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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Saratoga Secret Gardens Tour: July 7 event is no secret, but many of the gardens are

Before the heat broke in Tuesday afternoon’s rain, guzzling water as I trimmed the hedge on our narrow city lot, I imagined the gardeners who so generously agreed to be on this year’s Saratoga Secret Gardens Tour – on Sunday, July 7, little more than a week away.
Trimming the hedge? Kids’ stuff.
Terraced gardens and cascading water ending in a fish-filled pond
are among the secret treasures on the tour. Photos by Erica Miller.
The garden owners on this tour invariably fret, sweat, and invest time and mo

ney for the pleasure of a few hundred strangers – and for the beneficiaries of the funds raised by this popular annual event.
I hope to run into you at one of the 11 locations.
Stacie Mayette Barnes and I are co-chairs of this year’s Secret Gardens Tour – the 19th annual. We earned the privilege not because of our own gardening skills (or lack thereof), but by virtue of Outgoing Soroptimist International of Saratoga County President Lyn Whaley’s skill at getting busy people to volunteer. Fortunately, we also have several terrific committee members, more busy people whom you can count on to get it done, whatever it is.
The Secret Gardens committee starts work a year ahead, finding gardens (a process that can continue well into the fall). Then there’s setting up online accounts for ordering tickets and entering raffles; recruiting garden volunteers; gathering and editing garden descriptions for the published tickets; collecting and packaging raffle items; preparing tickets for sale and distribution; getting the word out via U.S. mail, social media, email and traditional news media. (Full disclosure: I am pleased to say that The Saratogian is one of the event sponsors, and I will freely admit that I actively seek and am grateful for publicity from other area newspapers, TV and radio stations.)
The day of the event is labor intensive, too, with Soroptimists selling tickets (and handing out pre-ordered ones) starting at 10 a.m. at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center, committee elves who install and remove the directional signs along the route, plus volunteers from in and outside of the club servings as “hostesses” at the garden sites.
I’m sharing this with you now for three reasons: The co-chairs for next year are already committed (they’ll have it easy on the milestone 20th year), to thank the gardeners in advance, and to make this unabashed pitch to those of you who have not yet ordered a ticket (or entered the raffle).
The Secret Gardens Tour wouldn’t exist without people willing to have literally hundreds of people traipsing through their property for fun and inspiration. Among this year’s special features are the Saratoga Springs’ mayor’s home, a backyard stone labyrinth created in memory of the owner’s son, terraced gardens with cascading water and lots of fish (bring a plastic bag, you may bring some home), a 100-year-old grape arbor, and a poolside topiary shaped like a horse (perfect for the Saratoga 150 celebration).
And without the tour, the Soroptimist club wouldn’t be able to support local programs and projects that benefit women, girls and the community, such as Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County, grants for women heads of household completing their education, and assorted projects.
Click the link to The Saratogian storywith short descriptions of the private gardens. Tickets are $18 in advance and $22 on the day of the tour, if still available. Tickets can be purchased (and pre-ordered tickets picked up) this and next Saturday (June 29 and July 6) from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center – or on the day of the tour at the visitor center beginning at 10 a.m., while available. You can also order tickets – and learn more about Soroptimists – at Questions? Call 581-1201, ext. 4184 and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Community service and The Saratogian editorial you never saw

Last week, an editorial in The Saratogian said that when the executive director of The Prevention Council of Saratoga County was charged in March with driving while intoxicated, the organization’s board of directors should have gone public, then and there, with what happened and how they were dealing with it.

You never read it. I pulled it off the page before the paper went to print because the story abruptly changed.

Today, I’d like to tell you about the editorial and offer a bit of gratitude to people who serve on nonprofit boards.

First, about the editorial you never saw.

Last March, in a decision that was not made lightly, The Prevention Council board declined the executive director’s offer to resign, placed her on a six-month probation, instructed her to get counseling and prepared a statement in the event the incident, which occurred out of this area, ever became public.

So, when the story about the 3-month-old incident was reported on the TV news June 13, the board released its compassionate statement, which said in part: “The board members agreed that The Prevention Council has always been about helping people, and that worthwhile goal should also apply to its staff.”

That night and over the next day-and-a-half, I reached out to a number of people for mostly “off- the-record” conversations to gather opinions from varying perspectives for an editorial. Some of the people I have known for years and some I have never met, including former and current members of nonprofit boards, including The Prevention Council.

Opinions ran the gamut.

Some were adamant that a DWI arrest automatically disqualifies someone from running an organization whose mission is to prevent drug and alcohol abuse and that relies heavily on public donations.

Others were equally firm in the belief that a second chance was fair, especially since the misdemeanor DWI was pleaded down to a violation of driving while ability impaired, as is typical in such circumstances; it was a first offense, there was no accident, no one was hurt.

In various drafts of the editorial, I went back and forth, uncomfortable with second-guessing the board and only sure that they should have been out in front of the news when it happened, rather than appearing on the defensive three months later.

The publisher, who gets final say on editorials, offered constructive criticism as I kept returning to the drawing board. We agreed: If giving the executive director a second chance wasn’t a mistake, keeping it a secret was.

Finally, I crafted a version approved by the publisher. The news editor fit it on the already late page and sent it to the press.

Two minutes later came a call from the board president and president-elect: The executive director had offered again to resign, and this time the board accepted.

That was the end of the editorial — but not the end of this story.

