On Being Mayor: Historic Panel Looks Back On City’s History
By Arthur Gonick
SARATOGA SPRINGS – In conjunction with the centennial (officially on April 7, 2015) of the incorporation of Saratoga Springs as a city, on Thursday, September 18 the Saratoga Springs Public Library convened an esteemed panel of 11 current and former Mayors of the city, whose tenure dated back to the mid-1960s.
These mayors reflected on their experiences in their time in office – the challenges, accomplishments and rewards during their time in office. In attendance were former Mayors James Murphy, Raymond Watkin, A.C. Riley, J. Michael O’Connell, Ken Klotz, Michael Lenz, Valerie Keehn and Scott Johnson, as well as the current Mayor – Joanne Yepsen. The panel was moderated deftly with good humor by Dale Willman, who noted that the only topic that was out of bounds in the wide-ranging discussion was “charter change,” although some on the panel got their thoughts in on that subject as well.
Everyone on the panel, as expected, brought a wealth of insight and perspective on their office and their role in the city’s governance.
Mayors Murphy and Watkin held office at a time when there were no political parties on the council. Mayor Murphy, who was the youngest Mayor in the city’s history, taking office at age 28, felt that it was better to have a non-partisan approach to governing the city. Mayor Watkin agreed, noting that in the 1970s he felt it was an exciting time to govern, he characterized it as an age of transitioning government “from the bosses to the people.”
People tend to wax nostalgic about the good old days, but it was by no means a simpler time for these Mayors. Watkin cited the fact that after taking office, the specter of Saratoga losing it’s exclusivity of 24 racing dates loomed large until through his and other lobbyists efforts resulted in then-Governor Carey intervening on Saratoga’s behalf. “We were in trouble.” He said.
A gas crisis resulted in Watkin’s institution of an odd/even system and also the initiation of a special assessment district for the downtown core to counteract suburban sprawl such as the development of the Pyramid Mall.
Murphy recalled his decision to remove the parking meters on Broadway in a similar vein to spur downtowns. Murphy listed among his proudest achievements the development of the Design Review Commission; annexation of land from the Town of Greenfield for what would become the new Skidmore College campus and getting sidewalks for the High School along West Circular Street so students “didn’t need to walk in the street.”
A. C. Riley came to learn about public service through her volunteer work, which continues today with the County Economic Opportunity Council and other organizations. She recalled that shortly taking office, she walked by a street cave-in near the Adirondack Trust and thought “this is MY hole in the ground” now. She was most proud of the development of the library property where this meeting was occurring, citing it as key element in the development of the downtown core.
J. Michael O’Connell recalled being proud of many things while in office, primarily how he was able to evaluate all sides of an issue and communicate with his fellow commissioners, regardless of party lines. “You were always mindful that you need three votes to do anything,” he said. He noted that sometimes, even under the commission form of government, the mayor had to be strong in office, such as when he had to jawbone the New York Racing Association into paying their fair share of the costs for a new East Avenue sewer line.
Ken Klotz listed several accomplishments that he looked back on with pride, the adoption of the 2001 Comprehensive Plan, Universal Preservation Hall’s restoration and the revitalization of the Beekman Street area chief among them. Many on the panel were seen to nod in agreement when he noted the unique aspect of governing a city with such a high level of citizen involvement.
Michael Lenz, a Republican, looked back and noted that he was inspired by Watkin, a Democrat when he was mayor and how he operated “street corner politics” – talking to citizens about the issues and concerns of the day - outside Lenz’ family pharmacy building, in which Watkin was also a retail tenant. Later, current Mayor Joanne Yepsen, a Democrat, noted that she had reached out to A.C. Riley (Republican) for advice and council shortly after being elected last November.
All the panelists discussed governing under crisis. Lenz noted that on 9/11, Mayor Klotz was in the hospital in a medically induced coma, necessitating him (as Commissioner of Finance) acting in his stead, noting that he worked with Mayor Klotz’s wife Karen and the other commissioners to keep the city functioning during that time. Valerie Keehn recalled the region-wide blackout during Dance Flurry weekend shortly after taking office as requiring special action that only a mayor could provide. “I was everywhere, helping all I could, but people urged me to interact with the media… at times like that, people want to see the Mayor. You’re the face of the community.” Later, Mayor Yepsen cited the death of Nancy Pitts and the establishment of a Code Blue facility that required her to act even before officially in office.
Scott Johnson noted that being the face of the community “turns every 5 minute walk into a 20 minute one” as people want to be heard on what is important to them. “We may not agree, but it’s important that you are open to hearing all sides.” Johnson, who served for three two-year terms, said he was proud to oversee moving projects forward, citing the Recreation Center and Woodlawn Parking Garage as two salient examples. Interestingly, he noted that while the job can involve long hours and take its toll, “It’s really harder on our spouses and family than on us. They are the ones who make the real sacrifices so we can serve.” He said.
Moving projects forward was sentiment echoed in a different manner by Lenz, noting that many projects are determined to be worthwhile regardless of who holds office. He cited the Waterfront Park - a 100-acre parcel had advanced through four mayoral administrations (two Democrats and two Republicans) and was now to the point where a groundbreaking was scheduled for Monday, September 22 (see page 4.)
While there was a lot of agreement generally on the panel, one issue they were unanimous about was that the job didn’t pay enough! The current mayor’s salary is $14,000/year, up from $2,500 during Murphy’s and Watkin’s time in office.
But you could tell by the pride in their collective voices that money was far down on the list of considerations when it came to public service.