Charter Proposal: Spin Impersonating Legislation

 As background for the readers of this blog, I am an agnostic concerning the proposed new charter.  Chris Mathiesen has put forward what I think are some compelling arguments for a new charter while my wife, Jane Weihe, has made a strong case against the change.

I do have some thoughts, though, on the latest amendment adopted by the Charter Review Commission on Monday night.

The Commission offered the following additional language to their charter’s ethics section.  

 “B.    It is the policy of the City that the activities of City government should be conducted in public to the greatest extent feasible in order to assure public participation and enhance public accountability.”

 This amendment seems to suffer from the same oversell that has afflicted the whole charter change process.

I simply cannot restrain myself on this amendment. Ok, here are my snarky questions.  How did this city manage to operate for so many years without this amendment requiring transparency and what will happen to the ethics of this city if the charter fails and this amendment is therefore not adopted?  Why don’t we add to the charter’s section on ethics that our elected officials shall be required to tell the truth in their professional capacities?  Let’s also require that the elected officials always be courteous to each other.

 How, one might ask, will the admonition on transparency be enforced?  Who will judge the city government on its adherence to this section of the charter?  Who knows?

 What does it say about the commission that they believe that the adoption of this amendment has some sort of significance?

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How Salary Increases Would be Handled If The New Charter Is Adopted

I wrote to Robert Turner, chair of the Charter Review Commission, asking him how pay increases would be handled under the new charter in light of the staggered terms they are proposing for city council members.  According to New York State Municipal Law, an elected official cannot set their salary during their current term.  Bob is very good about responding to questions.  Here is his response.



Hi John,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

NY State law establishes the rules governing a City Council’s ability to raise its salaries.  According to Tony Izzo, a Council can do it one of 2 ways.

  1. They can vote to increase their salaries immediately.  A public referendum is held for voters to decide whether to approve the changes or not.
  2. They can vote to increase the salaries of a future City Council.  There has to be an election between when a council member votes and the salary increases go into effect.  So if the City Council voted to increase their salaries in 2020, it would not go into effect until after the 2021 election for half of them or 2023 for the other half.  According to NYCOM, what usually happens is City Council delay pay increases going into effect until the entire City Council is eligible.

According to the ICMA Municipal Form of Government, 2011 survey of local governments, 85% of city council elections are staggered.  So, we don’t believe this is a problem.

Personally, I believe that the current provision of a medical plan with no deductibles, premiums, or copays for part time City Council members is excessive.  To put their compensation in perspective, the cost of their benefits ($18,000) and salaries ($14,500) of $32,500 is higher than the legislative salaries of 30 state legislators.  (see https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-should-state-legislators-get-paid/)   And the provision of lifetime health benefits to City Council members after 10 years to service is unheard of in the public or private sector.

Hope this answers your question.

Also, Matt Veitch had asked: Is it now that Supervisors have 2 year terms while the rest of the elected officials will have 4 year terms?

Our original proposal, established 4 year terms for County Supervisors, largely because of your input about the position.  However, our drafting attorney, Bob Batson, told us: “It is my opinion that the Charter provision authorizing a term of 4 years for the Supervisors is not valid since it is inconsistent with the cited provision of state law.  Subdivision 2 of Section 2 of the General City Law authorizes a 4 year term for supervisors elected in the City of Geneva. I believe that Saratoga Springs would need either a special act of the State Legislature or a charter law of Saratoga County to give the supervisors 4 year terms.”  Batson is the Government Lawyer in Residence at the Government Law Center of Albany Law School.  Batson has drafted charters for: Albany, Amsterdam, Cohoes, Glen Cove, Oneonta and Troy, among others.

Batson said that a special act of the state legislature is required to change the term length of supervisors to 4 years.  Evidently, Geneva, I believe, asked for this and it took 4 months to pass the change.  So the term lengths are 2 years until the law changes and then they are 4 years.  The revised language is below.

There are two slight wrinkles on this.

