Mystery Survey Plus PACs Versus Super PACs

People are reporting receiving computerized phone surveys.   The calls ask questions about who they plan to support for Mayor.  The calls also ask quite a few questions about their position on economic growth, protection of the greenbelt, etc.  The calls specifically ask whether they would vote for someone who received PAC money.

This kind of polling is quite expensive.  It is meant to try to determine how likely it is that you will vote for their candidate.  The policy questions also give the pollsters insights into which issues will influence a voter’s choice of candidates.

Bear in mind that the pollsters can link their questions to whomever is the primary person identified with your phone bill.  If your responses to their survey indicate you will not be voting for their candidate, they will write you off.  On the other hand, if you appear to be in play they can tailor a response to you based upon your answers on policy issues.  They can email you or send you literature or actually send someone to your house to try to influence you.  If they end up believing that you will probably vote for their candidate, they can prompt you to vote on Election Day.  At your polling place they can even check to see if you have voted and then follow up with you if you have not.

All of this takes money.  Lots of money.  In all likelihood, the only player with this kind of money is Saratoga Springs’ new Super PAC, Saratoga PAC.

PACs are actually more complicated than many people understand.

Historically, PACs were limited in how much individuals could contribute to them and how much they could contribute to candidates and parties. Unions and corporations were forbidden to contribute to PACs as institutions but their members could. Unions and environmental groups have used PACs as a way to bundle together the small contributions of their members to support candidates that support their agenda.  Associations of businesses with interests in influencing legislation also used PACs to bundle the moneys they raise from the individuals in their companies to give to candidates.  In this context the problem is not PACs per se but more about what a particular PAC’s goals are.  A PAC may be good or bad depending on what you believe to be a good or bad goal.

More recently, as a result of the famous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, we now have something called a Super PAC.  Unlike the old PACs this Supreme Court decision now allows individuals and institutions to contribute unlimited funds to the Super PAC and allows unlimited spending by them.   Now, pretty much anybody or anything can contribute directly to a PAC.  The important limit, though, is that  Super PACs cannot make contributions directly to candidates.  Instead, they are allowed to spend unlimited funds to get an endorsed candidate elected as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with the candidate, the candidate’s campaign, or a political party.  In reality, Super PAC efforts are commonly simply extensions of their favorite candidates’ campaigns.

An interesting article in About.com offers two quotes from members of the Supreme Court who voted differently on the decision that made Super PACs possible:

From Justice Anthony Kennedy who voted in favor of Citizens United: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

From the dissenting opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens: “At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

The full article is here: Article

This is an interesting article about how important Super PACs have become in city elections.  In a recent election in Philadelphia, Super PACs spent six times more than the candidates.  Article

This can all lead to some grotesque strategies.  For instance, Democrats are usually the main recipients of traditional union PAC money and this will show up in direct contributions to them on their financial reports. I fully expect the Saratoga Super PAC to attack candidates for accepting this money.  So the wealthy donors to the Saratoga Super PAC will very likely spend money they collect to attack the candidates they oppose for taking money from traditional PACs.  The hypocrisy of setting up a PAC that will then attack other candidates for receiving money from PACs is quite stunning.  Welcome to American politics in the twenty-first century.

Rules? They Are For The Little People! Saratoga National Golf Course and Saratoga P.L.A.N. Smooch

The Saratogian published an article in today’s (September 29, 2015) edition covering the Saratoga P.L.A.N. fund raiser titled “Feast of the Fields” which occurred on September 24th.  According to the story, the event was a fabulous success drawing some five hundred attendees.  It was also generously supported by a litany of restaurants in the area that provided food.

The mission of PLAN is laudable.  It describes itself as follows:

“Saratoga PLAN is dedicated to preserving the rural character, natural habitats and scenic beauty of Saratoga County so that these irreplaceable assets are accessible to all and survive for future generations. We help landowners conserve their farmland, woodlands and natural habitats to sustain the county’s “quality of place” and the environment, economy, and public health. Saratoga PLAN helps communities create plans that balance growth with conservation to sustain the Saratoga Region as a great place to live, work, visit and farm.”

