropriately posted on the city website you told the council “I do not conclude [sic] I am not ready to conclude that there was a legal deficiency.”

You also said “The law indicates it should always be done as soon as possible.  It was posted in some manner [my emphasis].”  Article 7, section 104 of the Public Officers Law, however, is not ambiguous.  It states:

5. When a public body has the ability to do so, notice of the time and place of a meeting given in accordance with subdivision one or two of this section, shall also be conspicuously posted on the public body’s internet website.

The statute does not use the work “should,” it uses the word “shall.”  The difference between “shall” and “should” is the difference between mandatory and merely precatory.  Unless you know of but neglected to mention some other provision that contradicts this statutory directive then your statement to the Council appears to be a misrepresentation of the law.

You also told the members of the Council that the Ethics Board would “put the notice on the website as well as we always have in the past.”  You also stated “The meetings prior to that [the one notice you concede was not posted on the web] were all noticed on the web.”

I am assuming that when you said this you were speaking in good faith that notices of Ethics Board meetings were posted at least seventy-two hours prior to the respective meetings as required by law.

I FOILed the city as to the dates that the agendas were posted on the city website for the meetings so far this year.  I am attaching the response to the FOIL.  I am also attaching the agendas that were posted.  You will note that the dates that the agendas were posted were either on or after the day the meeting took place.

I am at a loss as to the basis for your statement to the Council that the previous meetings had been properly noticed.  If the FOILed records are true, it does not appear possible to characterize these previous postings as proper “notices” within the intended meaning of governing law.

As noted earlier, the citizens of Saratoga Springs and their elected representatives rely on their attorneys to be fastidious in stating the facts and in presenting the law.  If I have missed something, I would be happy to be disabused of my confusion.

Would you please acknowledge receipt of this email and indicate whether or
not you will respond to it.


The Bloggers Presentation To The City Council

Tony Izzo’s Presentation



Documentation From FOILs of Violation Of Open Meetings Notices:

These are the agendas.  Note the dates of the meetings

Kaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-8aKaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-7aKaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-6aKaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-5aKaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-4aKaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-3

These are the dates when the agendas were posted [the same dates as the meetings or later than the dates the meetings took place

Kaufmann John - FOIL Response w-Docs-2
Dates Agendas Were Posted On City Website

Original Email That Tony Izzo Was Copied On

From: John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]
Sent: Sunday, July 10, 2016 12:55 PM
To: ‘Joanne Yepsen’
Cc: ‘Christian Mathiesen’; ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘John Franck’;
‘Tony Izzo’; ‘Vincent DeLeonardis’; ‘Justin Hogan’
Subject: Potential Violation Of Open Meetings Law

I am writing you regarding an apparent violation of the Open Meetings Law by
the Ethics Board.  As confirmed by Justin Hogan, its chair, his Board met on
June 20, 2016.  Even as of today, July 9th, there is no record of this meeting on
the City web site, let alone a record of notice to the public that such a meeting
would be convened.
I contacted Mr. Hogan regarding this apparent failure and he responded by
stating that the notice was allegedly “posted” on June 14.  In part because he
did not share with me where or how this posting took place, I did visit City
Hall today.  There are a number of bulletin boards on the first floor of the
building, and I did find a bulletin board in the City Planning Office with the
title “Meeting Agendas” affixed to it.  While it is possible that timely notice of
the meeting was posted on that space, now, some weeks following the Board’s
meeting, there is no such notice on the bulletin board regarding the June 20
meeting.  As far as I can tell, there is no record that the June 20 meeting was
ever properly posted so as to give meaningful notice to the public of that
event.  Accordingly, would you please inform me by email as to by whom the
notice was posted, and its location(s)?

The following are the requirements for notices to the public of meetings under
Article 7, section 104 of the Public Officers Law.  (I have underscored the most
pertinent section):

§104. Public notice.
1. Public notice of the time and place of a meeting scheduled at least one
week prior thereto shall be given to the news media and shall be
conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at least
seventy-two hours before such meeting.

