City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
BALLSTON SPA — Mayor Woolbright walked through Wiswall Park on a sun-filled Wednesday afternoon draped in a shadow of memories of the grand San Souci Hotel. The fashionable multi-story structure which once stood a few yards away housed hundreds of guests during its 19th century heyday. It was the largest hotel in the nation at the time.
At this week’s ceremony, Ballston Spa Mayor Larry Woolbright showcased the newly restored fountain fed by the San Souci Spring, one of the initial springs that drew visitors to the village in the 1800s. If the restored fountain provided a visible symbol of the village’s renewal, the event’s unveiling of an economic development plan represents its rebirth.
“The release of this smart and strategic economic development plan heralds a new beginning for the village of Ballston Spa, and makes it abundantly clear that we are open for business,” Woolbright said, showcasing the 72-page economic development plan.
A product of the Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative, the plan was guided by the input of residents, government leaders and members of the business community. More than 400 took part in local surveys, six focus groups were conducted, and a public forum staged. The development of the plan combines the community’s vision of itself, as well as recognizing village assets and resources.
“Ultimately this is your plan, based on your vision,” said Shelby Schneider, President and CEO of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership. The Partnership worked with the village for more than one year to create the plan, which outlines a strategic and tactical approach to attracting visitors, residents and businesses to Ballston Spa by enriching and promoting the assets, resources, charm and character of the historic village.
According to 2019 data, the village measures 1.6 miles and is home to 287 businesses and 5,469 residents. The median household income is $61,378 and the average home value just under $240,000.
The Economic Development Strategy seeks to enhance the Central Business District by achieving an environment that provides a positive shopping experience and bolsters the village atmosphere for businesses, residents and visitors alike. These would be attained by implementing, among other things, architectural and transportation/ walkability improvements, developing market rate housing for adults to “age-in-place,” fostering supportive conditions for small businesses, and updating the village master plan, which was last updated in 1994.
The 72-page economic development plan outlines four major goals, and includes a matrix of timelines for implementation, to strengthen Ballston Spa’s economic and fiscal vitality. They include: Enhancing the Central Business District; Enriching the Village’s Quality of Place; Providing support and resources to small businesses and creating an economic development and community branding strategy.
Mayor Woolbright said the plan will build on the rich and storied past of the village and “help create a thriving village for our children, and their children.”
The gathering in Wiswall Park included former longtime village Mayor John Romano, members of the current village board and regional business and tourism leaders, many of whom raised a toast with cups filled with spring water. Rory O’Connor, Chair of the Steering Committee called the plan “a declaration of opportunity.”
The survey points to downtown parking availability, infrastructure and repair upgrades and lack of business diversity as some of the top challenges the village faces. Nafeesa Koslik, who hails from the city of Hyberabad in India, said during the ceremony that she was confident she has found the perfect place to make her dream a reality. Her restaurant, Nani’s Indian Kitchen, is slated to open on Milton Avenue in the coming weeks.
James Beaudoin, owner of the prominent 125 Bath St. property, was also in attendance. Beaudoin said he looks forward to playing a role in the “exciting vision for the village’s future,” and helping to make it a reality. After many years of being unable to do so, the Bath Street property is slated for potential future development.
“You look around us here and the village is pretty well built-out. There’s not a whole lot of vacant space. Now this site is over six acres-plus, and it’s in the middle of the central business district,” Mayor Woolbright explained. “It was a tannery for many years and a Brownfield Site restricted by DEC that couldn’t be redeveloped. Jim (Beaudoin) bought it, cleaned it up and he now has permission to redevelop it. He can build, he can have businesses, he can have residences. He’s working with the village on the plan of what we would like to see there,” Woolbright said. “What we would like to see is mixed-use, some retail commercial on the bottom floor, some open space in the middle, some condos or something on the upper floors, and we’d like to see a connection up to the fair ground. It’s a strategically placed property and our vision calls for a bridge over the Gordon Creek, restaurants, bars and shops lining Washington Street.”
The Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative involves creating tailored economic development plans for individual municipalities in Saratoga County. Similar efforts are currently underway in the towns of Galway and Malta. For more information about Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, go to: saratogapartnership.org. For more information about Ballston Spa visit the village website at: villageofballstonspa.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A Special City Council meeting was held at City Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 1 to address public safety concerns in light of recent protests and marches held in Saratoga Springs.
“The safety of the community and all involved is the number one priority of the Department of Public Safety,” Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said, to begin the meeting. Dalton specifically cited a protest held the previous Friday night led by the group All of Us. The regional grassroots organization describes their goals as fighting for liberty through unity and active resistance and ending all forms of oppression and exploitation.
“Over the last six days we have received hundreds of complaints from residents, businesses and people who are visiting our city, over the protest that happened in our city Friday night. The Saratoga Springs Police Department recognizes the right to peacefully protest, however, one person’s constitutional right does not supersede another’s,” Dalton said during the meeting, attended by all council members, excepting DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, who was absent.
Accompanied by video clips of the protest, Dalton provided a timeline of the march, which commenced in Congress Park and proceeded through the downtown business corridor. For safety reasons, police blocked off streets around the Broadway and Lake Avenue intersection, she said, and a video clip depicted marchers moving along Phila Street.
“Frequently the group stopped in front of area businesses to intimidate and harass diners and pedestrians,” Dalton said, showing a five-minute clip that depicted one of the group leaders in close proximity to outdoor restaurant tables and loudly addressing diners with words at times peppered with profanity. “You all can have dinner, while black people are dying,” the clip showed. “You all feel comfortable, having dinner, while we’re being murdered? Come outside walk with us.”
“Suffice to say none of the customers came back to dine at those restaurants that evening,” Dalton said. “That also happened at several other businesses, where they stopped and harassed and intimidated people who were eating.”
Protests for social and racial justice have ramped up regionally much as they have nationwide since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after being pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. In early June, more than 1,000 attended a rally in Congress Park. In late July, Black Lives Matter/All of Us marchers protesting racial injustice crossed paths with another group supporting law enforcement in a Back The Blue rally.
Citing “intelligence collected by outside agencies” that police say reported one of the protestors was possibly armed with a handgun, the city added the assistance of the State Police, state Park Police, and the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department. Later that same evening, as members of the group rallied on Broadway and impeded traffic in front of Congress Park, the sheriff’s department utilizing their MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle, dispersed the crowd using pepper projectiles. The city Chief of Police authorized the action “once the situation started turning violent,” according to a statement issued by SSPD.
The most recent protest led by “All of Us” was staged two days after a Kentucky grand jury decided against charging police officers with homicide in the death of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old emergency room technician was shot multiple times in her apartment by officers executing a search warrant earlier this year in what the N.Y. Times described as a “botched raid.”
At this week’s special council meeting, Assistant City Police Chief John Catone read a prepared statement which said SSPD respects the right to peacefully protest at public property – “such as parks, government buildings, as long as they are not blocking access to the buildings or interfering with the other purposes the property was designated for.”
Citing the video clips played during the council meeting, Catone explained that marchers had obstructed vehicle and pedestrian traffic to the point that the safety of all had been compromised.
“Moving forward, should demonstrations and protests which have not been coordinated with our department occur obstruct vehicular pedestrian traffic and compromise the peace and safety of all community members, the police department will ask demonstrators, protesters to remove themselves from the roadway and stop obstructing vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” Catone said. “The demonstrators/protesters will be given the opportunity to move and if they fail to do so, the appropriate police action will take place, and they may be subject to arrest.”
He added the police department continues to make itself available to meet with rally organizers for safe protest planning purposes, but said members of All Of Us had thus far not agreed to meet with the department.
