Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force Publishes Draft Report; Schedules Public Forum

The Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force has published a 95 page draft of their report which includes recommendations for changes in policing practices in Saratoga Springs.

This is a link to the draft:

The Task Force has scheduled a forum for public comment on the report for Wednesday, March 3, 2021 at 5:30PM. The event will be virtual using ZOOM. In order to participate in the forum members of the public must pre-register here.

I plan to write about the draft in the near future.

Hard Ball Politics In Saratoga Springs: Local Republicans Try To Take Over Working Families Party Ballot Line

[JK: Full disclosure. I have been a member of the Working Families Party since 2008]

In an effort to steal the ballot line of the Working Families Party (WFP) for their candidates, local Republicans have organized a campaign to get some members of their party to change their registration from Republican to Working Families Party.

This is part of a statewide Republican strategy. The Rensselaer County Republican Party has been using this strategy for several years but only recently has this tactic appeared here in our county.

Frustrated by the traditional Democratic Party, the Working Families Party (WFP)was established on 1998 in New York by a coalition of progressive groups and unions. WFP endorses candidates on the state, local and national level and now has active chapters in fourteen other states and Washington, DC. Candidates seeking the WFP endorsement even on the local level are required to answer an extensive questionnaire focusing on issues such as climate change, universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage, and student debt.

In spite of the modest number of voters who have been registered in the WFP in Saratoga Springs, the number of people voting on that line is quite impressive. Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan’s recent successful election was due in great part to the votes she received on the WFP line.

To give some sense of just how wide the gap is between the policies promoted by the WFP and those supported by the Republican Party, consider this published legislative agenda from the WFP:

The Republican effort to capture this line reflects a disturbingly cynical plan to deceive voters in Saratoga Springs. The Republicans apparently hope that people will innocently vote for candidates on the WFP line thinking they are supporting progressive causes unaware that they are voting instead for traditional Republicans. [While WFP usually endorses Democrats they have endorsed some Republicans, but they are looking for candidates who support their agenda.]

I contacted Saratoga Springs Republican Party Chair Chris Obstarczyk to ask him about the registration changes. I like Chris. Under his leadership the recent city electoral campaigns by Republicans have been civil and substantive.

My conversation with Chris was disappointing, though. He deflected my questions about who was behind this drive to re-register Republicans as Working Family Party members by asserting that his committee has not been involved.

My effort to get him to condemn this strategy also proved fruitless.

According to the Saratoga County Board of Elections thirty-four registered voters in the county changed their registration from the Republican Party to the Working Families Party this year. Of the thirty-four, all but five were from Saratoga Springs.

Town Number Of People Who Changed

Corinth 1

Malta 2

Milton 2

Saratoga Springs 29

Below I have listed the Republicans who changed registration.

ORINFMOSESCORINTH
JULIALSPRATTMALTA
JILLLWILLETTEBALLSTON SPA
MAXWELLSROSENBAUMBALLSTON SPANY
DENISECHAPMANBALLSTON SPANY
CALEBRBENTLEYSARATOGA SPGS
PHILOMENAAMURPHYSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
ROBERTCMURPHYSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
GABRIELPOBRIENSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
BERNADETTERROCCOSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
BARBARAJCOOKSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
PATRICKJARPEISARATOGA SPRINGSNY
WILLIAMTARPEISARATOGA SPRINGSNY
GREGORYASANTOSSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
JODILBRIMHALLSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
BRIDGETADUDLASARATOGA SPRINGSNY
FRANKJDUDLASARATOGA SPRINGSNY
LAURAMEMANATIANSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
PATRICKDROCCOSARATOGA SPGSNY
DAVIDPBECKERSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
SAMANTHAJGUERRASARATOGA SPRINGSNY
MICHAELJKIRKPATRICKSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
DAVIDALABATESARATOGA SPGSNY
AMYCSARTINSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
THOMASJSARTINSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
JEFFREYAWARDSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
JESSICATWARDSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
NORMANGBOYEASARATOGA SPRINGSNY
EILEENTCOTTERSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
KEITHAMANUELSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
MICHAELJWELCHSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
CHRISTOPHERRZIEKERSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
ROBERTECOGANSARATOGA SPRINGSNY
SHARONLCOGANSARATOGA SPRINGSNY

NYS Committee On Open Government Issues Opinion That County violated The Law. Supervisor Gaston Doubles Down That The County Did Nothing Wrong.

I sent Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston the reply I got from the New York State Committee on Open Government stating that the decision of her Health and Social Services Committee to go into executive session on January 27 was in violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law. I received a very troubling response from her. In her email she simply dismisses the NYS Committee on Open Government’s (NYSCOOG) written opinion. Just as disturbing was her assertion that she had contacted the NYSCOOG concerning this opinion. The Assistant Director of NYSCOOG who issued the opinion has no recollection of being contacted by Supervisor Gaston or anyone from Saratoga County. I have asked Supervisor Gaston to whom she spoke and when but have not received a reply.

I have included Supervisor Gaston’s email to me in this post.

Supervisor Gaston has, in the past, vigorously asserted the importance of transparency.

