Saratoga Springs Mayor Scott Johnson found himself in a similar situation in February, when he could have easily called off the project to build a gigantic recreation center on the east side. At the time, the city was facing resistance on what seemed to be all fronts: Neighbors were filing for court injunctions, the chairman of the county Democrats was complaining to the state Department of Labor and the city was facing a multi-million dollar budgetary shortfall with its loss of VLT revenue from the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway. On top of all of this, the city’s building inspector was apparently raising design issues with the rec center’s plans, due to a type of insulation included in the plans.
Johnson should have taken this as a sign. At that point, he could have easily walked away from the project unscathed. Certainly, admitting defeat would have taken a certain degree of humility on his part. He would have assuredly taken heat from his own party for stepping away from the flames of a fire that was brazenly fanned by his Democratic opponents.
But scrapping the project would have been the right thing to do. The city doesn’t need a rec center with the new YMCA. In fact, it’s debatable whether the city can even afford a new building given its ongoing fiscal woes. And that’s before considering the City Recreation Director Linda Terricola can’t even manage the buildings she oversees today. Case in point: The multi-million dollar ice rink almost wholly powered for free with gas produced by the former landfill is the only municipally-owned one in the entire Capital Region that is annually thawed for a quarter of the year.
Yet Johnson has steadfastly resisted any calls to end the $6.5 million project. He plowed ahead though the mire of residential dissent, and now he’s getting ready to land a shovel in the ground. Certainly in his mind, building the damn thing was the only way to go.
Johnson is mere months away from launching his re-election campaign and very little has changed for the better since he took office. All of the hot-button issues that drove the last campaign are and will continue to be on the table well beyond November. That doesn’t bode well for an incumbent that pretty much rode into office on a shock wave created by the epic implosion of the city Democrats.
Johnson has no discernible issues he can point to as reasons for his re-election, and he’s running out of time. Politically, he’s banking on getting the rec center built by fall, thereby proving his ability to work through immense political meddling. But this is flawed reasoning that stands in direct contrast with the one platform he did have for re-election: His administration didn’t set the city on the same collision course with disaster that the Keehn Adminstration seemed hell-bent on taking.
Now Johnson has filled the ammo cache of any political enemy that chooses to oppose him. Were a challenger to emerge from the GOP, they could easily argue Johnson strayed away from fiscally conservative policies by throwing even more money into a boondoggle project that has spanned the course if decades. His Democratic challenger will certainly exploit the notion that he was recklessly bull-headed in pounding the rec center into the ground. And they may already be using this angle too.
The peculiar case of former building inspector Lauritz Rasmussen is a prime example. Rasmussen, who was hired by Johnson, has very publicly claimed Johnson’s office fired him because he refused to give a rubber stamp on the project. Johnson rejects this notion and claims the “public record” will reflect his reasons for dismissing the man. It’s entirely possible
Rasmussen is playing up his role in the rec center debacle under the urging from someone –or some party –that has an ax to grind with Johnson. Or it’s plausible he’s telling the truth. Either way, the issue makes bad press for a mayor just six months before the election, especially when there’s little record to go on other than the status quo.
The bottom line is that it’s too late for Johnson to reverse course. He’s put too much energy and effort into advancing the rec center project and any deviation at this point would do little to change the course he’s charted. Arguably, that direction will yield him negligible results even if the structure comes to fruition. And it will gain him even less ground if it’s not. In other words, the Titanic is heading toward the iceberg. The only question now is how bad the damage will be once it hits.