Opinion - Saratoga Springs Politics

The below blog posts are written by John Kaufmann.
These opinions do not reflect the views of Saratoga TODAY newspaper.

Tuesday, 30 April 2024 11:45

Ghost Of Ron Kim Haunts Current City Council

By John Kaufmann | Saratoga Springs Politics

As many of the readers of this blog may remember, one of the more unfortunate characteristics of former Saratoga Springs Mayor Ron Kim was his penchant for taking every opportunity to make unsubstantiated disparaging remarks about his predecessors on the City Council. Many of us had hoped those days of ugly personal attacks had ended with his defeat in the last election.

Unfortunately, the ghost of Kim was still present at the April 16, 2024, City Council meeting, kept alive through the efforts of Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran, Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi, and audience member Kristen Dart, with some enabling help from Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub.

The impetus for this most recent display of unsavory behavior was triggered by an item on Mayor John Safford’s agenda to pay attorney Karl Sleight’s bill for approximately $4,800 for representation for former Mayor Meg Kelly related to the New York State Attorney General’s investigation.

Similar bills for legal representation for city officials related to the Attorney General’s investigation had come before the Council for approval a number of times over the past couple of years, and Kim had used each occasion to complain about the expense and to make disparaging remarks about the people being given legal representation. In the end, though, the bills were always approved by the Council as they had to be.

The city is required by the city code and state law to defend and indemnify public officials in need of legal representation for actions brought against them during their tenure in office.

This is axiomatic. No one would run for office if they were not assured that if circumstances arose while they are in office for which they needed representation, they would have to pay for it themselves.

The Ambush

Pre-agenda meetings which take place the day before the regular Council meetings are an opportunity for Council members to present the resolutions they will be submitting for consideration at the regular meeting. At this public meeting Council members are supposed to raise any issues they may feel need clarification in preparation for the regular Council meeting. They are also supposed to have the courtesy to advise their colleagues of any resolutions they plan to oppose and why.

The following video is from the pre-agenda meeting held in preparation for the April 16 Council meeting. The Mayor lists his items including a resolution to pay Kelly’s legal bill. Readers will observe that Commissioner Sanghvi expresses no concerns about paying the bill.

Dillon Moran is not present but his deputy sits silently and Moran never contacted Mayor Safford to advise him that he would oppose paying Sleight’s bill.

There was no hint of what was going to unfold at the Tuesday night Council meeting.

The Ugly Gratuitous Attack on Meg Kelly

The debacle began during the comment period of the April 16, 2024, Council meeting when Kristen Dart spoke.

Section 9-1 of the city code reads: “The City Council of the City of Saratoga Springs agrees to provide a defense and indemnify its officers and employees in any state or federal legal action arising out of any alleged act or omission which occurred or allegedly occurred in the scope of official duty or public employment…”

In a letter to the Special Council in the Attorney General’s office, Kelly’s attorney Karl Sleight had responded to one of the many accusations in the Attorney General’s report by observing :

“As an initial point of fact the Report’s statement that Mayor Kelly had any ability to create policy and direct personnel outside of the limited powers of the Office of the Mayor is belied by the City’s charter and its Commission form of government. Mayor Kelly did not have the governmental authority to do what you alleged she did.”

Dart used this to claim that Sleight’s defense was proof that Kelly had acted outside her duties as Mayor and that therefore she forfeited legal protection that would be paid by the city.

Dart made this argument cynically ignoring the context of Sleight’s letter.

As I have documented in a previous post, the Attorney General’s report is riddled with incorrect information and unsubstantiated claims. Among the unsubstantiated claims made is that “Mayor Kelly also instructed Crooks to arrest protesters”. (p.11) The report provides no evidence that this occurred. Sleight’s letter refutes the AG charge by pointing out that the charge is “belied” by the fact that Kelly did not have the authority to do this.

Dart totally misreads the Sleight letter. He is arguing that not only is there no evidence in the report supporting the allegation that she directed Chief Crooks but that since the chief reports to the Commissioner of Public Safety, she would have no authority to take such action.

Even if Kelly had improperly attempted to direct Chief Crooks she would still be indemnified because she was acting in her role as mayor. This distinction is specifically addressed in the City Attorney’s opinion (see below).

Dart, who is not a lawyer, should have had the sense of humility and courtesy, to have consulted an attorney before doing what constituted a hit on Kelly.