With that in mind I have offered her the opportunity to be a guest on this blog and to publish unedited her explanation of the decision to take her committee into executive session.


Supervisor Gaston’s Email

Friday, February 12, 2021

To be clear, to my knowledge no formal opinion has been requested on behalf of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors or any subset of county government. I did not request a formal opinion, but reached out to COOG by phone to discuss and clarify comments made to the press and COOG’s opinion process. 

Thank you for sharing the email below. I acknowledge the statements of Ms. O’Neill, although I note that as of yesterday COOG had not requested any information from the County in this matter.  I am looking into the information provided prior to going into executive session to see if there is a way we can improve what we provide prior to any such motion, but I stand by the appropriateness of the executive session.

Thank you.Tara N. Gaston | she/her
Supervisor, City of Saratoga Springs
tngaston@saratogacountyny.gov
518-934-1944


Lew Benton’ Analysis

[JK:I received an email from Lew Benton regarding his analysis of the county’s decision to go into executive session and deny the public access to their deliberations on the most recent controversy over the county’s handling of the COVID crisis .]

 John,

Several days ago you shared an email from the chair of the County Health and Human Services Committee referencing the relative legitimacy of her committee’s January 27 executive session. Sorry it has taken his long to respond.

According to the minutes, as the meeting moved to agenda item V, billed as a discussion of the “Ongoing COVID Response”, an attending non-committee member interjected to express her discomfort at having been asked to ‘pick’ ten senior residents of her town to receive a COVID vaccination. Apparently, an unanticipated allotment and the need to act promptly precipitated the request.

That expression prompted concerns regarding how and by whom such communications should be made in an effort to avoid confusion and the dissemination of conflicting information. After additional comment, the chair of the Board of Supervisors – who sits as an ex-officio member of the Health and Human Services Committee – commented, according to the meeting minutes, that:

“ … he would like all of his colleagues to receive the information they are seeking and believes that there is additional information that will lend itself to this conversation, something that should be discussed in Executive Session because it is in relation to the public health, welfare and safety of our residents. Mr.

Kusnierz respectfully requested that the Committee enter into executive session so that a more detailed conversation can be had on the lead up to the questions that were raised. The Committee can then come back into open session answer some of the additional questions that are being posed here.”

The committee chair then asked the county attorney and the “Commissioner” to opine on the appropriateness of such an executive session. The county attorney replies that “ … the criteria are met because it is a matter of public safety.”

Of course, the county attorney was incorrect. The one applicable criterion to be met is not that the matter to be discussed deals with public safety, as the county attorney advised, but rather that such discussion, if conducted in open session, would imperil the public safety.

The committee then adjourns to executive session despite the protest of Supervisor Kinowski. So was the county attorney and the board chair correct in recommending executive session ‘…

so a more detailed conversation could be had … on the questions that were raised.’ ?

Undoubtedly no, and they should have known that an executive session was not warranted. Why? Because the discussion had nothing to do with any subject that, if discussed in open session, would have imperiled the safety of the public.

The NYS State Department of State maintains a register of opinions on the Open Meetings Law. These are designed to benefit local elected officials, the public, municipal attorneys and anyone who has an interest keeping government transparent.

 I have pasted relevant sections of some of those opinions below.

In a April 25, 2003, opinion the Committee on Open Government concluded that a committee of the Yates County Legislature violated the Open Meetings Law by adjourning to executive session to discuss how failure to fill vacancies in the District Attorney’s Office might result in less rigorous prosecutions, more plea bargains or dismissals of charges.

Wrote the executive director of the Committee on Open Government:

“The …situation concerning the position of assistant district attorney appears to pertain to the ability of staff to carry out functions in relation to matters in which persons are or have been arrested and/or in custody of law enforcement officials. While the inability to fill a vacancy might result in a greater number of cases being plea bargained or perhaps dismissed, it seems unlikely that problems of that nature if discussed in public would “imperil the public safety.”

Similarly, it does not seem conceivable that the subject of the January 27 meeting of the Health and Human services Committee’s executive session “…so that a more detailed conversation can be had on the lead up to the questions that were raised” would, if held in open session, imperil public safety.

in a January 18, 2005, opinion regarding the appropriateness of a Village of Saranac Lake executive session to discuss the siting of a “safe house” for battered women, the Committee on Open Government concluded that the executive session was probably in compliance with the Open Meetings Law.. In significant part the Committee staff concluded:

“Although it is rarely cited, I believe that paragraph (a) would have been pertinent in the context of the situation that is the focus of your inquiry. That provision authorizes a public body, such as a village board of trustees, to conduct an executive session to discuss ‘matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.’ Similar factual situations have arisen in the past, and in consideration of the need to provide safety and security to battered, abused or threatened women and their children, a public body may, in my opinion, enter into executive in any instance in which public discussion could place those persons in jeopardy or danger.”

Surely the stated subject of Health and Human Services Committee’s executive session, unlike that of the referenced Saranac Lake example, fell far short of he imperil public safety standard. Much more likely, the Health and Human Services session was simply used to avoid some political embarrassing matter or incident. Certainly a corruption and mockery of the “imperil public safety” standard.

