Art Gonick On A Solution To The City’s Ethics Problems

[Art Gonick emailed me his thoughts on addressing the city’s ethics problems]

Toward A More Ethical Future

Guest Column

By Arthur Gonick

SARATOGA SPRINGS – On April 15, 2016 a story of mine was published (See which set in motion a series of events that led to Mayor Joanne Yepsen being formally censured by the Saratoga Springs City Council at its July 19 meeting.

Subsequently, the Mayor submitted a legal bill for her defense before the ethics panel, approximately $12,000, which Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan has confirmed has been paid.

So, do we say that this is wrapped up in a bow and put the whole thing in some dusty file cabinet? As a citizen of this City, a voter and active resident, I say no.

There are systemic problems, as a whole that must be addressed. For the conditions that could lead to further ethics violations – by any elected office-holder in Saratoga Springs – are still here. Simply put: The temptation to reach for the convenient, low-hanging fruit still exists in our own Garden of Eden (zip code 12866), and I believe that citizens must tend to this garden.

Some believe the answer lies in ‘charter change,’ but I believe this has a record as a non-starter. If the current committee examining this wants to go with some global revolution, I wish them good luck – but I will bet on them to lose, again.

Why not do something in a more digestible portion? One that is reasonable, measured and doable – and put us on a road to a more ethical future? I propose a three-point program to begin the discussion. It may not be the only solution, but it can be accomplished faster than charter change. Note that the first item could be done alone and it might improve the ethical climate. Items 2 and 3 need to be done at the same time; doing all 3 will be best:

1) Ethics Board – Standards of Performance: In researching the April 15 article, I reviewed the Ethics Board’s bylaws, and attended the public portion of the Board’s April 12 meeting. I was amazed that Commissioner of Public Works Anthony Scirocco actually had to insist on an answer as to whether his inquiry was even received! Further, in the bylaws of the Ethics Board, there appear to be no standards of performance, along the lines that they will act in 60-90 days on complaints, etc. Now to be fair, they sometimes need to deal with issues that may take longer, or bump out something because of a dangerous workplace situation, but these would be exceptions rather than the norm.

This situation can be immediately improved with a simple Council resolution to amend the Ethics Board’s by-laws. A public hearing could perhaps help determine if 60 days vs. 90 is a better standard, but as of now there is none. Fix this, and you have immediately improved things.

2) Raise the Salary of the Mayor and Commissioners – Lets not mince words:

Lettuce workers laugh at what our ‘leaders’ make.

I mean, really? In this town, $14,500! And we expect full-time work out of these people, expect them to absorb all kinds of snark (and worse) and keep our City in the preeminent position it enjoys. That’s fine if you are independently wealthy, but is that the pool of candidates we want to choose from? I ask every candidate for Commissioner or Mayor that I meet, regardless of party, one simple question: “Are you out of your mind?” – and the compensation is why. They must think they are poor journalists or something.

Perhaps this will be part of ‘charter change’ but I believe the time to wait for this is over. Do what needs to be done to find the cash, and don’t take it from the Deputy’s either – they do the work and that’s not going to change. For a discussion starter, let’s say $50,000/year is fair. You can piddle on the amount, but I want it high enough to no longer tempt our leaders to seek outside income locally, which leads to conflicts inevitably. And I want the pool of candidates open to anyone. Even at $50K/year, I’ll still ask if they are nuts, given the amount of crap our leaders take, but at least I won’t have to attend a fundraiser to know that they are not starving.

But that is not good enough. This salary raise comes with a price, which is…

3) “Nothing New” in 12866 – On Inauguration Day, the City Council takes the oath of office. I resolve that they also sign a pledge that states firmly and emphatically that they will see no new business in our city for however long they remain in office. Remember, their salaries were raised, so this is less of an issue. The exact language can be worked out by one of our City’s famous committees, and I’d be glad to volunteer for it if they ask.

How does this play out? Well, since they are working full-time for us, every CPA, dentist, etc. is going to need to hire a junior associate, or even an intern if possible, who will handle every new client with a 12866 zip, as well as those that already are clients that may present future conflicts. See, we’ve already created some new jobs!

