Times Union blog: New group pushes for change…

New group pushes for change in city

charter; hosts library meetings

A group of Saratoga Springs residents, including current and former mayors, has joined to form a new organization called, It’s Time Saratoga! The organization’s mission is to help educate city voters about why their support for the new city charter, developed by the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, is needed to ensure a vibrant future for Saratoga Springs.

“Our name says it all,” said Rick Fenton, spokesperson for the group. “We enthusiastically agree that it’s time for a new city charter. Saratoga Springs is growing and changing. To keep up, our city government must be equipped to meet the demands of a modern city – land use planning, management of infrastructure, energy, transportation and parking, emergency services, environmental protection and affordable housing. Our outdated commission form of government just isn’t serving residents, businesses, or city staff the way it should,” he said.

It’s Time Saratoga! will host an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 28 and  Oct. 5 in the Sussman Room in the Saratoga Springs Public Library on Henry Street.

The new organization invites everyone who can help by walking door-to-door, hosting an informational meeting in their home, making a donation or putting up a lawn sign.

Under Saratoga’s existing charter, the mayor and four commissioners serve both as members of the city council and supervisors of city departments.

“Nobody is in charge,” Fenton said. “City staff are divided into five separate departments supervised by politicians of different parties. When council members don’t get along, the people in their departments don’t work together. City council discussion are more about turf battles than collaboration. With benefit of group discussion, department decisions are made by the elected department head alone, out of the public eye. Government actions lack transparency and accountability, services suffer, projects are delayed and cost more.”  

With the new charter, the elected city council will retain complete control over all major policy and legislative decisions, including the budget and taxes, but responsibility for the day-to-day supervision of city operations will be transferred to a professional city manager.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen thinks the change is needed.

“Our commission form of government prevents many of the talented people in our community from even considering running for a city council position. Under the new charter, people from currently under-represented neighborhoods, more people with jobs and families, and more women will run and be elected. We will have more competitive races, and a greater diversity of voices in city government,“ she said. “Going back to 1915, only seven women have ever had a seat on our city council. We’ve never had a woman for commissioner of accounts or public safety, and only one woman as commissioner of public works in the 1940s.”

A.C. Riley, Saratoga Springs supervisor from 1980 to 1987, and mayor from 1990 to 1995, agreed.

“Managing the city isn’t a job for amateurs,” Riley said.  “Everything in our world is getting more complex, including local government. In the old days, most people could fix their own cars, or the kitchen sink. How many people can do that today? We call a professional, someone with training and expertise, so we get good results. Under the new charter, that professional will be our city manager, who will be the leader of all city departments. Our elected city council will make all the important decisions, and direct the manager to carry them out. The charter will require the manager to be educated and experienced in how to read and carry out laws and regulations, how to develop and manage a budget, and how to negotiate with unions. The council will rely on the manager to direct several projects at once and get things done on time.”

Former Mayor Raymond Watkin previously opposed charter change, but now sees things differently.

“I look forward to supporting the campaign to adopt a new city charter,”  Watkin said. “Our city government is unable to keep up with the demand for services from our growing community. In-fighting and a ‘me-first’ attitude among the commissioners has prevented progress on meeting infrastructure, public safety and community needs.”

More information is available at the group’s website, www.itstimesaratoga.com, or by emailing info@itstimesaratoga.com.

Saratoga Springs voters will have a chance to vote on the proposed new city charter in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The question will be on the back of the ballot.

LINK: http://blog.timesunion.com/saratogaseen/new-group-pushes-for-change-in-city-charter-hosts-library-meetings/31151/


WAMC: Charter Change Documents Sent To Saratoga Springs Homes

 • September 29, 2017

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission is now sending information to homes in the Spa City about the proposed city charter on the ballot Election Day. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard was at the Commission’s meeting Thursday night when the documents were approved.

Materials about the proposed city charter in Saratoga Springs are in the mail.

The Charter Review Commission’s plan, if approved on election day, would change Saratoga Springs’ governing structure from its current commission-style to a more common council-manager style.

In 2020, Saratoga Springs would go from a system where five department heads also serve as city legislators, to a seven-member city council that includes a mayor, and a separate full-time city manager appointed by the council.

Charter Review Commission Chair Bob Turner stood by the effort of all those involved over the past several months.

“We’ve spoken to well over a hundred, 150 people formally and informally over parties, on the streets, in coffeehouses about what they think about city government, what their hopes are for the future, and what we can do to make Saratoga Springs even better,” said Turner. “And their drive, really, to make it better is what was always motivating us throughout the entire, almost two-year process.”

