Saratoga Springs Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran is introducing amendments to the city's ordinance on outdoor dining at Tuesday night's City Council meeting (11/21/23). The amendments further refine Moran's effort to exercise exclusive authority over outdoor dining.
In its first venture into establishing outdoor dining regulations during the pandemic, the city established a committee that included the City Attorney, the Director of Risk and Safety, a representative of the Fire Department, and a representative of the Department of Public Works to determine all facets of outdoor dining.
When Moran became Accounts Commissioner, he amended the ordinance to reduce the role of this committee to be advisory only. They still were charged with reviewing the applications, but their authority was reduced.
Now Moran has gone further by dissolving the committee. Instead, he will simply send the applications to the Department of Public Works, the Department of Public Safety, and the Building Department for their review.
There are two things worth considering here.
First, my experience with bureaucracy is that simply sending the applications to other departments, as compared to the committee, reduces the potential that there will be actual feedback.
Second, and most troubling, he has eliminated the involvement of the Director of Risk and Safety. It is no secret that Moran did not care for the last director, Marilyn Rivers, because she was a stickler on compliance issues. He knows that there is the potential that the new Mayor will fill that position.
Below are two pictures of restaurants that, during the last summer, routinely and egregiously violated both the city's regulations on sidewalk access and the American Disability Act's accessibility requirements. Moran is a fixture of the night scene downtown. He had to have observed these restaurants' violations. It was only after I submitted a complaint that these two restaurants came into compliance.
Moran's changes also remove the requirement that the City Council vote on the final approval of permits for outdoor dining and leaves that authority entirely in Moran's hands. In addition, Moran has removed the no-smoking requirement in outdoor dining areas and replaced that section with the single word "Reserved"- whatever that means.
The Dicey Issue Of Fee Schedules
I have repeatedly sought information on how Moran arrived at the fees the city charges private businesses for the use of the city's sidewalks and parking spaces for outdoor dining.
I FOILed the city for any documents that would explain the basis of the tiny fees, which, for all intents and purposes, make the use of the public's space by restaurants practically free. The FOIL officer responded that a search of the city's documents failed to find anything related to this.
Moran's amendment eliminates the annual review of these fees. In the future, they will be "established from time to time." Apparently, whenever Moran decides to change them.
The City Council Rubber Stamp
Let me be clear that I am not opposed to outdoor dining, and I believe it adds to the attractiveness of our downtown. I do believe, though, that the success of this endeavor requires appropriate and prudent controls. If past experience serves us, the current City Council will approve these changes without serious discussion.