All three major Saratoga Springs mayoral candidates on Monday night said they will support a civilian review board empowered to investigate complaints against city police.
Robin Dalton, an independent mayoral candidate and the city’s current public safety commissioner, said she planned to advance a proposal at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that would formally set the city on the path to forming the review board – one of the most high-profile recommendations from a task force charged with developing police reform proposals.
“[We are] not rushing it but making sure that it is just right for our community, that it does right for our police and it does right for the people with concerns, that it builds in another layer of accountability and trust,” Dalton said, noting that she has changed her mind about a civilian review board since taking office last year.
Ron Kim, the Democratic candidate and a former public safety commissioner, and Heidi Owen West, an independent running with the support of the Republican Party, also expressed support for a civilian review board. It’s still not clear, though, what form a civilian review board would take under the leadership of any of the candidates for mayor or the candidates for public safety commissioner.
“Whatever [the City Council] votes on and I’m handed over, I will work really hard to make sure it’s the right civilian review board of Saratoga Springs,” said West, who is a business owner.
Kim also used the question about the civilian review board to critique city officials for not moving faster on police reform initiatives and to combat criticism that he supports defunding the police, which he has repeatedly denied.
“I’m glad it seems like there is movement for it and certainly we will take those further,” Kim said of proposed police reforms. “If you implement these reforms you will actually spend more money on the Police Department. There is no defunding of the police I will support.”
The trio of candidates sought to paint themselves as the best positioned to take charge of the mayor’s office as the city continues to recover economically and socially from the pandemic and grapples with late-night safety concerns on Caroline Street, affordable housing challenges and the ongoing calls from activists that people of color face unfair treatment in the city.
West highlighted her decades of experience as a business owner with retail stores on Broadway, noting that she understands the struggles other business owners face as they grapple with the city government bureaucracy.
“I will try to bring a private sector mindset to City Hall,” West said.
Kim highlighted his own experience in city government, serving on the local zoning board and working as an attorney in Saratoga Springs for over 30 years.
“I’m running because I’m the best qualified candidate, and I will bring that experience to bear at a critical time of division and distrust in our city,” Kim said. “Saratoga needs a leader that will listen to Saratogians, rebuild trust, protect our local democracy and make sure we have a safe, vibrant city that works for everyone, not just a select few.”
Dalton argued that her current service in city government best qualified her for the position, noting at times during the forum that she has lived the day-to-day realities of governing through the pandemic and other current issues facing the city.
“My experience is fresh, it’s real and it’s relevant,” Dalton said. “My only goal is to make Saratoga Springs the best possible place for you and your family to live.”
(Maxwell Rosenbaum, who will appear on the Working Families Party ballot line, did not respond to a request to appear at the forum, according to the organizers.)
Dalton and Kim both criticized West for suggesting that people needed to be made more aware of affordable housing options in the city, rather than focusing on plans to attract developers to the city that specialize in affordable housing developments.
“What I hear is this is an absolute need,” Kim said of his conversations with residents.
For her part, West said that she recognizes there is a need for more affordable housing but she wanted to highlight the existing stock and noted that the city had twice the amount of affordable housing as required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Dalton also alluded to West’s financial support from local developers.
“We do have one candidate, the Republican candidate, who does represent development interests and who does stand potentially to have a financial benefit from development,” Dalton said of West.
West rejected the attack and said she has received broad support within the community.
“I have been supported by every [kind of] citizen in this city, it does not matter their background, it does not matter their party,” West said. “I do not sit in the pocket of anyone, I am my own person, I will not be defined by anyone else, and I will not be defined by someone else’s voice.”
The candidates offered proposals on a range of issues: West said she would consider negotiating with NYRA and SPAC “to pitch in more and help with crowds and safety”; Kim suggested a fee to offset the costs of late-night policing of downtown crowds; and Dalton called for a point person at City Hall to help new and existing businesses navigate city requirements.
Kim also highlighted Democrats’ push at the federal level for new infrastructure funding and called for reinstating a traffic division in the city Police Department as well as development of a truck bypass to minimize traffic downtown.
West and Kim both pointed to apparent dysfunction among city officials as City Council meetings have ended up in contentious arguments among citizens and officials in recent months. Kim said a proposal to hire a mediator to facilitate discussions with activists was a symbol of that dysfunction.
“Having to hire a mediator for the purposes of talking to your residents, it’s not a good idea, it’s an admission of failure,” Kim said.
West said: “It’s time to stop the drama.”
A fight over mailers
The campaign has continued to heat up in recent weeks, with candidates and their backers starting a blitz of mailers, yard signs and other campaign efforts.
Pat Tuz, chairperson of the city’s Democratic party, this week filed an ethics complaint with the state Board of Elections against West and the state Republican Party, alleging election law violations connected to mailers in support of West and separate mailers attacking Kim.
Tuz in her complaint argued that the required “paid for by” mark on recent mailers was printed in a deceptively and intentionally small font size and that an attack against Kim contained false and misleading claims.
The mailers, which were paid for by the New York State Republican Committee, were sent to residents across the city in support of West in recent weeks. While one set of mailers refer to West as a “calming” presence that can unite the city, another set of mailers attack Kim over alleged financial problems.
The attack mailer highlighted a handful of instances where Kim was late in paying personal or business taxes – issues he has explained by noting a period of financial difficulty in the wake of an unexpected heating fuel leak that drove him and his family from their home for a period of time. The mailer also claims that the “court forced Ron pay five-figures in unpaid rent.” Kim was sued by a former landlord and the parties ultimately agreed to a settlement with Kim paying $16,000.
Tuz said the attacks were inaccurate and misleading and criticized West for associating herself with the Republican Party while claiming her political independence.
“One week she sends out a mailer saying I’m going to be the calming influence, I’m going to work with everyone. How is she going to work with people if they send out things that are clearly wrong,” Tuz said in an interview. “It’s more dirty politics by these people that think it’s win at all costs. They continue to promote the same big lies that these Republicans seem to do and they don’t care.”
West, in a statement Monday, said she stood behind the mailers, including the attacks against Kim, and said she is not registered as a Republican or a Democrat, adding that Democratic leaders in the city had also recruited her to run as the Democratic candidate for mayor.
“As far as the claim that I’m not independent, I was independent enough for the Democratic Committee just a few months ago following weeks of party leadership begging me to take their endorsement before they chose Ron Kim,” West said.
Kim accused West of “gaslighting” voters by emphasizing her independence while still benefiting from the campaign apparatus, fundraising and attacks from Republicans.
“She calls herself an independent but benefits from Republicans spending gobs of money,” Kim said.