Dillon Moran: Unencumbered By Responsibility

When the item to pay Sleight’s bill came up on the Mayor’s agenda, Moran and Sanghvi swung into action in what had all the appearances of an orchestrated performance that had begun with Dart’s comment.

Moran attacked first playing off of Dart’s comment. He begins by reasserting another false allegation namely that Kelly did not cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation so he cannot vote to pay her legal fees. He conveniently ignores Sleight’s correspondence with the AG. Sleight’s letter documents that the AG’s office canceled the scheduled meeting with Kelly and Sleight. Further, Sleight expresses concern about engaging with the Attorney General’s office in light of a federal suit brought by Lexis Figuereo against Kelly, among others. Sleight expresses concern that the AG’s office had “collaborated with the plaintiff in the federal court action.” It is worth noting that for some reason, the AG’s office did not see fit to respond to Sleight’s letter.

Most fundamentally and most critically, Moran chooses to simply ignore that city code and state law requires that these bills be paid. The idea that because he does not like the way Kelly interacted with the AG somehow abrogates our city code and state law is stunning.

Sanghvi Suddenly Has Questions

As the earlier video of the pre-agenda meeting documented, Sanghvi voiced no concerns about paying the legal bill nor did she even have any questions. Not so at the actual Council meeting.

Suddenly Sanghvi is full of questions. She even resurrects the issue that had been raised in the Kim era of potentially capping the amount of money spent on legal fees claiming that the City Attorneys allegedly told her that the city could do this. Her statement was subsequently refuted when the City Attorney memorialized the issue in a recent opinion (see below).

The legal bills must be reasonable. The city should not be impelled to pay for a lawyer who charges $1,000.00 an hour or bills for an unreasonable amount of hours given the scope of the work. It is not unusual for municipalities and insurance companies to insist on negotiating such bills.

What the city cannot do is place a cap on the total amount the city will pay for representation as was discussed in the Kim era and was now repeated by Sanghvi.

The Denouement

There were a number of possible ways forward for the Council on how to deal with this issue at this point. Safford could have asked for a vote but he could not be sure it would pass given the objections Minita and Dillon were suddenly raising. Given the sensitive legal issues involved and the need for privacy for the parties involved, Public Safety Commissioner Tim Coll proposed the Council goes into executive session to discuss the matter with the City Attorneys. Commissioner Sanghvi said she was amenable to this. The Council potentially could have resolved these issues in an executive session and then voted. But at this point, Public Works Commissioner Jason Golub interceded for some reason and urged the Mayor to table the resolution which Safford did. This had the effect of postponing the inevitable vote to approve this bill and giving Moran another chance to perform at the next Council meeting. (This also gave time for Wendy Liberatore to do her predictable TU article rehashing uncritically all the AG accusations and giving Dillon another platform for his phony self-righteous attacks on Kelly. The headline for her story documents why Golub’s move to table was unfortunate as it provided credibility to what Golub had to know was nonsense. The title of Liberatore’s story tells it all: Saratoga Springs officials flinch at paying more legal fees for former Mayor Kelly.)

Jason Golub: An Unpleasant Experience

Previous to last week I had always respected Jason Golub. While I was frustrated at his passivity regarding much of the craziness at City Council meetings and in particular his disinterest in addressing some of the more disturbing behavior of Dillon Moran at the Council table, I attributed it to his style.

Unfortunately, his performance at the Council meeting in killing the Mayor’s attempt to vote on the legal fees has exposed another side of him. A text he sent to me during the Council meeting establishes that he was fully aware that the attorney bill had to be paid. His confidence that Kelly would be paid makes clear that he knew the arguments put forward by Moran, Sanghvi, and Dart were without merit. So why did he intercede to table the vote rather than to let it be approved?

He had to know that his action prolonged Kelly’s vulnerability and left the dubious business of blocking the payment of her bills unresolved and subject to exploitation by Sanghvi and Moran.

In a subsequent conversation I had with Golub I was disappointed in his adamant defense of allowing the issue to go on. He offered multiple excuses. He alleged that he did not hear Sanghvi agree to go into executive session (Readers should review the video and determine for themselves whether it is credible that he did not hear her.) He argued that Kristen Dart is an attorney and he needed to take the issues she raised seriously. (Kristen Dart is not an attorney and we have already established that he knew Kelly should be paid.) He attempted to blame Mayor Safford for tabling the resolution. While Safford technically tabled it as chair, Safford did it only when Golub urged him to.

Jason Golub owes Meg Kelly an apology.

The Full Video Of The Event

The City Attorneys’ Opinion

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