Mar 29, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Here’s how Saratoga Springs can end demolition by neglect

65, left, and adjacent 69 Phila St. still need to be renovated.

Two historically significant downtown Saratoga Springs houses were spared the wrecking ball last week. Now it’s time, at long last, to prevent their continued deterioration.

You can’t miss 65 and adjacent 69 Phila St., long-vacant sore thumbs with the bold red X signifying they’re too dangerous for fire department to go inside.

Last week – almost 11 months after being cited for failing to remedy property maintenance violations and years of intentional neglect — the owners finally appeared before the city’s Design Review Commission for permission to demolish the buildings. They unexpectedly pulled their application for 69 Phila, saying they have a buyer who will rehabilitate it. The commission clearly showed how the owners overwhelmingly failed to meet the reasonable criteria for demolition or 65, and would have concluded the same for 69 had that application not been pulled.  

So now what?

A City Court conference is scheduled for Tuesday, a continuation of the case initiated last year. This is by no means the first time the city has tried — unsuccessfully and, frankly, not very forcefully – to get these owners to comply with code. However, this can be the time when real progress begins.

The next immediate step could be to require the owners to secure a bond to cover the cost of repairs necessary to preserve the integrity of both structures, with firm deadlines for compliance. There must be severe, daily fines for non-compliance.

Or, better still, let’s jump to this option: The court could authorize an entity to correct the building code violations. This court-appointed receiver would pay for the work and petition the court to be repaid through a lien on the property. This and more relevant details are explained in a Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation letter to the judge filed with the Design Review Commission.

That, it seems, is the surest route to accomplish the key goals: end the deterioration, restore the properties, and prevent the owners from being financially rewarded for their intentional neglect.

Both houses had seen better days when Helen and Case Simpson bought 69 Phila in 1995 and next door’s 65 Phila in 2002. Still, the owners are not novices in buying, selling and, sometimes, fixing up properties for sale or rental. Legal and ethical responsibilities of ownership in a historic district were essentially ignored, and opportunities for assistance to rehabilitate or sell the properties squandered, even after the city’s 2013 adoption of laws governing vacant property.

In recent years, the city increased code enforcement staff and fees regarding vacant structures. Happily, several historic properties have been saved and rehabilitated. Still, the code enforcers have lots to do.

What will become of 65 and 69 Phila St.? Now is the chance to send a message — to everyone — that demolition by neglect will not be tolerated in Saratoga Springs.  

Mar 3, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

‘Neighborhood’ reporting matters: Here’s one COVID vaccine example

Has the state’s vaccination program reached people of color and marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19?

In at least one place the answer is yes – thanks to the work of a news reporter who shed light on a specific problem.

The question above was posed by David Lombardo, host of WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom, to promote his interview with Josefa Velasquez, Senior Reporter at The City.

The story, in a nutshell: Velasquez was covering a vaccination site in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. An elderly (=much older than me) woman arrived early for the second day in a row seeking a vaccine or at least help getting an appointment; a computer was not an option. The people stationed to administer vaccines in this Spanish-speaking neighborhood could speak her language. And the vaccines were going to savvy suburbanites, not the intended local recipients. But Velasquez is multi-lingual and tenacious. She helped the woman and wrote a story that sparked a revision of the vaccination staffing and setup in Washington Heights.

Sounds so simple, so obvious.

Yet it took a local news reporter well-suited for the community she was covering to spark the change. Hats off to Velasquez and The City, the almost 2-year-old non-profit digital news platform that focuses on accountability reporting for residents of the five boroughs (and beyond).

Feb 27, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

New police policies up for review in Saratoga Springs

How could Saratoga Springs improve police and community relations and address any racial disparities in policing?

Those are two of the many questions tackled by a task force whose recommendations are available for people to question during a Zoom meeting Wednesday. The recommendations and meeting registration are on the front page of the city’s website. Here’s the link to read the report and register for the meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.

After public input (provided in writing and at the online forum) is gathered, the task force will polish its report and submit it to the City Council. Municipalities across the state have until April 1 to adopt (and begin to implement) a plan to improve police department policies, practices and community relations.

