Friday, December 18, 2009


Only in the Spa City could the throwing of an envelope make headlines. In most municipalities, such an occurrence would be worth a laugh in at the water cooler; maybe some playful ribbing between co-workers.

Yet with the vitriol pumping through City Hall these days, the simple act of the city attorney chucking an envelope at the Public Works commissioner seems to have stirred the fetid pot of politics, leading some more rational thinkers to wonder whether a slow gas leak on Lake Avenue has diminished the thought processes in the seat of government enough that the common municipal worker has reverted to a kindergarten level of intellect.

The Daily Gazette chronicles the childish exchange between Joe Scala and Skip Scirocco in an article that really exemplifies why the city is in such dire straits. Fortunately for the city and its self-respecting residents, the article was relegated to the back section, allowing both to save a bit of face in what is the latest in a series of poor discord among government officials.

As the story goes, Scirocco showed up at the city attorney’s office shortly before the close of business Wednesday and dumped off the envelop containing 28 letters to be distributed to the various DPW employees being laid off. Scala promptly sent them back to the commissioner with a note saying that it wasn’t his job to distribute the letters. Scirocco, incensed by the refusal, promptly returned the envelope, claiming he figured it was a “human resources issue” that should be handled by the attorney, who works as part of the mayor’s office.

The equally incensed Scala followed Scirocco out of the office and then chucked the letters in his direction, striking him in the “back, neck and head,” according to the Gazette article. The two men then “exchanged words” and the whole incident somehow made its way into the news.

Now at this point, it should be noted that there are no mysteries over who is getting laid off in City Hall. This message has been made abundantly clear to all those involved. The letter is a mere legal formality that could have been tasked to just about anyone. Hell, the letters probably could have been included in each worker’s paycheck this week, absolving any need to throw them at anyone.

Not in Saratoga. Here, everything must be a fucking three-ring political circus; every word a scandal, every gesture, an ordeal; and now every envelop-chuck, a news story. Sadly, the chuck-heard-around-the-region is a news story, because it exemplifies the fetid state of local politics and personifies the type of thinking that dragged the city into financial ruin.

There is an ever-increasing willingness to pass the buck, if not to the other political party or administration, then to whoever seems to be conveniently located. In other words, it’s easier to chuck your problems onto someone else’s desk –or someone else’s head – instead of dealing with them and moving on.

Ironically, this is precisely the thinking that led to these employees getting laid off in the first place. None of this would have happened had the City Council spent within its means many moons ago. Instead, they chose to spend the windfall of VLT funding at the peak of the city’s modern golden age and push off any sort of fiscal responsibility onto the next administration.

Hopefully, these are things that dawn upon Scirocco and Scala as they open up the B-section of the Gazette Friday. Maybe it’s time to grow up and take responsibility, rather than acting like petulant children fighting over who has to wash the evening dishes.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Post Script

Sometimes it’s better not knowing who is behind the curtain pulling the levers and turning the knobs that control the grand visions that suddenly appear in the Capital Region’s sky line. Sometime knowing about the machinations that make government work can be disheartening. After all, society desperately wants to believe there’s an honest and powerful wizard out there altruistically looking out for the public good; instilling a feeling of pride in job well done.

That’s why the public tends to look the other way when they get a peak behind the curtain. In fact, they’ll look the other way during the first, second and even third time the curtain is parted. Only when the screen is thrust open and the man behind is dragged into the light will they finally admit there’s something screwy with the whole process.

Take for instance Joe Bruno, the debonair Republican state Senate majority leader, who always exuded the type of moxy usually reserved for old-school gangsters. Hollywood Joe carried himself like a power broker that didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and would do anything short of selling his own grandmother to get a deal done. There was simply nothing about him that suggested he operated under the law or by the book. In short, it would take a lot of wishful thinking to consider Bruno as a politician on the up-and-up.

Instead, Bruno’s constituents sort of looked at him like the guy who would drive an unmarked box truck into an impoverished neighborhood around the holidays and start unloading brand new color TVs at 10 cents on the dollar. Certainly, no one is under the illusion that the sets are legit, that the shady cigar-toting salesman is selling them as a charity or that some great miscarriage of justice hasn’t occurred somewhere beyond the city limits. At the end of the day, the ghetto will glow with the radiance of a thousand network colors thanks to that shady cigar-toting salesman. And he’ll be welcomed back with open arms each time they hear that dull growl from the box truck.

This is Joe Bruno at his quintessence: If the taxpayers are going to get robbed, I’m going to slice a cut for myself and then I’m going to get a share for my people. And for the more than two centuries that have lead up to this very moment, this is exactly how politics are conducted in New York or any state for that matter. Quid pro quo; you help me, I help you, we help them.

