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Saratoga Mayors Discuss A Changing City

Lucas Willard

Nine mayors of Saratoga Springs past and present gathered Thursday to reflect on a changing community.

How do you even get nine mayors together? A combination of two-year terms, a volatile political scene in the Spa City, and concern over the city’s future.

At a  roundtable hosted by Saratoga Wire at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, mayors from the 1960s through the present spoke about their time in office, the challenges they faced, and how their experiences relate to the city’s present day.

With its commission form of government, mayors in Saratoga have an equal vote with the other members of the city council. The executive’s office has volleyed between Democratic and Republican control.

The candidates discussed their transition from city resident to city leader. Mayor James Murphy, elected in 1966 at age 28, said the transition was relatively easy for him, and his time in government may have been easier due to the non-partisan city council at the time.

“As far as politics go, at that time it was non-partisan. And although I was registered as  Republican, politics really didn’t come into the city government. We were left alone.”

A.C. Riley, who served from 1990 to 1995, recalled walking up to a caved-in building along Broadway during her first winter as mayor, seeing the public works employees, and realizing her new role.

“It was a very interesting learning experience to say ‘Oh! I am supposed to know what’s going on!’”

Scott Johnson, who stepped aside after three terms in 2013, said Saratoga is a younger, changing city, citing figures that at least 40 percent of the population has lived in the city 10 years or less. Johnson said he learned to adapt to a changing city.

“You had to be open to everybody, you may not agree with them on the issues, but you need to be open for the dialogue, and allow them to try and influence you on an issue,” said Johnson.

Valerie Keehn, who served from 2006 to 2007, remembered when the power was knocked out in a 2006 ice storm. After working long days communicating with residents and assessing damage, she hadn’t appeared before the media when a local radio host asked ‘Where’s the mayor of Saratoga Springs?’

“I felt like I was doing more than I could have possibly been doing at the time, but still, the mayor needs to be out in the press, and I think there lies one of the responsibilities that you learn quickly. You really are the face of the community.”

On 9/11, mayor Kenneth Klotz was in the hospital, so Michael Lenz, finance commissioner at the time, was serving as acting mayor on the day of crisis.

Lenz, who went on to the mayor’s office, remembered the confusion of the day, having to make the call to keep city hall open, and heading to a vigil organized by the local Rotary Club. He said it was then he saw how the community can come together.

“Because at that point we weren’t Republicans or Democrats, we weren’t on opposite sides of the political aisle, we were Saratogians, and we were Americans, and we were faced with a crisis that was immense, and none of us really knew what was happening, and that will bring people together better than anything else,” said Lenz.

Also participating in the discussion was Raymond Watkin, mayor from 1974 to 1979, Michael O’Connell, 1996 to 1999, Klotz, 2000 to 2003, and the city’s current mayor Joanne Yepsen.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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