Charter Commission Moves Referendum Vote To November Election

I received the press release below from the Charter Commission tonight.  One odd thing was that the email time stamp on the release was 7:35.  The website for the Charter Commission has the following agenda:

7pm                  Public Comment

7:15-7:20          Introductory comments by Commission Chair, and approval the minutes.

7:30-9:00          Discussion, fine-tuning of the language of proposed charter

9:00                   Adjourn

So the release appears to have been sent out five minutes after the business part of the meeting began.

For immediate release

February 28, 2017

 

CHARTER COMMISSION SETS REFERENDUM 

FOR NOVEMBER GENERAL ELECTION

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission voted 15-0 on Tuesday night to hold the Charter Referendum on the general election on November 7, 2017 instead of holding a special election on May 30th.

“We have listened to the general public and elected officials, and they have told us they believe public participation and interest in the Charter Referendum will be highest in November during the city election,” said Bob Turner, Chair of the Charter Review Commission. “The Charter Review Commission has worked very hard to review the Charter the right way.  Whether or not our recommendations are approved, our goal is to make the process as open, transparent, inclusive, rigorous and thorough as possible.”

“We plan on using the additional five months to reach out to as many voters, neighborhoods, and groups as possible,” said Beth Wurtmann, Outreach Committee Chair. “We will do our best to ensure that citizens have all the information they need to make an informed decision when they go to the polls on November 7th.”

“We want voter participation to be as robust as possible and for our community to make its decision based on the merits,” said Laura Chodos, Commission member.  “People are interested in what we are doing. This election could have a record turnout that would make us all very proud.”

Commission Vice Chair Pat Kane said, “Our members heard clearly the views of elected officials, the general public and others, that the Special Election option would create undue controversy that would obscure the merits of our proposal.”

The Charter Review Commission is an independent commission consisting of 15 volunteers. Under the current City Charter, the Charter must be reviewed at least every 10 years.  The last review was in 2006. Under NY Municipal law, a proposed charter must be approved by voters in a referendum.

Madigan Takes On Charter Commission

Speaking Out Piece By Michele Madiga:

I have been hearing and reading a lot lately about our City’s Commission form of government, and I can honestly say that after serving you for 5 years as one of the Commissioners in that government I do not recognize this phantom menace that Chairman Bob Turner and other members of the Charter Review Committee keep describing. While I have no great attachment to the current way we govern ourselves, it is important that the public debate surrounding the upcoming ballot question regarding our Charter is based on facts, not fantasies or straw-men. So, let’s look at some of those facts.

A common criticism one hears about our government, both now and in years past, is that each Commissioner focuses only on their own “silo”, and has no incentive to cooperate or collaborate with other Commissioners. This is simply not true, and not even possible. Three of the five Commissioners run Departments that are administrative in nature, with duties that spread across the entire City (Accounts, Finance, and the Mayor), so they don’t even have “silos”. Secondly, all five of us are legislators that must work together to get anything done at the Council table – it takes at least 3 votes to accomplish anything; every contract, every project, every budget transfer or capital budget amendment, everything we do is discussed and put to a vote at City Council meetings. How could anything ever get done if we were each solely concerned with our “silos”? And then there is the City’s obvious successes, which certainly could not have been achieved if we were all focused only on our own sandboxes, with no concern for other Departments.

An argument has recently been put forward that new fiscal realities and looming financial challenges facing local governments place us in dire jeopardy unless we adopt a city manager approach. Say what you will about our Commission form, an inability to see and plan for these realities and challenges is certainly not a valid criticism. This has been one of my central priorities since I took office 5 years ago, and I am pleased to say that the Council has worked well together as I continue to budget for the present while planning for the future. Since I have taken office the City has achieved stellar municipal bond ratings from both Moody’s and S&P (both of which were affirmed within the last year), had a stable tax rate, and realized improved Fiscal Stress Monitoring reports from the NYS Comptroller – culminating in a perfect score in October 2016 (the only city out of 61 in the entire state to receive a perfect score). Furthermore, we are moving forward with much needed public safety improvements, building improvements, infrastructure investments, equipment needs, recreation programs, and transportation/trail projects. We are in excellent fiscal health, are adequately planning for the future, and are working together as a Council to get things done. We have long recognized these new fiscal realities and looming financial challenges, and we are doing something about them. Far from resting on our laurels and assuming our success will continue, we remain vigilant and are continuously seeking new ways to promote further and enhanced economic activity, generate new sources of City revenue, and control City expenses (for example, we decided not to use taxpayer funds for an unnecessary special election in May or June for a new form of government that has not yet been determined), all while protecting our quality of life. One great example of this is my Smart City initiative, wherein we are working to make Saratoga Springs an upstate technology hub with high-speed broadband Internet infrastructure and high tech entrepreneurs and business start-ups.