Thursday night, the Charter Review Commission approved a more detailed financial review of the charter reform plan after backlash from some members of the city council and the public.

Originally, a one-page financial snapshot showed a savings from the proposed charter of $391,000. The longer financial review estimates a $403,000 savings, but also includes additional disclaimers about potential costs not included in the one-page version.

“And people will be getting a seven-page detailed version that they can read. There’s, I think, a lot of disclaimers in there about it. But I think we feel confident that it is a reasonable estimate of what this will cost in the short-run and some estimates about the long-run as well.”

Opponents of the proposed charter have questioned the financial review’s assessment of the role of the city’s deputy commissioners. Nearly $600,000 in cost reductions are attributed to the removal of the five full-time deputy commissioners.

The financial assessment does include a disclaimer:

“The existing Deputy Commissioners or their designees shall continue to serve in their department management functions until the City Manager’s appointment is effective, at which time they shall serve at the pleasure of the City Manager.”

The assessment also mentions that transition costs could vary from $100,000 to $300,000, but says it is impossible to know how long a transition could take.

Richard Sellers, a supporter of the group called SUCCESS, which backs the current form of government, believes the costs will be much higher.

“The most important thing is not one page versus seven, it’s the flawed thinking in the document, whether it’s one page or seven,” said Seller. “One or two people cannot do the work of eight or nine, so there’s a $600,000 cost increase for moving to the city manager form of government.”

Former Deputy Mayor Shauna Sutton, who served under former Republican Mayor Scott Johnson for six years, questioned the Commission as to why former deputies were not surveyed.

“Interview the former deputies. Because these deputies spent, as I said, thousands of hours working here. And they know how the government and structure basically works,” said Sutton.

The Commission chose to interview several past elected leaders. The Commissionalso gathered input from 75 current city employees.

While a majority of respondents said the appointed deputies showed respect for city employees, attitudes toward assistance in problem solving and decision making ability were mixed.

Some deputies, including Sutton, have also served as staffers on their commissioners’ political campaigns.

The financial analysis is based on the elimination of all current commissioners and deputies. It does not account for future hires. The Charter Review Commission anticipates that  legislative and policy work currently performed by deputies and commissioners would be absorbed by the new seven-member city council.

LINK: http://wamc.org/post/charter-change-documents-sent-saratoga-springs-homes

Saratogian: Spa City Charter Review Commission OKs updated fiscal analysis


The commission approved its fiscal analysis last week, but at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting some commissioners spoke out against the analysis, saying it failed to provide key details.

The updated financial analysis will be sent to voters before the referendum, officials said. The proposed charter city residents will vote on in November would switch Saratoga Springs from a commission form of government to a council-manager form of government, meaning a city manager would have to be hired.

“We have been talking about the financial impact of the charter for several months now. We originally had a longer and far more detailed version of that and we thought that perhaps we should be shorter and more concise and only talk about the positions that were specifically outlined in the charter. We’re adding a city manager and we’re getting rid of the five deputy commissioners and we are ending health care benefits for commissioners,” commission Chairman Bob Turner said. “We’re also ending lifetime health care coverage for city council members who serve 10 years or more. What we heard from the city council [last week] was they wanted some more details on the specifics about what we thought the management structure would look like, about what it would cost for an independent audit as well as whether or not other management structure would be there.”

Initially, the financial statement was a one-page document. Now, voters will receive a seven-page financial disclosure summary explaining the estimated future cost savings the city would receive under the council-manager form of government.

The total estimated future annual savings based on the new charter and city manager actions would be $403,000.

In the document it says, “Estimated future annual savings reflects an approximate annual savings rate once the transition period is completed and the council-manager government is fully functioning and engaged.”

“Jeff Altamari did an incredible amount of research over the last two weeks looking at 20-25 cities with 30,000 people or larger from four different states about what their management structure was. We feel really good about the estimates that are in there,” said Turner. “We think they are very realistic and while in the past you’ve needed to have five commissioners and five deputy commissioners to run the five departments. We think we can do better. We think we can do it more cheaply and we can do it more efficiently and we think going for it for Saratoga Springs, that’s what would be best and that’s reflected in those financial estimates.”

Some commissioners mentioned they had issues with what the analysis included — or failed to include — about transition costs, the cost of an internal auditor and the fact city managers are able to keep deputies at their pleasure as written in the proposed charter.

This new fiscal analysis explains the transition costs as the most challenging aspect since nobody the Charter Review Commission spoke to had ever gone through a transition from the commission form of government to the council-manager format. The analysis provides several points for voters to note in approximating transition costs.

