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Spa City residents speak out after activist charged for disrupting meeting

Activists speak during Tuesday's Saratoga Springs city council meeting
Image capture by WAMC
City of Saratoga Springs
Activists speak during Tuesday's Saratoga Springs city council meeting

The Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety defended himself Tuesday hours after a prominent Black Lives Matter activist appeared in court upon his request.

Tuesday morning, Saratoga Black Lives Matter activist Chandler Hickenbottom appeared in court after Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino last week filed a summons request that the she be charged with disorderly conduct for disputing a February 7th city council meeting.

That meeting was ended by the council after Hickenbottom and others spoke beyond their allotted two minutes, pressing the council to follow through on promised police reform measures, and other efforts.

Hours after Hickenbottom left the courtroom, allies filled the night’s regular city council meeting to criticize the actions of Montagnino, a first-term Democrat…

“Step down from your position, go home…”

During a meeting that at points rose to shouting, Montagnino was blasted by angry regional activists and city residents for what they characterized as stifling free speech, including Nora Brennan of Saratoga Springs…

“I’m not up there, I’m not dealing with it, but it is part of the job. It is part of being an elected official in this country where we have that ability to be able to speak truth to power, to be able to question authority, to be able to challenge the decisions that are made. Civil disobedience is not necessarily what someone would consider a freedom, but it is something that is an extension,” said Brennan.

Montagnino defended the disorderly conduct charge as well as a request for an order of protection filed against Hickenbottom – which was denied in city court.

“The order of protection that I requested was not a stay-away order. It was a ‘no illegal conduct’ order, which would simply have proscribed illegal conduct,” said Montagnino.

Hickenbottom’s brother, Saratoga BLM organizer Lexis Figuereo, called on Montagnino – who ran on a police reform message with the support of Saratoga BLM in 2021 – to change course.

“Do better, get yourself together. Because you know, you can be moved out of this seat that you’re in right now, very easy, the same way you were put in there. We can fight against you, the same way we fought for you, whether you want to believe that or not,” said Figuereo.

In an exchange, here’s Montagnino defending his requested disorderly conduct charge to Figuereo...

“I filed the charge that I filed because the city council meeting was ended. It wasn’t delayed. It wasn’t interrupted. It was ended,” said Montagnino. “I love democracy. From my earliest youth, I read the stories of the earliest democracy in Athens….”

“…OK. Lovely. Are we in Athens right now, or are we in America?” asked Figuereo.

“And frankly, you can’t have a democracy where people are screaming at each other and shutting down the meetings,” said Montagnino.

“You can have a democracy where people, Americans, are allowed to speak their voice, no matter what. It’s called freedom of speech!” said Figuereo.

The dynamic has gone on for years and multiple city councils.

The City of Saratoga Springs is currently complying with a probe being conducted by the New York State Attorney General’s office for potential misuses of police and administrative power against Saratoga BLM and others.

Figuereo was arrested on warrant charges several weeks after he disrupted a pair of July 2021 council meetings. Those charges were later dismissed in court. Several other activists were also arrested and charged weeks after a July 2021 protest on Broadway.

After his sister’s recent summons, Figuereo warned the commissioner that Saratoga BLM is preparing to take new legal action against the city.

“What you do need to understand, as a lawyer, is that what you are doing is putting the city at risk of being sued. You are putting the city at risk of being in more trouble with the attorney general’s office,” said Figuereo.

Mayor Ron Kim, a Democrat and a former Public Safety Commissioner, said the city council plans to hear more input from concerned community members at a March 21st forum.

A state-mandated police reform task force in 2021 handed up a slate of 50 police reform recommendations. The previous city council agreed to several, but separated out some items for continued study – including the creation of a civilian review board to foster community conversation and provide additional oversight of city police.

It wasn’t until this year and a new council that a CRB was filled, and Mayor Kim has suggested the CRB study the implementation of all 50 points – amid confusion of what’s been adopted and what hasn’t.

Kim’s appointed CRB chair, Kristen Dart, appeared at Tuesday’s council meeting to demand Montagnino be more transparent about what reforms have been adopted to date.

“We continue to talk about the work, but there is no evidence of doing the work. There’s a lot of dispute about what has been passed by the previous council. And while I agree that it does not match our originally submitted report, there are pieces of that agenda…what was passed that match exactly what we have said, including a yearly report of any substantial policy changes,” said Dart.

Montagnino responded, pointing out two key reforms – the formation of the CRB and the city police department’s push for state accreditation. The Democrat said he aims to release more information on reforms soon.

“I agree, Kristen, that I’ve failed to make public all of the information that I possess with regard to the city’s status in completing a commitment to follow up with the 50 points. So I intend in the very near future to make a public presentation, hopefully at a city council meeting, where I can demonstrate that all but a small handful of the 50 points are already in effect,” said Montagnino.

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