Wendy Liberatore and Blogger Spar Over Journalism

Following the publishing of Wendy Liberatore’s profile of the first year of Mayor Meg Kelly’s term of office, she and I had a series of email exchanges.  To her credit, Ms. Liberatore is quite willing to engage concerning her work at the Times Union.  From my perspective, these exchanges highlighted some fundaments problems with her approach to journalism. 

Several things come across in this exchange.  Most prominent is Ms. Liberatore’s cavalier attitude towards facts and context. Ms. Liberatore was previously employed by the Daily Gazette as its arts reporter.  She appears to approach regular news reporting as a columnist with an interest in the dramatic potential of stories rather than in how representative they are about actual events. 

Her emails provide a broader narrative which presents Joanne Yepsen as the victim of what Ms. Liberatore characterizes as a “three to two divide” on the City Council.  She characterizes Ms. Yepsen as the target of “repression” by this “divide.”  The readers will note that when I press her for specifics regarding who comprises the respective players of this divide she is evasive.  More to the point, when I press her to demonstrate examples of the divide she appears little interested in the actual details.  Her emails show her as relying on unnamed “city insiders” with little in the way of actual events.

It is entirely legitimate for reporters to rely on people who do not wish to be identified.  The problem I have is that she appears to rely on these people in spite of the fact that much of the so-called  information they are providing her is inaccurate and yet she seems to be disinterested in this problem.  In fact, when I point out the factual nature of her inaccuracies she responds that we must “agree to disagree.”

 

As the old saying goes, people, and in this case a reporter, have a right to their opinions but not to their facts.  We live in an age in which “alternative facts” have become a way of life.  This is bad enough when it comes from politicians but it is particularly troubling when it comes from newspaper reporters.

This problem with facts is most manifest in two stories.

The Geyser Road Trail

The city has an ambitious long term plan to construct a network of bike paths to serve the entire community.  The most recent expansion, funded by grants, would go through Geyser Crest all the way to the border of Ballston Spa.  The grant and much of the work to implement it occurred during the term of then Mayor Yepsen.  In her  December 26 email to me Ms. Liberatore writes:

The Geyser Road Trail. It was unanimously voted on but nothing was done to start it. Then more lawsuits were filed. And despite the city winning in the state court of appeals over the issue of eminent domain, still nothing is being done. (This might change.) Again, City Hall insiders have shown the divide delayed it.

This statement is simply wrong.  Not only was extensive work done on the trail after the vote but the work was done in the city’s Planning Department that operates under the Mayor’s office.  Mayor Yepsen was virtually in total control of the process during this time.  It is difficult to imagine how the “divide”  could have been the cause of “nothing” being done, and in fact how does Ms. Liberatore think lawsuits could have been filed if no work had been done?

In fact the Planning Staff in conjunction with a consulting firm went through a rigorous process in an attempt to find the best precise locations for the trail.  The lawsuits to which Ms Liberatore refers were initiated by landowners along the proposed route of the trail who refused to sell their land to the city and then challenged the city in court when it resorted to the use of eminent domain.  If nothing else, simple logic should have told her that the lawsuits could not have happened had “nothing [been] done to start it [the trail]”.

Ms. Liberatore is also wrong regarding the associated litigation.  She asserts that “still nothing is being done” which I assume references the current administration of Mayor Meg Kelly.  She dismisses the idea that the holdup is due to litigation because the inaction supposedly continues “despite the city winning in the state court of appeals.”  First of all she incorrectly indentifies the court that ruled on the city’s case as the New York State Court of Appeals.  This is the highest court in New York comparable to the federal Supreme Court.  In fact this suit was decided not by the Court of Appeals but by a lower court,  the Appellate Court, Third Division.  She also is wrong in believing that the city is no longer being delayed by legal impediments (her assertion that the case had been settled).  In fact the city was facing two different law suits in two different courts.  While the city has prevailed in the Appellate Court, the city is still defending itself in a separate action over eminent domain in the New York State Supreme Court in this district.

Something is being done.  The city engaged Robert Hite as its attorney to represent it before the Supreme Court of New York.  

When I pointed all of this out to Ms. Liberatore she offered that we will have to agree to disagree.  These are not matters of opinion.  Either work was done on the Geyser Trail or it was not.  Either the city’s ability to proceed with the trail is still impeded by continuing unresolved litigation or it is not.  

Joanne Yepsen’s Censure: Repression?

In the same December 26 email Ms. Liberatore wrote:

“Of course the ultimate repression of Yepsen was the censure, which Franck opposed but Madigan, Mathiesen and Scirocco supported, another example of the 3-2 divide.”

There is a lot to chew on in this brief sentence. 

