Another Contentious City Council Meeting Exposes Toxic Work Environment in City Hall

The Tuesday, September 20, 2022, Saratoga Springs City Council meeting was full of more contentious behavior on the part of the Mayor and some of the Commissioners. The conflict this time was precipitated by an error made by Council members at the previous meeting on September 6.

As readers will recall, Mayor Ron Kim recently marshaled support from a majority of the Council to move the Director of Risk and Safety out of the Accounts Department and into his own department. Unfortunately, the Mayor failed at the same time to provide for the funds necessary to pay for the position once it was transferred to his office.

Probably as a way to jerk Kim around and to expose the Mayor’s inept handling of the matter, Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran decided to move the money that was left in his budget from the empty Risk and Safety position to fund other items in his department thus leaving the Risk and Safety position unfunded. As required, he submitted his request to the Finance Department.

At the September 6 City Council meeting Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi read out Moran’s reallocation of money request, asking for and receiving Council approval. The vote, in fact, was unanimous. Thus the members of the Council became complicit in Moran’s move, something they quickly came to regret once they discovered later what they had voted for.

It is important to note that Commissioners have traditionally had wide latitude to move money around their own department’s annual budget to address changing needs. While some may criticize Commissioner Moran for this ploy, there was nothing illegal in his actions. Nothing was hidden, although Moran did nothing to alert his colleagues to its implications.

By the September 20 meeting, some Council members had become aware of their involvement in Moran’s move and sought to reverse their vote. True to form, Mayor Kim was outraged over the matter and was quick to claim there had been nefarious goings-on and dramatically suggested a forensic accountant should look into the matter. He was supported in his suspicions by his current ally, Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino, who wanted to know how this could have happened without a Council vote, apparently unaware that there had been a vote and that he had voted yes.

Another Faux Crisis

All of this drama was rooted in a simple oversight. No one in the Finance Department, including the Commissioner, picked up on the problem with Moran’s requested transfer, and no one on the Council spotted it either. It would seem that this Council pays no more attention to budget changes than they have to the consent agenda. Readers should consider also that under the previous administration, City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis enjoyed the trust of the entire Council, and he regularly went through the agenda to make sure everything was correct and in order. I suspect the current Council does not have the current City Attorney, Tony Izzo, fulfill a similar duty.

The whole thing could have been quietly corrected if people of good faith had worked together prior to the meeting to address the problem. Commissioner Moran, in fact, voted with the rest of his colleagues to reverse his budget changes.

This whole business should never have become a major public fight at the Council table.

Commissioner Sanghvi’s Unfortunate Behavior

Earlier this year, Commissioner Sanghvi shared with the Council an incident in her office she found disturbing. Commissioner Moran had sent to the Finance office an envelope containing a shredded warrant that he was challenging. At a City Council meeting Commissioner Sanghvi described to her colleagues on the Council how the member of her staff who opened the envelope experienced this as a source of trauma, and she took Moran to task for being insensitive and upsetting a member of her staff.

Her concern for the feelings of one of her employees in this instance is in sharp contrast to her recent treatment of another member of her staff.

Regrettably, at both the City Council table and in comments made to the media, Commissioner Sanghvi chose to single out and blame one of her employees for not catching Moran’s budget changes even though the changes had also been missed by other Finance Department staff members and the Commissioner herself not to mention every member of the Council. At the Council table, she identified the position in her department the individual she was blaming held. In the case of her comments to the Foothills Business Daily, Sanghvi called out the employee by name.

One would have thought that Sanghvi, given the previous concerns she expressed about Commissioner Moran upsetting a member of her staff by sending an envelope of shredded paper, would have been sensitive to the devastating impact her public blaming and naming of one of her employees would have on that individual. Apparently not.

This is unfortunately another example of incidents we are hearing about that are contributing to what we are told is an increasingly toxic workplace environment in City Hall.

Below is a link from the Saratoga Podcast in which Adam Israel offers a thoughtful critique of Commissioner Sanghvi’s handling of the matter. (Note that apparently Adam was unaware that Sanghvi named the person in the Foothills Business Daily article.) Ms. Sanghvi would do well to listen carefully to Adam’s remarks about leadership and all that that entails in terms of taking responsibility for whatever may happen within an organization. Adam argues that a thoughtful executive recognizes that the buck stops with them and they take responsibility for any errors that occur within the organization they head. They do not subject their subordinates to public embarrassment.

