Mayor Yepsen Responds On Saratoga National Golf Course’s Violations… Sort of

I received the following email from Mayor Yepsen regarding the Saratoga National Golf Course violations:

From: Joanne Yepsen [joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org]
Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 1:13 PM
To: John Kaufmann
Cc: <christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org>; John Franck; Skip Sciroco;
<michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org>
Subject: Re: Saratoga National Golf Course

John, thanks very much for bringing this to our attention. My staff have been looking into all the
questions and concerns and we will be back in touch soon. The City may need to tighten up or update
the 1998 language and be sure everyone follows the rules. More to come… Thank you.
Joanne


I responded as follows:

From: John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 9:28 PM
To: joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org
Cc: ‘christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org’; John Franck (johnfranck@your-
cpas.com); ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org’
Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course Violations

Thank you for your email.  Unfortunately, your response referenced important issues but did not
actually address them.  I know that you pride yourself on your office’s transparency and its open door
policy.  I would like to avail myself of these by meeting with you at your earliest convenience to better
understand what your office has done so far and what it plans to do regarding Saratoga National Golf
Course’s apparent violations.  I am intrigued by your reference that “The City may need to tighten up
or update the 1998 language.”  It would also be helpful to know you and your staff’s thinking about
how to assess the “Western Trail” compliance and the kind of measures you are considering that
would allow you to determine how many “special events” are held out at Saratoga National Golf
Course.



Candidate Safford Responds To Questions About Saratoga National Golf Course

[Note: While new posts automatically go out to the “followers” of this blog, comments do not.  With that in mind I am posting John Safford’s response to my inquiry to him about Saratoga National Golf Course’s violation of their Special Use Permit]


Hi John,

I do follow your blog and was held in suspense while you and your friend sought out the Western trail at National. I was a little disappointed that you didn’t mention the well done Eastern trail when you talked at the council meeting.
I was not a little concerned to hear that the number of events were limited at National . I have attended many not-for-profit fund raisers there and would not like to see them stopped. However, agreements need to be lived up to or they need to be modified.
As you know my numerous conversations with residents in the area reflect an irritation with the many fireworks displays at National and, even more importantly with the general traffic problems at either end of Gilbert Road. Frankly, almost all of the people I talked with like and use National regularly.
From what I understand (except for the Eastern Trail), National has met or exceeded its promises to bring a hi-end golf course to the Eastern Ridge. As Mayor, I will bring up the agreement and see if there is reason to modify it.

Saratoga National Golf Course: Above The Law?

[Note:  This was reposted because I published the original email to Mayor Yepsen from September 18 rather than the new one]

I have documented what appears to be the systematic violations by Saratoga National Golf Course to adhere to the requirements of the Special Use Permit issued to them by the city.  To date the city has taken no action regarding these potential violations.  In light of this I have sent emails to Mayor Yepsen and to her opponent, John Safford.  I have asked the mayor to respond by indicating what action she plans to take in this matter.  I have asked Mr. Safford, were he mayor, how would he would address this.


From: John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 04, 2015 8:41 PM
To: joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org
Cc: ‘christian.mathiesen@saratoga-springs.org’; John Franck (johnfranck@your-
cpas.com); ‘Skip Sciroco’; ‘michele.madigan@saratoga-springs.org’
Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course

This is a follow-up to my email to you of September 18 regarding the apparent violations of the Special
Permit granted to Saratoga National Golf Course.  To date, I have not heard back from you.
As I noted in my original email, it appears that SNGC has been grossly negligent in erecting a “Nature
Trail” to run along the west side of the course as required by its Special Use Permit.  In most cases
there is literally no trail of any kind.  There is virtually no effective signage along the trail as what there
is is buried in places that people seeking to use the trail cannot see them.
Just as seriously is the apparent violation of  the agreement to limit large events to only three per
year.  Your recent attendance at the Saratoga PLAN fundraiser should have given you the flavor for the
kind of large event that the Special Permit was meant to address.  There have been many other large
events at SNGC.  During just one week this summer SNGC hosted the St. Jude’s fundraiser along with
two sold out “Travers Party” events that filled their “Blue Stone Patio” venue. SNGC told a local
periodical that they hosted one hundred and twenty five weddings last year.  I would refer you to the I
Love NY web site http://www.iloveny.com/listings/Saratoga-National-Golf-Club/8704/#.VhFiD7mFPIU
or the SNGC’s own web site for an indication of their very aggressive marketing.  It seems very
possible that they are enjoying the spoils of large profits by violating their agreement with the city.

