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.

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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:

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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.

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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