Who could possibly have any reservations about their important work?  It turns out that the story of PLAN is more complex than this very noble mission suggests.

http://www.saratogaplan.org/about/

Increasingly, developers are being required to set aside land that will either be restricted in its future development or accessible to the public as part of agreements with municipalities when the developers are seeking large projects that exceed existing zoning limits.  To do this they need a not-for-profit that can either take possession of the land or oversee and enforce agreements that affect the use of the land.  Such agreements may involve the building of facilities accessible to the public or may require that only agricultural uses be allowed on the land.  This is the kind of thing that produces those grossly overused words “Win-Win.”  In fact, there is no question that in many cases the results of these deals are extremely valuable assets to our communities.  Still, it is important to view these deals with a sober and jaundiced eye.  This is especially the case, when the boards of these not-for-profits include developers.

In the case of PLAN, it is chaired by John Munter who is a developer and a contributor to Saratoga PAC.  As most people are fully aware, this PAC was organized as push-back to the growing legitimacy and strength of Sustainable Saratoga.   One would have to be quite naïve to be unaware that this PAC, made up of the titans of real estate and construction, covet the potential profits that compromising the city’s greenbelt would bring.    They are hoping to use their considerable wealth to elect pubic officials more amenable to their aggressive development vision.

As noted in previous posts, Saratoga PLAN has received at least one very large donation from Saratoga National Golf Course.  I would guess that SNGC either discounts the use of their facilities for the fundraiser or actually donates them for free.  As also documented in earlier blogs, PLAN appears to have abrogated their responsibilities to enforce the easement agreement they have with SNGC.  As part of the Special Permit to build the golf course, SNGC was to build two nature trails with proper signage for the public to enjoy.  No reasonable person would describe the “trail” that runs through their golf course as a real trail let alone a “nature” trail.   PLAN is responsible for overseeing the compliance of Saratoga National for these trails.

As also noted in previous blogs, SNGC is limited to three large events a year.  By the parking standards laid out in the site plan, an event with five hundred guests would represent a large event and based on SNGC’s web site, it would appear that this would be just another event that exceeded the limit for the year.  There is a certain very sad irony that, given PLAN’s stated mission, that they would contribute to the violation of the city’s greenbelt by having the event at SNGC.

The Saratogian article also noted the presence of Mayor Yepsen at the event.  In and of itself, there is nothing improper in the Mayor’s attending the event.  In fact, Commissioner Mathiesen also attended the event and I would expect that other elected officials were there.

Again in a previous blog, I posted emails that I sent to both the Mayor and to the city building inspector about the apparent violations of both the “trail” and the limit on large events.  The Mayor’s office is responsible, through the building inspector, for the enforcement of the city’s land use laws and agreements.   To date, I have not heard from either the Mayor or the building inspector regarding the potential violations.  One would hope that Mayor Yepsen might have found it awkward to attend an event which she knew might be in violation of the city’s agreements and which she was under pressure to look into.

I do not believe that it is unreasonable to assume that many of the major developers attended this event.  It is also reasonable to assume that others, in addition to Mr. Munter, are members of Saratoga PAC which is dedicated to undermining the city’s greenbelt.  There is something deeply unsettling to think of this lavish event at which people are congratulating themselves on how they are protecting open space is itself a violation of our greenbelt agreements.  By including the city’s elected officials as part of this event it adds an even greater unseemliness.   If in fact, they are exceeding their limit on large events, it says a lot about the arrogance and cynicism of Saratoga National especially because they are currently seeking to greatly expand the operation.

I have a fantasy involving the city building inspector walking into the ballroom with a bullhorn announcing, “this is an illegal event.  Clear the hall.”

Blogger Wins Appeal Of FOIL Denial By City…Sort Of

Today I received a letter from Vincent DeLeonardis, the city attorney, concerning their denial of my recent FOIL.  I had FOILed the city requesting copies of the invoices submitted by Mark Schachner related to the Saratoga National Golf Course zoning revisions.  As readers of this blog may recall, I received a response in which most of the descriptions of the work billed for were redacted (blacked out).  At the time, I contacted Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, He confirmed that the city had been over zealous in its redactions.  I then appealed the FOIL on those grounds.

