City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
SARATOGA SPRINGS – A pair of music-centric street festivals which bookended the start and conclusion of the Saratoga racing meet for a generation are no more.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, main sponsors of the Hats Off and Final Stretch festivals, announced this week that it will instead feature a “Welcome Back to Racing” fan event promoting bands performing at a variety of on-site locations at bars, restaurants and hotels.
“It’s a different downtown than it was 30 years ago,” said Chamber President Todd Shimkus. “We have so many more bars and restaurants. We think a better way to spend our time and money is to promote all the different bands playing at all the different restaurants. So, instead of us closing streets and setting up bands and stages, we’re going to collectively promote everything that’s going on inside the restaurants, bars and hotels downtown.”
Last year, the festival featured five bands each night over the course of the two-day festival, down from eight bands that performed at eight different venues each night just six years earlier, and the 10 bands who performed at the free festival in 2004. At that time, there were approximately one dozen different businesses and organizations sponsoring the event along with the Chamber and the New York Racing Association.
The cost to stage the events totals more than $30,000 and while Shimkus acknowledged sponsoring entities like NYRA and others are not contributing as much as they once had in years past, he said money is not a driving force in the Chamber’s decision. “For us, it was the fact that we think there is a better alternative that is more supportive of the entire downtown.”
Shimkus also refuted some public comments that have been made, including some raised during this week’s City Council by local residents, that fears of vehicular terrorism played a role in the festival’s cancellation.
“I can absolutely guarantee you the notion of a terroristic attack had nothing to do with our decision to make this change,” Shimkus said.
The Hats Off festival, later complemented by the season-ending Final Stretch festival, was first staged in the 1990s as a way to increase crowds for the annual opening weekend of the racing season.
“NYRA came up and Ed Lewi was with them and they were discussing what they could do to build up the attendance at the races on the first and the last weekend,” recalled Joe Dalton, who ran the Saratoga County Chamber for 40 years, before retiring in 2010.
“The Chamber basically put it together – myself, and Ed Lewi. NYRA said they would put up half the money and we would raise the other half. And it went very well,” Dalton said. “It attracted people and built up the first and last week of racing, attendance-wise. It benefitted the town and NYRA. Over the years, though, it built up so much that both of those weekends now have big crowds coming, so the need for it dissipated.”
Susan Farnsworth was hired by the Chamber to coordinate the Hats Off and Final Stretch festivals, which she did for for 17 years. Among her duties were hiring a team that set up and tore down the staging, supplying equipment, securing city permits and coordinating with the police, and collaboratively working to secure sponsors and to hire bands
“The Hats Off Festival would draw about 20,000 people each night; Final Stretch drew about 15,000 the first night, and about 10,000 on the second evening,” said Farnsworth, who currently lives in Israel. “My favorite part of the festivals was watching people enjoying the music, seeing children dancing; The atmosphere was fun, friendly, welcoming. It helped secure Saratoga Springs’ reputation as one of the best small cities in America,” she said.
Farnsworth recalled how some visitors would schedule their trips to Saratoga to coincide with the festivals. “The original purpose (of the festivals) was to bring more visitors to town the first and last day of racing,” she said. “I am very sad to see this tradition end, but times change.”
“The primary change is that Hats Off has largely been, for 30-plus years, a bunch of bands the Chamber has paid for, with staging outside and downtown in a variety of different places,” Shimkus says.
“This last year, we had a stage on Caroline Street. We closed the road. We had security there. We paid for a band. What we saw was that Saratoga City Tavern (also) had a band, Gaffney’s had a band, Spa City Tap and Barrel had a band – everybody on Caroline Street that had a space, had a band, and we went: What are we doing?”
Plans are being formulated to sponsor a July festival – it may be staged the Thursday prior to Opening Day – in and around existing bars and restaurants and could include locations such as Hattie’s alleyway, Henry Street venues and on Beekman Street.
The Hats Off festival, which ran from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, largely drew crowds 21 and over. “Maybe that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, but it is now. Families are not coming to the Hats Off festival,” Shimkus said. The specifics will be decided in the new year.
“Everybody out there that’s freaking out, just be a little patient and know that the Chamber has always done what’s in the best interests of the downtown,” Shimkus said. ‘When we announce our final plans, I think everyone will go: ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea.’”
