Waite: Saratoga Springs needs to flush failed ideas

Three men at a table, one smiles

Commissioner of Public Safety Jim Montagnino listens to public comments during city council meeting at Saratoga Springs City Hall on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

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During a week in which Saratoga Black Lives Matter activists wore T-shirts to a meeting saying the city’s public safety commissioner’s “racism is showing,” and a week in which a BLM leader faced a request for an order of protection made by that same commissioner, it’s a story about toilets that indicates exactly where things in Saratoga Springs currently sit. 

At Tuesday’s Saratoga Springs City Council meeting, Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino brought up the idea of installing two portable toilets in the Woodlawn Garage, where several unhoused individuals routinely congregate. 

The problem is, the portable toilet idea has been tried before. In 2015. 

It didn’t go well. 

“That was a miserable, total, complete and absolute failure. I don’t want to describe the horrific things that happened in them because they were so bad,” Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, told me this week. “If the commissioner had made one phone call to any of the business leaders who had been around for any time, we would have been able to advise him that this would be a big mistake. Well-intentioned, but a big mistake.”  

This is precisely what’s wrong with the city right now. Too many people – city leaders, activists and community members alike – have hung onto positions and tactics that have already been proven to fail. And despite many people’s best efforts, the city is struggling to have the right conversations to bring about change. Too few seem to actually be willing to listen.  

Montagnino’s toilet proposal was a clear example, but, honestly, there are a number of others from the past month or so. Just look at what’s been happening at recent City Council meetings. 

Most egregious was the Feb. 7 meeting, when Saratoga BLM activists, frustrated with the city’s slow walk of the 50-point plan developed by the Saratoga Springs Police Reform Task Force, were well represented at the public comment period. That’s encouraged. But when activist Chandler Hickenbottom refused to cede the microphone, she went too far. As I’ve written about, her behavior disrupted and ultimately prematurely ended a meeting at which the council was set to consider concrete action on police reform by addressing vacancies on the much-sought police Civilian Review Board.

I know BLM leaders and others are angered by the dragged-out implementation of police reform, but the tactics used last month were very similar to the tactics activists used in the summer of 2021, when they were disrupting City Council meetings chaired by then-Mayor Meg Kelly. 

The disruptions back then may have served as a catalyst for change, but the disruptions now are impeding progress. Instead of continually shouting at elected officials during meetings, the time has come for BLM activists to do a better job of listening, in the way that they hope city leaders listen to them. 

Members of the current council could be their allies – Saratoga Black Lives Matter leader Lexis Figuereo even said this week that the group currently backs Mayor Ron Kim’s re-election. So the activists should be willing to adopt a different approach. 

Because, let’s face it, absolutely nothing advanced at the Feb. 7 meeting. In fact, things went backwards. 

After that meeting, Commissioner Montagnino pressed a city charge of disorderly conduct, which was the same charge past city leaders brought down upon activists following the upheaval in 2021. In Saratoga Springs City Court this week, Hickenbottom pleaded not guilty to this charge, and a judge rejected an order of protection that Montagnino had requested be placed on Hickenbottom, which would have held her in criminal contempt if she disrupted a future meeting.

The court appearance was more wasted time and money for the city. It was more of the same. Activists need to recognize their culpability here, just as leaders like Montagnino must realize that his actions are only perpetuating past errors.  

“Like I’ve said before they are literally just taking a play out of the book of the previous City Council and clearly they have not learned their lesson,” Hickenbottom said after her court appearance. 

But it’s not just the tensions between BLM activists and elected city officials that have been stuck in a troubling cycle. Homelessness is another major issue that has plagued the city for years. 

Montagnino said he proposed the toilets because the measure would at least be some form of action as the city continues to fail to make progress on building a permanent homeless shelter. 

In recent weeks Saratoga Springs has been mired in arguments over a proposed low-barrier homeless shelter at 5 Williams St., which was just the latest of a handful of locations the city has tried to pursue over the last decade. Every location fails because no one seems to want it in their backyard, and people want to shout at each other rather than listen to reason and reality.  

In a previous column, I pointed out the irony of members of the Saratoga Central Catholic School community, who should be committed to helping others, resisting the shelter and threatening Shelters of Saratoga leadership simply because the proposed site shares about 200 feet of property line with the school.

As his toilet plan appeared to be going down the drain in the face of criticism by fellow council members, Montagnino all but threw up his hands, saying he wouldn’t fill a seat on the city’s newly convened homelessness task force and that a shelter probably wouldn’t be built in his lifetime, according to reporting by Shenandoah Briere. 

I understand the urge to give up when so much seems to be in a doom spiral, but surely there’s reason for optimism. Surely some fresh face on a white horse is riding in with fresh ideas. 

But, wait, who was it who announced their candidacy earlier this month? That’s right, former-Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan announced her plans to run for county supervisor and former Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen announced his bid for mayor. Madigan and Mathiesen were part of a city political scene – the grandparent administration to the current administration – that didn’t exactly embrace togetherness and compromise. So I’m not sure how inspiring it was to learn about their renewed interest in leadership. 

Sure, this week we had Tim Coll announce his plans to run for public safety commissioner, and perhaps the registered Democrat and former FBI special agent, who is also seeking the Republicans’ endorsement, can provide something new? 

But the reality is that no candidate, no one person, is going to solve the issues in Saratoga Springs. The city faces nuanced and complex challenges to do with housing, policing and other issues with which the entire country is grappling. 

No progress will come unless everyone in the city is willing to consider the ways in which their own actions are resurfacing past problems. No progress will come unless everyone is willing to truly engage in the hard work of implementing new strategies. 

“Where we’ve been able to resolve challenges in the past, generally we’ve had a coalition of people. There has been some sort of committee or task force, with a diversity of people on it, and they figure out what’s possible and they get it done,” said Chamber President Shimkus, who never figured he’d be the guy saying “we already tried that.” 

It’s time for everyone, experienced or new, to get serious about abandoning outdated ways of thinking. It’s time to flush away failed ideas. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs

One Comment

Ed Waite again points out the irony of the parents of the Saratoga Central Catholic School trying to stop the Homeless shelter because the proposed site’s property line adjoins part of the school’s property. Catholic tradition teaches that each person deserves dignity and service to others is important. Parents who desire a Catholic education for their children have an opportunity to show their children Catholic values first hand. Lisa and Ed Mitzen have offered to fund this shelter. No one should try to stop the Mitzens and others from “helping the least of our brothers”. Where do those who support this shelter want the homeless to go? Maybe some want the homeless to stay in the parking garage and they will give them a porta potty—really!

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