Neighbors Sue City Over Code Blue Zoning Board of Appeals Decision

I have mixed feelings about the ongoing controversy over building a Code Blue shelter next to Shelters of Saratoga on Walworth Street.  I think that the prohibitions that were part of the Planning Board’s approval should minimize the impact of the facility on the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, my experience with the ZBA is that they have shown an extraordinary ineptitude in crafting their approvals to protect neighbors.   These projects also seem to have a power to creep beyond their original promises.

It is hard to believe given the requirement that it only be used for nights that drop below thirty-two degrees that the occupants will be hanging out in the neighborhood during the day.

Here is the story from the Saratogian.

http://www.saratogian.com/general-news/20170718/residents-suing-city-over-code-blue-location

 

Blogger Still Has No Date With Mayoral Candidate Meg Kelly

I have waited  three weeks before attempting again to arrange an interview with Meg Kelly, the Democratic candidate for Mayor.  During this time Ms. Kelly has filed her nominating petitions with the Board of Elections.  Ms. Kelly has also held a fundraiser recently.

 I received a reply to my original request for an interview from her campaign manager, Rick Landry. He advised me that I was not to use her city email address when contacting her.  I assumed by this that I should make future requests through him since he offered no alternative email address for her.  So I sent my most recent request for an interview with Ms. Kelly to him.  After not hearing from him for several days, I wrote again.  I have not heard from him.

 If any of the readers of this blog should encounter Ms. Kelly or Mr. Landry, would you ask them to contact me?

 

 

 

Charter Commission Makes Wrong Turn

Note:

I received a post from Pat Kane on July 14th in which he addressed issues associated with the Charter Commission’s plans to eliminate the deputy positions.  The full text of his post appears below and I have also posted it as part of the original thread it was directed to.

I found Mr. Kane’s comments quite disturbing.  As part of responding to him, I sent the comments to someone who has a keen knowledge of government processes in general and Saratoga Springs processes in particular.  I think sufficiently highly of this person that I would venture he/she would put this blog out of business were he/she ever to decide to blog on politics.  Here is the text of the response.

JK


Observers Comments

Full disclosure, while I’m not totally supportive of the charter commission’s recommendations, (and I am extremely disappointed in the way this was handled by the mayor, and subsequently by Mr. Turner and Mr. Kane) I’m 100% in favor of ending the commission form of government in our city.   There is a reason, perhaps an almost Darwinian reason, that this form of government went from existing with some regularity in the early-mid twentieth century, to being almost non-existent today.  I believe we are only one of three municipalities in the state that still have this form.  It increases inefficiency, duplicates services and operations, and leaves the staff and deputies subject to the whims of elected officials, some of whom are shockingly un-invested in the day-to-day operations of City Hall.

I have several issues with Mr. Kane’s response and perspective on this.

1) I would love to know how Mr. Kane and the charter commission (CC) picked which deputies to interview.  Doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it, which to me, makes it a sloppy bit of research.  By his own telling, Mr. Kane says that they interviewed only 3 who served in 2017, which begs the question: why did you only interview 3 out of 5 (60%) of the deputies currently in the city’s employ? I find that odd. Other people should too.

2) While I understand that concerns abound regarding “patronage” jobs, it is not at all unusual for mayors, city council members, state assemblypersons, state senators, governors, etc., to put people in top positions that they are familiar with.  Given the level of complexity and sensitivity of the jobs, and the fact that voters put a particular elected official in that spot largely based on his or her policy beliefs, it makes sense to have an elected official employ a like-minded person – a person who is capable and comfortable executing that vision.  Mr. Kane (and others) routinely conflate the idea of jobs that are politically appointed (e.g., deputies) with “patronage” jobs – which in the political world, have a certain “not what you know, it’s who you know/gravy train” connotation to it.  It feels like he is trying to make the idea of an appointed job a dirty or insidious thing; it is not.