To begin with there is the phrase “ultimate repression.”  I take from Ms. Liberatore’s use of the word  “ultimate.” that the vote to censure Ms. Yepsen is to be seen as the culmination of a campaign waged against Ms. Yepsen by Commissioners Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco.  This is of course a continuation of the  narrative that  the votes and activities in city hall were driven not by differences on matters of policy but by personal enmity against the Mayor on the part of  an  alliance. 

There is no question that the conflict between Ms. Yepsen and her colleagues often took on a personal dimension.  There was no love lost between these parties.   But to reduce the differences that went on during Ms. Yepsen’s term as Mayor to simple enmity and to place the source of that enmity as all coming from people allegedly totally driven by personal animus may make good copy to sell papers but shows the shallowest understanding about what was going on in city hall.

Ms. Liberatore appears to be either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that the city’s Ethics Board, made up almost entirely of appointments made by Mayor Yepsen, unanimously voted that she had violated the city’s ethics code in soliciting business from Saratoga Hospital while the Hospital had business pending before the Council.   It could not be clearer that this activity is in violation of our city’s ethics code. Reducing (or maybe ginning up) the Council’s vote to “repression” seems disproportionate to say the least.

All of this was exacerbated by Ms. Yepsen’s further actions.  Without the required prior approval by the Council she engaged a law firm (which regularly did business with the city) to craft an opinion arguing her innocence.  Then instead of recusing herself,  Yepsen  joined Franck and Mathiesen in a vote to have the city pay her legal bills. The law firm asserted that an application to the Council to grant a zoning change did not constitute “doing business with the city.” 

If Mayor Yepsen had had the wisdom and humility to acknowledge the validity of her ethics board’s decision, apologized to the public, and stated that she had acted without any intention of violating the public’s trust, she would have largely neutralized the issue.  Any action against her would have seemed mean spirited.  Unfortunately, she did not choose this path.  She was unrepentant.

In that context, it is simply untrue (and excessive) to assert, as Ms. Liberatore does, that ” It was meant to damage her. That’s  the only reason to do [my emphasis] it (censure)  because it does nothing else but disgrace.” 

While I won’t argue the point that censure does indeed disgrace, the legislative act itself is meant to: 1) hold the mayor accountable; 2) let the public know that the City Council did not/does not approve of the mayor’s behavior; 3) re-affirm that there are consequences for breaking city law and/or violating your oath of office.

Other Errors Of Fact

Ms. Liberatore’s article contained other numerous errors. She also wrote “A fire caused $10 million worth of damage to city hall.”  The fire damage was less than half that amount. The  $10 million dollar figure she refers to is the cost of repairing city hall that includes the planned updating to the building.  Oddly she actually reported this accurately in an earlier story.

Commissioner Michele Madigan has been in correspondence with the news editor of the TU regarding two other errors  in her story.  The first was the statement that “She [Meg Kelly] gained the city Democratic Committee’s unanimous backing…”  This was not the case.  In an email to Commissioner Madigan, Ms Liberatore agreed to edit the on-line version of the story and put a correction in the print version. 

The second error is emblematic of the problems with Ms. Liberatore’s reporting.  Referencing the city’s response to issues associated with the repair work on city hall and the moving of city operations following the fire, Ms. Liberatore wrote:

“During that time, Kelly locked down communication, forbidding other city officials to answer questions from the media about the fire.  In bold letters, a news release from her office informed the media that ‘the Mayor is the point of information to the public.”

As we have a commission form of government, the office of the Mayor obviously has no authority to “lock down communications” silencing the other members of the City Council.  While I have not surveyed all the members of the Council, Commissioner Scirocco was interviewed in newspapers and on TV, and I can find nothing that would support the characterization of Kelly’s actions as denying Council members access to the media .  Given the rapid and evolving nature of dealing with the fire and the relocation of city functions, it seems eminently reasonable that to minimize confusion, the city would be best served by having a single point for information. To characterize having a single person as the source for information going out to the public about a city emergency as a “lock down” seems melodramatic at best.

This strikes at the heart of Ms. Liberatore’s reporting which is where is she getting her often incorrect information?  I fully understand and support her jealously guarding her sources.  The problem is that it appears her sources are far from reliable and there are often easily accessible ways to corroborate the facts which for whatever reason she does not pursue.  Granted, the Mayor has severely limited Ms. Liberatore’s access to her, a not unreasonable reaction to the problems in Liberatore’s previous articles.  Still, an email to the Mayor and the other members of the Council attempting to confirm whether they had been forbidden to contact the media could have easily established the truth in this instance.

Just as problematic is Ms. Liberatore’s proclivity to gin up stories to make them more dramatic.  “Lock down” is an extremely harsh phrase (sounds like a school under attack).   It definitely adds to the excitement of a story but is it even remotely accurate?  If nothing else, Ms. Liberatore is a skilled wordsmith.  She is fully aware of the power of  phrases like “lock down” or “forbidding.”

