Ditching its commission is a divisive issue that could have major influence on future
Updated 10:37 am, Sunday, October 15, 2017
Calling Saratoga Springs unique is like saying a thoroughbred is fast or a spa is soothing. It’s obvious.
But one aspect of that singularity — the way it governs itself — is something that could, after Nov. 7, be just another relic of history in a city that reveres its past.
Some say doing away with its commission form of government, part of a charter-change proposition on the ballot, could unshackle the city and make its arc of development and progress even greater. Others say that the setup giving individual commissioners broad powers, though an increasing rarity in America, has guided the city well and should continue.
As if that’s not a big enough decision, city residents will choose from two new mayoral contenders — who are themselves of different minds about a switch.
Democrat Meg Kelly wants a change.
“The city has no leadership – only a divided group of commissioners who have no reason to work together for the good of the city,” said Kelly, current deputy mayor. “I’m in there. I know.”
Her opponent, Republican Mark Baker, doesn’t believe there should be any changes and if elected he promised, “I can build consensus.”
For the 15 members of a Charter Review Commission, change is a no-brainer. After more than a year of study, which included interviews with former elected officials, city managers and mayors statewide as well as a survey of city workers, members concluded unanimously that there is good reason to replace a commission form of government with one run by a city manager whose job it is to realize the vision of the mayor and an expanded six-member council.
“It is not a historical accident that the number of cities with the commission form of government have dropped from 587 to 28 nationally,” said Bob Turner, chairman of the Charter Review Commission. “The current form of our city government lacks checks and balances. It’s mostly politics. Commissioners’ first obligation is to their own department, rather than the city at large. Because there is no chief executive to check individual departments … all too often the system degrades to where our commissioners are more focused on challenging each other and settling political scores than working to advance and benefit our city.”
Government experts agree. Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, said it’s a choice between “a badly designed system run by good people or a well-designed system run by ordinary people.”
Commission governments were popular in the early part of the 20th century, but after a couple of decades, it became evident that a city manager was preferred, Benjamin said. “There were a couple of reasons. There is no executive center to the city. It also promoted logrolling. Commissioners would trade off votes. ‘You vote for my project and I’ll vote for yours.’ It was displaced in the 1920s because people wanted a government that could deliver services. With a commission government, there is not a strong overall discipline to deliver services.”
After a year of consideration and deliberation, the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County endorsed charter change, citing the commission system’s lack of both a chief officer and separation of powers between legislators and administrators.
A new group called It’s Time Saratoga was also established to promote change. Headed by retired state forester Rick Fenton, the group wants voters to check “yes” on the question: Shall the new city charter proposed by the city charter commission be adopted?
“City staff are divided into five separate departments supervised by politicians of different parties. When council members don’t get along, the people in their departments don’t work together. City Council discussions are more about turf battles than collaboration,” Fenton said.
But commission-form supporters insist that the city of almost 28,000 functions fine and can’t be compared to the other 559 cities that dropped their commissions. Any change, they believe, could upset the city’s star power as upstate New York’s most-prosperous community.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” said Commissioner of Public Works Anthony “Skip” Scirocco.
And a group called Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential for Saratoga’s Success, backs Scirocco.
“By all measures, the city is doing well,” said Richard Sellers, the group’s spokesman. “We like the accessibility and accountability of the commissioners. They are responsible and responsive to residents.”
The decision comes at a time when Saratoga Springs basks in its own light. Visitors to the racetrack topped 1 million this past season. It remains one of the wealthiest cities in the region by median household income, at $70,200. Broadway and surrounding streets continue to see growth.
In 2006, 62 percent of voters rejected charter change and in 2012, 58 percent did.
City manager’s role
Here’s what a yes vote for the charter would mean:
First, nothing would change until 2020. In the interim, a city manager would be hired at an estimated salary of $125,000. That person would serve at the pleasure of an expanded six-member City Council and mayor. The mayor and council would enact laws, set policy and define initiatives. The city manager would handle the day-to-day duties of running the city, ensuring the goals set by the council come to fruition.
Some have questioned how a city manager could replace the specialized knowledge of the current commissioners in accounts, finance, public safety and public works. Sellers said a city manager means “the most powerful person will not be elected.”
Earlier this month, Geneva City Manager Matt Horn spoke during a public forum at the Saratoga Springs Public Library to explain the role of a city manager. He said typically a city manager isn’t the most powerful person, nor would they know everything. But the city manager would consult department heads who are experts in their fields, Horn said.
What has the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission done since June 2016?
Held 35 full commission meetings, 40 subcommittee meetings, five town halls and public information sessions.
Interviewed 23 former and present City Council members.
Surveyed 182 potential City Council candidates about their willingness to run for office under the current charter vs. alternative charters.
Reviewed 30-plus studies, reports, and academic articles on best practices in municipal governance and effects of form of government.
Reviewed 15-plus city charters from upstate New York and more than 40 from other states.
“It’s an at-will position,” Horn said. “At the end of the day, if the City Council isn’t happy with me or residents aren’t happy with me, I got a 90-day severance package. The City Council is not my puppet. I work for the City Council.”
