[JK: Full disclosure. Jane Weihe, my wife, is the campaign manager for Tim Coll, who is running for Public Safety Commissioner against Montagnino.]
The March 7, 2023, Saratoga Springs City Council meeting provided a number of insights into the character of Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino, none of them very flattering to say the least.
In earlier posts, I have written about the crisis of morale in city hall in general and in the police department in particular. When you observe how Montagnino behaves toward his “colleagues” on the Council at this meeting, you can begin to understand how difficult it must be to serve under him.
Mean Spirited and Vindictive
Montagnino’s enmity toward Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran has been on full display for months. Most recently, Montagnino unsuccessfully tried to promote the candidacy of someone to replace Moran as the Democratic nominee for Accounts Commissioner. In a previous incident, Montagnino accused Moran of being an alcoholic.
The venomousness Montagnino is capable of towards Moran was never better dramatized, though, than at the last City Council meeting on March 7. Moran, who was unable to attend the meeting live due to COVID, participated in the meeting via Zoom.
At the end of Moran’s agenda presentation, Montagnino asked for the floor and spoke to Moran. He asked if Moran “could speak more clearly; your speech sounds somewhat slurred.”
Unfortunately, the video does not allow a clear view of Montagnino’s expression as he offered this advice to Moran. I do not think it is unfair to characterize Montagnino’s expression as a smirk. After a pregnant pause, Moran, while clearly irritated, did not respond in kind.
By the way, as the video below documents, Moran could be easily heard speaking clearly on Zoom.
Macho At The Council Table
In this clip, Montagnino uses his rhetorical skills to raise the temperature at the meeting by accusing Mayor Kim of “caving” on putting a proposed homeless shelter at the senior citizens’ center. Notice Montagnino’s tone and his pointing at the Mayor.
Talking Over People
One of the tools Montagnino commonly uses against his colleagues is to weaponize his loud and very oratorical voice to talk over them.
Montagnino Has No Supporting Cast
Thoughtful legislators seek support from their colleagues for proposals before presenting the actual resolutions at the Council table. This achieves a number of objectives.
- It is a healthy sign of respect to consult your fellow Council members on issues you plan to raise before going to the media.
- Consulting your colleagues concerning planned legislation helps everyone to better understand the issues and allows the legislator to address any questions his/her colleagues may have.
- If there is no support for the proposed legislation, it avoids wasting time on a pointless discussion at the Council table.
- It avoids pointless conflict at Council meetings.
- It increases the chances that the proposed legislation will actually pass.
This is not the way that Montagnino operates. His first plan of action is to contact the press and television. As in the case of his proposal to install porta-potties for the homeless at the parking garage the homeless frequent, he succeeded in getting stories about himself and his plan in the local print press and television prior to the Council meeting. Bear in mind he had not discussed any of this with his colleagues. They only learned about his proposal when they read about it in the newspapers or when they saw it on the proposed agenda.
Andrew Waite reported in the March 12, 2023, edition of the Daily Gazette that Montagnino had not bothered to solicit input from the community either. He quotes Todd Shimkus, the president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, on the previous experiment with porta-potties at the Woodlawn Ave. Garage:
“This was a miserable total complete and absolute failure. I don’t want to describe the horrific things that happened to them because they were so bad.”
“If the commissioner made one phone call to any of the business leaders who had been around for any time, we would have been able to advise him that this would be a big mistake. Well intentioned, but a big mistake.”Todd Shimkus, Chamber
This proposal suffered the same fate as pretty much all of Montagnino’s other initiatives. It failed. In fact, he could not even get a second for his motion. He then tried to get his colleagues to support a public hearing on his porta-potty proposal, and it, too, failed to gain a second.
In the following excerpt from the meeting, Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub, in sharp contrast to Montagnino, thoughtfully lays out all the issues that would need to be addressed before it would be possible to act on Montagnino’s proposal. He is especially thoughtful in observing that without a full proposal, it is pointless to ask the public to weigh in at a public hearing.
The Smartest Person in the Room
Commissioner Montagnino exemplifies the archetype of the “smartest person in the room.” This is the person who is so enamored of what they see as their superlative intellect that they find little value in listening to others unless it provides an opportunity to belittle them.
Such people are oblivious to the concept of collegiality or cooperative decision-making. In fact, they take particular pleasure in correcting their colleagues in a tone and style that is unhelpful.
In the case of politicians, they are more interested in sharing their genius with the public through the news media rather than working with their colleagues on solutions.
8 thoughts on “A Portrait of James Montagnino: A Study in Disfunction”
Sorry, but Montagnino is the *very least* of our towns worries.
Our City Council is led by Culture War Rhetoric. We have a mayor who doesn’t understand the first amendment, and thinks it only applies to supporters of his campaign. Ditto for the recently-appointed ideologues on the Council’s Police Review Board. We’ve had numerous boil-orders over the last couple years, and every DPW & infrastructure project (I’m looking at you Excelsior Ave) is a complete and utter s***s***, yet the council is focused on Parks and Bike Lanes.
