Before we are able to vaccinate our community one of the only tools to protect out citizens is through contact tracing. South Korea is an excellent example of how aggressive tracing can stem the spread of the virus and thus bring back some normalcy to their citizens while saving lives.
Given the explosive spread of the disease and the adverse publicity in television news reports and newspapers about the lack of contact tracing by Saratoga county, one would have assumed this would be a dominant topic at their meetings. Regrettably this is not the case. In reviewing the minutes of the various committees of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors the silence on this issue is eerie.
In the case of Tara Gaston’s Facebook page, she reports extensively and regularly about the current statistics of the progress of the disease but not a single word about the troubled contact tracing program.
On January 4, 2020 I wrote to the two Saratoga Springs Supervisors with a series of questions regarding the contact tracing program. As my representatives to the Board of Supervisors I was hoping that they would seek answers to these.
The full set of questions can be found below but to give the readers of this blog a flavor for what I was seeking here are several:
- How many full and part time contact tracers does the county currently have?
- Why does the county require applicants for the jobs to mail in their resumes rather than allow the use of fax, email, or a county portal?
- How does the county measure the success of its contact tracing program and how do its efforts measure up currently?
My letter was respectful and I hope the readers of this blog share my own belief that it was reasonable for an elected representative to attempt to get answers for me.
A Primer On How Politicians Don’t Answer Questions
I am a veteran of asking questions of people in government without success. As a blogger I lack the status and reach of newspapers like the Times Union and the Daily Gazette.
Anyway, these are the three standard ways I get non-answers.
- Don’t Acknowledge Or Respond At All
This is the simple one. Emails are not answered and telephone calls not answered.
2. Be Gracious And Say Nothing
The standard way politicians avoid answering questions they do not like is to write a pleasant note acknowledging the constituent’s inquiry and ignoring the questions.
This was the approach used by Supervisor Veitch.
A lot of your questions require answers from someone other than me. I would assume that the County has hired qualified and trained, Contact tracers legally and that they are working in accordance with all proper regulations.
The Board of Supervisors has authorized 75 contact tracing positions and my expectation in voting for that resolution is that all those positions will be filled as soon as possible, and we get those people doing the job of contact tracing.
Matthew E. VeitchEmail January 5, 2021
3. Respond In An Unpleasant Way Meant To Discourage Any Further Inquiries
In this approach the official responds in a way that is meant to discourage you from any future inquiries. The best purveyors of this approach slightly mask their hostility. They want to communicate to you the fact that they know they are not answering your question and that they know you know they are not answering their questions. They are communicating to you that they have no intention of answering your questions now or in the future. They want you to be aware that they are in a position of power (however modest that power may be) and that you are are of little consequence.
This is the option that Supervisor Tara Gaston chose.
As I posted publicly, on December 30 I suffered a head injury and was limited in work. As such, I did not review your questions after my last response to you. However, prior to this email today I checked in and confirmed that this position was reviewed and approved by the previous County Attorney, employment counsel, and the Department of Labor. All contracts are FOILable, and I have also CC’d the County Attorney and Director of Human Resources on this call in the event that they have any additional information they wish to provide at this time.
Thank you for your engagement with Saratoga County government, Supervisor Tara N. Gaston | she/herEmailed January 4, 2021
To appreciate Superisor Gaston’s answer it needs to be put in context. In a previous email to her I had asked about the apparent abuse by the county of the use of contracting to hire contact tracers. I had asked her to please find out the extent to which the time of contract tracers was controlled by the county. I have discussed why this is important in a previous post. Rather than answer me at the time, she advised me that the county attorney had told her that it was all legal. I had pointed out to her the extremely problematic role his legal advice had played in the COVID 19 bonus pay debacle. This explains my my most recent email to her spelling out as clearly as I could the answers I was seeking.
Even assuming that the county’s use of contracting for work is legal, Supervisor Gaston does not address the more pressing issues about the current level of staffing and the current effectiveness of the county’s contract tracing.
