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.