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Saratoga Springs Public Safety candidates debate

Tracey LaBelle speaking during a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County
Zoom/League of Women Voters of Saratoga County
YouTube/Image capture by WAMC
Tracey LaBelle speaking during a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County

Candidates for Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner are outlining their positions ahead of Election Day.

In the city government where each department head serves as a member of the five-member city council, the Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner has oversight of the city’s fire and police departments.

With its current commissioner Robin Dalton running an independent bid for mayor after one two-year term, three candidates will appear on the ballot to succeed her.

Jim Montagnino will appear on the Democratic and Resilient Saratoga lines. Tracey LaBelle will appear on the Republican and Conservative Party lines. David Labate will appear on the Working Families Party line.

Montagnino and LaBelle participated in a recent forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County. Labate, part of a group of conservative-learning candidates who sought the traditionally progressive WFP ballot line, did not participate.

Montagnino is a retired attorney with the New York State Court System. He says the Darryl Mount case, where a young biracial man died months after an August 2013 police foot chase – which has become a lightning-rod for activists demanding change and an independent investigation – was the motivating factor for him to run for office.

“As public safety commissioner I will use my skills as a detail-oriented attorney to provide the public with long-sought answers to the lingering questions surrounding the Mount case, and I will restore trust in our law enforcement officers. I strongly support a civilian review board that would make recommendations to the commissioner on issues relating to police misconduct, and provide accountability to the community,” said Montagnino.

LaBelle is the daughter of a long-serving Saratoga Springs City Court Judge, and says she grew up with a desire to serve. Also a political newcomer, LaBelle says her career as a clinical device specialist in the healthcare industry has prepared her for a job that requires decision-making and communication skills.

“I work with not only health care systems and emergency services teams, but also the Department of Health, rapid response teams, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, and Hospital and Palliative Care of New York. I created all policies and procedures, training and assessment, and communication plans. I understand the immensity and importance of public safety. With my experience I will be a leader, I will identify problems, uncover insights, and calmly work to provide solutions for Saratoga,” said LaBelle.

LaBelle said she believed the largest issue facing the Public Safety Department was the division between the community and police. She called for collaboration between “all stakeholders.”

“I think that given the heightened climate of politics both nationally and statewide…has influenced our city too much. I think we need to get back to hearing each other’s talk and having a common ground. I feel that also that there’s a lack of resources for our police department and for our fire department. I think that there’s an added stress for not having the training and having a militarized police department, when they’re really a community-based, excellent department,” said LaBelle.

Montagnino said the relationship between racial justice protesters and law enforcement is at “a boil” and said the next public safety commissioner needs to “take down the temperature.”

“The basis of the problem is the Darryl Mount case. And I’ve read nearly 2,000 pages of documents, all of which are available for public inspection, and I understand the basic problem is a lack of communication. The answer to the question of what happened that night is available in the public domain, and if elected I will present on Inauguration Day a written report on what happened, to take that off the table,” said Montagnino.

Both candidates said they support the development of a third fire/EMS station on the city’s east side, and both support the establishment of a community police review board.

Both candidates called for an “open door” communication policy. Montagnino again pointed to the Mount case, while LaBelle said she’d be an advocate for the city’s police union.

“There’s supposed to be an avenue of communication and unfortunately that avenue has been blocked for at least the eight years since the Darryl Mount incident, and that’s what I’m going to change,” said Montagnino.

“I feel that our PBA and our unions have to have a louder voice. They do contribute a lot of the work and they do have a lot of the screaming and disrespect in their faces. I will be their advocate, I will make sure that there is a plan in place, and if that plan doesn’t work, I will create one,” said LaBelle.

You can watch the entire forum below:

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.