I put up this post because many of my conservative friends cannot believe that abuse by the police in our country is a systemic problem. It is important to note that because the excessive use of violence is systemic nationally does not mean that every local police force is guilty of this. I believe that we are very fortunate here in Saratoga Springs to have leadership in our own Police Department that is committed to opposing racism and to a program that champions restraint. We also have a City Council that supports this.
In 2004 the Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot Michael Bell, a twenty-one year old white youth, point blank in the head in front of his mother and sister.
After a two day review, the Kenosha Police Department and the District Attorney exonerated the police officer who shot Michael Bell.
Michael Bell’s father, Michael Bell Sr. had been a career fighter pilot who saw combat in two wars. Mr. Bell Sr. tells the interviewer, “It was really hard for me to believe that a uniformed person would do that.”
After funding an independent investigation, Mr. Bell Sr. sued the city of Kenosha over the death of his son and won a $1.75 million dollar settlement. He used that money to mount a statewide campaign to reform how police abuse is investigated. In 2014, some ten years later, Governor Scott Walker (a conservative Republican) signed the legislation.
People who have followed my blog will know that I was harshly critical of the handling of the investigation of Darryl Mount’s death under Police Chief Greg Veitch. It is regrettable that the mishandling of the investigation cast a pall over our local department. I believe that the current leadership would have followed proper procedure.
This interview with Mr. Bell Sr. is deeply moving. I hope people will listen to the interview and come away, as I did, both appalled by the actions of the Kenosha Police and grateful that our community has radically different leadership at both the Police Department level and the Council level.
There are many dedicated police officers who share my outrage over the too common failure of police departments to prosecute those who abuse their authority. It is essential that this country face some hard truths if we are ever going to bring about real reform.
We are a student-run platform for people of color, people with disabilities, international, immigrant, refugee, LGBTQ+ & economically disadvantaged communities on Skidmore campus to share their unfiltered experiences
I applaud the motivation behind these demands which is basically for Skidmore to be part of a more humane and just society. Unfortunately, the crudeness of the demands makes them sound like they came out of a brain storming session rather than a carefully crafted program. Change is not easy and it begins with carefully considered goals that can be defined and achieved.
Take for example the call for a zero-tolerance policy for racism.
The first problem here is defining what a racist act is. Apparently for some people, attending a demonstration that supports the local police (Back the Blue) is a racist act. As documented by videos on the web, there was at least one person of color who attended the Back the Blue rally. Would that person be considered a racist?
The second problem is how would Skidmore carry out this policy. What kind of structure would be required to administer such a program? What kind of standards would be used to determine guilt? Would there be just one possible form of disciplinary action i.e. firing?
I raise these questions not to undermine the effort of these students but to encourage them to be more rigorous that they might succeed.
The union alleges that because the county ended the time-and-a-half policy in a meeting that violated the Open Meetings Law, they continue to be eligible for the additional pay.
Dan Sisto is a labor consultant who works on behalf of the union. Sisto cites Sheriff Michael Zurlo’s inability to remember pretty much anything that occurred during the pay fiasco.
Sisto told the Times Union:
“We have a lack of confidence right now in the leadership,” Sisto said. “It’s not that they are necessarily bad people, but the difficulty we have working through issues — in addition to the glaring inability to recall factual information at appropriate times as demonstrated in the report — is disheartening at best. … The sheriff, he didn’t really do anything to facilitate anything good or bad. He just sat there like a potted plant.”
Referencing Human Resources Director Margaret McNamara who alleged that she had told the unions about ending the bonus on March 19, Sisto said, “that they weren’t going to lie to cover up for their mistakes.”
They tried to place the bullet back in the gun. Basically, they said, ‘We forgot to say it on the 19th, so let’s just say we did.’ The facts don’t match up to the story.
Sisto alleges that the failure of the county to adhere to required procedures regarding their pay make them vulnerable to the union’ s litigation.
[JK: Below is an obituary for Ray Watkin who was a friend of Jane and mine. There will be a service at the Beth Israel Cemetery in Rotterdam tomorrow (August 26, 2020) at 11:00]
Mayor of Saratoga Springs, 1974 to 1980
Raymond Watkin, 91, three-term Mayor of Saratoga Springs in the trans formative years of the 1970s, died Sunday August 23 at his home in the city.
Under Raymond Watkin’s leadership as Mayor (1974 to 1980), Saratoga Springs began its transformation from a seasonal tourist destination to a thriving year-round “city in the country.”
Mr. Watkin was the first of the city’s mayors to champion historic preservation, establishing the city’s first programs and regulations concerning historic properties and neighborhoods. His administration transformed Urban Renewal into Community Development, thereby emphasizing needed infrastructure over demolition projects. Mr. Watkin promoted the city through the arts, especially New York City Ballet’s residency, He was an outspoken opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, advanced youth recreation and housing for seniors, and used his political stature to secure the exclusive thoroughbred racing meet, thereby setting a modern standard of Mayoral leadership.
Born in Schenectady, N.Y. June 9, 1929, Mr. Watkin worked as a teenager in a local meatpacking plant, then in various jobs at General Electric Co. He was an active participant in the labor movement at the time, a turbulent and formative period marked by strikes and conflicts between GE and its workforce.
Mr. Watkin visited Saratoga Springs as a child, arriving on the trolley from Schenectady to visit his sister, who worked then at the Weinstein Hotel.
Laid off from American Locomotive Co. after his Army service, Mr. Watkin entered the shoe business and eventually owned the shoe department of an Albany store, M. Solomon, owned by the family of his co-worker at the time, later to become the area’s Congressman, Gerald Solomon, who was then a Democratic committeeman in Albany.
In 1963, Mr. Watkin married Joan Tubell, of Manhattan, after a three-year courtship that began during a summer visit with friends to a camp near Warrensburg.
Through his pursuit of opportunities in the shoe business, Mr. Watkin established Raymond’s Bootery, a specialty shop for ladies’ shoes, on Broadway near the corner of Lake Avenue, a location where he had previously sold shoes for Cohen Brothers. Raymond’s Bootery became a popular destination for women throughout upstate New York.