It should also be noted that a city manager and asst. city manager would also be appointed, and would not be totally void of politics.  You wouldn’t necessarily want the arbitrary results of civil service examination picking your top operations person for you.

3) Mr. Kane’s January 2018 forecast on deputy tenure sounds arithmetically right to me, but it couldn’t be clearer that he is picking a yardstick which distorts the data in his favor.

So, in January 2018, the longest deputy will have served for 2 and ½ years, and he goes on to cite the other would-be tenures to come to an average of “about 1 year per deputy.”  When he cherry-picks the timeline like that, he is actively choosing to massage the statistics in his favor.  Shauna Sutton served for 6 years; Joe Ogden for 2.5 years; Lynn Bachner for almost 5 years; Tim Cogan for many years; and Eileen Finneran is completing her her tenth year having served as a deputy under Mayor Keehn, Commissioner Kim and Commissioner Mathiesen.  That average of deputy experience is considerably more than “1 year.”   He then proceeds to directly and disingenuously compare this “average” of 1 year with the idea that the incoming city manager and assistant city manager would have 15-20 total years of general experience and he seems to suggest that this manufactured juxtaposition should make the choice a no-brainer.  Mr. Kane is only considering “deputy” experience to build his 1 year “average”; Mr. Kane then allows himself to consider all of one’s work experience when considering the 15-20 years the prospective managers would have. My understanding is that Joe Ogden who served as Mayor Yepsen’s deputy for 2.5 years, served something in the range of 10 years of public finance and state government experience coming into that job. All of the deputies currently serving in City Hall have had other jobs, for many years.  It’s absolutely ridiculous for him create this 1 year versus 15 years comparison that is not only wildly misleading, but false.

Also, he seems to be casting the “deputies come and go” reality as the disease and not the symptom, when it is really the other way around.  The city election cycle is two years, and people plan for that reality accordingly.  The deputies, the highest ranking non-elected officials in city government, are also paid about half of what the city’s top grossing employees make.  The deputies often leave because the mayor and the City Council  lack the requisite political courage to say: “the deputies are high-level managers; they work many hours; they put up with a lot; they are there in our stead; they need to make more.”

4) He appears to lack an understanding about city operations regarding this idea that 2 people can do the work of 5.   That simply will not happen.  Again, Mr. Kane is totally confusing the structure of government as codified in a charter with the goods and services the public requires that government to produce. The best example of this is the deputy commissioner of finance.  The deputy commissioner of finance not only serves as the traditional deputy for that department, but that job also – and more importantly – serves as the city’s budget director.  Even if the deputy job went away, you would have to hire a budget director as that job is far too big to be absorbed by the finance director, a unionized job which is already akin to being the city comptroller.  Honestly, it would appear to a non-city employee that that job is the hardest deputy job.  The deputy mayor job would be/should be eliminated in the face of a city manager, but the work currently being done by these individuals will have to get done by someone else. And a city manager and assistant city manager, reporting to the mayor/City Council and to a very active, very involved public, will not be able to absorb all those functions. Mr. Kane’s comparison here does not hold water.

5) Mr. Kane also seems to be confusing the notion of what it costs the city to employ someone with their compensation package. Deputies make about $72k and a family plan for health insurance costs about $23k per year is my read of info from the city is about right. That’s $95k in compensation If you’re taking the family health insurance option.  The additional $15k in expenses that the city incurs (retirement/social security contributions) are not considered compensation.  Again, Mr. Kane tries to make it look as if the “16k per year of experience” is the better bargain, because he counts all of the city manager’s job experience when crafting that number, and he then he turns around and tells us that the deputies are costing us “110k per year of experience” as he conveniently leaves out any other job experience, counting only the deputy job experience.  If that isn’t being disingenuous I don’t know what is.

6) Mr. Kane’s comment about the 3-4 high level, experienced employees in each department is true, but he is wildly mistaken if he is banking on those employees absorbing deputy functions. Those employees are largely – if not exclusively – unionized and they are not supposed to be working more than 40 hours per week or outside their job title.  Even if the charter changes, the collective bargaining landscape will not.

