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Summons filed for Saratoga BLM organizer after disrupted meetings

The February 7th, 2023 Saratoga Springs city council meeting was adjourned multiple times after disruptions from residents and activists
Image capture by WAMC
City of Saratoga Springs
The February 7th, 2023 Saratoga Springs city council meeting was adjourned multiple times after disruptions from residents and activists

Over objections from the mayor and rest of the all-Democratic city council, a Saratoga Springs city official is taking action against a Black Lives Matter activist after two recent city council meetings were disrupted. It comes as the city changes the format of council meetings in an attempt to control conversation.  

The Saratoga Springs city council adjourned its regular meeting multiple times on February 7th after Saratoga Black Lives Matter demonstrators interrupted the public comment period.

Prominent Saratoga BLM organizer Chandler Hickenbottom raised her voice at the all-Democratic council members as the city was taking criticism for the slow pace of implementing police reforms and as a search for a new police chief continues.

“We have Black and Brown people on the city council that did not show up. You do not show up for Darryl Mount. You do not show up for Tyre Nichols. You don’t show up for any Black person. But what you do is that when you want to run for election, at that point, that’s when you’re looking for the Black vote. That’s when you want us,” said Hickenbottom.

The February 21st meeting was also briefly interrupted.

In response, Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino filed a summons for Hickenbottom in city court Wednesday.

“And it charges a disorderly conduct under a subdivision of penal law section 240.20, that says that when a person intentionally and without lawful authority disturbs a lawful assembly or meeting of persons, that they have committed a disorderly conduct,” said Montagnino.

Reached by WAMC Thursday morning, Hickenbottom’s attorney Mark Mishler said he was not aware of the content of the summons or if city court had yet chosen to proceed. But he added…

“It seems like a continuation of a kind of approach by prior leadership in the City of Saratoga Springs which was very focused on silencing and targeting leaders of Saratoga BLM and their allies and supporters,” said Mishler.

The city and former officials are currently cooperating with a state Attorney General’s office investigation into the city’s past treatment of demonstrators, including several arrests in the summer of 2021.

Hickenbottom’s brother, fellow Saratoga BLM organizer Lexis Figuereo, had obstruction of governmental administration charges stemming from the disruption of July 2021 council meetings later dismissed by the court.

Montagnino argues the new summons for Hickenbottom is different.

“The charge that I’ve filed only alleges the petty offense of disorderly conduct in that the defendant’s actions caused the city council unable to conduct city business. And it’s a very different set of circumstances that occurred previously,” said Montagnino.

Mayor Ron Kim, a fellow Democrat and a former public safety commissioner, says he does not support Motagnino’s move.

“We are right in the middle of spending tens of thousands of dollars – to essentially answer an Attorney General subpoena – on counsel fees. And we don’t need to continue to go down that road,” said Kim.

Attorney Mishler said it is “improper” and “frightening” for an elected official to attempt to resolve problems by taking an outspoken activist to court.

“The fact is, there are and remain serious issues in the City of Saratoga Springs relating to racism and brutality and lack of accountability on the part of the police department, and those issues remain. Activists and concerned residents are going to continue to raise those issues,” said Mishler.

As residents and activists continue to speak out at city council meetings – with frequent disruptions of the two-minute-per-person public comment period – Kim has announced changes to way the city does business.

Kim on Tuesday said meetings will start two hours earlier at 5 p.m., and that the public comment period and public hearings will be moved to the end of the meeting – with time limits doubled to 4 minutes.

Additionally, Kim has proposed 30-to-60-minute informal dialogues with the public at the conclusion of council meetings.

Following initial publication of this article, three Saratoga Springs city councilors released a joint statement joining Kim in opposing Montagnino's actions. Their individual statements are included below:

“The criminal complaint filed yesterday by Public Safety Commissioner Montagnino is not something I support, nor was it something I was consulted on. I believe there are much better ways to respond to and solve the issues raised by BLM and by the Police Reform Task Force, rather than escalating unproductive rhetoric and taking unnecessary legal actions,” said Commissioner of Public Works Jason Golub who also co-chaired the City’s Police Reform Task Force. “BLM and the protests we’ve seen locally and nationally over the past few years give voice to a problem that
must be taken seriously, and not dismissed by leaders. I believe the best path forward is a strategic and ongoing dialogue between BLM, members of the council, members of the police force, and other impacted constituencies with concrete outcomes and accountability. Everyone must come to the table and work together in order for us to progress. Nothing is being furthered by this criminal complaint or heavy-handed approach other than furthering mistrust and continuing to fragment our community. We need to work collectively to heal old wounds, bring people together, and implement solutions that move us forward as a city.”

“I am deeply distressed to see that instead of moving towards engagement and dialogue through a community forum, the Commissioner of Public Safety has decided to waste tax-payer dollars by filing a criminal complaint against Chandler Hickenbottom of Saratoga BLM,” said Commissioner of Finance Minita Sanghvi. “I would recommend Commissioner Montagnino take a moment to reflect on the fact that Black history month and the upcoming Women’s history month remind us
about the historic injustices that have impacted and continue to impact marginalized communities. Together, we should focus on productive solutions that are inclusive and create common unity, instead of adding more conflict and tension to our community."

“I am deeply disturbed by the unilateral actions taken by the Commissioner of Public Safety with respect to the charge levied against Ms Hickenbottom. The criminalization of speech is simply unacceptable and will further widen the divide that exists within our community,” said Commissioner of Accounts Dillon Moran. “The only appropriate steps are collaborative engagement with those seeking answers about our efforts relative to the work of the Police Reform Task Force. Instead of moving forward with direct discussions, Jim has made the choice to poison the well. These are not the actions of a leader looking to bring resolution, but rather those of someone whose goal is to silence the voices of marginalized communities, like so many who have come before him.”

Saratoga Black Lives matter released the following statement Thursday afternoon:

"Last night we were made aware that Jim Montagnino, the Commissioner of Public Safety, has filed a criminal complaint against Saratoga BLM' Chandler Hickenbottom that asks the police department to issue a summons. The complaint comes from the City Council meeting on February 7th that was adjourned and rescheduled after inappropriate comments by Montagnino that upset community members Saratoga BLM condemns the actions of Montagnino and we do not believe this is the appropriate response to this situation. We are also appalled by the parallels between this administration and the previous who used the same
tactics in their attempt to criminalize Lexis Fiquereo in which they are currently under an investigation by the Attorney General's Civil Rights Bureau. No Justice, No Peace. Saratoga Black Lives Matter."

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