I watched the task force’s most recent meeting, when recommendations prepared by its subcommittees were voted on for inclusion in the report that I, for one, intend to read. Task force members have invested a lot of time and effort.  

The creation of the task force was ordered last June by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, spurred by the need to do something concrete in the wake of the May murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and the nationwide protests that followed in response to that and other racially biased and needlessly deadly law enforcement (including more than a half-dozen in New York state).

The governor’s order spells out the rationale, goals, requirements and deadline and leaves it to locales (a sensible and politically expedient assignment) to tailor a plan best suited for their community. The carrot for meeting the deadline is continued receipt of state money (and federal money funneled through the state) to local governments. However, I’m not clear how the multitude of municipalities’ plans with be measured for both content and implementation. No one benefits from a report gathering virtual dust.

Fresh pairs of thoughtful, informed eyes can improve just about any operations, including police departments. That said, many desirable policies regarding police procedures and accountability already exist; more transparency would show how diligently they are followed.  

How is racial and other bias recognized and addressed? What are Saratoga Springs’ policies regarding use of force, including chokeholds; no-knock warrants; and penalties for misconduct? How are those terms even defined? What alternatives exist during and after calls that involve someone who appears mentally ill and dangerous? Those are among the questions that I’ll have in mind as I review the recommendations and the rationales for them.

Feb 5, 2021 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Nonpartisan local elections and top vote-getter races make sense

The March 16 elections in Saratoga County’s village of Ballston Spa will for the first time be nonpartisan, to the credit of both local Republicans and Democrats. Mayor Larry Woolbright cut to the chase in a story about the change by the Times Union’s Wendy Liberatore: “We call ourselves ‘A Village of Friends’ and then every two years when we have an election, we act like complete morons.”

Nonpartisan local elections make sense.

I want water clean, taxes fair, streets snowplowed; to know 911 will bring well-trained police or firefighters; places for kids to play; and downtown, the arts, and parks protected and supported.

I want representatives who are responsive, innovative, civil, forward-thinking, environmentally conscious, sensitive to local social and economic issues, consensus-building problem solvers. I want to know their positions, plans, and track record for community service.

For all of those things, the character and ability of the person is more important than their political party.

Saratoga Springs, whose voters elect both Democrats and Republicans, should consider a return to nonpartisan races, which is how city elections were set up when I became a reporter at The Saratogian in 1977. Though this system was new to me, it turned out it’s overwhelmingly common nationwide in municipalities large and small.

At the very least, the city’s two representatives on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors ought to be the top two-vote getters in an open race for both seats, same as how school board members are elected.  

Instead, candidates for Saratoga Springs supervisor must run on a party line specifically for Seat A or Seat B, even though the positions are identical. This is inherently unfair when the loser of Seat A gets more votes than the winner of Seat B. Better for the citizens to elect the top-two vote-getters in nonpartisan elections.

Whatever the municipality, having candidates run as individuals rather than on a party line won’t automatically make local government better. But I like the basic idea of focusing on people over party.

I won’t lie. A candidate’s positions on political and social issues beyond the usual scope of local government will matter to me, especially if all other things are equal. That’s still a matter of character more than party affiliation.   

For now, I’ll watch with interest the upcoming elections and subsequent running of Ballston Spa as the county seat joins several other Saratoga County villages that hold nonpartisan elections.  

Feb 1, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Sad when the wackadoodles win: TU shuts citizen blogs

The decision by the Albany Times Union to shut down all its citizen blogs is regrettable – and totally understandable.

Trying to clean up, let alone keep up with, citizen blogs is an impossible task. A publisher who relies on the honor system to maintain civil online discourse will sooner or later be disappointed, and possibly sued.

When I was running The Saratogian newsroom, the advent of the internet brought exciting opportunities to broaden the newspaper’s role as a forum for community comments, discussion and information. It also brought headaches, giving voice to vile people and assorted wackadoodles.

We tried to pre-empt problems back then by blocking all comments on stories, such as tragic accidents, that, to our amazement, triggered hateful remarks. People easily circumvented procedures designed to prevent anonymous comments on stories or blogs.

