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.