The Charter Review Commission sees the impact of the internal auditor as a cost neutral.

“[Altamari’s] estimate for an audit is $75,000. Every audit he said he has ever done that size is going to pay for itself several times over. We just assume it was revenue neutral that it would 75,000 worth of savings,” said Turner. “I think that’s very conservative. Any large enterprise that’s $50 million or more is going to have to have an independent auditor who comes and looks at specific provisions.”

The updated fiscal analysis assumes the city manager, who would earn $194,000 — that figure includes a $125,000 annual salary and the value of standard city-rate benefits — would hire an assistant city manager for a salary and benefits package of $140,000.

Turner defended the estimated salary of the city manager.

“I spoke to Bob McEvoy at Rockefeller College who is a former city manager and I asked what kind of city manager we could get for the estimate that’s in our financial estimate, and he said [we’ll] be getting the cream of the crop at that rate,” said Turner. “It’s worth noting that every single city manager that we’ve interviewed makes significantly less than the estimate that we provide.”

According to the document, the deputies will serve at the pleasure of the City Manager during the transition period, but they are no longer deputies because, by definition, their positions have been eliminated by the repeal language in the proposed charter. It says, if there are no commissioners, there can be no deputy commissioners.

The analysis calls for an estimated $36,000 of yearly savings for discontinued post-retirement care, an addition of $140,000 for a full-time city attorney’s salary and benefits, an elimination of $101,000 for a part-time city attorney’s salary and benefits and $155,000 through efficiency through attrition — which means two employees will retire but will not be replaced in the future.

The commission will send out materials to voters for the charter referendum, which is set for Nov. 7.

“Charter Review Commissions are required by New York Municipal Home Rule Law to conduct a public education campaign for voters. We are required to mail them the information on the charter, on a summary of the provisions and a financial impact statement,” said Turner. “What we are sending represents those things.”

To view the financial statement, visit http://www.saratoga-springs.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/7121

The Curious History of the Commission Form of Government



by Bob Turner

Saratoga Springs is one of only 2 cities in New York and one of only 28 midsized cities in the country with the commission form of government.  On Nov. 7, Saratoga Springs voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to retain the 102-year-old system or adopt a new one. To better understand our system, it is worth delving into the curious history of the commission system. 

The commission form of city government originated in Galveston, Texas, in 1901, after a disastrous hurricane and tidal wave. Fearful that the city might never recover under the leadership of the incumbent city council, a group of wealthy businessmen known as the Deep Water Committee devised a plan to have the governor appoint a commission to govern the city during the rebuilding period. To appease critics who contended that appointed government was undemocratic, the plan was altered to provide for direct election of two of the five commissioners.

Galveston’s seeming success inspired Houston to adopt the plan in 1905. Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Denison and Greenville followed in 1907. By then referred to as the Texas Idea, the commission plan started to receive national attention and be viewed as a progressive reform. Des Moines, Iowa, was the first city outside Texas to adopt the commission plan. The Des Moines version of the commission form included nonpartisan balloting, merit selection of employees, and the direct-democracy devices of initiative, referendum and recall. Usually supported by chambers of commerce and other business groups, the commission plan spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. In this period, about 500 cities adopted commission charters, including Saratoga Springs in 1915.  Leading Progressives of the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, endorsed the plan.

Under the commission plan, the voters in citywide elections elect a small commission of between 3-9 members. Each commissioner heads a department. The commissioners perform executive duties for their departments and meet as a commission to pass ordinances and make policy decisions. The form represented a dramatic break from traditional American constitutional theory. By combining the executive and legislative authority in individual commissions, it abandoned the traditional checks and balances.  Second, instead of having a single executive, like a president, governor or mayor, it divided the executive powers for overseeing departments into multiple commissioners. 

It was created by Progressives “with the best of intentions” and was viewed as a “laudable experiment,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Initially, it was seen as a means of diluting the concentration of power in a single elected official (the mayor) and promoting specialization in office. Advocates of the commission form argued that because power is concentrated in one set of individuals, decisions can be made quicker without all the “checks and balances” that typically delay action in the other structures. Advocates touted the simple organizational structure to this form of government—policy decisions are directly and swiftly implemented—no “middle men” to work around or through. 

However, enthusiasm for the commission system was short lived. A number of early adopting, large cities, such as Berkeley, San Diego, Wichita, Denver, Nashville, Knoxville, Lowell and Sacramento, abandoned the commission form of government within 10 years of adopting it. 