2. Public notice of the time and place of every other meeting shall be
given, to the extent practicable, to the news media and shall be
conspicuously posted in one or more designated public locations at a
reasonable time prior thereto.

3. The public notice provided for by this section shall not be construed to
require publication as a legal notice.

4. If videoconferencing is used to conduct a meeting, the public notice
for the meeting shall inform the public that videoconferencing will be
used, identify the locations for the meeting, and state that the public has
the right to attend the meeting at any of the locations.

5. When a public body has the ability to do so, notice of the time
and place of a meeting given in accordance with subdivision one
or two of this section, shall also be conspicuously posted on the
public body’s internet website.

Drawing from the above, even if there was documentation to show that a
notice was posted on a bulletin board in City Hall, the statutory
requirement for notices of meetings would not have been met.  Based on
my correspondence with Mr. Hogan, it would appear that the Ethics
Board has been violating this provision for some time.  While not
venturing a legal opinion here, it is my understanding that any business
transacted at a meeting that lacks proper notice is not valid.
Timing appears rather important here because the Ethics Board is
currently dealing with a controversial inquiry.  It would be unfortunate
were the Board to publish an opinion whose authority is undermined by
something as elemental as lack of required public notice, before this
matter is resolved.
Thank you.

 

 

Sustainable Saratoga Weighs In On UDO

I am posting the comments by Sustainable Saratoga regarding the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).  It is important that people are aware of how serious an impact the final UDO document, if approved, may have on the city.  I would urge the readers of this blog to follow this process closely.  Just one example is their proposal to change the current lot size requirements to a fluid version based on the lot sizes specific to a particular area.  The manner by which lot size under this proposal  would actually be determined is never explained.  Potentially, a neighborhood with some small, non-conforming lots could end up with many more units than current zoning allows.  There are other similarly concerning recommendations.  As Sustainable has pointed out, the process by which these changes were arrived at was completely opaque.  The original document submitted by the consultants was rejected by the city’s planning department.  The planning department then oversaw the rewriting of this paper. I made a request for the original paper to compare it with the rewritten version.  I was asked to leave my telephone number but consistent with this process, I was never called. 

udo-diagnostic-comment-letter_sustainable-saratoga_2016-10-11

 

The Biggest Contributors to the 2016 Presidential Candidates

The Albany Business Review published the thirty-one largest political contributors in this region.  There were three on the list from Saratoga Springs.

At #2 is someone named Andrew E. Beckwith III who gave $50,000.00 to American Bridge 21st Century and Priorities USA.    American Bridge  has a website that describes itself as a “progressive” organization dedicated to holding Republicans “accountable for their words and actions.”  Priorities USA states on its “about” page that it is dedicated to electing Hillary Clinton.    A Google search didn’t produce anything regarding who Mr. Beckwith is.  Maybe one of the readers out there knows who he is.

At #6 is Joseph Kakaty who contributed $10,800 to Ted Cruz.  A Google search identified this name as the chief marketing officer with the College Loan Corporation whose headquarters are in Las Vegas.  Its website says it handles $10 billion dollars in student loans.  The name also came up in a Google search as the president of Poker Central which, as its name suggests, is dedicated to the world of professional poker players.  He is also identified as a supporter of the Saratoga Children’s Theater.

At #24 is Gary Dake who is the CEO of Stewarts Shops.  He contributed $3,700 to Gary Johnson.  Mr. Johnson is running as the Libertarian candidate.  Among Mr. Johnson’s many positions is the abolishment of Social Security.  Given the large number of part time employees that work for Mr. Dake’s company, the seven and a half percent of their salaries he must pay is probably a significant item on their expense sheet. 