Another odd argument I’ve recently seen from a Charter Committee member is that “the existing form of government incentivizes conflict”. That’s a funny thing about democratic governance. There are many forms of government that do not incentivize conflict, and in all their many forms they share one unacceptable characteristic: authoritarianism. I prefer democracy, wherein people are encouraged to vigorously express their opinions and protect their interests, respecting that others may differ, and then honoring the governing bodies’ decisions once they’ve been made. That is what we have here in Saratoga Springs. Conflict is part of the bargain; it is a feature, not a bug.

Professor Turner, chair of the Charter Review Committee, began one of his previous opinion pieces with a quote from Thomas Jefferson stating that the US Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. Somehow we’ve managed to muddle along for 228 years by just amending it 17 times since it (and the Bill of Rights) was adopted in 1798. For some inexplicable reason we haven’t formed a committee to scrap the Constitution and start over with a clean sheet of paper. Saratoga Springs has used the Commission form of government for only 102 years. We’ve revised our Charter a few times along the way and we seem to be doing pretty well, despite the protestations of those who clearly know better than our voters and taxpayers. Our Charter is not perfect; I and many others provided the Charter Review Committee with suggested revisions to improve it. The Committee, however, according to Professor Turner, chose to design “a charter for Saratoga Springs for the 21st century” instead of first reviewing the existing charter and determining how it could be made to work even better. That’s a shame.

It will be up to our voters, hopefully in November, to decide what they think is best for the future of Saratoga Springs. Do we stick with the existing form of government, even though it is in need of improvements that the Charter Review Committee had the opportunity to identify and propose to resolve but chose not to? Or do we adopt a new form of government? I hope that whatever decision is made will be based on fact and not on specious arguments and needless vilification and misrepresentation of all we have accomplished as a City since 1915.

 

Saratoga Go! Smart Apps Competition to Begin in April

I thought some readers might be interested in entering this competition to create smart apps for the city. Commissioner Madigan provided the information below.

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The Saratoga Go! Community Innovation Competition launches in April 2017. To learn more, including how to participate, go tohttps://www.saratogago.com/ and watch this video https://vimeo.com/205437984

ABOUT

Saratoga Go! is a community partnership led by IgniteU NY (which is “powered by NYSTEC” – the City’s consultant partner on the 2016 Smart City Roadmap 1.0), Empire State College and the City of Saratoga Springs under Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan’s  Smart City Initiatives.

Saratoga Go! is a Smart City technology competition challenging individuals, small businesses, or software companies to create community innovations that will improve the quality of life for residents, businesses and institutions, or visitors in a city. Participants can submit any solution aimed at developing Smart Cities in the following categories as outlined by the City of Saratoga Springs Smart City Roadmap 1.0: Connected Community, Public Services, Environmental Innovation, Education and Training, Intelligent Infrastructure and a general Open category.

Throughout the three-month competition (April 2017- June 2017), participants will have the opportunity to attend workshops designed to provide valuable information and resources to aid them in their development of the applications.

Workshops will offer training in various topics such as data, pitching, marketing and customer discovery.

At the end of June, participants will have the chance to pitch their solutions at an event. The Saratoga Go! winners will receive marketing and promotion, cash awards, and other exciting opportunities to promote their apps.

 

Mark Baker Runs For Mayor

I received this story from Art Gonick.  Quite the scoop Art!

Seeking Republican Endorsement

By Arthur Gonick SARATOGA SPRINGS – Sources within the Saratoga Springs City Republican Committee, as well as other reliable sources, have confirmed that Mark Baker, longtime President of the Saratoga Springs City Center, has met with the committee on Wednesday evening to ask for their endorsement for Saratoga Springs’ Mayor.

If he runs, Mr. Baker would presumably face 2-term incumbent Democratic Mayor Joanne Yepsen.