Property owners throughout this city routinely abide by the city’s many land use requirements as good
citizens.  You can understand how troubled people would be if they were to learn that a major
business in this city has been allowed to violate our land use requirements with impunity.
On August 31, 2015, I formally asked the city Building Inspector to investigate this matter.  I included
with my request that he advise me of his findings and any actions he might take.  It is now many weeks
later and I have heard nothing.  As you know, his office is under your authority.

As a courtesy and in keeping with your campaign commitment to make transparency the hallmark of
your administration, I would be grateful if you could formally respond by indicating what actions
regarding this matter you plan to take.


From: John Kaufmann [john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]
Sent: Sunday, October 04, 2015 8:43 PM
To: John Safford (SaffordForSaratoga@gmail.com)
Subject: Saratoga National Golf Course

As you follow my blog, you are aware of my coverage of the apparent violations by Saratoga National
Golf Course of the Special Use Permit they were issued to build their project.

Saratoga National Golf Course was required to build two “Nature Trails” with proper signage and
available to the public.  Any reasonable person who attempted to use the western “Nature Trail”
would find out that most of it does not exist as a trail, let alone a “nature trail.”  There are only two
fragments that could be described as trail like and these lack any signage that would help someone
who wanted to use these trails to access them.

There is also reason to believe that SNGC routinely exceeds the number of large events allowed under
the requirements of the Special Use Permit.  For example, the St. Jude fundraiser, the Feast In the
Fields fundraiser, and the two “Travers Parties” that sold out the Blue Patio Tent on a weekend in
August during the racing season combined with other events taking place at the same time appear to
have exceeded their yearly limit.

If you were Mayor, what action would you take to determine whether Saratoga National Golf Course
had violated their agreement and if they had, what actions would you take to address the problem.


To get some sense of just how aggressively Saratoga National Golf Course markets, check out these links to the I Love NY website.

WIth Gideon Putnam

Touting Their Restaurant


A Muddle of Munters (Version #2)

[Note: The original post for this was truncated.  This is the complete one]

In response to my post about Saratoga PLAN’s fundraiser at Saratoga National Golf Course I received the following comment:

“Mr. Kaufmann, you have a major mistake in this post. There are two John Munter’s (father and son). The John Munter that chairs the Plan board has not donated to the PAC. I suggest you fact check before posting derogatory claims.”

As it turns out, Munter Enterprises, a construction/development company, is a family business founded by John E.Munter, Sr. and now headed by his son, John E. Munter, Jr.   According to their required filing, Saratoga PAC reported that a John Munter donated to their organization.  I am assuming from the comment I received that John E. Munter (senior) made the donation and that John E. Munter, Jr. chairs Saratoga PLAN.

Fathers and sons do not always agree on issues, so I decided to call John E. Munter, Jr. to find out from him directly whether he shared his father’s enthusiasm for Saratoga PAC.  He returned my call and explained to me that the post came from himself, rather than his father (he refers to himself in the third person in his comment).  I asked him if he would share with me his views on whether Saratoga PAC was an asset or a problem for our political process.  He refused to answer asserting that whatever appeared in my blog would be derogatory.

While I appreciate his correction, his response to my question to him make it unclear whether the substance of my criticism is not still valid.

I would encourage Mr. Munter, Jr. to clarify his position by posting on my blog his assessment of Saratoga PAC.  I will post it without any editing.

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.”