WAMC: Saratoga Springs Charter Commission To Vote On Outreach

September 27, 2017


The estimated financial savings of a proposed city charter change in Saratoga Springs have been disputed between supporters and opponents. This week, the city’s Charter Review Commission plans to approve and release more details on the document.

Last week, the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission released a financial snapshot of the proposed city charter that will go before voters on Election Day.

The document, if approved, would transition Saratoga Springs from its current commission-style form of government, where five city department heads also serve as city legislators, to a more common council-manager form that would involve a seven-member city council including the mayor, and a full-time city manager.

The financial summary said the new form would mean $391,000 in savings, attributed mainly to the removal of the current system’s deputy commissioners.

But many remain skeptical of the cost savings, including Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, who spoke at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

“Am I missing something? Does anybody outside the planet Mars really believe that one person is going to be able to do all this work?”

Franck took issue with the elimination of the deputy commissioners and asked: if the deputies are eliminated, who is going to do the work to run city government? He threatened to block the funding to send information about the charter change to the public.

“If they cannot do this in a rational and fair manner, and not have material misrepentations in it, then I’m not going to OK it,” said Franck.

Charter Review Commission chair Bob Turner said by state law, the city council cannot prevent the commission from informing the public.

“And one of the key provisions there is that the city council does not get to decide what does or does not go out. Otherwise we wouldn’t be an independent provision,” said Turner.

The Commission is planning to approve a document to be sent to homes Thursday night. Turner said the document, which is several pages long, is not a political mailer.

“It will include the summary of the provision and the estimated financial savings. It is going to look like the sort of document that you would get from your retirement fund or if you did a home mortgage. It is long, it is dense. It is not a political mailer by any means,” said Turner.

The documents will include a more detailed financial review.

Commission member Jeff Altamari, who touts his experience working for a Fortune 500 company, says the new review, which includes transition costs, unlike the previous document, would save taxpayers about $403,000 over the current system. He stands behind the change in structure.

“I think people will realize that, yes, you can run lean. And those who claim that the savings are there are those who actually believe that and who have taken the time to do the research and see that many, many, many city manager forms of government have this flat, lean organization structure. They just don’t need two layers of political fat between themselves and the senior manager,” said Altamari.

Some members of the city council still want to know more. Last week, Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco introduced a measure to invite discussion over the proposed document.

“I move for council approval to discuss with the Charter Review Commission a review process where all council members receive copies of taxpayer-funded materials distributed by the Charter Review Commission before they are sent to the public,” said Scirocco.

The measure was approved unanimously.

The Charter Review Commission will meet Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Times Union Editorial: Get the Word Out to Voters


Two Saratoga Springs commissioners are blocking a mailing on the proposed charter.


They should not stand in the way of ensuring voters are well informed on Election Day.

For a democracy to work, citizens need to be informed before going to the polls. That’s a pretty fundamental concept.

But two commissioners on the Saratoga Springs City Council have decided to stand in the way of fully informing their 28,000 constituents about the proposed new city charter that will be on the November ballot. Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan and Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, both elected members of the council, disagree with the findings of the Charter Review Commission. Now they’re blocking the expenditure of about $10,000 to mail a summary of the commission’s report to city voters.

Ms. Madigan and Mr. Franck have every right — indeed, as elected officials, an obligation — to speak out on the proposal, which would replace the old elected commissioner system with a city manager form of government. Strong feelings have been voiced on both sides of the issue. The November referendum is about more than a document; it’s about the city’s future.

The two commissioners disagree with the Charter Review Commission’s projection that by switching to a city manager system, city taxpayers would save $400,000. Coming from two people intimately involved with the city’s finances, their perspective is worth considering. There is nothing wrong with their speaking out in the community and making their case against the commission’s report.

But shouldn’t residents have a clear idea of what this debate is about?

Among the commission’s duties is explaining the proposed new charter. The mailing to city residents is one important way to achieve that. Robert Batson, an Albany Law School professor who specializes in government law, notes that such documents sent out by a public entity before a vote must be factual, informative and educational; they cannot advocate one way or another. School districts regularly send out summaries to residents detailing proposed school budgets and bond issues just before elections. They are barred from using public funds to urge a certain outcome.

New York is also prohibited from stacking the deck on public referenda, as a state judge affirmed in 2013 in barring the state from using overly promotional language on the ballot item for a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling.

The commission’s mailing to city residents won’t determine the outcome of the vote, but it’s an important part of educating the public. The news media also has a responsibility to fairly report all sides in the issue, as well as summarize and explain the proposed new charter. With the reach of the internet and social media, civic and political organizations can get out their point of view easily and at virtually no cost.