What is most interesting is how this image of the Mayor “forbidding” Council members to talk with the press conflicts with the rest of Ms. Liberatore’s story.  Her story repeats a series of shrill accusations by critics of the Mayor alleging that the Mayor is weak and intimidated by her colleagues.  So how is it that she then presents the Mayor as a Napoleonic figure imperiously commanding her fellow Council members?  Apparently Ms. Liberatore does not share the same characterization of Mayor Kelly as the “critics” regarding her being weak. After quoting Ray Watkin as saying of the Mayor “She started out wanting to do well. Evidently, someone got to her and she got frightened.” Ms. Liberatore writes “It is hard to imagine Kelly frightened.”  Yet she freely presents such attacks without requiring any kind of corroboration.  Who does Watkin think “got to the Mayor” ? What evidence does he have that this happened?

As noted in the links regarding journalistic standards in my previous blog, context is an essential element of journalism.  Ms. Liberatore is apparently fully aware that the Mayor is no weakling and yet she publishes what she knows to be mean spirited and baseless attacks.  It is not that the Mayor is without faults.  Who among us is without faults? But no objective observer would describe the Mayor as weak and vacillating. 

The Portrayal of Mayor Yepsen as Victim

Finally there is Ms. Liberatore’s City Council three to two “divide” during former Mayor Yepsen’s tenure.  When I pressed her on who the three were she admitted that the division was “fluid.”  In fact the only consistent element in the divide is that it always involves the Mayor in the minority and that it sometimes takes the form of four to one. 

The reality is that Mayor Yepsen’s tenure was in many ways problematic.  I have hitherto shied away from addressing the fundamental problems with her performance as Mayor because none of my sources would go on record.  The contrast of Mayor Yepsen’s four years as Mayor with Mayor Kelly’s first year allows me to do so now.

Mayor Yepsen had little interest when she was Mayor in the details of administration or in how to pass legislation.  She was most absorbed with the exercise of power. 

Mayor Yepsen loved public events.  For those who follow these things closely, she particularly enjoyed networking with public figures she viewed as influential.  She was obsessed with the control of information which she experienced as a kind of power.  As many of the communications from outside institutions come through the Mayor’s office this provided her with what she experienced as authority and control.  It was the source of continued friction with her colleagues.  Worse, as she was not one for details, her understanding of what her office received was not always accurate which often exacerbated the strain between her and her colleagues.

She suffered from a syndrome all too common among politicians; she continually sought to position herself to receive credit for as much as possible. 

Her greatest gift was her ability to maintain her dignity at Council meetings in the face of the conflicts she often precipitated herself. 

The result of this behavior was that she was incapable of seeing her role as a leader who works with her colleagues to seek solutions and legislative accomplishments. 

The proof of all this has been demonstrated by the success of Mayor Meg Kelly.  The length of marathon meetings much of which was devoted to Mayor Yepsen parading groups before the council and prolonged by the bitter exchanges at the table are pretty much gone.  Meetings now are run in an orderly and civil manner actually transacting the business of the city efficiently.

Issues that languished during Mayor Yepsen’s terms are being resolved.  The interminable city center parking facility and related suits appear to be settled.  She has reorganized the building department radically reducing the backlog of applications for building permits.  She is moving the Geyser bike trail extension forward.

This is one place Ms. Liberatore and I will have to agree to disagree.  Ms. Liberatore clearly views the poverty of accomplishments by Mayor Yepsen as the result of her victimization by colleagues on the council.  I do not.

In the end Ms. Liberatore’s skills and interest seem more suited to the arts reporter that she was. Watching and commenting on a production does not require the kind of digging for facts and weighing of evidence that is necessary for rigorous reporting on public policy. 

 

Correspondence

From: John Kaufmann <john.kaufmann21@gmail.com>
Sent: Monday, December 24, 2018 6:01 PM
To: Liberatore, Wendy
Subject: Article

 

Wendy:

In your article in Sunday’s paper you assert that the city officials “have been locked in a 3-2 divide on City Council for years.”   Who were the two (I assume one was Mayor Yepsen) and could you name a few of the many votes you allude to that these two lost to the other three?

JK

 

From: Liberatore, Wendy [mailto:wliberatore@timesunion.com]
Sent: Monday, December 24, 2018 8:09 PM
To: John Kaufmann
Subject: Re: Article

 

Hi John,

As you know, there has been acrimony stretching back to Val Keehn. And yes, the acrimony continued under Joanne.

And as I’m sure you also noticed, it’s a love fest on the council now.

Thanks for reading.

Wendy

From:   John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:    Monday, December 24, 2018 8:37 PM

To:       ‘Liberatore, Wendy’

Subject:           RE: Article

Thank you for responding so quickly.  There is no question that the council has suffered from a great deal of acrimony prior to Mayor Kelly’s election.  Your story, however is far more specific.  It asserts that the council has been locked in a 3-2 divide for years and that an unidentified group “spent years repressing…Joanne Yepsen.”  My recollection is that the divisions and conflict have been fairly fluid.  So, with respect, I ask who the two people are in this minority and for examples of decisions (votes) made by the council that document your characterization.