I think charter change is a generally good idea, but it has been executed so poorly from beginning to end that it’s really hard to get behind this particular iteration.


Pat Kane’s Original Comment

Patrick Kane commented on Deputies: Challenging Charter Commission’s Prejudices

“This week Finance Commissioner Madigan announced the appointment of a new deputy, Michael Sharp.  This is one of the five …”

I too served on the charter commission this year. I personally interviewed 7 people who served as deputies in our commission form of government. 3 who have served in 2017 and 4 who have served in the last 3 years. Every single person would speak on the condition that their name would be left out. All current deputies or former deputies were perfectly clear in their professional opinion that The Commission Form of Government does not serve the City of Saratoga Springs in a professional manner. The most common terms used was ” constant fighting and bickering among commissioners and departments”. 6 of the 7 felt that they brought little or no professionally specific skills to the job. 5 of the 7 also stated that they had a personal relationship with the person who appointed them prior to the appointment.

In January of 2018. Deputies Tenure The longest serving deputy will have 2 1/2 years experience. Finance deputy will have 5 months service, public safety will be brand new to the job, Public works will have 1 1/2 years, and the deputy mayor will be brand new. That average is about 1 year per deputy. Currently deputies have a 110,000.00 compensation package or 550,000.00 for 5 (110K per year of experience)

Professionally trained and experienced Professional City Manager and Assistant City Manager The combined experience with two professional management positions will likely be 15-20 years. Their salary package for both will be an estimated 330,000.00 ( 16K per year of experience) So is 550,000.00 for 5 people with and average tenure of 1 year of on the job training, equal to 2 people with 15-20 years of professional training and experience at 330,000.00 ? The show will go on. Lets not forget that there are 400 full time employees that have been serving the public year after year regardless who is in office or who that commissioner appoints as deputy to work in their department. Additionally, there are 3-4 senior level employees ( non-deputies) in each department that have served in their departments longer than 15 years in their role.

With a two year transition period, the needs of the city will be reviewed and a professionally crafted plan will be in place for a seamless transition on January 1, 2020.

Shakespeare In Congress Park

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Love, Sex and Jealousy: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Monday, July 17 at 7:00 PM Saratoga Springs Public Library (Dutcher Community Room) 48 Henry Street, Saratoga Springs FREE! Before the season begins be sure to brush up your Shakespeare at this special discussion led by Saratoga Shakespeare Company Artistic Director and Skidmore Professor Lary Opitz .

A Victory On Ethics

This city has had an ethics code whose vagueness has allowed for abuse.  The Times Union exposed the fact that William Moore, who chairs the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and Tom Lewis, who for years sat on the city’s Planning Board, had their homes built by Sonny Bonacio who frequently came before their boards with projects needing approvals. 

The city’s Ethics Board was forced by a complaint to address this. It ruled that Mr. Lewis should have disclosed  his relationship with Bonacio but not recuse himself.  In the case of Moore, they ruled that since Bonacio had not been before the ZBA at the time the house was built, there was no problem.

This example is emblematic of the weakness of the city’s ethics code as it applies to land use boards and of the quality of oversight of the Ethics Board itself.

A number of people, myself included, worked with Commissioner Mathiesen to amend the city’s ethics code to create more rigorous protections for the community . 

As you will see if you read the recently adopted new standards, it is hard to understand why anyone would oppose these and why the city’s boards operated with looser standards for so long.

In fact, true to their history, the Ethics Board sent a memo to the City Council opposing the adoption of the amendment.  They argued that the proposed changes were too narrow and that any amendment to the city’s ethics code should cover all of city government.  They also claimed that the current city code covered most of this and made the changes redundant.  They said they were working on their own language for refining the Ethics Code. 