Mr. Watkin’s candidacy for Mayor began on Primary Day 1973, in the era of non-partisan elections, with a 350-vote write-in backed by then-Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue. The subsequent campaign swept incumbents from office and brought a progressive, independent-minded Council into power, made up of two Democrats (Mr. Watkin and McTygue), two Republicans (Joseph Corsale and Donald Connelly) and one member not enrolled in a party (Remegia Foy).
Saratoga Springs in the early 1970s began to assertively embrace its own ambience, using the town’s history and style to advance tourism and commerce. Mayor Watkin and the Council translated that grass-roots vision into city policy and ordinances.
Before Mr. Watkin’s election, it was the official policy of the city to demolish “substandard” housing and commercial buildings, without regard to historic values, then re-develop the properties through the Urban Renewal program. In 1971, the building inspector had threatened to demolish the Batchellor Mansion, at Circular Street and Whitney Place, vacant and in disrepair at the time, before it was rescued by a private buyer.
In early 1974, just after Mr. Watkin’s election, the U.S. Postal Service announced plans to install a drop ceiling to obscure the leaded glass skylight in the Broadway post office, and also cover over the priceless WPA-era murals in the lobby. Mayor Watkin took immediate action to stop the project, taking the Post Office personally to Federal Court in Utica after the City Council would not allow the city itself to be part of the suit.. The Court saw the issue Mr. Watkin’s way and issued an injunction against the Post Office. Soon the Post Office backed down, and the historic interior of one of the city’s most significant public places was saved.
Early in his tenure, Mr. Watkin ended plans for an arterial highway that would have divided the city, and laid the building blocks of planning and historic preservation that led to the city’s present renowned downtown.
These enactments included the Historic Preservation Ordinance, establishment of the Board of Architectural Review, enactment of the Façade Easement Program and downtown Special Assessment District, all in 1977. These initiatives provided for the first coordination of property facades on Broadway, and of public resources for historic improvements to the downtown business district. Mr. Watkin soon initiated the establishment of the neighborhood historic districts within the zoning code, gaining approval from the council in 1979.
Mr. Watkin reformed the Urban Renewal Agency from a demolition program into one whose mission was Community Development. Mayor Watkin and his allies reassigned Federal funds from demolition toward the more important Village Brook drainage project, thus saving from decay and collapse the Canfield Casino and the entire neighborhood between Henry and Putnam Streets. This reform made possible the development of the current Public Library and many commercial properties in “the gut.” Renovation of the Drink Hall, development of the West Side Fire Station and other improvements stemmed from the Community Development plan developed by Mr. Watkin, He recruited accomplished and qualified individuals to serve the city, including Dr. Bernard E. Donovan, former superintendent of New York City School System, who served the Watkin administration as head of both Community Development and the City Planning Board after relocating to Saratoga Springs.
Mr. Watkin also saw that emphasizing the arts would both enrich the city’s civic life and broaden its economic base. His mayoralty was marked by annual enthusiastic promotion (and city funding) of the New York City Ballet and SPAC. His personal friendship with George Balanchine, highlighted by a parade in Mr. B’s honor, helped build audience and community support for the ballet.
During the gasoline crisis of 1974, Mr. Watkin gained national prominence for negotiating with gasoline stations to implement an “odd-even” program to cut waiting lines at filling stations. The approach, started here, relieved gas lines, congestion and drivers’ anxiety, and soon spread across the country.
Mr. Watkin leveraged his prominent political standing in 1974 and support for racing’s role in the community to secure Hugh Carey’s support for city’s exclusive August thoroughbred meet. Carey faced a Democratic Primary, and his opponent, Howard Samuels, favored Off-Track Betting and was indifferent to Saratoga’s exclusive program, the cornerstone of the city’s summer season.
Mr. Watkin’s lifelong commitment to meeting the needs of ordinary people led to the establishment of the Senior Citizens Center on Williams Street, initiation of the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program, and, in 1979, the construction of the Raymond Watkin Apartments, among many other initiatives. He also mobilized official city and community opposition against an area demonstration by the Ku Klux Klan, and introduced and saw passed unanimously a resolution in May 1978 against the anti-Semitic pamphleteer Richard Cotton, who had planned to campaign in the city.
Fred Dicker, long time columnist for the New York Post, who covered Mr.Watkin for The Saratogian and Albany Times-Union from 1971 to 1975, and who became a close friend of Mr. Watkin, said, “Ray Watkin was clearly a transformative figure for the City of Saratoga Springs, which he loved, and was an inspiration for many Saratogians who came to love him because of his dedication to the city, his hard work, his courage, his incorruptibility, and his idealism, which was very real. He championed historic preservation, economic development, and high ethical standards, values that weren’t always identified with City Hall. Many times he said to me that he was determined to do what was right, not necessarily what was most popular. He acted on that principle and I can say as a longtime journalist who covered many many politicians over decades, he was one of the few who actually did.”
After his Mayoral tenure ended, he narrowly lost a race for City Supervisor. He then served on the staff of State Senator Howard Nolan, D-Albany, from 1980 to 1989 as a special advisor on thoroughbred racing. In later years, he remained active in local politics, in 2006 leading the successful campaign against a proposed change in the City Charter. Mr. Watkin remained attentive to and active in local politics and civic affairs, strongly supporting the renewed and revived cause of Charter Reform in the 2017 referendum.
Historic preservation, community development, support for the arts, and affordable housing. The pioneering initiatives of Mayor Raymond Watkin, leading the City Council of the mid-1970s, though taken sometimes against concerted opposition, set a new tone and direction for Saratoga Springs. The years since have seen these priorities take root, and the city flourish.
Mr. Watkin was predeceased in 2013 by his wife, Joan, daughter of Nathan and Bertha Tubell. The Watkins celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June 2012. Other survivors include cousins Randall Terk of El Dorado, California, Linda Lander of Norwalk, Connecticut, and Steven Terk of Estero, Florida.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday August 26 at Beth Israel Cemetery Abbottsford Road in Rotterd
In its report to Saratoga County, Stewart Hacker Murphy LLC found that the Covid Committee created by the county via resolution No. 84 had violated the New York State Open Meetings Law.
