By Matt Hunter
Updated Friday, January 13, 2017 at 06:51 PM EST
Less than five years after a citizen-led effort to change the Saratoga Springs City Charter failed by a 15 percent margin at the polls, Saratogians will again make a decision that could completely alter their local form of government. Matt Hunter explains.
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – It is arguably the most important document in how a city gets governed.
“The city’s charter is, in essence, the city constitution,” said Bob Turner, a longtime political science professor at Skidmore College. “It determines how many city council members we have, how they are selected and what their responsibilities are.”
Starting with a goal of recommending improvements or a new form of government altogether, a 15-member commission has been studying Saratoga Springs’ current charter since June.
“We have had over 30 meetings and we have interviewed 70 different current and former elected officials, department heads, mayors and city managers here and in other cities,” said Turner, who chairs the commission.
It’s the Spa City’s first charter review in a decade. Appointed by the mayor and council, the commission is set up to operate independently.
“It’s very, very, very important in my opinion for the mayor and the city council to stay out of the business of the city charter,” Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen said Friday.
While most cities rely on either a “Mayor-City Council” or “Mayor-City Manager” model, Saratoga Springs uses the rare “commission” form of government.
“There are only three commission form of governments here in New York,” said Turner, who added the “Mayor-City” council model is most common in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as local municipalities like Albany and Schenectady.
The Saratoga Springs City Council is made up of the mayor and commissioners of finance, accounts, public safety and public works.
“The city council serves as both a legislature and the executive [branch],” Turner said, “except it is almost like having five presidents, each over their own little domain.”
A month ago, commission members unanimously voted in favor of drafting a new charter. On Friday, it was announced the decision will go to a city-wide vote on May 30.
“We have yet to make any decision about whether we would go with the ‘Mayor- City Manager’ or a ‘Mayor – Council’ form of government,” Turner said.
The commission’s next step is to come up with an actual proposal for an alternative form of government, which Turner expects to happen by February.
“Whatever they propose, hopefully, will be an improvement from what we have,” Yepsen said.
“Voters are going to have three months to really study this issue and delve into it,” Turner said.