There are also a number of Committee on Open Government opinions and legal decisions with regard to the sufficiency of a motion to enter executive session.

In a 1996 response to an inquiry, it was noted that the Appellate Division, Second Department, had recently confirmed the advice rendered by this office (The Committee on Open Government). In discussing §105(1)(f) in relation to a matter involving the establishment and functions of a position, the Court stated that:

 “…the public body must identify the subject matter to be discussed (See, Public Officers Law § 105 [1]), and it is apparent that this must be accomplished with some degree of particularity, i.e., merely reciting the statutory language is insufficient (see, Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, 111 Misc 2d 303, 304-305). Additionally, the topics discussed during the executive session must remain within the exceptions enumerated in the statute (see generally, Matter of Plattsburgh Publ. Co., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v City of Plattsburgh, 185 AD2d §18), and these exceptions, in turn, ‘must be narrowly scrutinized, lest the article’s clear mandate be thwarted by thinly veiled references to the areas delineated thereunder’ (Weatherwax v Town of Stony Point, 97 AD2d 840, 841, quoting Daily Gazette Co. v Town Bd., Town of Cobleskill, supra, at 304; see, of Orange County Publs., Div. of Ottaway Newspapers v County of Orange, 120 AD2d 596, lv dismissed 68 NY 2d 807).

And finally, that same opinion included this:

“It is insufficient to merely regurgitate the statutory language; … This boilerplate recitation does not comply with the intent of the statute. To validly convene an executive session … the public body must identify with particularity the pending, proposed or current matter to be discussed during the executive session” [Daily Gazette Co. , Inc. v. Town Board, Town of Cobleskill, 44 NYS 2d 44, 46 (1981), emphasis added by court].

“Regurgitating” the statutory language, as the Public Health Committee did, does not comply with the statute.

Lew 02/14/21

Sent from my iPhone

Supervisor Gaston’s Defense of County Sacrifices Her Credibility

The New York State Committee on Open Government (NYSCOOG) has issued an opinion that the Health and Human Services Committee of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, chaired by Supervisor Tara Gaston, violated the Open Meetings Law (OML) when it improperly closed the public portion of its January 27, 2021, meeting and went into executive session.

In addition the Committee on Open Government’s email appears to contradict Supervisor Gaston’s claim that she contacted them for assistance.

Supervisor Gaston Denies County Violated Open Meetings Law

In its January 28, 2021 edition, the Times Union reported on the contentious meeting of the county Health and Human Services Committee. The reporter noted that he had contacted the NYSCOOG regarding the executive session and that the NYSCOOG had confirmed his suspicion that the county had violated OML.

I subsequently wrote to Supervisor Gaston and asked:

Do you still contend that it was appropriate to have gone into executive session?

If you do not, are you concerned about the reliability of opinions issued by the County Attorney?

What actions do you plan to take to insure that the Open Meetings Law is adhered to.

Email of February 1, 2021

On February 4, 2021, Supervisor Gaston responded to my inquiry in an email (her full response is at the bottom of this post), “I believe that the 1/27/21 executive session was appropriate and met necessary criteria.”

In this same email Supervisor Gaston attempted to spin the quote from the NYSCOOG in the TU article by interpreting it as having vindicated her. According to her reading of the quote the NYSCOOG was unsure as to whether the county had violated OML.

It is instructive to compare her paraphrase of what the Times Union published with the actual text from the article.

From the Times Union:

“It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would ‘imperil’ public safety,” she [Kirstin O’Neill Assistant Director of NYSCOOG] wrote in an email.” If the conversation does not meet any of the criteria …in our view, it should have occurred in public.”

Times Union Article

Tara Gaston’s paraphrasing of the article

I am aware that the assistant director of COOG was quoted in a 1/28/21 TU article as stating that an executive session that did not meet certain criteria would violate open meetings law (which I agree with) and that it is not clear to her whether the 1/27/21 executive session would meet the required criteria. To my knowledge no determination has been provided by or requested from COOG.

Supervisor Gaston email.

Ms. O’Neill is not saying she is unclear about whether the Supervisors violated OML. She states she is unclear how such a discussion would “imperil” the public, as required by law.

Nevertheless, to be thorough, on Friday morning, February 5, I wrote to the NYSCOOG asking for an opinion. I provided them with the actual public record (minutes) of the county meeting.

I was surprised to receive a response later that same day. The actual full text in that response removes any possible ambiguity:

So, the fact that the conversation involved public safety, isn’t enough [JK: Text in red was not included in the TU article].  Having the conversation in public would have to imperil public safety.  It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would “imperil” public safety.”

Email form NYSCOOG

I followed up with a telephone conversation with Ms. O’Neill and she made clear that in her opinion the county had failed to adhere to the OML.

Supervisor Gaston Alleged Attempt For Guidance From NYSCOOG

In her email to me, Supervisor Gaston wrote: “I have requested clarification from COOG.”

In my communication with the NYSCOOG I asked if the county had contacted them regarding the issue of OML and their meeting. In Ms. O’Neill’s response she wrote that to her recollection her office had received no such contact.

