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The Saratogian Newsroom blog, complete with thoughts and commentary from our newsroom staff and regular posts on happenings around town.

Wednesday, January 28

Teens Drinking.

The most commented story on for the past two days has been Ann Marie French's story on a police bust that resulted in 22 area teens being arrested for underage drinking.

While it's pretty clear that underage drinking is not news, 22 kids getting arrested -- and they were arrested, although arrests may not have been custodial -- is newsworthy. Personally, I can't fault the kids for drinking, or the cops for enforcing the law. And I certainly wouldn't fault us for publishing the names of those arrested, as we do anytime someone is arrested.

And yet, the story has generated a large number of comments -- 251 at this moment. Comments are generally all over the place, with people falling on both sides of the debate. I don't profess to be the authority on underage drinking, but I do think that it's wrong for kids to face criminal charges for essentially imitating adults -- how many grownups get arrested each weekend for various acts of disorderliness down on Caroline Street?

If that's the example they have to follow, of course they are going to break the law.

I have always been a proponent of lowering the drinking age. In my perfect world, kids would be allowed to drink at home with their family at 16, and allowed to buy alcohol and drink in public at 18. This way they can start to learn --hopefully -- moderate drinking habits at home before, or at least at the same time, as they are likely to start drinking with friends at parties.

Personally, I believe that this graded introduction will lead to fewer incidents of drinking-related deaths, and gives families the opportunity to talk about America's most popular drug without some of the taboos currently surrounding liquor. Also -- it is an absolute waste of time and money to have college officials worrying about who is drinking and who isn't. There are much more important issues in higher education.

Kids are going to drink one way or another, and just as we strive to teach them how to eat by relating lessons about nutrition, we should teach kids how to drink in moderation, with parental guidance.

Tuesday, January 27

Dems respond to State of the City

I received today the response from the City Democratic Committee to Mayor Scott Johnson's State of the City Address. City chairman Allen Turkheimer, who emailed the statement to me, said it was prepared by a committee, though he was not specific in who the author was.

Earlier today, I interviewed Johnson on the rebuttal, but alas, there is not enough space in the paper for the article. Look for full coverage of the rebuttal in Thursday's paper. For now, here is the text of the dem's response:

Democrat Response to the Mayor’s State of the City Message
On Sunday, Mayor Johnson delivered his "State of the City" message. The small crowd and the half empty seats were an apt metaphor for the presentation itself. What Mayor Johnson gave us was a "small and half empty" presentation unworthy of Saratoga Springs.
Rather than an honest analysis of the City at the end of 2008 or a well defined agenda and strategy for 2009, the Mayor gave a self-serving political speech without passion or enthusiasm.
Moreover, while his address was liberally seeded with calls for fiscal restraint and references to civility in government, both of these have been non-existent in his administration.
The Mayor’s State of the City message includes several vague references to "civility", but not one example. Indeed, this administration has not made this government more civil, but it surely has made it more secretive. There can be no trust in government unless it is open and transparent. To retreat behind closed doors, to discuss and even act - in violation of the Public Officers Law and the City Charter – as this Mayor has consistently done is the ultimate act of an uncivil government.
Just recently the Mayor ratified – in Executive session – a settlement with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation of nearly 40 violations of law. Violations evolved from a DEC investigation of massive hydraulic oil spills at the City Garage and the illegal dumping of human waste, oil and pesticides at the Weibel Avenue Com post Facility by the Department of Public Works under Tom McTygue. The settlement included the appropriation – again, in secret session – of $270,000 in fines and other costs. Money that the City does not have! The law is specific; it prohibits appropriating public money in closed session. The Mayor ignored the law. This is civility?
The Mayor compounded his hostility to the citizens of Saratoga by denying each of us the right to know the potential environmental impact and health risks associated with the City’s malfeasance. Nor do we know where the $270,000 is coming from to settle the case. This was not an anomaly. The Mayor has consistently demonstrated a disregard for the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law.
In effect, Mayor Johnson has established a "gated" government in which few are permitted to enter. This is hostility not civility.
Fiscal Responsibility in an Economic Crisis
The Mayor tells us the City must become more productive and efficient. We agree wholeheartedly with him. But Mayor Johnson offers no suggestions. Instead he seems to think that saying the words "fiscal conservatism" will make it happen. It will not. He seems to confuse mere words with concrete action.
The heavy cost of government is driven largely by personnel costs. In preparing the 2009 operating budget both Mayor Johnson and Finance Commissioner Ivins elected to target the most vulnerable and essential City employees while failing to offer a real strategy to reduce personnel costs.
Instead of a meaningful review of existing staff levels, a reduction of non-essential positions through attrition, encouraging retirement of non-essential employees and eliminating duplicative services, they targeted the laborers in Public Works, the Police Captain, emergency dispatchers and emergency medical supplies.
As Democrats we honor the dignity of all honest work and believe in times of economic downturn, recession and fiscal instability, our political leaders must demonstrate not only fiscal responsibility but also fiscal courage. To realize meaningful long term economics the Mayor should:
· Direct the Human Resources Administrator to conduct, as required by Title 3.2 of the Charter, job audits of all salaried positions with an eye toward reducing redundant and duplicative titles through attrition.
· Identify all eligible non-essential City employees and promote an incentive based retirement option.
· Direct the Human Resources Administrator to determine appropriate duties, compensation and comparability of all vacant titles as they occur.
Moreover, how can the Mayor call for "fiscal conservatism" when he is responsible for the following wasteful spending:
1. $150,000.00 for a new automated telephone service and $62,000.00, plus benefits for an obsolescent telephone operator.
2. $235,550.00 for contracted legal services, a 130% increase from 2007!
3. $250/hour (Current total over $30,000.00) for outside legal assistance to negotiate still unresolved union contracts, when the Mayor is an attorney, has two staff attorneys (costing over $100,00.00 per year) and, the Commissioner of Public Safety (also an attorney) has volunteered to negotiate four of the six contracts as he did in 2006.
4. $20,000.00 to hire outside legal counsel to defend the City in a legal challenge to the Southside Recreation Center.
Lastly, we address the Mayor’s call for bipartisan cooperation. There can be nothing more important in these difficult times than cooperation between all citizens of this community regardless of political persuasion. Yet the Mayor gives lip service to true bipartisanship. A review of the record shows that he has removed, when given the opportunity, any member not of his own party from the Land Use Boards, the Racing Committee, the Preservation Board, etc.
For example, the Mayor failed to reappoint an independent who is a noted expert on Energy and Conservation. Surely, given our current challenges in this arena, the reappointment of an expert who can guide the City on energy conservation would have been more beneficial to the community than replacing him with yet another Republican real estate agent?
In sum, the Mayor’s State of the City was mere words, unsupported by actual facts or his own record. His first year has seen hostility, not civility to the community at large; wasteful spending rather than fiscal conservatism and extreme partisanship rather than bipartisanship.

Monday, January 26

Congressional seat still open, for now...

No one seems to know when Saratoga County Democrats will meet to discuss candidates for the now-upcoming Congressional Election. BUT, it seems likely that discussion will come up at Wednesday’s meeting of the county committee. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, John Fasso, former candidate for governor, wants to be our next congressman. Here’s his appeal to fellow members of the GOP:

TO: Republican County Chairs
FROM: John Faso
DATE: January 25, 2009
RE: Our 20th Congressional District – the Challenge and Opportunity
Dear Friends,
I have known and worked with you and your members for a long time. My wife, Mary Fran and I
have resided in this district for over 25 years and raised our two children here. I have always
been committed to public service and I’m greatly concerned about the future of our state and
Nation. With the impending vacancy in the 20th District, we have been presented a golden
opportunity to restore common-sense values and principled leadership to the Congress.
That said, these are challenging times for our Country, our State and our Party. We have to
regain our confidence and our bearings. I am asking for the opportunity to be your candidate
because I am prepared for these challenges. But, this is not an ordinary race. This race will
garner national attention. The GOP must nominate the very best, most experienced candidate if
we are to win this race.
We cannot standby without challenging the damaging policies that threaten to leave our children
awash in a wave of debt and without the opportunities for advancement that have helped define
America’s greatness.
Better days are ahead. I have always worked hard and done my best to honor and respect the
faith you and our fellow Republicans have put in me. This is the congressional district that has
defined our region and its principled conservatism. It can again. My entire career has prepared
me for this opportunity to serve you and our all the citizens of this district. Please feel free to
share this with members of your Committee.
As always, I am honored for the opportunity to be considered and thank you for your support.
John Faso

Sunday, January 25

Johnson's best hit:

This is probably the best quote I've ever heard from Mayor Scott Johnson:

"While we applaud the efforts and success to date of the Saratoga Affordable Housing Group, we must as a community, continue to work toward a change of perception to increase the willingness of neighborhoods to keep an open mind and accept affordable housing in their backyard. As the Allen Drive initiative demonstrates, affordable housing is not the ruination of your neighborhood. As state on prior occasions, the unfortunate truth is that many of our neighborhoods are still unwilling to have affordable housing nearby. Overall, that still remains the largest obstacle to development of more affordable housing throughout our City."

It was uttered during today's State of the City Address while Johnson discussed affordable housing in the city. Frankly, I couldn't agree more.

I wasn't able to work this into the story, but as has been previously noted here, Johnson was introduced by former Democratic City Chairman Lou Schneider. Schneider began his remarks by offering a personal note to the audience:

"Don't worry, I am not running for Congress," he said.

From the looks of things, just about every other Democrat is at least considering it...

Thursday, January 22

Place your bets...

As you'll read in the paper today, area Democrats are all but certain that U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand is going to be named our next Senator at Governor David Paterson's press conference tomorrow.

As such, lots of people are setting themselves up to run for her seat in Congress, which will be filled by a special election. Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim put it in the plainest English, saying that he has already told Saratoga County Chairman Larry Bulman that he would like to run, should the vacancy occur.

Other names in the hat, Supervisor Joanne Yepsen and former Mayor Valerie Keehn, were less direct about their statements, but are clearly looking to set themselves for some kind of a run.

The question that I've got is a regional one. Thee 20th congressional district stretches from Lake Placid to Poughkeepsie, and there are lots of politicians inbetween. If all are as ambitious as the three named above, we could be looking at quite a mess, which the state committee will have to sort out.

Of course, I'm the city reporter, so I don't know too much about politics outside of the city, but if Democrats elsewhere are anything like Democrats here, we could very well see the blue party shoot itself in the foot while trying to settle on a nominee to run for the Congressional seat. Meanwhile, if the GOP can get itself together, they could very well have a shot at retaking what has traditionally been a Republican district.

And to think of all the millions spent just a few months ago on the the Gillibrand v. Treadwell race.

Wednesday, January 21

We're down to one!

As you already know by the time you're reading this, Hillary Clinton was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of State earlier today.

You know what that means: it won't be long before we know who Gov. David Paterson will announce his choice for the next U.S. Senator, to serve alongside Charles Schumer. As I write this, New York is in the odd position of having just one Senator.

Will Paterson's choice be Caroline Kennedy? Will it be Kirsten Gillibrand? Andrew Cuomo? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 20

Schneider to introduce Johnson at State of the City

Lew Schneider, former chairman of the city democratic committee, will introduce Mayor Scott Johnson at the State of the City Address this Sunday.

Schneider said Tuesday evening that Johnson had asked him to handle the introduction, and that he planned to talk about bipartisanship in his remarks. He added that Johnson would speak on a similar theme. To Schenider's memory, this is the first time that a member of the opposite party will introduce a Mayor for this annual speech.

Schneider was associated with the so-called United Democrats, a group which lost a majority of seats on the city committee in the September primary, to the Democrats for Change. Allan Turkheimer, a member of the Democrats for Change, became city chairman shortly after the September primary.

