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

Tuesday, August 28

I should know better...

...than to say when an article is going to be published.

The article(s) on the alleged indiscretions in the Accounts Department ran in Tuesday's Saratogian, rather than Sunday as was originally intended.

In addition to just having some outstanding questions (despite the overtime I put on the article) we also didn't want it to get lost in Travers coverage.

As the articles (here is the one on the condo assessments and here is the one on the allegations) show, it was a convoluted issue (try simplifying a capitalization rate) and late on Friday evening, after getting through writing one of the two articles, it was pretty clear more questions needed to be answered.

At the time, I thought to myself that I would have to update the blog to let people know. Obviously that didn't happen, so my apologies to the commenters who were disappointed and frustrated by the lack of coverage (those whose comments I didn't publish, though, you know who you are and I have no apologies for you. Remember, all comments have to go through me).

Anyway, there you have it. As I said in the previous blog post, it started as a rumor and if I printed every rumor I heard there would be no difference between us and a blog.

Obviously a couple of newspapers beat us to getting the allegations out there, but I like to think we did a more effective job of explaining what they actually were and why they were out there (if you don't, I'm sure you won't hesitate to let me know).

If anyone has any outstanding questions about the whole thing, e-mail me at or just comment below and I'll do what I can to explain or look into your questions.

Tuesday, August 21

Assessing the Assessments

Many probably noticed the story in the Times Union this morning about the Attorney General's office allegedly investigating the Saratoga Springs Accounts Department for their dealing with condo assessments.

Here is the link to that article if you missed it (I suppose I'll give the competitor a link).

I've also been following this development over the last couple weeks.

It started as rumors. Crazy rumors. Rumors that members of the Accounts Department were reducing people's assessments for political favor and cold hard cash for everyone from GOP bigwigs in the city ("Ever notice no Republican ever runs against John Franck?") to city judges.

When I first heard the rumors, I looked into it (crazy rumors, but if true...), but nothing really seemed illegitimate.

I've been in contact with sources who are aware of the scope of the Office of the Attorney General's investigation.

At this point, I'm told its an investigation on whether to investigate; i.e. an investigation into rumors. In fact, I was told last week that calling it an investigation would be premature.

The AG's office has a policy not to comment about their investigations, as I've found out in the past.

The idea is that even saying there is an AG investigation ongoing is enough to give the perception that there is some wrong-doing, even when much of the time the investigation reveals nothing.

The rumors then started getting pared back. It became that members of the Accounts Department were taking cash in exchange for streamlined information for Diane Young, who is mentioned in the TU story.

"Then the rumor was that Diane Young was my sister," said Accounts Commissioner John Franck last week when he brought the issue up to me.

I had been working on a Freedom of Information Act request to put to his office asking for every assessment reduction over the last three years, but he said that was unnecessary.

He, too, had heard rumors (I hadn't heard Diane Young was allegedly his sister until he mentioned it) and wanted to head them off.

"I'll give you whatever you want," he said. "I've got nothing to hide."

In fact, Franck said he had a sister named Diane Young, but she lives in Pennsylvania and doesn't know much about the real estate market.

He said, though, that the other Diane Young knows quite a bit about it. Enough, in fact, to know that condos in the city are chronically over-assessed, according to Franck.

Franck said she would look up condo assessments, find ones that were over-assessed, approach their owners and make a pitch to get them an assessment reduction for a fee. 

Franck said "some she's won, some she's lost."

He said he has been a proponent of changing the way condos are assessed, which he said is not based on purchase prices but rather on rental prices, something I'm planning on exploring in a Sunday story this week because I've heard a lot since I moved here to the land of condos and I thought it would be a good way at getting at this story.

I've been talking to my editors about this for a week and even with the TU story coming out, we stand by our way of looking at this.

I'm sure that will get me in trouble with commenters (I've already gotten the obligatory nasty e-mail), but what doesn't?

Friday, August 17

A mayoral commission on charter change is no joke

Figured I'd do a quick update on the status of charter change in the Spa City.