The five-member Covid-19 oversight group created by Board of Supervisors Resolution 84 of 2020 was a public body…
Accordingly, its meetings should have been open to the public and the group was required to keep contemporaneous minutes of its meetings. In fact, the meetings were held in private, and there are no minutes, or any other record, of business conducted during the meetings.
On April 1, 2020, I emailed all the members of the Board of Supervisors advising them that I believed the Covid-19 group was in violation of state law. The only response I received (see below), was from John Lawler, the Supervisor from Waterford. He wrote back that he had requested the County Administrator (Spencer Hellwig) and the County Attorney (Stephen Dorsey) respond to my inquiry. In his email he asked that the response be circulated to all the members of the Board of Supervisors. I never heard anything further.
At its July meeting, prior to the issuance of the findings of the independent investigation, Supervisor Todd Kusnierz directly asked County Attorney Stephen Dorsey whether the Covid-19 committee was subject to the Open Meetings Law.
First Mr. Dorsey responded as though surprised:
“The Covid Committee?”
Supervisor Kusnierz patiently offers:
“The Compensation Committee. Three supervisors. Two county staff.”
Now, dear readers, try to wrap your mind around Attorney Dorsey’s response:
“I’ve been asked this before and my response was that the County has had several committees; change order committees, vacancy review committee; that deal with compensation issues, staffing issues that their meetings aren’t publically (SIC) noticed, not subject to the open meetings law. There was no real reference to these five individuals as being a committee. They aren’t referred to as a necessary. It certainly could have been done. It was not necessary.”
I am not sure what he meant when he asserted, “They aren’t referred to as a necessary.” Most stunning is his surprise that someone would suggest that the people who comprised the Covid-19 group constituted a “committee.”
Supervisor Kusnierz presses further:
“If I am understanding you correctly the committee that was created by this legislative body is not subject to open meetings law. Is that what you are saying?”
Mr. Kusnierz confusion is understandable. Attorney Dorsey attempts to clarify for him:
“It’s not a committee. It’s not referred to as a committee.”
Mr. Kusnierz continues confused:
“It’s not a committee? The compensation committee is not a committee?”
Attorney Dorsey attempts to help Supervisor Kusnierz:
“it’s not a committee. It’s not referred to as a committee. The word committee does not appear in the resolution.” [JK: At the end of this post is the relevant text from the resolution]
Supervisor Kuznierz attempts a modest challenge:
“But they provided representation on behalf of this entire board.”
Unfazed, Attorney Dorsey attempts to close the discussion:
“They were given a duty. As I said the resolution alone, the Chairman alone had the authority under his executive authority as supplemented by the resolution itself to make those determinations. And he does that in consultation with four individuals named. And he did that.”
Mr. Dorsey Seems To Have Forgotten What He And Human Resources Director Margaret McNamara told the investigating law firm.
This from the investigative report:
On the morning of Tuesday, March 17, Stephen Dorsey (County Attorney) was in the process of revising proposed Board of Supervisor Resolution No. 84 of 2020… As of that morning, the draft resolution contained no content about time-and-a-half, or the formation of what would eventually be the Covid-19 oversight group.
Dorsey tells us that a little while later, McNamara came to see him and asked Dorsey to add language to the resolution for time-and-a-half pay to physically-present workers. Dorsey says that he discouraged the idea, and instead proposed the formation of a committee, whom the Supervisors could authorize to make compensation adjustments more flexible as the need arose. [JK: My emphasis]
Dorsey revised the Resolution to incorporate language that would create the Covid group, which would include Board of Supervisors Chair Preston Allen, Law and Finance Chair Dan Pemrick, Human Resources and Insurance Chair Tom Wood, Spencer Hellwig, and Margaret McNamara.
So let’s parse this out.
First, in his discussions with the investigator, Dorsey himself apparently referred to the structure being created by the resolution as a “committee.”
Second, he described it as “authorize[d] to make compensation adjustments.” He did not describe it’s role as an advisory one to the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors.
Third, he makes Preston Allen, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, simply a member of the committee. This conflicts with his narrative that the other four members were simply acting as advisers/consultants.
Four, I FOILed the Board of Supervisors for all of the “declarations of emergency” issued by Preston Allen. There were four and none of them authorized the change in pay schedules for the county employees.
Finally, here is the relevant text from the resolution as adopted by the Board of Supervisors:
RESOLVED, that the Chair of the Board, the Chair of the Law and Finance Committee, the Chair of the Human Resources and Insurance Committee, the County Administrator and the Director of Human Resources shall have the authority to jointly determine appropriate County employee staffing levels and rates of compensation [JK: My emphasis] that are consistent and in compliance with the current directives of any Executive Order issued by the Governor of the State of New York relative to local government staffing levels; and be it further ….
I am not a lawyer but it appears to me to be fairly clear. It does not say that Preston Allen shall decide pay rates drawing on the advice of the other named four. It uses the word “jointly” to describe how decisions will be made by the five named positions.
I wish I was in a position to ask Attorney Dorsey how he reconciles the obvious conflict between what he told Kusnierz and what he told the investigator as well as what is in the actual resolution.
The only thing I can do is offer to publish unedited his explanation on this blog.
All of this is just further proof of the breakdown in the management of Saratoga County’s government.
[JK: Lawler Email]
Thank you for your email.
I have requested that the County Administrator consult with the County Attorney and to then respond to your concerns. I have also asked that the response be provided to all members of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.
New York State’s Open Meeting Law requires that public bodies as defined by law must, at a minimum, meet the following requirements:
They must provide proper notice to the public of the date, time, and location of their meetings.
They must allow public access to their meetings.
They must provide the public with the minutes of their meetings.
Due to the COVID-19 emergency Governor Cuomo has issued an executive order waiving the requirement of public access. The order does, however, require that such meetings must be streamed live and that a transcript of the meeting be provided to the public.
On March 17, the Board of Supervisors transferred the authority to establish staff positions and to set salaries to a special committee. This committee subsequently implemented salary increases to selected employees.
