So if you have read through the previous posts, it should be more than clear that in a three to two vote, the Saratoga Springs City Council censured then Mayor Yepsen for improperly soliciting business from Saratoga Hospital.
Now consider reporter Wendy Liberatore’s retelling of the events. According to her article:
“The battles led to accusations of ethical violations and even the censure of a mayor over her decision to abstain on a zoning variance [my emphasis] for Saratoga Hospital.”
There are a number of problems with this statement.
First of all the Hospital was not applying for a variance. Variances are granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals not the City Council. They were seeking approval of a Planned Unit Development application that requires Council action.
Secondly, as meticulously documented in the previous posts, then Mayor Yepsen was not censured for her “decision to abstain.” She was censured for soliciting employment from an organization while it had business before the City Council.
Thirdly, the ethical violations were not just “accusations.” The Saratoga Springs Ethics Board, made up of Mayor Yepsen’s appointees, unanimously found that she had violated the city’s ethics code.
Ms. Liberatore restates her claim again later in the article:
“In 2016, tensions exploded when Madigan, Mathiesen, and Scirocco voted to censure Yepsen over the mayor’s recusal on a vote to give a zoning variance Saratoga Hospital needed for a controversial office building. Yepsen abstained because she was seeking outside consultant work with the hospital.”
Most of the errors in this restatement are addressed above. She has, however, added an additional error. At the time of the vote Saratoga Hospital had advised Yepsen that they would not entertain any business with her as long as she was mayor. In addition, Mayor Yepsen had written to the Ethics Board that she did not plan to seek work with the hospital any more. So when she abstained she was actually not “…seeking outside consultant work with the hospital.”
I wrote to Casey Seiler who Ms. Liberatore reports to asking for corrections to her story. He responded with the following:
You’re misreading the passage from Wendy’s story, which states:
In 2016, tensions exploded when Madigan, Mathiesen and Scirocco voted to censure Yepsen over the mayor’s recusal on a vote to give a zoning variance Saratoga Hospital needed for a controversial office building. [That vote was in July 2016.] Yepsen abstained because she was seeking outside consultant work with the hospital. [As reported in January 2016.]
Madigan then [as in, after Yepsen’s recusal in January] asked the city’s ethics board to launch a probe into Yepsen’s consulting work and her recusal. Madigan read the findings of the ethics board, which said it was a conflict of interest to seek consulting work with anyone doing business with the city as it was considering the hospital’s $14 million proposal for a 75,000-square-foot office building and parking lot.
Yepsen’s recusal was the precipitating action in the whole mess, followed by the ethics board’s initial advice that she should recuse and subsequent determination that she need not have done so. I’m sure you would have phrased it differently, but I think the facts are pretty lucidly laid out.
I would like to acknowledge the promptness with which Mr. Seiler responded to my inquiry. Not only did he respond within several hours but he did so on a Sunday.
Still, even after his annotation of the text, I am at a loss to understand his apparent misunderstanding of a key point. He argues that the precipitating event that blew everything up was Mayor Yepsen’s recusal which is true. What he appears to overlook or ignore is the troublesome text that the vote was “…to censure Yepsen over the mayor’s recusal…” This is flat out a misstatement of what occurred. She was not censured because of her recusal. She was censured because the Ethics Board found that she had violated the city’s ethics code.
I have a certain sympathy for Mr. Seiler. His inclination to defend his reporter is understandable. He also probably has a lot on his plate and relies heavily on his reporter for what is happening up in Saratoga.
The reality here is that for obvious reasons, Ms. Yepsen would like the history of this sordid business to focus on her recusal. People of goodwill may differ on whether she should have recused herself but that act is not particularly damning. Her preferred narrative is that she was a victim of her enemies on the Council who seized on the recusal to harm her. This is the way Ms. Yepsen would like people to remember this ugly history. The fact that Ms. Liberatore should adopt this narrative that is so obviously inaccurate raises fundamental questions as to why she would write this.
I have just one other inaccuracy to note. Ms. Liberatore, referring to Commissioners Mathiesen and Madigan writes, “The two Democrats formed a solid voting bloc with Republican Scirocco on the five-member council.” This is untrue. On the two biggest controversies the city faced during this period, the Hospital expansion and charter change, Mathiesen took sharply different positions. Other Council votes were 4-1 and many were unanimous. Again, this is part of the Yepsen narrative as these are the three who voted to censure her.
These errors are not simply a reflection of sloppiness on Ms. Liberatore’s part. Her attempt to rehabilitate Joanne Yepsen reflects her exploitation of the privilege she enjoys as a reporter for a major area newspaper.