Charter Change: They Are Back…(Actually they never left)

Recently, Gordon Boyd, the former treasurer of the now defunct Charter Review Commission, appeared on LookTV to advise the public that their proposal for charter change would be back on the ballot in the coming November election.

Link: http://www.looktvonline.com/nys-supreme-court-dismisses-saratoga-charter-referendum-recount-pt-2/

In the February 22nd edition of Saratoga Today, Mr. Boyd announced:

“Our core leadership group is investigating the legal, procedural and campaign dynamics of getting a petition drive going as allowed under the law, and how we can put the same exact proposal (as 2017) on the petition and placed on the ballot this coming November.”

The famous Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, spoke of permanent revolution.  It seems this city is living through permanent attempted charter change.

During this last week alone there have already been two instances of charter change proponents publicly resuming their advocacy for a change in city government: a Readers View in the Saratogian written by the former Charter Review Commission Chair Bob Turner, and a radio interview with the former Charter Review Commission Vice Chair Pat Kane. Bear in mind that their next bite at the apple is some nine months away.

The Apparent Decline Of Political Science At Skidmore College

Traditionally political science was a discipline that among other things, taught students how to critically assess the kind of manipulation that today’s professional campaign consultants produce to sway the electorate.  It appears, at least as regards Skidmore Professor Robert Turner, that he has embraced the techniques of modern campaigning rather than expose its abuses.   Some of us had hoped that having endured a year of this kind of campaigning that we would be granted some respite. But in  the February 18th edition of the Saratogian Turner published yet another of his ubiquitous exercises in spin.

Turner’s Saratogian Readers View concerns Supreme Court Judge Thomas Nolan’s recent ruling on Gordon Boyd’s petition regarding the November charter change vote.  In his ruling Judge Nolan addressed two distinct issues.  I have discussed these in a previous post but it is helpful to review some background on them before looking at Turner’s remarks. Here they are again briefly.

  1. Judge Nolan first addressed Boyd’s request to have the Board of Elections release documents he had requested through a FOIL. The Freedom of Information Law procedures are quite clear and specific regarding the responsibilities of the person seeking documents and the institution holding them.  The petitioner is required to send a request for documents  to a particular employee responsible for addressing requests.   This is important because the receipt of the request starts a “clock” that in turn requires that within a specific number of business days that the documents be provided or that the person seeking the documents be advised as to when a determination will be made regarding their availability.  This then starts another clock which requires at the end of a fixed number of business days either the documents be provided or an explanation given as to why they are not available.  If the documents are not available, the law then sets out an appeal process to a different employee at the institution.  It is only after this internal appeal process has been exhausted that an appeal for the release of the documents can go to a court.  So there is a reason for the procedures.   They are to insure that the petitioner gets a response in a timely manner.  In the case of the request made by Gordon Boyd on behalf of Mr. Turner and other charter change advocates, the FOIL was not sent to the appropriate employee originally and therefore no subsequent appeal was ever executed.

2. The second issue Judge Nolan addressed was Boyd’s request for a recount or re-canvassing of the votes cast in the November charter referendum. State law requires that a recount of ballots can only be imposed if the petitioner can document that there was a problem in the voting process that placed the accuracy of the results in doubt.  There are a number of types of evidence that can meet this requirement.  For instance a report of a mechanical failure at a polling place, perhaps a power outage or other interruption, might be reported by the inspectors at a polling place or by a voter or other observer, or evidence that persons not actually eligible had voted might be presented.

 

Mr. Turner’s Readers View repeatedly waffles back and forth between these two issues.

After a long tutorial about the voting machine technology ending in the fact that the machines produce backup images of every ballot, Turner then tells his readers, “However, the Saratoga County Board of Elections has decided not to provide these to the public, nor have they provided any explanation as to why.”

This attack is rather a stunner.  The Board of Elections had nothing to do with denying him the images.  The request for the images was done as a Freedom of Information request by Gordon Boyd.  The petition to Judge Nolan included the request that the county be impelled to honor Mr. Boyd’s FOIL for the ballot images.  Judge Nolan denied this request noting that Mr. Boyd did not submit his FOIL to the correct officer and that in addition he never of course pursued the internal appeal process.