The legal advice at the time was to avoid liability by not editing online comments — either use them as submitted or reject them in their entirety. That advice was later modified; editing online submissions need not increase the publisher’s liability.

In announcing the impending removal of all its community blogs, TU Editor Casey Seiler cited a normally innocuous blogger who last spring “spread the looniest conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19.” Alerted by a reader, the TU determined the blogger had failed to follow its hands-off honor system of maintaining civil discourse, and shut him down.

More recent was the brouhaha over a post on a TU-hosted blog that U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and others interpreted as meanly mocking her for being childless. I saw it differently. I took the post as a tasteless and lame attempt at satire, criticizing Stefanik for not supporting access to affordable birth control and Planned Parenthood services. Either way, the TU removed the blog.

Next thing we know, all the TU-hosted citizen blogs – well over 50, by my rough count, on a wide range of topics – are being shut down at the end of this week.

That’s a shame. I share Seiler’s vision of blogs serving as what he calls the newspaper’s “digital town square.” They enhance the publication’s offerings beyond that paid staff can provide. Besides, most bloggers (at least on apolitical topics) have no problem with civility.

By the way, this isn’t censorship. The First Amendment prevents government from curtailing free speech and a free press. The owners of publishing platforms are not obliged to let anyone say or write whatever they wish. They do, however, have an ethical, and possibly legal, responsibility to manage that access. Unfortunately, it is too overwhelming and impractical for a publisher to monitor, never mind edit, all citizen submissions. Sad when the wackadoodles win.

Jan 18, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Still waiting for Saratoga police records re Darryl Mount case

Signs at the June 2020 Black Lives Matter march in Saratoga Springs are reminders of remaining questions about the death of Darryl Mount.

On Aug. 26, 2020, I asked Saratoga Springs for public police records pertinent to the still-pending civil lawsuit against the city brought by the mother of Darryl Mount, a Black man who died from injuries suffered in an August 2013 chase by several officers.

I’m still waiting.

The task of responding to requests for records regarding Saratoga Springs police has been delegated by City Hall to the very law firm defending the city and its police officers – including those in the Darryl Mount case.

Saratoga Springs and other municipalities across the state have been swamped by requests through New York’s Freedom of Information Law since last summer, when the state at long last made certain police disciplinary records accessible to the public. With that in mind, I’ve offered to prioritize my admittedly large request and to review records piecemeal, yet haven’t received a single document.

I don’t doubt that the city’s FOIL officer needs help responding to requests. Still, it feels like a conflict for the private attorney hired to defend the city and police to also be in charge of reviewing and redacting records that may reflect negatively on the defendants.

Here’s my FOIL request timeline:

Aug. 26: I submitted to the city attorney a request for numerous public records pertaining to officers involved in the Darryl Mount case and complaints about excessive force.

Sept. 15: I emailed the attorney noting that the Aug. 26 request had not been acknowledged.

Sept. 16: The city apologized for this oversight, promising a response granting or denying my request within 20 business days. (I believe this was an honest mistake, but I was back at the end of line even though two weeks had elapsed since my request.)

Oct. 23: About 25 business days later, I informed the city that I still had no response.

The city later that day advised me that the documents “have been forwarded to counsel for the Saratoga Springs Police Department for review and possible redaction” and that I “may reasonably expect a response by Nov. 30.”

Nov. 30: Nothing.

Dec. 4: The city emailed that “due to the scope” of my requests the city needs “some additional time to respond” and that I should expect a response in “approximately 45 business days.”

By my count, that brings us to Feb. 9, 2021 – more than five months from my initial request.

Other cities and police departments are denying or delaying requests for records that should be public (with some redactions). I’ve been assured my request is in the process of being granted. I could consider the repeated extensions tantamount to a denial that I could officially appeal. But I am inclined to wait optimistically for Feb. 9.

My expectation is that these records will shed light on police behavior and procedures that could address at least some of the unanswered questions about the death of Darryl Mount. That, I believe, is worth waiting for. But for how long?

Jan 18, 2021 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Saratoga MLK Day message: Try ‘calling them in’

Loretta Ross was keynote speaker for today’s MLKSaratoga Zoom. Wish the photo shared her broad, warm smile!

