Charter Review Commission Shows Thoughtful Approach To Potential Changes

The previous charter review commission pressed a narrative that the city’s commission form of government was by its very nature riven by conflict and run by deputies who were political hacks. While the members of that commission put in many long hours  their lack of knowledge of how government actually works was reflected in their often meandering discussions .  They basically largely focused on their belief that the problems of city government were the result of the commission form of government and assumed that a city manager would resolve everything.  By their second meeting they had dismissed exploring correctable problems with the commission form.

I received a release that summarizes the work of the current commission whose membership is made up of the Commissioners and their Deputies.  I strongly urge the readers of this blog to take a few minutes to peruse the document.  It made me feel very good about the people who serve us in city hall.  The summary shows that the members of this new charter commission  have a thorough understanding of the way city hall functions.  There are thoughtful recommendations being considered that will ultimately  go to the voters about reorganizing the responsibilities of the various departments so the city can operate more efficiently.  The reader will find an amazing lack of turf conflict.  It is also impressive how civilly and professionally these people handle their differences.  I don’t know how anyone reading this release or watching the videos of their meetings cannot come away feeling a sense of pride about our city government.  Credit also needs to go to Mayor Kelly who selected the members of the committee and crafted its mission.

 The current Charter Review Commission regularly sends out releases that summarize the work of each meeting.  They meet the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays monthly at 4PM in the City Council chambers. Meeting minutes and video recordings are available on the City website.  In addition a public forum will be held Wednesday, May 30th at 6PM in the City Council Room. City residents can also give feedback at each of the commission’s meetings or through the city website  Link


MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT: 2018 Charter Review Commission Update

Date: May 25, 2018

Saratoga Springs, NY — The 2018 Charter Review Commission (“CRC”) held its sixth meeting on Wednesday May 24th at 4pm in the City Council Room. During this meeting the CRC reviewed the sections and the proposed edits discussed during the meeting held on Saturday May 19th for the benefit of those CRC members who were unable to attend, and also completed its initial review of the remainder of the current Charter.

As a reminder, the CRC was formed on March 6, 2018 by Mayor Meg Kelly with the goal of finding efficiencies and organizational improvements to better serve the people who live and work in the City of Saratoga Springs. The Commission’s proposal will be voted on by City residents via a referendum in the November 2018 election.

Below are some of the topics that have been discussed in the past two meetings, along with a recap of some of the discussion points. No discussion noted below is final. The CRC intends to review and vote on each section later in the process, along with a comprehensive review by outside legal counsel.

• Within the Finance section, the CRC again spoke about moving the Capital Budget from the Mayor’s section to Finance, so that the City Council member elected to create and manage the City’s Operating Budget also manages the Capital Budget. The Capital Budget inherently influences the Operating Budget and therefore the tax rate paid by City residents. Other potential Finance edits discussed included more explicit language around the Finance Commissioner’s role as Internal Auditor and adjustments to the budgeting calendar, as to allow Finance more time to finalize and present a Comprehensive Budget to the City Council and residents.

• When discussing the Public Works portion of the Charter, the CRC referred back to earlier conversations regarding Recreation, Parks, and Open Space all potentially moving to Public Works, given this department’s stated responsibility over City land and facilities. There was also some discussion around facility management responsibilities between Public Works and Public Safety, and if this separation, and any possible changes, should be discussed further within the Charter.

• Regarding the Public Safety section, the most material issue remains the potential merger of Code Administration in Public Safety with Building and Zoning Enforcement with the Mayor’s Department. There seems to be consensus among the CRC that combining the group, either in full or partially, makes sense and would increase efficiencies internally and for residents, though the most appropriate structure has yet to be determined.

• Within Accounts the topic that received the most attention was the requirement that the Commissioner of Accounts shall be a licensed assessor. The CRC discussed what the City’s options might be according to State law.

 

• In the Legal Matters portion, the CRC largely agreed that the City Attorney should continue to be appointed by the Mayor, but that that appointment should require the advice and consent of the City Council. Per the Charter, the City Attorney serves as general legal advisor to the City and all its departments, not just the Mayor, so many felt the other City Council members should have the ability to vote on the appointment. Also discussed during this section was the potential creation of an administrative unit which would include other groups that support departments across City Hall, though no consensus was reached on the structure or which groups would potentially be included.

• Other topics discussed from the remainder of the existing Charter include the necessity for an inside and outside tax district, limitations imposed on the City’s bonding limit, and the term and number of County Supervisors explicitly laid out in the Charter, among others.

• Outside of the Charter review itself, the CRC approved the brief questionnaire that will be given to attendees of the May 30th public forum, and the CRC Chairman updated the broader commission on matters such as retaining outside council and subcommittee meetings with select groups and individuals.

