Gazette Letter from Former Saratoga Springs Mayor

Put citizens in charge of Spa government

By A.C. RILEY

The writer is a former Saratoga Springs mayor and county supervisor.

We who live in Saratoga Springs are blessed to have many valuable private and non-profit institutions that contribute to our quality of life and the economic benefit of our city.

These include industries that provide employment, popular entertainment venues, good restaurants, our churches, youth activities, Skidmore College, human service providers, and many more. We need to bond together to be sure we can maintain that good environment.

I encourage all citizens to review the new proposal that will change our form of government from the commission system.

This is where the City Council is made up of five elected department heads, one of whom is the mayor, to a seven member policy-making City Council.

This council will be made up of citizens who will represent our point of view when decisions are made about what direction the city government should pursue. They won’t have the responsibility for managing a department.

Pretty much every local government endeavor has changed to be such more complex and move faster than it did when we were a young city 100 years ago.

Our government needs an administrative manager who can carry out the policies set by our citizen council, with training in personnel management, allocation of resources and budgeted funds, interaction with other levels of government, and compliance with the current laws of the land.

Citizen leadership in policy, with professional management that answers to the council and carries out those policies, will provide the best and most economical services that we require.

Many more of our citizens will be able to consider the public service of running for the City Council when they do not also have to manage a department — their job will be only to make the decisions about policy, as our citizens wish.

We will have a much broader, varied pool ready to serve.

The proposed staggered four-year terms will provide for new blood from time to time, but always members with knowledge of what went before.

In a phrase, it’s time, Saratoga. In November, vote yes for charter change — You’ll be glad you did.

LINK: https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/08/05/put-citizens-in-charge-of-spa-government

Gazette: Charter Change Proposal Debated

Charter change proposal debated

Pros and cons of new form of gov’t discussed

 August 4, 2017
BY NED CAMPBELL Gazette Reporter

Jane Weihe defended the city’s century-old form of government Thursday by telling a story of a friend whose leaves weren’t being picked up by city workers.

Her friend called the Department of Public Works, someone answered, and she was told crews were busy paving in front of a local school and workers would pick up the leaves the next week.

“Good luck getting that fast and clear an answer from a city manager who was hired and works for a council that’s elected every four years,” Weihe said during a debate on the Charter Review Commission’s proposed charter, which would replace the current commission form with a council-city manager system.

Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor who chairs the review commission, had his own story to tell.

“This city works great if you’re in the club,” he said. “If you’re connected, you get taken care of.”

He spoke of a neighbor who’s been pestering the Department of Public Works for 18 months, trying to get crews to remove a stump that’s on city property in front of his house.

“‘If I make a big fuss, then it’s never going to happen,’” he recalled the neighbor saying. “And you could go to any of the other commissioners, and they’re powerless.”

The debate was hosted by the Saratoga County Young Democrats in the Saratoga Springs Public Library. About 60 people attend. It was meant to be informative and educational, said Dan Barusch, the group’s president.

Whether the city’s form of government changes will be up to voters in November.

Barusch, 27, said the group has no position on the charter — not yet, anyway.

“That’s one of the other reasons we’re having it, to inform ourselves,” he said.

The debate featured three supporters and three detractors. Speaking in favor of a change were Turner; Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who appointed the 15-member commission to study the charter last June; and commission member Bah-ram “BK” Keramati. Those defending the current form were Weihe and Richard Sellers, who are both members of the Saratoga Springs SUCCESS group; and Michele Boxley, who served as deputy accounts commissioner for nearly five years.

The proposed form of government would eliminate the five deputy positions and replace them with a city manager to run the city’s operations. He or she would be hired based on educational background and experience, Turner said.

“It’s really quite normal for a deputy to run a campaign,” Turner said of the current system. “There’s no experience required — there’s no educational requirement.”

Instead of having four commissioners and a mayor make up the council, there would be a mayor and six council members. The council members would no longer receive health care, as the commissioners do now.

“Instead of having five CEOs, you now have one,” Turner said.

Turner argued that the commission form is outdated and uncommon, and said Mechanicville is the only other city in the state with a commissioner form of government. Boxley asked for proof that the council-manager system has been successful elsewhere. She pointed to Saratoga Springs as having the second lowest tax rate in the state.

“It’s never worked as well as our form of government has worked,” she said.

