While Mayor Yepsen had been in discussions with the Hospital about potential employment since October of 2015 she never mentioned this at City Council meetings on either 12/1/15 or 12/15/15 when the Hospital publicly presented their plans for a PUD that would allow them to expand.
On January 14, 2016, the Hospital advised Ms. Yepsen that they would be unable to employ her as long as she was Mayor. I have a copy of a letter from Ms. Yepsen to the city’s Ethics Board requesting an advisory opinion on whether she should recuse herself on the vote for the Hospital’s proposed Planned Unit Development application. The date of the letter is also January 14, 2016.
There are a number of theories one might put forward regarding this odd confluence of these events.
1. Ms. Yepsen had been unaware there was an issue of conflict of interest regarding her dealings with the Hospital. The Hospital’s notice to her about this issue prompted her to seek the Ethics Board’s advice.
2. Worried that the issue of her conflict of interest could become public, she decided to demonstrate that she was concerned about the issue by seeking the advisory opinion.
I have difficulty accepting option #1. Ms. Yepsen was a seasoned politician by 2016 having served as a County Supervisor for several terms and as Mayor for a term. In fact all city employees, board members, and elected officials are required to receive a copy of the city’s ethics code. Section K 13-8 reads:
The Mayor of the City of Saratoga Springs shall cause a copy of this Code of Ethics to be distributed to every officer and employee of the city within thirty (30) days after the effective date of this Chapter. Each officer and employee elected or appointed thereafter shall be furnished a copy before entering upon the duties of his office or employment.
In fact, it shouldn’t require knowledge of the city’s written ethics code to realize that discussing employment with an entity that has business pending before the Council is problematic.
No Good Options
So Ms. Yepsen seeks the advice of the Ethics Board regarding recusal on January 14, and then on January 16 informs them that the Hospital will not be doing business with her. It is strange that the Ethics Board would advise her to recuse herself since the issue of a conflict of interest had become mute. I have not seen the Board’s decision, however, so I do not have insights into their reasoning for doing this.
Nevertheless the Ethic Board’s decision on recusal was fortunate for Ms. Yepsen who seems to have been caught between a rock and a hard place. If she voted for the PUD she could be accused of hoping to get work from the Hospital in the future. If she voted against the Hospital, she could be seen as vindictive since they had terminated discussions about employment with her.
The issue of the Hospital expansion was also highly controversial and many of her supporters opposed the Hospital’s proposal.
Recusing herself allowed her to avoid these bad choices. She used the Ethics Board’s advisory opinion as her reason even though the issue of conflict of interest was mute.
It is important to remember that the PUD required a supermajority (a majority plus one) to pass. With both John Franck and Ms. Yepsen recusing themselves, that left only three Council members who could vote. Since approval of the PUD required four affirmative votes, passage of the resolution became impossible.
At the meeting Commissioners Madigan and Scirocco were harshly critical of Yepsen for her unwillingness to vote.
It would seem to many of us that the entire process had become a debacle, and Ms Yepsen’s poor judgement in seeking employment with the Hospital was at the root of the mess.