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

More Confusion Over Enforcement Of City Special Permit Issue

Susan Steer posted a comment in response to my story about the city’s lack of enforcement of its “Special Permits.”  Ms. Steer is a Democratic Committee member and was appointed to the Zoning Board of Appeals by Mayor Yepsen.

In her comment she took issue with who was responsible for the enforcement for special permits.  She asserted that the public safety department and not the mayor’s office bears the responsibility.

As I noted in my original post, not only did the retired city planner believe that the responsibility was with the mayor’s office but the building inspector, Steve Shaw, whose office is under the mayor, also agreed that it was his responsibility.  Nevertheless, I contacted Commissioner of Public Safety, Chris Mathiesen to double check.  Commissioner Mathiesen explained that his office was responsible for a variety of ordinances such as excessive noise.  It was also responsible for code enforcement largely through the fire department for safety issues among others.  Compliance with land-use issues was with the building inspector.  Commissioner Mathiesen has served on a number of land-use boards over the years and is quite knowledgable.  He told me he was familiar with the issues.  He lamented the general lack of enforcement due to the limited resources in the building inspector’s office.  He also noted what he considered the excessive leniency in the courts regarding penalties.

I fully expect all of this to be clarified.  As the readers of this blog know, I have written to Mayor Yepsen about the apparent violation by Saratoga National Golf Course of their special permit both in their failure to comply with the building of two nature trails and with the fact that they routinely exceed the limit of the special events they are allowed each year.  I also brought to her attention the confusion of who is responsible for enforcement.  I expect our Mayor to rigorously investigate all of these issues and to take whatever remedial action may be necessary.  When she responds to my inquiries, and shares with me what she has done, I will post it on this site.

More Bizarre Stuff With Saratoga National Golf Course: The City Has No Record Of Who Would Enforce Compliance With Special Permits

In August I FOILed the city about a number of issues.  One of my requests involved what appeared to be a lack of compliance with the Special Permit issued to Saratoga National that limited them to no more than three large events a year.  The response to the FOIL as regards this matter (The FOIL involved other documents which I will cover in the future) was quite remarkable.  According to the city attorney, they have no records regarding responsibility for monitoring compliance with the stipulations in the special permit issued to Saratoga National, at least as regards large events.

FOIL Re Special Permit SNGC-1

This prompted me to write the following email to Mayor Yepsen with copies to the council:

To:  joanne.yepsen@saratoga-springs.org

Cc:  Christian E. Mathiesen; Skip Sciroco; John Franck ; Michele madigan

Subject: Oversight

Date: September 17, 2015

According to the original special permit issued in 1998 to Saratoga National Golf Course, they agreed to limit their “special events” by which was meant, events that exceeded their regular parking to only three a year. It is apparent that based on their promotional materials on their web site and other information that they are routinely violating this commitment. In 2007 when they asked for a substantial expansion to their project they reasserted that they would keep to their original commitment of only three events.

In August I asked Kate Maynard, the city planner, who was responsible for insuring their compliance with their Special use Permit? She did not know and I followed up with an email/FOIL. I received a letter dated September 17 from Vincent DeLeonardis, the city attorney, in response to my FOIL in which he states “Please note we do not have any records regarding who is responsible for monitoring Saratoga National’s special events as defined in the Special Use Permit.”

I find this quite strange. Some weeks prior I called Geof Bourneman who was the previous head of planning. He was, in fact, the head of planning at the time of the original application. Mr. Bourneman told me that the building inspector was responsible for enforcement of compliance with such things as Special Permit agreements. At the time, I approached Mr. Steve Shaw, who is the current building inspector. He told me that he was in fact responsible but that given his available time and the many special use permits and other such documents approved by the Planning Board, it was not possible for him to regularly monitor such things. I believe his description is quite reasonable and I have no criticism of him. I asked what I could do in light of the apparent on-going violation of this stipulation in the Saratoga National Golf Course Special Permit. He told me to send him an email with an inquiry and he would try to look into it.  I did so.  I have not had a response as of today.

So on the one hand, the previous head of planning and the current building inspector believe that there is someone responsible and yet the formal response from the city is that the “city has no records regarding who is responsible…” I hope you find this as disturbing as I do.  I find it particularly problematic that based on the response from the city attorney that there is not only no formal vehicle for enforcing a very important agreement but there does not seem to be any concern about the fact that there is none.

