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Vote on Saratoga Springs charter change nears

2 citizen groups battle it out

Sunday, October 21, 2012
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Vote "yes" charter signs and Vote 'No' Charter signs line Ballston Avenue in Saratoga Springs near Saratoga Spa Park Thursday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Vote "yes" charter signs and Vote 'No' Charter signs line Ballston Avenue in Saratoga Springs near Saratoga Spa Park Thursday.

— For three years the grass-roots organization, Saratoga Citizen, has attempted to get a government change proposition on the city’s election ballot.

This year, after some court battles, they succeeded.

City voters will be asked on Nov. 6 if they want to change city government from the current commission form, which dates back to 1915, to a city manager-city council form of government.

“It’s a modernization, stepping from the typewriter to the laptop computer,” said Pat Kane, a Saratoga Springs resident and co-founder of Saratoga Citizen. “It’s going to save money from day one. It’s a more efficient form of government.”

Saratoga Citizen has held public information meetings on the proposed change on a regular basis for the past two years. The group will hold an overview of the charter change referendum at 7 p.m. Monday in the Harry Dutcher Community Room of Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St.

The Saratoga County League of Women Voters is hosting a public forum to air the pros and cons of the charter change at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the teaching auditorium at Saratoga Springs High School on West Avenue.

Not everyone agrees with Kane’s assessment of the city manager-city council approach to government.

An organization called SUCCESS (Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga’s Success) has been holding its own public meetings to emphasize that the city should stay with its commission form of government.

“The commission form of government has been working in Saratoga. The office holders are accessible and accountable,” said Jane Weihe, one of the roughly 100 members of SUCCESS. Weihe, a retired social studies teacher, will be one of those arguing against the charter change during Thursday’s forum at the high school.

She and other SUCCESS adherents say the city has done well under its current form of government for many decades and is in a strong financial position with a healthy surplus and no tax increase expected in 2013.

The commission form of government, first deployed in Galveston, Texas, in 1901 after a devastating hurricane, features a part-time mayor and four part-time commissioners (the heads of the public safety, public works, accounts and finance departments) who also serve as City Council members. The mayor and each commissioner has a full-time deputy who deals with day-to-day details of city business.

Each commissioner is voted into office and is directly responsible for his or her city department.

The city manager-city council form of government, which is the most common form of city government in the country, features four council members and a mayor, all elected.

But instead of each council person running a city department, they and the mayor only have legislative responsibilities.

The city council establishes and approves policy and also hires a professional city manager to manage the city’s day-to-day operations and implement the policy made by the council.

Kane notes that some 63 percent of cities with a population between 25,000 and 49,000 have a manager-council form of government and 23 percent have a strong mayor-council form of government. Saratoga Springs has a population of just under 27,000. Schenectady, with a population of around 66,000, has a strong mayor-council form of government.

Only a small number of cities across the country have a commission form of government. Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville are the only two commission forms of government in New York state, Kane said.

Weihe called the 60-page document that supports Local Law No. 1 and lays out the city manager-city council form of government “a seriously flawed document.”

She said, for example, the document does not address the reallocation of the work that is currently done by the various city departments. She also questioned the need for a transition team that is part of the proposal.

“We have no idea what this will cost. They have no idea what it will cost,” Weihe said.

Kane said the cost of city government will go down under the city manager-city council form of government. The pro-charter change signs maintain that the manager-council form of government is “smarter, faster, cheaper.”

Saratoga Citizen Inc. released a preliminary estimate of the fiscal impact associated with a charter change in early 2011.

The fiscal statement compares selected management positions in the current and proposed charter systems with the current commission salary total for 12.5 positions at $1,007,120 while the total under the new government form for 11 positions is $988,655. This means an annual savings of approximately $18,500 plus fringe benefits savings for a total annual savings of about $26,000.

Kane said the 60-page supporting document is on the city’s website and also on the Saratoga Citizen website (www.saratogacitizen.com).

He said a transition team is always part of a government change. He said the transition team, which would include current City Council members, would work for a year to establish the new form of government. If voters approve the charter change they wouldn’t see a new form of government until Jan. 1, 2014, Kane said.

City Mayor Scott Johnson has made it a point not to endorse either form of government.

However, he and other City Council members balked at having the charter change proposition placed on a city election ballot.

Signatures on petitions were challenged, as was the format of the proposed change, and the issue ended up in court.

In April, the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision saying that the more than 2,300 signatures to place the charter change on the ballot were sufficient and that the documentation was in order.

City Council members said the petitions lacked a “fiscal note” about the cost of making the transition to the new form of government. The courts said this was not necessary.

“For a long time I didn’t take a position,” Johnson said. But he said he is disappointed that Saratoga Citizen’s proposals lacked discussion of the merits of the change, and lacked cost estimates for a transition from the commission to the professional manager-city council form of government.

“Based on that I’m reluctant to change our current commission form of government,” Johnson said. “What’s wrong that requires a change? We are doing so well under this form.”

Johnson said he wants people to know there is an alternative to a complete charter change. The mayor plans to announce a charter commission next month that will be asked to study the current city charter and suggest improvements.

In 2001, for example, a significant number of charter revisions were approved by the public to update city government.

Johnson said the commission will include between nine and 15 members. He said city officials know areas of the current city charter that need changing.

City Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she is “neutral” on the charter change. “The commission works just fine,” she said.

However, she said if the people vote in favor of a city manager-city council form of government, “so be it, I will work toward it. I think both forms of government work.”

The League of Women Voters forum on Thursday will include a presentation summarizing the government structure under the current charter and under the proposed charter.

The League has not taken a position on the referendum.

A panel discussion will follow, consisting of four people: two opposed to the proposed charter change representing SUCCESS (Weihe and former mayor Kenneth Klotz), and two in favor of the proposed charter representing Saratoga Citizen (Kane, and Batavia City Manager Jason Molino).

Questions developed by the league committee will be asked by the moderator, followed by written questions from the audience.

The forum will be moderated by Dale Willman, managing editor of The Saratoga Wire.

 
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