Ask Yourself…

By Ann Casey Bullock, Member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, July 30, 2017

Ask yourself: do you work for five different (equal) bosses? Our City employees do–and our citizens need to know how to navigate between five co-equal departments in order to get anything accomplished at City Hall. Saratoga Springs should adopt the Council-Manager form of government, widely used across the country, to create a Council, responsive to citizens’ needs and separate from the administrative offices. The administration of the City, headed by a professional manager, is answerable to the Council and citizens: it is not a disconnected bureaucracy. Ask me or any of the Charter Review Commissioners about the proposed new Charter; read the proposed Charter on our website (https://saratogacharter.com/category/documents/); please vote YES in November!

Saratogian Reader’s View: The decision is yours

http://www.saratogian.com/opinion/20170715/readers-view-saratoga-springs-voters-the-decision-is-yours

Reader’s View: Saratoga Springs voters: The decision is yours

Bob Turner
Bob Turner 

After 14 months, 36 full open to the public commission meetings, 40 subcommittee meetings, three town halls and public information sessions, and innumerable conversations with citizens, the 15 member nonpartisan citizen Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission voted to put a new city charter on the November 7th ballot. A city charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It sets the rules that define the way the government operates. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city.

Our commission did not make its decision to propose a new charter lightly. We spent seven months assessing how the city government is working. We interviewed 23 former and present city council members about how well they thought the commission form of government is working. We interviewed Department heads, former deputy commissioners, and surveyed City Hall employees to understand their perspectives on how the charter affects their ability to perform their jobs. We also conducted extensive individual interviews with local business leaders, non profits, consultants that work closely with the city. We also surveyed 182 potential city council candidates about their willingness to run for office under the current charter vs. alternative charters.

In December, the Commission voted 15-0 to draft a charter with a new form of government. We spent the next 4 months identifying the best practices in the nation and tailoring them for Saratoga Springs. We read 30-plus studies, reports, and academic articles on municipal governance. We met with mayors, chief administrators, and city managers from 10 different cities. We reviewed the Model City Charter from the National Civic League as well as 15-plus city charters from New York and 40-plus charters from other states to find the best constitutional language we could. We hired Robert Batson, Government Lawyer in Residence, Albany Law School, and preeminent expert on New York charter law to draft and review the constitutionality of our charter language. Tony Izzo, a 30-plus year Saratoga Springs Assistant City Attorney and legal counsel to previous charter review efforts, served as our counsel, too, and reviewed our language.

After we finished our draft charter, we embarked on a listening phase to find out how we could make our charter better. We held two town meetings. We met with area business leaders, city hall employees, former Charter Review Commission members, and city attorneys. We received highly detailed emails and had countless conversations from the public. We made more than 20 large and small changes on issues ranging from the city council salary and benefits, city attorney, county supervisors, civil service, audits, and transparency to name a few.

On June 26, we voted 11-2 to approve the final charter and submit it to the voters in a referendum on November 7. The proposed charter will be the most important issue on the 2017 ballot. Under the proposed charter, voters elect the mayor and six council members to represent them on the City Council. The City Council is the legislative and policymaking body. It approves the budget and determines the tax rate. It establishes the community’s goals, major projects and such long-term considerations as community growth, land use development, capital improvement and financing and strategic planning. The Council hires a professional manager, with the necessary educational and experience credentials, to implement the administrative responsibilities related to these goals and supervises the manager’s performance. Policy making resides with elected officials, while oversight of the day-to-day operations of the city bureaucracy resides with the city manager.

The proposed charter requires a balanced budget, establishes term limits, and has strong provisions on ethics and transparency. It will save taxpayers a minimum of $300,000 a year and has strong independent audit provisions to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in city hall.

We believe we have crafted a charter that meets the increasing challenges of the future. However, don’t take my word for it. Read the proposed charter at saratogacharter.com. Invite the Charter Review Commission to give a presentation to your friends, neighbors, or community organization. Email your questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com, and we will do our best to answer them. Follow the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission on Facebook. It’s your charter. The decision is yours.

Bob Turner is chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.

Opinion: “Put the five-headed monster to rest”

Barbara Lombardo: Saratoga Springs voters: Put the five-headed monster to rest

Barbara Lombardo
Barbara Lombardo 

Saratoga Springs residents will have a chance this November to make City Hall more efficient, accountable and possibly less expensive – by voting “yes” to change the form of government.

The city is in good shape. Property taxes are reasonable. Snow is plowed and leaves are picked up. We’re well-protected by firefighters and police. Commercial and residential growth continues.

Why mess with success?

Well, the old saw “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t apply. City Hall isn’t broken, but it would surely be better with a manager overseeing the whole kit and caboodle instead of the current five-headed monster.

Talk to movers and shakers in Saratoga Springs, and they’ll admit good things happen despite city government, not because of it. If you’ve needed help or information from City Hall, as I have, you’re likely to have had to visit multiple offices in different departments to resolve a single issue. Capable, hard-working city employees privately share their frustrations with the setup.

A Charter Review Commission of 15 citizens has concluded more than 13 months of extensive research, interviews and public discussions by voting, 11-2 (with two members absent), to present its on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. Even the nay-sayers lauded the work of their conscientious colleagues.

The new proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s less imperfect than the system it would replace.