Supervisor Gaston Assures Her Colleagues At The Board of Supervisors that She Is A Loyal Member of the Team
The most interesting thing about Supervisor Gaston’s response was that she cc’ed both the Director of Human Resources, Margaret McNamara, and the acting county attorney, Hugh Burk. Mr. Burk had been the assistant county attorney prior to the retirement last week of county attorney Stephen Dorsey.
The readers of this blog may remember Ms. McNamara as one of the key architects of the county’s disastrous COVID bonus scandal. Mr. Burk was Dorsey’s assistance during this episode. The county attorney’s office did not fair well in the report by the independent investigation of that sorry business.
Supervisor Gaston’s suggestion that either Ms. McNamara or Mr. Burk might offer insight in the tracer issue has as much credibility as me getting a place on next year’s New York Knicks line up. Needless to say, to date I have heard nothing from McNamara or Burk.
Comrades, I Am One of You
Supervisor Veitch as both a Republican and as a long time veteran with the county enjoys the trust of his colleagues.
In contrast, Supervisor Gaston carries quite a bit of baggage. Foremost, she is a Democrat in an institution that is thoroughly dominated by the Republican Party. She is also a woman. Finally, she represents Saratoga Springs. Our city has always had an uneasy relationship with the county.
I have observed Supervisor Gaston over the last years maneuvering to build up trust and creds with her colleagues. This is to be expected. As with any institution to have an impact one needs the trust and respect of your colleagues. The problem is that our county is so badly managed that the pursuit of trust can come at a great cost.
Unfortunately, this appears to be a cost that Supervisor Gaston is willing to pay. The reality is that the real purpose of copying McNamara and Burk was to send a message to her colleagues that she is a loyal part of the team. She is communicating to them that they do not have to worry that she will be indiscreet and ask questions that might embarrass the county.
Don’t Expect Your Supervisor To Stand Up Against Their Colleagues Over Contact Tracing
It requires a special person to speak truth’s that your colleagues do not want to hear. While there is an insurgency against the current county leadership this may have as much to do with issues of power as to actual differences on policy. Both Supervisors Gaston and Veitch are part of this “reform” effort. One has to ask, what difference a change in leadership will make if an issue as urgent as effective contact tracing is swept under the proverbial rug?
My Email To Veitch and Gaston
To: Tara Gaston and Matthew Veitch
Date: January 4, 2021
The record so far for the county’s contact tracing program has been abysmal. Much of the problem seems to be associated with the failure to effectively staff the project. This is no arcane, technical issue. The rate of COVID infection has radically increased and the recent holidays will only escalate the problem. The recent discovery of the presence of an even more virulent strain in Saratoga County adds urgency to the need to do whatever possible to contain the spread of this virus. Sadly, the failure to effectively deploy enough tracers does not appear to be an issue for the Board of Supervisors.
It appears that the county is contracting for tracers rather than hiring them as temporary employees. The burden of paying their own minimum benefits (social security, Medicare) reduces the net income for the jobs. The burden of dealing with tax withholding and other administrative requirements as independent contractors appears to be a likely deterrent for seeking positions. With that in mind, I am asking you to assist me and the readers of my blog with answers to the following questions:
How many full and part time tracers does the county currently employ?
Does the county have some metric for determining the success of its effort to do contact tracing? If so, what is that metric and to what extent is the county meeting its goals?
Does the county provide any training for its contact tracers beyond taking the Johns Hopkins course?
Are the tracers required to do their work at a county facility?
Do the contact tracers use county equipment such as computers, software, telephones? If so, what county equipment do they use?
Does the county maintain some method of measuring the productivity of the tracers?
Are the tracers paid for items beyond the contract such as reimbursement for mileage? If so, what is paid for?
Can you provide me with a copy of the contract the county uses with these tracers?
Why does the county require applicants to be tracers to submit their application by mail rather than by portal, email, or fax?
Why doesn’t the county provide a telephone number for applicants in case they have questions?
Given the urgency of the situation I am hoping that you share my concerns and that you will assist me in quickly securing answers to these questions.