Rather than acknowledge that the original denial was due to his own group’s ineptitude, Turner blames the Board of Elections.  As if this were not enough he has the chutzpah to proudly tell his readers: “This is why I have filed a FOIL request with Therese Connolly, Deputy Clerk of the Board for copies of the TIF files. The TIF files of our ballots are public property.”  Ms.  Connolly is in fact the FOIL officer and the person who was supposed to be sent the FOIL application in the first place.

Curiously when the election results before the opening of the absentee ballots showed a modest majority in his group’s favor Turner had a very different attitude towards the Board of Elections.  At that point he told the Times Union, “It [the Board of Elections] is a bipartisan institution that is mandated by law and their oath to conduct the elections according to law.  I do not understand why the three city councilors don’t trust the Board of Election to handle the counting of absentee ballots.”

At another point in his piece Mr. Turner briefly acknowledges the law requires proof of “voting machine malfunction or irregularity” in order to order a recount.  He then  makes the leap to the assertion “…However, in order to show a malfunction or irregularity, you need copies of the ballots, which can only be provided by the Board of Elections.”    This is an incorrect statement but he takes it further:

“It’s a Catch-22. In order to get a recount, we need to show the Board of Elections has made a mistake, and the ONLY WAY [emphasis added]to do that is to have the Board of Elections provide the TIF files of those ballots, which they have declined to do. When Judge Nolan’s decision stated that the ‘petitioner presents no facts to support or justify his request,’ it is because the Board of Elections Commissioners would not show us copies of the ballots.”

Mr. Turner chooses to ignore the fact that copies of the ballots are not the only evidence that can show the Board of Elections may have made a mistake and refuses to acknowledge that they were unable to produce any evidence of any kind of irregularity occurring in the election.

Now Mr. Turner may fairly feel that the requirements for a recount in New York State are excessively restrictive.  Unfortunately, this is not enough for Mr. Turner.  Instead he chooses to portray as villains those who are charged with following and administering these laws, namely the Board of Elections and Judge Nolan. The problem is that to merely criticize existing laws does not allow for the drama that portrays him and his group as victims of an odiously entrenched malevolent establishment and thus stir his supporters to righteous indignation.

The full speaking out piece is here: http://www.saratogian.com/opinion/20180217/readers-view-win-or-lose-transparency-should-always-be-at-top

More Crazy Stuff From Another Direction

Rick Thompson, who is an avid supporter of charter change , has a talk show on WSPN.  I do not listen to it.  I don’t expect it enjoys a large following given it is on Skidmore Radio on a Saturday morning.  Someone sent me a recording of the show from  February 17th, though.   Pat Kane was the guest.  Mr. Kane was the vice-chair of the Charter Review Commission.

If the reader finds some of this less than coherent or logical it is because the program had a sort of stream of consciousness character to it and I transcribed it as I heard it.  Here is the full recording:

The following is a transcript of some of the discussion that occurred at the end of the show.  I think it needs no analysis.

Mr. Thompson, after indicating that they will be discussing the charter change legal case offers the following:

“Judge Nolan is a Republican.  The County Republican Party donated money to see that this proposal did not pass.  Republican people that were running for office donated from their campaign funds…and some Democrats to see that this charter change didn’t happen.  So the political input of this is huge…and you are talking about county funds being used when this was a city issue so right there I am thinking Judge Nolan is kind of impartial…”

Kane responds:

“There were some irregularities we heard.  If you wrote in a name it kicked the ballot out.  Blah, blubba blah.  Machines break down but you always expect your day in court.  It’s not required in New York but you expect your right.  And I was there when we filed with the court.  At that time the Republican Commissioner I drove to his house.  First we met with Judge Nolan on Friday after Thanksgiving. So he told us to submit that to one of the Republicans Commissioners for the county.  I went to his house.  I think his words and I can’t say them on the radio but to get off his bluh bla, bluh bla property.  We did supply him with the information.  For whatever reason I may be wrong.  I hope I am.