Sellers pointed to a bigger city finding success under the commission form.

“It’s not us and Mechanicville that’s so interesting,” he said. “It’s us and Portland, Oregon.”

Dennis Bouchard, a city resident, asked, “Who’s going to do the work of these four commissioners and the work of these five full-time deputies?”

Keramati responded by comparing city government, in its current form, to a kitchen with too many cooks.

“They’re all good cooks … but they get in each other’s way,” he said.

Boxley argued that deputies have an important job — to execute their commissioner’s “strategic plan” for the benefit of the voters.

“While it may slow down the city union employee who’s paid to be there for those hours no matter what gets accomplished, it’s up to the deputy to make sure that strategic plan is executed,” she said.

Gazette Letter by A.C. Riley: Put Citizens in Charge of Spa Government

Put citizens in charge of Spa government

We who live in Saratoga Springs are blessed to have many valuable private and non-profit institutions that contribute to our quality of life and the economic benefit of our city.

These include industries that provide employment, popular entertainment venues, good restaurants, our churches, youth activities, Skidmore College, human service providers, and many more. We need to bond together to be sure we can maintain that good environment.

I encourage all citizens to review the new proposal that will change our form of government from the commission system.

This is where the City Council is made up of five elected department heads, one of whom is the mayor, to a seven member policy-making City Council.

This council will be made up of citizens who will represent our point of view when decisions are made about what direction the city government should pursue. They won’t have the responsibility for managing a department.

Pretty much every local government endeavor has changed to be such more complex and move faster than it did when we were a young city 100 years ago.

Our government needs an administrative manager who can carry out the policies set by our citizen council, with training in personnel management, allocation of resources and budgeted funds, interaction with other levels of government, and compliance with the current laws of the land.

Citizen leadership in policy, with professional management that answers to the council and carries out those policies, will provide the best and most economical services that we require.

Many more of our citizens will be able to consider the public service of running for the City Council when they do not also have to manage a department — their job will be only to make the decisions about policy, as our citizens wish.

We will have a much broader, varied pool ready to serve.

The proposed staggered four-year terms will provide for new blood from time to time, but always members with knowledge of what went before.

In a phrase, it’s time, Saratoga. In November, vote yes for charter change — You’ll be glad you did.

A.C. RILEY

Saratoga Springs

The writer is a former Saratoga Springs mayor and county supervisor.

Times Union Letter by Barb Thomas: Charter model will unify Spa City’s government

Charter model will unify Spa City’s government

Opponents of the proposed new charter for the city of Saratoga Springs are fond of saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s like the owner of a children’s swing, who notices that a rope is wearing through, deciding to put off replacement till it wears through completely.

We have had the same commission form of government for slightly more than 100 years, through good times, depressions, empty storefronts, organized crime and corruption, and, right now, good times again. That makes it hard to say that our current good fortune is a result of the government’s structure.

But we do notice a fraying of the rope. As our society becomes more complex, the services we need from government don’t fit neatly into one particular commissioner’s fiefdom so that, where there should be cooperation, there is bickering. One example: the lack of a human resources department to provide career ladders for all qualified employees. The city’s own employees, to whom we in the Charter Review Commission listened, can speak to the fraying of the rope.

Switching to the proposed charter with its city council-city manager form of government will unify the administration under one manager responsible to all the members of the council and make this an even better city.

A survey of city employees and the full text of the proposed charter is at www.saratogacharter.com.

BARBARA THOMAS Member, Charter Review Commission Saratoga Springs

Gazette Letter to the Editor by Commission Chair Bob Turner

August 2, 2017
The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission did not make its decision to propose a new charter lightly. The 15-member citizen nonpartisan commission spent seven months assessing how the city government is working.
We interviewed 23 former and present City Council members about how well they thought the commission form of government is working. We interviewed department heads, former deputy commissioners, and surveyed City Hall employees to understand their perspectives on how the charter affects their ability to perform their jobs. We also conducted extensive individual interviews with local business leaders, non profits, consultants that work closely with the city. We also surveyed 182 potential City Council candidates about their willingness to run for office under the current charter vs. alternative charters.
After we finished our draft charter, we embarked on a listening phase to find out how we could make our charter better. We held two town meetings, met with area business leaders, city hall employees, former Charter Review Commission members, and city attorneys. We received highly detailed emails and had countless conversations from the public. We made more than 20 large and small changes on issues ranging from the city council salary and benefits, city attorney, county supervisors, civil service, audits, and transparency to name a few.
After 14 months, 36 full open-to-the-public commission meetings, 40 subcommittee meetings, three town halls and public information sessions, and innumerable conversations with citizens, the citizen Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission voted to put a new city charter on the Nov. 7 ballot.
The number of cities with the commission form of government has declined from 500 to 28. The commission system is a remnant of the corrupt machine politics of the early 1900s. Saratoga Springs is a leading 21st century global city that can do better than an antiquated system from 100 years ago.
Bob Turner
Saratoga Springs
The writer is chair of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.

