SARATOGA SPRINGS – City residents and visitors alike will soon have a centrally located resource to bring their ideas to foster a better understanding of cultural differences, as well as express concerns about potential human rights violations.
“Luckily, we’re a very safe city, but I’ve had enough proof and input from our citizens that we’re not immune to problems,” said city Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who after appointing five people to a human rights-focused planning committee is “moving forward to the next level” and coordinating a seven-person Human Rights Task Force.
“It’s hate crimes I’m most worried about: prejudice, not accepting one another as equals - basic human rights,” Yepsen said. “We’re going to be proactive but also in a reactive mode, too, if anything were to occur like the swastikas.”
Last November, spray-painted swastikas surfaced on city streets. Police conducted a hate speech investigation after a social media site that referenced neo-Nazis mentioned Saratoga Springs High School, and a senior class student of Jewish descent came upon anti-Semitic acts.
“The idea of this human rights group came up a year ago. This is a need. It wasn’t because of the Trump election,” Yepsen told a group of reporters gathered in the mayor’s office, before the question could be asked. “It was more a case of: we need to be a better city. And being a better city means we take care of our citizens. I would like to have a resource to help ensure we can maintain our status as a community that fosters mutual respect and understanding among racial, religious and nationality groups in the city.”
The Schenectady County Human Rights Commission served as an informational resource, said Yepsen, who also consulted with state legislators. The Schenectady Commission, which was established in 1965, is a policy-making body composed of 15 commissioners appointed by the County Legislature. The proposed seven-member Saratoga Springs task force will differ in regards to the amount of power it may wield.
“The Commission in Schenectady County can take calls and work on cases. We’re not going to be qualified to do that, but we do have a lot of organizations in town that are, and we can suggest a list of referrals – like EOC, like the Racecourse Chaplaincy, like the Legal Aid Society,” Yepsen said.
“We depend greatly on people from other cultures to work here. Let’s face it, there are 2,500 different people working for the racing industry and many of them are Latinos. I think there are seven different dialects spoken on the backstretch alone and more and more of these families are settling in our city as community members. We also have a lot of restaurant workers who come here and try to make a go of it, so we’re trying to respond to their needs.”
The city’s Human rights Taskforce will focus mostly on education, programming and collaboration. The mayor cited the city’s annual series of public events and programs celebrating the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of what can be done year-round related to human rights to foster a better understanding of cultural differences.
Anyone interested in joining the Human Rights Task Force can apply via the City of Saratoga Springs Board Application form on the city’s website. Deadline for applications is April 12 and Mayor Yepsen said she hopes to appoint members to the seven-person group at the April 18 City Council Meeting.
Charter Review Commission Releases Charter Draft
The Charter Review Commission has released a draft of a proposed new Charter for Saratoga Springs city government. The 24-page document may be viewed at: https://saratogacharter.com/. A referendum will be held in November.
The City Council will hold a pre-agenda meeting 9:30 a.m. Monday, April 3, and a full meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 4 at City Hall.
The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Technical Review Advisory Committee (TRAC) will hold a meeting 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 4 at Saratoga Music Hall.
The Design Review Commission will hold a meeting 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 at City Hall.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Wednesday’s “Special” City Council meeting lived up to its noteworthy title: so special it was that it never took place.
The meeting was called to discuss funding for the May 30 special election when voters will be asked to decide whether to maintain the status quo of the city’s century-old commission form of governing, or change to a council-manager form.
Following eight months of committee meetings, community surveys and interviews conducted with city employees, the Charter Review Commission - a 15-member group independent of the council - recommended a special election be held on May 30. The group estimates total budget expenses to be about $46,000, in addition to approximately $37,000 in costs associated with a special election. There has been growing disagreement among council members debating the timing and costs of holding a special vote in May, versus placing the issue on an extension of the standard November ballot, which is when all five council seats will also be up for vote. Those in favor of the May date say adding a Charter vote to an already busy city election season would muddle matters. City Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner Chris Mathiesen were the two lone members attending Wednesday’s meeting, leaving the board one member short of a quorum, and forcing the 17 people and two council members in attendance to leave City Hall without discussing the matter.
Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco issued a statement following the cancellation of the meeting to say after “it had been indicated that both Commissioner Madigan and Commissioner Franck would not be in attendance,” he also would not be attending. “I feel it only fair that when voting on an important issue that impacts all city residents, and our future as a city, that all members of the council are in attendance.”
Commissioner Michele Madigan said in a statement, that after learning Commissioner John Franck “would not be attending the meeting for professional reasons,” she contacted the mayor’s office to ask the meeting be cancelled because she wanted all five members of the City Council to be present to discuss and vote on the budget amendments from the Charter Review Commission. Some in attendance remarked after the cancelled meeting that council members opposed to a change in the form of governing were using delay tactics.
The City Council has until February 20 to approve the request to fund the Commission’s expenses as well as the special election; if it fails to do so, it is believed the mayor has the ability to approve the amount of funding sought to defray expenses for the Commission’s budget and for the special election.
Under the council-manager form of government, the city council approves the budget, determines the tax rate and focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and long-term considerations such as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The council would be charged with hiring a highly trained non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out these policies with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery. Managers serve at the pleasure of the governing body and can be fired by a majority of the council. Among the Commission’s other recommendations are: increasing the number of council members from five to seven and terms of service from two years to four years putting a system in place to ensure members come from all corners of the city, and giving council members confirmation power over all mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the City Council is Feb. 7.