None of the six [machines] were in Saratoga Springs.  We do somewhat of a clearing of the machines were there any irregularities.  They’re saying there is no discrepancy in six of the election districts in the county.  None of them were in Saratoga Springs and this is what this law suit is about…Saratoga Springs.  They tested six machines and none of them were in Saratoga Springs and I don’t buy that.  But here again, let’s take the high road I don’t begrudge anybody but it smells.  So far I have had one hundred and forty-seven email from people who are just angry about what’s wrong with asking for a recount?  I mean we’re citizens of Saratoga County.  It does smell of something.  I don’t want to get into some conspiracy thing because that’s not relevant but to think this is going to go away is just wrong.”

Thompson says:

“Well, I think number one there should be something placed against Judge Nolan.  That right about there is totally insane. He’s behooved to the Republican Committee.  They endorsed him and they are paying money to the group opposed to the charter.”

Kane:

“I’m a Republican and I’m not defending Judge Nolan.  Obviously we filed with the county.  We did as instructed in January 8 and we were under the impression that we were going to wait for oral arguments which number one never took place.  Number 2 we were going to wait for the Appellate Division which is a higher court which was handling a very similar issue in Essex County [ he goes on about attending that case in Albany] We thought we were all waiting for that because it is a higher court.  Whether it comes or not we don’t know which is fine ‘cause as I said one hundred and forty-seven people have wrote to me already and I am sure there’ll be more who will participate in getting this back on the ballot.  I think its going to pass so overwhelmingly let it run in November it’s no big deal.”

 

 

 

 

Scallions Restaurant For Sale

Michele Morris, owner of Scallions Restaurant on Lake Avenue by the city’s firehouse, has announced her restaurant is for sale.  Ms. Morris has operated her restaurant for nineteen years.  The asking price is $499,000.00.

On a personal note, her restaurant is my favorite in our city.  The food is always well prepared, interesting, and well priced.  I can only wish Ms. Morris the best having enjoyed her hospitality for years.

A More Careful Look at Judge Nolan’s Decision in Charter Referendum Case

NY Supreme Court Judge Nolan’s decision in the case Gordon Boyd brought against the Commissioners of the Saratoga County Board of Elections makes for some interesting reading.

Boyd was the treasurer of the now defunct Charter Review Commission which put a proposal on last November’s Saratoga Springs ballot to replace the city’s present commission form of government with a city manager form.

Boyd petitioned the court to:

  1. Order a hand recount of all ballots cast in the city’s November referendum on charter change or release the “.tif” files, the electronic files generated by the voting machines
  2. Compel the Board of Elections to release information requested in a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) filed on November 20 asking for among other items “.tif” files and unscanned ballots from the November election

The FOIL Issue:

Judge Nolan addresses the issue of the FOIL request first.  He notes that there is a very clear legal procedure to be followed in seeking access to public records. Basically Boyd did not follow this procedure and so the Judge denied his request to compel the Board of Elections to produce the records he sought.

Boyd’s failure to correctly file a FOIL request puzzles me.  Boyd is not a newcomer to politics having  worked in the Assembly, run for local office more than once and served on municipal boards to name only a few of his experiences in government. Even if he had never filed a FOIL request in his extensive political career, it is not difficult to get information on how to proceed.

I went to the Saratoga County website and typed in” FOIL” in the search function. This is what I got:

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and the request form was only a click away:

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The directions were quite clear and the name of the person to whom the request must be submitted was prominently displayed on the site and on the form.

If Boyd had any doubt about how to proceed he could have contacted Theresa Connelly as indicated on the site or if not satisfied I have found Bob Freeman of the Committee on Open Government at the NYS Department of State to be very accessible and helpful. Boyd certainly is aware of Freeman as a resource.

Judge Nolan is quite clear in his decision that Saratoga County has in place the required rules and regulations governing access to public records and the handling of FOIL requests including providing for an internal appeal process if the request is denied. Only after going through this appeal process can an applicant begin a court proceeding.

To quote the decision “…the petitioner fails to show that a FOIL request was served on the County’s designated Records Access Officer….Clearly, petitioner has not followed the FOIL procedure and of course, did not exhaust his administrative remedies…..”

I have to admit I was somewhat amused given all the FOIL information that is easily accessible that former Charter Review Commission Chair and Skidmore Political Science professor Bob Turner complained to the Gazette that “They [the county Board of Elections] never called us to say ‘You should send it to this person.’”