Turkheimer could not be reached for comment on Tuesday evening, but it is not much of a stretch to imagine that in an election year, Johnson sees something to be gained from an introduction by a prominent Democrat, a move that will likely insite some discontent within the already-volitile party, and perhaps even lead to a Democratic primary battle ahead of the city elections in November. A similar scenario played out in 2007, culminating with Johnon's defeat of incumbant Valerie Keehn. Incidentally, although she currently holds not formal title, Keehn is associated with the Democrats for Change.

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 14

State of the City

Mayor Scott Johnson will hold the annual State of the City address on Sunday, Jan. 25, at noon in the City Center.

Be there or be square!

This is the last post until Monday, I'm off to use up the last of my 2008 vacation days.

Tuesday, January 13

Election taking shape

It’s election season, and signs are everywhere.

Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim is upset that the Recreation Center is moving forward, and he is continuing to distance himself from some of his colleagues, calling Mayor Scott Johnson and Commissioners Franck and Ivins, in an on-the-record conversation with me this afternoon, “fiscal fools,” for pursuing the rec center at a time when litigation could interrupt the process, and at a time when the city is very strapped for money. Still, Kim does recognize that the “fiscal fools” have the majority.

In a quieter political drama, Commissioner Ivins announced last week that he wanted to look at Complete Streets in conjunction with the Saratoga Healthy Transportation Network, and apparently got an earful from the Mayor’s office, which wanted to claim that election-year softball for itself.

So the lines are being drawn, and the arguments are shaking out into what should be a spirited election season.

With the Democrats for Change now in control of the city committee, will we see someone primary John Franck? Last week, he told me that he would like to see the party put aside it’s differences and get behind its candidates, but chairman Al Turkheimer was playing his cards close to the chest, and said not decisions had yet been made. Stay tuned…

Monday, January 12

Please discuss

Over the past few days, there's been lots of good discussion here over potential 2009 candidates for various positions (part one, part two), the city's settlement with DEC over environmental infractions, and whether or not my views on Israel make me a hypocrite.

In the interest of keeping the discussion going, I've opted not to write anything new today. Please continue your discussions below.

Sunday, January 11

It's all in how you look at it...

Getting back to last week's news that the city had settled with the state DEC over alleged dumping of oil and waste at the city's DPW garage and compost facility: readers will recall that a departmental memo, initialed by Director of DPW William McTygue was said to have directed employees to dump sanitary waste at a dump site near the compost facility, leading to some of the violations.

McTygue said the memo was ment to apply only to contaminated construction debris, and not straight sewage -- and only temporarily.

Last week, a concerned citizen dropped off a copy of the memo, that I thought it would be interesting to reproduce it here, and to see what you all think it means.

Before reading the memo, recall that on the eve of the 2007 city elections, president of the pro-Scirocco DPW union, Joe O'Neil, dumped waste at the compost facility, claiming to be following the directions of this memo. The Republican party subsequently used the incident as a football to show alleged disregard for the environment by the McTygue brothers.

Whichever side you fall on, please note that this practice no longer takes place, and such wastes as disucssed in the memo are now trucked to a disposal facility in Warren County.

Was the GOP correct, or was O'Neil bringing a little bit too much of his own interpretation to the memo?

To: Sewer and Water Division -- Field Personnel
From: Bill McTygue, Director
Date: October 1, 2007
Re: Construction Waste Disposal


Please take immedaite notice that any construction spoils or waste materials containing sanitary sewage (solid and/or liquid) must be disposed of in the designated area located adjacent to the composting facility. This includes materials from dump trucks, as well as vehcile #76 (Vacon).

These spoils must be carefully deumped onto the provided filter fabric in a manner that avoids damage or tears to the fabric. All spoils should be fully contained on the fabric with no runoff of spills onto unprotected ground.

After placing the spoils on the fabric, the spoils must be covered with a tarp (anchored) to protect it from rain, snow, and wind.