“It is time to make some changes here because we cannot have this happening time and time again in the city of Saratoga Springs – period,” Mayor Meg Kelly said. “We are not going to block streets; there’s going to be a time where somebody’s going to get run over by a car. There’s going to be a fight in the street and it’s going to be a bad scene,” she said. “I think this is a very important turning point.”
Lexis Figuereo, identified as a leader of the group “All of Us,” spoke to the council during the meeting’s public comment period.
“This is the first meeting I’m hearing anything about protests. Until people started complaining about restaurants last Friday - now you guys want to talk. Now we’re having a special council meeting. There was no Special Council Meeting when you guys shot at us,” said Figuereo, referring to the late July rally that resulted in law enforcement using pepper balls. “Why has it taken this long for this to happen, because we’ve been doing this since May. It seems to me what’s more important is property and money than people and people’s lives.”
All Of Us is advocating for what it calls its “13 Demands Against Police Brutality, State-Sanctioned Violence, and Abuse of Power.” These include structural changes be made to policing and incarceration, including the abolition of all no-knock warrants, anti-racism training for all persons working for law enforcement, and the abolition of chokeholds, among others.
In June, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an Executive Order requiring local governments with a police force to perform a comprehensive review and develop a plan to improve current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices. The purpose of the order is to address the particular needs of each community, to promote community engagement and foster trust, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.
Earlier this summer, city Mayor Meg Kelly Mayor convened a Task Force to address the governor’s Executive Order. The next meeting is Oct. 14. When completed, the Task Force will present their recommendations to the City Council and the public. The council is required to adopt a plan by local law or resolution on or before April 1, 2021 and to implement the recommendations.
ALBANY — The state has launched a mobile contact tracing app in partnership with Apple and Google software that will alert smartphone users if they were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
COVID Alert NY is a voluntary, anonymous, exposure-notification smartphone app created for the purposes of contact tracing. Contact tracing is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and helps protect individuals, their families, and entire communities, according to the CDC. It lets people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and that they should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of the virus.
“Contact tracing is awesome and our (Saratoga County) contact tracers have been working very hard – but it also relies on your memory,” says Tara Gaston, one of two Saratoga Springs Supervisors representing the city at the county level. “If you have COVID and you’re diagnosed, they ask you: Where have you been? Do you remember when you went to that gas station, and did you brush up against that person? Do you remember when you saw your neighbor out in the front?’ It relies on you remembering every place you’ve been, who you’ve been in contact with.”
The expectation is the app will “remember” contacts in greater detail than the human memory, and it will do so without compromising privacy or personal information.
“What I do right now is I have a Proximity List,” explains city resident Charlie Samuels, an awards-winning director and photographer and early supporter of the potential benefits of the system. “I’m a documentarian, so I write down everybody I come close contact with. I have my own list. But who else keeps a list? And sometimes I forget. This would be an easy, non-thinking way to do that.”
In April, Apple and Google – normally competitors in business - announced plans to collaborate on building COVID-19 software into iPhone and Android operating systems. On Oct. 1, in partnership with Google and Apple, the New York State Department of Health launched the COVID Alert NY app which enables the software to be used, for those who choose to do so.
The app leverages a private and secure Bluetooth-based technology that alerts you if a sick person spends 10 minutes or more within 6 feet of you, and lets you alert others if you have tested positive without revealing anyone’s identity, according to the state Department of Health.
“The important thing is it doesn’t tell you where you came in contract with them, or when – except that it would have been sometime in the previous 14 days,” Gaston said. “It can be beneficial, and I love the idea especially because there’s also so much privacy built into it. I’m a big pro-ponent of privacy and I don’t want people’s information being shared.”
The more people who download COVID Alert NY, the more effective it will be. The free mobile app is available to anyone 18 or older who lives, works, or attends college in New York or New Jersey, and is available for download from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. COVID Alert NY is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, Russian and Haitian Creole.
GLENS FALLS — Adirondack Film Festival, in its fifth year of operation, has invented a new way to bring the film festival experience into patrons’ homes.
