There were two major topics aired at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and they couldn’t have been much further apart – casinos and gun violence.
In the first council meeting since Friday’s school shooting in Newtown Connecticut, Mayor Scott Johnson opened the evening with a moment of silence to honor all those who died. Then for more than 30 minutes the public had their say, with most of those speaking during the public comment portion of the night commenting on the issue of guns in Saratoga.
One particular target of the commenters was the upcoming NEACA Gun Show at the City Center January 11-13.
Charles Brown, the Saratoga Springs Democratic Party Chairman, told the council that “I have a hard time believing that if this (shooting) occurred, even in a neighboring community… we would be allowing this show to go on.
“I think as a city and as a council we can say clearly that we do not approve. And we can ask these gun salesmen that they don’t bring those assault rifles. They don’t bring those magazines (that hold a large number of rounds).”
The chamber burst into applause when he finished speaking.
Allen Turkheimer of Woodlawn Avenue referred to a settlement this past November between the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the show’s organizer, NEACA. The settlement followed an undercover investigation of NEACA events around the state that led to allegations that gun sales were being conducted without the proper background checks as required by state law.
“They were cited on the basis of all the sales that were taking place in the parking lot out back. There are deals being made, and stuff being switched from one trunk to another,” he said. Turkheimer asked that four policemen be assigned to patrol the parking lot of the City Center while the gun show is underway.
The city, however, has little real leverage with the gun show operators that can potentially be used to either ask for changes or to stop the show from occurring. The contracts for the show are held with the City Center, not the city.
Another resident meanwhile talked about how “assault weapons are the weapons of choice” for those involved in massacres around the country. So Christopher Peake made a suggestion to the council. “I would like to initiate a program that would make Saratoga County an assault-weapons free county.” That program would buy back guns from those willing to give them up.
County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen also weighed in, saying that a meeting will be held between government officials and the gun show operator in early January. She said she hopes the show will willingly limit the type of weapons sold. “What we’re hoping is that the gun show can feature the historic aspects, the hunting aspects, but not the high capacity magazine military weaponry.”
Later in the evening, council members also spoke about guns and security in Saratoga. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen placed the issue in personal terms, saying he has a couple of grandchildren turning five soon. “Kids are so innocent and trusting. And to have them subjected to that level of violence… just seems so hard to imagine. You really take it personally when you have little kids around you.”
Mathiesen says he has been in contact with the Superintendent of the city’s school system and has offered the police department’s assistance in helping with the school’s security. And he said he wants to reach out to the private and parochial schools as well to offer assistance in evaluating their security.
Accounts Commissioner John Franck spoke about mental illness, and the role that sometimes plays in cases of mass murder. “Usually, a sane person doesn’t do these things. In most of those things that have happened, there’s been either a bullying or mental illness component to it, and so I think that part of the equation has to be looked at… instead of people who have these problems, just letting them go free and they kind of slip out of the system.”
Commissioner Mathiesen said he couldn’t agree more. But he added that “the difference between a mentally impaired person and a mentally impaired person with a gun is the gun.” And when that gun is an assault weapon, he says, “It’s really a very scary thing.”
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan spoke about comments she has gotten from citizens expressing concern over what preparations the city has for preventing any such attack here. “Kids are nervous, kids are scared. I just think it helps a little bit to know that we have practices in place for our city.”
“A lot of it is education,” said Mayor Scott Johnson. “You explain to the public what we do have in place and most of them are satisfied.”
The council also discussed casinos Tuesday night.
The state legislature has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would allow seven private casinos to set up shop in New York. The measure would need to survive another vote by the legislature, and then a referendum by the state’s citizens before becoming law. But fighting is already underway as to where the seven casinos, if approved, would be placed.
A casino could mean millions in revenues for a host city. And just as importantly, say the commissioners, the lack of a casino could also cause problems – especially for Saratoga.
Saratoga Springs receives money from the state because of the video lottery terminals (VLT) at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway on the city’s south side. Money from the facility also supports the horse racing industry in the state. The commissioners are concerned that a casino located in Lake George or Albany, two cities vying for a possible casino, would drain money from the VLT operation, harming Saratoga’s economy.
“So I thought it was appropriate that we let the legislature know how we feel as a racing community on the issue before they reconvene in January to decide the issue,” said Mayor Johnson. “Maybe they can address these very issues we’re talking about.”
Johnson asked the council to approve a resolution that does a number of things, including asking the governor and legislature to place the seven locations for a casino in the enabling legislation, rather than wait for public approval before announcing where the casinos will go; urging the legislature to require mandatory reinvestment of revenue from the casinos into education and the horse industry of the state; and asking that local officials be a part of the deliberations on casino placement.
The resolution passed on a 5-0 vote.
A similar measure was passed by Saratoga County earlier in the day on Tuesday.
ON THE WIRE