Just watching Mr. DeLeonardis at meetings I have been impressed with his knowledge and fairness. According to his letter, Mr. DeLeonardis actually called Mr. Freeman and reviewed the law.  He determined that indeed, the city had been overzealous and he sent me revised copies of the invoices.  I still have reservations regarding the final redactions.  You will note in the documents that there is an entry for June 10th, for example, that begins “Review File Materials Re Golf Resort; Draft” and then there are what appear to be four or five words redacted.  It is hard to believe that these few words should be so privileged as to allow them to be blacked out.

Still, in the increasingly opaque world of government, I was impressed and grateful for his response.  Under Mayor Scott Johnson I was routinely denied documents.  What is critical to understand here is that there is no enforcement mechanism other than to go to state court seeking an article 78 action.  Basically, when you win an article 78 against a government agency you can force them to do something that they have improperly refused to do.  Here is a more detailed explanation of what an article 78 is.  The problem is that it is very expensive to bring such an action.  The common result, as in Mayor Scott’s case, was to deny legitimate requests knowing that the plaintive cannot afford justice.

In that context, I was very impressed with the city’s willingness to make a significant effort to address my appeal.  For all the differences I have with Mayor Yepsen, her decision to employ Mr. DeLeonardis, speaks well of her.  His work is an extension of her office.  It is one area where she has delivered on her promise of transparency.

The invoices I received are only through July and do not include the periods of greatest activity.  There were more actions and meetings involving Mr. Schachner and Saratoga National Golf Course in August and September and I will be FOILing for those as well.  As best I can make out in analyzing the invoices, the city has spent approximately $2545.00 in addressing their zoning issues.  Given the cryptic nature of the descriptions and the redacting, it was difficult to determine how much Commissioner Madigan’s work with Mr. Schachner on developing language for the zoning amendment involved.  As noted in earlier blogs, following the failure of SNGC’s attorney, Michael Toohey, to craft proper language for their amendments, Commissioner Madigan worked with Schachner to come up with language that would work.

Here are the documents.

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-1

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-2

Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-3 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-4 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-5 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-6 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-7 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-8 Saratoga National Kaufmann Appeal - Reply with docs-9

Planning Board To Delay City Center Revised Plans Until October

I received an email from Denise Desmond informing me that apparently, due to the absence of Mark Torpey and another member of the board, the Planning Board pulled the City Center revised plans from their September agenda.  If you had planned to attend the meeting re this issue, be advised.

Thank you, Denise.

What Joanne Yepsen Could Learn From Hillary Clinton

In a stunning turn around, Hillary Clinton has come out against the XL Pipe Line.  Let’s not talk principle here.  Her pollsters and other advisors saw the writing on the wall and realized they needed to show that she was willing to take a strong and decisive position on a controversial and substantive issue.

Joanne Yepsen has equivocated for months over Saratoga National Golf Course just as Clinton did on XL.  Yepsen’s opponent is public and clear on his support for the proposed resort.  She could come out and state unequivocally her opposition to the resort and set herself up as the hero who stood in defense of the city’s greenbelt.  Hey, I can dream…

Saratoga National Golf Course: Interesting Article From Albany Business Journal

A friend sent me this article from the Albany Business Review Biz Article. It had some interesting things in it. For one thing, they boast that they host one hundred and twenty weddings a year. I have heard that when you contact them about their hosting a wedding, right at the beginning they let you know that $50,000.00 is not unusual. I would love to know what their gross income is from events they put on as compared to their golfing program. It also notes that the green fees for a round of golf in August are $220.00.

What is more significant is the overall tone of Mr. Newkirk about expansion. Those of us ancient enough to remember when they built the golf course how they emphasized how modest an impact they would have. I would say “ambitious” would be a fair characterization of their posture today.