Thanks in advance for responding.

JK

 

 

WendyFrom: “Liberatore, Wendy” <wliberatore@timesunion.com>
Date: December 26, 2018 at 10:05:46 AM EST
To: John Kaufmann <john.kaufmann21@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: Article

Hello again John,

As I’m sure you know, as no one is more plugged into Saratoga politics than you, much of the divide never came up in a formal vote and played out behind the scenes.

One other occasions, there would be unanimous support for a Yepsen initiative, but then nothing would be done to further it.

Here are examples of each:

The second state-mandated courtroom. The state recommended that it be built on the second floor, not the third. Yepsen tried to advance the state request, but Madigan, Mathiesen and Scirocco were opposed to it. Therefore, it never made it to the council table.

The Geyser Road Trail. It was unanimously voted on but nothing was done to start it. Then more lawsuits were filed. And despite the city winning in the state court of appeals over the issue of eminent domain, still nothing is being done. (This might change.) Again, City Hall insiders have shown the divide delayed it.

As you also know, Madigan and Scirocco have formed a strong bond. Number three is fluid. 

Yepsen was often supported by Franck, but not on the charter nor on inclusionary zoning. The latter never made it to the council table for a formal vote.

Of course the ultimate repression of Yepsen was the censure, which Franck opposed but Madigan, Mathiesen and Scirocco supported, another example of the 3-2 divide.

I’m curious as to why you are asking as I’m sure you know all of this.

Best,

Wendy

 

On Fri, Dec 28, 2018 at 6:23 PM John Kaufmann <kaufmann@nycap.rr.com> wrote:

Wendy:

 Thank you for responding to my email again.  As the axiom goes, “no good deed goes unpunished”, your email prompts me to write back questioning a number of statements in it.

 As I read your email and considered your decision to publish the harsh and bitter attacks on Mayor Kelly, it appears that you find credible that much of the opposition to Mayor Yepsen was rooted not in valid differences on policy but as part of an orchestrated effort both in votes and “behind the scenes” motivated primarily by animus and desire for power.  The corollary of this is that these same council members have now intimidated Mayor Kelly and placed her under their control  In that context let me ask you about your email of December 26.

  1. Court Room:

The second state-mandated courtroom. The state recommended that it be built on the second floor, not the third. Yepsen tried to advance the state request, but Madigan, Mathiesen and Scirocco were opposed to it. Therefore, it never made it to the council table.”

Your email offers that Mayor Yepsen was simply trying to carry out the wishes of the state regarding the location of a new court and that her efforts were maliciously frustrated by other members of the council.  Following your email I did some research on this.  The state court system did recommend the second floor.  My source, who was among those working with the state on this project, assured me, however,  that this was simply a recommendation and the state was not “requesting” this but simply expressing a preference.  Their main concern was to move this project forward and they were willing to work with the city on any reasonable plan.

In fact, Chris Mathiesen, who was the Public Safety Commissioner at the time, did oppose the second floor option.  The basis for his opposition was that the city had just spent considerable moneys to redo his offices.  The process of doing this had also required considerable inconvenience.  If you like I can contact him to provide you with documentation.  His opposition to locating the courts on the second floor was based on this, not anything personal regarding Mayor Yepsen.

I don’t know who your sources were but don’t you think that it is misleading not to acknowledge that there were credible reasons for opposition to placing the court rooms on the second floor and that, while the state had expressed a preference, to characterize this as a “request” might be an overstatement?

There is also the assumption in your email that by opposing the second floor the opponents effectively killed any possible progress for the project.  A reporter might ask why Mayor Yepsen did not consider working with the other council members on an alternative?

  1. The Geyser Trail

 “The Geyser Road Trail. It was unanimously voted on but nothing was done to start it. Then more lawsuits were filed. And despite the city winning in the state court of appeals over the issue of eminent domain, still nothing is being done. (This might change.) Again, City Hall insiders have shown the divide delayed it.”

You assert that following the vote by the council to proceed with the Geyser Trail that nothing was done.  The email can be read to imply that the delay allowed the property owners along the proposed trail to challenge the city’s efforts to secure the properties.

The responsibility for advancing the project was with the Planning Department which falls entirely under the Mayor’s office.  In fact, the Planning Office, working with the consulting firm should be credited for doing a great deal of good work moving the project forward following that vote.  The timing of the law suits that followed were because only after the design work was completed were the precise routes determined which indicated which properties would be affected. 

You write, “…City Hall insiders have shown the divide delayed it.”  I am at a loss as to how the other members of the Council could have impeded a process being carried out by the Mayor’s Planning Department. What did these “city hall insiders” provide you in the way of support for their assertions?

