Friday, 06 January 2017 10:49
Changes for City Government in 2017
SARATOGA SPRINGS — From the development of new hotels and the construction of parking garages, to addressing affordable housing issues and the daily recreational activities of year-round residents, most everything that happens in Saratoga Springs passes through City Hall. Historical significance aside, the 146-year-old brick building on Broadway houses a variety of review commissions and advisory boards, each with their own specialty which feed their recommendations to the ultimate governing body that is the City Council. The five-member council – comprised of the mayor and four commissioners are each tasked with overseeing different city departments, as well as sharing equal voting power at the table when deciding how to shape the city’s future. The councilmembers each serve two-year terms, and all five seats will be up in the November 2017 election. Prior to that vote, however, the city’s commission form of governing may face a challenge in a public referendum that could take place as soon as the spring. “We had a vote 12-3 to draft a charter with an alternative form of government,” Bob Turner, chairman of the Charter Review Commission told the City Council this week. “However, we’ll also be making suggestions on changes to the current form.” At least one sitting councilmember is publicly opposed to a springtime referendum. “Having a special election in April is ludicrous. It’s almost like you’re trying to shoehorn this thing in,” DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco said this week. “If you have special elections mid-term, you just don’t get the turn-out. Special interest and special groups come out. It would make a lot more sense, to me, to wait and have that election in November.” The annual State of the City address, during which Mayor Joanne Yepsen will discuss the city’s achievements during the past 12 months and its plans the future, will take place 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Saratoga Springs City Center. The State of The City address provides a roadmap of the city’s agenda for the new year, as well as offering a glimpse of what may be in the works behind the scenes. It was during the 2015 address that the formation of the arts commission, and the subsequent policies regulating street performers emerged for the first time. “As we move forward in our second century as a city, we must sustain our growth without compromising our city in the country,” Yepsen said in last year’s address. Land Use and environmental protection were among the priorities in the 2016 vision. Building economic opportunities and housing initiatives were the others, and these are sure to continue well into the future. City Land Use Boards The Saratoga Springs Planning Board is a seven-member citizen board appointed by the mayor to 7-year staggered terms. The Planning Board reviews development activities within city boundaries and provides advisory services to the City Council, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Design Review Commission on various development activity, and meets 2nd and 4th Thursday of every month. This week, Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Amy Durland to a one-year term, to fulfill the final year of obligation by board member Howard Pinsley, who resigned due to health reasons. The Saratoga Springs Zoning Board of Appeals is a quasi-judicial seven-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor to 7-year staggered terms. The ZBA reviews requests for waivers from regulations in the zoning ordinance, including Use Variances, Area Variances, and requests for interpretation of the regulations made by the city’s Zoning Enforcement Officer. The Board also makes referrals for advisory opinions on any matter before the Board to the City Council, the Planning Board, and the Design Review Commission. This week, Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Cheryl Grey to a 7-year term. The Saratoga Springs Design Review Commission is a 7-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor to 5-year staggered terms. The DRC has jurisdiction over signage and exterior building changes on most properties within the city’s National Register Districts, as well as over signage and exterior building changes on properties that face the major entrance roads to the city. The Commission also provides advisory services to the City Council, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Planning Board on various development activity. Mayor Appoints Second City Court Judge – Vero In, Doern Out Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Francine R. Vero to fill the second position of full-time City Court Judge. Vero, a Democrat, will serve for a period of one year, commencing Jan. 1, 2017. Under a bill signed in 2013 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that seeks to ease caseloads in overburdened municipal courts, Saratoga Springs maintained its one full-time judge - Democrat Jeffery Wait - who was originally elected to the judgeship in 2008, and transformed its one part-time city judgeship - held by Republican Jim Doern, into a full-time position. Yepsen recently appointed Wait to fill the first position within City Court, and with the appointment of Vero - a 2006 graduate of Albany Law School and a Senior Counsel with the Harris Beach law firm – Doern’s service to the city as judge has concluded, although he could mount a political challenge for the seat in the fall. The position will be open for local elective office in the November 2017 vote. John Safford, a Republican mayoral candidate who challenged the Democrat Yepsen in the 2015 election, this week questioned Yepsen’s appointment of Vero over Doern. “I’m very confident and very happy with my choice,” Yepsen responded. “We all need to move on and keep the politics out of it.” In addition to increasing staffing requirements, the state Office of Court Administration also informed the city it would need to modify its existing court space, which sits directly beneath Saratoga Music Hall, to accommodate the second judge -- and that it must do so at its own expense. Last May, the City Council held a special meeting and unanimously backed an option which calls for the conversion of Saratoga Music Hall into courtroom space. The proposed conversion of the hall has been an unpopular one within some residents of the city, who cite its historic construction and its value as a 300-seat performance hall. At a public hearing last May, nearly two dozen people spoke for nearly an hour to protest the council’s decision to turn the hall into courtroom space, and an online petition titled “Save the Music Hall!” garnered more than 370 signatures in three weeks. Re-construction of the hall has yet to commence.