“Most festivals are going digital at this point, which is imperative, but that leaves the audience missing arguably the best part of the whole festival: the experience,” says Producing Artistic Director, Chad Rabinovitz, who announced what he calls “the world’s first Film Festival in a Box.” The program will be available Oct. 15-18.
“In addition to more than 100 short and feature-length films to choose from, you’ll also receive everything you need to recreate the exciting atmosphere that has become synonymous with AFF,” Rabinovitz says. “Your box comes with items like your festival lanyard, killer AFF swag, 3D glasses (you may just need them), and even a rope to cordon off your room from those pesky housemates who don’t meet your VIP status. We’ll provide you with some of the best new films on the planet – along with all the popcorn you’ll need to get through the weekend – and so much more.”
Unlike most digital festivals that allow the viewer to choose when they want to watch it, the AFF films will be shown at specific times, exactly as it would be with the in-person festival. Filmgoers will be given a full schedule and must recreate the experience of choosing which films to see and when.
The schedule will replace the traditional AFF venues with rooms in the home. So, a patron may find themselves finishing up a movie in the bedroom and then racing to their living room to catch the next film on their list. This “film fest experience” schedule will exist from Thursday through Saturday. For those wanting to watch whatever they want, whenever they want it, the full catalogue of films will be available “on demand” for Sunday.
Filmgoers will vote on their favorites through a live voting app and an awards ceremony will be held via Zoom, with AFF trophies mailed to the filmmakers after the festival.
The 2020 film selection was curated by Programming Director Jessica Levandoski, and includes the headliners: First Cow, Saint Frances, We Don’t Deserve Dogs, VHYES, Freeland, and After Midnight. Special screenings include: Bacurau, Benny Love You, and a 3D block of short films. In total, AFF is screening 16 feature-length films and 105 short films divided into 22 blocks). Each film will have a very brief pre-recorded introduction by the filmmaker in lieu of a Q&A. Films will be screened via a Netflix-style platform which can be viewed either on a computer or a TV.
VIP passes are $79 and include full access to all films and the total festival experience box complete with AFF swag. Basic passes are $49 and include access to most films (excludes headliners) – no box is included. Prices will increase closer to the event.
For more information about the films, go to: adkfilmfestival.org and www.intheboxentertainment.com. Tickets may also be purchased by calling the Wood Theater Box Office at 518-480-4878. Audiences will vote on their favorite films in various categories with the winners being revealed live over Zoom on Sunday at 7 p.m.
BALLSTON SPA — Election Night coverage. A portion of a Terrorism Prevention Program grant this year will afford Saratoga County law enforcement funding to providing for the potential security of polling places and other election related matters.
In total, the $69,500 grant is via the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, for a 2020 State Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program (SLETPP) Grant. SLETPP is a sub-grantee of the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). The funds pay for enhanced counter terrorism and response programs that include things like training programs, night vision equipment, and unmanned aerial systems equipment.
A portion of the grant - $14,000 - will specifically target operation overtime for security of polling places and “election related matters” for the county Sheriff’s Department that begins with this election season and goes through Aug. 31, 2023.
“That’s brand new and the $14,000 is for three years,” Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said regarding the election-related component. “I don’t know why it’s in there - the state came up with that so I have no idea - but it was a pre-requisite for the grant, so if we need to utilize extra personnel, we can do that and utilize the monies that were put in the grant.”
At its most recent meeting, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution authorizing an agreement with the NYS Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to accept the $69,500 state law enforcement terrorism prevention program grant. Willard Peck of Northumberland, John Lant of Wilton, John Lawler of Waterford, Darren O’Connor of Malta, Jean Raymond of Edinburg, Matthew Veitch of Saratoga Springs and Arthur Wright of Hadley were the supervisors who introduced the resolution. The agreement is subject to the approval of the County Attorney.
In the past, the Sheriff’s Department has been involved in things such as picking up and delivering absentee ballots from rural areas to the county Board of Elections on occasion.
