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

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.

Saratogian: Letter to the Editor from Commission Member

July 2, 2017

The evening of June 27, 2017 marked a key milestone for the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission. By a vote of 11–2, the Commission adopted a new charter for our city. I am fairly certain that the two absent members would have voted with the majority. For me, a member of this Commission, this milestone represents an American experience unlike any other in my 40 years as a naturalized citizen of this country.

The 15-member commission included a variety of people with different political ideologies, life and work experience, gender and background. The American-ness of the experience lies in the fact that it epitomized the democratic process of self-governance, the idea of people deciding how they should organize themselves to be governed in a fair and just system for the benefit of our city as a whole. I could not but think about how the 39 delegates on September 17, 1778 must have felt when they signed the first Constitution of The United States of America. My experience of serving in our city’s Commission brought me as close as many people will ever get to be in a real-life scenario where such lofty objectives are at stake on a smaller scale, but nonetheless important for our community. This was an experience in democracy beyond any ideology of liberalism, conservatism, or any other isms.

I have participated in the political process as a citizen, activist, and candidate. I do consider all these experiences to be an important part of being an American. But no other experience has placed me closer to experiencing self-determination, choice, democracy and participation than my experience with this Commission. The very first question of democracy is how it is possible for all citizens to have a meaningful voice in their government. It is the local government that provides for the many necessities and comforts of daily life, defines our environment of work and leisure, and provides a myriad of city services that we all expect and rely on. Collectively, the Commission’s primary job was to present our city with a form of government that would allow the wish of the people to be reflected in our city’s government clearly and efficiently.

In addition to working with and becoming acquainted with the members of the Commission, my participation brought me much closer to my community. Many issues that I had not even thought about were brought to the surface. I was forced to think through them and decide how to best address them in our Commission’s work. I thought about our typical city residents who may have some dealings with City Hall. Is it clear to them who they can approach if they have a problem? Does our current form of government address their problems quickly and efficiently? What do the City Hall employees think about how well the city government meets the city’s needs? What do key business leaders, not-for-profit agencies and other constituents think about our city’s form of government? Are the city’s long-term needs being addressed? In getting answers to these questions, I became much more aware of the richness, diversity, history and complexity of our community.

Another important aspect of being a member of this Commission was to think through issues and to come up with ideas and decisions, and then have these ideas altered and changed once I interacted with other Commission members. The collective power of a group of citizens has become much more clear and obvious to me. Given the contentious issues that were addressed, I was, at the end, very impressed with the large majority vote to approve the new charter.

To me, this has been a defining experience in how our form of democracy works. To be sure, the fate of the proposed charter is up to the people of Saratoga Springs who will make their wishes known at the ballot box in November. All I can hope is that my fellow citizens will consider the process that the Commission undertook, its many hours of deliberations and listening to our community, and the soundness of our final proposal and the reasons behind our decisions. But the final decision is the people’s, who will choose what kind of government they prefer for our city. I have the comfort of knowing that I was part of the process that is offering them this choice.

Bahram Keramati

Saratoga Springs

Saratogian: Charter Review Commission votes on mayor and city council salaries

POSTED:

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.>> The city’s Charter Review Commission voted on mayor and city council salaries and added an amendment aiming to strengthen the ethics provisions under the charter Monday night.

Under the proposed charter, the mayor will receive $40,000 and benefits, while the city council members will receive $14,500 and no medical benefits.

“We reviewed the New York Conference of Mayors City Salary Data from 49 cities and found that the average salary is $50,000 for mayors and $11,139 for City Council members,” said Turner. “Our analysis shows it is very unusual for part time city council members to receive taxpayer funded health coverage.”

Turner said it’s even more unusual for the medical benefits to continue after they have left office.

Times Union: Saratoga Springs commission approves measure on mayor, city council salaries

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS – The city Charter Commission amended its draft charter to include future salaries for the mayor and city council.

Bob Turner, chair of the commission that is rewriting the city charter, said the salary amendment approved Monday will set the salary at $40,000 with medical insurance paid in full for the mayor and at $14,500 for city council members with no insurance. Currently, the mayor and city council members receive an annual salary of $14,500 plus medical insurance valued up to $18,000 per year for their part-time positions.