  1. BK Keramati offered an amendment to specify that the first subsequent election shall be the “beauty pageant” format, where the candidate with the most votes gets the 4 year term and the runner up gets the 2 year term.  After that, the supervisor elections will be staggered 4 year terms. Supervisor A would run in 2021, 2025, 205; etc and Supervisor B would run in 2021, 2023, 2027, 2031 etc.
  2. Matt Jones offered an amendment subsequently that each county supervisor position will be contested separately, head to head elections, until the state changes the law to 4 year terms.  His argument was that this increases accountability in elections, based on his time on the Board of Election.

The exact language is below.

Bob

Bob Turner

Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies and Sciences

Director, Environmental Studies and Sciences Program

Director, Faculty Student Summer Research Program

Skidmore College

Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

This is a brief summary of the latest news from the Charter Review Commission.

On June 26th the Charter Review Commission voted on several amendments to their document and then had a vote on whether to adopt the document.  Of those present all but two supported it.  Elio DelSette, who was appointed by Commissioner Madigan, and Matt Jones, who was appointed by Commissioner Scirocco, voted against.

Strangely, the Commission’s website has a version of the proposed charter identified as “revised June 24th”.  This is not the newest version adopted on Monday and as far as I can tell there was not a meeting on June 24th.

The most significant changes adopted on Monday are:

  1. The establishment of a full time mayor with an annual salary of $40,000.00 plus benefits.
  2. The members of the council will be paid $14,500.00.  They will not receive any benefits.
  3. A statement that requires the council act with transparency.

I will comment on this in more detail in later blog.

 

Charter Financial Analysis: The Numbers Don’t Add Up

At their May community event at the City Center, the Charter Review Commission gave out a document titled “Saratoga Springs Charter Commission 2017 Proposed Charter Fiscal Impact Summary.”  The document had been drafted by Jeff Altamari.

Mr. Altamari moved to Saratoga Springs some years ago when he retired from an executive position with a Texas energy company.  Mr. Altamari has an impressive resume.   In a previous post I go into his credentials (https://saratogaspringspolitics.com/2017/05/03/charter-review-commissioner-altamari-calls-for-independent-internal-auditor/)  but for the purpose of this blog I would note that he is a Certified Public Accountant and has a strong background in finance.   I have chatted with Mr. Altamari on a number of occasions and I have always found him charming and informative.

In contrast to Mr. Altamari, while I studied economics as a history graduate student and have read extensively in the area, my focus and understanding is at the broader (macro as they say in the profession) level and I know little about accounting.

I have read his summary analysis of the projected financial benefits of the commission’s charter proposal and I ran into an issue that simply made no sense to me.

His paper documents that the proposed charter would eliminate all four commissioners, the four deputy commissioners, and the deputy mayor.  It asserts that all the rest of the city employees are assumed to continue in their jobs even though this could change over time if, for instance, the city manger decides to make changes in the workforce.  The only employees to be added, according to the paper, will be a city manager who they project will be paid $125,000.00 and an assistant city manager projected to be paid $90,000.00 although this position is not mentioned in the charter.  In addition, it proposes that a full time city mayor be paid $40,000.00.

Chris Mathiesen has made a strong argument against the commission form of government citing his experience as Public Safety Commissioner.   In my conversations with him he indicated that being an effective commissioner requires many, many hours.  While he enjoyed his tenure it was apparent from our conversation that it has taken a toll on him.  Apparently all the commissioners who spoke to the Commission expressed similar sentiments about the long hours required to administer their respective departments.  The Mayor has made similar remarks to the media.

Oddly, the Charter Review Commission, which sought testimony from many sources both inside our city government and outside, never interviewed the deputy commissioners or the deputy mayor.  In light of the fact that these people are charged with actually running their departments and are full time, one would have thought that interviewing them would be of particular value.

I know and have known several deputies.  I can tell you that the individuals I know and knew spent many more than forty hours a week on the job.  I am sure Chris Mathiesen would confirm that regarding his deputy as would all the other Commissioners and the Mayor.

So to a lay person like me it makes no sense that Mr. Altamari’s summary would expect the city manager and the assistant to absorb the work of four “part time” commissioners and five full time deputies yet the savings identified in Mr. Altamari’s summary factor in the savings from eliminating these positions.

