[Art Gonick emailed me his thoughts on addressing the city’s ethics problems]
Toward A More Ethical Future
By Arthur Gonick
SARATOGA SPRINGS – On April 15, 2016 a story of mine was published (See http://saratogatodaynewspaper.com/item/5246-recusal-or-refusal.html) 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.