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.