I am not being rhetorical when I ask, what is the purpose of a special permit if there is no document assigning responsibility for enforcement let alone an actual person to do the enforcement.

I would be grateful if you or someone you assign with the task, could address this issue by indicating what actions the city plans to take to correct this problem.


Currently SNGC is permitted to have up to 3,000 people at an event.  The new language for a resort currently sets no limits and it appears that SNGC feels free to stretch beyond the limits currently.  I always wanted to go to a Stones concert.  Maybe I will be able to rent a chair in one of the backyards of the people who live around Lake Lonely and have my dream come true?  Hello Lake Lonely!

Yepsen Ducks and Safford Takes Cheap Shot

According to Saratoga Grid Link To Story

John Safford has accused Joanne Yepsen of stalling the vote on Saratoga National Golf Course until after the election.  She in turn accuses Safford of not understanding the land-use planning process.  She does note that the “applicant” changed the proposed language requiring the delay.

As people who follow my blog know, I am not uncritical of Joanne Yepsen but this really is a cheap shot by Mr. Safford.  This would assume that Saratoga National Golf Course was somehow colluding with Yepsen to delay the process.  I fully believe that Saratoga National and their attorney, Michael Toohey, are perfectly capable of acting in bad faith on their own.  I share Commissioner Mathiesen’s critique which is that they changed the language of their proposal on the day of the hearing because they themselves wanted to create enough chaos to avoid a vote and delay the process beyond election day.

Commissioner Mathiesen only defeated Wirth by 59 votes in 2013 and Mayor Yepsen only defeated Shauna Sutton by 342 votes so both of them are vulnerable.  Since Commissioner Madigan had announced that she would not support the version that would have been voted on on Tuesday night, it is reasonable to assume that Saratoga National did not want a “no” vote and decided to upend the process and delay it until after the election.  There is relatively little delay and if things were to go well for Saratoga National in the election they would have the votes they need in January when the new council is seated.

Having said that, I am regret to note that I am sure Mayor Yepsen is indeed relieved that there is a delay.  She has been anything but “transparent” in this process.  Commissioners Franck has been more than clear that he supports SNGC and Mathiesen and Scirocco have been equally clear that they oppose it.  Madigan was clear that she would oppose the proposal that came from the Planning Board and she stated clearly that she opposed the revision submitted by Toohey.  Mayor Yepsen, on the other hand, has been conspicuously quiet at the table on this issue.  Her statement to my blog was carefully crafted to sound thoughtful without responding to any of the substantive issues.  No one, but maybe her inner circle, knows what she thinks of the project but many believe that she plans to support it.  Were she to vote for the project she would alienate enough of her base for it to be a factor in an election defeat.

I think that Safford would have been on solid ground to have criticized her for ducking the issue.  The accusation that she somehow manipulated Saratoga National to delay the vote is pretty absurd.  He either misspoke or he is guilty of another conspiracy theory of which we have too many.

Good Article On Tuesday Night Meeting BY Saratoga Grid

This is an excellent article by Saratoga Grid on the Tuesday night city council hearing and meeting.  Link To Saratoga Grid

Dozens of residents stood in line and spoke during a 90-minute public hearing at Saratoga Springs City Hall Tuesday night regarding an application submitted by Saratoga National that would amend city rules to allow the golf club to develop large-scale development where it is not permitted to do so.

Members of the city council subsequently discussed the issue for an additional half hour. However, all efforts were rendered insignificant when it was revealed that the golf club had on Tuesday submitted an amended application which no members of the public and few members of the council had a chance to read, much less comprehend. In the end, it was as if Tuesday night never happened. There was no action for the council to consider, and as someone mentioned Tuesday night, like déjà-vu, all over again.

Here is how the day began:

After a variety of attempts to garner council approval for a large-scale development in the city greenbelt had failed during the previous year, Saratoga National submitted a new application to the council in May. The council in a 3-2 vote agreed the proposal had merit for further review and forwarded the proposal to both, the city and county planning boards, for their respective advisory opinions. The plan was then returned to the council for review, and possible SEQRA analysis vote Tuesday night. That specific plan was why the required public hearing was staged Tuesday night.

Here is what happened after the public hearing:

It was announced that Saratoga National had submitted a new application with “significant changes,” (specific detail regarding the changes was not clear Tuesday night), and due to its late arrival council members had not had ample time to review the modifications. Any potential vote that may have occurred on the original plan was deemed a moot point.

