SARATOGA SPRINGS — The mayor sat at the center of the table flanked by four council members and under the gaze of several dozen faces inside of the Saratoga Music Hall.
The proposal on the table: a resolution to create an 11-member “restorative justice” review panel, and an acknowledgement. “Saratoga Springs has supported and allowed racism and hate in areas of housing, employment, law enforcement and other areas of formal and informal life during its history,” it read.
Among the attendees inside the hall: past council members, potential future council members (those on the ballot in November’s election), nearly two dozen Saratoga BLM supporters, local citizens, various onlookers, and assorted stakeholders in the night’s other scheduled agenda items - who would ultimately have to wait two days for the meeting to resume.
As the resolution was read, the public safety deputy commissioner relocated his position from table-side to the back of the hall with the intent to exit the room in protest should the council approve the proposal. The Saratoga Springs PBA had earlier released a statement taking issue with the resolution’s stating of “law enforcement” as one entity that, during its history, “has supported and allowed racism and hate.”
A handful of officers stood in the back hall and out of public view. “Present in the event their presence was needed,” the public safety commissioner later confirmed.
The mayor read the resolution, paused for a beat, and looked across both sides of the council table.
“Any discussion?” he asked.
Where We are, How We Got Here
A variety of newspaper clippings dating back more than a century and displaying racist and often vulgar language when referring to local black residents are preserved as part of the historical record in the Saratoga Room of the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
Among the materials is a list of slave owners in early 19th century Saratoga County that details the names of the slave “owners” and the number of slaves they “owned.”
More recent newspaper clips report about white supremacist flyers found on car windshields one day in 2017, and an assortment of fliers that depict the crude illustrations and racist language.
There is also material related to Urban Renewal.
“The greatest concentration of black-owned businesses in Saratoga Springs was found on Congress Street. An assortment of nightclubs, gambling houses, restaurants, bars, barber shops, brothels, and beauty salons,” writes Myra B. Armstrong. “The street was completely renovated by the Urban Renewal Program.”
The Urban Renewal Program began around 1960 and by 1980 resulted in the relocation of 96 households consisting of 228 people on the city’s West Side. Nearly two-thirds of the households were black.
During the council discussion immediately prior to the resolution vote, city Mayor Ron Kim addressed the members of the audience who, just as Public Safety Commissioner Jim Montagnino began expressing opposition to the resolution, collectively engaged in a loud coughing fit.
“Commissioner Montagnino wants to say that I’m not in control of this meeting,” Mayor Kim said. “I’m going to ask you to be quiet for this debate - because he basically wants to charge this room,” he added, gesturing to a doorway off stage right that leads to a blind stairwell. “They’re right outside,” Kim said. “Please. Let him speak.”
Montagnino continued and the room quieted; when the commissioner raised speculation about the cause of a fallen statue in Congress Park three years ago, voices in the audience again grew elevated. The statue, dedicated to a local regiment of the Civil War, mysteriously toppled in the middle of the night. Despite an investigation, the cause of the statue’s toppling remains unknown.
“That statue sat peacefully in Congress Park for a century-and-a-half until it was toppled in July 2020. I suspect there are people in this room who know who did it,” Montagnino said. The voices grew louder.
“The remarks made by Commissioner Montagnino - you’re playing into his hands. He is essentially inciting you,” said Accounts Commissioner Dillon Moran, who would vote in favor of the proposal. The resolution, Moran said, was aimed at reconciliation and moving forward with dignity and respect. “That’s what this motion is about, Jim.”
Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi, who similarly voted in favor of the resolution, agreed. “Housing discrimination, employment discrimination are all realities that have existed. Not just for Black people but also for various immigrant communities,” she said. “For restorative justice to work, we have to first acknowledge the truth. And the truth is that racism, discrimination and bias exists in this country, in this state, and this city. And for this reason, I voted for a restorative justice resolution brought forth by Mayor Ron Kim.”
Over Montagnino’s protests that he be allowed to continue speaking, the mayor called for a vote. The council approved the measure 4-1, with Montagnino casting the one vote against.
Many in the crowd rose to their feet and began chanting. With an eye toward this November’s elections, they chanted “Hit The Road Jim.” Referencing earlier charges brought against two Saratoga BLM supporters related to actions during previous council meetings, there were calls to “Drop The Charges.”
Montagnino was the complainant in a disorderly conduct charge against Chandler Hickenbottom regarding a Feb. 7 council meeting, and a witness in disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration charges against Saratoga BLM founder Alexis Figuereo, and against Bridgette Barr regarding to an April 24 council meetings.
Queried about whether he may consider dropping those charges, Montagnino said only a court can dismiss a charge and a prosecutor can move to withdraw a charge, while witnesses and complainants do not have that authority. “With or without that authority, I have no intention other than to cooperate with the two special prosecutors who have been appointed to see that the cases are prosecuted to disposition,” he said during a sit-down interview on Wednesday, one day after the council meeting.
Might any new charges be forthcoming related to Tuesday night’s meeting, which came to an abrupt halt.
“The truthful answer is: I don’t know,” he said.
Montagnino denied intentionally attempting to provoke a reaction from Saratoga BLM supporters during the meeting when speculating about the toppled Saratoga Regiment Civil War statue. The statue is dedicated to The 77th Regiment, which was organized in Saratoga Springs and mustered into service in 1861 to fight against the Confederacy. “No. It wasn’t done to provoke emotion,” Montagnino said. “It was done to make a point, and my point is this: BLM is not looking for justice, reform, accommodation, a seat at the table. No. They want chaos.”
Tuesday’s approved resolution asks all five council members and both supervisors to each appoint one member to a “Restorative Justice Panel” by May 31. That panel – to which the mayor will appoint co-chairs, is then charged with inviting community input in a dialogue to define what form Saratoga Springs Restorative Justice Program would take. Their recommendations will subsequently be presented to the City Council by Dec. 19.