Could you offer any information you might have regarding the alleged inaction on this project as asserted in your email?  More to the point, could you indicate exactly who and how other members of the Council impeded the project?

You assert that following the ruling by the state court on eminent domain, nothing was done.  In fact,  lawsuits are still active and  Mayor Kelly is pursuing resolving them.  Do you have any information to the contrary to support your assertion?   .

You ask why I am asking about these issues.  The reason is that I was troubled by your piece.

You wrote that the council had been “locked in a three to two divide” during Mayor Yepsen’s terms.  I do not think I am unique in my reading of this.  A divide implied that there was some sort of gap between two members of the council and three other members not that the votes were in fact fluid as you admitted in your email to me.

So if in fact who voted with and against  Mayor Yepsen was fluid and not “locked in” it raises some serious issues.  Mayor Yepsen’s problems were that she found herself continuingly at odds not with a faction of the Council but with all her colleagues.  You state that the “ultimate repression” of Mayor Yepsen was the vote to censure her.  Repression is a very strong term.  I take it from the word “ultimate” that you mean that this was not a unique vote but a part of a pattern of actions meant to personally damage her.  In other words you appear to personally support the “critic’s” narrative that Mayor Yepsen was a continual victim.  The extension of this argument, and what I find really disturbing, is that you provide credibility to the narrative that the current Mayor has established comity by conceding power to these same malicious members of the City Council.  I find it deeply troubling that you would publish reckless accusations regarding this without any documented substantiation.  

You characterize as the “ultimate repression” the censure of the Mayor adopted by the city council by three members.  The determination that Mayor Yepsen had violated the city ethics code was unanimously made by the city ethics board, the members of which Mayor Yepsen had appointed.  I accept the fact that the supporters of her censure may well have taken some satisfaction in voting to do so, but that does not take away from the fact that she violated the city’s code by soliciting business from an institution with business before the council.  Most people would consider this a very serious violation.  While John Franck may have argued that the decision to censure represented “overreach” I do not think any thoughtful person would characterize the action as arbitrary or capricious or as “repression”.

I look forward to your response

 

From:   Wendy Liberatore [wliberatore3@gmail.com]

Sent:    Friday, December 28, 2018 9:00 PM

To:       John Kaufmann

Subject:           Re: Issues

 

Hi John,

The point of the article was to hear diverse voices — those who love Kelly and those who don’t. I worked hard to balance it.

It’s too bad she didn’t choose to have her own voice heard. I would be happy to talk to her.

As you know, many, like yourself, think Meg is superb. But many others, don’t.

I get the impression for any article on Meg to be acceptable to you, it would have to be a glorified portrait of perfection. No one is perfect. Every situation has gray areas.

And you are implying way too much in my statements. They are meant to be statements of fact only.

The second courtroom:

I spoke with OCA. They were very frustrated by the Saratoga situation. I will leave it at that.

The Geyser Road trial:

The litigation would have come regardless of the delays.

Yepsen’s censure:

It was meant to damage her. That’s the only reason to do because it does nothing else but disgrace.

As for emailing you things from my sources, I can’t. I’m sworn to protect them.

Best to you,

 

From:   John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent:    Saturday, December 29, 2018 2:27 PM

To:       ‘Liberatore, Wendy’

Subject:           Issues

 

Wendy:

With respect you did not respond to my questions regarding the accuracy of a number of your statements. For example:

  1. Following the vote to pursue the Geyser Trail   “… nothing was done to start it.” 
  2. “Nothing is being done (currently)”
  3. The “city insiders have shown the divide delayed it.”

 

Item #1 is  simply not true. Aside from the documentation available in the Planning Office,  simple logic says there could be no litigation over  eminent domain if the planning staff and the consulting firm had not designed the trail which indicated what properties would be impacted.

Item #2 is simply not true.  There is something being done, the city is in litigation.  Litigation with Saratoga Bottling, Pompay Family, and the Village of Ballston Spa is ongoing. 

If I am wrong on these two items could you please explain?

Item #3: Could you please offer any instances where the “divide” (who ever these people may be) were able to delay the project?

This stuff is pretty elemental.  I am grateful for your willingness to engage and look forward to your response.

 

From:   Wendy Liberatore [wliberatore3@gmail.com]

Sent:    Saturday, December 29, 2018 6:42 PM

To:       John Kaufmann

Subject:           Re: Correction

 

I think we will have to agree to disagree.

 

From: John Kaufmann <kaufmann@nycap.rr.com>
Sent: Sunday, December 30, 2018 7:16:01 PM
To: Liberatore, Wendy
Subject: FW: Draft Wendy #3

Wendy, I very much appreciate your willingness to engage.  I also acknowledge that being retired, I enjoy an advantage in that I can research issues at my leisure whereas you have a very wide reporting beat and must operate under deadlines.

Still, the issues here are matters of fact and not opinion.  They are not the kind of thing that we can agree to disagree about..

