Saratoga Springs Still Has No City Attorney

[JK: This is a correction. Strictly speaking, the Simpsons were not forced to sell.

They had two options as provided by City Court – 1) repair the buildings or 2) seek approval for demolition by the DRC. They chose to sell rather than make repairs.]

The city has a problem. We have no City Attorney. Nor does Mayor Ron Kim seem to have any immediate plans to appoint one in the near future even though section 8.1 of the City Charter reads “There shall be a City Attorney….”

This situation is already causing problems for the city and its residents.

City Court regularly hears cases regarding parking violations and city code enforcement on designated dates each month. The City Attorney or someone from that office designated by the City Attorney is required to be in court to represent the city in these cases.

As we have no City Attorney, cases that have come before the court since Mayor Kim took office have been adjourned.

One of the important cases about to go before the court involves violations associated with Caroline Street properties owned by Helen and Case Simpson. The Simpson’s have gained notoriety over the two properties they owned on Phila Street that had been racking up violations for years and were the focus of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation’s effort to save those properties from demolition. The Simpson’s ended up being forced to sell them. The city has been working for over two years on the case involving the Caroline Street properties they own. It is finally scheduled to go to court; but without a City Attorney to represent the city in prosecuting this case, it is unclear what the fate of this issue will be.

Why The Delay in Appointing a City Attorney?

As reported in a previous blog post, Mayor Kim announced upon taking office that he would not be reappointing Vince DeLeonardis who had served under the two previous mayors nor Tony Izzo who had been the city’s Assistant City Attorney for over three decades. Instead, he announced he was going to appoint Elizabeth Fletcher-Banks, a bankruptcy attorney who lives in Middle Grove to this position. The city’s Human Resource Department informed Kim, however, that the City Attorney must be a resident of Saratoga Springs.

Mayor Kim told the Times Union and Gazette that he was advised by the New York State Conference of Mayors (NYSCOM) that the City Attorney was not a “public officer” and was therefore not subject to the requirement that he/she reside in the city.

The readers of this blog will pardon my skepticism, but I find it more than difficult to believe that someone from NYSCOM would make such a gross error in the matter. As cited in my previous blog, the New York State Comptroller’s Office states clearly: “some positions considered public offices are…Town, Village, and City Attorney.”

In spite of his insistence that he could appoint Ms. FLetcher-Banks, Kim has not done so. Instead, he has now pivoted to telling the press that he questions how much there is a need for a City Attorney since both he and his Deputy are attorneys.

His announced plan now is to reorganize the City Attorney’s Office. He has given no timeline as to how long the review of that office might take. In the meantime, his assumption that he and his Deputy can pick up some of the legal work the city requires seems unrealistic at best. He seems to be unaware of the amount of work involved in being Mayor and how much work the City Attorney actually does. As Kim also supposedly has an active law practice to run, his plate could be quite full.

There is also the issue that, according to the city charter, the City Attorney, while appointed by the Mayor , “shall serve as general legal advisor and shall be responsible for providing legal services and guidance to the City and all its departments and entities.” [section8.1] Without a City Attorney, to whom do other Council members turn for advice if they have a question about the legality of an action by the Mayor?

The other plan Kim has hinted at is to engage outside counsel to serve the city in certain situations. This is allowed under the charter.

For example, the city contracts with Mark Schachner to support the Council and the land use boards regarding zoning issues. Lawyers with expertise in the field do not come cheap. He bills at $230.00 per hour. Costly as that is, poor legal advice is more expensive as it invariably leads to further litigation.

As far as I can remember, the city has never hired a city attorney that already had expertise in municipal law. They have all had to learn on the job with the assistance of Tony Izzo who had been the assistant city attorney for over three decades. Putting off the hiring of a City Attorney only delays whoever is selected from getting up to speed both on municipal law and on cases the city has been working on for some time such as the Simpson case.

Mayor Kim feels that as he and his deputy are attorneys, he sees no urgency in filling the City Attorney position.

Apparently, he is not familiar with the adage traced to an old Italian proverb: “the man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client.”

4 thoughts on “Saratoga Springs Still Has No City Attorney”

  1. When new leadership comes in, turnover is inevitable. However, I would say most effective leaders work with the employees in place, learn and then will reevaluate how services and/or operations are running and make an informative change. This is done to ensure the operations of a business continue and work in progress moves along. Effective leaders do not discharge an entire department before stepping a foot in the door. Ignorance or arrogance – either one is bad for our city.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I find it to be politically untenable for Mr. Kim to not appoint someone to a fully-funded position when he has the authority to do so. It would be a missed political opportunity to not do so. The residency requirement of the City Attorney seems to be a legal semantic matter, and for Mr. Kim, it would be better to err on the side of caution and choose someone from within the city. He has listed ‘saving the city money’ as a reason to run without a City Attorney. The taxpayers of Saratoga will save money through the elimination of unneeded programs and services, and I think it would put the city at a disadvantage when negotiating labor agreements to not have an attorney.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. [JK: I use software from WordPress and it sometimes does not play nice with people trying to post. My friend Jim Martinez is another victim. So I am posting it for him over my name]
    Seventeen years ago, the city was struggling with how to address neglected properties that were affecting their neighborhood’s property values. These neglected structures were the last holdovers from a time when cash cow rental properties were commonplace. Not merely benign neglect, the owners were practicing a tradition of land banking their investments. Eventually with careless stewardship, the land property would be worth more than the structure that had been milked for rentals. Oddly, it seemed that the city was unable to encourage however forcefully, those owners from improving their lot.

    I approached those charged with enforcing the codes and noted that they had a tool in their New York State Building Code Digest that could address the concerns levied by neighbors and was told by one commissioner, that the NYS Property Maintenance Code (NYSPMC) portion of the annually adopted NYS Building Code was nothing more (his opinion) than an “unfunded mandate”, essentially to be ignored. Like those poorly stewarded structures on Phila Street and Caroline Street, the city had options, but was misdirected by ignorance and hubris.

    That code (NYSPMC) section is today over twenty years old and enforceable. I’m certain anyone could google the information, request it from the city through a FOIL, although, the former may be quicker. Here: https://up.codes/viewer/new_york/ny-property-maintenance-code-2020

    George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and those not willing to seek enlightenment when offered good advice are condemned to botch, wince and repeat.

    Like

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