SARATOGA SPRINGS >> The Charter Review Commission has been conducting a review of the city’s charter over the past month, but what does that mean, and how has the process evolved over the span of almost two decades?
The Saratoga Springs city charter is a document that establishes the city’s form of government and provides a legal framework for how that form of government should operate. By law, the charter is to be reviewed every 10 years.
The Charter Review Commission’s purpose is to propose revisions or amendments, make a report to the public and submit any revisions to the City Council at a public referendum. According to current Charter Review Commission chairman Bob Turner, the current commission is a diverse mix of men and woman nominated by the City Council from every part of the city, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents and a wide mix of professional backgrounds, from law to journalism to technology.
The current charter was adopted in 2001 under then-Mayor Ken Klotz, according to Turner. Saratoga Springs operates under a city council form of government, one of only a few still left in the state, composed of the mayor and four commissioners; on each for finance, accounts, public works and public safety. Each of the five council members have equal voting power in regards to amendments, ordinances, resolutions, etc.
Klotz’s goal with establishing his Charter Commission was to keep the status quo but make a series of incremental changes over time, Turner said. At the time, the city council government was already established, but Klotz’s charter would give it a new sense of direction.
Klotz’s successor, Michael Lenz, attempted to form his own Charter Commission in 2005, but lost re-election to Valerie Keehn in 2006. Lenz’s commission would have included Pat Kane, a highly involved member of the Saratoga Springs public, who would later be among the leaders of a charge to replace the council form of government with a city manager form of government in 2012.
Keehn’s commission advocated for a strong mayor form of government, which would give the mayor more power compared to the equal voting power of the current form of government, which current and former elected officials seem to agree causes power struggles amid the council. That would eventually go on to be voted down. When Keehn testified to the current Charter Review Commission in August, she noted that the old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” does not apply here, saying the government must evolve.
Kane’s 2012 movement was one of three ways that a charter can change, Kane said. One is with a mayoral commission, another is if the council itself appoints a commission and the other is by citizens’ petition. Kane and his bipartisan, citizen-based group Saratoga Citizen got the appropriate amount of signatures but the initial document they presented to the city in 2010 was shot down and ruled invalid. The group would continue to fight, including taking the City Council to court in a legal battle that Saratoga Citizen would eventually win.
In 2012, the group’s charter change proposition for a city manager form of government finally made it onto the ballot but was voted down by Saratoga Springs residents 5,991 to 4,423. The current commision has not ruled out that possibility, though, as they have interviewed two successful city managers, Mark Ryckman of Corning and Jason Molino of Batavia.
Today, the consensus among former and current Saratoga Springs elected officials seems to be that the charter and form of government needs to change. WMayor Joanne Yepsen said that “there’s definitely room for improvement within city government and within City Hall.”
Most recently, the commission interviewed on Tuesday former Commissioner of Public Works Tom McTygue and former and current commissioners of Public Safety Lew Benton and Christian Mathiesen, respectively. Kane said it is a testament to the need to change the charter that long-time opponents of changing it are now in favor of it, such as McTygue, who said that there needs to be more professionalism within City Hall.
Mathiesen said on Tuesday that he was very skeptical of the city council form of government before stepping into his role, and five years later he is even more skeptical. He, and many others who have been interviewed, believe the current form of government limits those who can run because the job is so extensive that anyone with a normal “9 to 5 job” would not be able to balance it all.
“We really need to have a separate legislative body that represents the interests of our citizens, a body that makes it possible for people to run for public office and gives people a sense of belonging to our city,” Mathiesen said.
“It’s the people, not the form of government, that makes Saratoga Springs great,” Kane said. “But the form of government should enable them to be great.”