  1. The decision you attributed to the Court of Appeals was actually decided in a different court.  The decision was made by the Appellate Division, Third Department. The Court of Appeals is the highest court in New York.  So the decision was either made in the Court of Appeals or it wasn’t.  It is not a matter of where two people can disagree.
  2. There were two pending actions involving the same parties The plaintiffs sued the city over issues associated with the Eminent Domain Procedure Law (EDPL) and over the city’s application of the State Environmental Quality Review process.  These issues were decided by the Appellate Division, Third Department.  The parties are still before the New York State Supreme Court, however,  over the city’s attempt to acquire property interests necessary to accomplish the trail, under EDPL Article 4.  Supreme Court Justice Robert Chauvin had allowed this matter to be stayed pending the results from the other court.  With the resolution of the other suit, he has requested that the parties conference to try to resolve the matter which apparently should occur in the near future.  Should those negotiations fail, it will be decided by his court.  Attorney Robert Hite has been representing the city in this matter.  So in reference to your email, either the litigation has been resolved  or it is not resolved. 
  3. You asserted in your email that nothing was done following the decision by the council to proceed with the Geyser Trail.  Copious records exist in the Planning Office that document the work that was done by that office following the council decision.  In addition, there could not be an eminent domain conflict if the trail had not been designed and these properties were not situated on that trail.  So either work was done following the decision by the council or it was not.  It is not a matter where two people can disagree.

Again, I appreciate your past willingness to engage.  

\JK

From:   Liberatore, Wendy [wliberatore@timesunion.com]

Sent:    Monday, December 31, 2018 9:29 AM

To:       John Kaufmann

Subject:           Re: Draft Wendy #3

Hi again John,

I’m always happy to talk to anyone. I love readers, even those who dislike/disagree with me, because I always learn something from them.

Not everything is written down. There is a lot of going-ons at City Hall that never gets recorded. I can only rely on sources (citizens and City Hall employees who are working on the project)  to inform my thoughts on the trail. I have also seen and have copies of the Planning Dept.’s actions on the trail.

Our exchange is reminding me I need to do another story on it soon.

As for agreeing to disagree, I meant the story on Meg Kelly. I still say it was fair and that there was a 3-2 divide among the council members during Joanne Yepsen’s tenure.

Maybe we should meet face-to-face one day. I think that would make for a lively discussion. Feel free to reach out again if you like to schedule a chat over coffee in

Saratoga.

Meanwhile, feel free to criticize the article on your blog.

Happy new year,

Wendy

 

From:   John Kaufmann [kaufmann@nycap.rr.com]

Sent:    Monday, December 31, 2018 11:31 AM

To:       ‘Liberatore, Wendy’

Subject:           RE: Draft Wendy #3

 

Thank you for your charming note.

JK

 

From:   Liberatore, Wendy [wliberatore@timesunion.com]

Sent:    Monday, December 31, 2018 12:38 PM

To:       John Kaufmann

Subject:           Re: Draft Wendy #3

 

I’m sincere.

Reach out and we can meet.

Wendy

Casino Presents Housing Proposal To Council After Planning Board Unanimously Opposes Project

According to the January 15 Daily Gazette, Saratoga Casino Hotel will be presenting plans to the Saratoga Springs City Council tonight (January 15) to build “affordable housing” at the corner of Jefferson and Crescent Avenue.  The Casino is working with Liberty Affordable Housing of Rome, NY.  They want to build a 192 rental unit complex on 30 wooded acres.

The Casino has indicated it is hoping to provide housing to its employees there.  The requirements for the grants and tax breaks that would be needed do not allow them to restrict the applicants to their employees.  It also remains unclear how many of their employees could afford to live in the units.  Many of the Casino’s employees are very low paid and “affordable” is not the same as low income housing.

According to the Gazette, “The City Planning Board unanimously gave the project an unfavorable recommendation in September, but the developer is proceeding anyway.”

In order to build the project the city would need to amend its Comprehensive Plan which right now designates the area “rural residential.”  The Gazette reported that the Planning Board’s decision was based on the fact that the change to the Comprehensive Plan would be permanent and it would be possible to build market rate-driven apartments there if this project did not go forward.   This area is essentially part of the city’s greenbelt and there will be resistance to projects that breach its character.

Attorney Matthew Jones who represent the developers asserted that the proposed zoning change was written to restrict the tenants to people with work force incomes.

The Planning Board also cited the fact that the city has currently approved or is considering 550 more work force units “integrated within the fabric of the city” whereas the Liberty project would be more isolated.




SAVE – ( Saratogians Against Vegas-Style Expansion ) has a Facebook page.  They recently posted the following:

We received this message last night and wanted to share it here with our supporters who are neighbors of the Racino:

To the dedicated members of SAVE,
We write to you as Saratoga residents of the Jefferson Street/Crescent Avenue neighborhood. Many of us worked with SAVE and the Saratoga community to fight the casino expansion proposal in 2014. Unfortunately, our neighborhood is once again fighting the aggressive tactics of The Saratoga Casino group .

