By Bob Turner
On May 30, Saratoga Springs will hold a referendum on whether to approve a new charter for our fair city. Some people have asked why hold the charter referendum on May 3 instead of the city election in November.
Some have suggested that there is something unusual about holding a referendum on the charter separate from the city election. However, it is not unusual at all.
When the United States approved our Constitution, we did so in ratifying conventions that were separate from the normal elections.
A charter is not a Republican or Democratic issue, a liberal or conservative issue. It is a constitutional issue.
Holding the charter referendum during a city election means that the charter vote would get wrapped up into the personal and partisan conflicts of the city election.
We hold presidential, state, local and school board elections at different times. Why? We don’t want to overload voters by placing too many issues on the ballot at the same time.
At the November city election, the charter would have to compete for voters’ attention with five city council races, two county supervisor races, a judicial race and a statewide question on a Constitutional Convention.
Campaign spending is estimated to be approximately $750,000 in 2017. Local free media coverage would be difficult to come by since the media would have to report on the mayoral, finance commissioner, public works commissioner, public safety commissioner, account commissioner, and two county supervisor elections in addition to a statewide ballot question and a potential county referendum in addition to the city charter.
Moreover, in the 2017 city election, the charter referendum question would be on the back of the ballot. When the citizen initiative charter came before voters in 2012, more than 2,000 voters failed to turn the ballot over and vote on the Charter.
Why? They hadn’t heard anything about it.
Deciding whether to adopt a new charter is one of the most important decisions citizens can make. Holding the charter referendum on May 30 will give Saratogians more than three months to focus on the specific provisions of the charter, without the partisanship or personal politics that often characterize Saratoga Springs city elections.
It will be the dominant local political issue and will receive extensive media coverage and debate among the citizens. When we reviewed the media coverage of the 2006 and 2012 charter votes, it was dominated by discussions of the personalities on each side rather than the merits of the proposal.
Ask yourself, for those charter proposals, how many members were on the City Council? How long were the terms? How was the city attorney selected? How were citizen board appointments handled?
Why May 30, the Tuesday after Memorial Day? Originally, the Charter Review Commission proposed a date in April. Members of the City Council were concerned that some snowbirds might not be back by then and that an April date wouldn’t give voters enough time to study the issues.
In response to the Council’s concerns, the Charter Review Commission selected May 30. Primary nomination papers for the City Council start being circulated on June 7.
May 30 is the latest an election can be held while also allowing new candidates to choose to run for the City Council based on whether the charter referendum succeeds or fails.
Some opponents of charter reform have suggested that voters will not vote in a May charter referendum, comparing it to school board, library, or primary votes.
However, we know changing a city charter is different. Saratoga Springs’ voters are very educated and passionate about their city. They understand that deciding on a city’s charter is extremely important. We are very confident that there will be record turnout even higher than a city election. For more information on the charter, log on to saratogacharter.com.
Robert Turner is chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.