As always, the meeting minutes and video recordings from CRC meetings are available on the City website. City residents are also invited to give feedback at future CRC meetings, the public forum to be held on Wednesday May 30th at 6pm in the City Council Room, or through the City website (http://saratoga-springs.org/2144/Charter-Commission ).

 

 

 

Saratoga Springs To Sponsor Gun Buyback Day

A city gun buyback program will take place Saturday, June 2, from 9AM to 3PM. Unwanted long guns and handguns can be brought to the Unitarian Universal Church parking lot at 624 North Broadway. Local businesses have raised money for gift cards to be given to those turning in guns.

More  information is available on the city website and the Police Department’s Face-book page.

 Here’s a link to the story in the Saratogian: 

Link to Saratogian

 

 

 

Mayor Restarts City Center Parking Facility Process Plan With Expanded Concept

Mayor Kelly has announced the establishment of a committee she is calling the Flat Rock Working Group.  With broad representation the committee is being asked to rethink not only the City Center proposed parking facility but the city owned parking lots and land adjacent to the City Center.  She is quoted in the Saratogian as follows:

“For years the city has continued plans to develop the lots behind City Hall. In partnership with the City Center, we are refining the vision for the city-owned parking lots,” said Kelly. “Our vision includes the creation of an exciting community destination, a rooftop venue, parking for the City Center and city events, improved pedestrian connections from High Rock to Maple Avenue, inclusion of the Greenbelt Trail with new opportunities for green space, an extension of the High Rock Park market, conference meeting space and hopefully the revival of the Flat Rock spring.”

The Saratogian and the Gazette indicated that the membership of the working group is a work in progress but identifies the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, the Special Assessment District (downtown), the City Center Authority, Downtown Business Association, Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau.  The Mayor also plans to appoint neighbors and other “stake holders” including the Pedinottis who own the Mouzon House.

The Pedinottis have an on-going suit against the city regarding the City Center’s plans for a parking facility in this area that has been in the courts for at least two years.  They told the Gazette, “If we can come to an agreement that the garage won’t be the same footprint, and that they’ll take our needs and the city’s needs into consideration, we’d be delighted to settle,” she said. “There are a lot of really good things being considered in this new plan, and we’re hopeful it’s something everyone in the city will agree with.”

The city council authorized the Mayor to contract with the L.A. Group for up to $19,500.00 to provide technical support to the group.

Link to Saratogian Article

Link to Gazette Article

The Saratogian and the Hedge Fund Alden Capital

Recently, staff from the Denver Post traveled to New York City to protest in front of the skyscraper owned by hedge fund Alden Capital.  The editor of the Post had resigned over on-going Draconian staff layoffs. 

 In the years since Alden Capital acquired the Post in 2010 the paper had gone from a staff of over 200 to less than 100.  The newspaper has been ordered to layoff another 30 employees by July.

 The company’s records are not available because it is privately owned but a study done by a professor of journalism has estimated that they have been generating a 17% profit.

 So what is the local link?  This hedge fund also owns the Saratogian.  The Saratogian has also been decimated.  While Joseph Phelan does a very good job on the stories he covers, unfortunately the paper no longer has the resources to properly cover the city and the county.

 Here is a link to the New York Times story.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/business/media/denver-post-alden-protest.html

 

 

Developer John Witt: He Shouldn’t Do His Own Public Relations

In a May 7 Times Union story, Wendy Libertore brought out the darker side of developer John Witt.  Ms. Liberatore doesn’t have an unblemished record on accuracy and she definitely likes to go for the throat.  In the case of Mr. Witt, he offered up a large target for her.

Witt wants to build a large development of 31 homes he calls “Cedar Bluff”  on 111.6 acres on a steep ridge overlooking Saratoga Lake.  According to Ms. Liberatore’s story, the neighbors are alarmed about the potential impact of removing at least half the trees on the property.  The neighbors along with the Saratoga Lake Association and the Saratoga Lake Protection and Improvement District believe Witt’s proposal could “…destabilize the ridge, cause flooding due to an excess of storm water run-off, erode 9P below, and adversely affect the health of the lake.”  They also fear the runoff will compromise the water table that they depend upon for their homes.

It is unclear just how many times Witt met with Ian Murray the chairman of the Stillwater Planning Board, but at a March 28 meeting of the Planning Board Murray apparently referenced meeting with Witt.  His statement was recorded in the minutes of the meeting.  According to Liberatore’s story, he actually told his fellow board members and the public that he had met privately with Witt and the town engineer.

