While Saratoga Springs Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran has enjoyed favorable coverage by a credulous media of his plan to reshape downtown to expand outdoor dining, as with the Wizard of Oz, the reality has remained hidden behind a curtain. To the more critically observant, it is apparent that Moran has demonstrated a combination of ignorance and indifference to a variety of questions related to implementing the closing of streets and the wholesale granting of rights to restaurants and bars to use our city’s sidewalks and streets to enhance their businesses. I characterize the approach, all too common these days, as “stumbling forward management” where rather than analyzing and planning for foreseeable impediments to a goal, the executive simply tries to dodge one obstacle after another as they pop up in hopes of somehow eventually achieving a goal.
In fact, Moran’s entire plan is predicated on state legislative action that may never come to pass. After all the hype he has enjoyed, the enterprise remains very much in doubt.
A thoughtful manager would ask the basic question: “Why put time and effort into this until we know that the state will pass the required law that would make it possible?” That would include putting off going to the newspapers and television to tout the plan.
What is most disturbing has been Moran’s resistance to transparency. He has been urged to amend his ordinance to require that before a street is closed or restaurants are allowed to change a neighborhood’s streetscape that all the neighbors be provided:
- Proper notice regarding the change
- A document that explains what is planned including graphical renderings
- A way to have input tochallenge the project
Without this transparency, if Moran is successful, residents and businesses in the downtown area may be in for some very unpleasant surprises.
Commissioner Moran touts the fact that citizens are supportive of expanding outdoor dining. All of us would support helping our restaurants when raised in the abstract. The problem is that issues of safety, access, noise, and inconvenience are serious potential problems for neighbors both residential and commercial that need to be carefully considered. Without the most rigorous and disciplined analysis of how to proceed, the entire enterprise could turn into a fiasco. In an earlier Gazette editorial, the newspaper specifically cautioned Commissioner Moran on the need to proceed with great caution. It is pretty clear that Commissioner Moran ignored this sage advice.
As will be described below, this process has been anything but rigorous and disciplined. Commissioner Moran’s missteps and ineptitude have been masked by a poorly informed media whose uncritical coverage has only emboldened him. Consider this puff piece from Channel 13 news as Commissioner Moran casually describes closing specific streets in the city over weekends oblivious to the complex problems that make the success of such sweeping actions enormously challenging. Most of those streets include not just restaurants and bars but also residences and retail businesses.
Dear reader, consider how you might feel if a restaurant in your neighborhood stayed open at night with extensive outside dining. What impact might the resulting noise have? What might the effect of lost parking spaces have on people trying to visit you? What might the closing of streets do to traffic in your neighborhood?
After all this hype, in the end, if the New York State Legislature does not adopt the needed legislation by July 7, then this will have been great media for Commissioner Moran personally but will have done little for the city.
The following is meant to document the sketchiness of Commissioner Moran’s management to date.
January and February 2022 – Commissioner Dillon Moran repeatedly scheduled public hearings before City Council meetings on expanding outdoor dining but provided no actual proposal on which to comment. Not surprisingly, no one from the public spoke at any of these pointless hearings. The hearings created the facade of allowing for public input rather than the real thing.
Last week in February 2022 – Commissioner Moran finally drafts a proposal. The original legislation that extended outdoor dining in the city during Covid employed a committee representing the Fire Department, Risk and Safety, the City Attorney, and the Department of Public Works to establish the rules and to review applications. Moran’s proposed revision eliminated the committee and granted himself sole authority over this process. Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco intervened and informed Moran that his plan was in violation of the city charter. Scirocco explained to Moran that Public Works has authority over the city’s streets and sidewalks, and Moran cannot act without his cooperation. Moran was forced to amend his proposal to require the consent of the Commissioner of Public Works to any expansion of outdoor dining.
March 1, 2022 – On this date, the Commissioner of Accounts sponsored another public hearing at the City Council meeting, this time with a document. The problem was that the document which was made available for the public hearing had not been updated and was no longer the version to be voted on. Among the missing elements was the provision for the inclusion of the Department of Public Works in the process. As Commissioner Moran had the updated document that included the new role of the Department of Public Works, it is unclear why Moran did not update the city website so that people wishing to comment were addressing the correct document.
Even after it was pointed out to Commissioner Moran that the document on the city website was not correct, Moran failed to post the correct document for almost another two weeks.
March 11, 2022 – On the Friday before each City Council meeting, a draft of the proposed agenda and supporting documents for the following Tuesday meeting are supposed to be posted on the city’s website by noon. On this Friday this information was not posted until 8PM Friday night. It was only then, that at last, the latest version of Moran’s proposal was finally posted as part of the proposed agenda.
