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.
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.