INSIDE THE RIGGI THEATER, the stage lights flare bright, illuminating a scatter of white paper scripts, clipboards and heavy binders strewn about the cherry-red seats. Actors mill about, waiting their turn to audition atop the stage.
“Can you do a cold scene?” an actor sporting a man bun is asked.
“Yes,” replies manbun. “Is it OK if I put you in a headlock?”
Inside the theater, it is the middle of the summer on a weekday afternoon. Onstage it is June 1967, the time of the Monterey International Pop Festival, where the Who famously blew up their instruments and Jimi Hendrix set his guitar ablaze.
“Let’s do The John Scene,” suggests Mary Jane Hansen, who scripted the play, titled “American Soup.” The actor quickly falls into character.
“I don’t want to go swimming!” he exclaims. “I want to go see the Jefferson Airplane!”
Four months later, multiple auditions have been held, rehearsals staged and the cast in place and ready to present the production, which will take place at the National Museum of Dance Dec. 14-23.
“American Soup” - presented by iTheatre Saratoga, a division of The Creative Place International - is a celebration of pop culture and the landmarks of history on the evolution of the American spirit, Hansen says. It features the adventures of two American families in Queens, N.Y. living through events at the time – the moon landing, Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination - juxtaposed with Andy Warhol’s philosophy. CPI founding member John McGuire portrays the role of Andy Warhol.
“You have three things going on at the same time. You’ve got Andy. You’ve got the family in the restaurant. And there’s a band - music plays a big role in the play - and they all weave together,” explains Hansen, who grew up in Whitestone, in the north section of Queens.
Live music from the 1960s to the turn of the millennium provokes a visit to where and who we were, say show organizers, and “American Soup” reminds that there is hope, even during our darkest times.
Proposal to Decrease City Taxpayer Costs for Health Care Voted Down
Outgoing Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen initiated a public hearing and council discussion this week to alter the salaries and benefits received by future council members.
The proposal suggested, starting in 2020, councilmembers pay a portion of health care benefits they currently receive cost-free and that health care benefits for life be eliminated, while increasing the five councilmembers’ annual salaries from $14,500 to $18,000.
City Council members, upon election, are eligible to receive health care coverage free-of-charge. The family plan cost is approximately $25,000 for each council member, and four members are currently enrolled in some form of a city health insurance plan. For former council members who have served 10 years or more and retire after age 55 – of which there are a small handful – those benefits are received for the duration of their lifetime.
Mathiesen suggested councilmembers receiving city health care coverage pay $4,000 annually out-of-pocket, and that given the rising costs of health care coverage, that the lifetime benefits be eliminated. The measure was defeated 4-1, with Mathiesen casting the lone yes vote.
The recommendation, had it passed, would have amended the City Charter – which sets salaries for the mayor and commissioners. There are no charter stipulations regarding deputies’ salaries, or related to health benefits for council members. Those are periodically set forth by City Council resolution, or through collective bargaining agreements.
Council Adopts $46.1 million Budget for 2018
The council on Nov. 28 unanimously adopted the city budget for 2018. The $46.1 million plan represents a slight increase over this year’s $45.5 million budget.
“I view the 2018 year as a transformative year for the city,” Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan told the council when presenting the plan for vote. “I have high hopes that the new City Council as well as our ever-evolving workforce will be able to tackle several key issues and problems: lowering the city’s health care related expenses, addressing short-term rental concerns, updating parking systems citywide, better using IT to benefit city residents and City Hall itself, (as well as) some land use issues that will be before the next City Council that need to be addressed.”
City Center Parking Garage Seeks Extension
With construction not yet begun due to pending litigation, the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority this week plans to approach the Design Review Commission to seek an extension of an Architectural Review approval, which was granted June 1, 2016 for the development of a multi-level parking structure at High Rock, just east behind the existing City Center.