I contacted the New York State Office of Open Meetings to seek advice as to whether this committee was required to adhere to the Open Meetings Law. I spoke to Kristin O’Neil, its deputy director. I reviewed the clause that established the special committee with her. Ms. O’Neil advised me that had the committee been advisory it would not have been covered by the law but that since it was empowered to determine salaries it would indeed be covered by the law.
Putting aside the importance in our democracy of providing a transparent government, it is my understanding that decisions by a committee that occur in violation of the Open Meetings Law are legally invalid and subject to challenge.
I sent this information to Stephen Dorsey, county attorney. To date he has not responded.
I am seeking your assistance in rectifying this apparent breach in the law. I would appreciate if you would respond as to whether you plan to address this issue when the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors next meets.
In this post I will go into the report on Saratoga County’s handling of the COVID raises in more detail. I don’t think you can fully appreciate the unmitigated incompetence of the players based on the summary. Only in the details of the events can one appreciate the level of mismanagement. Their extraordinary indifference to the need to keep records of decisions involving large sums of money is incomprehensible. The conflicting stories they told about what happened are also deeply disturbing. This is a long post but well worth the time.
An Acknowledged Error
It is important to note that the authors of the report issued an amending document on August 18, 2020. In the original report the authors stated that the county had violated New York State employment law by recovering moneys from wages without performing a number of required tasks such as prior notice of the proposed action and informing the employees of appeals procedures. They asserted in the report that this failure created a significant liability for the county. The authors now acknowledge that public employees are exempted from these requirements so the report was in error regarding this.
Whose Idea Was The Time-And-A-Half Program
The investigator tried to find out where the original idea to increase the pay for some county workers to time and a half came from.
He reports that on March 13, 2020, Human Resources Director Margaret McNamara met with the three county unions over dealing with COVID. The unions were concerned about pay for quarantined employees. McNamara confirmed that no one at the meeting suggested increased salaries or suggested that there might be a problem of people showing up for work out of fear. This is important because the rationale for the proposed pay bonuses was based on the assumption that the county employees might not show up for work due to the threat of infection.
The author cites his interview with the Deputy County Administrator as the earliest any reference to the new pay schedule idea came up. The Deputy’s recollection appears to conflict with McNamara’s statements.
“At some uncertain time before March 15, 2020, Deputy County Administrator Chad Cooke tells us that he first heard about the idea of paying time-and-a-half compensation to some county employees in the immediate future. He says that Margaret McNamara told him about the proposal, although he does not recall the location or exact circumstances of the conversation. What he does recall is that McNamara told him that the county would or should pay time-and-a-half to those employees continuing to come into work physically (as opposed to those working from home).”
In the meantime County Administrator Hellwig’s memory is murky. “…he recalls discussing the time-and-a-half at some point by March 15, but he is not sure if it was on March 15 or earlier.” It is apparent in the report that Hellwig wants to put the blame for the idea on McNamara while being coy in his recollections.
“Hellwig recalls that McNamara expressed that she wanted to “get out ahead” of the employee and union relations problems that a pandemic like this could cause, and mentioned the time-and-a-half as an incentive to keep people coming into work despite anxiety about the virus. When we asked Hellwig if he recalls this being McNamara’s idea, or instead something that emerged between them collaboratively, he said he did not recall.”
“…McNamara told us that to the best of her recollection, the idea for time-and-a-half to essential employees arose on March 15 (not before), collaboratively in a private conversation between herself, Spenser (sic)Hellwig, and Chad Cooke (Hellwig’s deputy), a little while before the large department meeting. [JK: This conflicts with Cooke’s recollection] She claims she cannot recall which of the three of them proposed it first, but that consensus was that the extra pay may be a needed incentive to keep people coming into work despite the grim public information about the very high contagiousness of the virus.” [JK: Conveniently for him, Hellwig apparently cannot remember the discussion that clearly].”
This is all reminiscent of the age old saying that “success has a thousand fathers while failure has none.”
In the club like atmosphere of county government, the need for maintaining any kind of records of meetings or providing written directives seems to be largely ignored. This is all too common in institutions where accountability is largely ignored. The root of this is the utter failure of oversight by the people in control of Saratoga County.
People Received Raises Who By Law Should Not Have Been Granted Them
As documented below, the policy of who would be granted special pay was created with an appalling carelessness, lacking any sort of clarity. Hellwig and McNamara stated repeatedly that all employees working on site would receive the added benefit. Conspicuously absent was any reference at all about the major fact that New York State and local laws made many of the employees ineligible to receive these raises. Other than Hellwig’s cryptic email to the Supervisors there was nothing in writing about the proposed bonuses let alone the legal impediments to such an inclusive program.
As observed in the “conclusion” section of the report, it is unclear whether Hellwig and McNamara were ignorant about the law or simply utterly inept in the administration of the pay increases. They attribute the payments to ineligible employees as “clerical errors.” The report devotes a great deal of time documenting their failure to make this critical issue clear to either the staff or the members of the Board of Supervisors.
The original email from Spencer Hellwig to the Board of Supervisors advises them that essential employees “as identified by the department heads in conjunction with HR” will receive the additional pay. The author notes that “The email does not define…essential staff and does not comment on whether the time-and-a-half would be paid to union and non-union employees alike, or hourly and salaried employees alike.”
At the special meeting of the department heads on March 15, Hellwig informs them that their “essential employees physically coming into work” would receive the benefit. The report’s author asked Hellwig whether he made any reference as to whether “tiered employees would be excluded from the policy, such as salaried employees, the department heads themselves and their deputies, elected officials, or employees whose compensation was fixed by local law. Hellwig told us that he doubts he was specific…”
When asked about Hellwig’s remarks, “Mr. Dorsey (county attorney) and Dr. Prezioso (Director of Mental Health) told us that based on what they heard, it sounded to them like the time-and-a-half would extend to all in-person workers, without any exclusions.” Others interviewed had similar recollections.
The author of the report observes that these meetings were not followed up with any written confirmation or any clarification. This was particularly important because state and local law barred raises to certain categories of staff.
