Spa City officials stand in way of charter panel’s efforts

By Jeff Altamari, Commentary Published 4:59 pm, Monday, October 23, 2017

Saratoga Springs’ City Council has joined a resistance movement but not the one you may be thinking of.

The Charter Review Commission labored 15 months to recommend a better form of government for the city. They chose a “council-manager” model. It allows an elected political body to set strategy, and a professional nonpolitical manager to run daily city business. Right now, 5,878 municipalities embrace it. It abolishes the conflict and inefficiencies inherent in the current “commission” form of government, in which nonprofessional politicians rule five independent silos.

Once the Charter Review Commission agreed on the council-manager model, discussions ensued with the International City Managers Association, mayors, city managers and citizens living in council-manager cities. More than 20 city manager locations were examined. Thirteen of these were studied in-depth: five in New York, three in New Jersey, two in Pennsylvania, two in Massachusetts, and one in Vermont. Median populations were between 24,000 and 29,000, similar to Saratoga Springs.

In every instance, an experienced city manager supervised nine to 13 direct reports. These mirrored Saratoga Springs’ fire chief, police chief, finance director, human resource administrator, recreation director, IT manager, etc. In some cases, an assistant city manager was present. There were no silos or political commissioners, or deputies. It was clear Saratoga Springs could structure a similar “flat” organization, maintain strong public services and eliminate the compensation of the political commissioners and deputies. The city could enjoy better governance at lower cost.

Future estimates are very difficult. The Charter Review Commission carefully worded its financial report. It stated estimating future costs and savings are challenging, that it was making good faith efforts and these were merely estimates, not guarantees of future results. It said there was $400,000 of potential estimated future annual savings. It did not say these began day one.

It estimated onetime transition costs between $100,000 and $300,000. This all seemed reasonable.

Municipal Home Rule Law states that the commission should be free from political interference by the City Council, and that council approval is not required. Nonetheless, this month and last, three City Council members vigorously attacked the commission’s work. They demanded that the analysis account for all of the current commissioner and deputy hours — positions not existing in any council-manager model.

In fact, cities examined showed proportionally fewer total employees than Saratoga Springs. Why? Expert management under a single nonpolitical executive without “silos” is significantly more efficient than Saratoga Springs’ government — a fact confirmed by several city managers.

Three commissioners, who are running unopposed in November, don’t like this. They called the commission’s efforts “advocacy” and have refused to pay the money previously earmarked for the public education mailer required by law. The courts will no doubt honor the city’s obligation to reimburse the commission, but it’s unfortunate these council members chose such an unproductive path.

Why are they afraid of voters receiving the Charter Review Commission’s work prior to the election? Why, indeed?

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