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The Heat Is On

Saratoga Springs DPW commssioner Thomas McTygue may face the political fight of his life, thanks to“disgruntled” employees, reformers and investigations

By David King

Photos by Chris Shields

 

Cliff Staring expects to be picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalks of Saratoga Springs next week. The Saratoga Springs Department of Public Works employee says he can no longer bite his tongue, and he expects retribution.

“I did it,” says Staring, his head in his hands, sitting at a corner table in a Saratoga Springs coffee shop on the night of the city’s Democratic primary. In February, Staring made a call to the state Department of Environmental Conservation to report an oil spill in the Saratoga Springs DPW garage, a spill he says was going to be covered up.

“They blame it on David Keehn, when it was I who called the DEC,” says Staring, referring to allegations made by Saratoga Springs Department of Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue that Mayor Valerie Keehn’s husband, who works for the DEC, is responsible for a DEC investigation into oil spills at the DPW garage.

“Her husband played a roll in this DEC investigation,” counters McTygue. “I’ve talked to these clean-up people across the state, and they have never seen anything like how we have been treated during this investigation.” The DPW garage was raided after the DEC was tipped off in February.

Staring says that after learning of the spill and realizing it would be covered up, he thought of the school next door and made the call to the DEC before the hydraulic oil could be buried under loads of thick grey cement.

Staring insists the scope of the oil spills at the garage has been severely downplayed by DPW officials, and says the investigation is not the result of a single incident.

While Staring says his decision to tip off the DEC was based on concerns about pollution and public safety, his decision to reveal himself as the tipster is based on his feeling that he has “nothing left to lose.”

According to Staring, he was passed over for a promotion despite his skills because he associates with people who are considered to be enemies of his boss, Thomas McTygue. Specifically, Staring points to his wife’s relationship with McTygue’s political nemesis, Mayor Keehn. Staring says he has continually been put on undesirable duties during his time in the DPW.

Anthony “Skip” Scirocco

Staring and a number of other DPW workers describe the department’s working environment as one where political loyalty assures job security and promotions, where notes are taken of who takes a sign for which candidate, where political material is distributed on the clock, and where DPW vehicles are misused for both political and personal gain.

According to Staring, associating with the wrong people and not being politically useful to McTygue can earn DPW workers the title “disgruntled.”

McTygue says such allegations, and the recent talk about an FBI investigation into his department and his business activities, are simply rumors propagated by his political enemies and “a couple disgruntled employees.”

Regarding the allegations of an FBI investigation [“Investigation Overload,” Newsfront, Aug. 30], William McTygue, the commissioner’s brother, told Metroland: “We know who you talked to. They are our political enemies. We know who you talked to.”

Thomas McTygue insisted that talk of an FBI investigation stems from a letter written by Planning Board chairman Lew Benton about an incident last November when supporters of charter reform received dead fish in their mailboxes. McTygue insists he was in Kentucky when the fish incident took place.

“We have nothing to hide,” said McTygue. “Our office is the most open office in City Hall. Here’s our files. We got nothing to hide. Not a damn thing.”

Staring says that McTygue’s grip on the DPW is thinner than he might think, and that a number of employees who are not yet willing to come forward to the media have also been talking to investigators, and feel just as misused and betrayed as he does.

McTygue, a Democrat and 30-year incumbent, may face the political fight of his career this November when he faces Republican Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, a former Saratoga Springs supervisor, not only because of the specter of investigations, but also because of mounting opposition from Republicans and Keehn-reform Democrats who feel McTygue has come to abuse his entrenched position at the head of the Department of Public Works.

Insiders suggest that the Democratic primary between Gordon Boyd and Valerie Keehn should serve as a barometer for the kind of race McTygue will encounter in November, as Boyd represents McTygue’s interests in the race against Keehn. Keehn won the Democratic primary by a landslide, taking 65 percent of the vote to Boyd’s 35 percent.

Although McTygue’s largest political beef is with Keehn, his most persistent, vocal and perhaps annoying public critic is 63-year-old retired Army colonel David Bronner, a Republican.

Ask Bronner about the time he was head-butted at a public meeting by Anthony Fisher, a DPW employee and McTygue supporter, and he will recount it as though he were showing off a medal of honor.

It is Dec. 14, 2004. As Bronner tells it, he has just given his public comments on Saratoga’s proposed county water plan while DPW employees seated next to Commissioner McTygue hoot and holler, trying to drown out the speakers they don’t agree with. As Bronner sits down, he hears a larger gentleman behind him trying to disrupt the next speaker. Bronner does not hold his tongue.

“He’s carrying on over the speaker,” describes Bronner. “I said to him—he’s a big, heavy, fat guy—I say, ‘Calm down, let the proceedings go on, and maybe you better go on a diet.’ Then I turn back around and next thing I know, whammo! I’m hit in the back of head! I turn around and this guy is towering over me from behind and he head-butts me.”