Ms. Madigan and Mr. Franck have all that at their disposal, too, as well as the bully pulpits of their positions. They’re free to use them, but not to abuse those positions to unilaterally block the commission from doing its job to inform city residents — an abuse that they might find could be its own case for reform.


Mailing to Registered Voters: Cover letter

Dear Fellow Citizens,

On November 7, 2017, the voters of Saratoga Springs will be asked to approve the Proposed Charter.  This question will appear on the ballot:

Saratoga Springs Charter Review 

Shall the new city charter proposed by the city charter commission be adopted?

Voters will be asked to vote Yes or No.

To help inform voters, attached is:

  1. A Cover sheet
  2. a brief summary of the Proposed Charter
  3. the Proposed Charter

Voters can find additional information on the Charter Review Commission’s website at https://saratogacharter.com/ or email questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.


Robert C. Turner, PhD

Chair, The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission

The Members of the Charter Review Commission

Jeff Altamari

Gordon Boyd

Ann Casey Bullock

Laura Chodos

Devin Dal Pos

Elio Del Sette

Matthew J. Jones

Patrick Kane

Bahran Keramati

Robert Kuczynski

Mike Los

Minita Sanghvi

Barbara Thomas

Robert Turner

Beth Wurtmann

Mailing to Registered Voters: Summary of Proposed Charter on the Ballot

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SARATOGA SPRINGS PROPOSED CITY CHARTER This Summary Memorandum is offered by the Charter Review Commission to provide members of the Saratoga Springs community with a brief synopsis of the Proposed City Charter.

Purpose or General Idea

The goals of the Charter are to protect and enhance the health, safety, environment and general welfare of the people; to enable municipal government to provide services and meet the needs of the people efficiently; to allow fair and equitable participation of all persons in the affairs of the City; to provide for transparency, accountability and ethics in governance and civil service; to foster fiscal responsibility; to promote prosperity and diversity; and to address the broad needs of a changing society.

Justification Separation of Powers

The Proposed Charter offers a form of government in which legislative roles are separated from administrative responsibilities. The existing Charter combines these roles in each Commissioner and the Mayor. In the Proposed Charter, policy leadership and fiscal accountability are ultimately given to the elected Mayor and Council. It is anticipated that numerous efficiencies will be identified and implemented. Potential difficulties of Commissioner-headed departments not working effectively together will be eliminated by the unification of administration under the Manager, who will be accountable to the Mayor and Council.

Financial Accountability

The balanced budget requirement and internal controls are continued from the existing Charter. Financial accountability is enhanced in the Proposed Charter with the addition of regular internal audits. The existing Charter provides for audits conducted by the Finance Department, but that department is not able to independently audit itself. Therefore, an outside contractor will conduct the annual internal audit, and it is anticipated that savings will accrue from that function as well.

Citizen Participation

The Commission sought to provide for greater participation in city electoral affairs with the proposed expansion of the City Council from the present five Commissioners to seven (six Council members plus the Mayor). As city government grows in size and complexity, many citizens who would be well qualified legislators are unable to make the personal sacrifice to take on the time consuming job of running a city department.

Summary of Provisions Article I. General Provisions

This Article includes title and purpose, city status, powers and duties, and geographic boundaries.

Article II. City Council and Mayor

The Proposed Charter provides for a City Council of six members, elected at large, plus a voting Mayor as presiding officer. The powers of the Mayor include representing the city in intergovernmental relationships, executing any and all contracts approved by the Council, making appointments to land use boards and committees with advice and consent of the Council, chairing the Finance Committee of the Council and others. The Council shall appoint a qualified person as City Manager, the City Attorney and approve the Manager’s appointment of the City Clerk. In its oversight role, the council is authorized to conduct investigations and audits. 2 The Council is authorized to levy taxes, enact ordinances and local laws, license certain occupations, and set penalties for violations.

Article III. City Manager

This Article provides for the appointment, qualifications and compensation of a City Manager to direct and oversee the administrative functions of City government, in keeping with the policies established by the Mayor and Council. The Manager shall serve an indefinite term at the pleasure of the Council, and the Council shall set the Manager’s compensation. The City Manager shall, among other duties, direct and supervise all administrative offices and functions, represent the City in collective bargaining, implement contracts approved by the Council, regularly evaluate employee performance, attend all City Council Meetings, and prepare and submit an annual budget and capital program to the Council for its review and approval. The Manager shall make reports to the Council concerning ongoing operations, fiscal matters, and other affairs of the City, assist in the development of long-term goals, and cooperate with the Council in developing policies and information requested by the Council.

