Mailing to Registered Voters: Summary of Proposed Charter on the Ballot

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SARATOGA SPRINGS PROPOSED CITY CHARTER This Summary Memorandum is offered by the Charter Review Commission to provide members of the Saratoga Springs community with a brief synopsis of the Proposed City Charter.

Purpose or General Idea

The goals of the Charter are to protect and enhance the health, safety, environment and general welfare of the people; to enable municipal government to provide services and meet the needs of the people efficiently; to allow fair and equitable participation of all persons in the affairs of the City; to provide for transparency, accountability and ethics in governance and civil service; to foster fiscal responsibility; to promote prosperity and diversity; and to address the broad needs of a changing society.

Justification Separation of Powers

The Proposed Charter offers a form of government in which legislative roles are separated from administrative responsibilities. The existing Charter combines these roles in each Commissioner and the Mayor. In the Proposed Charter, policy leadership and fiscal accountability are ultimately given to the elected Mayor and Council. It is anticipated that numerous efficiencies will be identified and implemented. Potential difficulties of Commissioner-headed departments not working effectively together will be eliminated by the unification of administration under the Manager, who will be accountable to the Mayor and Council.

Financial Accountability

The balanced budget requirement and internal controls are continued from the existing Charter. Financial accountability is enhanced in the Proposed Charter with the addition of regular internal audits. The existing Charter provides for audits conducted by the Finance Department, but that department is not able to independently audit itself. Therefore, an outside contractor will conduct the annual internal audit, and it is anticipated that savings will accrue from that function as well.

Citizen Participation

The Commission sought to provide for greater participation in city electoral affairs with the proposed expansion of the City Council from the present five Commissioners to seven (six Council members plus the Mayor). As city government grows in size and complexity, many citizens who would be well qualified legislators are unable to make the personal sacrifice to take on the time consuming job of running a city department.

Summary of Provisions Article I. General Provisions

This Article includes title and purpose, city status, powers and duties, and geographic boundaries.

Article II. City Council and Mayor

The Proposed Charter provides for a City Council of six members, elected at large, plus a voting Mayor as presiding officer. The powers of the Mayor include representing the city in intergovernmental relationships, executing any and all contracts approved by the Council, making appointments to land use boards and committees with advice and consent of the Council, chairing the Finance Committee of the Council and others. The Council shall appoint a qualified person as City Manager, the City Attorney and approve the Manager’s appointment of the City Clerk. In its oversight role, the council is authorized to conduct investigations and audits. 2 The Council is authorized to levy taxes, enact ordinances and local laws, license certain occupations, and set penalties for violations.

Article III. City Manager

This Article provides for the appointment, qualifications and compensation of a City Manager to direct and oversee the administrative functions of City government, in keeping with the policies established by the Mayor and Council. The Manager shall serve an indefinite term at the pleasure of the Council, and the Council shall set the Manager’s compensation. The City Manager shall, among other duties, direct and supervise all administrative offices and functions, represent the City in collective bargaining, implement contracts approved by the Council, regularly evaluate employee performance, attend all City Council Meetings, and prepare and submit an annual budget and capital program to the Council for its review and approval. The Manager shall make reports to the Council concerning ongoing operations, fiscal matters, and other affairs of the City, assist in the development of long-term goals, and cooperate with the Council in developing policies and information requested by the Council.

Article IV. Departments, Offices and Agencies

All existing departments, offices and agencies are continued in the Proposed Charter until or unless changed by the City Manager, in consultation with the Council. The two County Supervisors are provided, allowing for staggered four-year terms of office if authorized by state legislation.

Article V. Financial Management

The Proposed Charter continues the present Charter’s structural reforms in budget process, providing that the Manager prepare the City Budget for review and approval by the City Council. Provision is made for public hearings and review by the City Council Finance Committee and by the Council itself by November 30 of each year. The Proposed Charter also provides that the budget must be balanced and that mid-year financial reports be made by the Manager. No expense or liability may be incurred unless the City Council has made an appropriation. The Capital Program shall cover six-years and shall also be subject to Council adoption. The Manager shall prepare and recommend to the council the Annual Capital Budget, similar to provisions of the existing Charter. An Independent Annual Audit is provided for as well as an Internal Audit, a new provision not in the existing charter.

Article VI. Elections and Staggered Terms of Office

The Proposed Charter establishes staggered four-year terms for the City Council, plus a four-year term for the Mayor. Term limits are provided, a maximum of three full elected four-year terms of office for the Mayor and members of the City Council.

Article VII. Tax Districts; Bonding Limits; Contracts; Assessments, Taxes and User Fees

This article continues the establishment of the Inside and Outside Tax Districts. These districts continue the City’s highway maintenance arrangement with New York State that was established prior to 1915 and has continued ever since, to the city’s benefit. The City’s debt limit will remain at 2% of the average full valuation of taxable real estate.

Article VIII.  Transition and Severability.

The Proposed Charter formally repeals the existing 2001 Charter and establishes an effective date of January 1, 2020. Election to the new City Council will be at the General Election

Letter to the Editor: Employees Shared Views on New Charter

Charter has large support

The Charter Review Commission heard a lot conflicting stories from the supporters and detractors of the commission form of government about whether it protects taxpayers and ensures accountability. To get the real data, we decided to survey City Hall employees in November 2016. We went to tremendous lengths to guarantee their anonymity and protect them from retribution.

