Times Union Watch: A Question of Ethics

This is an image from Wendy Liberatore’s twitter account. The text of her most recent tweet reads:

Tonight #Saratoga City Council promised not to wreck the neighborhoods of those living along Loughberry Lake and near Railroad Run. Officials won’t make that promise to the residents near Saratoga Hospital

It also offers her bio as:

Saratoga County Reporter @TimesUnion, Dance fanatic, family cook, star gazer, timesunion.net blogger, Opinions expressed are mine.

Ms. Liberatore’s tweet is referring to what occurred at the City Council public hearing on the proposed zoning map that will be part of the Unified Development Ordinance. The hearing was held on December 3rd at the temporary city offices at the Rec Center.

So lets parse this out. Ms. Liberatore characterized the City Council as having promised not to “wreck” the neighborhoods near Railroad Run and the banks of the city’s reservoir, Loughberry Lake. According to her tweet, the City Council declined to make that promise to the neighbors of Saratoga Hospital. Therefore, according to Ms. Liberatore, if the members of the City Council approve the rezoning as stipulated in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, they would be wrecking the neighborhood adjacent the Hospital.

The 3 Parcels

Among the responsibilities of the consultants hired to come up with a Unified Development Ordinance for the city, was the crafting of a zoning map that would be consistent with the city’s most recent Comprehensive Plan. The City Council requested an advisory opinion from the city’s Planning Board regarding the map.

The consultants, for some unknown reason, had designated the Railroad Run area as T4. T4 stands for Urban Neighborhood and is one of the most intensive land uses allowed under our zoning codes. The Planning Board found that the designation in the map for the Railroad Run area of T4 was inconsistent with what the Comprehensive Plan called for for the area. (It is quite troubling that the consultants made such an error). The Planning Board recommended, and the City Council approved, a more residential category for the area (“Urban Residential”). The neighbors who attended the meeting feared that the area was still to be T4. The map showing the proposed zoning was projected on the wall and the Mayor advised the neighbors that the change to Urban Residential had been instituted and that a careful examination of the map on the wall affirmed the change.

The controversy regarding Loughberry Lake had to do with a narrow strip of land that separates Loughberry Lake from the homes along its banks. This strip had been zoned residential. The new zoning would be Institutional Recreational.

The neighbors were alarmed for many reasons. The strip of land abuts their homes. They felt the new zoning would potentially compromise their privacy. They also pointed out that the land is mostly made up of a very steep bank. People accessing this area would be at serious risk of tumbling into Loughberry Lake.

The City Attorney explained that the city, which owns the land, had absolutely no plans to develop this land for recreation. The reason it was changed was that the current designation is residential. It simply made no sense to designate the land as residential. The Institutional Parkland/Recreational zoning made more sense. He noted that the city was not bound by zoning laws on land it owns so the zoning definition issue is in many ways mute. Whatever the designation of the land, it was subject to the will of the Council. The important thing was that the city had no intention of developing the land which forms a buffer for the reservoir.

As regards the rezoning of the land adjacent to Saratoga Hospital as Office Medical Building 1 (OMB-1), the members of the Council did not respond to the comments of the public both for and against the proposed change in zoning.

What Are The Standards A Reporter Should Maintain?

I do not subscribe to the myth of “objectivity.” A reporter must select what information to share with readers from an event they cover. In doing so the reporter makes a judgement as to what information is most important. What they select will color the story.

I believe that most people who become reporters care deeply about civil society, and it makes no sense to expect them to be indifferent observers. What we should be able to expect, though, is that they make every effort to both fairly reflect the events they are reporting on while placing these events in some sort of context.

Maintaining Credibility

Ms. Liberatore, in her bio for her tweeter account, both identifies herself as a reporter covering Saratoga for the Times Union and asserts that the opinions offered in her tweets are hers alone.

The reality is that her role as reporting on Saratoga is not easily separated from any public opinions she may offer. The significance of this is reflected in the fact that the attorney representing the neighbors of the Hospital retweeted her message.

A reporter has a right to have opinions on the events they cover but at what point does publicly expressing these opinions undermine their credibility to fairly cover the news?

In the case of her tweet, Ms. Liberatore’s observation seems to me to be problematic. It would have been accurate and reasonable for her to observe that the members of the City Council conspicuously offered no opinion on the controversy about the rezoning of the land owned by Saratoga Hospital.

Unfortunately, Ms. Liberatore’s observation characterized the decision of whether or not to approve the zoning change as whether or not to “wreck” the adjoining neighborhood. I do not think it unreasonable to characterize this as a highly prejudicial statement. While it very much reflects the perspective of the neighbors, it is obviously at odds not only with the Hospital’s view but the view of many other parties in the community.

The city’s Planning Board will have the authority to oversee the design of the Hospital’s project in terms of its impact on the neighbors. There is little doubt that minimizing the impact on the adjacent neighborhood will be challenging. The area already suffers from problems of water run off, and the construction of a large building and attendant parking lot will need to be designed to address how the run off from these new structures is managed. There will be issues also of managing the traffic that the project will generate along with the lighting required to make the lot and building safe.