Rather than allowing a city to make quicker decisions, cities found there was often deadlock and inaction with each commissioner acting in the narrow interests of their own department, rather than the city government as a whole. The commission form of government encouraged departmental parochialism, making general administrative reorganization difficult to achieve. “The commission government normally assigns functions of the city to individual commissioners. Then, they kind of set up their own little fiefdom around their function,” said John Hamman, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. The absence of checks and balances resulted in the commission forms of government being “known for their corruption,” said Hamman.

The commission form of government was inefficient in controlling spending. Budgets are often not scrutinized between commissioners because that only leads to retaliation among members. Rivalry and lack of cooperation developed between the commissioners. Budget decisions were decided by logrolling between commissioners.  Spending for one commissioner could only be increased if spending in another commissioner’s department decreased. Reorganizing personnel or duties to achieve efficiency proved extremely difficult to achieve as no commissioners wanted to lose power.

Cities also found that having multiple executives rather than a single executive authority hindered effective leadership. The commission form confused responsibility and scattered control between the commissioners as a body and as individuals. City employees sometimes engaged actively in politics on behalf of favorite department heads. A coordinating official such as a mayor or manager was felt to be necessary to provide administrative direction and accountability.

Finally, voters rarely took administrative skills and background into account when electing the commissioners. Commissioners chosen by the voters all too often lacked experience and competence for administrative work. 

After World War I, the council-manager system replaced the commission form as the preferred choice for municipal reformers. Since 1915, the Model City Charter, a set of best practices in municipal governances drafted by the National Civic League, has recommended this council-manager form of government. The fundamental principle of the model is that all powers of the city be vested in a popularly elected council that appoints a professional manager who is continuously responsible to and removable by the council. The council-manager system is the most widely used governmental structure in American cities. In 1960, Galveston abandoned its own child in favor of a council-manager system. In 1950 Des Moines scrapped it in favor of the council-manager system. From a peak in 1917 of about 500, the number of commission cities has dwindled to only 28 today. Currently, Saratoga Springs (pop. 27,763) and Mechanicville (pop. 5,196) are the last two commission forms of government in New York.

Bob Turner

Associate professor of political science at Skidmore College and chair of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission 




Gazette Letter: Charter change will get better candidates

On Nov. 7, I will be voting “yes” on charter change for the city of Saratoga Springs, and I hope you will too. For me, it’s all about the quality of our democracy.

Under our old system, elected commissioners must be both lawmakers and administrators, all on a part-time salary. This narrows the field of potential candidates to a small club. Few people with full-time jobs or young families can afford to run. No wonder three of the five city offices are uncontested in this year’s election.

If we adopt the new charter, these responsibilities will be separated. Administration will be done by a professional city manager who is chosen by a city board of seven dedicated lawmakers. These dedicated lawmakers will then be free to focus on the important decisions about our city’s future.

Many cities before us have made this change and proven that the new charter will increase the number of talented citizens, from many different walks-of-life, willing and able to stand for office. Our elections will be competitive and Saratogians will have the healthy democracy we deserve.

The potential of our city is incredible, and by improving the quality of our democracy, we directly unleash the source of that potential: our people.


Saratoga Springs

LINK: https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/29/charter-change-will-get-better-candidates


WAMC: Saratoga Springs Charter Commission To Vote On Outreach

September 27, 2017


The estimated financial savings of a proposed city charter change in Saratoga Springs have been disputed between supporters and opponents. This week, the city’s Charter Review Commission plans to approve and release more details on the document.

Last week, the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission released a financial snapshot of the proposed city charter that will go before voters on Election Day.

The document, if approved, would transition Saratoga Springs from its current commission-style form of government, where five city department heads also serve as city legislators, to a more common council-manager form that would involve a seven-member city council including the mayor, and a full-time city manager.

The financial summary said the new form would mean $391,000 in savings, attributed mainly to the removal of the current system’s deputy commissioners.

But many remain skeptical of the cost savings, including Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, who spoke at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

“Am I missing something? Does anybody outside the planet Mars really believe that one person is going to be able to do all this work?”

Franck took issue with the elimination of the deputy commissioners and asked: if the deputies are eliminated, who is going to do the work to run city government? He threatened to block the funding to send information about the charter change to the public.

“If they cannot do this in a rational and fair manner, and not have material misrepentations in it, then I’m not going to OK it,” said Franck.

Charter Review Commission chair Bob Turner said by state law, the city council cannot prevent the commission from informing the public.

“And one of the key provisions there is that the city council does not get to decide what does or does not go out. Otherwise we wouldn’t be an independent provision,” said Turner.