Next week, a representative of the Hollywood, California based owners of West Avenue Property LLC will meet with the Zoning Board of Appeals. The company has proposed the construction of a mixed-use development adjacent to the Saratoga Train Station consisting of a hotel, townhomes, senior and assisted living residencies and retail stores. The purpose of the meeting is to request a variance of the maximum building height of its hotel – from 50 feet to 56 feet – as well as to seek zoning ordinance relief in build-out requirements for a number of the accompanying buildings.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – A limited engagement run of “A Star Has Burnt My Eye,” written and performed by Howard Fishman, will be presented by Skidmore College Dec. 7 – 9.
The production, which had its world premiere at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) in November 2016, and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, is directed by award winning director Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater.
Synopsis: A Star Has Burnt My Eye is a multimedia theatrical meditation on the life and music of polymath Elizabeth “Connie” Converse, who some have taken to calling “the first singer-songwriter.” A prototype of the DIY artist, Converse wrote and self-recorded an extraordinary collection of songs in the early 1950’s before deliberately vanishing years later in despair of ever finding her audience. The show features a group of New York musicians, led by playwright and composer Howard Fishman, who perform her songs, read from her letters, and make the case for Converse’s particular genius, and her belated status as a great lost American artist.
Howard Fishman has toured the world as a headlining performer, fronting ensembles versed in pop, New Orleans jazz, country, bluegrass, classical, punk, gospel and experimental music.The New York Times has written that his work “transcends time and idiom.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS – An Election Day vote that split city voters nearly down the middle may be revisited in the next few weeks, following the filing of a petition seeking a recanvas in the referendum on charter reform.
On Nov. 24, an action was commenced in New York State Supreme Court in the hope of seeking a full review and recount – called a recanvass - of all ballots cast in the Election Day referendum for a new city charter. The action was initiated by Gordon Boyd - who filed the request as an independent voter, and on behalf of “other private individuals” who supported the campaign for charter change.
The Election Night tally depicted a 48-vote lead in favor of charter change of the nearly 8,500 ballots cast; Following the opening of absentee ballots a week later the lead shifted, with votes in favor of maintaining the status quo ahead by a 10-vote difference: 4,458 to 4,448. Approximately half the city’s eligible 18,000 voters took part in the vote.
“The current margin of 10 votes out of nearly 9,000 cast means that a review of all ballots and scanner machine records is imperative to assure that the voters can have confidence in the final count,” said Boyd. Boyd is a former member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, which disbanded on Election Day, as well as a contributor It's Time Saratoga! – a group that advocated for charter change.
“A complete hand recount would take only a few days, would eliminate any doubt that the machines may have miscounted, and would serve the voters above all else,” said Bob Turner, former chairman of the commission.
According to Turner, an assistant professor of Skidmore College’s Environmental Studies and Sciences Program, 20 states and the District of Columbia provide for automatic recounts if the margin between the top two candidates is within certain parameters - typically 0.5 percent or less of votes cast for office or issue. The margin in the charter referendum is 10 votes or one-tenth of 1 percent of the near-9,000 votes cast.
“Our goal is to determine with utmost certainty that the final vote tally is valid. Voting machines are not 100 percent accurate, which is why we are asking for a full recount of all ballots. It was so close that machine errors, if any, could have affected the vote,” Boyd said.
Election law attorney Joshua Ehrlich has been hired by Boyd and it is expected a hearing could potentially be held on or around Dec. 20 in front of a judge who will subsequently decide whether an election recount will be conducted. Boyd would not comment about how much money was raised to hire the attorney, and a phone message to Ehrlich seeking comment for this story was not returned.
Electronic data used during the election – paper ballots and flash memory cards – have been secured by the Board of Elections in a vault, as is common practice.
At issue is the current Commission form of governing in Saratoga Springs, which relies on five elected part-time council members, each of whom are responsible for administering their own department, as well as serving as legislators. The proposed charter change to a Council-Manager form of governing would take effect in 2020 and would see that the council hires a non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out city policies.
Memo from Turner
Heading into the final 11 days prior to the Nov. 7 referendum, It's Time Saratoga! had nearly $19,500 in its campaign spending balance. SUCCESS – a group in favor of maintaining the current charter - had just over $25,000 on hand. The total funds raised and spent by both camps won’t be known until Dec. 4, when 27-day post-election filings are due at the state Board of Elections. The official certification of the election by the board is anticipated to occur at about the same time.
