Saratoga Springs voters will decide the future of their city government in this year’s November elections. The choice is whether to adopt the new city charter proposed by the Charter Review Commission (see www.saratogacharter.com), or to stay with the existing one, originally established over 100 years ago.
Here are five features of the proposed charter that distinguishes it from the existing one:
1. Separation of Legislative and Executive Powers
The existing charter combines executive and legislative functions in the same elected body. Elected commissioners not only form the city council, but they also each run a city department.
This puts the commissioners in a difficult position to defend the priorities of their own departments while having an equal vote in the legislative affairs of the city. As a result, conflicts abound, as witnessed in the proceedings of the current city council meetings.
Some consider these confrontations as “democracy in action.” What they really are is a manifestation of a governing system that has been poorly designed.
Separation of powers is a fundamental American tradition, rooted in our history and constitution. It is a safeguard of true democracy by limiting the power of one elected member.
No tinkering with our existing charter could fix this problem.
The proposed charter concentrates all legislative powers in the city council, consisting of 6 at-large elected members and headed by an elected mayor. It also gives this body the power of oversight and inquiry into city’s operations, with no direct responsibility for day-to-day running of city operations.
This responsibility is given to a hired city manager who has appropriate education and experience.
Policymaking and oversight remain the responsibility of the city council.
2. Professional to Run City Operations
The hired city manager will be responsible for running and managing all city operations under the watchful eye of the city council. Professional city managers are now running many small to medium-sized cities in the United States. The proposed charter requires a Master’s degree and five years experience in a in a relevant field, requirements that are now fairly standard for city manager positions.
A professionally managed city will reduce political interference in city operations. The city manager must have the support and confidence of the city’s elected body, the city council, which is ultimately accountable to the people. The city manager serves at the pleasure of the city council.
3. Financial Discipline Maintained and Enhanced
The current city charter was revised in 2001. This revision inserted a high level of financial discipline into the city’s finances that has served the city well. The proposed charter is keeping, almost verbatim, the 2001 charter language on finances.
The proposed charter further enhances financial discipline by adding a new internal audit function common in many businesses with budgets comparable to our city. This function will be a tool of the city council to perform ad-hoc audits of any city unit at any time and for
any reason. This audit could include both financial and process issues. Thus, the city council will have at its disposal a powerful tool to address potential questions and issues that may be brought to their attention by their constituents.
Separate and distinct from this internal audit function, the annual financial audit of city finances will, of course, continue as required by state law.
4. Better Democracy: Elected Offices More Accessible for Candidates
The Commission’s survey of potential candidates in Saratoga Springs showed that more citizens are likely to run for city council positions under the proposed charter. This survey result is consistent with the experience of cities that have changed to the proposed charter form. The perceived time commitment and expertise of our current commissioner positions discourage citizens from running for office, evidenced by the fact that some of the positions are uncontested year after year.
The proposed charter places a less stringent demand on citizen’s time and expertise. This is good for a vibrant democracy where more citizens are inclined to run for city offices.
5. City Government Better Explained and Understood
The proposed charter establishes clear leadership for the city in the person of the mayor, who presides over the city council and is the formal face of the city in all interactions. The city manager is the focus of how things are done from the operational perspective, executing the policies established by the city council without the influence of politics.
Constituents can also interact directly with their elected council members regarding any city issue or problem.
In summary, the proposed charter will assure that Saratoga Springs will continue to thrive with more democratic participation of city’s residents, more professional government services, clear division of responsibilities of city leaders, and true separation of legislative and executive powers.
Bahram “BK” Keramati of Saratoga Springs is a member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.