Also seeking support at the meeting was Don Braim, a former SSPD member seeking the office of Commissioner of Public Safety.

Committee sources estimate that official party endorsements are about a month away, to allow candidates to be vetted properly.

Mr. Baker was called twice for comment, but did not immediately return phone calls.

A Mark Baker candidacy would be formidable. As City Center President, he oversaw the economic engine of the city, leading it through a heralded expansion, and helped secure passage by the City Council of provisions that will build a multilevel parking structure adjacent to the City Center.

Mr. Baker continues to keep an office at the City Center, to work on effectuating the garage’s construction. He now may help cut the ribbon on the garage as the City’s leader.

Yet Another Misstep By The ZBA And Another Neighborhood Suffers

Many of you may recall the notorious “virtual” barn rehab on Murphy Lane that was initially approved by the ZBA and then halted.  The landowner had assured the ZBA that they had no intention of tearing the barn down when they got a series of variances and then tore it down.  The issue is still in the courts.

Now we have another example of the same kind of abuse for a new structure within a stone’s throw of the barn.  Here again we have an applicant leaving out key information before the ZBA and then, after getting approval, proceeding to change their plan without going back to the ZBA.  Of particular note in this case was that a member of the board actually raised the question about stipulating in the approval a limit to insure that there were no problems.  Consistent with the ZBA, a majority dismissed this concern.  This decision has had serious consequences for the garage’s neighbors.

66whiteb66whitea

The owners of 66 White Street submitted an application for a variance for a garage to the Zoning Board of Appeals to be built as an accessory building on their lot.

In the course of discussing the application at the December 19th meeting, board member Cheryl Grey asked, “Do we have to state the second story is [not] supposed to be finished into a habitable space with a bath or shower?” 

She is then assured by Chairman William Moore that this is unnecessary because the garage is not to be habitable.  Other members of the ZBA chimed in with similar sentiments.  No action was taken to stipulate any limits.

Fast forward to the construction of the garage. The contractor starts digging conduits from the house to the garage for plumbing, sewer, and power.  This was not included in the plan submitted to the ZBA  upon which the variance was granted.  A neighbor, observing this, contacts the building inspector’s office.  The building inspector comes out and is told by the contractor that the utilities are for a bathroom [the very convenience the board member was concerned about] that may be built in the future.  The building inspector cites the contractor for doing work without a plumbing permit and requires him to provide plans for this future bathroom.  He issues a stop work order.

The contractor then applies for the plumbing permit and provides the plans for the bathroom and the stop work order is lifted.

These are pictures of the garage under construction.  One might ask, why are they putting a bathroom into a garage that is not supposed to be “habitable” and that is only a few feet from the house?  Consider the size of the second floor of this garage.  Do you think the owner might have greater plans for this building?  With this bathroom might they create a summer rental?

The neighbors complained to the Mayor’s office.  The building department is under the Mayor’s authority.  Steve Shaw, the building inspector, responds to the Mayor’s office’s inquiry arguing that his approval of the utilities and the bathroom is  appropriate.

The following is Mr. Shaw’s response to the Mayor’s office along with a critique provided by a neighbor with considerable technical knowledge of development issues:

[Shaw] There has been much discussion about the right of a homeowner to put a bathroom into an accessory structure on their property. I would maintain that the relevant points of this issue hinge on two things, HABITABLE/LIVING SPACE and USE.

[analysis] Look, we like our neighbors and we don’t want to create problems yet we are now forced to intervene to be sure this garage does not become living (inhabited) space which is not allowed per the zoning code.

I respectfully disagree in terms of the initial relevant points.  This problem started with an application that failed to disclose to the zoning board the full intent of use and failed to show the planned water, sewer, and other infrastructure that was installed (without permits) minutes after the building inspector left the site after approving the foundation to be backfilled.

How can the project be issued plumbing permits after plumbing was installed without a permit and after the fact that the project plans hid/did not include this intention? Why was forgiveness granted rather than fines and revocation of permits? Further the project plans did not show plumbing and when the ZBA discussed the proposed stipulation that no plumbing/no sewer be permitted, the ZBA determined that no such stipulation was needed as to be building habitable space “would be building illegally . . .they are not asking for habitable space.” (ZBA chairman).  A bathroom is clearly only needed for occupied space.  This project should be re-presented to the ZBA as the project did not follow the plans submitted.

