Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Deputize me

Despite the waning early fall temperatures, there seems to be a warm front blowing in. And a lot of the hot air seems to be derived from pre-election speculation over the names being floated for the city’s five deputy positions. Namely, this talk has focused on the future deputy mayor and the future deputy Public Works commissioner.

In the race for Public Works, some Web denizens have argued electing Eddie “The Hotdog Guy” Miller would usher in a new reign for the ever-polarizing Tom McTygue. There’s been little doubt about the friendship between these two men –both former horse trainers –and it has fueled rumors that Miller’s run could be backdoor way for McTygue to once again insert himself into the forefront of city politics.

Similar is the talk following soon-to-be former Public Safety Commissioner Ron Kim’s peculiar run for mayor. The term ‘peculiar’ is used here because Kim has decided against doing much campaigning. That’s perhaps because he has literally has no platform to run on, aside from being an council obstructionist and a shill for the city’s all-powerful police union –a group that recently formed a political action committee. Now Kim is rumored to be considering former mayor and political lighting rod Valerie Keehn as his deputy.

Now, voters should be cautioned that both these rumors are far from credible. In fact, they’re both rather incredible considering the voters showed both of these political hacks to the door not much more than two years ago.

Tom McTygue, while not entirely irrelevant in city politics, is no longer a stakeholder in city affairs because he doesn’t own property in Saratoga Springs. His legacy remains marred by stories of corruption and favoritism; tales that haven’t abated in his absence. Miller choosing McTygue as his deputy before the election would be almost as egregious as him selecting the deposed DPW commish after a victory in November.

Likewise, Kim tabbing Keehn as a running mate prior to the election would be enough to get him laughed off the ballot. And Kim even contemplating such a deputy selection is enough to convince some that he’s more deserving of a hot tar bath with some feather than a seat guiding the city into the future.

Interestingly enough, Kim and Miller victories followed by the aforementioned deputy appointments could make city council meetings a bit more interesting to watch. Even riding in the so-called back seat of the deputy position, the death stares between McTygue and Keehn would be enough for Time Warner to sell pay-per-view tickets. Can you say revenue idea?

But seriously, the number-one problem facing the Spa City’s bizarre commissioner-style of government is that voters are never sure who they’re electing into office. Many Democratic-leaning voters pulled the lever for Kim, thinking they’d be re-electing his staff. Instead, they ended up prolonging the administration of Eileen Finneran, Keehn’s former deputy mayor and arguably the one who was calling the shots behind the scenes in her failed administration.

In contrast, Skip Scirocco made it quite known that Pat Design, a former deputy under McTygue, would be his pick for the ‘number two’ position during his 2007 campaign for Public Works Commissioner. No doubt, this was a politically attractive selection because Design carried clout among a number of DPW workers; namely the more moderate ones not dynamically opposed to McTygue.

But regardless of his reasons for selecting a running mate, Scirocco did the right thing: He was honest about his choice to run his department’s day-to-day operations. And the other candidates could learn a thing or two from his example, even if it was one made with political intent.

All candidates running for council should publically disclose their deputies long before November. Their choice shouldn’t be a surprise sprung on the public as the New Year dawns. This is called full disclosure, and aside from changing the city charter, it’s about as close to accountability as a candidate can offer the public.

Yet none of them do. Instead, they wait for the election to shake out and then chose candidates from a pool of campaign workers or political insiders. These choices are often made on a basis of who knocked on the most doors during the campaign; or even worse, who has the most political clout with a given campaign.

Speaking of accountability, how come reporters never ask the commissioner candidates who their choice for deputy would be? How come this is a question that the media typically glosses over both before and after the election? Most times, the selection of the deputy commissioners is one that is relegated to briefs or short, back-page articles chucked into the void of news created by December’s holiday laundry list. So here’s a challenge to all of you reporters out there: Ask who these people plan to chose as their Deputy Dawg, and don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. If they don’t know at this point, they are either lying or they don’t belong in office.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dog Eaters

Anyone in politics will tell you, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and if you’re not thick-skinned, you’re liable to become the next dog on the menu.

So it came as a mild surprise last month when Ron Kim, the city’s Public Safety Commissioner and Democratic mayoral candidate, began flapping his gums to the media over some derogatory remarks posted on Saratogian’s Web site over the past six months or so. He alleged the comments –including one referring to him as “Kim Jong Il” –were racist in nature and aimed at belittling the first-generation Korean-American’s heritage.

Kim took the opportunity last month to call for a wholesale restructuring of the newspaper’s online posting policy so that comments –such as one allegedly calling him a “dog-eater” –would be snared by the editors or a filter of some sort. As bizarre as his reaction might have appeared to those unacquainted with the Public Safety commish, they were right in tune with Kim’s overall erratic behavior during his two terms in office.

