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.

Civic Leadership Survey Results

Survey Finds Spa City Commission Government

Discourages Candidates from Running

Commission form of government shuts out qualified Candidates

Saratoga Springs – Leading Saratoga Springs business and civic citizens say that they are interested in serving the public, but the time demands of the commission form of government discourages them from running.

Under the Commission form of government, the Commissioners of Finance, Accounts, Public Works, and Public Safety are responsible for administering their department as well as serving as legislators.  Many have suggested that potential candidates don’t run because they had the skills or time necessary to do a good job.

The Charter Commission identified the pool of City Council candidates by surveying members of city boards and asking the Party Chairs, Downtown Business Association, Chamber of Commerce, and other non profits to forward the survey to “anyone you think would be a good leader for our city and could/should/might run for city council at some point in the future.” It received 182 responses.

The survey revealed changing from the commission form of government would dramatically increase the number of people willing to run for City Council.  The survey described the responsibilities for each Commissioner and then asked how likely they were to run for that office.  Only 15 people or 8.2% of the sample said they were SOMEWHAT or EXTREMELY LIKELY to run for one of the four Commissioner position. However, when asked if whether they would run for a City Council seat where they served as a part time legislator and did not have any administrative responsibilities, 50 people or 27.5% of the sample said they were somewhat or very likely to run.   The chart below shows the number of people who said they were extremely likely to run for office. No one reported being extremely likely to run for the Public Safety or Accounts Position.

One survey respondent said:  “I work full time in Albany in a managerial position where I have to be on site during the day. The time commitment of a Commissioner is the direct reason I have not run for City Council.”  Interviews with current and former commissioners revealed that many found it challenging to balance a full time job with the dual demands of running a major department and legislating, a combination unique to the Commission form of government.  Seventy percent of the survey respondents reported working full time.

The Commission positions are paid an annual salary of $14,500 and hire a full time deputy to run their office. The Commissioner of Public Safety supervises the police and fire departments, traffic safety, emergency management, and emergency medical services. The Commissioner of Public Safety is responsible for maintaining city streets, city lands and buildings, city water and sewer facilities. The Commissioner oversees a 100 person workforce and $25 million budget.

Bob Turner, the Commissioner Chair, said “We clearly have a large pool of civically engaged citizens who want to serve the city, but are unable to make the time commitment required under the Commission form of government.  The data show we are excluding a diverse set of voices and talent.”  Laura Chodos, a commission member, said “A City Council is only as good as the people serving on it.”

The Commission has met two to three times each month since June to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the charter. Its next meeting is December 13 at 7pm, City Hall, where results of a survey of Saratoga Springs City employees will be released.  

The Commission was appointed in June by Mayor Joanne Yepsen, pursuant to provisions of the existing charter requiring a review every 10 years, and of State General Municipal Law authorizing a Mayoral-appointed commission.

 

Gazette: Saratoga Charter Review Commission announces goals

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The city’s Charter Review Commission has come out with a list of strategic goals in its ongoing review of how local government is run.

In creating the list, the 15-member group of appointed citizens spent the past six months gathering input from city commissioners, past commissioners, former mayors and residents.

The city charter spells out the organization, powers and functions of city government and, by law, must be reviewed at least once every 10 years. Attempts to change the charter in 2006 and in 2012 were unsuccessful.

“Our goal at the outset was to make Saratoga Springs even better by designing the best possible city charter to meet the needs of citizens,” said Bob Turner, commission chairman. “Changing a charter is not something to be done lightly.”

The commission identified a series of criteria that will become a checklist for reviewing changes. They include values the commission considered to be widely-shared within the community, including the promotion of: accountability and public representation; high quality, efficient services and infrastructure; economic development and sustainability; long-term planning, investment; recruitment and training of a diverse, inclusive workforce; and ethical and professional behavior among city employees and leaders.

At its Monday meeting, the group will get the results of a survey of hundreds of city stakeholders about their willingness to run for local office. Among the revisions to the charter, the commission is considering other forms of government, including council-manager and strong mayor-council.

