Times Union letter: Spa City officials stand in way of charter panel’s efforts

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?

Gazette Letter from former Commissioner McTygue

Spa City must have more accountability

Vote yes for new government

My decision to support the proposed changes to the Saratoga Springs City Charter should come as no surprise to those even paying minimal attention to the goings-on within City Hall over the past several years.

What used to be a system of political checks and balances within city government no longer exists.

City Hall has morphed into a system of self-preservation among a three-person majority alliance on the City Council. The result has been a series of bad public policy decisions that have cost our city dearly.

Four years ago, it was the city water connection fee scandal, whereby this “working majority” simply protected the Department of Public Works commissioner in his hour of need when caught giving the store away.

Again, it was the public policy be “dammed” when it came to the city’s long-standing regulations requiring all developers to pay into a city fund designed to help with long term water infrastructure improvements.

One year later, it was the scheme to swap a downtown city-owned parking lot for construction of a new EMS station on the city’s eastern ridge. Even in the face of strong public criticism, it was the City Council’s sheer ambivalence toward good public policy that almost lost the city a key Broadway parking lot and with it nearly $700,000 in value. What proved to be salvation for the city and its taxpayers, last year the New York State Attorney General blocked the transaction as being illegal.

It’s time to turn the page and adopt a new City Charter for Saratoga Springs. Vote “yes” on the new mayor/ manager/ city council form of government.

Thomas G. McTygue

Saratoga Springs

The writer is a former Saratoga Springs commissioner of public works.

TU: Debate rages as Saratoga Springs considers need for charter change

Ditching its commission is a divisive issue that could have major influence on future

Updated 10:37 am, Sunday, October 15, 2017

Saratoga Springs

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.

More Information

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.

Business view

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.”

wliberatore@timesunion.com • 518-454-5445 •@wendyliberatore


LINK: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Debate-rages-as-Saratoga-Springs-considers-need-12272906.php

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.


Times Union: The Saratoga Blog

Commission announces language for city charter referendum, plans voter education

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, which voted unanimously to put the referendum on the proposed charter before voters on Tuesday, Nov. 7, announced the ballot language.

The question will read: “Shall the new city charter proposed by the city charter commission be adopted?”

There will also be three statewide referendums on the same ballot that will come alongside the city charter question.

The commission will begin an education campaign this fall.  The state Guidelines for Revising City Charters suggestions for public education includes sending voters a narrative that spells out the main features and merits of the new charter and explain why each provision was proposed.  The commission decided to send out an informational mailing that will include a summary of the charter, a financial analysis and the full version of the charter to all voting households in the city.

“We want every citizen to have the opportunity to read the charter and educate themselves,” said Gordon Boyd, commission treasurer. “The city council in February unanimously allocated $20,000 for voter outreach.  Reaching more than 10,000 households in the city, on a per household basis, $2 per household is not a great expense for something as fundamental to our future as the city charter.”

The commission has scheduled public forums on the charter at the Unitarian Church at noon on Sunday, Sept.7, a League of Women Voters meeting at the Saratoga Springs Public Library on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., and two “Meet a City Manager” nights on Monday Oct. 2 and 18.  Details can be found on the commission’s website at saratogacharter.com.

Citizens interested in learning more about the charter can invite a commission member to give a presentation, email questions to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com, or follow the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission on Facebook.