Here is what will may happen next:

As it did in May when receiving an amendment application, the council must first decide whether there is merit for further review by Land Use boards. (It is possible that none of the council members put the measure on the next meeting agenda, which is Oct. 6, but highly unlikely). If the application is voted down, the process ends. If a council majority votes there is merit for further review, the application is then sent to both, the city and county planning board, for advisory opinion(s), before being returned to the city council for a public hearing and eventual vote. Sound familiar? This is exactly where this day started.

“So we’re going to go through this all over again, and depending on how the vote goes, we may end up going through it all over again, again in a couple of months,” Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan explained, pretty much on-target.

A vote taken at this time would have been difficult to predict, and could potentially have gone 3-2 either way.

The first time around, the process took four months. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen said he suspected the late change by Saratoga National may have been motivated by jockeying for a better voting outcome with some potentially new faces on the council after Jan. 1.

“Isn’t it really odd that (the amended application) showed up today, of all times. The timing seems very odd to me. I think there may be some maneuvering here regarding the fact that Election Day is November third,” Mathiesen said. “I think that may be part of the strategy here. As we know this was referred to the planning board in May, it’s finally getting back to the City Council now and the day it comes back to the City Council – it’s being changed. So, tell me there isn’t some attempt here to manipulate. They had all that time to make changes to the amendment and now they’re making the change – the day of our City Council meeting.”

In addition to questions related to what the latest changes may suggest, there is the unknown status regarding the previous application which was to be discussed tonight. It doesn’t seem that it was withdrawn. Does it remain hanging out there, conceivably available for re-visitation at any time in the future should a new proposal fail? We’ll have to wait and see about that one.

Democrats To Address Saratoga National Golf Course At Their Meeting

There will be a meeting of the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee on Saturday, September 19th at 9AM in the Harry Dutcher Room of the Public Library.

According to Charlie Brown, the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee chairman, there will be a discussion of the Saratoga National Golf Course’s proposal to build a resort in the city’s greenbelt.  Mr. Brown indicated that members of the committee will be able to offer resolutions on the issue for consideration of the committee if they so choose.

Mr. Brown told me that all registered Democrats are welcome to attend the meeting.  He also indicated that registered Democrats may address the committee at the discretion of the chairman.

Commissioner Madigan Rejects The Latest Proposal From Saratoga National

At last night’s meeting following the hearing and on the Public Safety’s part of the agenda, there was a discussion about the resort proposal.  Chris Mathiesen expressed frustration about the last minute action by Saratoga National proposing a new zoning amendment.  Skip Scirocco expressed his concern about why the change was submitted on the day of the meeting.  He wondered out loud about “shenaningans.”  John Franck responded defensively offering a red herring about why it would been bad to call off the hearing.  None of the Council was arguing that the hearing should have been called off.  It was clear that Franck was trying to divert the conversation from being critical about Saratoga National submitting their change at the very last moment.

There was then a discussion about what to do about the new proposal.  It was clear that both Mathiesen and Scirocco thought that quite enough time had been devoted to Saratoga National’s many forays and that the Council needed to vote in a way that made that clear.  In the ensuing discussion John Franck and Joanne Yepsen supported sending the new language to the Planning Board.  Michele Madigan stated that she saw merit in the revision and would support sending it on.  No actual action was taken.

Jane Weihe spoke to Commissioner Madigan the next day about the new proposal.  Madigan said that she was quite fatigued when the topic came up that night (given the hour one would have had to be on drugs not to be tired) and said that on further reflection she thought the proposal was fatally flawed and would not support it.  Here is her follow up email:

From: Michele Madigan

Sent: Wednesday, September 16, 2015 5:01 PM
To: John Kaufmann
Subject: SNGC

Hi John,

I understand there is some confusion or unsettlement about a statement I made last night at the
City Council Meeting.  I stated on Monday morning that the definition that was before the
Council, that came back from the Planning Boards, was not something I could support.  An
amended definition came in on Tuesday morning, which I have not reviewed until today,
Wednesday morning.  This new definition is missing elements I would need to support this to
move on for a merit for review, hence the way it is written now, I would not support this latest
definition.

Thank you,
Michele

This is not to say that she would not consider other proposals in the future.