The good news for me is that the current Planning Board’s make-up is profoundly different from the past. This body used to be dominated by the real estate interests in the city. Some of the appointments of past mayor, Joanne Yepsen, and all of the appointments of our current mayor, Meg Kelly, have very much changed the character of this important land use board. Its chair, Mark Torpey, is someone I personally trust. He is both scrupulously thorough and sympathetic to all the parties involved in cases like the proposed Hospital project.

To assume, as Ms. Liberatore apparently does, that the project would “wreck” the area neighborhoods seems wildly irresponsible.

Undermining A Reporter’s Role

One must ask, what impact will her tweet have on Saratoga Hospital’s dealings with her? Quite a number of public figures no longer take Ms. Liberatore’s calls. They have experienced what they view as unfair and manipulative coverage. I expect the Hospital will continue to be available to her. Still, one can only expect that their willingness to be candid and open with her will not be helped by her tweet.

A Failure of Oversight

Having dealt with reporters for decades I simply cannot recall any of them that would have made a public announcement like Ms. Liberatore’s tweet. This is not only because of the quality of these reporters but because their editors would have taken grave exception.

Unfortunately this is not the case with the Times Union. In my experience they have rarely been willing to correct inaccuracies in her stories and when they have it has only been the most egregious ones. The reality is that Ms. Liberatore’s editors have her back and that this community will simply have to live for the foreseeable future with this failure in journalism.

More On Saratoga Prosperity Partnership

Rob Arrigo, chairman of the Saratoga County Libertarian Party, took his petitions calling for defunding the Saratoga Prosperity Partnership down to the monthly meeting of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.

Here is a story on the event from the Times Union.

I was amused by the response from Marty Vanags, president of the Partnership, who complained that Mr. Arrigo had not brought his concerns to him.

“I welcome anyone who has criticism or anyone who is concerned how economic development works to reach out to us,” Vanags said. “We can sit down and have a conversation and go over the methods, tactics we have used and challenges we have faced over the past four years.”

As the readers of this blog may remember from a recent post, I emailed Mr. Vanags asking him to respond on this blog to Mr. Arrigo’s petition and never received a reply.

It will come as no surprise that the Supervisors declined to support Mr. Arrigo.

The Saratogian: It's Not About Being Profitable. It's Not About Journalism. It's About Greed.

The Saratogian is owned by 21st Century Media. 21st Century Media is owned by Digital First Media (DFM) . Digital First Media is controlled by Alden Global Capital. A devastating article on a website called The Intercept documents how the chains of newspapers under this group have been cannibalized to squeeze out extraordinary amounts of money.

According to the story, newspapers have traditionally had to make about 8 percent in profits to be viable. DFM has earned an average of 17 percent with some of its papers producing as much as 30 percent. They have achieved these numbers by slashing their news staffs, selling off the most lucrative assets at the papers they have acquired, and outsourcing or consolidating functions like editing and production design to remote locations including to places like India and the Philippines. It is axiomatic that the editors of newspapers should be located in the community that they serve…or it used to be.

In court papers, Alden Global Media has admitted to siphoning off money from many of its newspapers for unrelated acquisitions. These included Payless Shoes and Fred’s Pharmacy (a chain) that have both gone bankrupt.

And try this from the story for something creepy:

At the Denver Post, the company is pushing the envelope even further. In bargaining talks with union leaders this summer, Digital First pushed for the right to use artificial intelligence to cover high school sports. They also hope to allow computers to “gather and publish” municipal government news, including “local news stories from suburban communities, school districts and other governmental districts,” according to a company proposal obtained by The Intercept. Denver Post union official Tony Mulligan said the company has already selected a vendor and budgeted money for the prep sports transition.

For those with the stomach, this is a link to the Intercept story that goes into the gory details of what greed and a contempt for journalism can achieve.

Hospital Expansion Back In Play Requiring Four Out Of Five Council Votes

The neighbors of the parcel targeted by Saratoga Hospital for its proposed medical office building have challenged the zoning change that would allow the Hospital to proceed with its plans. If a sufficient percentage of the land owners who abut a parcel formally oppose a proposed zoning change, the law requires that the Council must have a “super majority” to pass the change. A super majority is a majority plus one. In the case of our City Council that means four out of five votes.

My sources tell me that John Franck, who announced he would recuse himself from a previous vote that was to be taken regarding the Hospital’s expansion as a PUD, will vote no this time. This means that all four of the other members of the Council must vote in the affirmative for the zoning to go through.

There will be two public hearings on the city’s new zoning map which is based on the city’s Comprehensive plan. There are eighteen parcels that would be rezoned on this map with two of them belonging to the Hospital. One hearing will be tonight (December 3) at 6:30 and the other will be on December 17. The hearings will take place at the city Recreation Center on Vanderbilt Terrace.

I assume that should the votes fall short of a super majority, the two controversial parcels will be removed from the proposed zoning map.