I am also concerned about costs associated with the mayor and the six members of the proposed city council.  The budget makes no mention of any support costs for these positions.  It is the intention of the commission that the mayor’s position will be full time.  They envision the mayor as a kind of community organizer who will mobilize individuals and groups to support the work of the city government.  One would assume that the mayor will need office space, computer, some sort of secretarial/administrative assistance, travel costs, etc.  Similarly, one would expect the members of the council to need some sort of support budget.

I wrote to Mr. Altamari asking him to address these issues.  He declined to respond formally.  I followed up and here is our email exchange:

From:    John Kaufmann []

Sent:     Friday, June 23, 2017 12:46 PM

To:          ‘jeffaltamari’

Subject:   Financial Analysis

I am disappointed that you have declined to respond to my questions.  The latest iteration of your proposed charter  eliminates the four commissioners and the five deputies. Given that this charter proposal only calls for the hiring of a city manager (and you have indicated a deputy will probably be needed as well) it is logical to assume that the charter commission expects that the two new executive  positions will assume the workload of five fulltime and four part time positions.  This simply does not make sense.   I would also note that the financial plan you have put forward does not address the support costs for the ambitious responsibilities expected of the revised mayor’s position nor the support costs for the seven members of the council.

Given your acknowledged skills as an analyst and the assumed fact that you have thought this out, it does not seem unreasonable to ask you to explain these apparent anomalies.  I asked you to do it in writing in the interest of accuracy because I expect that I am not the only citizen that will have these questions about this proposal and I would like to post your response on my blog.

The Saratogians who will be voting on this charter cannot all be expected to attend the commission’s meetings and forums as you suggest in order to get clearer information.  Sooner or later you will need to address these issues in some kind of written document made available to the public.

While I will not be publishing your recent emails to me, I will be posting the text of this email to you.


From:    jeffaltamari

Sent:     Friday, June 23, 2017 1:10 PM

To:          John Kaufmann

Subject:    Re: Financial Analysis

As I stated previously, I will be happy to respond to you at our next public forum and was disappointed you deigned not to attend our previous forum, where these issues were addressed. I am happy to do this for you and any other citizen of Saratoga Springs. As a practical matter, and one of basic courtesy to Charter Commission members, we cannot be expected to provide lengthy written responses to all the email requests that come from the public. I hope you can understand and appreciate this.

Kind regards,

Jeff

Jeff Altamari


I was away on May 30 when they had their forum.  Even if I had been in town I would probably not have attended.

A confession to this blogger’s readers:  I rarely attend meetings.  They are, as a whole, interminable.  Fortunately, most of the city’s meetings are videotaped and can be viewed on line.  This allows a person like me to skip through them fairly quickly looking for anything that strikes me as significant.

In the case of the Charter Review Commission this approach is problematic.  The quality of the audio for meetings in the City Council chambers is excellent.  Unfortunately the Charter Review Commission rarely meets in the chambers.  I know there are probably scheduling challenges as the meetings of the council and the city’s boards would take precedence.  Still there are many nights that the council chamber is available.

The use of the city’s video equipment is limited to the council chambers. When the Commission meets in the Music Hall, as they frequently do, assistant  City Attorney Tony Izzo who assists the Commission uses his personal equipment to record their meetings.  The acoustics in that large hall are problematic and Commission members do not have microphones as they do when they meet in the Council chambers. The result is that it is almost impossible to follow the discussion of the commission when they hold their meetings there.  Several members have clear voices but many do not.  In addition, frequently there are several people talking at the same time and under those circumstances the voices are unintelligible.

So the public and I cannot use many of the videos on the city’s website to follow the work of the Commission.

I have some sympathy for Mr. Altamari.   He is a volunteer who has devoted many hours to the meetings of this Commission and it is not surprising that he bridles when asked to respond to someone like me. Still, this Commission often goes on about the need to educate the public and their frustration at how little interest in terms of public attendance at their meetings there is.

There may be a reasonable explanation as to the apparent anomaly of having two people doing the work of roughly nine people but in terms of what is available, I cannot find an explanation.

I  advised Mr. Altamari that I planned to post on the issue of his analysis on my website and offered him the opportunity of providing some kind of explanation.  Given his skills as a writer and my assumption that he has thought all of this through, it seems like a modest request to have him draft a response.  I regret that he declined.