Not a very flattering picture of Newkirk and Mazzone on the site either.  Photograph

Blogger Fails To Live Up To His Own Standards And Offers Apology To Damaged Parties

I received an email from Charlie Brown taking me to task regarding my post about the mayor meeting with the Saratoga PAC seeking their support.  He asserts that she made clear at the city Democratic Committee that while she met with the PAC, she did not want their support.  He also provided me with an email he indicates she sent to the Saratoga PAC spelling this out.

I have checked with three sources that were at the meeting that said this is not the case.  It doesn’t really matter at this point.

I needed to fully acknowledge that I should have tried to reach the mayor to verify from her what occurred at the meeting with Saratoga PAC.  Below is the text of the email that Mr. Brown said that she sent the PAC:

Dear Mr. Manz and the Saratoga PAC,

 

Thank you for your email and invitation to meet.  I look forward to seeing you at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, September 18, 2015 at the Holiday Inn.  As Mayor, I’ve made it a practice to meet with any individual or group who is interested in city affairs and has ideas or opinions on how we can work together to make Saratoga Springs continue to reach its full potential. No matter one’s background, politics, economic status, position on issues, color, sexual orientation–I always am willing to listen. In that spirit, I look forward to meeting with you as well. My Campaign Manager, Will Sharry, and my Campaign Treasurer, Jeffrey Altamari, will accompany me.

 

I stand proudly on my record and convictions and I believe it is the job of the Mayor to listen to all and be open to working with anyone. My elected oath to the 28,000 residents of our city is to do my best for the city and represent all. I take that oath seriously. 

 

Although, I am eager to have continuing discussions with you and incorporate your ideas, I do have serious concerns with the growing influence of big money PACs and the undue influence they can bring upon our local elections and unnecessarily divide our city and community further.  I am running, as I ran two years ago and for the last 10 years I have served in public office, a grassroots, independent campaign. As always, my goal is to hear from all sides and lead the City to bring ideas and people together in our final decisions. This year is no exception.

 

It is important for everyone to be included, with $1 and up in contributions, with volunteering, and with their votes. I am glad we are meeting to clarify my record, update you on my positions, hear your ideas how we can make Saratoga Springs even better, and more effectively work together and represent you; however I am not seeking your endorsement or financial support.

 

Please let me know who will be attending from the Saratoga PAC. 

 

Thank you for your commitment and interest in our city’s future.

 

Regards,

Mayor Joanne Yepsen

It was my responsibility to have checked with the Mayor and had I done so, I assume I would have learned about this email.  I believe that accuracy in these matters is extremely important and that I have done Mayor Yepsen a serious disservice for which I fully, publically apologize.

In addition, it is important for me to acknowledge that based on Bob Turner’s comment, it was unfair of me to characterize Mr. Sharry as inexperienced.  According to Mr. Turner, in spite of his age, he has been involved in a number of significant campaigns.

This is not a case that “mistakes were made.” I am fully responsible for misrepresenting Mayor Yepsen on this issue.

The Condition Of The Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee

My wife, Jane Weihe, and I met with Charlie Brown, the chair of the City Democratic Committee, and Ellen Kiehl, first vice president (there are five).  Jane was chair of the city committee from 1986 to around 1998.

Charlie and Ellen were very well spoken and thoughtful.  Charlie began by noting that the Democratic Committee has a mission statement.  He emphasized that the number one item (it in fact is the first item) is to elect Democrats.  His other goal is to maintain harmony in the committee.

To understand his remarks one has to know about the recent history of the committee.  Having talked to Valerie Keehn, I think she would agree with me that her number one priority as mayor was to expose and, if possible, remove Tom McTygue from office.  Tom is a rough and tumble politician so the war that ensued was bitter and protracted.  While her many calls for investigating him never produced anything, their conflict did succeed in both of their defeats in the subsequent election.

The conflict between the two was not limited to the council chambers.  The meetings of the city committee were extraordinarily ugly and dysfunctional.  To say that the committee was paralyzed would be an understatement.  The conflicts continued well past the election in which they were defeated.