I spoke to Mayor Scott Johnson yesterday about Saratoga Springs Housing Authority business (which is in the paper today) and I was about to get off the phone when he said "Isn't there something you want to ask me," with a laugh.

"Of course," I responded. "I don't want to make a liar out of myself."

He said he had read the recent blog post on charter change and said he thought my claim that I ask him whether he has made a decision to form a mayoral commission yet "virtually every time I talk to him" was a bit of an exaggeration.

Maybe, but I definitely ask him a lot.

Anyway, he said he still hasn't publicly decided. I asked if the clock has run out yet for that, since now we're six weeks away from the drop-dead deadline for a commission presenting its findings to get put on the ballot and thus, bump Saratoga Citizen from the ballot.

"It would really depend on the scope" of the changes the commission is asked to review, he said. The narrower the scope, the less time it would take.

I told him there is a joke floating around the newsroom that the sole scope of the mayoral commission will be to change the title of a single city hall position thereby blocking Saratoga Citizen's proposal.

He didn't sound amused. He said any charge the commission is given will be toward improving the city's charter.

Tough crowd.

Wednesday, August 15

Is the clock still ticking or has it already run out?

"Nothing to report at this time," Mayor Scott Johnson said Tuesday night when I asked him about whether he has decided to assemble a mayoral commission to explore charter change or not.

In the briefest of synopses: After two years, thousands of signatures and two court cases, Saratoga Citizen has a measure on the ballot in November to change the city's form of government from a commission form to a council-manager form.

That would take the current City Council, which consists of five commissioners who are in charge of specific departments within the city government and change it to a standard legislative body, stripping them of their day-to-day responsibilities in their departments. It would put a city manager in charge of the day-t0-day operations of the city.

The only thing that could stop people from voting on that change in government at this point would be if Mayor Johnson formed a commission to explore how to change the city's government.

Recommendations from that commission could bump Saratoga Citizen's proposal from the ballot if it comes up with recommendations before Oct. 1, which of course doesn't give it much time.

The mayor left the door open for the commission back in May
when the City Council put the Saratoga Citizen proposal on the ballot (sort of, see here for more details on why that isn't exactly accurate)

I've asked the mayor about the commission virtually every time we've talked since then, and I am no closer than I was in May to knowing whether it is going to happen. At the end of June he said “I don’t want to unduly delay it. There are reasons why I’ve delayed my announcement.” He wouldn't tell me the reasons.

With a scant six weeks and five days until any proposal needs to be submitted to the Board of Elections to be put on the ballot, the possibility of it coming together in time seems to be getting slimmer by the day. The mayor said in June that he believed some commissions had been formed as late as August.

But with that decision yet to be announced Saratoga Citizen is pressing forward with its educational campaign to let voters know what they will be deciding in November.

"The only way people can be for or against it is if they know what it's about," said Pat Kane, one of the groups primary organizers.

Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the Saratoga Springs Public Library, the group will bring another speaker in to discuss what they see as the benefits of the council-manager form of government.

Bob McEvoy, a professor at SUNY Albany with a specialty in Local Government Management
Department of Public Administration & Policy, as well as the former president of the New York State Association of City and County Managers will be discussing the proposed system of government.

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Friday, August 3

Has anyone seen these dogs?

Evidently, they were stolen from a van up by the Water's Edge condos by Saratoga Lake. The owner, Elinor Penna, was visiting the City Center's Antique Show over last weekend and left them in her van, which she left unlocked, (she admits it was not the best decision).

The dogs are apparently more than 160 years old and worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,300 (to who, I don't know).

She also lost two Chanel bags and a small antique house which are again worth some money.

Police said there has been a rash of car break-ins throughout the city and this was apparently a part of those. More on that in the paper later.

"Break-in" though, is a pretty strong word for what's been happening, since all of the vehicles have been unlocked.

Penna said somewhere between 10 and 20 people had their vehicles pilfered at the Water's Edge condos alone.

Police are urging everyone to take precautions.

Saratoga Springs is a pretty safe place, but lock your doors. Otherwise, your dogs might go missing.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Saratoga Springs Police Department at 584-1800 or anonymously at 584-TIPS.

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