“We’ll work with our Board of Election here to see what they need on Election Night. This is new so were in the planning stages at this time,” Zurlo said. “We’ll see what type of plan they come up with - if we need to go to polling places throughout the county, it may be ballots being picked up. I’m waiting to hear from them to see what type of plan they have in place and then that’ll tell me how many people I need.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Force into virtual reality due to the ongoing pandemic, MDOCS Stoytellers’ Institute presents an online exhibition featuring the 2020 MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute Fellows and live conversations with artists.
The current theme, titled SHIFT, shows how a small group of documentarians adapted and created despite and because of the global challenges of 2020 in first-ever virtual MDOCS Stoytellers’ Institute.
The exhibit includes works of more than one dozen artists. Included are a Quarantine Self Portrait photo series by Gioncarlo Valentine, Kadijatou Diallo’s animated untold story of life under Guinean President Sékou Touré’s regime, and 25-minutes of footage comprised of videos taken over a one-year span by Keshawn Truesdale, that includes portions of protests and rallies in Saratoga Springs during recent months.
Founded in 2014, the annual Storytellers’ Institute sponsored by the John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative (MDOCS) is a five-week residency hosted at Skidmore College. The institute brings together a handful of professional documentary practitioners, 8 to 10 Skidmore College students and some faculty/staff members to work on personal projects and engage with the year’s theme.
Instagram live conversations with artists will take place @mdocs.skidmore at 6 p.m. on the following dates: Oct. 1 - Courtney Surmanek and Steven T. Licardi; Oct. 8 - Kadijatou Diallo and Shana Kleiner; Oct. 15 - Shalon Buskirk, Haley Hnatuk, and Drew Swedberg; Oct. 22 - Cooperativa Cultural 19 de enero - Fernanda Espinosa and Raul Ayala. To view the online virtual presentation of SHIFT, go to: mdocs.skidmore.edu/storytellers/shift.
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services this week hosted a panel discussion with members of the region’s education and medical communities.
As the second week of school gets underway locally, Superintendents Oliver Robinson – of the Shenendehowa Central School District, and Patricia Morris – of Stillwater Central School District, say: so far, so good.
“School is different this year. One of the things we were worried about is wearing masks and how kids will comply, but I have to tell you: kudos to our students from kindergarten through grade 12; kids have been absolutely great about following protocols, which has made the reopening so much smoother,” Robinson said.
“There are certain logistics that we simply could not anticipate until we started, such as the number of parents who drive their kids to school. There are things we have to make adjustments for - and we have. Transportation the first day was a bit of a traffic jam, the second day was better and by the end of the first week things were flowing very well. Most of our kids are eating lunch in the classroom, and the food service folks have figured out a system that works very smoothly. So, a lot of people came together with a mindset of what can we do to make it a reality.”
At Stillwater, Morris said a lot of “angst” in preparation for the fall semester has largely been resolved as a result of careful preparation and planning in advance of the start of a return to classes.
“We were very excited to welcome students back and it has been a whirlwind. It’s been wonderful seeing the kids,” Morris said. The biggest challenge, she said, has been working out the logistics to make everything run as smoothly as possible – keeping students safe while providing them an education.
“We looked at the needs of each grade level: our youngest kids through first grade we wanted those kids in every day being that they’re new learners; replicating the experience of a regular education for them while keeping them safe was important to us. A hybrid schedule is not ideal for anyone, it’s not that face-to-face, and fully remote certainly is not,” Morris said. “We would want all of our kids back in- person, but to do that we need to be safe. So we created a schedule that would allow grades 2 through 5 and then 6 through 8 to come in intermittently a couple of times a week, and then 9th through 12th graders are in one day a week, but they have a double period of their core classes.”
Figuring out the financial aspects under a tight budget will be another challenge. At Shenendehowa, Robinson said the district has spent over 1 million on various Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE’s - masks, sanitizers, and machines among them, and those types of things will be ongoing, not one-time expenses.