As residents of the diverse working class neighborhood of the south side of Saratoga, we are proponents of affordable housing. We have respect for the multifaceted considerations involved in the development of a project of this magnitude and appreciate the affordable housing guidelines and suggestions put forth by The City of Saratoga Planning Board/City Council. We believe that proposals for large scale housing developments should adhere to the city’s zoning regulations.

The Saratoga Casino and Liberty Affordable Housing LLC have put forth a proposal that has no regard for the Council’s guidelines and is in direct conflict with the current residential zoning regulations. Liberty Affordable Housing LLC has a proposal to build two four-story apartment buildings on the corner of Jefferson Street and Crescent Avenue. According to the proposal, this housing would be built exclusively for employees that work at the casino. The four-story buildings are intended to house 190+ units and 276 parking spaces. As immediate neighbors of the Saratoga Casino, the scale and unsuitable location of this proposed housing development concerns us.

The zoning for our neighborhood is residential, which would make building a property of this magnitude illegal. However, Liberty Affordable Housing LLC (in partnership with the Saratoga Casino) is petitioning the city to change the neighborhood’s residential zoning to EQ zoning ( “Equine and Related Facilities”).This would allow the four story buildings to be built. The zoning amendment proposal was brought to the Planning Board/City Council of Saratoga Springs, where all 7 board members were in agreement of an “unfavorable advisory opinion”. A public hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday 1/15/19, 6pm at City Hall (temporary location 15 Vanderbilt Avenue). We are of the opinion that most individuals in the residential areas surrounding the Saratoga Casino are unaware of the housing development proposal or the public hearing.

We have attached our neighborhood response which will be presented at the public hearing on 1/15/18. We would welcome any advice, publication or community support SAVE might be willing to offer if you find this issue to be in line with SAVE’s goals and perspective.

Thank you for your time, we look forward toward your response,
Saratoga Clubhouse Estates Homeowners Association

 

The Times Union Is A Newspaper But What It Practices, As Documented By Wendy Liberatore’s Recent Article, Is Not Journalism  

From the Public Editor of the New York Times

“Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.”

One of the unanticipated benefits of the presidency of Donald Trump is that it has required the press to ask some difficult questions about how to cover the news.  Simply repeating statements that are false, unproven, or badly misleading because of the status of the speaker is no longer acceptable.  For thoughtful discussions of this I offer the following links in addition to the one above:

“The Death of He Said she Said Journalism” by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic Monthly  

“’He Said She Said’ Journalism: Are We Done With That Yet”  by Jay Rosen at the HuffPost

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the December 23   story by Wendy Liberatore that the Times Union was apparently so impressed with that they published it on their front page.

In her article Ms. Liberatore offers two opposing narratives to her readers.  This is reflected right from the beginning of her article which described Mayor Kelly’s swearing in ceremony and the state of the city message.

The first narrative has the Mayor seeking to create an environment which is meant to create trust and collegiality in the interest of developing a working legislative body.  

The other narrative, given the same status and credibility, presents Mayor Kelly as sharing the event because she is “weak” and an easy victim of manipulation by unnamed colleagues.  The text uses terms like “abdication” and warns the reader of a mayor “ceding” her authority to the “senior members of the council.”  Ms. Liberatore repeats the “critic’s” accusation that these same unnamed persons had spent years  “repressing (Ms. Liberatore’s term) Joanne Yepsen” prior to Mayor Kelly’s election. This latter narrative is supported by quoting former mayor Ray Watkin [JK: Ms. Liberatore misspells Mr. Watkin’s name as Watkins].

The beginning of her piece:

Mayor Meg Kelly made it clear at her first state of the city address that she was unlike previous city leaders. After her message to the people, she stepped aside to allow each member of the City Council to give their own speech.

 The unusual move was hailed by some as an olive branch to her fellow elected officials, who have been locked in a 3-2 divide on City Council for years. Ellen Kiehl, a member of the city’s Democratic Committee, said the gesture led to a governing body where “a high degree of comity and civility is on display.”

 But critics of Kelly saw it as a gesture of abdication, a ceding of authority to the senior council members who spent years repressing Kelly’s predecessor Joanne Yepsen. 

One former mayor, Ray Watkins [sic], said that it is an example of how she is not acting independently. “The council members are steering her actions, not the people,” he said.

Not that those of us who follow city politics do not know who the “critics” might be but it would have been helpful to know more specifically who she is referring to.  I assume she is referring to the most zealous advocates of the city manager charter.  I say “most zealous” because being in support of the city manager charter does not necessarily place you in a camp that attacks Mayor Meg Kelly.  I do not presume to be a journalist but as a reader of the TU I would have liked to know more precisely who she is talking about.