If the electorate really cared, they would have dispatched of guy like Bruno years ago. Take for instance the scandal that enveloped him in 2004. After littering the state government with his entire extended family, Bruno brashly secured a lavish office for his brother at the newly restored Van Raalte Mill in Saratoga Springs. The office cost taxpayers more than $50,000 a year and was aimed at easing poor Robert Bruno’s 50-mile commute to his six-figure job at the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services Albany from Glens Falls. Hollywood Joe ran unopposed that year, just like every election since 1996, and the scandal barley left a blemish on Bruno’s career. Ironically, he won tens of thousands of votes that year on a platform to reform Albany, just one month after the scandal broke.

Even the opposition party supported Bruno during his heyday. He was in the process of mounting his fifth consecutive unopposed election in 2006, when pesky Rensselaer attorney Brian Premo decided he wanted to give voters a choice. Premo, a Republican-turned-Democrat, petitioned for a chance to take a crack at Bruno, but was summarily tossed out on his ass by the senatorial district’s Democratic leadership. The idea was to not offend the powerful leader so that the pork carcasses would continue to arrive unabated.

Premo took the issue to state Supreme Court, but met rare bi-partisan resistance. Democratic leaders lead the charge against the prospective challenger, and they used a sharp-tipped rapier handed to them by the GOP. Ironically, this micro-battle was occurring at a time when the national Democrats were bitterly fighting to regain seats in the U.S. Congress; most notably in the Capital Region, the seat of Republican U.S. Rep. John Sweeney.

In the end, the 2006 election could have been the high watermark of Bruno’s career in politics and the point at which the tide began to sweep back out to sea. Divisions had been forming in the state GOP for some time, and Bruno happened to be on the one that didn’t have the U.S. Attorney’s Office on its side.

There was no mystery about then Gov. George Pataki’s presidential aspirations or that he quietly played doorman to the Bush Administration whenever he could to get in the better graces of the neoconservative cabal. Sweeney, who was a strident Pataki-ally, had plenty of clout with national party prior to his fall from grace. And as that fall grew more precipitous during the 2006 election, Joe Bruno sat on the sidelines watching; clearly not willing to sacrifice an ounce of his political capital to rescue Pataki’s federal connection.

The 2006 election also was the unofficial coronation of Eliot Spitzer, the so-called “Sheriff of Wall Street” and ardent government reformer, who seemed to target Bruno as an epitome of the corrupt brand of politics that had plagued Albany for centuries. Spitzer very quickly moved to expose some of the senator’s indiscretions in an apparent attempt to discredit his chief opponent to reform. Less than a year later, Spitzer was gone.

Why dig into all this old history as Bruno walks away in shame? Well, because a man of Bruno’s power and political savvy doesn’t suddenly lose both overnight to a very convoluted federal corruption scandal that could potentially implicate any number of state legislators who regularly throw their influence around in questionable ways. Not unless there was a bi-partisan commando team parachuting in to take him down.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s bombshell verdict –one that hardly came as a surprise to any political pundit –there was nary a state legislator to chime in on Bruno’s demise or the fate of his legacy. His colleagues in the Republican caucus were quiet, as were their Democratic counterparts. There wasn’t a peep from Gov. David Paterson’s office, even though he served more than two decades with Bruno in the senate. All of them stood quietly, as the jury slowly and methodically hung Bruno with the miles of rope he left behind amid his political legacy.

What does all this mean for New York and its brand of politics? Most likely, nothing at all, even though the hollow cries for reform are ringing loudly throughout the land right now. Sure, there will be talk about reform, just like there always is when a well-known politician is unceremoniously slain like a charging bull by the matador. There will be more like Bruno to rise and fall like the sun and moon. The cycle will continue because it’s the bitter nature of politics itself: maintaining the three-way balance between self-interest, special interest and the public’s interest.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Parting shots

Most municipalities take weeks or even months to announce the appointment of a police chief. Cities often keep their options open. They solicit dozens –even hundreds –of resumes to fill such an important administrative position. That’s because it’s wise to properly scrutinize the guy who will be holding the purse strings of the overtime purse. It’s wise to know if the top cop is going to be a push-over for the police benevolent association, or if he’s going to do his job in accordance with its principles: protecting the taxpayers.

But Saratoga Spring simply isn’t like most municipalities. In fact, it’s nothing like them, as outgoing Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim proved this week with his well-orchestrated political shenanigans with his two top administrators and his subsequent appointment of Assistant Chief Chris Cole to the position within 72 hours after the outgoing one abruptly announced his retirement.

Much has been said about the abrupt resignation of Fire Chief Robert Cogan and Police Chief Ed Moore this week. Both said they were reluctantly leaving their six-figure jobs to get lucrative retirement packages so that they could save jobs in their respective departments. Those sympathetic with their cause lauded their selfless move and pleaded the city commissioners to reconsider the draconian staff cuts.