“We trust the Board of Elections as being extremely professional and competent and see no reason for the recount,” said SUCCESS group member Richard Sellers.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Vecino Group, one of four applicants seeking to develop vacant land adjacent to the Saratoga Springs train station on the city’s west side, meets with the Planning Board this week for a site plan review regarding their Intrada Saratoga Springs project.
The plan calls for the creation of 156 new units of affordable housing - 124 of the units will be for families and individuals at 60 percent of Area Median Income, or AMI (roughly about $50,000), 23 units to serve those earning up to 90 percent of AMI (about $75,000), eight units for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care - with assistance provided by the Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative, and one unit for use by an on-site superintendent.
The Vecino Group’s Intrada Saratoga Springs proposal seeks to develop approximately one-third of their 19.14-acre property at the intersections of Washington Street, West Avenue and Station Lane.
The plan includes 5,000 square feet of commercial lease space that will front Washington Avenue, and 5,000 square feet of common/amenity space – to include a health clinic staffed by SUNY Empire State students and staff for tenant use, workout facility, community room, meeting rooms, study areas and office space.
“I'll feel really good when it's over. I have an image of myself... I'm living on an island. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. And I'm smiling..." -- David Cassidy, Rolling Stone, May 11, 1972.
There were 20,000 of them, more or less, each seemingly armed with cheap, pocket-sized cameras crowned by four-sided cubes whose white flash burned your retinas with every image attempted to capture the teen idol on stage.
They had watched him, this crowd of mostly young girls, the past 18 months on TV - singing songs, driving the Partridge Family’s Mondrian-inspired bus - and bought millions of his albums, collected his trading cards, and carried to school lunchboxes bedizened with his image. And now here he was: live, in person, and on stage at the world’s most famous arena. It was a Madison Square Garden that had belonged to Ali and Frazier, Giacomin and Gilbert, Willis and Clyde. On this night, however, it was all about David Cassidy.
In 1972, a gallon of gas cost fifty-five cents, the average monthly rent was $165, and the annual household income about $12,000. It was a year that saw Crazy Joe Gallo gunned down at Umberto’s Clam House, five men arrested for breaking in to the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel and the gold medal achievements of Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut overshadowed when 11 Israelis, five guerillas and one police officer were killed in a 20-hour siege at the Munich Games.
Cassidy sang 15 or so songs, his 21-year-old torso coiling and squirming inside a white crepe jumpsuit and sending its fringe adornments reeling. “I’ll meet you halfway/ that’s better than no way,” he crooned. There were others: “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat,” and “Cherish.” “I Woke Up In Love This Morning,” and “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.” At Madison Square Garden, his TV/ real-life mom Shirley Partridge Jones sat in the first row.
My dad - then a youthful man in his thirties whose land of origins had given birth to 300 Spartans who did battle at Thermopylae and who as a child had escaped the Nazi plunder of his village – shook his head in disbelief at the commotion and plugged fingers into his ears to attempt to mute the shrill shrieks of teen-girl idolatry caterwauling down from the blue seats that called David’s name. It was a cacophonous chorus that my sister, six or seven years of age at the time, willingly joined. The sound of the screams rang around in your head for several days after.
Cassidy was a frequent summer visitor to Saratoga Springs. You’d run into him at the racecourse, or coming out of the Wilton Mall cinema, or at Fasig-Tipton - where he bought his first yearling in 1974. In 2001, he purchased a house in Saratoga Springs. It was a Monday night in August seven years later when he stood up in front of 250 people at a fundraising gala for The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council at the Hall of Springs and publicly announced, for the first time, that he was an alcoholic. The revelation, which was unexpected, left some in the audience stunned.
“I was in denial about it, and the problem was getting worse,” said Cassidy, his wife Sue and his son Beau at his side. Cassidy talked about his genetical link to his own father, the actor Jack Cassidy. “Bipolar, manic-depressive, alcoholic and a genius,” he told the audience.
Wife Sue said she was proud of her husband for having the courage to publicly share such a personal experience. “Seeing him up here and telling you all this is one of the greatest things that I could ever hope to be able to be a part of,” said 17-year-old Beau.
Cassidy acknowledged that the location of the Hall of Springs, sitting as it does adjacent to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, created an interesting juxtaposition that merged the past and the present; a time for new beginnings to lead into the future.
