SARATOGA SPRINGS – Castigating the leadership of current city officials, the slate of Democratic candidates in Saratoga Springs on Friday promised to diffuse community discord by doing a better job of listening to the concerns of residents.
The Democratic candidates plan to host a series of four or five “listening sessions” throughout the city in the run-up to the fall election, beginning with one on July 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel at 86 Congress St. The sessions will be open to residents throughout the city to give them a chance to communicate directly with the Democratic candidates.
Four candidates for city office and one for the county Board of Supervisors, standing together in front of City Hall, blamed recent tensions in the city on what they described as failed leadership among current city officials. They called out Mayor Meg Kelly and Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton by name, accusing Kelly of fomenting discord in part by shutting off public comments at a recent City Council meeting and Dalton of doing so by making comments last month that suggested social activism was connected to recent violent incidents.
“Our current leaders are utterly failing us,” said Ron Kim, the Democratic candidate for mayor and a former public safety commissioner in Saratoga. “We’ve got a commissioner of public safety who points fingers and provides no solutions and a mayor who shuts down City Council meetings when she doesn’t like what’s being said.”
The Democratic candidates asserted that they would foster a stronger public discourse as they sought to reduce tensions between activists, city officials, police officers and the broader community.
“I’m not saying we are going to wave a magic wand and grant anything [activists] are asking for, but I am saying listening to people is part of the job here,” Kim said. “It’s part of the job description and that’s not happening, and that’s creating some of these problems”
Friday’s press conference came after racial justice activists on Wednesday night marched through downtown streets demanding an apology from Assistant Police Chief John Catone, who at a late June press conference concerning violent incidents in the city criticized activists and Democratic politicians for their depiction of the Police Department as racist. Protesters and the police response on Wednesday blocked portions of Broadway and other downtown streets and ultimately resulted in the arrest of five protesters for disorderly conduct.
Minita Sanghvi, a business professor at Skidmore College running for city finance commissioner, said if city leaders had directly engaged protesters before they took to the streets the protesters may have been less inclined to do so in the first place.
“A lot of that [police response] would have been unnecessary if the city leaders had gone and talked to [protesters] where they are at Congress Park and resolved to meet at a later date instead of having them come here to Broadway and have the police tackle them. It shouldn’t have gotten that far in the first place.”
Kim said Wednesday’s protest was a direct result of city officials closing off public comments at the recent City Council meeting.
“There’s a direct cause and effect to this: They get thrown out of a City Council meeting and so they are frustrated,” Kim said.
Jim Montagnino, the Democrat running for public safety commissioner, also argued that the rhetoric of current leaders was sowing disunity in the community.
“The angry, misguided rhetoric flowing from inside City Hall and the events of the last days and weeks have put us on an escalating course of opposition and confrontation that threatens to degenerate into violence,” he said. “It is time for mature and experienced leadership.”
Those three candidates were also joined by Dillon Moran, who is running for commissioner of accounts, and Shaun Wiggins, who is running for the county Board of Supervisor as one of two Saratoga Springs representatives.
Dalton, the city’s current public safety commissioner who is also running for mayor as an independent, in a Friday interview rejected the idea that she is not willing to meet with racial justice activists or anyone in the city, noting that she has repeatedly offered to meet with protest leaders over the past year.
“I have never turned down a conversation with a constituent, whether it was over matters of race or any other issue in the city,” Dalton said.
She also accused Kim of seeking to take advantage of the tensions in the community, noting his history of running for public office and suggesting he was politicizing the city’s complex issues with race and bias rather than working toward solutions.
“He is not offering solutions, he is offering himself a path to victory and nothing else,” Dalton said in response to Kim’s comments. “He is simply looking for an electoral win. He is disingenuous and an opportunist.”
She defended the police response to Wednesday’s protest and said the message of activists has been muddied by their protest tactics, noting that police would work to facilitate a protest if they were informed of the protest plan ahead of time.
“[Protesters’] intent is to create disruption, hurt our economy and make people as uncomfortable as possible,” Dalton said. “I don’t know how that advances issues of race and bias in Saratoga Springs.”