If that presents too big a hardship, don’t run – I completely understand. But in some cases, that choice is not necessary.

Here’s why: There’s a whole world out there!

Case in point: Had Mayor Yepsen approached Saratoga Hospital for a reference about the fundraising efforts she did on their behalf prior to taking office, I have no doubt that they would have been delighted to provide one – I am very sure she is an excellent fundraiser. And no one would call it unethical – she did the work, after all!

OK – reference(s) in hand, she puts together a package which includes her professional vitae, which happens to include the fact that she is Mayor of Saratoga Springs. No violation whatsoever, it is the truth.

And let’s say, she decides to send this package to a hospital foundation in, oh – I don’t know – Louisville, Kentucky. Hmmm… do you think that there might be at least one “horsey set” board member that might say ‘well, look what we have here!’ when they see the Mayor’s package?

There’s a lot of business out there in the world for talented individuals, and every current Council member is a professional in their respective fields. But they need to know where to look, and need to have the temptation of low-hanging fruit removed.

I believe that this obligation to put us on the path – a path toward a more ethical future – begins and ends with concerned citizens and voters.

Arthur is a professional journalist whose specialties are arts + entertainment; sports; people and lifestyles. He is also a registered, active voter in the City of Saratoga Springs, where he has lived about half his life.

16 thoughts on “Art Gonick On A Solution To The City’s Ethics Problems”

  1. With all due respect, I disagree with Arthur. Despite the problem that arose from Mayor Yepsen’s failure to exercise good judgement both with her interactions with the Saratoga Hospital Foundation and her decision to spend over $12,000 in taxpayer money for legal representation before the Ethics Board, I do not believe that ethics has been a problem for most of our elected officials in recent years. Raising the salaries of Council members to $50,000 is, for many reasons, not a good solution. Saratoga Springs needs a more conventional form of government with a full time mayor who is compensated fairly and a legislative body made up of citizens who receive moderate payment for their services.

    The City Ethics code can be revised as necessary but Arthur’s recommendations seem excessive in light of the information given in the many hours of courses that I took on ethics while on the ZBA. It is not at all unethical (or unusual) to have personal or business relationships in a community while at the same time serving in local government. Situations that would require disclosure or recusal are limited and unique. I do believe that our elected officials should be required to attend a course on government ethics for each term that they serve in office. The present City Council has stipulated that our Ethics Code will be reviewed annually at the first meeting of each year.


    1. Are Dentists paid a moderate fee for their services?…0 tax increase for the last five years…SOMETHING is being done right under this form of gov’t…..Troy has a strong Mayor form and they also have a 28% tax increase this year…maybe doc YOU can go there and explain thee error of their ways!


      1. The demographics and general state of Troy’s and Saratoga Springs’s respective economies are so different, that blaming a tax increase on Troy’s form of government is absurd. Saratoga spent 60 years driving the poor out of town to other cities like Troy and Schenectady, such that much of its prosperity is due to its de facto economic apartheid and, contrary to what the SUCCESS group claims, has nothing to do with the commission form of government.

        Saratoga benefits from relatively high property values, diverse light industry, and above average (for Upstate New York) per capita incomes. That’s what keeps taxes down. For 20 years, I’ve rented business space in downtown Troy for 15% of what it would cost to rent in downtown Saratoga. With low property values, low-end demographics, and city services that cost just as much as here, it’s no wonder Troy has to raise it’s tax rates. Plus, its only major businesses — three colleges, a private girls’ school, and the county government — are all tax-exempt.


      2. Comparing Saratoga Springs with Troy is not realistic. Saratoga Springs is and has been for year a vibrant city with significant funding streams. On the other hand, Troy has struggled for years with blighted buildings and loss of business. I’m not saying I disagree with whether the form of government should change – still need to think about it a bit more – but this is clearly not an example of good critical thinking.


  2. An even easier addition to the ethics code would be a “duty to report known or suspected ethics violations”. This makes it an ethics violation not to report a known or suspected ethics violation. This is a standard that is used in many municipalities.