This is a link to his document Fiscal Analysis. There is a table in the document that offers three scenarios of the money he projects the city will save with this form of government. Basically the first scenario projects no savings from greater efficiency (savings $118,326), the second projects savings from an increased efficiency of .5% (Savings $292,176), the third projects savings from an increased efficiency of 1% ($466,026).

 

 

Commissioner Madigan Proposes Inclusionary Zoning Players Put Proverbial Cards On Table

I congratulate Commissioner Madigan on her effort to have developers/bankers produce amendments they would like to see to the inclusionary  zoning proposal and sit down with Sustainable Saratoga for a public discussion of their  differences.  Here is her email to Chris Mathiesen.

From: “Michele Madigan” <michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org> To: “Christian Mathiesen” <christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org> Cc: “Brad Birge” <bradley.birge@saratoga-springs.org>, “John Franck” <john.franck@saratoga-springs.org>, “Skip Scirocco” <skip.scirocco@saratoga-springs.org>, “Joanne Yepsen” <joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org>, “meg kelly” <meg.kelly@saratoga-springs.org>, “Maire Masterson” <maire.masterson@saratoga-springs.org>, “frank coppola” <frank.coppola@saratoga-springs.org>, “Michael Veitch” <michael.veitch@saratoga-springs.org>, “Eileen Finneran” <eileen.finneran@saratoga-springs.org> Sent: Thursday, June 22, 2017 9:44:17 AM Subject: IZ Workshop with Planning Dept.

Commissioner Mathiesen,

After a brief email exchange yesterday, (but many discussions) with Commissioner Franck and hearing from the public, we both believe that another IZ workshop is required and would be beneficial.

An additional way to handle the IZ ordinance is to have both the Developers/Bankers sit down with Sustainable Saratoga (the original sponsors of the IZ ordinance).  This should be directed by Planning Dept. (and yourself as sponsor) and attempt to resolve the differences that I believe still exist in order to bring IZ to a successful vote. While I can redline the document, I can’t say that I can accomplish this in the allotted two weeks from the last workshop.  I may need an additional two weeks or more and even then I’m not an expert on such an all encompassing zoning ordinance.  I’m working on other fairly high-level projects on behalf of the City, just one of which is Parking. and it looks as though you would like a public update on Parking so that is where my energies will like over the next few weeks.

If the developers and bankers are negotiating in good faith (and I believe that they are) they will draft the changes they require to make this work.  If the proponents have a problem with these then they need to draft the reasons why and how their approach will address the issues.  After that the Council and the public will have clarity and the Council can weigh in on IZ. [JK: My emphasis added]

Thank you,

Commissioner Michele Madigan

 

 

Sustainable Saratoga’s “Tree Triage” App Wins Smart City Technology Competition

[JK: News release from Sustainable Saratoga]

Sustainable Saratoga’s “Tree Triage” App Wins Smart City Technology Competition

We’re excited to announce that our innovative new mobile app, Tree Triage, took top prize in the Saratoga Go! Smart City Technology Competition on Wednesday. Saratoga Go! challenged individuals and businesses to create and pitch solutions that improve quality of life for residents, businesses and institutions, or visitors to the City.  The Tree Triage app, developed by our Urban Forestry Project Chair Tom Denny, is a user-friendly way for the City’s Dept. of Public Works (DPW) and Arborist to enter all tree plantings and tree removals into the existing tree inventory. Routine maintenance of the tree inventory, which will preserve both its planning value and funding value, is far more cost-effective than having to replace the tree inventory if it becomes outdated. With Tree Triage, the DPW can record tree information in less than a minute at the tree site. Smarter infrastructure is key to making our City’s operations more productive and efficient. Thanks to Tree Triage, sustaining and growing our urban forest — a critical component of our community’s infrastructure — will be easier than ever!

Proposal For Affordable Housing Runs Into Political Buzz Saw

Well, the vote on  the SPA Housing Ordinance has been put off yet again following the full throated concerns expressed by the developers and bankers at the workshop on Tuesday, June 13.  The ordinance would require  that in residential developments of 10 or more units, 20 percent of the units for sale or rent be dedicated as affordable to households of moderate or low income.