The story was leaked to reporters on Monday. And by Tuesday’s city council meeting, the issue had ballooned into a full-blown political bout between Kim and Public Safety commissioner-elect Richard Wirth. And it has proven to be every bit as contentious as the outgoing commissioner’s election-season sparring with Mayor Scott Johnson.

Over the last three days, Kim has been making a variety of claims that may or may not be true. For him, the truth really doesn’t matter because he’s going to be out of office by months’ end. First and foremost among these claims is that the city will save more than $200,000 through these retirements –some reports place this number at $260,000 –and should therefore restore some of the estimated 14 jobs cut from Public Safety.

But the next assertion is a bit brasher. Kim claims he and he alone has the right to appoint successors to the retiring chiefs because the city can’t legally have its two most important departments operating without top administrators. Along these lines, he also claimed there is no existing language in the city charter that says he can appoint an interim chief to either position, so he is legally bound to appoint at least the police chief before Dec. 12, the day Moore officially retires.

Now let’s stop here for a moment. There are some interesting machinations at work in this decision making process. Interestingly enough, Moore didn’t initially know when he’d take his retirement when he stood before reporters gathered at city hall late Tuesday afternoon. And with tears “welling” in his eyes, no one from the media was going to push him for a date. In contrast, Cogan had a definitive date in mind: Christmas Day.

Of course, this all changed quickly between the announcement and the interviews for the police chief’s position, which were conducted on Thursday. Moore quickly comes up with a date, which happens to be exactly one week after Kim makes his decision.

The whirlwind of events rightfully left Wirth incensed. Wirth, who ran on a position of restoring a bit of fiscal order to the badly managed police department, didn’t even get a chance to get his feet wet before Kim pushed him into the pond. Now he has a major dilemma on his hands: Accept the choice of Cole as given and hope for the best or cry foul and battle it out in the court of public opinion; or perhaps county Supreme Court, where any such argument would surely land, costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars. Either way, he gets screwed.

That is, unless Cole is the best man for the job. After all, he’s next in line anyway and has been running the department during Moore’s well-publicized disappearing acts. But that may be more of a reason to overlook him as the next chief.

On a side note, the city did have somewhat of a precedence in appointing an interim due to the one-week service of the ailing Robert Flanagan back in 2003, ironically the week before Moore became chief. Flanagan, who was nicknamed ‘chief,’ replaced outgoing boss Ken King Jr., until his retirement a week later. Though there may not be a similar circumstance where this could occur these days, the brief appointment sets a legal precedence at the very least.

Now, despite the pomp and circumstance that was humming amid Moore’s announcement, he’s been nothing less than a calamity as police chief. Under each year of his leadership, overtime has increased. This suggests he’s either a very poor manager of his resources or that he’s made a point of bending to the Saratoga Springs PBA. Moore also presided over a number of ugly lawsuits, one of which involved himself. Let’s not forget that he and his number-two sued the city and won a hefty settlement that resulted from the political dickering and sexual exploits of former deputy Commissioner Erin Dreyer.

Moore was also the guy who failed to take action when his growing number of female officers complained about the lack of a woman’s changing area at the aging station. The issue eventually landed the city in court for state labor violations, which in turn lead to taxpayers’ funding a large cash settlement to the officers.

To his defense, Moore may have been told by Kim that he didn’t need to fix the issue, because Kim seemed assured that he’d be able to shove a $20 million public safety castle down the throats of taxpayers under guidance of mayoral disaster Valerie Keehn. And he came pretty damn close to doing it too.

Still, Moore’s mismanagement is more than documented, so Wirth would have been justified in wanting to clean house. This is especially the case because Moore –blinded by the prospect of rich mahogany and hardwood furniture of his prospective new office –chose to politicize his job. He did so by brazenly standing next to Keehn and then Kim on more than one political occasion.

Interestingly enough, few media sources have bothered to delve into exactly what the outgoing chiefs will actually save the city. Credit the Daily Gazette for taking an honest stab at it in Friday’s paper. Moore will carry away a retirement package of $73,000 annually while Cogan will be given $69,000 per year; not including any health insurance benefits, which were not listed in the article.

It should be noted that this will come from the state retirement fund, rather than from directly out of taxpayers’ pockets. But in essence, that’s another major problem in the city’s budgetary woes: Nondiscretionary funding. Payments into the state retirement fund and health insurance costs are two of the main drivers in any budgetary increase. These are functions that are hashed out with bargaining units and then written into contracts. What will the ultimate savings be from these retirements? Chances are they will be negligible.

In the end, this whole episode can be boiled down to Ron Kim’s formal ‘fuck you’ to the incoming council. And he carries these tidings for the rest of his ‘Democrats for Change’ cronies, each of which were banished to the nether regions of city politics. Only time will tell how bad his last-minute dickering screwed the incoming administration, but it doesn’t take a genius to see the tone has been set.

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