Schenectady City Hall to remain closed for budget talks

Schenectady City Hall is seen in a file photo.
Schenectady City Hall is seen in a file photo.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Members of the public will get a chance to weigh in on the upcoming proposed city budget — they’ll just have to do so virtually.

The city’s public safety command staff has put the kibosh on in-person meetings at City Hall.

A memo sent by City Hall to lawmakers said it was the “unanimous recommendation” of public safety command staff at both the Fire Department and Police Department that public meetings remain virtual.

Similarly, a series of budget workshops in which lawmakers will go line-by-line through Mayor Gary McCarthy’s proposed spending plan will also be online-only, including meetings scheduled for Oct. 14, Oct. 15 and Oct. 20.

“There’s just too many logistical problems to maintain social distancing and ensure protocols are in place to ensure safe engagement in these types of meetings,” McCarthy said, citing protocols designed to shuffle people in and out while keeping them six-feet apart.

City Hall is open by appointment only.

McCarthy has previously expressed reservations about reopening to the broader public, citing safety concerns.

McCarthy himself has entered voluntary self-quarantine after attending a New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) press conference in Syracuse with Binghamton Mayor Rich David on Wednesday, who announced the following day he had tested positive.

“After going to the NYCOM event, and getting quarantined, it’s only going to reinforce that,” McCarthy said.

Despite City Hall remaining closed, officials said they are planning to expand opportunities for public comment.

The city updated its Webex software, a measure that will allow members of the public to virtually address lawmakers for the first time in months, according to City Council President John Mootooveren.

Lawmakers will now be allowed to mute microphones in Webex with the “improved host control” function, Mootooveren said, a measure that will prevent situations like when Black Lives Matter participants interrupted proceedings in July, leading the City Council to restrict access.

Officials have said financial woes caused by the coronavirus have resulted in what’s likely to be the most challenging budget season in recent memory.

To help plug a $12 million deficit, McCarthy’s proposed budget contains a 2.82 percent tax increase for homeowners, reversing a five-year trend that has cut taxes 8 percent since 2015.

The plan would also slash 63 jobs, 47 of which are currently vacant.

The proposed cuts would dramatically impact the city Codes Department, laying off two code officers, a clerk and an assistant building inspector while leaving three additional vacancies unfilled.

Yet what’s expected to be difficult negotiations come at a time when neighborhood associations contend the City Council has been conducting public hearings “without any meaningful public input.”

While residents can email their comments for the record, correspondence is not read aloud, a practice critics have contended dilutes the power of public input.

Localities have differed in how they facilitate citizen participation amid the pandemic.

The Schenectady County Legislature, for instance, reads comments submitted by the public out loud.

Albany Common Council gives residents an opportunity to speak for five minutes at their virtual meetings, including a session on Monday when speakers complained about poor conditions at a local dog park and voiced support for a proposed community center, among other issues.

City Council has done neither.

Following digital disruption by activists in July, officials restricted Webex access to members of the public and replaced it with a YouTube link, which eliminated the ability to leave comments that lawmakers could see in real time.

However, YouTube streams have often experienced technical issues, leaving meetings without sound; unaired completely, or with broadcasts delayed — including on Monday, according to Schenectady United Neighborhoods President Tom Carey.

Carey said he was heartened at the city’s decision to upgrade the software.

“If they’re allowing people to participate by Webex, that’s positive and I’m happy they’re doing that and appreciate them listening to us,” Carey said.

Following criticisms, the city has also introduced a new online submission form.

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