Sunday, October 23, 2011

Build, build, build.

It is not often that I get really surprised. Yesterday, walking Broadway, I ran into a gentleman that at some time in the past I could talk to, but who has become intractable in more ways that one. He also posted a comment to this blog with a very surprising argument: that the Democratic ticket in his year’s election for City Council could not win a single seat because it was committed to building police facilities and fire stations.

He was stuck in the 2009 election, when a Public Safety building was indeed an issue. Not one of the Democratic candidates in 2011 has mentioned building anything; on the contrary they have all committed to look carefully at the long-term needs of the city of Saratoga Springs and find affordable solutions that can ensure our future.

The only candidate committed to build, build, build is Scott Johnson, the Republican incumbent: he pushed to build a Recreation Center in the midst of a community that was not clamoring for it, and that has not, and will not cover its costs or the debt repayments because the needs and the mission of such a building were not examined.

Scott Johnson, in electoral mood, has also offered a half-baked solution to a real problem, by building a fire station on the Eastern plateau on land bonded as recreational open space. What the community there is demanding is better emergency response in case of sudden illness, reducing the EMS response time that is now around 12 minutes in the best of cases.

And again, Scott Johnson has put forward a grandiose project for a large scale reconstruction of the Woodlawn parking lot, touting it as a triumph of public-private partnership planning. One of the projects contemplated by Ron Kim, then Commissioner of Public Safety and candidate for Mayor in 2009, was precisely such a public/private partnership to build this parking lot, including a Public Safety building.

When I pointed out to my Republican friend that the incumbent Mayor had fallen prey to the build, build, build syndrome to cement (pun intended) his place in posterity, he responded by saying: “I do oppose Scott Johnson on that too.” Consistency does not seem to be a Republican virtue any more.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Elections and municipalities

Three important events happened this week in Saratoga Springs. First, the traditional League of Women Voters Candidate Forum at the Saratoga High School Auditorium brought together all the candidates for City Council in this year’s election. The unopposed candidates, John Franck, Commissioner of Accounts, Joanne Yepsen, Saratoga Springs Supervisor, and Rep. Matt Veitch, the second Saratoga Springs Supervisor, expressed their thanks to their respective sponsors and mentors.

As an aside it may be useful to remind the reader that Supervisor is the name of an elective job representing Saratoga Springs on the County Board of Supervisors, in effect the Saratoga County governing body.

On the stage sat at a table the six main actors in this local election; from left to right Michele Madigan, Democratic candidate for Commissioner of Finance; then the Republican incumbent, Commissioner Ivins; the Republican Commissioner for Public Safety, Richard Wirth; and the Democratic challenger for that job, Christian Mathiesen; finally the incumbent Mayor, Republican Scott Johnson and his Democratic opponent, Brent Wilkes. All of them lined up at the edge of the table, adjusting and fidgeting with their microphones and the papers in front of them. Not so Scott Johnson, who had pushed his chair back as if to distance himself from the proceedings, and turned slightly sideways to his left, but not enough to signify his recognition of his rival. Scott Johnson clearly felt and expressed that these proceedings were unrelated to him and that he consented reluctantly to participate. Body language is important on public occasions.

Everybody, except Michele Madigan, sported coat and tie; not so Brent Wilkes who had adopted, under a tweed jacket, the black mock turtleneck that Steve Jobs, the great innovator, used as trademark.

The rules of the game were laid down by the moderator, and were disregarded at several points of the night. The event was rightly themed as a Forum, as the strict time limits and the narrow format discouraged any attempt at real debate..

Brent Wilkes phrased his opening statement in the bluntest of terms: “Scott Johnson does not listen, Scott Johnson does not plan, Scott Johnson does not lead.” From then on Scott Johnson could only be on the defensive. He accused his tormentor of not being able to read the right information. No wonder, as City Hall had repeatedly stonewalled Wilkes’ requests of data under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Johnson came up with his own insider figures, which he then still did not disclose in written form.

Madigan opened the budget can of worms, accusing Ivins of not having complied with the present charter requirement of submitting a comprehensive budget to the City Council on the first meting of October. Instead he had only given a Power Point presentation, highlighting the main magnitudes. At that City Council, Ivins explained that the budget was not completed, not ready for prime time whereas in the Forum he claimed that the Budget was ready and comprehensive, but that he had no reason to share it with the wider public; he also claimed that it was up online the next day.

A further bone of contention was the Police Department overtime budget. Madigan and Mathiesen claimed that it was out of control, running way ahead of projections. Both Ivins and Wirth explained the hurdles to keeping track of overtime and comp time. A follow up article in the October 20th Saratogian by Lucien McCarthy indeed corroborated the out-of-control part of it, while explaining how it was so difficult to forecast.

The first question selected for comment by the candidates was Charter Reform. Brent Wilkes, a prominent member of the citizen’s group advocating for Charter change, castigated the Mayor for the money spent on outside counsel in order to fight the Saratoga Citizen petition, and to appeal Judge Nolan’s decision supporting its legality. Scott Johnson repeated his contention that the petition did not fulfill the legal requirements, and that he was protecting the City from special interests. Once the issue was decided he would be appointing a Charter Review Commission of his own.

To qualify a petition of 10% of the City’s residents as a “special interest” seems disingenuous at best, and certainly not democratic. It is well in line with the established and ongoing Republican Party efforts to disenfranchise and suppress voters by any means imaginable.

There seemed to be agreement around the table that the present Charter governing Saratoga Springs was outdated and needed reform; the disagreements revolved around the degree of the reforms to be undertaken, from “tweaking” to “replacing.”

It is probably in the Mayor’s mind to establish a Charter Review commission to ensure that the changes proposed do not make any difference in the basic functioning of City Government.