Article IV. Departments, Offices and Agencies

All existing departments, offices and agencies are continued in the Proposed Charter until or unless changed by the City Manager, in consultation with the Council. The two County Supervisors are provided, allowing for staggered four-year terms of office if authorized by state legislation.

Article V. Financial Management

The Proposed Charter continues the present Charter’s structural reforms in budget process, providing that the Manager prepare the City Budget for review and approval by the City Council. Provision is made for public hearings and review by the City Council Finance Committee and by the Council itself by November 30 of each year. The Proposed Charter also provides that the budget must be balanced and that mid-year financial reports be made by the Manager. No expense or liability may be incurred unless the City Council has made an appropriation. The Capital Program shall cover six-years and shall also be subject to Council adoption. The Manager shall prepare and recommend to the council the Annual Capital Budget, similar to provisions of the existing Charter. An Independent Annual Audit is provided for as well as an Internal Audit, a new provision not in the existing charter.

Article VI. Elections and Staggered Terms of Office

The Proposed Charter establishes staggered four-year terms for the City Council, plus a four-year term for the Mayor. Term limits are provided, a maximum of three full elected four-year terms of office for the Mayor and members of the City Council.

Article VII. Tax Districts; Bonding Limits; Contracts; Assessments, Taxes and User Fees

This article continues the establishment of the Inside and Outside Tax Districts. These districts continue the City’s highway maintenance arrangement with New York State that was established prior to 1915 and has continued ever since, to the city’s benefit. The City’s debt limit will remain at 2% of the average full valuation of taxable real estate.

Article VIII.  Transition and Severability.

The Proposed Charter formally repeals the existing 2001 Charter and establishes an effective date of January 1, 2020. Election to the new City Council will be at the General Election

Letter to the Editor: Employees Shared Views on New Charter

Charter has large support

The Charter Review Commission heard a lot conflicting stories from the supporters and detractors of the commission form of government about whether it protects taxpayers and ensures accountability. To get the real data, we decided to survey City Hall employees in November 2016. We went to tremendous lengths to guarantee their anonymity and protect them from retribution.

We asked them whether they agreed with the statement: “I believe the Commission form of government prevents wasteful spending and protects the taxpayers?” Of those, 66.7 percent disagreed with that statement and only 22.2 percent agreed. Another 18.1 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

We also asked them if they believed “the Commission form of government ensures the accountability of commissioners for the performance of their departments.” Of the respondents, 56.9 percent disagreed with that statement and only 25 percent agreed. Again, 18.1 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Bob Turner, Charter Review Commission Chair

Saratoga Springs



Gazette: League of Women Voters favors Saratoga charter change

Group has been accused of being biased for reform in past

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County has announced its support of a proposed city charter change that will go before voters in November.

“LWVSC supports the proposed new charter, which creates a council-manager form of government, because it will provide for the separation of powers,” the league said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday, as public debate about the charter proposal starts to heat up.

A charter review commission appointed last year by Mayor Joanne Yepsen recommended changing the current century-old form of government, in which elected commissioners administer specific city departments and also legislate as members of the City Council. For example, public works, public city, city finances and city clerk functions are all overseen by elected commissioners. The form of government is rare; Mechanicville is the only other city in New York state that uses it.

The review commission has recommended replacing it with a city council whose members are legislators only, with a paid city manager overseeing the day-to-day management of city departments, though answerable to the council. The council would have seven members, including an elected mayor.

“We believe that it is important to separate the legislative functions of government from the administrative ones, to have a strong centralized administration, to have clear lines of responsibility, to be representative of the entire community, to be efficient and cost-effective,” the league said in its prepared statement.

The league also believes more people with more diverse backgrounds would run for council seats if the job didn’t also involve managing departments.

The current form of government has powerful defenders, though, including former commissioners. They have formed their own group, called SUCCESS, which stands for Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga’s Success. SUCCESS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the league’s stance.

SUCCESS previously accused the League of Women Voters of being unfair and has decided not to participate in a Sept. 21 educational charter forum the league has planned at Saratoga Springs Public Library.

The public referendum will happen during Saratoga’s general election Nov. 8.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.netor @gazettesteve on Twitter.


Gazette Letter: “What will proposed charter accomplish?”

5 features that distinguish this charter from existing one


Saratoga Springs voters will decide the future of their city government in this year’s November elections. The choice is whether to adopt the new city charter proposed by the Charter Review Commission (see www.saratogacharter.com), or to stay with the existing one, originally established over 100 years ago.

Here are five features of the proposed charter that distinguishes it from the existing one:

1. Separation of Legislative and Executive Powers

The existing charter combines executive and legislative functions in the same elected body. Elected commissioners not only form the city council, but they also each run a city department.