So I emailed Supervisor Gaston asking if she could send me her inquiry to the NYSCOOG and their response.

She did not answer that email and I subsequently emailed her again simply asking whether or not she was going to respond for my request. This similarly drew no resply.

NYSCOOG’s inability to recall any contact from the county along with Supervisor Gaston’s silence raises serious doubts about her statement that she had sought guidance from the state.

Supervisor Gaston seems to be part of a closed system that simply ignores the fundamental rights of the community to open government. This kind of opacity regrettably insures that there will be more scandals.



Relevant Correspondence

From The New York State Committee On Open Government

Good Morning Mr. Kaufman,

The motion to enter into executive session must include the reason for entering into the session that is consistent with law (See OML 105(1)).

The motion should also be specific enough so that the public is assured that the body is entering into executive session for a proper purpose.

The only reference to “public safety” in Section 105 is the language which allows a public body to enter into ES to discuss “matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.”

So, the fact that the conversation involved public safety, isn’t enough.  Having the conversation in public would have to imperil public safety.  It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would “imperil” public safety.  If the conversation does not meet any of the criteria described in Section 105 (executive session) or Section 108 (exemptions), in our view, it should have occurred in public.

Have a good weekend.

Kristin O’Neill

Assistant Director, Committee on Open Government

New York State Department of State

One Commerce Plaza, Albany, NY 12231

(518) 474-2518 

http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/


From Tara Gaston:

John,
I have received no notification from the County Attorney nor the Committee on Open Government   (COOG) itself that the executive session at the 1/27/21 Health & Social Services Committee was determined to be a violation of NYS Open Meetings Law. 

I am aware that the assistant director of COOG was quoted in a 1/28/21 TU article as stating that an executive session that did not meet certain criteria would violate open meetings law (which I agree with) and that it is not clear to her whether the 1/27/21 executive session would meet the required criteria. To my knowledge no determination has been provided by or requested from COOG. If that is not your understanding I would appreciate you forwarding a copy of such [JK: I am not sure why she is asking me this.]; I have requested clarification from COOG.

I believe that the 1/27/21 executive session was appropriate and met necessary criteria. 

Tara N. Gaston | she/her
Supervisor, City of Saratoga Springs
tngaston@saratogacountyny.gov

Times Union Watch: Robin Dalton, Commissioner of Public Safety, Drops Her Republican Registration

[JK: I received a press release from Robin Dalton announcing her decision to change her registration from Republican to Independent.]


Robin Dalton

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Contact Info@DaltonforSafety.com                                      February, 2021                                               

Dalton to Seek Re-Election with ‘Community First’ Approach 

My experience living in Saratoga Springs has reaffirmed my belief that it is the unique passion and dedication of Saratogians that has made our ‘City in the Country” such a remarkable place to live. 

In my role as Public Safety Commissioner, whether at the City Council table or in conversations with constituents, my decisions have always been based on my commitment to good governance, honesty and a persistent search for common ground.

In the last few years, I have struggled to find the value of party politics and partisanship in our city. Fortunately, in my run for office in 2019, I joined other like-minded candidates who prioritized city over party.

Now having served the City for over a year, I remain committed to representing a wide diversity of thought and to giving voice to every resident in fulfilling my role as an elected public servant. To that end, after much careful consideration, I have decided to run for re-election with no party affiliation at this time. 

I remain deeply grateful for all of the support I have received from the City Republican Committee in my first year in office and hope to continue to build on that trust in the coming months as I seek a second term as Commissioner of Public Safety in November. [JK: My Emphasis]


Contrast this restrained statement with the February 11, 2021, article by Wendy Liberatore on Commissioner Dalton’s decision. She quotes Commissioner Dalton as saying:

“It’s turned into a party of racism, intolerance and hatred,” she said. “Those values fly in the face of the principles our country was found on. I’m deeply uncomfortable with where they are headed and I knew it was something I was not comfortable being a part of.”

Times Union Story

Commissioner Dalton’s release was clearly crafted to be respectful of the local Republican Party. I have no idea what the context of her harsh attack on Republicans as a whole was. I assume she was responding to questions about the impeachment proceedings and the state of the Republican Party in Washington.

I don’t know whether Wendy Liberatore, who wrote the article, simply ginned it up to generate web clicks or whether she was perverse enough to have enjoyed playing a little mischief at Commissioner Dalton’s expense but the result was unsurprising. Chris Obstarczyk, the chairman of the city’s Republican Committee issued a strong statement taking exception to Commissioner Dalton’s remarks. (see below).

I am acquainted with Mr. Obstarczyk and several members of the Republican Committee. While I do not share their approach to government, these are reasonable and civil people. I do not know all of the people on the committee, but I expect there are some who are enthusiastic about Donald Trump in spite of his worst excesses.

It is worth taking the time to read the platform of the Saratoga Springs Republican Party. The platform includes none of the hot button, incendiary, national issues. It basically focuses on making Saratoga Springs better. There is nothing about immigrants, walls, masks, socialistic Democrats, or stolen elections.

