Schenectady County

Council rejects Stratton’s appointees

Business owners who claim the Democratic Party has taken over the Downtown Schenectady Improvement C
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Business owners who claim the Democratic Party has taken over the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. got some unexpected help Monday from three Democratic City Council members.

The council members rejected Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s controversial appointees to the DSIC board, stopping the appointments with a 3-3 vote. Council members Gary McCarthy, Joseph Allen and Barbara Blanchard voted against the appointees.

It was a rare break among the all-Democratic city leadership, which touted “working together works” during election campaigns just two months ago and usually keeps disagreements out of the public eye.

Council members did try to get Stratton to back down at meeting before the voting session, but he insisted that it was the mayor’s prerogative to make appointments.

Blanchard argued that his choices — two administrators, two long-time successful business owners and an attorney — were not truly representative of the downtown business owners, many of whom are struggling to keep their small shops in the black.

“Look, Janet Hutchison is not going to go out of business,” Blanchard said, referring to the owner of Open Door Bookstore, one of Stratton’s proposed appointments. “I’d like to see someone who’s a new, start-up business owner who’s run into problems common to many small business owners in Schenectady.”

Allen said business owners think the DSIC board is unresponsive. They complain the board is wasting their special assessment tax, which they are required to pay if they own property downtown.

“It’s a lot of money for a little,” Allen said. “The people I talked to, they don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Some owners from the outskirts of the downtown have also said the DSIC board only pays attention to the Jay Street-State Street hub of downtown.

Those issues led several owners to lobby Stratton last year, asking him to balance the DSIC board by seating more small business owners, particularly from the outskirts. He responded last week by appointing just one small businessman who works in the heart of downtown.

He also re-appointed several controversial members, including board President Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, a senior vice president at Key Bank who works in Saratoga. Downtown business owners have questioned her involvement both because she works in another city and because Key Bank officials have discussed closing the downtown branch.

On Monday, Blanchard questioned Zalewski-Wildzunas’ appointment, calling her a “non-business person” who “isn’t working here.”

King defended Zalewski-Wildzunas, saying, “We represent our respective businesses … she’s downtown periodically for meetings. She has supervisory responsibilities.”

DISCORD ABOUNDS

Stratton told the council that no matter who he appoints, somebody won’t be happy.

“There are people no matter what you do you’ll never make 100 percent happy. If I appoint from the north side of town, they will say it should be from the south,” he said. “Certainly I will continue to take those into consideration. We’ll continue to talk to them.”

He said owners could suggest who he should appoint, but when Blanchard pressed him on whether he would accept such nominations, he demurred.

“The responsibility rests in me to make the appointment,” he said.

The council, however, must vote on the appointments, giving the members the power to stop him.

They debated with Stratton at their pre-voting meeting, but once the television cameras turned on and the voting session began, they did not discuss the issue. Instead, they simply voted, splitting 3-3 on whether to allow the appointments. Without King to cast the deciding vote, the resolution failed for lack of a favorable majority vote.

King couldn’t vote because she is one of the proposed appointees.

The vote leaves the eight-member board without a quorum. It now has five vacant seats, including a recent vacancy that Stratton did not fill when he announced his other appointees. The only remaining members of the board are John McDonald of John McDonald Engineering, Frank Gilmore of Stracher-Roth-Gilmore Architects, and Stephen Waite, who is developing the Big House project.

McCarthy said Monday’s vote was intended to give him leverage in convincing the mayor to change some of his appointments.

“It’s part of a negotiating strategy,” he said, adding that he is negotiating for “a little more responsiveness.”

Stratton said he had no idea why the three council members rejected the appointees.

“I’m going to make some phone calls,” he said. “[McCarthy] hasn’t expressed his concerns to me personally. I’m always willing to be responsive to their concerns and others’ as well.”

But moments later, in the hallway outside the Council Chambers, he argued with Allen and Blanchard, saying it was the mayor’s role to appoint DSIC members.

Stratton had proposed appointing Zalewski-Wildzunas; King; Hutchison; Richard Antokol, a downtown State Street attorney; and Don Leva, owner of the newstand across from City Hall.

One small business owner was so unimpressed by those choices last week that she said Stratton was deliberately stocking the board to keep it under the control of the Democrats.

Kathy Fitzmaurice , who owns the Katbird Shop on Liberty Street and says she receives no benefit from DSIC despite being required to pay for membership, said the agency is “obviously” controlled by Stratton’s Democratic Party. She and others have claimed in the past that the mayor’s choices are more representative of him and his party than of the downtown business owners.

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