A Saratoga Springs committee has chosen May 30th for a special election where city residents may vote on a new form of government. The city’s current form of government has existed for more than a century.
Saratoga Springs’ unique commission-style government has endured numerous tests before. Most recently, a 2012 ballot question to change the city charter failed.
Now, in 2017, voters will have a chance to vote once again on a new system. The special election, set for May 30th, was put in place by the city’s Charter Review Commission.
Commission chair Bob Turner, who also works as an Associate Professor of Political Science at Skidmore College, says the committee spent eight months meeting and talking with the community about the city’s future.
“I think one of the things we heard most clearly from all the business and other community interests, was their feeling that Saratoga government could do better. Not that it was broken, but that it could do better,” said Turner.
A new charter has not yet been drafted, but Turner predicted a document that would include a form of government featuring a mayor, city manager, and a seven-member city council with four-year terms — with term limits.
For the past 102 years, the city has been led by five commissioners that also serve as department heads.
John Franck, Commissioner of Accounts, warned with the vote set to take place on the day after Memorial Day, people may not show up to the polls.
“My concern is you’re putting the constitution of the city up for a vote and by all measurements we’re going to have a very low turnout, and I think that’s a shame,” said Franck.
Franck compared the special election to the annual city school board vote, which he said has about 3 percent turnout.
Turner predicted the vote would bring record turnout. He said holding the special election before the primary election season gets underway in June would provide a chance to take partisan politics out of the decision.
“It would give voters about three months to really study the charter and know what’s in it and give everyone a chance to appreciate the complexities of what we’re suggesting,” said Turner
But there are also objections over costs.
The Charter Review Commission, under state law, has asked Mayor Joanne Yepsen for $46,000 to cover expenses by the committee and $37,000 for the special election.
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, however, said she was uncertain the five-member city council would grant the money.
“It takes three votes to allocate funds. So it seems to me, although the vote hasn’t taken place yet, that there is not support on this city council. As in, they do not have three votes for expending funds for a special election,” said Madigan.
Franck argued the costs for the special election could inflate to as much as $50,000 and said he would not vote for the budget request.
Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco called the May 30th special election “voter suppression” and said in an email the vote would be a “slap in the face to Saratoga Springs voters who have historically turned out and voted against a change in the form of government.”
Mayor Yepsen said the council needs to give the commission the funding.
“So they can do their job, make their recommendations to the entire community, not to the city council, and let the voters decide. And that’s my position,” said Yepsen.
An email sent Friday evening after press time indicated that the Charter Commission voted 14-0 in favor of a council-manager form of government. If approved by voters, the new charter would take effect in 2019.