Countless terrific organizations depend on dedicated staff and volunteers, including board members whose unpaid job can be challenging, time-consuming, gratifying or thankless — or all of the above.

Sure, some people are more effective than others in leadership roles on boards. And sometimes board decisions ought to be exposed, criticized and corrected, especially when the organization is serving the public and using public funds. But most volunteers I’ve come across, even those who’ve come under editorial scrutiny, seem genuinely motivated by the desire to serve their community.

Those are things to keep in mind, whether you’re an editorial writer, an anonymous story commenter, a donor, a taxpayer, or a potential volunteer. I can’t stress enough how important it is to serve the community, even if you take a little unexpected, and arguably undeserved, heat now and then.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How to keep your name out of the police blotter

It’s not what you know that counts, it’s who you know. Right?
Depends, of course. Connections open doors, no question about it.
But in the case of police reports published in The Saratogian, who you are and who you know don’t matter.
This post is prompted by three unrelated items concerning police reports: recent calls to Sound Off about an unidentified driver, a story involving the relative of a local government executive, and requests to delete arrest reports from the website.
First, let me say that I give calls to Sound Off all the credibility that anonymous comments deserve. But we do get story ideas and tips from the call-in line, and once in a while a question is raised that warrants an editor’s response.
That was the case concerning the report of a man who drove his Corvette into Saratoga Lake.
The man’s name wasn’t immediately available from the sheriff’s department and he refused to give his name to the reporter, who made a rookie mistake by writing that he asked to be anonymous. That phrasing understandably left some readers scratching their heads. One caller’s message said in part: “If that was just a usual person, their name would be printed. Is it because he has a lot of money or is he a big shot in the city of Saratoga Springs and doesn’t want to be embarrassed?”
Actually, we followed up on the story during the week, subsequently publishing the driver’s name and the charges: speed not reasonable and prudent, failure to keep right and reckless driving. The charges were violations, which ordinarily don’t make it into the police blotter, but a Corvette doesn’t ordinarily land in the lake.
We modified the wording in the online story to eliminate the erroneous impression that all you have to do to not get your name in the police blotter is ask. We discussed the wording among reporters and editors, because, regrettably, a similar issue arose a while back.
As for commenters wanting The Saratogian to publish where the Corvette driver worked: that would be inconsistent with our rule of thumb to not publish a defendant’s place of employment unless it seems relevant to the story. Likewise, whether to specify a person’s relationship with someone well-known depends on the circumstances. A recent ongoing case passed the test when the town judges and district attorney all recused themselves from a felony burglary vandalism case because of their professional relationship with the teenage defendant’s father.
Last but not least, every so often someone whose name was published in the police blotter asks that the arrest be removed. Here’s our guideline: If the defendant provides a disposition from the court showing that the charges were dismissed, we will likely remove the item. If the case was resolved in some other way and the person asks that the story be updated to reflect, for instance, that the case was pleaded down, we will gladly accommodate by updating the online file. Except for those cases, published blotter items remain online.
The only sure-fire way to stay out of the police blotter: Don't get arrested.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Won't need to be a chicken crossing the road at Circular Street and Park Place

I’ve been a chicken when it comes to crossing the road, because to get to the other side of Circular Street at Park Place and Congress Park, you take your life in your hands.
Driving left out of Park Place onto Circular is no picnic, either.
So I my interest was piqued this morning when the headline across the front page of the print edition of The Saratogian was, “City to reorient confusing intersection.” The headline on my Saratogian iPad app was even more explicit, as an online headline should be: “SeeClickFix Series: SaratogaSprings to reorient intersection of Circular Street, Whitney Place and ParkPlace.”
That is an intersection I traverse daily.
It’s misnamed as a four-way intersection, because the converging streets are too far apart to be considered as such. The four-way stop signs are rarely effective. I’ve been in many a near-miss both behind the wheel and on foot. So I was glad to see someone had finally come up with a way to make it safer and less confusing for both drivers and pedestrians.
Then I read part of the solution, which would be in the 2014 capital budget: Drivers would not be able to turn left out of Park Place onto Circular Street.
Say what?
Hey, that’s the route I take to get to Price Chopper, every week. And the Y, almost every week. And Ballston Spa, every now and again.
A quick call to Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen pretty much alleviated my concerns: A separate traffic project that should be done at the same time includes the installation of a traffic light where Route 50 intersects Lincoln Avenue and little South Street that runs by Price Chopper. We should have included that in the print story, and reporter Lucian McCarty added it to the online version.
The detour is less convenient than being able to take a left out of Park Place to cross Broadway to get to Route 50, but I don’t have a better suggestion for this longstanding problem. The only caveat is that the Park Place change must not take place until the traffic light is up at Route 50 and Lincoln.
As for pedestrian safety, the plan for an on-demand light for crossing Circular Street to and Congress Park and Park Place makes sense. Painted crosswalks simply doesn’t work; drivers here have not been trained to follow the law giving pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks. An on-demand light and having no left out of Park Place will eliminate the need for a stop sign for drivers heading south on Circular. Kudos to Mark Benacquista, the public safety traffic control supervisor, and Mathiesen for coming up with that solution.
The public safety department takes the SeeClickFix feature (at seriously. It’s a cool tool for readers to note problem spot or add to the chorus of cited locations. More than 100 people have indicated on the SeeClickFix feature (at that this Circular/Park Place/ Whitney Place intersection is a problem that needs to be addressed.