After seven months of interviews, hearings and fact-finding, the Charter Review Commission began drafting a new city charter.
Last month, the commission voted 12-3 to draft a new charter that separates the legislative responsibilities from the administrative ones.
“In drafting a new charter, we wanted to start with the City Council, because a strong Council is at the heart of a responsive and efficient government.” said Bob Turner, commission chair.
The commission discussed the number of members, the length of terms, term limits and the merits of neighborhood districts versus at- large districts.
The first issue discussed was whether to keep the current number of city council members at five. Turner, who teaches political science at Skidmore, pointed out that James Madison, in Federalist #10, said that there is no magic number, however, it must be large enough “in order to guard against the cabals of a few; (but) must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude.”
The commission reviewed national and New York data on the tremendous variation in the size of city councils. The consensus of the commission was that seven members seemed appropriate for the size of this city.
The second issue discussed was whether to keep the current term length at two years. Former city council members and City Hall employees, in interviews, have stated that campaign politics in the second year of a term detracts from a focus on governance.
Council members felt that having a four-year term would reduce the frequency of fundraising and campaigning. Approximately 70 percent of city governments in America have four year terms. The Charter Review Commission supported staggered elections for the city council.
The most lengthy discussion concerned the merits of neighborhood districts versus at-large elections. Under the current system, commissioners are elected in city-wide elections. Under a neighborhood district system, council members are elected from a neighborhood or smaller geographic area. Candidates would have to live in the district they represent.
Neighborhood districts make it easier for new candidates to run for office since they would only have to reach out to approximately 4,500 voters instead of 18,000. The smaller size would keep campaign costs down and enable an enterprising candidate to potentially knock on every door in their district.
The commission’s studies have revealed that the vast majority of City Council candidates from the past 15 years have come from a small cluster on the central east side of the city. Neighborhood districts would ensure more geographic representation in City Council affairs. Commission members Gordon Boyd and Matt Jones thought the mix of at-large and district representation would reduce NIMBYism in city politics.
The tentative consensus of the commission was that the council members should be a combination of four neighborhood district representatives and three at-large district representatives.
The commission also supported giving the City Council confirmation power over all Mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments pending state law. The commission felt that this was an important step in restoring checks and balances to a new system.
The Charter Review Commission’s next meeting is Thursday, Jan. 19. It will discuss the merits of city manager versus a strong mayor. The current commission form of government was adopted by Saratoga Springs in 1915. There are only two other cities in New York with the Commission form of government, Mechanicville and Sherrill.
The Charter Review Commission is a 15-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor and City Council. A new charter would be placed before the voters in a special election on May 30.
Citizens are encouraged to communicate with the commission via email at: saratogaspringscharter@gmail.