“…There was no written instruction to the departments disqualifying those employees whose compensation was set by local or state law (who , Ms. McNamara tells us, she believes were ineligible under the policy), department heads or deputies, or elected officials.”
The report asserts that “There appears to be no email or written (author’s emphasis) memorandum distributed to the department heads memorializing the time-and-a-half policy, or providing department heads with specific details about it, during this initial stage.”
The report documents that Hellwig is asked repeatedly about who was eligible and consistently responded that everyone coming to work was eligible. As just one example at the March 17 Board of Supervisor meeting the report includes the following:
Supervisor Kusnierz: Just on that subject, for clarification, is that applicable to salaried individuals?
Human Resources Director McNamara’s Confusion
All of this is particularly important in light of Human Resources Director McNamara’s recollections.
At the March 17 Board of Supervisors meeting the report notes the following exchange:
Barrett (Clifton Park Supervisor): …and who exactly is covered by this provision?
McNamara: So it is anybody who is coming into work Currently?
Barrett: Anybody? Any county employee?
McNamara: Any county employee.
Yet the report notes that in her interview, Margaret McNamara claimed that she was aware of the legal limits of who could receive the additional pay right from the beginning.
“In McNamara’s understanding of the idea (time-and-a half), all physically-present County employees would be eligible for the time-and-a-half pay, except for certain County officers whose compensation may only be adjusted by local law amendments subject to referendum (such as McNamara herself) or those whose compensation is set by law(such as the District Attorney). All other employees, including non-union and salaried employees, up to and including department heads, would be eligible. However, she does not particularly recall discussing her own ineligibility with Hellwig or Cooke on March 15-she assumes it was a foregone conclusion that officers with compensation set by state or local law must be ineligible.”
The problem is that two days following her exchange with Supervisor Barrett McNamara directed the payroll supervisor as to who to grant the raises to. She excluded the County Coroner [JK: Why just the Coroner? Unfortunately, the investigator never pursues this.] and the members of the Board of Supervisors but she did not exclude herself or all the other ineligible county employees. McNamara told the investigator that her receiving the pay increase was a clerical error but this is clearly contradicted by the county’s payroll supervisor:
“County Payroll Supervisor Lisa Masten told us that on Thursday, March 19, McNamara directed her (verbally) [JK: Just another example of something that should have been memorialized in a written directive], for the first time, to apply time-and-a- half wages to all employees working in person, beginning March 16. Masten says that McNamara told her the only personnel to be excluded were Board of Supervisors and the County Coroner. According to Masten, McNamara did not specifically mention herself or Spencer Hellwig in these directions, but Masten assumed that they were to receive extra pay because McNamara said “all’ employees coming into work (except the Coroner and the Board.”
Margaret McNamara also claimed that she did not want the additional pay. If this was the case, why didn’t she direct Ms. Masten to exclude her?
An Unfortunate Decision By County Attorney, Stephen Dorsey.
At the heart of this debacle is that New York State Municipal law establishes that only the Board of Supervisors had the authority to adjust salaries and that even that authority was circumscribed regarding elected officials and “officers” of the county.
County Attorney Stephen Dorsey told the investigator that on the morning of the March 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, he sent a draft of the resolution authorizing the COVID Committee to Hellwig’s Deputy Chad Cooke, Margaret McNamara, and Adam Kinowski (McNamara’s deputy).
“Dorsey tells us that a little while later, McNamara came to see him and asked Dorsey to add language to the resolution for time-and-a-half pay to physically-present workers. Dorsey says that he discouraged the idea, and instead proposed the formation of a committee, whom the Supervisors could authorize to make compensation adjustments more flexibly as the need arose. Dorsey believed that this more flexible approach was better suited to the circumstances which were changing by the day, and would probably be more appealing to the Supervisors than the idea of extra pay for a fixed period of time. Dorsey says that McNamara agreed to that proposal and left. Dorsey revised the Resolution to incorporate the content that would create the Covid group…”
The report goes on:
“For her part, McNamara generally recalled that Dorsey drafted Resolution 84 and recalled that the COVID group was either Dorsey or Hellwig’s idea. She did not recall any particular recollection about any conversation with Dorsey about initially including time-and-a-half pay in the resolution.”
One has to wonder what the lawyer who interviewed Dorsey must have thought about all of this. The report is unequivocal that state law required that the salary changes could only be accomplished through a resolution by the Board of Supervisors. So here the County Attorney is telling him that he explicitly nixed the idea of including language authorizing the pay increases in the resolution to be adopted by the Board of Supervisors.
The Question As To What, If Anything, Did the COVID group decide on March 19?
The members of the COVID group contend that on March 19, they met and reversed their earlier decision regarding time-and-a-half, limiting it to just the members of the Command Center.
The report raises serious doubts about the veracity of the COVID Committee members’ description of events.
“There is no contemporaneous documentation showing that the COVID group, did in fact decide to limit the time-and-a-half pay to command center personnel on March 19. There are no minutes or notes of the March 19 meeting, and there are no verifiable announcements of the change in policy to the Board of Supervisors, County departments or the unions at that time. On the other hand, there is documentation, discussed through the remainder of this chronology, which justifies doubt as to whether the group in fact made a concrete decision on March 19, or some time closer to the end of the March 20 – April 2 period.”
The report records that on the same day of the meeting, March 19, Deputy Administrator Chad Cooke sent on an email to all department heads that undermines the claim that the Covid group had limited special pay to the Command Center employees.
As a reminder, operational protocol for next week is the same as this week with the exception of further reductions of staff as you have discussed with Marcy (Margaret McNamara). Employees that are deemed non-essential are staying home and will be paid straight time. Employees that will be working are being [paid] time and a half.
Chad Cooke, March 19, 4:34 p.m.
The report points out the obvious: “There is no indication in this email that the time-and-a-half pay would be limited to command center workers.”
Cook told the investigator that he
“…did not learn about the change of policy until days later. But we note that Cooke did not send any follow-up email to department heads correcting this information until nearly two weeks later, on April 2 and by that time the Covid group had met two more times (March 25 and April 2). Having no minutes of any of the meetings, for that reason alone it is simply undocumented as to whether the Covid group made its decision on March 19, or during some later meeting.