Agenda for August 22

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission will meet at City Hall on August 22, room TBA.

7:00-7:15pm Public Comment

7:15-7:20 pm Approval of Minutes, Chair Report

7:20-8:30 pm Discussion of Voter Education Mailing including:

  1. A brief summary of the Proposed Charter
  2. A Fiscal Impact Statement
  3. The complete Proposed Charter.

8:30-9 Discussion of Public Education Efforts

Ask Yourself…

By Ann Casey Bullock, Member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, July 30, 2017

Ask yourself: do you work for five different (equal) bosses? Our City employees do–and our citizens need to know how to navigate between five co-equal departments in order to get anything accomplished at City Hall. Saratoga Springs should adopt the Council-Manager form of government, widely used across the country, to create a Council, responsive to citizens’ needs and separate from the administrative offices. The administration of the City, headed by a professional manager, is answerable to the Council and citizens: it is not a disconnected bureaucracy. Ask me or any of the Charter Review Commissioners about the proposed new Charter; read the proposed Charter on our website (https://saratogacharter.com/category/documents/); please vote YES in November!

Saratogian Reader’s View: The decision is yours

http://www.saratogian.com/opinion/20170715/readers-view-saratoga-springs-voters-the-decision-is-yours

Reader’s View: Saratoga Springs voters: The decision is yours

Bob Turner
Bob Turner 

After 14 months, 36 full open to the public commission meetings, 40 subcommittee meetings, three town halls and public information sessions, and innumerable conversations with citizens, the 15 member nonpartisan citizen Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission voted to put a new city charter on the November 7th ballot. A city charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It sets the rules that define the way the government operates. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city.

Our commission did not make its decision to propose a new charter lightly. We spent seven months assessing how the city government is working. We interviewed 23 former and present city council members about how well they thought the commission form of government is working. We interviewed Department heads, former deputy commissioners, and surveyed City Hall employees to understand their perspectives on how the charter affects their ability to perform their jobs. We also conducted extensive individual interviews with local business leaders, non profits, consultants that work closely with the city. We also surveyed 182 potential city council candidates about their willingness to run for office under the current charter vs. alternative charters.

In December, the Commission voted 15-0 to draft a charter with a new form of government. We spent the next 4 months identifying the best practices in the nation and tailoring them for Saratoga Springs. We read 30-plus studies, reports, and academic articles on municipal governance. We met with mayors, chief administrators, and city managers from 10 different cities. We reviewed the Model City Charter from the National Civic League as well as 15-plus city charters from New York and 40-plus charters from other states to find the best constitutional language we could. We hired Robert Batson, Government Lawyer in Residence, Albany Law School, and preeminent expert on New York charter law to draft and review the constitutionality of our charter language. Tony Izzo, a 30-plus year Saratoga Springs Assistant City Attorney and legal counsel to previous charter review efforts, served as our counsel, too, and reviewed our language.

After we finished our draft charter, we embarked on a listening phase to find out how we could make our charter better. We held two town meetings. We met with area business leaders, city hall employees, former Charter Review Commission members, and city attorneys. We received highly detailed emails and had countless conversations from the public. We made more than 20 large and small changes on issues ranging from the city council salary and benefits, city attorney, county supervisors, civil service, audits, and transparency to name a few.

On June 26, we voted 11-2 to approve the final charter and submit it to the voters in a referendum on November 7. The proposed charter will be the most important issue on the 2017 ballot. Under the proposed charter, voters elect the mayor and six council members to represent them on the City Council. The City Council is the legislative and policymaking body. It approves the budget and determines the tax rate. It establishes the community’s goals, major projects and such long-term considerations as community growth, land use development, capital improvement and financing and strategic planning. The Council hires a professional manager, with the necessary educational and experience credentials, to implement the administrative responsibilities related to these goals and supervises the manager’s performance. Policy making resides with elected officials, while oversight of the day-to-day operations of the city bureaucracy resides with the city manager.