At the end of the evening, Mayor Johnson reiterated his demand for “civility”, and his claim to have reintroduced it in City Hall. He tried to present himself as the head of team working together for the greater good. Unfortunately his demeanor and his body language pointed to an imperious core, and a willful distance, a moat, between his groomed and coiffed presence and the rest of us.

Scott Johnson claims to have introduced modern management in City Hall by outsourcing the Human Relations function. Outsourcing was modern twenty years ago, the buzz-word in business schools that sent call-centers to India and much manufacturing to China. The devastating result for the livelihoods of many communities in this country is now patent in our hollowed out economy.

How can you ensure and protect the well-being of your community if your management model includes employing people under terms that evade any role in their sustenance, denying them the basic commitment to their health care or long-term security of their families.? What kind of community does such a Mayor envisage, if he will not build the kind of communal bonds that ensure loyalty and a sense of belonging in the people he employs?

At Skidmore, the next day, I sat in a symposium on the future of cities, where our very Saratogian Jim Howard Kunstler, who coined the word “clusterfuck” for the kind of urban planning prevalent in the region twenty years ago, confronted Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. As moderator, Jeff Olsen tried to to keep the attack fish well apart from each other in their respective bowls.

As it were there was more agreement than not. Mr. Steely pointed to the increased vitality of neighborhoods provided with amenities such as bike lanes and rental bikes, pedestrian streets as boosters of commerce, fast bus lanes and improved rail transportation. These and other grass-roots initiatives have proven their value in communities such as Curitiba in Brazil, Amsterdam in Holland, and Portland, Oregon. Kunstler spoke of forgetting about such super-tech miraculous projects as high speed rail in the USA, and instead restoring the old rails right-of-way providing transportation for the masses at 100 miles per hour, as was usual, for instance, between New York and Chicago 100 years ago. The main obstacle to the realization of high-tech dreams is, according to Kunstler, not so much the lack of political will, but the dearth of investment capital by the state and local authorities.

But Mr. Steely also showed a statistical table pointing to the disconnect between what the politicians claim to believe the citizen wants, and what the citizen’s real concerns are.

Meanwhile communities all over the world are finding the political will and support to making their communities more livable. Steely pointed out that Curitiba, Brazil, transformed a deadly three mile long four lane highway into a vibrant pedestrian shopping and activity thoroughfare in 72 hours. High speed articulated buses on dedicated lanes in Bogotá, Colombia, move 50% more people than private cars, reducing pollution and congestion at the same time.

In New York City the boroughs are lobbying City Hall for dedicated bike lanes at the expense of street-side parking and circulation lanes, because they improve the feeling of community and the interaction among citizens. The transformation includes longer pedestrian crossing lights intervals to accommodate slower moving foot traffic.

The recent recuperation of Times Square as urban meeting place, an “agora” as the Greek polis conceived it, is another successful instance of municipal enlightenment.

The third community meeting in Saratoga Springs coalesced around the Occupy….. movement. Forty people met at the Public Library to discuss how the populist rebellion against job cuts and high bonuses for executives can be brought to Saratoga Springs. Occupy Saratoga Springs will come into existence first on a Facebook page, then joining with the weekly Saratoga Peace Alliance rally at the Post Office corner on Broadway on Saturdays at noon.

Stay tuned, citizens on the march!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Voter suppression in Saratoga Springs

In the USA we do not take elections very seriously. I mean, we like the spectacle, we like the suspense, we like the winners and losers part of it. But not their significance in the democratic process.

You will by now be bristling: “yes, the elections are the core of the choice, of the government by the people, elections are what keeps us free.” But that is only the conventional lip service. In reality, we hold them in low esteem, we think that they are bothersome and interrupt the flow of our daily life and the pursuit of happiness.

How do you explain otherwise the fact that we hold elections on Tuesdays, in the middle of the work week, instead of on Sundays when people have time to go to the polls.? Or that the peopling of the polls is entrusted to the old and retired, and they get paid a pittance for a looooong day of work, at present barely above minimum wage.? Or that fewer and fewer people bother to vote at all.? In 2004 President Bush ’43 won the election with 50.7% of the vote, and barely 56.7% eligible voters showed up at the polls. 28% of the eligible voters chose a President, the ship’s captain, the Commander in Chief!

No wonder then that more and more people are delegitimizing the electoral process, declaring that they do not feel represented, that it is all a charade.

And to top it all off, as soon as Republicans are in control, all kinds of concerns of voter fraud are raised, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, as justification for all kinds of barriers to access, from the old practice of re-drawing electoral districts that they can control, to pre-requisites to voting. As soon as feasible, prospective voters cannot register while obtaining their drivers licence, or photo ID is required to access the voting booth.

According to the Huffingon Post, citing a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, “a string of laws passed in 13 states -- and proposed in 21 more -- could disproportionately suppress turnout of younger voters, minorities and lower-income voters.”

A study by Ari Berman, published at the end of August 2011 in Rolling Stone reports that “All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots.”

We are not immune to these trends; the tide has reached Saratoga Springs. The Scott Johnson administration has refused to recognize the validity of 2300 signatures of residents requesting that a referendum be held on a proposed change of the charter, the document that defines and lays out the rules for the governance of the City. After Judge Nolan rejected the City’s claims of defects in the citizen’s initiative, the Republican dominated Administration chose to engage and pay legal fees to outside counsel to appeal the decision, drawing out the process in the hope that a victory in the November 8th election would make such referendum impracticable.

The Johnson Administration has in effect denied the legal and legitimate rights of close to 10% of its residents to decide on the future course of Saratoga Springs governance. The pattern of Republican campaigns of voter suppression repeats itself in our “City in the Country”. We are grown up now!