This puts the commissioners in a difficult position to defend the priorities of their own departments while having an equal vote in the legislative affairs of the city. As a result, conflicts abound, as witnessed in the proceedings of the current city council meetings.

Some consider these confrontations as “democracy in action.” What they really are is a manifestation of a governing system that has been poorly designed.

Separation of powers is a fundamental American tradition, rooted in our history and constitution. It is a safeguard of true democracy by limiting the power of one elected member.

No tinkering with our existing charter could fix this problem.

The proposed charter concentrates all legislative powers in the city council, consisting of 6 at-large elected members and headed by an elected mayor. It also gives this body the power of oversight and inquiry into city’s operations, with no direct responsibility for day-to-day running of city operations.

This responsibility is given to a hired city manager who has appropriate education and experience.

Policymaking and oversight remain the  responsibility of the city council.

2. Professional to Run City Operations

The hired city manager will be responsible for running and managing all city operations under the watchful eye of the city council. Professional city managers are now running many small to medium-sized cities in the United States. The proposed charter requires a Master’s degree and five years experience in a in a relevant field, requirements that are now fairly standard for city manager positions.

A professionally managed city will reduce political interference in city operations. The city manager must have the support and confidence of the city’s elected body, the city council, which is ultimately accountable to the people. The city manager serves at the pleasure of the city council.

3. Financial Discipline Maintained and Enhanced

The current city charter was revised in 2001. This revision inserted a high level of financial discipline into the city’s finances that has served the city well. The proposed charter is keeping, almost verbatim, the 2001 charter language on finances.

The proposed charter further enhances financial discipline by adding a new internal audit function common in many businesses with budgets comparable to our city. This function will be a tool of the city council to perform ad-hoc audits of any city unit at any time and for
any reason. This audit could include both financial and process issues. Thus, the city council will have at its disposal a powerful tool to address potential questions and issues that may be brought to their attention by their constituents.

Separate and distinct from this internal audit function, the annual financial audit of city finances will, of course, continue as required by state law.

4. Better Democracy: Elected Offices More Accessible for Candidates

The Commission’s survey of potential candidates in Saratoga Springs showed that more citizens are likely to run for city council positions under the proposed charter. This survey result is consistent with the experience of cities that have changed to the proposed charter form. The perceived time commitment and expertise of our current commissioner positions discourage citizens from running for office, evidenced by the fact that some of the positions are uncontested year after year.

The proposed charter places a less stringent demand on citizen’s time and expertise. This is good for a vibrant democracy where more citizens are inclined to run for city offices.

5. City Government Better Explained and Understood

The proposed charter establishes clear leadership for the city in the person of the mayor, who presides over the city council and is the formal face of the city in all interactions. The city manager is the focus of how things are done from the operational perspective, executing the policies established by the city council without the influence of politics.

Constituents can also interact directly with their elected council members regarding any city issue or problem.

In summary, the proposed charter will assure that Saratoga Springs will continue to thrive with more democratic participation of city’s residents, more professional government services, clear division of responsibilities of city leaders, and true separation of legislative and executive powers.

Bahram “BK” Keramati of Saratoga Springs is a member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.

LINK: https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/10/what-will-the-proposed-charter-accomplish-for-saratoga-springs

Gazette Letter: New Government will Help Spa City

Letter To The Editor
by Chris Mathiesen

During a recent panel discussion devoted to the proposed change to the Saratoga Springs City Charter, panelist Jane Weihe, representing the group SUCCESS, which has consistently advocated for keeping the present commission form of government, told a story about a friend who needed leaves picked up.

According to Jane, her friend called the Department of Public Works and was told that the leaves would not be picked up until the following week due to roads being paved. Jane then commented, “Good luck getting that fast and clear an answer from a city manager who is hired and works for a council that’s elected for all four years.”

Scare tactics have been a prominent part of SUCCESS’s attempts to undermine proposals to update government in Saratoga Springs from its present commission form. According to this group, citizens would lose control over city services if the city abandoned its governmental structure, which consists of a five-member City Council whose members function both as legislative representatives and as executives over their respective city departments.

Cities across the country have abandoned the commission form of government for good reason. Jane Weihe should know that leaves are being picked up in other cities and towns, the overwhelming majority of which do not operate under a commission form of government.

Services are being provided and employees are being hired without regard for one’s political party. Citizens run for city councils and can represent their neighbors without the conflicting burden of overseeing a department. Management of those municipalities is well-ccoordinated and logical.

Saratoga Springs can have efficient, democratic, transparent and responsive government, too. By voting yes for the proposed charter, our voters can finally bring about this important change for the better.

Chris Mathiesen

Saratoga Springs

The writer is the commissioner of Public Safety.