The proposed charter indicates that salaries for the 2020 city council and mayor would be determined by the 2018 city council and mayor. Plans for the salaries will only take effect if the proposed charter, which calls of a government run by a city manager, is approved by voters in November. If so, the city manager’s salary would be determined by the city council.

“A number of citizen have voiced their concern with giving a city council a blank check to set their salaries,” Turner said. “We felt we needed to put a salary in there. We just felt that the city council shouldn’t be setting their own salary.”

The amendment would also allow for pay increases, but no increase would take effect until after an election cycle.

“That way they can be held accountable by the voters,” Turner said.

The 15-member volunteer commission determined the salaries after reviewing the New York Conference of Mayors City Salary Data from 49 cities. It found the average salary for a mayor is $50,000 and $11,139 for city council members. The data also showed that it is unusual for part-time city council members to receive health insurance.

“Right now, a city council member, if they serve for 10 years, will get health insurance for life,” Turner said. “A lot of people said they don’t want to pay for that.”

The charter commission also voted to add an amendment to strengthen the ethics provisions in the proposed charter. The amendment would encourage that all city government activity to be conducted in public “to the greatest extent feasible.”

“Saratogians value transparency in local government,” Turner said.

The commission approved two more amendments on the charter draft, which the group has developed for the past 13 months.

The commission changed how the city’s county supervisors will be elected. Instead of going head-to-head, the charter called for a staggered vote and to extend the office term from two years to four. Turner said this would encourage more candidates to run.

They also added language on what would require City Council members to forfeit their seat: moving from the city, being convicted of a felony or failing to attend three consecutive meetings.

In addition to the amendments, the commission approved the fully amended proposed charter, which will go to the voters in the form of a referendum during November’s general election.

A draft of the charter can be viewed at https://saratogacharter.com.  Monday’s night’s meeting is at 7 p.m. in the Music Hall at City Hall, Broadway.

Gazette: Saratoga charter proposal would cut benefits for council

 

Would remain intact for mayor

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The new charter that city voters will consider in November would axe health insurance benefits for city council members, whose job under the proposal would stay part time but be less involved.

Benefits would remain intact for the mayor, whose job would become full time under the final draft approved by the city’s Charter Review Commission on Monday.

Before approving the draft, charter members voted Monday to amend the proposal to set the mayor’s salary at $40,000 with full health insurance coverage, and to pay council members $14,500 with no health insurance. Previously, the charter proposal had been silent on salaries and benefits, leaving it up to the council elected this fall to set the pay of the council that would be elected in 2019.

Bob Turner, the group’s chairman, said he proposed the change in response to feedback from residents who felt the earlier charter draft gave council members “a blank check.”

“They could get re-elected and then vote to give themselves a big salary right after,” he said. ”We weren’t entirely confident that a future council would do the right thing.”

If the charter referendum passes this fall, the new salaries would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, along with a new form of government: a council-manager system to replace the city’s century-old commission form.

Currently the mayor and the four commissioners — who make up the five-member city council — earn a salary of $14,500 plus health insurance; the benefits cost the city an estimated $18,000 annually per position, but those costs can increase over time, Turner said.

“Someone does a job for 10 years on a part-time basis and now, all the sudden, we have to pay their healthcare for life,” he said. “That’s potentially $600,000 or $700,000 dollars, and that seems excessive.”

The 15-member review group was appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen to study the charter last June. Under their proposal, there would be a mayor and six council-members on the council, and a manager to run the operations of the city. The city manager’s salary would be set by the City Council.

The council members would have mostly legislative roles, rather than serving the dual roles of legislators and department heads as they do now. The un-elected positions of four deputy commissioners and a deputy mayor would also be eliminated.

The commission set the proposed salaries based on data from the New York Conference of Mayors, which found the average salary for a mayor in the state to be $50,000. Council members earn $11,139 on average, according to the data.

“Our analysis shows it is very unusual for part-time city council members to receive taxpayer-funded health coverage,” Turner said.

The commission also voted Monday to strengthen the proposed charter’s language on ethics to read: “It is the policy of the City that the activities of City government should be conducted in public to the greatest extent feasible in order to assure public participation and enhance public accountability.”

“Saratogians value transparency in local government,” explained Gordon Boyd, a commission member. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”