“This is my favorite place in the world. ... I played here in '72, '73, '74,” Cassidy remembered. “What was ironic when I drove up, was that I realized this journey has been going on for so many years. And the journey is now. Every day, 24 hours, to stay sober.”
You got the feeling on that August night in 2008 that what stood before you was a person at a the flashpoint of their own existence, burning white-hot as the flash residue of 20,000 cameras all those years ago. You got the feeling, that night in 2008, that things could go either way. It did not go well. What followed was a series of drunken driving charges, a divorce from wife Sue Shifrin after more than 20 years of marriage, and Cassidy’s revelation earlier this year that he’d been diagnosed with dementia and was struggling with memory loss.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, he was admitted to a Florida hospital, reportedly with multiple organ failure. Time was running out. For millions of people who were born, say, between 1960 and 1965, the sadness of confronting their own mortality comingled with the childhood innocence of youthful dreams. “Prayers please,” Sue Shifrin Cassidy wrote Nov. 18 on Twitter. Nov. 19: David is still with us. Keep praying. Nov. 20: Critical but stable. Nov. 22: God was in that room tonight. Point him in the direction of... heaven. RIP.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Mayor-Elect Meg Kelly has announced that she will appoint Lisa Shields to be Deputy Mayor, effective Jan. 1, 2018.
Shields has been Executive Assistant to Mayor Joanne Yepsen since August 2016.
“Lisa’s leadership is already at work in the Mayor’s Office,” Kelly said, in a statement. “Her organization and communications skills have improved our responsiveness and readiness to move our priorities forward. These contributions will leverage a smooth transition for us, and as deputy, Lisa will continue to lead process improvements within our department, help to build consensus for our agenda throughout City Hall, and ensure that the highest level of service represents of all the work we will do in my administration.”
Shields is a graduate of South Glens Falls High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from SUNY Potsdam. She began her career as an IT professional for Hewlett-Packard in California, working as a system engineer, network design consultant, and account executive in the financial, entertainment and aerospace industries. She also served on the board of Ascension Lutheran School in CA and in several IT roles.
Since moving back to New York in 2006, Shields has worked in various administrative and IT support roles for the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church, Mannix Marketing in Glens Falls and Saratoga Children’s Theatre, which was founded by Meg Kelly, where Shields also served on its board. For the Saratoga Springs School District, she worked for three years as producer of the high school drama club. She and her husband Dan have three children and live in Saratoga Springs.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – A pair of multi-million-dollar deals in the heart of the city’s downtown district will affect three long-standing fixtures in a real estate overture that may best be titled: Broadway Variations.
The Saratoga Downtowner motel, constructed on Broadway and Division Street in 1963, was sold to the Lark Hotel group for $4.55 million, according to records at the Saratoga County Clerk’s office. Meanwhile, Cantina restaurant owner Jeff Ames, located across the street and a half-block away from the motel, has purchased for $2.2 million the former Lillian’s Restaurant on Broadway, where he anticipates opening a new two-story Cantina restaurant next May.
“I thought long and hard about making this move, but it was an opportunity to own my own building,” said Ames, adding that the new location will be a lot more “bistro-ey.” Ames is selling the lease at the current Cantina restaurant, where he opened for business in 2007, for $699,000.
After nearly 18 years of operating their 42-room motel on Broadway, Mary Cae Asay and her husband, Bill, have sold the Saratoga Downtowner to Lark Hotels. The company will be making its first entry into New York and currently operates intimately sized boutique hotels in Maine and Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Mendocino, California - a coastal community north of San Francisco.
“I am really pleased about this new hotel group coming in because they have a focus on a sense of place. They want it to reflect Saratoga. They’re going to renovate it and I think they’re going to bring a refreshed vitality to the corner here,” said Mary Cae Asay. She said she will miss seeing the thousands of picture-takers capturing images of her garden outside the motel as well as many longtime guests, some of whom have stayed in the same room year-after-year, and have made the experience feel more akin to having visiting relatives come for a stay.