John… We trust you. You’re better than this campaign material for your wife.
DPW really did not have anything to do with Excelsior Ave. project. That was part of the economic development program that come out of the Mayor Office. Tina Carlson was in charge of that.
Between watching the actual meeting and then listening to The Saratoga podcast, and as someone who sat through more than a few council meetings and learned some hard lessons in the process (as well as some of my other professional endeavors), I jotted down some ideas.
The underlying problem with Jim and some others seems to be that they either don’t have leadership skills or choose not to use them. Yes, it was hard to hear what was thrown at Jim last night yet the reality is HE is in the leadership position, and as Lew Benton pointed out (in the podcast), the speakers are not. The same goes for Ron Kim. They chose to take on these positions and with that comes great responsibility. Part of that comes with taking it on the chin and choosing to respond professionally. Both a few weeks ago and last evening they both had other choices yet reacted rather than responded.
Let’s be real. Most people who get up and speak have one main need. They want to be heard. The dismissive or argumentative manner both with those speaking and within the council itself belies that goal. It seems it’s more of a one-up-man-ship than anything collaborative. Even small validating comments would be helpful – or as Lew mentioned, setting a time to meet and give them the time they are clearly needing.
I’m not saying that abusive behavior needs to be tolerated or encouraged. There are just so many more ways to manage it.
Nothing can be done with what has already happened. The choice now is whether to dig their heels in or to learn something. What we in the consulting and coaching world would call a postmortem where you sit down, objectively look at what happened, the outcome of what happened, and decide if that outcome is productive and one that is desired. Then, brainstorm other ways to address and respond to the problem. Unfortunately, I doubt this group is in any way open to doing this.
I shared with Tom Dimapoloas (sp?) that the lack of preparation they come to the table with is astonishing. Either they are just so overconfident in their abilities and don’t ask or let their deputies do their jobs or their deputies are not earning their pay. Joe Ogden would NEVER have let Joanne go into council so unprepared (the only reason she didn’t sound like the current council all the time) – at least she knew what was on the agenda. Neither would Lynne Bachner or Eileen even though their Commissioners were quite capable themselves.
While I don’t have a lot of hope, this council (Kim and Montagnino in particular) has the opportunity to make some positive changes as they go forward.
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Unfortunately, many people confuse eloquence with common sense and wisdom. The Commissioner is quite eloquent and sometimes forceful both at the Council table and during his ubiquitous media interviews and press conferences. Local media outlets seem to have recognized him as the voice of authority both for the police department and for City government as a whole. And for good reason; he sounds as if he knows what he is talking about no matter what the topic.
Past Commissioners of Public Safety have understood their role of civilian oversight. They have left the role of direct supervision to the chiefs, assistant chiefs, code enforcement officers and department administrators who have the knowledge, credentials and experience to do their jobs well. Those guidelines have been largely ignored by our current Commissioner.
I will always remember the bullying that took place at the Council table last summer while discussions about the Tim Wales settlement took place. Commissioner Montagnino took the lead from Mayor Kim. His characterization of Commissioner Moran and Marilyn Rivers as acting in a ‘reprehensible manner’ should serve as a warning to all. The Commissioner is perfectly willing to put facts and explanations aside in order to satisfy his propensity for expressing outrage.
This has been a difficult term for the current City Council. Unlike the previous Council which had to deal with a series of major catastrophes, this Council continues to deal with problems that are largely self-created. Commissioner Montagnino came into office to oversee a well respected Department. He is a poster child for self-created problems.
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The Peter Principle observes the tendency for an individual to advance to higher levels until he reaches a position where the responsibilities are beyond his competence. Example: Jim Montagnino.
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I belief our Commissioner of Public Safety exemplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s not just a matter of him rising to a level of responsibility exceeding his ability due to organizational upward-squeeze; his election may have been a functional failure of the ideal, but he evidently believes he’s highly competent in his role when in fact he’s demonstrated otherwise. So far he’s not demonstrated the ability to critically appraise and correct his performance, which is both a shame and a liability for our city.
Because I know it’ll be important to calibrate my comments with some, know that I live in Saratoga Springs, am registered neither Democrat nor Republican, and have supported and voted for local candidates independent of their party affiliations.
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Less parking for city employees and downtown visitors now as the Collamer lot is now private and payment parking with a QR code. The City Center garage is also an utter failure as folks avoid it like the plague since it $15 a day when you can park for free elsewhere. How did the City let themselves sell a public city lot to a private company right downtown? I guess I will just go ahead and take Jim M’s space today! Sad for the citizens of this City
The first hour is free. There after the charge is a dollar for up to fifteen dollars.