Here are a few excerpts from their platform.

  • We believe in helping people to help themselves. It takes a community. We believe in protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens at a responsible cost to the taxpayers.
  • We embrace all segments of our community regardless of race, gender, age, or other factors.
  • We support our ‘City in the Country’ development plan and encourage the use of our greenbelt area for recreation and pleasure whether it be biking, hiking, or trail use.

Saratoga Springs Republican Chair Chris Obstarczyk ‘s press release:


STATEMENT FROM SARATOGA SPRINGS REPUBLICAN CHAIRMAN CHRIS OBSTARCZYK REGARDING COMMISSIONER OF PUBLIC SAFETY ROBIN DALTON LEAVING REPUBLICAN PARTY

“Unfortunately, Commissioner of Public Safety Robin Dalton is too focused on national politics when the safety of our community should be her paramount concern.

To stereotype and paint all Republicans, including police and fire personnel in her own department, in such broad strokes as racist, intolerant and hateful is offensive, divisive, tone deaf and untrue.

Ironically, the Republican Party is the party of tolerance and its mission is not set on censoring opposing viewpoints or engaging in cancel culture.

Saratoga Springs Republicans are focused on issues that affect Saratogians as reflected in our platform.

We are committed to keeping Saratoga Springs the great place to work, live, raise a family and visit that it is and will support a candidate that is focused on their job and backs our first responders including police and fire.”

To learn more about what the Saratoga Springs GOP stands for, please check out our platform at LINK

Some Excellent Points By Lew Benton On Saratoga County and the Open Meetings Law

[JK: This post was originally published as a comment by Lew Benton in response to my post on the most recent county violation of the Open Meetings Law. It was so insightful that I am republishing it here as a post to expand its readership]

John,

Many, many years ago ESSO changed its corporate name to EXXON. The pundits weighed in: “New name, same old gas.” So it goes.

The County has purged some administrative staff but the ethic and culture that allowed the COVID pay debacle to advance as far as it did apparently survives.

Every member of a legislative body should be intimately familiar with the legitimate reasons for and the process required to adjourn into executive sessions. Presumably the minutes of this Health and Human Services Committee meeting will identify the committee member who introduced the required motion to go into executive session, the stated subject of the session and the vote that would have been necessary. Those minutes are not yet available.

In the aftermath of last year’s ham-handed and extralegal attempt to enhance the pay of certain county employees and officials, it was reasonable to expect some reform of Board committee operations and the restoration of the Board’s executive authority. Chief among such reforms should have been required strict adherence to the Public Officers Law and how meetings are conducted.

With the exception of the four members of the Board of Supervisors (including the two representing Saratoga Springs), a supervisor also serves as the chief executive officer of their respective town. As such they sit as the chair of their town board. So surely they must know when it is and is not appropriate to adjourn into executive session.

I recall that there came a time when even most board committee meeting agenda items were determined by the county administrator, not the committee chair. This, of course, gave additional power to the administrator that was never originally contemplated or intended. I hope that practice has long since ended.

Perhaps a few simple suggestions will help. (1) Never attend a Board or committee meeting without a copy of the Open Meetings Law; (2) Remember that the chair and the other committee members are responsible for determining if and when an executive sessions is legitimate; (3) neither the county attorney nor the county administrator have any right or authority to decide the question; and (4) every member should also have a copy of the local law that established the office of and defined the role of the county administrator.

Clearly the committee’s January 27th executive session violated the so-called open meetings law that is Section 105, Article 7 of the Public Officers Law. It’s not too much to ask and expect that elected public officers actually read and abide by it.

Here it is.

§105. Conduct of executive sessions.

1. Upon a majority vote of its total membership, taken in an open meeting pursuant to a motion identifying the general area or areas of the subject or subjects to be considered, a public body may conduct an executive session for the below enumerated purposes only, provided, however, that no action by formal vote shall be taken to appropriate public moneys:
a. matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
b. any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
c. information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
d. discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
e. collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
f. the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
g. the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
h. the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.
2. Attendance at an executive session shall be permitted to any member of the public body and any other persons authorized by the public body.

County Violates Open Meeting Law: It’s Deja Vu All Over Again

The Health and Human Services Committee of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors met last week. Their meeting was a debacle with members apparently shouting at each other before the committee inappropriately went into executive session. The meeting demonstrated that in spite of the change in leadership, many of the problems that plagued the Board last year are still with us.

The story is laid out in detail in a Times Union article.

The county was allocated 400 doses of the COVID vaccine with apparently very little notice. The county’s Health Department requested assistance from the Board of Supervisors in locating eligible persons to receive the shots.

According to the Times Union:

The state had charged local pharmacies with vaccinating those 65 and older, but created this allotment because of the lack of pharmacies in some areas of the county, according to one supervisor.

TU January 28, 2021

So the 400 doses were only to go to residents 65 or older with “an emphasis placed on reaching homebound seniors.”