During the discussion of the amendment members of the Council expressed some concerns but Commissioner Mathiesen did a great job of both addressing the concerns raised and in advocating that there be no further delay in adoption.  

The amendment passed unanimously.  I think all the members of the council deserve praise for their action.  I would like to especially acknowledge Commissioner Mathiesen, though.  He worked very hard on this.  He actually attended several meetings of the Ethics Board unsuccessfully seeking their support.  He met with most of his colleagues to solicit their concerns and incorporated a number of these into the final version.  He also met with Jerry Luhn, Geoff Bornemann, and myself on a number of occasions to work out the best language.  Chris has been a great Commissioner and I know that many of us will miss him when he retires from the Council in December.

The city ethics code now spells out that there is a window of a year covering the relationship between applicants and all land use board members.  If a board member was employed by the applicant (or homeowner) or someone representing the applicant , or has been the recipient of goods or services worth $2000.00 or more, or has received a gift(s) worth in aggregate more than $75.00, or the member has made an investment worth more than $1,000.00 with the applicant (or homeowner) the board member must recuse themselves.

If the board member owns property within 100 feet of an affected project they must recuse themselves.

If the board member has received a gift of any value since the filing of the application they must recuse themselves.

If a member of the board member’s family is employed by the applicant/homeowner they must recuse themselves.

If the member of the board is employed by an institution financing the project they must recuse themselves.

Here is the final language that was adopted.

 

13-3 S.  Due to the unique nature of their positions, the following standards apply to members of the City’s three land use boards (Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Design Review Commission)

 

  1.  Required Recusal   A member of a City land use board must publicly disclose and recuse from acting on a particular manner if:
  1. During any time in the 12 months preceding the filing of an application for an action being heard before that member’s board, the member has been employed by the applicant or the relevant property owner OR the member has been the recipient of goods or services of the applicant or the property owner having an aggregate value greater than $2,000 OR the member has received a gift having an aggregate value of more than $75 OR the member is  or has been employed by the applicant or the property owner or professionals representing the applicant or the property owner OR the member has made an investment of any kind of a value greater than $1,000 with the applicant or the property owner.
  2. The member has received a gift on behalf of the applicant or the property owner of any value since the filing of the application for an action to be heard by that member’s board.
  3. The member has any financial investment in the project associated directly with the matter being heard by that member’s board.
  4. The member owns property lying within 100 feet of the property that is the subject of the application.
  5. The member has family members currently employed by the applicant or the property owner.
  6. The member is an officer of a financial institution that will be financing the project that is the subject of the application before the member’s board.
  7.  
  1. Required Disclosure   A member of a City land use board must publicly disclose if:
  1. The member was employed by any of the professionals representing the applicant or the property owner prior to the 12 month period as described in 13-3 S (1) (a).
  2. The member has had any ex parte communication regarding the application.  Relevant information to be disclosed shall include the name of the person involved in the communication and the substance of information given or received.
  3. The member owns property lying within 500 feet of the property that is the subject of the application.
  4. The member is an officer or board member of an organization that is submitting a comment on the application.
  5. The board member has a close relationship with the applicant or the relevant property owner.
  6.  
  1. Recommended Standards
  1. Members should not discuss pending applications with applicants or their agents outside of open meetings.
  2. Public comments and interactions with the news media should be limited in scope and presented by board chairs or City staff.
  3. Former land use board members should not become employed by applicants who have appeared before their board within 12 months of that member’s departure from board service.
  4.  
  1. The requirements enumerated in paragraph (1) and (2) are in addition to board members’ responsibility to use their judgment in deciding to recuse or disclose for any other valid reason.

 

 

A Break From The Madness

The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s last play. The play ends with the main character, Prospero, turning to the audience and addressing them.  These may have been Shakespeare’s last words to the public.  They are quite haunting.   He speaks of the ephemeral nature of theater.  A play being a moment in time and when it is over the magic disappears.  It is also a beautifully crafted metaphor of life itself.