In classic Wendy Liberatore style, she offers that the “Open Meetings Laws do not prohibit planning board chairman [sic]from meeting privately with an applicant.   It would only be prohibited if a quorum of the Planning Board was present at a closed-door meeting.”  This is inaccurate on so many levels.  To begin with, if there were a quorum present, he would not be meeting privately since others would be present.  The area of the law she is referencing has to do with the fact that if a quorum of the board assembles, the law considers that to be a de facto meeting and therefore requires that the public be allowed to be present.  In fact, the law precludes such a gathering without the proper notices being published prior to the event.

She does,  however, quote Jim Cashin, an opponent of the project and an attorney, who accurately characterized the meeting between Witt and Murray as a violation of the New York State General Municipal Law as an ex parte contact.  The planning board is a quasi judicial body that bars inappropriate contacts between applicants and members of the board.  It would be similar to a plaintif in a civil suit meeting privately with a judge.  Ex Parte contacts are strictly prohibited.  Sometimes they are hard to avoid.  For example, an applicant might accost a board member at a supermarket.  If that happens, the board member is supposed to advise the board at the earliest possible time of the details of the event.

According to Liberatore, Witt has accused his critics of “spreading lies.”

Liberatore reported that residents were concerned about an incident Witt was involved in in 2014.  She reported that to provide a view for a development he was constructing he clear cut an area in spite of the fact that his plans had not included this.  Code enforcement secured a stop work order but the trees were gone before Witt could be served.  Attorney Cashin told Liberatore that Witt claimed there had been a filing mistake because he had originally planned to do the clear cutting.

Liberatore contacted Witt for the story.  He told her he would not speak “to the trashy newspaper” regarding his project.  He told her he would only speak to a reporter willing to cover the story in a “positive light.”

I understand that Mr. Witt builds some beautiful homes.  Apparently that skill set does not translate into PR skills.

Our ZBA: Mayor Yepsen’s Legacy

It is important to understand that the current Zoning Board of Appeals is really Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s legacy. During her two terms in office she appointed 5 of the current 7 members.

While she made some good appointments of people who are independent of the real estate industry, she also reappointed former Mayor Scott Johnson appointee Bill Moore as chair. As readers may recall Bill Moore played a significant role in the approval of the Murphy Lane debacle as well as the Witt Downton Walk project among others.

Consider also Yepsen’s appointments of Oksana Ludd and Brad Gallagher as alternates. As it turns out, both work for the law firm Barklay Damon.  This is a large corporate law firm with offices across the state.  It employs approximately two hundred and seventy-five attorneys.  The Barklay in the name is William “Will” Barklay who is the Republican deputy minority leader in the New York State Assembly.

Here is an amusing tidbit from his Wikipedia page:

As chairman of the New York State Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, Barklay set in motion—and insists in the legality of—the so-called “Edward Hennessey Stalking Incident” in which on behalf of Barklay’s chosen candidate Dean Murray, a Democratic opponent, Edward Hennessey,was surveilled in his home and a GPS tracking bug affixed to his automobile, to which Mr. Barklay expounded: “One of the methods of doing that is tracking where the guy is staying at night.”

This is a link to the full article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Barclay_(New_York_politician)

According to a reliable source, Barklay Damon’s practice includes lobbying services and they have represented corporations fighting Super Fund clean ups.

In the true spirit of these kinds of practices, they are not partisan when it comes to donating to politicians or in who is associated with their firm. Senator Neil Breslin who is a Democrat and represents Albany is associated with their firm.

I have previously posted information about Mr. Gallagher’s area of law. Here is a description of Ms. Ludd’s practice from the Barklay Damon website.

“Oksana Ludd concentrates her practice in commercial real estate and various types of commercial lending and other finance transactions. Oksana has extensive experience representing clients in all aspects of commercial real estate development including acquisition, construction, financing, and leasing. She handles complex financings and is actively engaged in commercial mortgage and asset-based secured loans on behalf of lenders and borrowers.”

Ms. Ludd and Mr. Gallagher joined with Johnson appointees Keith Kaplan and Adam McNeil to approve the extraordinary variances granted the owner of the S. Franklin Street scrap metal business located across the alley from Chairman Bill Moore’s home which was described in a previous post.

For some of us it is extremely frustrating that with all the appointments that Mayor Yepsen had the authority to make, that we are still saddled with a current ZBA majority that votes for the kind of projects we saw approved on S. Franklin Street.

Unfortunately Meg Kelly recently appointed Mr. Gallagher to a regular board position for a seven year term.

City Denies Singling Out Blogger

I received a response from the city regarding my unfortunate experience at the Planning Department office.  As readers may recall, I had requested the folder for the development proposed for the metal scrap yard located across an alley from the ZBA Chairman.  Rather than the usual procedure of filling out a FOIL form at the counter and receiving the file, I was told to make a formal request to the city’s attorney.  In a previous post, I published my email to the mayor expressing concern about the incident. Below is City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis response and my email back to him.