Thanks to MLKSaratoga for this afternoon’s thought-provoking and action-inspiring Zoom program featuring Loretta Ross, who teaches courses on white supremacy, human rights, women and gender – and knows of what she speaks, personally and professionally.

Her book “Calling in the Cancel Culture” is coming out this year, and a theme of her talk was about the value of “calling people in” rather than the less constructive instinct (to which I confess) of “calling them out.” I’m going to work on it.

Her speech and the Q&A that followed will be available by MLKSaratoga. I recommend you check out MLKSaratoga’s website and YouTube channel.

Dec 8, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Tell Saratoga Springs to nix demolition by neglect on historic Phila Street

Adjacent 65 and 69 Phila St. in downtown Saratoga Springs have been neglected for years.

The owners of two longtime neglected, vacant houses at 65 and 69 Phila St. are seeking permission to tear down both adjacent buildings in order to build anew. Saratoga Springs should not reward property owners who intentionally neglect their vacant property, particularly houses of architectural significance in historic zones as is the case here.

This request will be heard Wednesday, Dec. 9 by the city’s Design Review Commission. You can put in your 2 cents by emailing by noon Wednesday. Go to the city website to sign up to participate in the meeting by Zoom.

The Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation notes both houses were constructed in 1851 in the Italianate style, one with white clapboard, by an architect and builder, and the other in red brick, by a mason. Both are contributing buildings to the East Side Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

The owners have let the buildings deteriorate since buying them more the 15 and 25 years ago, respectively, and any hardship they now claim is self-imposed.  

Years ago, the city denied the owners’ request to turn these two adjacent lots into three. The owners continued to neglect the two houses even as they bought and owned other vacant houses in the city. They have had multiple opportunities to sell the Phila Street properties, as documented by the Preservation Foundation, which even underwrote a structural assessment for serious buyers.  

The Preservation Foundation will make the case Wednesday that these building are worth saving and should be reviewed in accordance with the city’s Historic Review Ordinance.

The city will continue to lose structures of historic and architectural significance if property owners are rewarded for their intentional neglect (and, according to the preservation foundation, piecemeal removal of architectural features) and allowed to profit from the land sale for new construction.

Another day, let’s talk about the city’s culpability as rules regarding vacant properties have been ignored with impunity. For now, let’s try to prevent this specific demolition by neglect.

Sep 28, 2020 - Uncategorized    3 Comments

Protect your vote in Saratoga Springs: Reject charter change

I’ve long criticized Saratoga Springs’ form of government in which elected council members oversee specific aspects of City Hall, creating silos of administration. But the charter change now on the ballot would replace that shortcoming with one far worse – a ward system that would drastically reduce every city resident’s representation on the City Council and make elected officials less accountable.

I’m voting no.

The claim that residents would gain better representation with wards is false and grossly misleading.

The ward system minimizes our individual clout as voters. It eliminates council members’ accountability to all but the sixth of the city that elects them. We would get to vote for a mayor and only one of six council members, with no promise that even that one candidate – let alone the other five – would feel compelled to address the concerns of our particular neighborhood. 

I looked at a map of the election districts to see how areas were lumped together in the proposed charter (in Article XI, section C) to form six wards. Here are three examples:

Ward Three stretches from the city neighborhoods around the Caroline Street School to the sprawling estates in the Beacon Hill Drive area off Meadowbrook Road and the rural developments north of Route 29 toward Wilton.

Ward Four would combine the South Side (everything south of Lincoln Avenue, including Jefferson Terrace) with all the Saratoga Lake and Lake Lonely developments, more than three miles and a world away.

Ward Six puts together the downtown West Side (including the Beekman Street arts district) with the more suburban housing around Buff Road.

You get the idea. Check out the map yourself. 

Bottom line: Every citizen should be able to vote for all of the City Council members.

There are other reasons to reject this charter change. Promised cost savings are dubious as is the timing of the ballot proposal, with people unable to assemble to discuss the pros and cons, not to mention the city budget hole caused by the pandemic. And the idea of a city manager appointed to oversee all city operations makes sense — but not accompanied by the unnecessary creation of a full-time mayor as proposed.