Regrettably the investigator does not cite that among the recipients of this email were Cooke’s boss Spencer Hellwig and Margaret McNamara. These two were both on the Covid committee that had allegedly changed the policy that day. So the obvious questions are 1) did they not read Cooke’s email when they got it, 2) if they did read the email, why didn’t they send out an email advising the department heads that Cooke’s email was incorrect and advising them of the revised policy?
McNamara claimed as proof of the March 19 decision that she had telephoned the representatives of the three affected unions that day and informed them of the decision. The investigator addressed this:
But that is not contemporaneously documented either… McNamara did not attempt to document those communications (retroactively) until late May. Moreover, the PBA president denies outright that he heard of the change in policy on or near March 19.
The report cites an email on March 23 sent out to the Board of Supervisors regarding questions put to him by Times Union reporter Wendy Liberatore in which she asked how many employees would be receiving time-and-a-half. Hellwig responded:
We are down to 380…Most of that number is made up of corrections, road patrol, DSS, and public health.
Hellwig email of March 23
The problem is that as observed by the investigator, if on March 19 the Covid committee had limited the raises to just the 40 employees in the command center, “…the number of effected employees should have been well below 380, and would largely not include Corrections and Road Patrol employees (who, with a few exceptions, were mostly not working the command center).”
In that same email related to answering Liberatore’s questions Hellwig answered that the following would be receiving the raises:
The Sheriff, the Public Health Director, the Emergency Services Director, the MH (mental health) director and other department heads are included in this group.
Hellwig Email March 23
The investigator observed:
If the Covid group decided on March 19 to end time-and-a-half pay for everyone except the command center personnel, it does not make sense that Sheriff Zurlo is included among those receiving extra pay (he was not a command center worker).
I would also observe that Zurlo along with the Mental Health Director were ineligible under New York State and local law to receive this money. Elected officials cannot be granted raises effective during their current term as noted by the authors of the report. Hellwig appears to be oblivious to the laws even at this later date.
The investigator notes regarding the Liberatore article:
Any County employee reading this article–indeed any person reading this article–would have reason to believe that all physically present workers were getting the extra pay (or at least those in the departments mentioned by Hellwig).
The investigator included a text message exchange between Margaret McNamara and PBA president Ryan Mahan on the evening of March 23 related to Liberatore’s article.
Facially, this exchange appears to indicate that on March 23 Mahan was not aware that time-and-a-half ended for almost the entire PBA membership effective March 20 (even though McNamara says that she told him this telephonically on March 19). Notably, McNamara’s reply does not correct Mahan. He opened this exchange with the statement, “I assume we are still getting time and a half this week?”, and McNamara’s response does not tell him that he is wrong, nor does it attempt to remind him of the bad news she tells us she gave him on March 19.
On Tuesday March 24, Hellwig sent out an email to all Supervisors with a spreadsheet color coded to show which management level employees were to receive time-and-a-half. “There were thirty-two (32) managers in that group, including Margaret McNamara and Adam Kinowski (her deputy).
McNamara and Kinowski were not command center personnel; if the Covid group had decided to limit the benefit to command center personnel on March 19, McNamara and Kinowski should not have been scheduled to receive time-and-a-half as of March 24. Hellwig and McNamara tell us that McNamara and Kinowski were listed in error.
On March 25, in response to an inquiry from Supervisor Schopf as to which employees are receiving time-and-a-half by that point Hellwig replied (he cc’ed all supervisors):
All non-management regular employees that are physically reporting to work are getting time and a half for every hour they work.”
Hellwig March 25
The investigator notes:
Hellwig’s email does not mention anything about limiting the extra pay to command center workers. Hellwig tells us this email was an error.
Later that same day (March 25) Hellwig circulated a draft press release to the Board of Supervisors about who was receiving time-and-a-half.
That release acknowledges command center staff, but does not appear to indicate that they would be the only ones receiving time-and-a-half. It appears to state that the number of employees receiving it was still 340.
The investigator reported that all the members of the Covid committee told him that they met on March 25 and they decided to continue to pay only the command center employees time-and-a-half which they claim was a continuation of the March 19 meeting decision. The investigator observed, “Here again, in the absence of any written notes or minutes from the March 19 or March 25 meetings, there is no contemporaneous documentation of these decisions.”
On March 26, McNamara meets with all three union representatives.
According to Mahan, during this meeting McNamara said nothing about any plan to limit the time-and-a-half pay to command center workers for the then current pay period. On the contrary, Mahan says that McNamara told them, in sum or substance, that the time-and-a-half pay for all physically-present workers would be in place through the end of that pay period (until April 2). but that she was uncertain whether it would continue after that.”
In support of the authenticity of Mahan’ recollection he cites a letter sent on March 27 to the Board of Supervisors thanking them and asking them to “…consider extending the compensation rate to help offset the emotional impacts that are weighing on our members and their families.”
The letter does not convey any understanding that the Covid group had purportedly decided to end the time-and-a-half pay for all but command center workers back on March 19.
In our discussions with Margaret McNamara, she did not specifically recall meeting with the union representatives on March 26, but does not doubt that she could have. She was adamant, however, that if she did speak with them that day, there is no way she would have told them that the time-and-a-half pay would continue to April 2. She insists all three knew by March 19 that time-and-a-half ended for everyone except the smaller command center group.
On March 26, 560 employees of the county including Hellwig, McNamara, and Sheriff Zurlo, received checks with the time-and-a-half bonuses. “Hellwig, McNamara, Cooke, and Kinowski say that they and others were paid the time-and-a-half in error and should never have received it.”
On Friday, March 27 and again on March 30, Ryan Mahan (PBA) says he spoke with Margaret McNamara, looking for an update on whether the time-and-a-half would be continuing into this week. He says that in both conversations, McNamara was non-committal, and indicated that she was still working on the issue. He says that as of March 31, no one in the county had told him that any decision had been made to reduce time-and-a-half to the command personnel.