The Recount

Boyd’s failure to get the court to order a recount seems also to be grounded in either a disregard for or an ignorance of the legal requirements involved in making such a request.

Boyd’s arguments for a recount consist of:

  1. “the unofficial canvas of the votes cast by machine for the …Proposed New City Charter MAY (emphasis added) be and often is incomplete and/or inaccurate”
  2. “several of the voting machines in the…political subdivision MAY (emphasis added) have malfunctioned or broken down and failed to count all of the votes cast for the Proposed New City Charter”

To which Judge Nolan replied:

“…petitioner produces no facts to support the propriety of a re-canvass. Rather the petition contains speculative statements….”

And

“These statements lack factual support. The only germane fact recited in the petition is that the Proposition No. 4 [the charter referendum] was defeated by 10 votes.”

Boyd goes on to argue that the New York City Board of Elections requires a manual recount of paper ballots when the margin of victory is less than 10 votes or one-half percent of the total votes cast. Judge Nolan points out, however,  that  “neither the New York State Board of Elections nor the Saratoga County Board of Elections mandates a re-canvass when an election result is close.”

Nolan goes on to write:

“…the narrowness of the margin, absent evidence of voting machine malfunction or some other irregularity, does not justify granting the request either for a hand count of the preserved paper ballots or the production of all ‘.tif’ files.”

He then cites Matter of Bradley v. D’Apice : “Before a court may grant permission to examine voting machines and paper ballots or direct a re-canvass, the petitioner must provide facts which support the claim that irregularities, discrepancies or errors occurred which affected the outcome of the election. Statements based on information and belief which fail to state the source of the information or the grounds for the belief are insufficient.”
This whole legal matter seems to me emblematic of the problems members of the Charter Review Commission and it’s PAC,  It’s Time Saratoga,  have exhibited throughout their campaign for charter change. They simply do not do their homework as was evident in the many misstatements they put our in their campaign materials. This can be seen again now in the unnecessary sloppiness of their FOIL request and in their disregard for the legal requirements that state that factual evidence must be produced to indicate that a problem with voting may have occurred in order for the court to grant a recount.

This is not a matter of “Catch 22” as Bob Turner tried to spin it to the Gazette. He argued that they can’t show there’s a problem as required because the judge won’t release the “tif.” files that could possibly show a problem. While I can sympathize a bit with their desire to review all the ballots, the court’s refusal to grant a request to devote extensive public resources and money to hand count some 9,000 ballots for what would essentially be a fishing expedition does not seem unreasonable to me. Aside from the issue of the ballots, they also had no evidence that voting machines broke down. They could produce no reports from the inspectors at polling places nor from any of the observers that day that any such problem occurred anywhere in the city.  Like it or not the law says they needed to produce evidence and they could not. Turner, as a political science professor of all people, should be aware of what the rules are, and whether he likes them or not understand that they need to be followed.

One has to wonder too about what kind of advice their legal counsel Josh Ehrlich is giving them. Boyd has indicated an appeal is being considered.  He has refused to indicate what this is costing and how it is being paid for.

 

 

 

Court Throws Out Saratoga Springs Charter Election Challenge

I received the following press release from Richard Sellers, spokesperson for SUCCESS, the organization that opposed charter change:

 

“Supreme Court Justice Thomas Nolan has dismissed a petition by Gordon Boyd asking for a hand recount of the Saratoga Springs Charter Referendum that was defeated by voters in November.

Judge Nolan’s decision states that the “petitioner presents no facts to support or justify his request (emphasis added).”

The decision also states that the “only germane fact recited in the petition is that the Proposition No. 4 was defeated by 10 votes.” Specifically, there were 4,457 votes for the Commission form and 4,447 for the proposed change to a City Manager. Neither the New York State nor the Saratoga County boards of elections mandate a re-canvass due to a close election.

Importantly, the Saratoga Board of Elections has certified these results.

Boyd was one of the leaders of the Charter Review Commission and an activist in the election including representing It’s Time Saratoga, the Ballot Committee supporting moving to a City Manager form of government, at a debate at the City Center two weeks before the election.

Richard Sellers speaking for SUCCESS, the organization that lead the effort to maintain the commission form of government in Saratoga Springs, noted: ‘This is the third time in a decade that Saratogians have vigorously debated the merits of changing our form of city government, and this is the third time that Saratogians have voted to keep our Commission form.

