Charter change proposal debated

Pros and cons of new form of gov’t discussed

 August 4, 2017
BY NED CAMPBELL Gazette Reporter

Jane Weihe defended the city’s century-old form of government Thursday by telling a story of a friend whose leaves weren’t being picked up by city workers.

Her friend called the Department of Public Works, someone answered, and she was told crews were busy paving in front of a local school and workers would pick up the leaves the next week.

“Good luck getting that fast and clear an answer from a city manager who was hired and works for a council that’s elected every four years,” Weihe said during a debate on the Charter Review Commission’s proposed charter, which would replace the current commission form with a council-city manager system.

Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor who chairs the review commission, had his own story to tell.

“This city works great if you’re in the club,” he said. “If you’re connected, you get taken care of.”

He spoke of a neighbor who’s been pestering the Department of Public Works for 18 months, trying to get crews to remove a stump that’s on city property in front of his house.

“‘If I make a big fuss, then it’s never going to happen,’” he recalled the neighbor saying. “And you could go to any of the other commissioners, and they’re powerless.”

The debate was hosted by the Saratoga County Young Democrats in the Saratoga Springs Public Library. About 60 people attend. It was meant to be informative and educational, said Dan Barusch, the group’s president.

Whether the city’s form of government changes will be up to voters in November.

Barusch, 27, said the group has no position on the charter — not yet, anyway.

“That’s one of the other reasons we’re having it, to inform ourselves,” he said.

The debate featured three supporters and three detractors. Speaking in favor of a change were Turner; Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who appointed the 15-member commission to study the charter last June; and commission member Bah-ram “BK” Keramati. Those defending the current form were Weihe and Richard Sellers, who are both members of the Saratoga Springs SUCCESS group; and Michele Boxley, who served as deputy accounts commissioner for nearly five years.

The proposed form of government would eliminate the five deputy positions and replace them with a city manager to run the city’s operations. He or she would be hired based on educational background and experience, Turner said.

“It’s really quite normal for a deputy to run a campaign,” Turner said of the current system. “There’s no experience required — there’s no educational requirement.”

Instead of having four commissioners and a mayor make up the council, there would be a mayor and six council members. The council members would no longer receive health care, as the commissioners do now.

“Instead of having five CEOs, you now have one,” Turner said.

Turner argued that the commission form is outdated and uncommon, and said Mechanicville is the only other city in the state with a commissioner form of government. Boxley asked for proof that the council-manager system has been successful elsewhere. She pointed to Saratoga Springs as having the second lowest tax rate in the state.

“It’s never worked as well as our form of government has worked,” she said.

Sellers pointed to a bigger city finding success under the commission form.

“It’s not us and Mechanicville that’s so interesting,” he said. “It’s us and Portland, Oregon.”

Dennis Bouchard, a city resident, asked, “Who’s going to do the work of these four commissioners and the work of these five full-time deputies?”

Keramati responded by comparing city government, in its current form, to a kitchen with too many cooks.

“They’re all good cooks … but they get in each other’s way,” he said.

Boxley argued that deputies have an important job — to execute their commissioner’s “strategic plan” for the benefit of the voters.

“While it may slow down the city union employee who’s paid to be there for those hours no matter what gets accomplished, it’s up to the deputy to make sure that strategic plan is executed,” she said.