In this very brief video the actor David Threlfall delivers the words. Worth the moment to listen.

Deputies: Challenging Charter Commission’s Prejudices

This week Finance Commissioner Madigan announced the appointment of a new deputy, Michael Sharp.  This is one of the five deputy positions that would be eliminated if the proposed charter is adopted this November.

“All five of those deputies are going to be removed, and we’re not going to have political patronage appointments for City Council members anymore” Charter Commission Chairman Bob Turner told the Gazette.

So for Mr. Turner and his Commission the deputies are “political appointments” with all the negative connotations associated with that term. In their view, apparently, the deputies are not hired based on qualifications and their ability to do the job, but the result of some dubious, politically motivated award. These individuals are thus seen as simply political operatives whose contribution to the actual management of their respective city departments is marginal. This explains the Commission’s assumption that they can eliminate all five deputy positions along with the four commissioners and replace them all with one City Manager and perhaps a deputy. The Charter Commission did not even bother to interview any past or present deputies.

I respectfully disagree with these assumptions about the deputy positions.

While one can argue that over the years there has occasionally been a dismal deputy appointment, either they and/or the Commissioner who has appointed them has not survived for long. The role of the deputies in fact is so important that problems arising from having the wrong person in that position have become obvious to the voters and the Commissioner has paid at the ballot box.

Even a cursory review of Mr. Sharp’s credentials (see attached press release on his appointment) makes it clear that he is highly qualified for the Deputy of Finance position which entails essentially drafting the city’s budget. Ms. Bachner, who previously served as deputy had a law degree and served under Finance Commissioners McCabe and Madigan with incredible skill and dedication. The level of ability of these deputies is not unique in city hall.  Saratoga enjoys some really fine people in the deputy positions who put in endless hours to oversee the functioning of their departments.

These positions are more accurately viewed as “management confidential”. Deputies do not enjoy the protections of civil service.  There is good reason for this which is fundamental to good management. Their performance is so critical to the proper running of their respective departments that should they prove unsuitable, they need to be removed with all speed.

I’m afraid that Mr. Turner and his Commission’s desire to construct a government free of the disagreements and competing interests that they disdainfully refer to as “politics” has made it difficult for them to grasp the role that deputies currently play in city government and thus plan for how their work will be done under the new structure they are proposing.


MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT
July 5, 2017

Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan Telephone:  (518) 587-3550 ext 2577 Email:  michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org

Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan Announces the Appointment of Michael Sharp as Deputy Commissioner of Finance

 

Saratoga Springs, NY – Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan announced today the appointment of Mike Sharp as Deputy Commissioner of Finance for the City of Saratoga Springs effective July 10. 2017.

Mike was an Investment Associate at Siguler Guff, a private equity firm headquartered in Manhattan that has over $11 billion of assets under management.  As a member of Siguler Guff’s Distressed Opportunities Funds platform Mike was the primary contact for 16 fund investments that represented over $1 billion of committed capital, and he focused on researching and managing investment opportunities across geographies, sectors, and asset classes.  Mike initially joined Siguler Guff as an Operations Analyst in 2009, and was promoted to the Investment Team in 2012. 

 

Prior to his work at Siguler Guff, Mike worked at Merrill Lynch and Wachovia in a variety of financial roles.  Mike has degrees from Marist College in Accounting and Business and a dual concentration graduate degree from Fordham Graduate School of Business in Finance and Media & Communications.  Mike is married to Katie and the father of a two year old son named Leo.    

Commissioner Madigan stated  “Mike comes to the city with a vast amount of experience working in the financial sector over the past 15 years.  The city is very fortunate to have someone with his experience step into the role of Deputy Commissioner of Finance and I look forward to working with Mike as we begin the 2018 budget season together” said Commissioner Madigan.

 

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Michele Madigan

Commissioner of Finance

City of Saratoga Springs

474 Broadway

Saratoga Springs, NY 12866