Bear in mind that not only allegedly had the administration decided not to continue the policy forward, they allegedly had plans to recoup moneys paid.
The report cites the following text exchange with the CSEA president to add credibility to Mahan’s contention that McNamara was keeping him in the dark. [JK: These are text messages with the usual grammatical errors.]
Brackett: You get any word on what’s going on with the time and a half pay?
Mahan: Absolutely no idea. Marcy (McNamara) spoke in circles on Friday. Today she called at 8 am and asked that I not speak to anyone they were working on ideas for compensation. I still don’t have a clue. They haven’t given a solid answer yet.
Brakett: K I went there and couldn’t get a answer she said he call me later and I’m waiting.
On March 31, twelve days after the decision was allegedly made, the first written record of the Covid group’s decision to limit time-and-a-half appears. The chair of the Board of Supervisors publishes a statement on the county’s website. He states that only the employees at the command center will be getting time-and-a-half.
The investigator observes, “There is a notable parallel between this announcement and “Task Force’s (the group of supervisors critical of the administration) open letter from the day before.” [JK: I remember thinking that Hellwig probably wrote the statement for Allen as damage control.]
On the same day, Margaret McNamara has a remote department meeting, in which she advises them that the county was limiting the time-and-a-half benefit to command center employees. For some or most of the people on this call, this is the first time they have heard about this.
In the case of Ryan Mahan (PBA) he first hears about the change in policy on March 31 when a PBA member alerted him to Chairman Allen’s announcement on the county website. Mahan maintains that like himself, this was the first time the other unions learned about this. He shared a text with the investigator from the representative of one of the other unions, “Wait, Time and on half ended on Tues?”
The report documents emails from Mahan repeatedly asking for clarification from McNamara on March 31 and April 1. On April 1 he writes:
We are getting asked a million times over who is still getting the time and a half. This was never discussed, not one union had a chance to prepare for answering members questions. I personally have members in the command post who don’t know anything about this and now they look like they’re lying when they say I don’t know.
Please provide me with the complete list of the 40 workers still receiving time and a half as this and the issue of compensation is looked into.
Ryan Mahan, April 1
Finally on April 2, Chad Cooke sends out an email spelling out the policy regarding who will be paid what.
Significantly, payroll supervisor Lisa Masten tells us that Chad Cooke’s April 2 email was the first notice she received that the County was limiting the time-and-a-half pay to command center workers for March 20-April 2 pay period. She had never heard that before from anyone. In fact, Masten and her assistant spent the weekend of April 4-5 manually re-coding the entries in the Kronos system to effectuate this change–during that weekend…
At the April 21 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Margaret McNamara is asked to confirm that she advised the union heads of the decision to end time-and-a-half for all except the command center employees. She reaffirmed that she had so informed them.
Two of the three unions declined to make themselves available to the internal investigation. As part of that investigation Margaret McNamara wrote to the three unions asking them to confirm that she had informed them of the decision to end time-and-a-half for all employees except the control center staff.
Daniel Sisto responded on behalf of the PBA on May 28. He wrote “The statement that the union was advised that the time-and-a-half rate of compensation for all hours worked by members of this union would cease on March 19, 2020 is factually incorrect.”
…Siston and PBA President Ryan Mahan, in our interviews with them, vehemently denied McNamara told them on March 19 that time-and-a -half ended for non-command center personnel, and they maintain that they did not learn that until March 31.
For our purposes, we find the responses of the other two unions, UPSEU and CSEA, to be inconclusive by themselves, because those representatives have declined to be interviewed and these emails are not self-explanatory. There are also additional documents that we have obtained from PBA (after the Subcommittee released its report) which urge a conservative interpretation of these emails. [JK: This has to do with the poor wording of McNamara’s query to the unions]
In support of the unions’ recollections the report has this text exchange between the head of two of the union locals:
Mahan: Marcy [JK: Margaret McNamara] just emailed me and asked me to confirm that I knew 1.5 pay was stopped on the 19th. This not correct Marcy. You told us a week later that we were approved til April 3rd and there were no guarantees after that. You actually promised you were still fighting for us.
Beardsley: LOL grimey.
Mahan: She is lying to us as she asks for a favor.
Beardsly: Yes. I am not surprised and than [sic] she wants you to answer the one question and not tell the whole story.
Mahan: Clear as day. She said definitely approved til April 3rd. Asking people to lie to her is not fucking cool.
Beardsly: I told Paul what we say officially and what we explain off the record doesn’t have to be the same. And she holds a lot of chips shes [sic] front line on our contracts u go against her u will be paying for it till you retire.
The investigator sums up his assessment of this conflict between McNamara and the unions:
But, on the whole, the question of whether HR notified the unions of the change in policy for time-and-a-half on March 19, or some time later, is at least very contestable.
Meetings of the Covid Group Did Not Comply With the Open Meetings Law
As the above factual chronology indicates, one of the challenging aspects of the County’s current predicament is the absence of a clear record of what occurred during the Covid oversight group’s several meetings. This issue is compounded by the fact that, as a matter of state law, the meetings should have been open and minutes should have been taken.
The Open Meetings Law also requires the public body to take minutes of all meetings, “which shall consist of a record or or summary of all motions, proposals, resolutions and any other matter formally voted upon.” That did not occur here
Confusion Over Other Municipalities Giving Bonus Wages For Covid
At the March 17 Board of Supervisors meeting there was the following exchange between Supervisor Kusnierz and Margaret McNamara:
Kusnierz: So, is New York State with a hundred and ninety billion dollar budget doing the same for their employees? Are they doing time-and-a-half? They have a lot more unions than we do.
McNamara: Every municipality is doing it. I’ve talked to several…
McNamara: Yeah, City of Saratoga Springs, time-and-a-half. This is just off the top of my head. Um. Town of Malta. I just talked to Supervisor Lant [of Wilton]. I said are you paying them, he said yes he’s paying them.
Supervisor Pemrick: Town of Greenfield is.
Kusnierz: They’re paying time-and-a-half for anyone who comes in?