These procedures should be strictly followd when disposing of any construction material(s) containing sanitary sewage or sanitary debris. These procedures are designed to manage disposal in a safe and healthy manner.

Be aware that this is a temporary arrangement until a permanent disposal facility can be constructed in the near future.

If you have any questions, please contact me. Likewise, if you have any doubt about what you are disposing, please call before you dump.

Thursday, January 8

More ballot news

This just in:

Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim says he is considering all options, and will not make a decision until April or May.

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck says he would like to run for re-election, but would like full support from the party. Even if not endorsed, he says we will run on third-party lines.

Wednesday, January 7

The Ballot begins to take shape...

No official word on challengers yet, but of three members of the City Council I spoke with today, two are likely to run for a second term, and one is on the fence.

Mayor Scott Johnson said that he is not yet formally decided, "I see nothing dissuade me from running. Being Mayor is challenging, but it has its rewards at time. It's easy to get caught up in day to day affairs, but I try to step back. I think we're doing a good job and I see no reason not to continue."

Commissioner of Public Works Skip Scirocco said that he would run for a second term. "I'm enjoying it. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a lot of good people behind me," he said.

Commissioner of Finance Kenneth Ivins Jr. said he was not yet decided.

Stay tuned....

Tuesday, January 6

Here's where I stand on Israel

First of all, I would just like to say that I'm very surprised, and a little disappointed, that no one has posted comments on the previous two day's posts.

Doesn't anyone have any thoughts on who will throw their hat in the ring to run for office this year? Doesn't anyone have interesting anecdotes about getting a call from Scott Johnson on a Thursday evening?

Perhaps the dearth of comments is because I was on vacation for too long, and the reading public has forgot that I'm out here, blogging away for you.

One thing I forgot to mention in Monday's post is that yesterday afternoon something happened for which I was not prepared, and which shocked me to the point of speechlessness.

Dave Bronner is known to anyone who frequents city council meetings as an opinionated and passionate resident, vocal about his dislikes. Around here, he's best known for calling to take issue with things he disagrees with, and to complain when he feels we've misrepresented an issue.

Well, yesterday afternoon he paid me a compliment, and I just about fell out of my chair.

He was calling in response to a story I wrote Sunday about Skidmore Professor Kate Graney, who was in the Israeli city Beersheba when Hamas started shooting rockets into the city.

"Good story," Bronner said to my voice mail. He continued to take issue with Graney's reluctance to take sides in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but the compliment stands!

Dave, thanks for the compliment.

Speaking of Israel, I've decided to take the City Desk overseas for the evening.

I want you to know that I think Israel has taken the wrong approach in this latest fight with Hamas.

Sure, Hamas was the first to start lobbing bombs last week when the six-month cease fire ended, but lets not forget that the reason the rockets flew is that Hamas is still sore with Israel for stealing land back in 1948.

Lets not mince words. There was a real need to put the Jews somewhere after World War II, and it became apparent very quickly that DP camps were not a long-term solution. In fact, that need had been recognized for several decades previous to the war, but I have never understood why Balfour thought it would be a good idea to parcel off what was already a flash pan in the middle east by ceding portions of British-controlled Palestine to the Jews.

I defy any member of any ethnic group to say that you would be OK with a foreign nation telling you that part of your country was to be given to another ethnic group, and -- should you choose to stay in your ancestral home -- you would now be subject to their rule.

To me, this smacks of other historic events that have since been decried as atrocities by history. For exampe: the arrival of Europeans in the Americas resulted in the near-eradication of at least two indiginous peoples (the Aztecs and Incans), to say nothing of the current state of the various tribes of Native Americans. To me, nothing says "conquistador" like a bomb lobbed near a UN-operated school. Who cares if the students worship Allah, it's still a school!

Israel, and the problems related to it, are not as simple as one group of people throwing bombs at another. To say that a larger, more powerful country is right and just in wagging war against its smaller neighbor -- for the purpose of exacting revenge on a group of terrorists -- is not a statement that should ever be made lightly.