“Maintaining the integrity of Saratoga was really important to me. We had multiple offers, but I was very grateful that this particular one worked out because they’re interested in keeping such a strong sense of Saratoga as part of their new business,” said Asay, who recently opened an office on Maple Avenue where she uses a holistic device – called a BEMER - to aid people in their healing. Her husband, Bill, plans on continuing to coach the Saratoga Springs High School boys swim team, as he’s done since the Asays first moved to the area.
“The other thing I’m going to do is now go visit my guests, at their inns and restaurants and shops. They’ve come to my place, now I’m going to go to theirs,” Asay said. “A lot of these people have come to the Downtowner for 15, 20, 30, 40 years. That’s how loyal and traditional our guests are. They love coming back to the Downtowner. We are the fourth owners since 1963 and I feel honored to be a part of that history.”
Lark Hotels CEO Rob Blood said in an email response that the company is excited to become part of the Saratoga community and to write the next chapter for the Downtowner. “While we are not yet ready to fully reveal our plans for the motel, I can say that our repositioning will focus on the cultural and creative community that is such an important part of the Saratoga Springs area,” Blood said. “We are currently targeting a summer 2018 opening for the property and look forward to unveiling more detailed plans soon."
BALLSTON SPA – They descended on the village of Ballston Spa Tuesday – politicians and lawyers and election officials, members of the media and curious onlookers – on an unpredictable morning which gave no hint of the cold winter that will surely come, and no clue about how the prized chips of the day might fall.
All present crowded into a sub-level room at the county complex, Building Number Five. The “solar building,” as employees call it, was constructed atop land deeded to Saratoga County nearly 200 years ago by a New York City merchant named Nicholas Low for the development of a County Clerk’s office, assuring Ballston Spa would stand at the center of county government.
On this day, the 30-or-so people inside the building’s sub-level basement came to witness the opening and counting of approximately 550 absentee ballots. Some carried with them a cautious optimism to re-affirm the seat they’d won on Election Night remained secure, others with an angst-riddled hope that what they had lost might be regained. Most came to witness the counting of votes of the public referendum that could change the only form of governing the city of Saratoga Springs has known in its 102-year history.
The Election Night tally depicted a city divided and a race too close to call. Of the nearly 8,500 ballots cast, the difference was a measly 48 votes. There were 4,202 YES votes cast that urged Charter Change. There were 4,154 NO votes registered in favor of maintaining the status quo. The counting of the absentee ballots, most assumed, would settle the final score.
The current Commission form of governing relies on five elected part-time council members, each of whom are responsible for administering their own department, as well as serving as legislators. The proposed Council-Manager form of governing would see that the council hires a non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out city policies.
10:16 a.m.: The first handful of ballots are taken from their envelopes and displayed to watchers. Saratoga Springs District Two, Embury Apartments: Yes. No. Yes. No. No. Yes. No. No. Attorneys scrawl stick figures atop their legal pads. The No’s have gained two votes. The overall Yes lead of 48 drops to 46.
11 a.m.: More districts come in. The count: 18 Yes, 32 No. Overall Yes lead drops to 34.
12:30 a.m.: Break for lunch. The count on the day: Yes 128, No 161. Yes lead drops another 19 votes. Math update, overall: Yes 4,330, No 4,315. Overall Yes lead drops to 15. Fortified by sandwiches and fueled by caffeine, everyone returns from lunch and is moved upstairs to a bigger room. First up, one of the Senior Citizens Center’s voting districts. Result: 7 Yes, 14 No. Overall: 4,337 to 4,329. Yes lead up by eight.
2:02 p.m.: Saratoga Springs High School Gym voting district - 10 Yes, 17 No. Overall: 4,347 to 4,346. Yes clings to the lead by one vote. Stress begins to show on the some of the faces in the room.
2:15 p.m.: City Center voting district: Yes 24, No 18. Yes back up by seven. Deep breaths on all sides. Over the next half hour, voting districts at United Methodist Church, a second Senior Citizens Center, and the Interlaken Community Center are presented, collectively giving the No count 18 additional votes, and the lead. The room loses its mind. There are some audible noises. Whether these are cries of joy, or cries of pain are difficult to determine. At this point, it’s hard to tell the difference.
3 p.m.: The mailman arrives. An election commissioner is dispatched to meet the mail carrier to learn if any last-minute absentee ballots have arrived on this, the deadline day. Inside the room, the counting continues of ballots from the city’s two final districts. And then it is over. The No votes have it, by seven.