    There could be many ethics violation in the city that go unreported because the person reporting the violation finds it easier and more politically advantageous to ignore then to report it. Employees have to live with the individual they report. The reported individual can make life miserable for the reporter. It is easier to go with the flow and join in, then to fight city hall.

    With this simple addition individuals that know about ethics violation must report the violation, or be subject to an ethics violation themselves.


  3. Dr. Mathiesen wrote: “I do believe that our elected officials should be required to attend a course on government ethics for each term that they serve in office.”

    I wholeheartedly agree.
    Elected officials need to know the rules of the game.
    The good doctor is right.

    Now, what are we going to do about it?
    […] That’s what i thought. (sigh.)


    1. The good doctor has a very narrow field of vision, as do most dentists. Ethics applies to everyone that works for the city, not just the 5 commissioners, but all 300 plus employees. The problem exists from the deputies down to the secretaries in terms of not reporting ethics violation. There is little to no training for the employees of the city in terms of ethics. The city needs a duty to report clause.
      Now what are the commissioners going to do about it….that is what I thought (sigh)


  4. Writing this after reading 3 well-thought out comments… I wrote to advance the discussion, and to assure that ethics remains on our citizens’ barometer. Well done, everyone


    1. Hi Arthur.
      You are missing the ‘sigh.’
      Thanks so much for the initiative and intellectual teaser.


  5. The form of Gov’t has all to do with the Success of the town,city or village sorry to those who want to over think this…..this system works HERE…we don’t want one person in charge…..such arrogance!


    1. For roughly 50 years (1929-1979), Saratoga Springs was as economically depressed as any other Upstate city — Troy, Schenectady, Utica, Rome, Amsterdam. Its economic survival rested principally on the presence of Skidmore College and gambling, both licit and illicit. What was the form of government during that half-century of decline? The same as we have now.

      Saratoga’s recovery and subsequent prosperity was the result of several initiatives (mostly private) and had nothing to do with the commission form of government, period. It is coincidence and nothing more.


      1. You could say that about most of the Northeast,without the Village Brook Project which was funded by the taxpayers and approved by a City Council under this form of Gov’t NONE of what you credit to private investment would have happened….you’re new here…right?


      2. The Village Brook Project could have been approved by ANY form of local government. And, no, I’m not new here. I started visiting in 1966 and have lived here year-round since 1971 — that’s 45 years.

        But wait, there’s more. Let’s compare Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. Both are located in the same region, both have thriving economies, and both typically score high on quality of life surveys. Portland has a commission form of government, identical to Saratoga’s, while Seattle has a Mayor-Council. The mayor is a full-time position, two council members are elected at-large and 7 are from specific districts. Given both cities’ overall similarities (other than their form of government), there is no evidence to show that one form of government is superior to the other.

        Mr. Merlin, your assertion that Saratoga’s success is due to the commission form government is yet to be supported by any facts other than those found in your own imagination. Saratoga’s revival was a confluence of events — the Plan of Action, the privatization of the old Skidmore campus (which stimulated the real estate market), an aggressive tourist marketing campaign, the construction of the City Center, and so on, any of which could have happened under any form of government.

        For the record, I’m not advocating for one form or the other and no one is suggesting replacing the city council, in whatever form, with a dictator. I simply want to point out the fallacious argument that SUCCESS and its supporters make whenever the concept of change resurfaces. They (you) will have to do better than that.


    2. Merlin – I’m not taking a stand on the form of Government. I need to do some more thinking and listening which I will do if this comes to a vote. I’m just saying that comparing the current situation in Troy with the current situation here in Saratoga Springs is not a fair comparison. I’m sure that years ago this comparison may have been more appropriate. Just not now.


  6. Oh Johnny.
    You just dropped three bombs on a weekend. Don’t you realize that there are important things going on that demand my attention?
    Football, debates and local politics, OH MY!!

    Keep the faith.


  7. After what I have witnessed the past few years, in no way could I support charter change now. To give our mayor even a little bit more power? It’s insanity. No other way I can put that: insanity. We can make changes, but even a ‘weak’ mayor is a bad idea.


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