This will be one in a series of occasional pieces in which I plan to address different facets of the charter proposition as the vote nears. I welcome your questions, suggestions and anecdotes. I’ll start with why the system should be changed.

Here are three overriding reasons the current commission government is weak, based primarily on my 38 years covering Saratoga Springs government and politics for The Saratogian as well as my experiences as a city resident:

No one is in charge – not even the mayor, who has no real power to compel action.

All five city council members, including the mayor, wear two hats: Each is elected as a legislator and an administrator, responsible for specific segments of City Hall, such as public safety, public works, assessments or finance – regardless of their interest or knowledge in those areas. Council members tend to focus on issues within their areas of accountability (and become their advocates), instead of taking a broader view as leaders of city government.

City Hall is thus set up like five silos, each headed by one of the five City Council members, including the mayor. This results in some duplicated tasks and a cumbersome (or nonexistent) process for sharing information. Sometimes City Council members play nice together and work cooperatively; sometimes they stymie one another, to the public’s detriment. And since some departments with related functions (such as the building department and code enforcement) fall under different council members’ purviews, citizens must run from one office to another resolve an issue.

If you have a concern with street paving, it shouldn’t be addressed only to the City Council member elected as commissioner of public works. Likewise, a question about police patrols shouldn’t be directed only at the commissioner of public safety. Every council member should be responsive to the public’s concerns and have a stake in how all city matters are handled, not just those under their administrative purview. And they should be able to turn to a city manager to be sure day-to-day tasks are getting done.

That’s what the proposed system would do.

The plan is to create a seven-member City Council, including a mayor, with staggered, limited terms. The biggest change: Instead of each hiring their own full-time deputy and/or director to run their respective departments, as is now the case, the council would hire a professional manager to oversee the running of all aspects of City Hall.

The proposed form would allow for the reorganization of city operations based on the best process, not politics. The proposal makes a commitment to not laying off people but to reducing positions through attrition, and doesn’t attempt to guess at what the ultimate staff number ought to be. It’s time to let the City Council be policy makers, and let the people who work in City Hall do their jobs.

Barbara Lombardo, a Saratoga Springs resident and journalism adjunct at University at Albany, was managing editor of The Saratogian for more than 30 years. Her blog is DoneWithDeadlines.com.

Saratogian: Letter to the Editor from Commission Member

July 2, 2017

The evening of June 27, 2017 marked a key milestone for the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission. By a vote of 11–2, the Commission adopted a new charter for our city. I am fairly certain that the two absent members would have voted with the majority. For me, a member of this Commission, this milestone represents an American experience unlike any other in my 40 years as a naturalized citizen of this country.

The 15-member commission included a variety of people with different political ideologies, life and work experience, gender and background. The American-ness of the experience lies in the fact that it epitomized the democratic process of self-governance, the idea of people deciding how they should organize themselves to be governed in a fair and just system for the benefit of our city as a whole. I could not but think about how the 39 delegates on September 17, 1778 must have felt when they signed the first Constitution of The United States of America. My experience of serving in our city’s Commission brought me as close as many people will ever get to be in a real-life scenario where such lofty objectives are at stake on a smaller scale, but nonetheless important for our community. This was an experience in democracy beyond any ideology of liberalism, conservatism, or any other isms.

I have participated in the political process as a citizen, activist, and candidate. I do consider all these experiences to be an important part of being an American. But no other experience has placed me closer to experiencing self-determination, choice, democracy and participation than my experience with this Commission. The very first question of democracy is how it is possible for all citizens to have a meaningful voice in their government. It is the local government that provides for the many necessities and comforts of daily life, defines our environment of work and leisure, and provides a myriad of city services that we all expect and rely on. Collectively, the Commission’s primary job was to present our city with a form of government that would allow the wish of the people to be reflected in our city’s government clearly and efficiently.

In addition to working with and becoming acquainted with the members of the Commission, my participation brought me much closer to my community. Many issues that I had not even thought about were brought to the surface. I was forced to think through them and decide how to best address them in our Commission’s work. I thought about our typical city residents who may have some dealings with City Hall. Is it clear to them who they can approach if they have a problem? Does our current form of government address their problems quickly and efficiently? What do the City Hall employees think about how well the city government meets the city’s needs? What do key business leaders, not-for-profit agencies and other constituents think about our city’s form of government? Are the city’s long-term needs being addressed? In getting answers to these questions, I became much more aware of the richness, diversity, history and complexity of our community.

Another important aspect of being a member of this Commission was to think through issues and to come up with ideas and decisions, and then have these ideas altered and changed once I interacted with other Commission members. The collective power of a group of citizens has become much more clear and obvious to me. Given the contentious issues that were addressed, I was, at the end, very impressed with the large majority vote to approve the new charter.

To me, this has been a defining experience in how our form of democracy works. To be sure, the fate of the proposed charter is up to the people of Saratoga Springs who will make their wishes known at the ballot box in November. All I can hope is that my fellow citizens will consider the process that the Commission undertook, its many hours of deliberations and listening to our community, and the soundness of our final proposal and the reasons behind our decisions. But the final decision is the people’s, who will choose what kind of government they prefer for our city. I have the comfort of knowing that I was part of the process that is offering them this choice.

Bahram Keramati

Saratoga Springs