Spa City charter: Vote yes
Published 9:34 pm, Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Saratoga Springs voters will consider a new form of government Nov. 7.
It’s an opportunity for both more professional management and more representative government.
Defenders of Saratoga Springs’ commission form of government like to quote the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” leaping past the real question: Is this system of government really working?
Some easily conclude that the commission form of government must be working or Saratoga Springs wouldn’t be the vibrant city it is today. One might wonder, though, how to explain all those less prosperous years before the city’s revival — decades when that same form of government was in place.
A more realistic reading of history suggests that it was in spite of that form of government that Saratoga Springs came back, thanks to a mix of entrepreneurial spirit and citizen engagement. Thanks to a foundation laid in the 1960s and ’70s not by a hidebound and parochial city government, frequently hobbled by infighting, but by local businesspeople and citizens who formed an action plan to reverse the city’s decline. Thanks to investors piqued by the early success of businesses that reflected the changing times, iconic bars like Tin & Lint and the counterculture mecca of Caffe Lena. It happened thanks to people who saw the untapped potential of the summertime crowds drawn to horse racing, springs, and the performing arts, and a growing, affluent student body at Skidmore College.
The commission form of government — long ago abandoned by most cities — isn’t all bad, and certainly plenty of capable, civic-minded people have served over the years. With its sometimes blurry division of authority, however, it presents too many opportunities for day-to-day city business to get caught up in petty politics.
Having part-time elected officials run their own fiefs without necessarily having any relevant expertise is not only unprofessional but wasteful — they in turn hire full-time deputies, who help oversee actual managers. Having department heads also serve as the city’s legislators muddies the proper checks and balances between the executive and the legislative branches of government. It creates silos, each led by a commissioner often suspected of vote-trading.
The city’s Charter Review Commission, after 16 months of work, has produced a smart blueprint for change: a government whose day-to-day operations would be run by a professional city manager, reporting to an elected six-member council and mayor.
How much money this might save has been the subject of some dispute. Even if the savings is more modest than the commission estimates, though, there’s far more at stake here.
Right now, the only people who can afford to serve on this commission-style council are those financially secure enough to settle for a $14,500 salary. That may explain why the positions attract few candidates. The proposed new form of government would open the door for a true, part-time citizen legislature, one more reflective of the city’s growing, diverse population, to set policy and direction.
This is really about accountable, representative government. It’s about how democracy is supposed to work. A “yes” vote is best for Saratoga Springs.