However you may feel about this ordinance, the way this process has unfolded keeps getting more and more depressing as an example of how easily certain people with power get special treatment.

For those of us who regularly observe the operation of the City Council, the events of the last month regarding this issue have been anything but usual.  Bear in mind that the proponents of this proposal have been engaging the essential players of this drama going back practically a year.  The draft was written by a nationally recognized consultant who specializes in affordable housing.  He has drawn on the experience of communities who have drafted similar legislation across the country.  The proponents of the ordinance have had meetings with developers like Sonny Bonacio and with local banks.  There have also been numerous meetings with members of the City Council.  This was no surprise proposal suddenly dropped on the city.  There was ample notice of public hearings where both proponents and opponents addressed the Council.  Normal procedure and I do mean normal procedure, is that the Council then votes on the proposal.

Forget that.  Suddenly the members of the Council discovered that there are all these critical questions unanswered and the gears of government jammed to a halt.  Commissioner Madigan is quoted at the last workshop as follows:

“The density bonus, the zoning language, pilots, deed language, foreclosure and sunset clause and that’s just off the top of my head. And then I do think we are there. It’s just going to take a little more time to get there.”

I do not question that the items she referenced are controversial or that members of the Council may be uninformed on these issues.  Based on the chatter around the table it was clear that at least John Franck and Skip Scirocco shared her concerns.  My question is why weren’t these issues raised earlier in the process.

I am also skeptical that this can all be worked out with just a little more time. It was clear that for all the professions of some of the players about their desire to make this work, the solutions to the problems the developers and bankers raised with the proposed ordinance will not be fixed with just a few tweaks.  John Witt was the most direct.  According to the Times Union:

“Developer John Witt said he can’t make it happen.

‘I like the idea of more units, but the lowest cost we could get it to would be about $2,500 a month with mortgage, insurance, taxes, utilities,’ Witt said. ‘That’s at a mortgage rate of 4.1 percent and if the land is sold at a cost of zero.’

Witt said his margins are only 5 percent and that he doesn’t have the money to invest in affordable units.”

So now there is no date for a vote and somehow the objections by the bankers and developers are going to be worked out “sometime” in the future.

Let me be clear, I am sufficiently ignorant regarding the ordinance that I have no idea whether some or, for that matter, all of the concerns scattered on the Council table by the opponents are valid.

I do, however, have certain basic insights  into the players in all of this.  I know that the bankers and developers are skilled people who have survived because they work very hard at maximizing the profit margin of their projects.  This is not a criticism of them.  This is the nature of what it takes to succeed.

I have noted on this blog repeatedly that I am something of a fan of Sonny Bonacio who is a most likable fellow when he turns on the charm.  I love his energy and I think he has done a lot across the capital district to create a variety of beneficial projects.  Caffe Lena immediately comes to mind, and he is doing some creative things in Troy which can use as much help as it can get.

I do, however, also remember that when he wanted to  convert Moore Hall into micro apartments he was adamant before  the Zoning Board of Appeals that taking down the building and replacing it with something more acceptable to the neighborhood was not financially feasible.  Of course, it turned out that it was feasible and the new condos for that site are under construction as I write this posting.

I seriously question the ability of the Council members to assess the arguments and changes that will be forward by those objecting to the ordinance.  I am particularly concerned that this will all be done at private meetings with individual Council members which in itself is not wrong but which will cast a serious cloud on whatever emerges (if something actually finally emerges).

I would offer a way forward that I think would be beneficial to both the Council and the public.  Tell the opponents that they need to sit down with the proponents of the ordinance and try to work it out with them.  In the event that they cannot come to an agreement, ask the opponents to draft their proposed changes and ask the proponents to draft a position paper that lays out their problems with the changes and how the proponents’ proposal addresses the basic concerns raised by the opponents.

The Council could then take whatever action they deemed appropriate and the public would be in a position to assess the outcome.  This would meet that badly overused term called transparency.

It is my hope that the Mayor and Council would support this approach.