The proposed charter requires a balanced budget, establishes term limits, and has strong provisions on ethics and transparency. It will save taxpayers a minimum of $300,000 a year and has strong independent audit provisions to root out fraud, waste, and abuse in city hall.

We believe we have crafted a charter that meets the increasing challenges of the future. However, don’t take my word for it. Read the proposed charter at saratogacharter.com. Invite the Charter Review Commission to give a presentation to your friends, neighbors, or community organization. Email your questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com, and we will do our best to answer them. Follow the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission on Facebook. It’s your charter. The decision is yours.

Bob Turner is chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.

Opinion: “Put the five-headed monster to rest”

Barbara Lombardo: Saratoga Springs voters: Put the five-headed monster to rest

Barbara Lombardo
Barbara Lombardo 

Saratoga Springs residents will have a chance this November to make City Hall more efficient, accountable and possibly less expensive – by voting “yes” to change the form of government.

The city is in good shape. Property taxes are reasonable. Snow is plowed and leaves are picked up. We’re well-protected by firefighters and police. Commercial and residential growth continues.

Why mess with success?

Well, the old saw “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t apply. City Hall isn’t broken, but it would surely be better with a manager overseeing the whole kit and caboodle instead of the current five-headed monster.

Talk to movers and shakers in Saratoga Springs, and they’ll admit good things happen despite city government, not because of it. If you’ve needed help or information from City Hall, as I have, you’re likely to have had to visit multiple offices in different departments to resolve a single issue. Capable, hard-working city employees privately share their frustrations with the setup.

A Charter Review Commission of 15 citizens has concluded more than 13 months of extensive research, interviews and public discussions by voting, 11-2 (with two members absent), to present its on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. Even the nay-sayers lauded the work of their conscientious colleagues.

The new proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s less imperfect than the system it would replace.

This will be one in a series of occasional pieces in which I plan to address different facets of the charter proposition as the vote nears. I welcome your questions, suggestions and anecdotes. I’ll start with why the system should be changed.

Here are three overriding reasons the current commission government is weak, based primarily on my 38 years covering Saratoga Springs government and politics for The Saratogian as well as my experiences as a city resident:

No one is in charge – not even the mayor, who has no real power to compel action.

All five city council members, including the mayor, wear two hats: Each is elected as a legislator and an administrator, responsible for specific segments of City Hall, such as public safety, public works, assessments or finance – regardless of their interest or knowledge in those areas. Council members tend to focus on issues within their areas of accountability (and become their advocates), instead of taking a broader view as leaders of city government.

City Hall is thus set up like five silos, each headed by one of the five City Council members, including the mayor. This results in some duplicated tasks and a cumbersome (or nonexistent) process for sharing information. Sometimes City Council members play nice together and work cooperatively; sometimes they stymie one another, to the public’s detriment. And since some departments with related functions (such as the building department and code enforcement) fall under different council members’ purviews, citizens must run from one office to another resolve an issue.

If you have a concern with street paving, it shouldn’t be addressed only to the City Council member elected as commissioner of public works. Likewise, a question about police patrols shouldn’t be directed only at the commissioner of public safety. Every council member should be responsive to the public’s concerns and have a stake in how all city matters are handled, not just those under their administrative purview. And they should be able to turn to a city manager to be sure day-to-day tasks are getting done.

That’s what the proposed system would do.

The plan is to create a seven-member City Council, including a mayor, with staggered, limited terms. The biggest change: Instead of each hiring their own full-time deputy and/or director to run their respective departments, as is now the case, the council would hire a professional manager to oversee the running of all aspects of City Hall.

The proposed form would allow for the reorganization of city operations based on the best process, not politics. The proposal makes a commitment to not laying off people but to reducing positions through attrition, and doesn’t attempt to guess at what the ultimate staff number ought to be. It’s time to let the City Council be policy makers, and let the people who work in City Hall do their jobs.

Barbara Lombardo, a Saratoga Springs resident and journalism adjunct at University at Albany, was managing editor of The Saratogian for more than 30 years. Her blog is DoneWithDeadlines.com.