 Mr. DeLeonardis’ response needs to be put in context.  As the city’s Attorney he sees his role as defending the city.  As I have repeatedly noted, I like and respect Mr. DeLeonardis and his response was what I expected.  I do think that his argument suffers from the limits that defending a poorly thought out policy necessarily entails.  As always I leave it to the readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading the emails.

 My hope is that in the privacy of their offices, the Mayor and her Attorney will reconsider the need to establish a consistent and transparent policy for handling requests for property folders maintained in the Planning Office.


 


John,

In response to your e-mail below, as well as your April 27th e-mail and your May 2nd blog, please allow this to confirm that you have neither been denied access to records maintained in the Planning Office nor been provided with “special status”.

At the outset, it is the policy of the City that all requests for publicly available records are to be made through a FOIL request.  There are, as you correctly indicated, multiple methods for accessing and completing such requests.

My office receives and processes hundreds of FOIL requests annually which can be, and often are, voluminous and time consuming.  In order to expedite the process for files maintained in the Planning Office and Building Department, we have allowed for certain FOIL requests to be completed at the counter and, in most cases, the records can be reviewed at the counter.  If, however, the file is extensive, or if it contains documents which staff determines need to be reviewed prior to release, the FOIL will be responded to through my office.

Allowing certain FOIL requests to be submitted and the records reviewed at the counter is not intended to circumvent the process but, rather, to expedite it whenever possible.  Moreover, the expedited process has everything to do with the nature of the request and absolutely nothing to do with the individual making the request.  In other words, and contrary to your suggestion, neither you nor anyone has “special status” when it comes to accessing publicly available records.

You then questioned, in your April 27th e-mail, as to why it was necessary to view the files with Tony as opposed to simply reviewing them at the Planning Office.  As indicated above, the requested documents are contained in four separate files and, as such, it would be difficult or less practicable to review them at the counter in the Planning Office.  For convenience, we intended to allow the files to be reviewed in the City Council room, however, any time files are removed from the Planning Office or Building Department and handled by members of the public, a city employee will accompany the file for what I trust are obvious reasons.  Again, this has everything to do with the nature of the request and absolutely nothing to do with the individual making the request.  This is the same procedure that has been followed in the past for other FOIL requests.

Be assured that access has not been denied and the records are (and have been since April 27th) available for your review.  Please contact my office to schedule a time which is convenient for you to do so.

Best regards,

Vince

Vincent J. DeLeonardis

City Attorney Saratoga Springs City Attorney’s Office 474 Broadway – Room 7 Saratoga

Springs, New York 12866 (518) 587-3550 ext. 2414


From: John Kaufmann []
Sent: Friday, May 04, 2018 3:33 PM
To: ‘Vincent DeLeonardis’; ‘Meg Kelly’
Cc: ‘Michele Madigan’; ‘peter.martin@saratoga-springs.org’; John Franck
; Skip Sciroco
Subject: Response To Email Re FOIL Standards

Thank you for your prompt response to my email regarding recent FOIL issues.

First let me note that I have no question that if the FOIL requests I make are covered by FOIL that your office will make sure that I have access to them. With respect, however, there are a number of reasons for my skepticism regarding the city’s handling of this recent matter and several of your arguments.

First, in the past there has never been a reference to the physical limit of the files that  can be viewed at the counter in the Planning Office.  The now infamous barn “rehab” on Murphy Lane was something of a tome.  Not quite the size of the novel War and Peace but nevertheless, substantive.  The files concerning the Bonacio Moore Hall project had considerable heft as well.   They were both also  more controversial than the Dawson project yet I had ready access to those documents through the expedited FOIL process available in the Planning Office.

More troubling was the manner with which I was denied access to the Dawson files when I visited the Planning Office.  Had someone come out and explained the reasons you laid out in your thoughtful email I might have found it somewhat odd but that would have been the extent of my reaction.  What I found disturbing was that not only was no one available to explain to me why I was being required to make application to your office, I was not even allowed to know who it was who had made the decision to require this.  I will not conjecture as to why the person preferred anonymity but I would expect any objective observer would have shared my understandable concern that this kind of opacity was unnecessary and troubling.

There is also the outstanding question as to future access to these files.  I expect that the construction people for Mr. Dawson’s project will, in all likelihood, be visiting the Planning Office to check the files for information.  Are they going to have to go through your office and will they only be allowed to view the files in the presence of Tony Izzo?  That is a rhetorical question.

I know you and the Mayor are very busy and I am not asking you to respond to this email.  I would just offer that this kind of thing can be handled better and that it would probably be worth seeing this as a “teachable moment” and adopt some procedures to handle access to documents in the Planning Office in a more elegant and consistent manner.

JK