As the larger, more developed nation, Israel should have been -- during the previous six months -- working around the clock to engender positive relationships with Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Of course Israel can't take a mortar attack lying down, but the response did not need to be military. It should have been diplomatic. The only boots on the ground should have been those looking to draw the Palestinian people into the bonds of friendship.

The idea here is simple: make friends with the majority of Palestinians so that Hamas, a group of extremists no different from extremists in any religion of culture, becomes an organization without relevance and without the mandate of the people for whom it purports to fight. Then no one has to die.

Finally, as a Jew whose ancestors survived pogroms in eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century, I view my life as a gift. I could very easily not be here, had my great, great-grandmother not taken her children by the hands, and hid them in a farmer's field back in 1919.

To think that a Palestinian woman could be running from her home, children in tow, to avoid a falling mortar -- a mortar fired by someone whose family has likely survived similar atrocities to those which mine survived -- makes me sick. The victims of history should not repeat the trespasses visited upon them. The victims of history, artificially elevated to a status of power, should know better than to inflict such suffering on another people.

Monday, January 5

Who is the most responsive member of the City Coucnil?

It came up in discussion in the office today, when I mentioned to my editor that I was waiting for a callback from Mayor Scott Johnson, that some members of the city government are much better about returning calls than others.

Then it occurred to us that our treatment here in the newsroom may very well be different from that which you, the public, receive from member of government. So, I'll present my experience, based on the past year, and encourage readers to write in and express how their experiences are the same or different.

In my estimation, Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim is the most accessible of the lot, and can almost always be reached on his cell phone. I don't think I've ever before penned the words: "Kim could not be reached for comment."

On the other end of the spectrum is Johnson, who is known around here for returning calls at the end of the day, and leaving messages (because I'm on the phone) to the effect of "It's about 5:30, I'll be here for another ten minutes, otherwise you can try my cell..." I usually get those messages exactly 11 minutes after they've been left. Oh well. They Mayor is, however, great about providing comments if you give him a day's notice.

In the middle, there are three other commissioners. Skip Scirocco is happy to talk to me -- when I get him on the phone. If he doesn't answer, it could be hours before I hear from him, if I get a callback at all.

Commissioner of Accounts John Franck is right in the middle. Although I hardly ever reach him in City Hall, he is almost always within reach at his accounting office, and usually returns messages promptly.

Commissioner of Finance Kenneth Ivins Jr. returns messages even faster, and if he answered his phone more frequently, he might even be at the top of this list.

I, in no way, mean this post to judge the City Council. I have no doubt that when members are not returning my calls, it's because they're busy with the city business, or with their own businesses. Let's not forget that three-fifths of the city council has jobs outside of city hall.

But, that is my experience. What's yours?

Sunday, January 4

Happy New Year!

As promised -- although not without a bit of kicking and screaming -- I'm back as promised, after a long and productive vacation.

Of course, I'm neither rested nor relaxed, but that's OK.

While most of my colleagues are working on (and being criticized for) articles looking back at 2008, I'm planning on spending time this week looking forward to 2009, to try and get ahead of what the year will have in store for us here in Saratoga Springs.

If anyone out there has any burning questions on their mind, feel free to pass them along to me, and I will do the best I can to incorporate the answers into any future reporting.

Obviously, the biggie this year, will be the coming city elections, which must already be on the minds of city officials. In a two-year election cycle, there isn't much time to get stuff done, and I do feel bad that our commissioners have to start running for office so soon after getting into office. But, they knew the deal going in.

Anyone have any picks for who will comprise the City Council, come Jan. 2010? In the near-er term, anyone have thoughts on who will run for office? Will the city parties back incumbent candidates, or continue to divide themselves? Most importantly, will any of our current commissioners want to remain on the council, spending another two years in their thankless jobs?

So, it's a new year, and I'm looking forward to the countless stories that we'll bring you this year. I hope you're looking forward to reading.