The Times Union found that “none of the towns maintain official lists of seniors.” It is my understanding that local municipalities are supposed to maintain lists of disabled and/or isolated individuals in the event of an emergency/evacuation. Such lists are notoriously unreliable due to the cost of keeping them up to date. Apparently, many of the Supervisors didn’t even know that they had such lists. The Sheriff Department’s list was outdated.

The article points out also that it is expensive and time consuming to inoculate people in their homes. In addition to the time required for travel and to give the shot, there is a need to wait an additional fifteen minutes in the event of an allergic reaction.

The TU first tried to contact the county’s Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles for more information.

The Times Union reached out to Saratoga County Public Health Commissioner Daniel Kuhles’ office Thursday for clarification on how the county developed its plan, and was told he wasn’t available unless questions were sent to the county’s public relations agency, Gramercy Communications. The Times Union had not heard from Kuhles by early Thursday evening.

Times Union January 29, 2021

Dr. Kuhles’ resistance to being transparent is not a new problem. In a previous post I reported on the complaint by Mayor Meg Kelly about Dr. Kuhles’ lack of communication. I find it especially troubling that the TU was directed to a public relations firm in Albany the county contracts with. Why should the county need a public relations firm to answer questions that the County Health Commissioner is supposed to be competent to answer?

According to the Times Union, most of the coordination and communications ended up going through Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston who chairs the county Health and Human Services Committee.

On Thursday, Gaston admitted she had made mistakes, but defended the intent behind the decisions. The county health department doesn’t have the staffing or capacity to build a list of eligible seniors quickly, she said. The county is in the process of organizing a call center to help determine vaccine eligibility.

TU January 29, 2021

Supervisor Gaston emailed her fellow Supervisors on Sunday night advising them of the availability of the 400 doses and asking them to provide a list of eligible persons to her by noon on Monday. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the email. I contacted Supervisor Gaston last Wednesday (January 27) and to date (February 2) she has not responded.

Allowing politicians to determine who should receive a vaccine is obviously a very bad idea.

She [Gaston] said everything went crazy after that. “This is not good, this is not the best system. We wanted to make sure every municipality had at least some access. I regret that it was presented the way it was. In this pandemic there are no good decisions. There isn’t enough vaccine, enough information, enough people or enough time.”

TU January 29, 2021

Tempers flared at the Wednesday night meeting of Gaston’s Health and Human Services Committee.

At the meeting Supervisors complained about the lack of a plan. At least one Supervisor argued that the Health Department should be dealing with this.

Waterford Supervisor, Jack Lawler, stated:

“Clearly the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. Frankly, we should have left it in the hands of professionals.”

TU January 27, 2021

Providence Supervisor Sandra Winney complained, “I just don’t think I’m qualified to say to people, ‘You can get a shot and you can’t.'”

Things got quite heated and citing alleged public “safety” the committee went into executive session.

The law does allow for executive sessions for, “matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed.” But it was unclear how discussing a vaccination plan for 400 people would harm the public safety of a county with nearly 230,000 people.

Times Union January 27, 2021

Kristin O’Neill, Assistant Director for the Committee on Open Government told the Times Union the county erred in going into executive session.

“It isn’t clear to me how having a discussion such as the one you describe in public would ‘imperil’ public safety. If the conversation does not meet any of the criteria …in our view, it should have occurred in public.”

Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government.

A number of Supervisors told the TU that the discussion that occurred did not require going into executive session.

Supervisor Lawler told the TU, “There was no reason, in my opinion for executive session. This should have been a public conversation.”

According to the TU, 130 persons were inoculated in their homes by EMS crews, and 270 were to receive their vaccines at the Public Safety Building.

Disgraceful Opacity Is A Continuing Problem

As readers may recall, the investigation into the COVID salary fiasco last year revealed that the county had systematically violated the Open Meetings Law. The investigation revealed that the Saratoga County Attorney at the time had improperly counseled that the executive sessions were ok.

The new County Attorney who served as assistant to his predecessor apparently is continuing this tradition. He supported going into executive session. It is very troubling that Supervisor Gaston who is an attorney and who must be familiar with the report of the earlier investigation, is continuing this very troubling pattern.

I emailed Supervisor Gaston asking her whether in hindsight she had improperly allowed the meeting to go into executive session and if so, how she planned to avoid future abuses.

Supervisor Gaston did not respond to my email.

The open meetings law is the building block for accessible government. I find it very troubling that Supervisor Gaston is unwilling to address this issue.

City Police Reform Task Force Seeks Community Help But Survey is Seriously Flawed

I received a request from Jason Golub to assist in soliciting the public to take a survey developed by the Police Reform Task Force that he co-chairs.

I have major reservations about the survey which I document in this post. Having said that, it is important that the goal of strengthening our police force has this community’s involvement so in spite of my reservations, I still would encourage the readers of this blog to participate in the survey and to engage in the public discussion that the final report by the task force will generate.

The task force was established by the City Council in response to an executive order by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced new guidance for the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, which was established by the Governor’s Executive Order in June. The guidance offers a framework and topics for consideration by local police departments, elected officials and citizens as they develop their local plans for reform. Per the Governor’s Executive Order, every locality must adopt a plan for reform by April 1, 2021 to be eligible for future state funding. 