When not embroiled in political debate, Bronner is fairly reserved. He will sometimes tell you that he just doesn’t know when to shut his mouth, and at the same time that he doesn’t think he should have to.

Although the head-butting incident is certainly the most sensational run-in Bronner has had with McTygue’s supporters, his constant criticism of Saratoga’s DPW commissioner has earned him multiple visits from Saratoga police.

In the past few years, Bronner says, the police have been called on him roughly 10 times. Bronner is very active in politics and has a tendency to get himself into heated, sometimes raucous, public political debates. The debates’ locations vary from Saratoga Springs City Council meetings and public hearings to street corners, but the sort of person he argues with is almost always the same—supporters of McTygue.

Bronner openly admits he has a problem with McTygue and the way he has handled his department. Sometimes it seems that Bronner can barely contain his spite when talking about the commissioner. His voice deepens, his eyes squint, and if you give him a minute he will spend an hour telling you why he thinks McTygue is bad for Saratoga.

Bronner has persistently cataloged what he considers McTygue’s misdeeds as commissioner, including a residency issue and concerns over illegal dumping, and he trumpets them to all who will listen.

Although he has been a vocal critic of McTygue for some time, Bronner says it was last year when the police began to get involved. He explains that in the first two incidents he was concerned about snow removal. During the first, Bronner queried a DPW worker as to why he was plowing the street when there was no snow on it.

Police arrived shortly after and told Bronner they got a call saying he was harassing DPW workers. Bronner assured the officers he was not harassing anyone, and they left.

In the second incident, Bronner says, he was concerned about snow not being removed in front of a Saratoga hotel and went to talk to then-Deputy Commissioner Pat Design at the DPW headquarters.

“I was in the foyer of the DPW office right across from the Police Department,” Bronner recalls, “chatting about this with Pat, and he says, ‘Yeah, they should have been cleared,’ and next thing I know cops come busting through the door, and I ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ They say, ‘We got a call that there was trouble over here.’ I say, ‘I was talking to Pat Design.’ They say, ‘We got a call. We don’t know what it’s about, but we were told to get over here.’ Pat tells them there is no problem. They were embarrassed and turned around and left.”

McTygue insists that none of the incidents involving Bronner are that innocent.

“The girls in my office really fear this guy,” says McTygue. “You read this stuff every day, where some psycho blows somebody’s brains out. You just don’t know. My family is scared, too. I’m not gonna antagonize him, but he sees me on the street, and he hollers at me. He follows me around. It pretty much sounds like he’s obsessed with me.”

Some insiders say that Bronner’s heckling of McTygue is not only free speech but also a chance for McTygue to get a bit of his own medicine. McTygue has been known to rally DPW workers and supporters to political gatherings to shout down and jeer against his political opponents.

Earlier this year, police responded twice to Bronner’s presence, once when he was outside the DPW garage during the DEC raid and later on the proposed site for the recreation center where Bronner had discovered illegal dumping by the DPW. In both cases, the officers responded to calls Bronner says were placed by the McTygues.

During a heated exchange at a council meeting in the winter of 2006, Bronner says, Thomas McTygue promised that “one of these days, we’re gonna get the cuffs on you.”

On May 19 of this year, the feud became even more personal. Bronner says that while he was walking down the street, he encountered Peter and William McTygue and asked them about the resignation of DPW Deputy Commissioner Pat Design. Bronner insists he was simply querying a public official. According to police reports, Bronner flipped off the McTygues and declared, “This is your IQ!”

Bronner insists he made no obscene comments and only made an antagonistic comment when Peter McTygue started charging toward him. The incident came to a close with no violence, and Bronner went on his way.

A few days later, a reporter called him.

“He calls Monday night and tells me he understands through the grapevine that McTygue is pushing to have me charged with harassment of the two McTygues, and I said, ‘You know, there were two of them against just me. I’m an older guy, and these two guys are younger than me, 13 years younger, and Peter is a big guy, so I don’t think so. You must have some misinformation.’ ”

As it turns out, the reporter was right and charges were pressed against Bronner, and a warrant was issued. Bronner says the police never contacted him about the situation. Instead, Bronner called the police to find out that the warrant existed and then turned himself in.

The case eventually was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. Peter McTygue reportedly was given a modified order of protection against Bronner. For Bronner, it was essential the order of protection be modified to allow him to continue to attend council meetings, as he suspects the McTygues have “set traps” for him so they can press charges against him and make it impossible for him to attend the meetings. If Bronner has a valid harassment claim against him in the next six months, it will reopen the previous harassment case.

Bronner has earned himself a reputation as a bulldog, and some in Saratoga Springs worry that he is the target of repeated police harassment in a bid by McTygue and his allies to silence his rabid criticism.

McTygue insists he is taking precautions against a man he truly fears.