The city zoning ordinance provides a definition for a garage:  Definitions

Garage: An accessory building or portion of a principal building used for the storage of motor vehicles of the occupants of the premises. 

Cars and lawnmowers do not need a bathroom.  Bathrooms are available in the house—in the occupied space.

[Shaw] An ACCESSORY STRUCTURE (RESIDENTIAL)is defined in our City Zoning Ordinance as “an unfinished and uninhabitable space in a detached structure” which includes private garages. There is no definition in our City Zoning Ordinance for finished or unfinished space. Whereas a finished condition for a garage bay might be untaped/unpainted sheetrock, a three season sunroom might not be considered finished without taping, painting and insulation. Neither of these situations even addresses the question of conditioning. Therefore I believe the consideration of finished space to be situational and subject to my interpretation.

The Zoning Ordinance is not silent however, on habitable living space.  HABITABLE/LIVING SPACE is defined as “a space in a building suitable for living, sleeping, cooking, bathing, washing and sanitation purposes.” The key word in this definition is the word “and” which means that space is not considered habitable living space without all of those components. No single or limited combination of these components would constitute habitable space.

[analysis] The key word in this definition is “suitable”.  In other words, is the space suitable for habitation?  What makes it uninhabitable?   If a group of people are on a second story with access from stairs that meet the code, in a space that is insulated, with a space heater/window air conditioner and a bathroom not inhabiting the space?  What must they not be doing to be sure they are not inhabiting the space?  Is watching a ball game?  Falling asleep on couches?  Spending the night . . the weekend? Air BNB?

Further, the zoning does inform the question of use and occupancy: As defined in zoning ordinance, the words “used” or “occupied,” as applied to any land or building, shall be construed to include the words “intended or designed to be used or occupied.”  Clearly, the plan for the space was to be suitable for occupancy.

Clearly, the insulation of the space, attempt to bring in water, sewer, electric, and gas/heat are all indicative of intent to inhabit the space.

[Shaw] Also crucial in the determination for the allowance of a bathroom is the definition of USE. It is clear that a bathroom falls under the definition of USE- ACCESSORY in our City Zoning Ordinance as “a use customarily intended to be incidental and clearly subordinate to the principal uses or buildings on a lot.” As I see no inclusion or exclusion of a bathroom in any structure defined in our ordinance, I can only presume that a bathroom is allowed anywhere that it is deemed to be an appropriate accessory use to an allowable principal or permitted use.

[Analysis] It is inappropriate to segregate this one sub-use that is associated normally with a principal use and consider it simply as an accessory use.  I respectfully disagree as a bathroom is a key element of a principal use for a residential property.  Is a dining room an accessory use?  What about a living room? Can this accessory use of a garage also include a living room?  A bedroom?  This is a slippery slope.

[Shaw] Furthermore, the question of use is significant in the determination because the addition of a bathroom does not change the use of a structure. If the addition were to cause a use change which effected the allowed density or character of a neighborhood, or was not deemed appropriate as an accessory use, then it would not be allowed.

[Analysis] A bathroom is only required when one inhabits the space.  Clearly, there is a bathroom a few steps away in the house.  Again, this is a slippery slope as the addition of uses including a bathroom supports increased activity which does in fact affect the character of the neighborhood.  When does habitation begin—when one uses the bathroom . . . when 8 guests are over in the garage watching television and using the bathroom . . . when visitors need a place to sleep and they sleep upstairs . . . when visitors stay for a weekend .. . when a relative moves in for a month . . . . 

[Shaw] In the case of 66 White St., the private garage is a permitted use and therefore a bathroom would be allowed at the garage bay level as an accessory use. It is wholly reasonable and logical that a bathroom in an accessory structure such as a garage would be convenient if not necessary for anyone who would be spending a significant amount of time in the garage bay or yard. However, I would not find it reasonable for such a use at the second floor of this structure as it is not logical for a bathroom to be an accessory use to an uninhabitable, unconditioned, unfinished storage space. If this space had the appropriate approvals for such a use then it would be logical to allow one.

[Analysis] Disagree that a bathroom is needed for convenience or necessity.  Let’s be serious.  The house is ten steps away.  So, we have a lesson here on how what starts out as a garage becomes connected to water and sewer, morphs into increasing use of the space for gatherings, morphs into a second principal use on the same lot and then into another illegal dwelling units in the city.  And then, when that happens, the applicant comes to the city to ask forgiveness.  When has the city caused to tear down an occupied dwelling unit or evicted residents in a building that met all of the building code that was inhabited without proper permits?