August 17, 2020

Mr. Golub wrote the following introduction to the survey:

As part of the ongoing work of the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force to develop a plan and recommendations around police strategies and program reform in Saratoga Springs, we have put together the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Community Survey. While not intended to be exhaustive, the goal of the survey is to both understand concerns community members have, but also get additional community input on areas where the task force is considering recommendations for policy or practice change. Input from community members is critical to our work and the survey is an important element of ensuring the community’s voice is heard by both the task force and the police.

The survey takes 5 minutes to complete. Please feel free to post/distribute to other members of the community. Thank you!

But Here are some Problems:

An Odd Collaboration

The initial draft for this survey was done by John Schroeder who is not a member of the Task Force. It is not clear how or why he was chosen to create this document. He is also personally hosting the survey and its results. Mr. Schroeder has been an outspoken critic of the city’s police department and of the Commissioner of Public Safety , Robin Dalton. He has submitted some forty-four FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) requests for documents related to the police department. Most recently he was awarded money from the city for a FOIL request that was sent to him seven days late per FOIL requirements.

I am deeply troubled that it is not clear whether his application will be able to harvest IP addresses from participants in the survey. An IP address is the unique identifier for a computer and can be used to track people. Survey software normally is able to save the IP address of people who participate.

I think that Mr. Schroeder deserves a great deal of credit for his dedication in working for police reform. He is a voice that deserves engagement.

Having said that, I think his role in drafting the survey and, more importantly, hosting the data collection and storage is problematic.

This Survey Will Provide Feedback To The Task Force But Will Not Provide Meaningful Statistics

While this survey will provide some feedback to the task force, it cannot be used to provide a complete snapshot of how this community feels about policing.

Providing a more accurate picture of the community’s opinion would require a random sample. This survey is simply based on responses from whomever happens to know about it and is willing to take the time to fill it out.

The survey also does not utilize technology to limit participants from responding to the survey more than once. An enterprising person could fill the survey out as many times as they have the patience to do so.

There are troubling problems with some of the questions

The following are some of the questions in the survey that I find problematic and seem to have many characteristics of a push poll. A push poll according to Wikipedia “is an interactive marketing technique…in which an individual or organization attempts to manipulate or alter …views under the guise of conducting an opinion poll.”

Question #9 asks the survey taker to respond to a number of statements. It reads:

Please indicate which of the following changes to policing you support:

For all of the following statements the user can only select one of the following answers:

Support – Don’t Support – Not Sure

One of the statements reads: Ending profiling, “Stop and Frisk”, and policing of minor issues

One of the classic ways that polling is abused is by crafting questions whose real purpose is less to gather information and more to send a subtle message to sway participants . In this case asking if one supports “ending” these three practices sends the message that these are currently in effect in Saratoga Springs. I know that profiling and stop and frisk are not city policies. Are there ongoing abuses? I don’t know, but the question should be drafted to be neutral. Choosing not sure indicates you don’t know if you would support these changes or not.

The vast majority of people in our community I believe would oppose racial profiling and “stop and frisk.” They may answer “support” without realizing that their answer implies that they believe the police currently are guilty of these activities.

In addition this is really three questions rather than one. This violates basic best practices for surveys. What if you, the person filling out the questionnaire, believe in ending one but not all of these activities?

For instance there is the problem with the third part of this “question” which is extremely vague: ending of “policing of minor issues.” I would expect that many who take this survey will not know what is meant by a “minor issue”.

I believe this is a reference to the grossly abusive tactics established in New York City called “the broken window” strategy. This policy assumed that by arresting people for minor violations that it would suppress crime in general. This policy evolved into a system where police in New York City were assigned quotas for arrests in order to effectively carry out the policy. The subsequent litigation over this policy documented the arrest of people for infractions that were routinely arbitrary and often without merit. For example, people were arrested for obstructing sidewalks when they were chatting with someone on the street and there was plenty of room to walk around them. The vast percentage of these arrests were of people of color.

While I suspect this is what “policing of minor issues” is referencing the wording is so vague that I can’t be sure.

I don’t know what the intention of the people who crafted this question was, but this question clearly has a message. It may perhaps simply reflect the unconscious prejudice of the authors rather than be a pernicious effort to manipulate.

I, like most citizens in this city I think ,oppose racial profiling and the arbitrary use of stop and frisk. Unfortunately, I did not know how to respond to the issue of “policing minor issues” due to its vagueness so I was unable to comfortably select any of the possible answers in spite of the fact that it was a required field. I could not continue with the survey without making a selection so I was forced to make an uncomfortable choice.

Another statement participants are asked to respond to is did they support:

Banning No Knock, and Knock and Enter warrants

I know what a no knock entry is (Breonna Taylor died as a result of a no knock debacle). I do not know what a “knock and enter warrant” is. Is it when the police knock and announce themselves just before they force their way into a building? Is it when police knock and announce themselves and if the occupant doesn’t answer the door they force their way in?

The problem is that here again there are two questions rolled into one so if I did support ending “no knock warrants” but not “knock and enter” there is no way of registering this kind of response.

