Saratoga County

Saratoga Springs City Council censures mayor over ethics

The City Council has taken the possibly unprecedented step of censuring Mayor Joanne Yepsen over a f
Saratoga Mayor Joanne Yepsen delivers her State of the City Address at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park on Saturday morning, Jan. 30, 2016.
Saratoga Mayor Joanne Yepsen delivers her State of the City Address at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park on Saturday morning, Jan. 30, 2016.

The City Council has taken the possibly unprecedented step of censuring Mayor Joanne Yepsen over a finding that she violated the city ethics code by creating a potential conflict of interest.

The council voted 3-2 on Tuesday night to censure the mayor over a finding by the city Ethics Board, with Yepsen and Accounts Commissioner John Franck voting against the resolution.

The council action came after the ethics panel found that Yepsen violated the code last winter when she solicited fundraising work from the Saratoga Hospital Foundation at a time when the hospital had a zoning expansion application pending before the city.

The censure, which Assistant City Attorney Tony Izzo said may be unprecedented in city history, will be submitted to the state Attorney General’s Office public integrity bureau and state Joint Committee on Public Ethics.

The censure vote resurrects last year’s heated public debate about the hospital’s proposed expansion, which stalled in part because of Yepsen’s actions.

Yepsen recused herself from the zoning discussion in January, but only after the matter had been pending before the City Council for weeks. She maintains that she did nothing wrong and recused herself as soon as she received an Ethics Board advisory opinion that there was a potential conflict of interest.

“When there’s even the slightest appearance of conflict of interest, you recuse, and that’s what I did,” Yepsen said at the meeting. “It was the most ethical stand and position to take at the time.”

Other council members disagreed, saying Yepsen would have been able to vote on the hospital project if not for the employment talks.

“The one thing we are elected to do is take votes, and sometimes tough votes,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who has a contentious relationship with Yepsen. “The most ethical thing to do would be not to solicit business from the hospital as a fundraiser while they had business before the city.”

Madigan, who like Yepsen is a Democrat, acknowledged that the censure had no legal weight as punishment. “It’s a harsh rebuke, but it’s an opinion, though,” she said.

The mayor’s job is part time, paying $14,500 annually. Yepsen is a partner in a private business that does fundraising for non-profit organizations.

Yepsen said she and the foundation exchanged emails and had one meeting about her firm fundraising for the foundation before both decided there was a situation the Ethics Board should examine. It concluded in January that there was a potential conflict of interest.

Yepsen’s recusal, along with an unrelated recusal by Franck, meant the hospital was unable to get approval to change zoning so it could build a medical office building on Myrtle Street, a block from the hospital.

Neighborhood opposition forced the zoning change to have four affirmative votes, and the two recusals left only three council members available to vote.

After the hospital application was stymied, three council members asked the Ethics Board to determine whether Yepsen’s solicitation of the foundation had violated the city’s ethics code. In a response received last Friday, it said it had.

“In sum, the mayor violated the code of ethics when she solicited a personal private contract from the hospital while it was doing business with the city,” the board concluded.

Yepsen said she accepted the board’s conclusion, but she and her attorneys disagreed with it.

Madigan said Saratoga Hospital sought the zoning change as early as August 2015, before Yepsen had any talks with the hospital foundation. The foundation is the hospital’s fundraising arm.

Yepsen said the hospital application failed because neighbors didn’t want a 90,000-square-foot medical building “in their backyards,” not because of her conduct.

She said her attorneys believe a zoning application does not constitute “doing business with the city” in the sense the ethics code intends, even though the ethics committee disagreed.

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen supported the censure and the referral to state ethics agencies.

“I don’t think we have a case of criminal activity or fraudulent behavior here, I think we have a case of bad judgment, but I don’t think there’s an reason not to refer it to an outside agency for review,” Mathiesen said.

The ethics finding prompted Saratoga County Republican Chairman John Herrick to call for Yepsen’s resignation.

“The mayor’s action to recuse herself on the hospital vote has the appearance of retaliation against the hospital for not hiring her,” Herrick said.

At the meeting, Yepsen called that idea “ridiculous.”

“John Herrick is doing his job as county chair of the Republican Party,” she said Wednesday. “They would like nothing more than to see a Republican mayor for our city. Luckily, the constituents get to make that choice, not a party leader.”

The only Republican on the council, Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, brought the initial censure resolution, and supported it.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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