“What makes it difficult is they know they can get away with it with a public official, says McTygue. “They can get away with it legally. But if I was a private citizen he couldn’t get away with that. And that’s a problem that the legislators ought to look out for. I don’t know why me or any other elected official has to take it.”

On Aug. 19, Bronner and Carole Saunders were involved in a debate outside of a “meet the candidates” function. Saunders later that night filed a harassment complaint with the Saratoga police. According to Saratoga Springs Police Chief Ed Moore, “Bronner shared some less-than-proper but constitutional comments about Mr. McTygue, and the woman shared similar comments about Mr. Bronner.”

According to Moore, neither person’s actions warranted a charge of harassment.

But McTygue apparently did not agree, and Moore soon got a call from his boss, Public Safety Commissioner Ronald Kim, telling him that McTygue said the investigation had not been taken care of properly.

McTygue allegedly insisted that the officer on duty had promised to call Saunders back but failed to do so. “McTygue’s information,” says Moore, “was way off base.”

Both Moore and Kim say that it is their job to ensure that calls regarding harassment are responded to, and that they will follow protocol.

But Kim says he is concerned about something else: “It’s an unusual situation, but one thing I will say is, I won’t allow, and I think Chief Moore would agree, is, we won’t allow the Police Department to become a political football for anybody. The worst thing I can ever imagine in a democracy is the idea of a police force used to chill political speech. That, to me, is abhorrent to any value this nation stands for and that will never happen on my watch.”

Keehn says she is concerned that resources are being wasted to address social squabbles. “If every time someone on the street got into heated political conversation, police were brought in to investigate for harassment or violence, that is all the police would be doing. Are we going to waste time or do people need to use common sense to find out when to walk away from the conversation?”

This past Tuesday night at the regular City Council meeting, tensions between the McTygues and Bronner flared again as Bronner addressed the police issue in front of the council. Bronner heatedly accused McTygue of abusing the police. Afterwards, William McTygue repeatedly told a police officer to “get that psycho away from me!” The officer watched closely as Bronner made his way down the hall toward the exit, explaining to the officer he was simply trying to leave the building, while William McTygue jerked away from him. The officer kept Bronner moving and calmly noted, “I’m not taking sides.”

Bronner also had police called on him twice on Tuesday for electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place.

Bronner says that as much as the McTygues want to label him a psychopath or a stalker, what they are actually afraid of is his dissent.

“They are trying to intimidate me to keep me away from council meetings,” he says, “to cause me to not be able to make critical comments on important issues and also, beyond that, to attempt to intimidate others who speak out. I’m not getting intimidated. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

While McTygue’s more vocal critics have grabbed the attention, the man who is officially challenging McTygue for his seat this November, Skip Scirocco, has kept a relatively low profile.

When Anthony “Skip” Scirocco first bought his home in Saratoga Springs, it was a one-bedroom garage apartment. Slowly, through his own work, an expansion kit and some help from contractors, he has built the house on Pinewoods Avenue out to more impressive dimensions. And every piece of wood in the house means something to Scirocco because he put it there.

As much work and care as Scirocco has put into his home in Saratoga, the onetime Saratoga Springs supervisor will have to put a similar amount of effort into his race against McTygue in a much shorter amount of time.

Scirocco has heard it from people over and over: “You’ve got an uphill battle. He’s not just gonna roll over.” Of course, Scirocco knows those things. But he says he plans to keep his campaign out of the mud. If elected, he says, one of his first proposals would be to initiate a 311 system so that people would have one number to call if they needed issues addressed by the DPW, or any other city department.

Scirocco says that the DPW needs to be opened up and made available to the citizens of Saratoga. To that end, he promises he will create a DPW Web site so that the department’s tasks and projects will be on display so the taxpayers know how, where and why their resources are being used. Scirocco says opening up the department will restore lost trust.

Staring, the “disgruntled” DPW employee, says he would like to see a DPW with an open application process, so that jobs and promotions cannot be given out as favors to family and allies.

While Scirocco has so far kept a low profile, insiders say he is set to turn heads with both his endorsements from within the DPW and his choice for deputy commissioner. It is an open secret among Scirocco supporters that the popular former deputy commissioner, Patrick Design, who resigned earlier this year, is likely to be announced as Scirocco’s would-be future deputy.

Thomas McTygue says all Scirocco has to run on is mud, because he can’t run against his long record. “They want to beat me because I’m a Democrat elected in a Republican community, but they can’t beat me on my record. They haven’t brought up one issue. The sidewalks are clean as a whistle, we plow the streets, the flowers are second to none. This stuff doesn’t happen by accident. We have a great administration. There are excellent trades people who work for this department.”

Still, McTygue says that after 30 years, the mudslinging has started to get to him.

“With a lot of this nonsense going on it is no wonder why people don’t run for public office. You think people want to expose their life to some crackpot like this?” he asks, referring to Bronner. “My family is so upset I had to consider whether I was running again this year.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


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