Man who chaired a charter commission years ago shares thoughts
Saratoga residents weigh in on charter proposal
John Sullivan speaks at Wednesday’s charter commission forum in Saratoga Springs.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICA MILLER

 

John Sullivan chaired a commission that got a new charter passed in the city of Oswego in 1977, served as mayor of that city 10 years later and has lived in Saratoga Springs for four years.

Naturally, he had some ideas for the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, which presented its recently drafted charter proposal to about 100 residents who packed into the Saratoga Springs Public Library Community Room for a forum on Wednesday night.

Sullivan said the charter he helped write strengthened the mayor’s power and lengthened the term from two to four years. He served one four-year term starting in 1987, during which time he started Harborfest, a popular summertime festival still going today, he said with a bit of pride.

“To me, when people vote for mayor, they want to know that that person’s going to make sure the streets are plowed, they want to know if someone’s going to suggest a budget that needs a tax increase, that someone’s accountable. The buck has to stop on someone’s desk,” he said after speaking at the forum.

Sullivan questioned where the buck would stop under the council-manager form of government being proposed by the 15-member charter group appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen last June. The city manager would be hired — and could also be fired — by a seven-member City Council, which would include the mayor. The manager would be responsible for preparing and administering the budget and overseeing the city’s finances, among other duties, according to the 24-page charter draft, which can be viewed online at www.saratogacharter.com. The mayor position, now part-time, would also be upgraded to full-time.

“I’ve got a lot to say about this topic, and I hope I have that opportunity,” Sullivan said.

Interestingly enough, Sullivan’s comments during the meeting followed the Saratoga Springs review group chairman Bob Turner’s promise that he would never run for office in Saratoga Springs in response to being asked how much the city manager and mayor would earn under the new form of government. Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor, said that would be up to the City Council under the current charter draft.

“I think I was always going to run,” Sullivan admitted.

Turner did provide his own personal estimate for what a mayor might earn, of $60,000 to $70,000, while vice chairman Pat Kane floated $125,000 as an estimated salary for a city manager.

“I think that’s a political decision [that] our elected officials should make,” Turner stressed.

The role of the mayor was a recurring topic among speakers — about 20 residents provided feedback and asked questions at the forum, which started with a 45-minute presentation by Turner and other commission members on the draft released this week.

Under the proposal, the mayor’s term would be extended, from two years to four years, and the six council members would also serve four-year terms. That’s an extension of the two-year terms now served by the four commissioners, who now make up the council but whose positions would be eliminated if voters approve the charter proposal during a referendum planned for November. If ushered in by the voters, the new form of government would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, with the first election in 2019.

George Bergmann, a Saratoga Springs resident since 2015 who lived in Alexandria, Virginia, for 34 years, questioned the need to make the mayor full-time. He said Alexandria had a much larger population and a part-time mayor under a council-manager form of government with six council members.

“All of our issues were addressed,” he said. “In our 34 years, we never had a problem.”

Turner said that need was determined from talking to seven past mayors of Saratoga Springs, who all said it’s a full-time job, at least.

Charles Brown, the city’s Democratic committee chairman, responded to statements made by the commission members that the proposed form of government would make it easier for more people to run for office in the city.

“I’m very concerned that we’re opening the door for potential candidates that ran a good campaign but do not understand the depth of the decisions they have to make,” he said.

Some residents questioned the number of councilors proposed, suggesting four councilors and a mayor would be enough. Turner said the commission wasn’t bent on a seven-member governing body.

“It has to be odd, we know that,” he said.

Sullivan commended the commission members for moving the vote to November, after originally planning a special election for May 30 — an idea that was rejected by the City Council.

“There’s a lot more time, and I would hope a lot more consideration to be given,” he said.

Turner said all of the night’s comments would be taken into consideration, and encouraged people to send more via email to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.

“It is not written in stone,” he said, referring to the current charter draft.