The Health and Human Services Committee of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors met last week. Their meeting was a debacle with members apparently shouting at each other before the committee inappropriately went into executive session. The meeting demonstrated that in spite of the change in leadership, many of the problems that plagued the Board last year are still with us.
The county was allocated 400 doses of the COVID vaccine with apparently very little notice. The county’s Health Department requested assistance from the Board of Supervisors in locating eligible persons to receive the shots.
According to the Times Union:
The state had charged local pharmacies with vaccinating those 65 and older, but created this allotment because of the lack of pharmacies in some areas of the county, according to one supervisor.TU January 28, 2021
So the 400 doses were only to go to residents 65 or older with “an emphasis placed on reaching homebound seniors.”
The Times Union found that “none of the towns maintain official lists of seniors.” It is my understanding that local municipalities are supposed to maintain lists of disabled and/or isolated individuals in the event of an emergency/evacuation. Such lists are notoriously unreliable due to the cost of keeping them up to date. Apparently, many of the Supervisors didn’t even know that they had such lists. The Sheriff Department’s list was outdated.
The article points out also that it is expensive and time consuming to inoculate people in their homes. In addition to the time required for travel and to give the shot, there is a need to wait an additional fifteen minutes in the event of an allergic reaction.
The TU first tried to contact the county’s Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles for more information.
The Times Union reached out to Saratoga County Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles’ office Thursday for clarification on how the county developed its plan, and was told he wasn’t available unless questions were sent to the county’s public relations agency, Gramercy Communications. The Times Union had not heard from Kuhles by early Thursday evening.Times Union January 29, 2021
Dr. Kuhles’ resistance to being transparent is not a new problem. In a previous post I reported on the complaint by Mayor Meg Kelly about Dr. Kuhles’ lack of communication. I find it especially troubling that the TU was directed to a public relations firm in Albany the county contracts with. Why should the county need a public relations firm to answer questions that the County Health Commissioner is supposed to be competent to answer?
According to the Times Union, most of the coordination and communications ended up going through Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston who chairs the county Health and Human Services Committee.
On Thursday, Gaston admitted she had made mistakes, but defended the intent behind the decisions. The county health department doesn’t have the staffing or capacity to build a list of eligible seniors quickly, she said. The county is in the process of organizing a call center to help determine vaccine eligibility.TU January 29, 2021
Supervisor Gaston emailed her fellow Supervisors on Sunday night advising them of the availability of the 400 doses and asking them to provide a list of eligible persons to her by noon on Monday. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the email. I contacted Supervisor Gaston last Wednesday (January 27) and to date (February 2) she has not responded.
Allowing politicians to determine who should receive a vaccine is obviously a very bad idea.
She [Gaston] said everything went crazy after that. “This is not good, this is not the best system. We wanted to make sure every municipality had at least some access. I regret that it was presented the way it was. In this pandemic there are no good decisions. There isn’t enough vaccine, enough information, enough people or enough time.”TU January 29, 2021
Tempers flared at the Wednesday night meeting of Gaston’s Health and Human Services Committee.
At the meeting Supervisors complained about the lack of a plan. At least one Supervisor argued that the Health Department should be dealing with this.
Waterford Supervisor, Jack Lawler, stated:
“Clearly the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Frankly, we should have left it in the hands of professionals.”TU January 27, 2021
Providence Supervisor Sandra Winney complained, “I just don’t think I’m qualified to say to people, ‘You can get a shot and you can’t.'”
Things got quite heated and citing alleged public “safety” the committee went into executive session.
The law does allow for executive sessions for, “matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.” But it was unclear how discussing a vaccination plan for 400 people would harm the public safety of a county with nearly 230,000 people.Times Union January 27, 2021
Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director for the Committee on Open Government told the Times Union the county erred in going into executive session.
“It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would ‘imperil’ public safety. If the conversation does not meet any of the criteria …in our view, it should have occurred in public.”Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.
A number of Supervisors told the TU that the discussion that occurred did not require going into executive session.
Supervisor Lawler told the TU, “There was no reason, in my opinion for executive session. This should have been a public conversation.”
According to the TU, 130 persons were inoculated in their homes by EMS crews, and 270 were to receive their vaccines at the Public Safety Building.
Disgraceful Opacity Is A Continuing Problem
As readers may recall, the investigation into the COVID salary fiasco last year revealed that the county had systematically violated the Open Meetings Law. The investigation revealed that the Saratoga County Attorney at the time had improperly counseled that the executive sessions were ok.
The new County Attorney who served as assistant to his predecessor apparently is continuing this tradition. He supported going into executive session. It is very troubling that Supervisor Gaston who is an attorney and who must be familiar with the report of the earlier investigation, is continuing this very troubling pattern.
I emailed Supervisor Gaston asking her whether in hindsight she had improperly allowed the meeting to go into executive session and if so, how she planned to avoid future abuses.
Supervisor Gaston did not respond to my email.
The open meetings law is the building block for accessible government. I find it very troubling that Supervisor Gaston is unwilling to address this issue.