Our form of government is unique as is our city. We feel the Commission form has worked well for Saratogians for many years and through many changes that the city has gone through. We look forward to Saratoga’s continuing prosperity under this special structure.’ ”

Here is a link to the court decision:

SUCCESS – Boyd v. Election Commissioners Decision – 2-13-2018

 

Richard Sellers

SUCCESS Spokesperson

 

 

 

 

 

Some Thoughts On The Forum On Building Heights

 

 

 

[JK: If the images below seem out of order it is because WordPress, the software I use to write this blog can be teeth grindingly buggy.  It commonly drops images in the wrong place and will not allow you to move them.  The blank spot above this text is due to a bug in the software.  The least fun thing about writing this blog is dealing with WordPress]

The primary speaker was George Jacquemart.   He is a principal with the firm BJF Planning.  According to his company’s website:

 Georges Jacquemart is a founding prinicipal of BFJ Planning and directs the firm’s transportation practice.

In 2006 the city contracted with Mr. Jacquemart to look at building heights.

The forum included a panel with Sonny Bonacia, architect Mark Hurff, City Planner Kate Maynard, and Doug Kerr representing the Saratoga Springs Perservation Foundation.

Here is a link to the Saratogian article http://www.saratogian.com/article/ST/20180131/NEWS/180139960

There were some interesting and thought provoking ideas presented.

According to Mr. Jacquemart there is a proportion of the width of a street/sidewalk to the facing buildings which is commonly used for what are considered to be ideal streetscapes.  The ideal ratio according to Mr. Jacquemart is .8 to 1.1.  He discussed how the upper floors can be set back to maintain this ratio while going higher.  Basically we are talking about tiered, stepped floors that cannot be seen from the street.

He discussed the importance of density to buildings.  Basically, having a downtown that is densely developed creates the scale required for strong retail and public transportation.  Restaurants and shops along with some sort of effective public transport requires many people.  The principle is pretty straightforward.

The original study from 2006 focused on the downtown core.  Here are some slides from his presentation that are meant to illustrate the principle of proportionality of street/sidewalk width to building height.

It is important to note that current city zoning allows for a maximum height of 70 feet for buildings downtown.

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Examples of Varied Roof Tops And Indentations
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More Examples Of Ornamentation And Bonuses

 

 

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Illustration Showing How Corner Lots Can Be Taller Than Standard To Space Created By Intersection
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Rendering Of Example Of Ornamentation
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Examples of Set Backs

 

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Set Back Examples

 

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Examples of Height/Width Ratios

 

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Rendering Of Caroline Street If The Buildings Went Up Six Stories
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As Caroline Street Is

 

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Hamilton StreetWoodlawn-7

 

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2006 Study Area

 

 

In addition he talked about the significance of ornamentation and design to create attractive buildings. 

Apparently his original study recommended height bonuses based on the ornamentation of the building and for social purposes like workforce housing.

The Devil Is In The Details

Matt Veitch who is currently the president of the board of the Preservation Foundation  acted as moderator.  He told the crowd that he had one rule for the evening which was that there be no criticism of specific buildings.

I noted that one of the streetscapes in the presentation was Railroad Place.  I personally find the southern part of the road beginning at Division Street not a very pleasant environment.  The height of the buildings are at the extreme limit of the “ideal” norm.  The ratio is 1.1.

I had always attributed my discomfort with the street to the canyon like feel with its tall buildings.  I called a friend who lectures on urban design and asked him about the street.  He told me that the problem was not the height of the buildings but their design.  There is no active retail on the street and he characterized the walls facing the street as basically unattractive.  If the buildings were more attractive and/or there were restaurants and shops with the attendant people, it would have an entirely different feel.

I know nothing about architecture.  The buildings look pleasant enough to me, but there is, however, something flat, cold, and lifeless about them.  I attributed this to the lack of first floor retail and the lack of people.  I did notice that on the east side there is quite a bit of blank wall behind which is parking.

RailroadPlaceWest

 

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Street Level Of Railroad Place East Side

I will defer to my friend’s educated assessment that it is possible to design buildings that will create a more welcoming environment.