After all, this was the same guy who angrily stood up during a City Council meeting, packed up his belongings in a fury and stormed out the exit. And this is the same fellow who called a media conference to unveil the so-called “failure-o-meter,” a placard showing the number of day since the council “failure” to bond money for a new public safety castle; to date, no one is quite sure whatever happened to the taxpayer-funded failure-o-meter after it “went on tour” through the city. This is also the guy who brazenly lied to the media when he falsely claimed he was being forced to lay-off at least 17 cops, when he was really asked to trim his budget just like every other city department.

No, the quirky cry of racism from Kim in mid-August didn’t seem too far out of his character. Some might even argue that the overall weirdness fit right in with his modus operandi: Get your name in the paper for good or for bad.

But there were and continue to be some oddities about the whole affair. First of all, there’s a question of whether the comments left on the Saratogian’s Web site were directed as slurs against Kim’s heritage, or whether they were simply off-color remarks about his mannerism, which in fact do conjure images of a power-drunk demented dictator, madly shouting demands into a crowd.

Kim answered these questions by pointing to remarks either alleging he eats dogs or referring to him as a dog-eater. Now, this term is a sort of mid-level slur that took root during the post World War II era, long before the age of information and during a time when it was somewhat fashionable to belittle Asiatic people.

But these days, the term ‘dog eater’ has quite a different meaning. In fact, one of the more widely recognized Asians in popular culture these days is sometimes referred to as a “dog-eater.” Of course, this sort of term self-attributes itself when you’re able to cram 59 hotdogs in your face in under 12 minutes. It should also be noted that the term didn’t really ruffle feathers when the BBC used it in a headline, or a comic book writer of Asian descent used it in a title, and so on and so forth.

Nevertheless, Kim took offense to it and rightfully so, some online posters have argued. But the real question remains: How did Kim find out about the so-called slurs and why did it take him so long to respond to them? And why didn’t he simply report the comments as abusive when to the paper’s Web administration?

Well, the answers to these questions are starting to become clearer as the Kim Campaign continues to fuel the story. All four daily newspapers were more than willing to let the story drop after the first report, seeing as though none of them really seemed to give it much credence to begin with. Kamp Kim, however, kept hammering the Internet with it.

First, there was a clap-trap entry by Kim ally Lew Benton on the Times Union blog, claiming the Saratogian’s condoning of blatantly racist remarks as being parallel to instances where black and Jewish residents were barred from Spa City establishments during the late 19th and early 20th century. Then this week, a Los Angeles-based immigration reform group curiously tossed out a news release to the Saratogian, decrying the paper allowing such remarks to be posted –roughly a month after they had already been removed from the Web site.

Kim claims he never alerted the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium about the issue, but suggested maybe his brother did. After all, he does live in California, the commissioner admitted. He also suggested the issue might have been dredged up by conservative radio talk shows that discussed his plight –even though he never identified any particular one.

But the most telling comments to the Saratogian were the ones where he claimed he never even read the hurtful comments. As the paper paraphrased, Kim “does not typically read comments left on blogs and other online forums, because he prefers not to think about what is being said about him behind his back.” Instead, he was alerted by campaign members and urged to take action so that if his children ever wanted to get into politics, they wouldn’t have to face such outward bias.

“It’s just wrong,” he told the Saratogian in one of his classic disjointed statements. “My kids, if they were to run for office, shouldn’t not run because someone is going to call them up and call them a ‘dog-eater.’"

Say again? Was that a double negative? So, you’re bringing this up for your children’s future run in office? Are you sure you don’t mean your own run for office?

Simply put, this is a ploy to attract any attention to the Kim Campaign. The notion is that a candidate that blankets the airwaves, printing presses, online chat bases and lawns with his or her name will ultimately sway the most fickle of voters. In the process, if you can guile a nationally reputable organization into taking up your cause –maybe even finance your campaign –you’ll be able to outshout any of the negative publicity generated by the conquest for saturation coverage.

The problem is Kim has revealed himself for what he is: A vapid and hyper-reactive media whore whose campaign lacks the sort of momentum it needs to unseat an incumbent. Adding to this sad reality is that the incumbent –Republican Mayor Scott Johnson –isn’t even that popular right now. But at least he hasn’t issued half-crazed news releases calling for greater censorship of the media and free speech. Oddly enough, that’s something one might expect from a well-known dictator on the Korean peninsula

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Saratoga burning

Flames could consume the Saratoga Racecourse, the state Legislature could ban thoroughbred racing and one out of every three fans that attend the burned-out track could fall ill with atomic dysentery and the whole gig would still be a success in the minds of the New York Racing Association. With waning gate receipts and a declining handle, NYRA officials proclaimed the meet a booming success. Or rather a booming success compared to the gloomy forecast offered by the normally chipper leader of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce in July.