Cathleen Medick of the county office of public health added that experts are predicting a potential second wave of COVID in the fall as people become more active and schools go back in session.
“I think the most important thing anyone can do right now is to get a flu shot,” Medick said. “It’s also the beginning of flu season, and COVID and Influenza have very similar symptoms. Getting the flu shot will help keep the flu down and hopefully keep illness at bay. On average in a slow flu season 36,000 people die here in our country from the flu, so we don’t want to add to what’s happening with COVID - we’re up to about 200,000 people who have died in our country with COVID.” Physician offices as well as many pharmacies offer a flu shot, she said.
“It’s very hard to tell the difference between COVID and flu,” said Dr. David Mastrianni of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group, who also served as a panelist at the forum.
“There are a few symptoms that may lean you one way or another. What we’ve seen with COVID is a loss of taste and smell, but the reality is it’s going to be hard to tell. There are some people who have gotten very sick and other people who had minimal to no symptoms. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so when people are sick, they’re going to have to be evaluated for both, and we have tests for both,” Mastrianni said.
“We have a lot of experience with flu vaccine over many years. We know the effectiveness and we know the side effects. It is very safe. There are only very rare various reactions to it. It’s really important this year as we seek to avoid this confusion of COVID and the flu,” he added.
Members of the local medical community are hopeful mask-wearing and social-distancing to avoid the COVID infection will also result in less cases of the flu being transmitted. “Masking is absolutely critical and then when you add social distancing - that really is very effective. We think this is a key going forward,” Mastrianni said.
“I think the people in this community have done the right thing. We’ve gotten through those tough first few months where we had our ICU full and we had to open a second ICU. We took patients from New York here, and we saw the decline in cases as people did the right thing. We’ve gone through the summer now where we’ve had spots here and there, but overall people have done a very good job,” Mastrianni said. “I think we are ready for this. We need to be cautious and to know there will be cases, but that we can handle them and that we can work through this together.”
Robinson cautioned it’s not a time to let one’s guard down.
“We try to emphasize that parents remind kids when they’re out of school, those same protocols need to be practiced, because COVID isn’t generated in the school. It’s brought into the environment. So, wear masks, maintain social distancing, have good hand-hygiene,” Robinson said. “If you have a child that’s sick in any form or fashion, keep the child home. If people are diligent about that, we will continue to have a successful year. School is part of the community and we’re in this together.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — An expansion at the Excelsior Park complex is being reviewed by the city Planning Board.
The area of review is off Excelsior Avenue, located north of the VFW Post 420 in a wooded area bordered by Spring Run Trail. Excelsior Park Phase 1 has been constructed and Phase 2 has previously been approved and is under construction.
The Excelsior Park Project currently under review proposes a mixed-use development that includes 163 residential units, 36,200 square feet of commercial space, a banquet facility, spa, swimming pool, and a 60-room hotel with a 200-seat restaurant.
The residential component includes a variety of single and multi-bedroom apartments, townhouses and condominiums. The original application for the project was made in November 2017 and first presented to the Planning Board in early 2018.
Plans call for the construction of three new structures – the largest of which will stand 50 feet high and 250 feet wide. The Excelsior Park expansion is anticipated to occur over several phases and cover nearly 35 acres with a start date of June 2021.
The group presenting the proposal is represented by The Chazen Companies - a multi-disciplinary firm providing clients in both the private and public sectors with a everything from land surveying, planning, and landscape architecture to construction services.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Moby Rick’s Seafood, which formerly served as Pepper’s Market & Deli is slated for demolition this month. The Lake Avenue building dates to 1891, according to the business’ current inhabitants. Demolition was approved in May regarding the building at 173 Lake Ave, and proposals call for a new two-family dwelling to be constructed in its place. Moby Rick’s Seafood will be relocating to 170 South Broadway.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Buckle your seat belts, the battle lines have been drawn.