I think there are legitimate arguments both for and against the policy of no knock warrants but without more information about what a knock and enter warrant is I have difficulty answering this question. I do think these are important issues for our city to consider.

Here is another statement participants are asked to respond to:

Requiring de-escalation and strict guidelines on using force, especially deadly force

This again presumes that the city does not already require “de-escalation and strict guidelines on using force, especially deadly force.” In fact these are currently official city policies. A more relevant question would be to ask whether “to your knowledge does the city adhere to these policies?”

Given the gravity of the need to minimize violence, the idea, as assumed by this question, that the city lacks these policies is an implicit criticism of the police department’s management rather than a serious attempt to gain insights from respondents.

Here is another statement in this section:

Prioritizing resources towards rigorous training to reinforce policies, including testing for bias in shoot/don’t shoot decision making

This again this has a “push poll” quality to it. It gives the participant in the survey the impression that the city does not already “prioritize rigorous training to reinforce policies…”

Contrasting The Schenectady Survey With The Saratoga Springs Survey

Schenectady’s task force is called the “Schenectady Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.” They collaborated with the John Finn Institute for Public Safety, an independent research firm to craft their survey and to collect and analyze survey responses. The difference in terms of the quality of their survey and the Saratoga Springs survey is striking. Its questions are clear and direct. Unlike the Saratoga Springs survey, each question allows the person filling out the survey to answer “I don’t know.”

One of the most confusing elements of Saratoga’s survey is that it appears to ask the user to make determinations about the success or failure of the city in a variety of areas. I know that I balked at these questions because I was in no position to know. The Schenectady survey has crafted similar questions but in those cases the user is asked about his/her impression rather than asking the person to make an actual determination.

Consider this excerpt from the Schenectady survey:

We’d like to begin by asking a few questions about your opinions of the Schenectady Police

Please indicate the response that most closely fits how you feel (my emphasis) about the Schenectady Police Department.

1. THE LEADERSHIP OF THE SCHENECTADY POLICE DEPARTMENT IS RECEPTIVE TO CHANGE/INNOVATION.

Agree strongly Agree Somewhat Disagree Disagree strongly Don’t know

Schenectady Survey

Contrast that approach to Saratoga’s survey:

Do you agree with the following statements?

1. The SSPD works together with community members to solve local problems.

Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree

Saratoga Springs Survey

Nevertheless Support The Task Force’s Efforts

Having raised these criticisms, I still believe that responses to this survey may help the task force in its deliberations and I would encourage the readers of this blog to take the time to do the survey.

This is a link to the survey.

Mayor Kelly’s Planned Retirement and Community Food Drive; The State Of The City Address

It is no secret that I am a great admirer of Mayor Kelly. Some weeks ago, she announced that she would not be running for Mayor in the coming election. This is a link to a story on WAMC about her decision. I am very sorry about her decision, but I am grateful for her two terms. I wish her all the best in her future endeavors. She has been an extraordinary mayor.

I received a release from Mayor Kelly’s office of an upcoming food drive that she is sponsoring. This effort is really emblematic of her sense of service to our city.

The State of the City

This is a link to the WAMC story on the State of the City address given Tuesday night, January 26, 2021 by the Mayor and four Commissioners.

A Follow-up To Accusations Regarding Lead In City Water: The City’s Water Meets State and Federal Standards

Last October the Times Union ran a story with the sensational headline: “Saratoga Springs residents find excessive lead, turbidity in city water.”

Two homeowners on Saddle Brook Road reported their water had elevated levels of lead after having it privately tested. They also reported discolored water.

The New York State Department of Health responded to an inquiry by the Times Union regarding the homes as follows:

“The department was made aware of elevated lead levels in the drinking water samples collected from two homes on Saddle Brook Drive in Saratoga Springs. Although the city remains in compliance with current standards, the department, through its Glens Falls district office, is working with the homeowners to troubleshoot potential sources of lead within their homes.”

New York State Department of Health

A careful reading of this text strongly suggests that the problem was not with the city’s water but with the local lines and plumbing associated with the homes.

Dillon Moran who unsuccessfully ran against Department of Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco in 2019 and apparently plans to run again this November, is quoted in the article as follows:

“For a city known for its water, this troubles me.Lead levels should be zero. This affects human health and it’s not reversible. Quite frankly, there is a problem here.

Dillon Moran

Subsequently, on social media Joanne Yepsen advised people that they should not be drinking city water. Pat Kane alleged his dogs’ muzzles had become discolored from drinking city water.

Now the New York State Department of Health has written to the city stating that it has completed its analysis of water samples taken on Saddle Brook Drive, and they have reconfirmed that the city is in compliance with Federal and State water quality standards.

The letter confirms that the city will continue to flush the area monthly. The letter also notes that the sodium level exceeds 20 milligrams per litre (mg/l) . The letter notes that salt levels of greater than 20 “should not be used for drinking by people on severely restricted sodium diets.”

Unfortunately the issue of excessive salt in public drinking water is a fairly common problem due to the use of salt on roads that migrates into sources of drinking water. It is, however, not a violation of the water quality requirements.