SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Tuesday night’s Saratoga Springs City Council meeting quickly devolved into a screaming match as city leaders and racial justice advocates remain at odds over police reform.
“Two meetings in a row where, you know, people are standing and screaming and the gavel is being banged. That’s the moment that it just struck me, like this is not the forum. This is not the way to progress the matter together,” says Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan.
Racial justice advocates continue their demands for communication and accountability from Saratoga police and city officials. As NEWS10 reported, tensions have been high since a June 28 public conference held by Assistant Police Chief John Catone and Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton where comments implied a connection between racial justice advocates and the rising crime rate. A planned protest in response to the conference on Wednesday, July 14 was also met with a line of police officers and sheriff’s deputies in riot gear.
During Tuesday night’s public comment period, video shows the packed room raise their voices calling Commissioner Robin Dalton a “liar” after she claimed “In a protest where you make a show in Congress Park putting on your tactical gear ramping up for a fight. You wait till it’s dark…” before she was cut off.
Saratoga Black Lives Matter leader Lexis Figuereo can at one point be heard calling Mayor Meg Kelly “aggressive” after she abruptly cut off the public comment period. The crowd could also be heard condemning the overwhelming police response to the July 14 protest and demanding both Dalton’s and Catone’s resignations.
“They have legitimate concerns, and it’s not that we don’t want to respond, but there comes a point where you can’t listen anymore to the screaming and the cursing, because we also need to listen to the variety of concerns of the people. There was a person there last night who was trying to speak about something totally unrelated to the current social justice climate,” Madigan says.
She adds she thinks it’s time to answer the call for conversation with professional help from a mediator. She says it was a measure she first brought up in October prior to Governor Cuomo’s police reform initiative finalization, but believes should be readdressed now and could be heard suggesting so in Tuesday night’s council meeting.
“As we know, there are professional firms out there that do this for a living, so we are going to listen to them, and hopefully they will also to listen to us and some of the issues that we are facing as we work to implement better race relations,” Madigan continues.
She says she’s spent all day Wednesday looking for a company that fits and contacting Black Lives Matter leaders to see if they agree. Figuereo says although he has not been contacted directly, he’s aware of Madigan’s attempts to reach others in the organization.
“I mean, communication is what we’ve been asking for this entire time. Since day one, we’ve been asking elected officials to sit down and have a conversation with us. They’ve never done that, so saying they’re going to mediate now, obviously talking is something we want to do, but we’ll see if it happens,” Figuereo says in a phone call with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.
Mayor Meg Kelly remains unavailable for comment following weeks of NEWS10 efforts to contact her office. As Kelly prepares for her term to end, those who may have a hand in Saratoga’s future step forward with their response to the ongoing tensions. Republican candidate Heidi Owen West says she will support mediation.
“Whenever you start to get off track or emotions run high or things go off track, the mediator consistently brings you back to trying to get to the solutions. I think that’s one of the most important parts of it,” West says. She says she has benefitted from mediation in her past as a local business owner for 30 years.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Ron Kim says he might support a completely separate public meeting scheduled every month just for public comments.
“We need to be accessible. So that’s one of the things that I would do right away, so that also doesn’t interfere, to your point, the continuing of City Council business. And also it gives people maybe some time to talk, more than two minutes. It could be about anything, say if you’re trying to add a back porch and can’t get zoning clearance, just make it so people don’t have to condense so much of an issue,” Kim says.
Both also weigh in on the relationship between police and the community, as well as city council and the community.
“I support our police department, but I also support the rights of our citizens to peacefully protest or demonstrate. Both of those things can occur, in my opinion. If change needs to happen, we need to come together and get granular about the specifics of the issues to start being productive with solutions,” says West.
“The trust has been broken. That’s why you hear people screaming at each other rather than listening,” says Kim. “I was commissioner of public safety. I believe policing is a noble profession and a dangerous one, but that does not exempt them from accountability. That’s not to say the Saratoga Police Department is full of racist cops who need to be disciplined. What it is to say is we need to look at how we police and can we do better.”
Kim also adds he supports a civilian police review board and reform to add qualified mental health professionals to be dispatched to calls.
“I’ve spoken with officers who say, I don’t really want to respond to mental health calls, that’s not what I’m trained for. So the idea of reform to add a mental health component, if not to our police force but maybe to some other city office, I can see no harm there to our police and it’s addressing a legitimate community concern,” Kim says.
When asked about her plans of action were she to win the mayoral election, West says, “I support giving a voice to those who might not feel heard, but I’d be willing right now to do anything for our citizens and our community to get working solutions in place.”
A response was also requested from Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, who’s also making a bid for mayor. There has been no response as of Wednesday evening.
Ron Kim says there will be a “Saratoga Listens” event on July 29, 6:30 p.m. at the Embassy Suites on Congress Street so Democratic candidates can hear and open a dialogue with community members on their concerns.
Heidi Owen West says her efforts are focused on door-to-door visits to reach those who may not frequent public meetings.