[Shaw] I hope this determination is helpful in clearing up any confusion about the inclusion of bathrooms in an accessory building. There are still parts which are open to interpretation and those would be determined by the Zoning & Building Inspector on a case by case basis.

[Analysis] Respectfully disagree.   Are the neighbors being asked to be the code enforcers when the problem could be and should be nipped in the bud by not allowing water and sewer to a garage?    This is the proverbial nose of the camel.  If you let even the nose of the camel in the tent as the old Bedouin saying goes, before you know it, you have the whole camel in there and good luck getting it out! Who will be responsible when the camel is in the tent?  This project should go back to the ZBA as the project failed to follow the plans submitted.


So we have two examples of the applicants submitting proposals to the ZBA and then going forward with other plans.  In the case of the “barn”  on Murphy Lane the applicant has filed an article 78 to overturn the ZBA stop work action.  Very recently the court declined to dismiss the suit and now lengthy and expensive litigation with an unknown outcome are in our future. 

Bear in mind that these are just the two examples from my neighborhood.  One has to assume that there are many more out there that simply went forward because the neighbors assumed they had no choice.

You would think that this would cause the ZBA to set up a public meeting with the planning staff to ask how has all of this happened and what actions can we take to minimize these problems in the future?  You would think….

 

More On Council Vote To Fund Special Election For Charter Referendum

Here is more detail about last night’s City Council meeting. 

During the public comment period, Bob Turner who chairs the Charter Commission indicated that his group was now looking at moving the referendum to June.  I understand that the Jewish holiday Shavuot begins at sundown on the current date proposed for the referendum.  I am not sure if this was the reason for the change or the fact that the current date immediately follows the Memorial Day weekend.

He also told the council that they have found a way to reduce the cost of the election by $9,500.00 and plan to apply for a grant that would cover $25,000.00 of the election’s cost.

Turner stated that he expected that the interest by the citizens in the referendum would be so great that the number of voters would exceed those in a November general election.

Michele Madigan presented two motions for funding the request from the Charter Commission.  One was to pay for the administrative and programmatic expenses of the Commission which was for $46,000.00.  This passed unanimously.  She then moved that the council provide $37,000.00 for the special election. 

What followed was a fairly contentious discussion.  Part of the problem was that the discussion was allowed to veer off the question of whether to fund the special election/referendum to whether the current form of government should be changed. 

The Mayor spoke briefly supporting the resolution.   She praised the Commission for its work and pointed out to the members of the council that all of them were involved in appointing commission members.  This drew a sharp response since the Mayor appointed eleven members while the other council members were only allowed one appointment each.

Commissioner Mathiesen said that he supported the special election but that it would be fine to have it in November if that’s how things turned out.  He then gave a lengthy statement about the need to change the form of our government.

John Franck then gave a very long and very animated statement in which he vigorously opposed the May vote.  He took special exception to statements made in the public comment period by members of the Charter Commission.  He interpreted their plans to educate the public as condescending.  He asserted that it was unfair to have a special election and saw the effort as a way of suppressing the vote.  With this he announced that if the Charter Commission were to go forward with the special election he would vigorously oppose the ballot measure no matter what was in it.  On the other hand, he told the council that if the referendum was held in November he would withdraw himself from advocating for or opposing whatever charter they came up with.

Skip Scirocco offered a “triple” no on funding a special election.  He spent some time expressing his frustration over the efforts to change the government from the current commission form in light of the success of the city and the fact that the last two attempts were soundly rejected by the voters.

Michele Madigan expressed her frustration with the charter commission.  She noted that they still have not come up with a finished document.  She told the council that she had discussed the municipal law issue with an attorney as to whether the council could be compelled to pay for a special election.  She said there were cases that would support not funding the special election.

The final vote was Yepsen and Mathiesen for funding the special election and Madigan, Franck, and Scirocco  opposed.  The motion failed. During his discussion John Franck repeatedly referred to the expectation that this decision would end up in court.

The remarks made in the public comment period and the entire Council discussion and vote can be seen as always on the city website.  The discussion and vote on funding the special election occurred during Commissioner Madigan’s agenda.