Saratoga Prosperity Partnership: County Wastes A Stunning Amount Of Money

[JK:I received the release below from Rob Arrigo who chairs the Libertarian Party. Here is some background.

For years the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) was the organization promoting economic development in Saratoga County. The County Board of Supervisors defunded the SEDC when the SEDC board refused to accept appointments of County Supervisors to its board. The SEDC decision was based on its concern that the appointment of Supervisors would politicize the organization. It is worth bearing in mind that all the Supervisors would like to see companies locate in their towns and cities so having individual Supervisors on the SEDC board raises the issue of conflict of interest.

In the meantime, the County funded an organization called the Saratoga Prosperity Partnership (SPP) to the tune of $750,000.00 a year with five Supervisors on its board. As Rob noted, in the following three years they produced a total of twelve jobs.

Most recently the County retreated modestly. They redirected $150,000.00 of the SPP money to the SEDC, and they earmarked another $150,000.00 as seed money for municipalities. It is unclear how much the County will be paying the SPP directly next year. They are now talking about the SPP working collaboratively with SEDC and requiring that the two bodies meet together monthly. Based on stories in the Times Union, what the SPP will actually do appears squishy.

I sent emails to the two Saratoga Springs Supervisors asking them to comment on the Libertarian Committee’s allegations. I also sent an email to Marty Vanag who heads the SPP. Neither Marty Vanag nor Supervisor Matt Veitch responded to my request. I received an email from Tara Gaston who offered the following:

Hi John:

I continue to have concerns with the amount of economic development funding from the County and the redundancy in that area, and continue to press for answers to my questions. It is my understanding that the unity agreement proposed that many of the concerns will be relieved, including travel and the focus of organizations; it will also provide County funding for SEDC. However, I have not been provided the proposed contract (despite requests) and so cannot verify changes at this time. 

Saratoga County continues with its track record of self dealing and ineptitude. As an indication of their tone deafness consider the following. According to the Times Union, Kevin Hedley, who chairs the SPP took exception to the characterization that the SPP was spending taxpayer dollars. He pointed out that the money comes from the County bed tax that is charged to County hotels/motels. Its that kind of parsing that characterizes both the County government and the SPP.

In another unfortunate coincidence, Brendan Chudy is on the SPP. People following my blog may remember that he was on the city’s Ethics Board and opposed Chris Mathiesen’s proposals to strengthen the city’s Ethics Code. Fortunately, Dr. Matheisen’s proposals received the unanimous approval of the City Council.]

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Saratoga County Libertarian Committee Fights To Defund Saratoga Prosperity Partnership (SPP)

After successful election season, LPNY Saratoga turns to eliminating wasteful spending

Ballston Spa— For Immediate Release — The Saratoga County Libertarian Party Committee is circulating a petition to defund the Saratoga Prosperity Partnership.  It can be found on their website http://www.lpnysaratoga.org/petition-detail?petitionId=1000 The Party saw 6 of its 7 endorsed candidates elected in 2019 and hopes to gain more traction by fighting to stop wasting money.

About the Petition

​The petition calls on the Saratoga Board of Supervisors to stop wasting money by zeroing out the budget for the Saratoga Prosperity Partnership and spend that money on other local priorities like investing in infrastructure.  

“Since 2015 when Saratoga County chartered the Saratoga Prosperity Partnership, a government led economic development corporation, and fully funded it from expanded taxing authority on hotels, it has spent nearly $4M for its efforts.

Well documented public reports have revealed excessive travel expenses salaries and little demonstrated progress attracting new project investment and job creation . In fact, according to the Times Union, throughout its nearly five years of service only one project came to Waterford from Troy leading to just 12 new jobs.

This experiment in failed publicly funded economic development must end in this budget. We are signing this petition calling on our election town Supervisors to cut funding for the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership for 2020.

Spending $4 million collected from hotel occupancy taxes for next to no economic impact is not acceptable. Government-style bureaucracy is not an effective use of tax dollars.

Zero out the budget for this agency in favor of better investment in local priorities like improving the county’s infrastructure.”

SPP Facts

The Saratoga Prosperity Partnership is funded by the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.  Its mandate is to develop business and create jobs in the county, with an annual budget of approximately $775,000 according to the Albany Business Journal.

Board of Supervisors Review

The Saratoga Board of Supervisors is in the process of producing a budget for fiscal year 2020 and in that process, it will review the budget for the SPP.  There will be a public budget hearing on December 4, 2019.  
“It is so important that Saratoga County Residents voice their concern with the amount of money wasted and failed projects the SPP has generated.” Said Libertarian County Chair, Rob Arrigo.

SPP vs SEDC

In the past four years the SPP has been able to claim credit for 12 jobs created after spending over $4Million of County money.  In operation since 1978, The Saratoga Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) has been able to claim over 17,000 jobs created over the last 3 years in its projects with Zero county money.  The SEDC was defunded by the County in 2014 when it refused to allow elected officials to serve on its board to prevent corruption.

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