By Bob Turner, For The Saratogian
POSTED: 11/04/17, 12:18 PM EDT
In 1915, Saratoga Springs made the bold decision to adopt the commission form of government. It was a novel form of government that had been created only 14 years earlier in Galveston, Texas. We don’t know for sure, but I would bet there was a group, even then, saying “if it’s not broke…”
However, Saratogians made the bold decision back then to look to the future and not the past. That choice set our city up for success for the last 100 years.
Today, we face a similarly momentous decision, and once again we must look to the future. The independent Charter Review Commission spent 18 months talking to Saratogians. We kept the best parts of the current charter, namely the financial provisions from the 2001 charter reform that are responsible for our excellent bond ratings, but adapted provisions for more representative government and professional management.
Since then, Saratogians have passionately discussed and debated whether to maintain the 1915 system or adopt a more modern form of government. The new charter has been endorsed by the League of Women Voters, the Times Union, the Daily Gazette, numerous community leaders, a bipartisan group of mayors including Yepsen, Riley, and Watkin, and even the most vocal opponent of charter reform, Thomas McTygue. They all agree the new charter establishes a more representative, accountable, and efficient government, which serves the long-term interests of all its citizens.
Affordability in Saratoga Springs is a common concern. How can we know if the new charter will save money? In 2010, Mechanicville, the only other city with the commission form of government in New York, hired John Franck, a CPA, to conduct a fiscal analysis of their government. His report concluded that the rationalization of administrative functions under a single executive, like the new charter proposes, would result is significant efficiency and cost savings in the long run.
City Hall employees agree about the fiscal benefits of the new charter. In our survey, 66 percent said they felt the current system does not prevent wasteful spending or protect the taxpayers. The city’s Director of Finance Christine Gillmett-Brown told us, “I spend half of my time on political stuff and personality conflicts between Commissioners. … I think a city manager would be more professional and efficient.”
One of the biggest complaints we heard is that our current form of government is reactive, not proactive. We have missed opportunities resulting in unrealized gains. We do not have a long-term economic development strategy or anyone in charge of implementing one. The loss of AYCO and 371 high paying jobs from downtown is a perfect example of how our current form of government has failed us. Or how about the fact that we are sitting on a valuable piece of property that could be bringing in $2 million annually with tax revenues but instead we sit paralyzed with commissioners arguing amongst themselves. We have massive and unnecessary, ongoing legal bills born out of lack of hierarchy and professionalism. We have serious infrastructure needs that are stalled by lack of leadership and long term plans — no EMS station for the Eastern Plateau, an unsafe DPW fuel tank near an elementary school, dangerous and illegal truck traffic on Broadway, and aging and unsafe water lines throughout our city. We see five commissioners protecting their fiefdoms instead of the rest of us.
Do you think Saratoga Springs is succeeding because of the politicians in City Hall or the hard work and civic engagement of its citizens and businesses? Do you think having 3 of the 5 city council members running unopposed this year is a sign of a vibrant democracy? Does our city council seem more focused establishing a long term vision for the city or on settling scores and personal vendettas? Do you want the decisions about whose building fees get waived made by a civil servant accountable to the public or a politician accountable to his campaign contributors?
My fellow citizens on the Charter Review Commission have volunteered countless hours working your behalf. Their task has been made harder by three entrenched and unopposed politicians interfering in our operations, hindering our research, and assassinating our character at every chance. Please do not be distracted by their scare tactics and rumors. The facts are with us. Take a look at who is interfering and ask yourselves, why they seem more intent on protecting their fiefdoms than the people? These same politicians, along with the few elites who have donated thousands of dollars with hopes of keeping the existing government, have everything to lose. The rest of us have everything to gain. If the Charter passes, there will be a shift of power from the few to the many. This is why we are working so hard.
While this charter may not be perfect, it far exceeds what we have. Remember, too, it is a living document that can be improved as we go. Please don’t let this opportunity for a more representative, efficient, accountable, and transparent government slip away.
On Nov. 7, vote yes on the new charter.
Bob Turner is chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.