The following are some excerpts from the Council meeting as background.

In this clip, Commissioner Montagnino piles on after the Mayor alleges some sort of impropriety by asking how this happened. He is, of course, oblivious to the fact that he had voted to approve the problematic transfer.

The mayor characterizes the transfer as “mysterious.”

Kim wants to hire a forensic accountant to do an investigation.

Commissioner Golub points out that this issue was the result of a minor oversight and pushes back that nothing that could be characterized as serious was involved.

5 thoughts on “Another Contentious City Council Meeting Exposes Toxic Work Environment in City Hall”

  1. I’m appalled at Commissioner Sanghvi’s calling out this particular staff member who from my experience is one of the most knowledgable and vigilant person in City Hall. When I began working for the Mayor quite a few years ago we were left with little to no direction as to what my position was required to do. Without this same staff member that the Commissioner so indelicately threw under the bus, I would have much longer struggled with my job responsibilities. Not only did she know what needed to be done, but she was also more than willing to step in and help me with direction and feedback. I came to admire her for her work ethic and dedication.

    This is all the more disturbing as I can’t understand anyone who does that to a staff member. As Adam said in the blog you shared, a leader (and I would hope that someone in the position of commissioner has some leadership skills) takes responsibility or at the very least uses the pronoun “we” as Adam mentioned. I disagree with Adam in that one does not need to have experience in this particular arena to know how to lead a team. As a college professor, I’m sure the Commissioner has to work in a team from time to time and should have some insights on this concept. If responsibility needs to be addressed it needs to be done in private with the team approach in public.

    Shame on Commissioner Sanghvi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The person who is currently Budget Director has filled numerous positions in City Hall. No one works as hard as she does. She is extremely talented and knowledgeable. She is also kind and generous with her time so I am not surprised to hear Gayle praise her for offering advice and guidance.

      I was surprised to see how much the staffing for the Finance Department has grown. A few years ago, that department was managed by a Finance Director (the very capable Christine Gillette-Brown), the Commissioner of Finance and the Deputy Commissioner of Finance. Today, there is the Finance Director, the Budget Director, the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner and an Executive Assistant.

      Chris Mathiesen

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m not so sure the problem with the current Council members is so much a lack of managerial experience as it is a lack of empathy and respect for those who have worked hard for the city for many years. All except the Mayor are new to city government and most chose to hire deputies who also had no experience with or knowledge of how the city functions. This group doesn’t even seem to know what they don’t know. Thus we have Commissioner Montagnino boldly asserting incorrectly that the consent agenda was made up only of bills for “mops and buckets” and Finance Commissioner Sanghvi and Mayor Kim agreeing in an embarrassing show of ignorance of what they had been voting on for months and in Mayor Kim’s case for years. Unfortunately, this group has from the time they took office assumed that anyone who was in city government before them was incompetent and to be viewed with suspicion. They have therefore either not sought out advice from those who could have helped them steer clear from embarrassing debacles like we are continuously seeing played out at Council meetings or they have ignored advice when offered. We have had other Council members without managerial experience who have performed well in office, but I can’t remember when we have had Council members with so little regard for the people who do the day-to-day work to keep the city running. From Montagnino’s attacks on members of the Police Department to Ron Kim moving the Risk and Safety Director around like a puppet to now Commissioner Sanghvi’s public shaming of a member of her staff, this group, with so far, the exception of Public Works Commissioner Golub, seems to continuously just stumble along, upending people’s lives, unable or unwilling to learn their jobs and then just do them.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Spot on Fact Checker, could not agree more.

    This is not the leadership the city needs as we enter some tough times economically. It looks like Commissioner Sanghvi is the swing vote and that is problematic. I don’t see her standing up to Kim and Montagnino. She didn’t when they trashed Moran over the insurance deductible. (new office furniture and a new Executive Assistant I don’t see helping either).

    Sad to see we have another year of this.

    Thank you John for all your work documenting these issues.

    Liked by 2 people

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