March 14, 2022 – On Monday mornings before the regular Tuesday night City Council meeting, the Council holds a “pre-agenda” meeting to finalize the Tuesday night agenda. In this March 14 meeting, there was a discussion over a clause in the ordinance that had been added that required permits for outside dining to be approved by the City Council. It was decided to remove this significant clause. It is unclear when this once again updated version of the ordinance was finally posted but as the ordinance was to be voted on the following evening, most of the public who might have participated in the public hearing would have been ignorant of the change. This is simply another example of how little Moran and his colleagues on the Council take their oft-repeated claims of transparency seriously
A New Development- The Big Surprise
In addition to the further changes made to the outdoor dining proposal at the March 14 pre-agenda meeting, Moran announced that he was adding a new item to his agenda concerning this issue.
According to Moran, on the previous Saturday, March 12, he discovered (he never explains how) that the New York State legislation extending the ability of restaurants to serve liquor in expanded outdoor dining spaces will end on July 7, 2022. Without the renewal of this legislation, his proposal will be rendered pointless, yet he apparently didn’t recognize this until at least two different versions of the ordinance had been posted on the city website and after months of appearing on television and in newspapers to tout his idea.
So at the March 14 pre-agenda meeting, Moran notified his colleagues that he would be asking the Council to authorize the Mayor to write to Governor Hochul asking her to extend the relaxed outdoor dining expansion regulations beyond July 7.
Moran also claimed that he had been working with Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner on dealing with the Governor and potential legislation. As, by his own admission, he had only become aware of the problem on Saturday, and as the pre-agenda meeting was at 10:00 AM on Monday morning, when was all this work with Woerner supposed to have transpired?
Dillon Moran and Governor Hochul
According to the March 16, 2022, Daily Gazette:
“… he [Moran] had a personal conversation with [Governor] Hochul about the matter [extending outdoor dining] last year, when the state’s top official assured Moran of her support.”Daily Gazette March 16, 2022
So if Moran knew this extension was needed last year as his comments to the Gazette indicate, why did he only come to realize he had a problem on Saturday, March 13, 2022?
It also is unlikely that Governor Hochul made this kind of far-reaching commitment to him in casual conversation.
It is worth noting the protocol when dealing with the Governor. If you want the Governor to do something, you provide her with the courtesy of discussing it with her or her staff first. You do not ask her for what you seek through the media. Only after receiving assurances from the Governor, do you write her and publicize it. I understand that Mayor Kim has been warned about this. If they want Governor Hochul’s help, they have now undermined their own efforts.
The Failure of Transparency in the Agenda
Item #5 in the Department of Accounts agenda for the March 15 City Council meeting read:
“Discussion and Vote: Authorization for Mayor to Sign Letter to Governor Hochul Regarding Outdoor Dining”
There should have been a link to a resolution explaining exactly what was being asked of the Governor “regarding outdoor dining.” There was none. I expect they wanted to downplay the potential failure of their plan that the letter to the Governor would expose.
Confusion Over The Role of the Design Review Commission
There are many unanswered questions about just how all of these expanded dining areas into the city’s right-of-way are going to look. The concrete barriers [Jersey Barriers] the city has used on Phila and Henry Streets were ugly and potentially dangerous. We do not want our streets to look like the city was designed by Homeland Security.
In the meantime, when Moran first announced his plan he made a point about avoiding the Design Review Commission (DRC).
He [Dillon Moran] said his proposal will eliminate a clause that prohibits restaurants from decorating outdoors. Moran said he doesn’t want the restaurants to build semi-permanent outdoor structures that would require approval from the city’s Design Review Commission.Daily Gazette
Of course, this leaves entirely undefined how these restaurants in the city’s downtown are going to look. It left completely unclear what oversight there will be, what standards will be established, and how anything will be enforced.
After there was some push back, at the March 16 meeting Moran again reversed course.
However, the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation wants the city’s Design Review Commission to approve the plan. Moran said he’s spoken to to the DRC’s chair and agreed on a process to include the commission headed into the fall.
If and when it makes sense for permanent outdoor dining, the DRC will be fully involved, Moran said.Daily Gazette March 16, 2022
I do not dismiss the value of exploring expanded outdoor dining. What I find deeply troubling is that Commissioner Moran, who it appears will be the key decision-maker in all of this simply lacks the kind of disciplined skills to move cautiously and respectfully forward. He needs to focus less on the media and more on anticipating and addressing the many problematic issues that expanded outdoor dining and street closures will precipitate.
His unwillingness to incorporate language into the ordinance to ensure that neighbors impacted by specific expansions are properly informed pretty much guarantees that homeowners, businesses, and renters will be unpleasantly surprised. I expect that the heat this will generate will be appropriately directed not only at Moran but at the other members of the Council who were fully aware of the need for this transparency but failed to act.
There is no other way to put it. Commissioner Moran lacks the management skills that the expansion of dining into the city’s right-of-ways requires and his hostility to properly notifying the neighbors of such projects is a train wreck waiting to happen.