We asked them whether they agreed with the statement: “I believe the Commission form of government prevents wasteful spending and protects the taxpayers?” Of those, 66.7 percent disagreed with that statement and only 22.2 percent agreed. Another 18.1 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

We also asked them if they believed “the Commission form of government ensures the accountability of commissioners for the performance of their departments.” Of the respondents, 56.9 percent disagreed with that statement and only 25 percent agreed. Again, 18.1 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Bob Turner, Charter Review Commission Chair

Saratoga Springs

 

https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/13/employees-shared-views-on-new-charter

Gazette: League of Women Voters favors Saratoga charter change

Group has been accused of being biased for reform in past

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County has announced its support of a proposed city charter change that will go before voters in November.

“LWVSC supports the proposed new charter, which creates a council-manager form of government, because it will provide for the separation of powers,” the league said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday, as public debate about the charter proposal starts to heat up.

A charter review commission appointed last year by Mayor Joanne Yepsen recommended changing the current century-old form of government, in which elected commissioners administer specific city departments and also legislate as members of the City Council. For example, public works, public city, city finances and city clerk functions are all overseen by elected commissioners. The form of government is rare; Mechanicville is the only other city in New York state that uses it.

The review commission has recommended replacing it with a city council whose members are legislators only, with a paid city manager overseeing the day-to-day management of city departments, though answerable to the council. The council would have seven members, including an elected mayor.

“We believe that it is important to separate the legislative functions of government from the administrative ones, to have a strong centralized administration, to have clear lines of responsibility, to be representative of the entire community, to be efficient and cost-effective,” the league said in its prepared statement.

The league also believes more people with more diverse backgrounds would run for council seats if the job didn’t also involve managing departments.

The current form of government has powerful defenders, though, including former commissioners. They have formed their own group, called SUCCESS, which stands for Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga’s Success. SUCCESS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the league’s stance.

SUCCESS previously accused the League of Women Voters of being unfair and has decided not to participate in a Sept. 21 educational charter forum the league has planned at Saratoga Springs Public Library.

The public referendum will happen during Saratoga’s general election Nov. 8.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.netor @gazettesteve on Twitter.

https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/12/saratoga-league-of-women-voters-favors-charter-change

Gazette Letter: “What will proposed charter accomplish?”

5 features that distinguish this charter from existing one

 

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.

LINK: https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/10/what-will-the-proposed-charter-accomplish-for-saratoga-springs

Gazette Letter: New Government will Help Spa City

Letter To The Editor
by Chris Mathiesen

During a recent panel discussion devoted to the proposed change to the Saratoga Springs City Charter, panelist Jane Weihe, representing the group SUCCESS, which has consistently advocated for keeping the present commission form of government, told a story about a friend who needed leaves picked up.

According to Jane, her friend called the Department of Public Works and was told that the leaves would not be picked up until the following week due to roads being paved. Jane then commented, “Good luck getting that fast and clear an answer from a city manager who is hired and works for a council that’s elected for all four years.”

Scare tactics have been a prominent part of SUCCESS’s attempts to undermine proposals to update government in Saratoga Springs from its present commission form. According to this group, citizens would lose control over city services if the city abandoned its governmental structure, which consists of a five-member City Council whose members function both as legislative representatives and as executives over their respective city departments.

Cities across the country have abandoned the commission form of government for good reason. Jane Weihe should know that leaves are being picked up in other cities and towns, the overwhelming majority of which do not operate under a commission form of government.

Services are being provided and employees are being hired without regard for one’s political party. Citizens run for city councils and can represent their neighbors without the conflicting burden of overseeing a department. Management of those municipalities is well-ccoordinated and logical.

Saratoga Springs can have efficient, democratic, transparent and responsive government, too. By voting yes for the proposed charter, our voters can finally bring about this important change for the better.

Chris Mathiesen

Saratoga Springs

The writer is the commissioner of Public Safety.

https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/02/new-government-will-help-spa-city

Times Union: The Saratoga Blog

Commission announces language for city charter referendum, plans voter education

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, which voted unanimously to put the referendum on the proposed charter before voters on Tuesday, Nov. 7, announced the ballot language.

The question will read: “Shall the new city charter proposed by the city charter commission be adopted?”

There will also be three statewide referendums on the same ballot that will come alongside the city charter question.

The commission will begin an education campaign this fall.  The state Guidelines for Revising City Charters suggestions for public education includes sending voters a narrative that spells out the main features and merits of the new charter and explain why each provision was proposed.  The commission decided to send out an informational mailing that will include a summary of the charter, a financial analysis and the full version of the charter to all voting households in the city.

“We want every citizen to have the opportunity to read the charter and educate themselves,” said Gordon Boyd, commission treasurer. “The city council in February unanimously allocated $20,000 for voter outreach.  Reaching more than 10,000 households in the city, on a per household basis, $2 per household is not a great expense for something as fundamental to our future as the city charter.”

The commission has scheduled public forums on the charter at the Unitarian Church at noon on Sunday, Sept.7, a League of Women Voters meeting at the Saratoga Springs Public Library on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., and two “Meet a City Manager” nights on Monday Oct. 2 and 18.  Details can be found on the commission’s website at saratogacharter.com.

Citizens interested in learning more about the charter can invite a commission member to give a presentation, email questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com, or follow the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission on Facebook.