In November, on Election Day, city residents will be asked to consider a change in the only form of governing that Saratoga Springs has known since its inception as a city in 1915. The last time a citizen-led City Charter referendum proposed change, which took place in 2017, a tense nine-day post-election period was required to await the return of absentee ballots that would decide the winner. In the end, nearly 9,000 residents voted in all and the referendum to replace the long-standing commission form of governing was defeated by a total of 10 votes.
That razor-thin margin in 2017 was a continuation of an ever-tightening vote differential in community-led proposals for change: a 2006 referendum proposing a change to a strong-mayor form of government was voted down by roughly a 62-38 percent difference, and a 2012 proposal was defeated 58-42 percent.
This time around, the proposed charter reform calls for the creation of a six-person council whose members would be elected from six newly created neighborhood “wards,” a mayor elected by voters city-wide, and the hiring by the council of a city manager.
Last week, a pro-charter change citizens campaign committee called Common Sense Saratoga, staged their kick-off campaign at High Rock Park.
“Why am I here today? When I was in office, politics was the primary thing, unfortunately,” said Ron Kim, former city Public Safety Commissioner and currently a co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga. “Each of the commissioners protected their own turf. That’s not the way I wanted to operate, but that’s the way things were. Everyday citizens would meet roadblocks for the simple things,” Kim said. “It was open to those who were connected, who had their own attorneys, who had a voice through the political end. That’s cronyism. That’s not representative government.”
The current “Commission” form of governing features five council members – one mayor, plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively. Each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. In this council of five, each of whom is elected to two-year terms, decisions are made by majority rule.
Kim said the change in the form of governing would provide more accountability, representation and transparency. “City wide commissioners who manage bureaucracies don’t, as a first priority, represent people. They represent the department. I know. I was there.”
Saratoga Works - a group opposing the charter change and in favor of maintaining the status quo, launched their first gathering two weeks ago.
Led by co-chairs Connie Woytowich and Jane Weihe, the Saratoga Works group argue a change in Saratoga Springs’ current form of government would be risky during a time of a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, deliver an “expensive version of charter change” and would politicize neighborhoods by dividing them into wards.
Kim and the Common Sense Saratoga group scoffed at criticisms that a ward-based system would pit neighborhoods in competition with one another as being “cynical” and argued that the ward system similarly aligns with most representative governments such as Congress and Senate representation.
Addressing costs, he said swapping the salary and benefit package costs of the five councilmembers and their five deputies in the current form in favor of a city manager, a mayor, and six ward council members in the proposed reform would provide taxpayer savings.
Saratoga Works argues that even as some city deputy or assistant salary costs would be saved, new workers would still need to be hired to conduct the work the current city employees are doing, increasing financial ramifications.
The designated wards of the proposed referendum are as follows: “Inner East Side” Ward 1 - Election Districts 4, 8, 9 and 12; “North Side” Ward 2 - Districts 1,2,3, 24 and 25; “Outer East Side” Ward 3 - Districts 5, 15, 17 and 22; “South Side” Ward 4 - Districts 10, 13, 14 and 23; “South West Side” Ward 5 - Districts 16, 18, 20 and 21; “West Side” Ward 6 - Districts 6, 7, 11 and 19. Each ward counts approximately 2,900 to 3,400 currently registered voters.
A total of 1,565 registered voters signed the petition to put the proposal on the ballot. If approved by voters in November, the measure is anticipated to take effect in January 2022.
The concept of a Commission form of government was founded in Galveston, Texas in 1901 after a storm ravaged that city, killing more than 5,000 people and creating the need for a useful way of post-disaster governing. It proved to be an efficient measure as well as a popular one. By 1912, 206 cities in 34 states had followed suit. Saratoga Springs adopted the commission form of governing shortly after it was incorporated as a city in 1915. Since its popularity in the early 20th century, however, many cities have since switched to other forms.
For more information about the pro-charter change referendum, go to: commonsensesaratoga.org. For more information about the group opposed to change of the city’s current form of government, go to: saratogaworks.org.