Seeing things get done in the city is an attractive idea to many because the list of uncompleted projects is long. They include a parking garage, a second city courtroom, an EMS station on the West Side, athletic fields and the Greenbelt Trail, including its link on Geyser Road. Many of the projects were voted on unanimously by the City Council.
Jeff Olson, a member of the Greenbelt Trail committee and a volunteer on many city projects, said he’s frustrated by the inability to coordinate commissioners, many of whom openly dislike each other, to complete projects.
“The only people who think things run well are the people who don’t have to deal with the city,” Olson said. Past mayors, except for Ken Klotz, agree on the need for charter change. Klotz called the commission form of government “creaky and cumbersome,” but he said the city should stick with what it knows because a city manager is “far from perfect.” There is a risk is in the change.
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Todd Shimkus believes the city’s success is not a byproduct of the government but one driven by private citizens. When the city fell on hard times in the 1960s and ’70s, he said the city dug itself out by a series of actions and investments that included establishing a Special Assessment District to improve the downtown business area and collaborating on projects with Skidmore College and the New York Racing Association. He said the Saratoga Springs City Center, the Holiday Inn and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center also spurred economic growth as did the creation of Saratoga Economic Development Corp. and the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau.
“Local families led the way — Charles Wait, Marylou Whitney, the Roohans, the Tooheys, the Dakes, the Lewises and my predecessor Joe Dalton — invested time, ideas, energy and money,” Shimkus said. “Every one of those actions and many more were championed by those private citizens.”
Many of those private citizens, however, would never consider running for office. Charter Review Commission members interviewed 182 potential City Council candidates who say that, despite a desire to do so, they would not run for public office under the existing system. The full-time hours and the knowledge necessary to run a department with a salary of $14,500 under commission government is a responsibility too great to bear, they said. “The most transformative thing for the city would be opening up the political process to more participation,” Boyd said.
He points to the number of uncontested races in the city. All five elected officials’ seats are up, but only two have contested races – the mayor and the commissioner for public safety. Many of the seats go uncontested for years.
Under the proposed charter, seats would change from two-year terms to four and would be staggered. The charter commission also recommends that the mayor’s salary rise from $14,500 to $40,000 because the role demands many hours each week. The six council members would still earn $14,500, but their benefits would be eliminated.
In the end, the charter commission believes the city would save $403,000 each year. Much of that savings, members say, comes from the elimination of deputy commissioners who cost the city $568,00 per year. The commission’s fiscal analysis was conducted by CPA Jeff Altamari. Altamari also estimated transition costs would be from $100,000 to $300,000.
For opponents, this is the biggest point of contention. The most vocal is the Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, who promised to remain neutral on the charter last spring, but couldn’t contain his displeasure with the fiscal analysis, which he believes overestimates savings if the city votes for change.
Franck’s analysis says the savings, at best, would be about $114,173 each year. Franck, who is also a CPA, estimates that transition costs would top $150,000. He also believes that the city could not let go of the deputy commissioners who he believes are irreplaceable when considering the number of hours they put in running the city.
Franck also refused to pay for the mailing the charter commission, by law, must send to all voters. And by law, the city is supposed to pay for it. Boyd and Altamari paid $9,000 out of their own funds with hopes of being reimbursed.
“What are they afraid of?” Altamari asked.
This addresses the final reason why the Charter Review Commission feels that a yes vote is vital. City finances have little outside oversight. Aside from a state comptroller’s audit every three or four years and an annual review by an independent auditor, there are no independent internal audits. Altamari said that leaves the city open to inefficiency, abuse and fraud.
Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan said her office conducts the internal audits on its books on an as-needed basis.
“It works well for a city our size,” she said, adding that the city has a Standard and Poor’s AA+ bond rating and was upgraded by Moody’s in December 2016.
“Saratoga Springs has an excellent bond rating,” said Jane Weihe of SUCCESS. “It is illogical to claim this city is mismanaged. The only way proponents have been able to try to convince the public of an urgent need to go through the long disruptive and expensive change of governments is by misusing and cherry-picking data.”
While it has become highly politicized, the charter review was envisioned as a straightforward process, a byproduct of the city’s current charter, which calls for a review of the city’s defining document every 10 years by an independent body appointed by the mayor.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen formed the present commission in 2016, appointing 11 of the 15 members. She asked each of the four commissioners to appoint one member. The mayor and the commissioners were then to step back and allow the commission to work without political interference.
While it has not worked out that way, Yepsen said voters will make the ultimate decision.
She hopes they side with change.
“We can’t continue at this pace,” Yepsen said. “There are so few who want to run because of the overwhelming time of running a department and low pay. I don’t see that changing so we need to change. Separating legislative from administration makes sense to me in 2017.”
Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen is the only commissioner to side with the mayor.
“Right now there are too many inherent conflicts of interest,” Mathiesen said. “We have a government with five people with way too much power. It’s ridiculous to run a city like that.”
email@example.com • 518-454-5445 •@wendyliberatore