Wednesday, November 23, 2016

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> As it continues to review the city charter, the Charter Review Commission interviewed a former member from the 2001 commission who has had recent public disagreements with the City Council.

Mark Lawton gave his testimony Tuesday to the commission. Lawton was thrown out of a City Council meeting during the public comment period in July by Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. The conflict arose during a tense council meeting while Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s ethics code violation was the subject of much debate and scrutiny. Lawton, along with other public commenters, had accused members of the Council of running a smear campaign against Yepsen during that time, to which Madigan retaliated. Lawton was frustrated Madigan used his name and began yelling at her, so Madigan had him escorted out of the meeting.

As tense as Lawton’s relationship is with some of the current City Council, he has a long history with the city and a thorough knowledge of the charter, having served on the 2001 Charter Review Commission under then-Mayor Ken Klotz. The charter that was adopted then is the city’s current charter.

The city operates under a commission form of government, one of only a few left in the state, in which the mayor and four commissioners make up the City Council and all five members have equal voting power.

During the commission’s review process, which started in the summer, there has been much debate over whether this form of government is beneficial to the city. Former and current elected officials, as well as county supervisors and city managers from other cities, have been interviewed by the commission in an effort to decide what is best for the city. Some feel the current form of government is working, such as Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, but the majority of those interviewed said a change is in order.

On Tuesday, Lawton said when the 2001 charter was being drafted, the commission agreed all changes or additions had to be unanimous, which made it difficult to settle on whether changing the form of government was necessary. The commission form of government was kept under the predetermination that it could be worked with and fine tuned; the charter could be written in a way to make that form of government good for the city.

“There were a lot of strong opinions,” Lawton said. “There were those who wanted no change, period. There were those who wanted a strong mayor form of government. And there were some that believed there was a chance we could improve the commission form of government to the point where it could function, to the point where it could provide what the citizens needed and wanted. They wanted access and they wanted transparency. They wanted to know their government and they wanted to know that they had access to it.”

Lawton said when he was teaching students about government, he never would have taught this form of government — except as an example of what to avoid or change.

Lawton said one of the biggest problems with this form of government is that politics often clouds people’s judgement.

“There are super problems when you mix politics with management,” Lawton said.