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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.