Her story certainly begins dramatically.  It may very well sell newspapers and generate lots of clicks on the Times Union website but no one should confuse this with quality journalism.  To put this in context, see if you can imagine a story like this running in the New York Times or the Washington Post, or for a local example, the Daily Gazette. 

By Ms. Liberatore’s standards it is unnecessary for Mr. Watkin to offer any evidence of his accusation.  He is free to use the Times Union as his platform to make this kind of unsubstantiated attack. 

In a similar vein Dr. Robert Turner, past chair of the 2017 Charter Review Commission, asserts, without any supporting evidence, that Mayor Kelly created her own 2018 Charter Review Commission in order to keep the supporters of the city manager option from putting their proposal up for referendum in the next election.  The creation of the 2018 Charter Commission did delay Mr. Turner’s group and it is understandable that he should not be pleased but how does he know that she did it simply to frustrate his group?  After all she publicly endorsed his proposal last year and even appeared on LookTV in support of it.

Someone named Anne Trainor is allowed to attack the mayor in even more lurid terms.  She characterizes the mayor as “sneaky.”  She accuses the mayor as having gone over to “the other side” [JK: In this Manichean world there are only two sides].  Ms. Liberatore allows Ms. Trainor to conjecture, “I think she must have felt bullied by the council.”

Later in the piece Ray Watkin asserts that the 2018 Charter proposal’s defeat “…was a referendum on her (Mayor Kelly’s) leadership.”  One might have expected Ms. Liberatore to either not publish such a statement or at least ask Mr. Watkin how he determined that people who voted against the proposal did so to express their opposition to Mayor Kelly. 

I know that the readers of this blog represent a broad spectrum.  I speculate [JK: I am not a journalist] that whichever way they voted on the 2018 charter they did not do so to express their feelings about the mayor, one way or the other.

Mr. Watikin asserts that her actions were “undemocratic.”  Maybe he was referring to the controversial make up of the mayor’s commission which was comprised of council members, their deputies, and the city attorney.  Some in our community believed that it should have included people outside of our government.  I don’t agree with this but it is a valid point that deserves consideration.  Unfortunately this kind of issue oriented argument was not part of her article.  It seems axiomatic that since the final decision was made by the voters in a referendum, Mayor Kelly can hardly be attacked for being undemocratic.

As if all of this was not enough. Ms. Liberatore goes on to quote Mr. Watkin as saying, “Evidently, someone got to her and she got frightened.”  To Ms. Liberatore’s credit she does offer in the following paragraph that “It’s hard to imagine Kelly frightened.”  

In December the City Council unanimously endorsed a resolution opposing the Saratoga Springs School Board’s decision to disarm it’s school monitors.  Ms. Liberatore writes, “Barbara Thomas of the League of Women Voters told the mayor and the City Council that ‘It’s not appropriate to try to tell the school board that covers a much wider area than the city of Saratoga Springs what to do.’” 

I know that some of my readers may consider me a nitpicker but I took the time to watch the video of the meeting in question.  When Barbara Thomas spoke she did not identify herself as associated with the League of Women Voters.  When I read Ms. Liberatore’s article I assumed, based on her attribution, that Ms. Thomas spoke on behalf of the League.  In order to further her narrative about opposition to the mayor, the opposition of the League would be important which is clearly not the case.  I would also note that as the children of Saratoga Springs attend the school district it seems more than a stretch to argue that the City Council should not take a position on the question.

It is important to point out that Ms. Liberatore’s article included voices that offered strong praise for the mayor as the opening paragraph above demonstrates.  The issue here is that this does not absolve Ms. Liberatore of the problem with her standards of journalism.  “He said/She said” is a problem because it provides a platform for unsubstantiated pronouncements that are not journalisticly appropriate.

Ms. Liberatore is a bright and thoughtful person.  In her previous job as the arts reporter for the Daily Gazette she wrote many lively and informative pieces on theater, music, and dance which I very much enjoyed.  This TU article was dramatic.  I expect that was why the Times Union ran it on the front page of their Sunday edition.  I am sure the electronic version got many clicks.  Still this is tabloid journalism in the Rupert Murdoch tradition.

Ms. Liberatore, in the same article, informs her readers that Mayor Kelly declined to be interviewed for her article.  It should come as no surprise to anyone, Ms. Liberatore in particular, that Mayor Kelly would refuse to participate in this kind of newspaper coverage.

In the end the most troubling product of this kind of article is the coarsening of public discourse.  Most people in our community want a thoughtful discussion of public policy.  Invective only serves to alienate them.  One of the things Mayor Kelly has done at the City Council table is to put issues and civil discourse rather than animosity as a priority.  It is all too easy humanly to want to defend oneself from attack.  It is to the mayor’s credit that she has chosen not to engage in this kind of thing.

Ms. Liberatore and I exchanged a series of emails on her article.  I will be reprinting and discussing them in my next post.