So it is quite understandable that Charlie and Ellen had their work cut out for them when they became officers.  With patience and diplomacy, they managed to create enough calm to perform the basic tasks of the committee such as to circulate the petitions required to get candidates on the ballot and to distribute campaign literature.

The problem has been that to achieve this they pretty much gave up taking a stand on anything that was remotely controversial.  Here is the Saratoga Spring Democratic Commitee platform on development and the greenbelt:

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Plan for Smart Development that Preserves our City in the Country.

We actively promote and endorse the timely adoption and regular revisions to the Comprehensive Plan. The Plan should encourage:  smart, sustainable growth, healthy transportation options, conservation of energy and natural resources, use of renewable energy, and non-vehicular accessibility. To preserve the value of “a city in the country,” we need to encourage thoughtful growth while preserving valued open spaces.  We also need to be intentional about maintaining and promoting a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This is the kind of statement that is so vague that Saratoga PAC could endorse it.  Who is not for” smart, sustainable growth”?  Who is not for “healthy transportation options”?  Who is not for the “timely adoption” of the city comprehensive plan?

To fully appreciate how paralyzed the Democratic Committee has been, one has only to consider that they were unable to take a position on the casino gambling expansion.  Fifty-eight percent of the voters of our city voted against the state constitutional amendment and probably eighty percent of the Democrats in the city opposed the amendment.  No matter.  As I understand it, the committee never even debated the issue let alone adopted a position.

It was no surprise then that at Saturday’s Democratic Committee meeting the issue of Saratoga National Golf Course’s proposed expansion was hardly touched on.

I have considerable sympathy for the challenges that Mr. Brown and Ms. Kiehl face.  John Franck is a zealous supporter of changing the zoning to allow a resort.  Mayor Yepsen steadfastly refuses to indicate where she stands.  Michele Madigan may vote for it in the future.  Chris Mathiesen opposes the changes.  So for the committee to take a position, risks antagonizing at least one of the elected Democrats on the Council.

Mr. Brown also made the argument that whatever differences someone may have with any of the Democratic incumbents, their opponents would be worse.  I think that is true although the margin of difference varies.

The problem is that with this ethos what you get is a culture of what the Russians call apparatchiks.  James Billington, the librarian of the United States Congress, describes an apparatchik as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.”  This is not to say that the people on the committee are not well meaning.

This culture does, however, lead to the fact that there are currently seventeen vacancies on a committee that is supposed to have fifty-four.  A number of the members of the committee are either elected officials, the spouses of elected officials, or the deputies of elected officials.

The reality is that very few people want to devote their energy to an organization that has as its core mission electing the lesser of two evils.  To attract new and vigorous people it seems reasonable that one would need to actually stand for something.  If the Democratic platform is indistinguishable from Saratoga PAC it is hard to believe that the committee can successfully grow.

I told Mr. Brown that I respectfully disagreed with him about how to build a party.  To attract people that will work hard one must identify popular issues that have broad community support and that provide a sense real mission.  This may involve some significant conflict but it may be worth the struggle.  Personally I believe that the Democratic Party won office because people believed that they would work to improve the quality of life in our city as well as strengthen it economically as compared to the Republicans who seemed driven entirely by the economics of unrestrained development (Skip Scirocco being an exception).  People have wrongly assumed that the Democratic Party rejected the casino and that they stand as protectors of the greenbelt today as they have in the past.  As a party they did not and do not.

Interestingly, Mr. Brown impressed me with his social skills.  He has a thoughtful and measured style.  He is a good listener.  Unfortunately, like many people drawn to politics, he does not seem to have the social vision to accompany those skills.  I have no illusions.  I expect that the Democratic Committee will continue to take no positions.  I expect that on occasion, as they have in the past, someone of principle will decide to run and will get their support.  Unfortunately, more commonly, others with less appealing qualities will also run and will enjoy the same support.

A Picture Of the Fabulous Jane Weihe (Ex-Chair of Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee)

JaneInItaly