At #28 is Gail Anderson who contributed $3,150.00 to Donald Trump and the Stop Hillary PAC.  Ms. Anderson, the daughter of the late Willard Anderson, is a realtor and developer and principal with the Anderson Group.  The Andersons own a huge chunk of real estate around Exit 14 .  They have been frustrated in their attempts to build a major development there.  They recently won a pyrrhic victory when they won a suit against the City of Saratoga Springs claiming that the city blocked their development claiming discrimination based on race and income.  Their project included some affordable housing.   The jury originally awarded them $1 million dollars.  The appeal reduced the award to $100,000.00.  The significant result of the decision was that it did not provide them a path to their project and they spent far more than $100,000.00 in legal fees.  Ms. Anderson’s support for Mr. Trump might add credence to the position of the project’s opponents who argued that the affordable housing was a tactic in their strategy  to build their massive development.

 

A Few Brief Stories

Developer Abandons Project after Criticism from Chair of City Design Review Commission

Visions Hotels of Corning, New York, has abandoned plans to tear down the Turf and Spa Motel at 176 South Broadway and build an 89 room Fairfield Inn and Suites.

[Editor’s note: The green area on the right in the photo below is mislabeled as Congress Park. It should be labeled Greenridge Cemetery.}

176-s-broadway-arial176-s-broadway-street<photos>

Steve Rowland, the chair of the  Design Review Commission, had characterized the project as “corporate architecture” better suited for Clifton Park (I guess he managed to insult both the developer and the town of Clifton Park in one sentence :->)

At the  September 21 meeting of the DRC the principal of Visions, Arun “Andy” Patel, had complained about the resistance of the city commission to his company’s design.  “There is a price point that a developer can do a project with,” said Patel.  “Stretch a rubber band, there is only so far we can stretch.  After that it is going to break…we are at that point.”

Responding at the meeting Rowland said he disagreed with Patel.  “You are at the beginning of this process,” he told Patel, “yet… this is the first time we have seen this application [Patel’s company’s application].

Rowland: “I am the first person to tell you, when corporate architecture comes before this board, we’ve got problems.  We don’t accept corporate architecture especially in the most significant corridor in the city.”

“Quite frankly, if that means it’s not doable and it’s not feasible from a financial standpoint, then the next project that comes to that property might be…”

“Forgive me for getting a little testy about it, but this is so early in the process that I don’t appreciate that comment that you are being run around in circles…”

 

Class Action Against Stewart’s Convenience Stores

A Federal Judge has certified that a class action suit against Stewarts can proceed.    The suit that seeks some $20 million dollars in damages alleges that Stewarts failed to pay its employees fully for their time.  This action paves the way for the plaintiffs to contact additional employees that may have been affected by Stewart’s employment practices.  Among other things, it is alleged that employees were not paid for time at meetings and were not allowed uninterrupted meal breaks and were not properly paid for overtime.  A representative of Stewarts noted that two thirds of the original complaints were not granted class status.

 

Sonny Bonacio Proposes Project For Troy

Sonny Bonacio and partner are seeking tax breaks to convert two floors of the historic Hendrick Hudson building in Troy to apartments.  He and a partner bought the 80,000 square foot building for $2.4 million dollars in February.

CEO of Saratoga Hospital Talks About Merger With Albany Medical College

Albany Med is about to assume its authority over Saratoga Hospital.  It will control the budgeting, the contracts, the hiring of senior staff, board appointments, and strategic planning.  Saratoga Hospital maintains 171 beds and has expanded greatly during the last decade.

Saratoga Hospital CEO Angelo Calbone told the Albany Business Review that the hospital will be better able to negotiate with equipment providers and insurers as part of a much larger organization.  According to the ABR, the industry is having to move from a fee for service based model to a “performance model [whatever that means].  “The ability to track, report, and communicate with populations is beyond the capabilities of a community-based hospital.  Financial pressures could mount and there may not be any mechanism to manage your way,” said Calbone.

Given the rapidly changing world of medicine, I find Mr. Calbone’s statements considerably more credible than his earlier claims about how his hospital had negotiated an agreement that would maintain its independence.