The Commission is planning to approve a document to be sent to homes Thursday night. Turner said the document, which is several pages long, is not a political mailer.

“It will include the summary of the provision and the estimated financial savings. It is going to look like the sort of document that you would get from your retirement fund or if you did a home mortgage. It is long, it is dense. It is not a political mailer by any means,” said Turner.

The documents will include a more detailed financial review.

Commission member Jeff Altamari, who touts his experience working for a Fortune 500 company, says the new review, which includes transition costs, unlike the previous document, would save taxpayers about $403,000 over the current system. He stands behind the change in structure.

“I think people will realize that, yes, you can run lean. And those who claim that the savings are there are those who actually believe that and who have taken the time to do the research and see that many, many, many city manager forms of government have this flat, lean organization structure. They just don’t need two layers of political fat between themselves and the senior manager,” said Altamari.

Some members of the city council still want to know more. Last week, Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco introduced a measure to invite discussion over the proposed document.

“I move for council approval to discuss with the Charter Review Commission a review process where all council members receive copies of taxpayer-funded materials distributed by the Charter Review Commission before they are sent to the public,” said Scirocco.

The measure was approved unanimously.

The Charter Review Commission will meet Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Times Union Editorial: Get the Word Out to Voters


Two Saratoga Springs commissioners are blocking a mailing on the proposed charter.


They should not stand in the way of ensuring voters are well informed on Election Day.

For a democracy to work, citizens need to be informed before going to the polls. That’s a pretty fundamental concept.

But two commissioners on the Saratoga Springs City Council have decided to stand in the way of fully informing their 28,000 constituents about the proposed new city charter that will be on the November ballot. Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan and Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, both elected members of the council, disagree with the findings of the Charter Review Commission. Now they’re blocking the expenditure of about $10,000 to mail a summary of the commission’s report to city voters.

Ms. Madigan and Mr. Franck have every right — indeed, as elected officials, an obligation — to speak out on the proposal, which would replace the old elected commissioner system with a city manager form of government. Strong feelings have been voiced on both sides of the issue. The November referendum is about more than a document; it’s about the city’s future.

The two commissioners disagree with the Charter Review Commission’s projection that by switching to a city manager system, city taxpayers would save $400,000. Coming from two people intimately involved with the city’s finances, their perspective is worth considering. There is nothing wrong with their speaking out in the community and making their case against the commission’s report.

But shouldn’t residents have a clear idea of what this debate is about?

Among the commission’s duties is explaining the proposed new charter. The mailing to city residents is one important way to achieve that. Robert Batson, an Albany Law School professor who specializes in government law, notes that such documents sent out by a public entity before a vote must be factual, informative and educational; they cannot advocate one way or another. School districts regularly send out summaries to residents detailing proposed school budgets and bond issues just before elections. They are barred from using public funds to urge a certain outcome.

New York is also prohibited from stacking the deck on public referenda, as a state judge affirmed in 2013 in barring the state from using overly promotional language on the ballot item for a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling.

The commission’s mailing to city residents won’t determine the outcome of the vote, but it’s an important part of educating the public. The news media also has a responsibility to fairly report all sides in the issue, as well as summarize and explain the proposed new charter. With the reach of the internet and social media, civic and political organizations can get out their point of view easily and at virtually no cost.

Ms. Madigan and Mr. Franck have all that at their disposal, too, as well as the bully pulpits of their positions. They’re free to use them, but not to abuse those positions to unilaterally block the commission from doing its job to inform city residents — an abuse that they might find could be its own case for reform.


Mailing to Registered Voters: Cover letter

Dear Fellow Citizens,

On November 7, 2017, the voters of Saratoga Springs will be asked to approve the Proposed Charter.  This question will appear on the ballot:

Saratoga Springs Charter Review 

Shall the new city charter proposed by the city charter commission be adopted?

Voters will be asked to vote Yes or No.

To help inform voters, attached is:

  1. A Cover sheet
  2. a brief summary of the Proposed Charter
  3. the Proposed Charter

Voters can find additional information on the Charter Review Commission’s website at https://saratogacharter.com/ or email questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.


Robert C. Turner, PhD

Chair, The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission

The Members of the Charter Review Commission

Jeff Altamari

Gordon Boyd

Ann Casey Bullock

Laura Chodos

Devin Dal Pos

Elio Del Sette

Matthew J. Jones

Patrick Kane

Bahran Keramati

Robert Kuczynski

Mike Los

Minita Sanghvi

Barbara Thomas

Robert Turner

Beth Wurtmann