“By any measure, the 2009 Saratoga meet was an overwhelming success,” NYRA President and CEO Charles “Chipper” Hayward told the Times Union, while sporting his best poker face.

The 2009 meet was an afterthought the week after the track opened. Despite some cheery early season anecdotal predictions from spectators divorced from reality, the lack of attendance at the track certainly didn’t translate into a more bustling downtown. Those who decided to forgo the $3 general admission price certainly didn’t take that scratch to the bars, restaurants and boutique businesses lining Broadway.

All season, downtown seemed to lack the social luster it normal glows with every time an estimated 40,000 addled revelers pile into the city proper. The scene didn’t seem as vibrant, the bars not as packed and the streets almost ghostly compared to peaks seen during the economic swell that encapsulated the region until last year.

Even with a precipitous decline in track attendance in 2008, few were willing to suggest that the lavish, faux-Manhattan attitude in Saratoga Springs had finally bitten the city in its ass. The arrogant suggestion then was that the crashing national economy –the global worldwide recession –would never befall a gem like Saratoga. Many suffered bouts of sheer hubris and decided to blame the whole dismal meet on something that nobody could dispute: The weather.

But as some are realizing now, the weather is but a small factor in the overall equation that drives –or was driving –the Capital Region’s economic powerhouse. There were many other factors other than rain that have steered people away from downtown and the track that few like to contemplate and even fewer like to discuss openly in the media.

At the top of the list is the utter identity crisis that has struck the city when all of its lower and middle income neighborhoods were gentrified; when developers began building $350,000 homes in areas where there were once affordable homes. This massive overhaul of formerly modest-priced buildings resulted in a sudden influx of tax revenue for the city. But instead of saving this as a nest egg, city leaders instead used it as an excuse to begin spending like a trust fund baby who just nailed a trifecta.

Even four years ago, there was plenty of indication that the real estate bubble was at capacity in Saratoga. Yet a clan of greedy realtors instead decided to keep inflating the fucker. Others simply raped the system in any way they could muster, sucking vast tracts of cash out of the foundation that the whole bubble was built on in the first place.

The business community did its share too by raising the prices of food, booze and everything else downtown. Some did it to stave off the ever-increasing tax burden placed on them by a City Council and City School District thoroughly unwilling to craft budgets amenable to year-round residents. Others figured the sudden rise of multi-story condominiums meant the transition from faux-Manhattan to real Manhattan was only a few years away.

And now we’re seeing the results of this bungled experiment in city building. Seldom has there been a time when two downtown businesses have decided to file for Chapter 11 protection at the apex of the meet, and another on the outskirts being seized by the government for unpaid taxes. While most businesses interviewed in the prototypical “so how did the season go” stories published this week expressed optimism over their register receipts, others seemed a bit concerned about what the fall will bring.

Amazingly, there are still some who think the tenuous situation facing the Spa City is just fine; that the summer sales tax numbers will come in, and we’ll see that Saratoga Springs is indeed recession proof. Among them is Lew Benton, the city’s resident tree counter and patronage sponge, who is assured a nice bright future suckling up to a variety of publically funded retirement plans.

Not long ago, Benton used the auspices of the Albany Times Union’s failing exercise in community-driven blogging to claim the hubbub about the city’s declining fiscal conditions was nothing but politically-driven propaganda. Overall, the piece seems like a thinly veiled advocacy of the city’s decision to leave the county sales tax equation years ago. But Benton, who is among the decision makers in the recently hijacked Democratic Committee, must paint a not-so-bleak appearance of the city’s financial condition, lest he draw the booming chorus of voices that demanded the council curb spending.

Curbing spending these days is really the only way to prevent a sudden eye-popping boost in taxes, which is something that is all but assured anyway. And a boost in the levy will certainly doom plans for his long-sought-after public safety facility; the leading stump his candidate for mayor will stand on in the coming months.

Benton is among the string-pullers directing the otherwise vapid Ron Kim, a fellow who can barely form cogent sentences on his own. He’s hoping Kim can oust Republican Mayor Scott Johnson, while another disciple –Kevin Connolly –takes control of Kim’s abandoned seat at the head of Public Safety.

The frightening part of this scenario is that neither Kim nor Benton seem overly concerned about the danger signs that are starting to crop up in just about every sector of the city’s functioning: The gloomy track receipts, the closing businesses, the aborted building projects, the $3.5 million city deficient; hell, the number of wealthy residents under indictment for real estate fraud. In fact, Kim recently voted against the city’s modest capital budget because it didn’t include the money needed to build a public safety building nearly five times the size of the facility used today.

Hopefully, these stories are still fresh in voters’ minds as they head to the polls in November, lest we end up with a council inept in its ability to adapt to the changing times. Keep in mind: There was another gilded age when city leaders thought that nothing could go wrong.

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