But, wait, suddenly five more ballots are presented. These were set aside during the course of the day’s counting, one of the election officials explains.
“It ain’t over til it’s over, and it ain’t over yet,” says Richard Sellers, a spokesman for SUCCESS, a citizen organization that supports maintaining the current form of governing. “It feels a lot better to be up by seven than down by 48, or whatever it was a week ago (but) “I’ll celebrate when they tell me it’s over.”
“It’s a squeaker,” says Charter Review Commissioner Treasurer Gordon Boyd. The commission, which officially disbanded when the polls closed Election Night, conducted 16 months of study, staged dozens of public meetings and voted to pursue the possibility of Charter Change and adopt a council-manager form of governing. A decade ago, Boyd was a member of the SUCCESS group. This time he is part of the pro-change group. In the exploration of Charter alternatives, some residents have changed their minds over time and party lines crossed, making it all the more difficult to gauge which way the majority will go.
Adding to the unpredictability, the members of the City Council have also taken sides - this despite the words of state Board of Elections attorney Brian Quail, who said advocacy by a municipality on a referendum question is unlawful, and that a municipality hiring counsel to participate in a canvas conducted by the Board of Elections is, in his 16 years of experience, unprecedented.
Twenty-four hours earlier, City Council members John Franck, Michele Madigan and Anthony “Skip” Scirocco – each of whom have spoken in favor of maintaining the current form of governing, approved by a 3-0 vote the hiring of a Glens Falls attorney and an associate attorney at the combined rate of $525 per hour to observe Tuesday's event and “defend the city’s right to have all proper absentee ballots counted.” The two council members who have spoken in favor of changing the form of governing, Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, did not attend Monday’s “Special” City Council meeting. John Aspland, the main attorney hired to observe the absentee ballot count does just that, occasionally inking notes on a legal pad throughout the day.
Those last five ballots, the “set-asides,”are presented. Two are ruled invalid. The other three are held up, one at a time: No, no, and…no.
The unofficially tally stands at 4,458 No, 4,448 Yes. It is a calculation that would require the re-beading of an abacus: 50.06141926 percent No, 49.943858073 percent Yes. Approximately half the city’s eligible 18,000 voters took part in the vote.
“The absentee ballots came in strong just as they did in 2012 when the Commission form of government beat down a challenge,” Sellers says.
The 2012 vote which proposed amending the Charter and replacing the Commission form of government with a Manager-Council form resulted in 6,738 - 4,872 No victory, a 58-42 percent difference. A referendum in 2006 proposing a change to a strong-mayor form of government was voted down 5865-3615, roughly a 62-38 difference. Counting this year’s referendum, the margin of differences have grown smaller with each successive vote.
“I don’t think the issue of the form of government in Saratoga Springs is going to go away any time soon,” a disappointed Boyd says. “But I think we have a lot to be proud of, a lot to build on. This was a people’s campaign. We had the forces of both political party leaderships and the government of Saratoga (springs) mobilized against this proposal and we fought them pretty much to a draw.”
Eighteen Military Ballots were requested, as of this week, none have been returned. They must be received by the Board of Elections by Monday, Nov. 20 to be counted, and indications are any which do arrive will be counted Tuesday, Nov. 21.
Boyd was asked whether the referendum vote could be headed for the courtroom. “I don’t know. I just don’t know,” he responds. “We want to be sure that every valid vote has been counted.”
Bob Turner, who served as chairman of the Saratoga Springs City Charter Review Commission, said there are currently conversations being had regarding “overvotes,” which occurs when one votes for more than the maximum number of selections allowed in a contest. Turner said he doesn’t know the specific number of overvotes that appeared on voter’s ballots, but the incident could occur when voters hand write-in candidates on the front of the ballot and inked traces appear as multiple markings appear on the ballot’s reverse side, which is where Charter Change proposition question was printed.
“We’re exploring the processes. That could lead to a hand count of all 8,000-something ballots,” Turner said. That decision whether to pursue the matter could come early next week. The ballot numbers remain unofficial until they are certified by the Board of Elections. That process is anticipated to take at least a few weeks.