Saratoga Springs mayor offers to set up charter commission
Change advocates assail last-minute offer
SARATOGA SPRINGS Mayor Scott Johnson will release plans to establish a charter commission this weekend, saying it will give city voters an alternative to changing the city’s commission form of government.
The mayor’s action comes just three days before city residents will vote on the charter change.
The charter change proposition — asking voters if they want to change the city’s government from the current commission form to a city manager/city council form — will be on the back side of Tuesday’s election ballot.
The wording and details of Johnson’s charter commission were released Friday afternoon but embargoed from publication until 12:01 a.m. Sunday. On Friday, he simply said the details were on the way.
“This is his attempt to pollute the well at the 11th hour,” said Patrick Kane, a founder of Saratoga Citizen, the grass-roots organization that has worked three years to get the charter change proposition on the ballot.
“It’s a move by a mayor who wants to stay in power and potentially grab even more power,” he said Friday.
The City Council over the past two years fought Saratoga Citizen’s attempts to get the charter change on the ballot. The citizen group took the city to court, saying it had enough signatures on their petitions to place the charter change on the ballot.
The courts upheld Saratoga Citizen’s petitions and forced the city to place the issue, Local Law No. 1 of 2012, on the Nov. 6 ballot for a yes/no vote. The proposition and the 60-page abstract describing the proposal can be found on the upper right hand corner of the city’s website at www.saratoga-springs.org.
Johnson said Friday that the city’s commission form of government, which dates back to 1915, can always be improved. He said his charter commission will be asked to look at the current charter and see how it can be tweaked to make it better.
“The city is growing despite the national recession,” Johnson said, also noting the city’s downtown planning efforts were recently recognized and honored and the 2012 and 2013 city budgets carried no tax increases.
Kane said if the mayor is advocating city residents vote against the charter change in his statement on city stationary two days before the election, he is committing an ethics violation.
City officials, including the mayor, have always said the Saratoga Citizen proposal lacked a financial statement about how much it would cost to change to the new form of government. Kane said Saratoga Citizen submitted its financial statement to the city in January 2011 but city officials ignored it or said it was lacking in detail.
“This is his classic style: say nothing and do nothing and at the 11th hour do something to appease people,” he said about Johnson. “This is a perfect example of the commission form of government in action.”
Under the current commission form of government, voters elect a city council that includes a mayor and four commissioners, one each for finance, public safety, accounts and public works. All terms are for two years. The mayor and commissioners act as both a legislative body and also have individual administrative duties over their departments — the mayor is in charge of planning, engineering and recreation. The mayor and each commissioner, who are all part-time employees, each have a full-time deputy.
Under the proposed council-manager form of government, a mayor and four city councilors would be elected to four-year terms and have legislative responsibilities but no administrative oversight of city departments. The city council would appoint a city manager to be the chief administrative officer of the city. The manager would serve at the pleasure of the city council and oversee all departmental operations.