McNamara: Yeah, City of Saratoga Springs
From the report:
It is well-documented that none of the municipalities mentioned in this exchange were paying essential employees time-and-a-half (outside of regular overtime).
It was very strange that Supervisor Pemrick offered that his town was paying pandemic bonus when it wasn’t. Not sure what that was about.
It was also very strange that Ms. McNamara would state that “every municipality is doing it.” This was a stunning overstatement. It’s hard to understand what prompted her to make such a statement.
According to the report, Spencer Hellwig was the source of the false statement that Saratoga Springs was paying Covid-related time-and-a-half. He told the investigator that at some unspecified time prior to March 17 he spoke to Mayor Meg Kelly. Somehow, he claims, there was a miscommunication. According to his rendering of the story, she thought he was asking simply whether the city paid time-and-a-half. As this is required by state labor law for overtime she purportedly said yes. He allegedly thought that she was saying that Covid employees were being paid time-and-a-half for their regular hours. Of course, like most other things in this report, Mr. Hellwig made no record of this call.
The readers of this blog will pardon my extreme skepticism of his account.
Allegedly, Ms. McNamara had similar confusion in conversations with the Supervisors of Wilton and Malta. Somehow her inquiries regarding their policies about granting special pay for Covid related wages resulted in her mistakenly thinking these towns had similar policies to what she was proposing.
These is quite a coincidence. Somehow the three inquiries made by Hellwig and McNamara all resulted in the same miscommunication.
It is regrettable that the investigator did not pursue how Ms. McNamara came to believe incorrectly that New York State was similarly granting special Covid pay.
The picture this narrative paints of County Administrator Spencer Hellwig, Human Resources Director Margaret McNamara, and County Attorney Stephen Dorsey is not flattering.
Remember that during this time even the front line hospital staff at most risk were not getting special payments and the first responders throughout the county were similarly operating diligently for their regular pay. The original idea was bad and in many ways self serving. Only after the public outcry do the managers at the county decide they allegedly don’t want the bonuses.
It is also worth noting that after thirty-two years, Spencer Hellwig was eligible to retire. I believe in the New York State retirement system, ones retirement payments are directly related to your last years of employment. If this is the case, Mr. Hellwig would have particularly benefited from the time-and-a-half program.
I would remind readers that when Supervisor Kusnierz moved that Mr. Hellwig be terminated, many of the supervisors present were outraged and asked over and over “Why?” To ask such a question demonstrates just how much trouble our county is in.
Regrettably, Maura Pulver, the proprietor of Five Points Grocery is closing her store. Located at the intersections of Lincoln Avenue, Park Place, and Clark Street, it was a classic community store where the staff knew everybody’s name. They had great sandwiches, deserts, and coffee.
Maura was the heart of the place. She worked very hard for over eight years to make the store work. We will miss her and her store.
She plans to open a modified version of the store just serving food at the Senior Citizens Center.
On August 6, 2020, Saratoga Today ran a story that the group that drafted a charter to change Saratoga Springs’ form of government that failed to pass in 2017, have launched a campaign to pass another version that will be on the ballot for the November elections. So they are back for another bite of the apple.
Today I received a press release from a new group called “Saratoga Works” announcing a campaign to oppose the charter’s passage.
A diverse group of Saratogians have come together to oppose a proposed change in Saratoga Springs’ form of government that will appear on the November ballot. Called Saratoga Works, the new organization issued the following statement:
“We are concerned with the third attempt in eight years to change our city’s form of government to a more expensive, less stable and risky option particularly during this time of pandemic and extreme economic crisis.
Abolishing and setting up a whole new form of government is expensive, disruptive, and challenging under the best of circumstances. Imagine doing this during a pandemic and national economic crisis equal to the Great Depression!
This expensive version of charter change will transfer power away from the people and give it to an appointed bureaucrat called a City Manager who cannot be voted out. It will also politicize our neighborhoods by dividing them into wards.”
Saratoga Works points to the many examples of success under the city’s current commission form of government including keeping taxes flat for 8 years and guiding the city through the current crisis.
“Our commission form of government has used its disaster plan to successfully run our city when forced out of City Hall by a fire, and now has managed a pandemic and is working through the national business meltdown.”
The proposal to radically change the city’s form of government to a hired city manager and to divide the city into wards will appear on the November ballot in Saratoga Springs.
[JK: I received this press release from the Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan]
INVITATION TO Mask Up, Saratoga SpringsCampaign Kick-off Event
For Immediate Release Contact: Deirdre O’Dwyer-Ladd Phone: 518-587-3550 x2571
Who: All are invited to join Saratoga Springs City Officials and Community Partners as the Commissioner of Finance, Michele Madigan, announces the City’s “Mask Up, Saratoga Springs” awareness campaign.
What: In response to the NYS Mask Mandate and Public Health Law, this educational effort will entail a series of lawn signs, posters and public service announcement aimed at increasing the safety of our business community, area residents and visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where & When: The pubic is welcome to gather with us on the front steps of City Hall on Friday, August 21st at 1:30pm in support of our community’s health.
Why: Promoting best practices during this unprecedented time is a great example of a city and community collaboration. We hope you will do as purported and wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus and keep our downtown flourishing. We look forward to seeing you in solidarity tomorrow. Remember, we’re stronger together, so Mask Up, Saratoga Springs!
“The MaskUp, Saratoga Springs campaign is our city’s effort to normalize mask wearing in the fight against COVID-19 and to debunk myths associated with masks. Along with physical “social” distancing and regularly washing hands or using hand sanitizer, wearing a mask is the easiest way to stop the spread of COVID-19. The campaign will provide messaging and guidance for our visitors and residents to our city that incorporate mask wearing, washing your hands, and social distancing
Unfortunately, COVID-19 shows no signs of going away any time soon however, there are simple steps we can all take to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. For starters, we urge everyone to Mask Up and make masks part of your daily wardrobe and regular routine. By wearing a cloth mask, practicing social distancing, and regularly washing our hands, we can all prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan
Attached: Official Invite PDF and copies of the 4 signs for the Mask Up, Saratoga Springs campaign.