As the readers of this blog are well aware, I am never afraid to make uninformed judgments.  It seems to me that the energy of having people around makes the environment more hospitable.  In addition, it is the presence of lots of foot traffic that makes commercial establishments like cafes and shops possible.  I presume that with greater density of people downtown, the demand for commercial first floor space could result in redesigning the first floor of this street.

The central question is then what kind of density and population would the city need to make this happen.  The related question is how these areas can attract people from outside the city?

Putting aside the issue of parking, there is a limit to downtown’s road infrastructure.  How can it handle the kind of traffic that would bring more people downtown?

As traffic design is Mr. Jacquemart’s specialty, I asked him about this.  I was quite disappointed.  I found his wandering answer unhelpful.  In his defense, the topic of the night was building height but still, with height comes density which he is an advocate for and with density comes traffic.

 Two other panelists responded

 Kate Maynard talked about the trolley provided by CDTA in the summer.  She noted that the ridership had been limited by a number of factors.  People didn’t know what it cost (it is free) and they didn’t know where it went and when.  Since this information was publicized ridership has been way up.  With better promotion, it could address some of the transportation issues. 

Of course the city center parking plan which could have a tremendous impact on city parking availability is still unresolved.

Doug Kerr took the opportunity to opine about how most cities would welcome a traffic problem.  This is not the first time I have heard this.  Welcome or not, it is a serious and growing problem.  During the summer the backup of traffic coming from the South on Route 9 is becoming an increasing problem.  People are not going to visit our city if they find themselves mired in traffic and unable to park.  

If you have been involved in development issues, you know that the developer brings in a traffic consultant who without exception limits the scope of the study to the immediate streets of the development and assures the boards that all will be well.  What is missing is the macro problem with traffic.  People come here for the quality of our downtown.  The aggregate of all of these new projects is going to contribute to gridlock.  We need to be thinking about this problem and as far as I can tell we are not.

Finally, in the end, while zoning is critically important,  you cannot micro manage development through a telephone book of ordinances.  In the end we are dependent on the good judgment of our land use boards to insist that the scale and design of what is built enhances our communities.  The truth is we have not always been well served by our boards.  For decades they were the handmaidens of the real estate industry.  Mayor Yepsen’s appointments were a mixed bag.  There were some better people appointed but she also appointed some of the usual suspects.  We can only hope the our new mayor, Meg Kelly, will see the importance of appointing people who take preserving the beauty of our city as a critical factor in their decisions. 

 

 

Neighbors Take City Back To Court On Code Blue

The decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals to approve the Code Blue facility on Walworth Street drew the expected legal action from the neighbors.  The neighbors had previously successfully appealed the decision by the ZBA denying their challenge claiming it was filed too late. After granting the neighbors a hearing the ZBA then reaffirmed their original decision to allow the shelter. In a prepared statement the neighbors announced that they wanted to work with Code Blue and other stakeholders in the community to find an alternative location for Code Blue.

Here is the story from the February 6, 2018 Saratogian.    http://www.saratogian.com/general-news/20180205/saratoga-springs-board-sued-over-shelter-decision

 

Encouraging Beginning For Meg Kelly As Mayor

Newly elected Mayor Meg Kelly changed the format for the state of the city event this year.  Rather than simply give a speech she shared the event with the other members of the Council and the Supervisors.  Of particular importance was the substance of the presentations.  Rather than the usual platitudes or listings of alleged accomplishments, the elected officials identified the projects they hoped to complete during the coming year.  It is worth reading the Saratogian story as it lays out the many things planned.

http://www.saratogian.com/government-and-politics/20180201/spa-city-officials-discuss-goals-for-the-future

I was also stunned in reading the minutes of the January 16 meeting.  The mayor gaveled it closed at 7:50!!!!!!  That is less than an hour.  These meetings under her predecessor would go on for many hours.  Such interminable meetings rather than adding to “transparency” were sufficiently boring as to discourage people from watching or attending  them. If you were interested in an item on the Public  Safety agenda, which is normally one of the last items, it was hard to expect anyone to keep paying attention as the hour grew late. The new Mayor has successfully expanded the consent agenda so that non-controversial items can be dealt with expeditiously and this has helped shorten the meetings dramatically.