I could get behind a new charter with an appointed city manager beholden to a City Council whose members answer to all Saratoga Springs voters.

This charter change would radically reduce our voice. Vote no.

Aug 26, 2020 - Uncategorized    No Comments

7 years after Darryl Mount incident, Saratoga Springs records may shed light on police conduct

Darryl’s name was held high at Black Lives Matter rally June 7 in Saratoga Springs.

We’re at the seventh anniversary of the day a Black man named Darryl Mount was chased by white police in downtown Saratoga Springs and ended up below a construction scaffold, dying nine months later from his injuries. A civil lawsuit brought by Mount’s mother against the city is still pending. A remembrance walk is scheduled for Monday.

An independent or internal investigation of the pre-dawn incident might have uncovered police misconduct — or could have cleared the officers of suspicion of wrong-doing in what they called an accident. Instead, the city refused to sanction an independent probe and lied about conducting an internal one.

No wonder at the Black Lives Matter march in Saratoga Springs this past June 7 you could see “Justice for Darryl” signs here or there, and that an event is planned for the Aug. 31 anniversary of the fatal chase. The nationally pervasive police culture of protecting your own, whether or not they deserve it, disrespects and endangers both the public and the officers doing their job with integrity.

I am not anti-police. It breaks my heart when citizens are the victims of the people sworn to protect them. And it also breaks my heart when officers who put their lives on the line are disrespected, demonized and murdered. Cases of egregious police misconduct seem few and far between in Saratoga Springs; not to jinx us, but it’s rare – as it should be – for shots to be fired in this city by citizens, let alone police.

I believe Black Lives Matter and I believe that most police officers are decent human beings.

Darryl’s name was on signs at the June 7, 2020 Black Lives Matter rally in Saratoga Springs.

A protest walk is a baby step toward cultural change. This summer, the state Legislature repealed section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which means the public can finally see police disciplinary records in New York. So today I formally requested documents related to conduct complaints against members of the Saratoga Springs Police Departments — including the officers involved in the 3 a.m. Darryl Mount chase back in 2013.

My interest in the Darryl Mount case is not new. As managing editor of the local newspaper, The Saratogian, at the time, I accepted the word of the police chief and his boss that they were doing an internal investigation into allegations of misconduct.

Then, on the fifth anniversary of the incident, in an article published by the Times Union, I cited sworn depositions revealing that the then-chief had intentionally misled the public about an internal investigation. The deception surprised and saddened me, as the chief had earned respect with a positive track record, including work on behalf of domestic violence victims and the introduction of bodycams. But I digress.  

A few months later, planning to write a broader story about SSPD handling of misconduct allegations, I requested data on complaints between 2014 and 2018. The response came shortly thereafter, in May 2019, in the form of a press release-style statement from the chief loaded with raw data. It raised even more questions that I knew I couldn’t get answered, and I set it aside. Until today, thanks to the state’s repeal of 50-a.

The chief’s May 2019 statement reports that from 2014 through 2018, the SSPD dealt with almost 161,000 calls for service and more than 6,800 full body arrests. There were 134 force reports (only about 2 percent of total arrests) and 77 personnel complaints – that is, 77 internal investigations.

Of the 77 complaints (24 generated by supervisors and 53 by citizens), 18 were for rude behavior, 49 for “various police-related issues,” and 10 alleged excessive force.

Twenty-seven of those complaints against officers were sustained, the chief wrote: “Eight resulted in disciplinary action; two officers resigned prior to the commencement of disciplinary action; and seventeen complaints were closed with counseling or retraining for minor violations of policy.”

What was the outcome of the excessive force allegations? What disciplinary action was meted out against whom, and for what? Were there repeat offenders? Did resigning officers slip away with pensions and then go on to some other law enforcement job? Were any of the cited officers involved in the Darryl Mount case?

Let’s not speculate about what the records I’ve requested will show. The purpose isn’t to embarrass or harass good police officers, but to peel away the secrecy that taints them in the eyes of the public. I’ll keep you posted.