Saratoga Springs has an unusual form of government, in which four elected commissioners oversee the government functions of public safety, public works, finance and accounts. Together with the mayor, they make up the City Council, with each commissioner having authority over his or her department’s operation.

“The purpose of the survey is to get an accurate snapshot on whether our current form of government promotes a wide range of candidates and encourages public service,” said Pat Kane, commission vice chair.

While the commission is sponsored by the city, Mayor Joanne Yepsen said it is working autonomously and that she has purposely stayed uninvolved in its operation. She commended the group on being thorough in its review.

“A lot of us have the same goal, and that is we want to encourage more people to run for office — at least I do,” she said. “So we need to set up a system where more people have the desire to be running for these important offices.”

Saratogian: Charter commission hears from member of 2001 group

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> As it continues to review the city charter, the Charter Review Commission interviewed a former member from the 2001 commission who has had recent public disagreements with the City Council.

Mark Lawton gave his testimony Tuesday to the commission. Lawton was thrown out of a City Council meeting during the public comment period in July by Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. The conflict arose during a tense council meeting while Mayor Joanne Yepsen’s ethics code violation was the subject of much debate and scrutiny. Lawton, along with other public commenters, had accused members of the Council of running a smear campaign against Yepsen during that time, to which Madigan retaliated. Lawton was frustrated Madigan used his name and began yelling at her, so Madigan had him escorted out of the meeting.

As tense as Lawton’s relationship is with some of the current City Council, he has a long history with the city and a thorough knowledge of the charter, having served on the 2001 Charter Review Commission under then-Mayor Ken Klotz. The charter that was adopted then is the city’s current charter.

The city operates under a commission form of government, one of only a few left in the state, in which the mayor and four commissioners make up the City Council and all five members have equal voting power.

During the commission’s review process, which started in the summer, there has been much debate over whether this form of government is beneficial to the city. Former and current elected officials, as well as county supervisors and city managers from other cities, have been interviewed by the commission in an effort to decide what is best for the city. Some feel the current form of government is working, such as Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, but the majority of those interviewed said a change is in order.

On Tuesday, Lawton said when the 2001 charter was being drafted, the commission agreed all changes or additions had to be unanimous, which made it difficult to settle on whether changing the form of government was necessary. The commission form of government was kept under the predetermination that it could be worked with and fine tuned; the charter could be written in a way to make that form of government good for the city.

“There were a lot of strong opinions,” Lawton said. “There were those who wanted no change, period. There were those who wanted a strong mayor form of government. And there were some that believed there was a chance we could improve the commission form of government to the point where it could function, to the point where it could provide what the citizens needed and wanted. They wanted access and they wanted transparency. They wanted to know their government and they wanted to know that they had access to it.”

Lawton said when he was teaching students about government, he never would have taught this form of government — except as an example of what to avoid or change.

Lawton said one of the biggest problems with this form of government is that politics often clouds people’s judgement.

“There are super problems when you mix politics with management,” Lawton said.

Saratoga Springs Commission takes in-depth look at city government

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Commission conducting in-depth look at how city government operates

 

 

By Travis Clark, tclark@digitalfirstmedia.com, @TravClark2 on Twitter

SARATOGA SPRINGS >> The Charter Review Commission has been conducting a review of the city’s charter over the past month, but what does that mean, and how has the process evolved over the span of almost two decades?

The Saratoga Springs city charter is a document that establishes the city’s form of government and provides a legal framework for how that form of government should operate. By law, the charter is to be reviewed every 10 years.

The Charter Review Commission’s purpose is to propose revisions or amendments, make a report to the public and submit any revisions to the City Council at a public referendum. According to current Charter Review Commission chairman Bob Turner, the current commission is a diverse mix of men and woman nominated by the City Council from every part of the city, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents and a wide mix of professional backgrounds, from law to journalism to technology.

The current charter was adopted in 2001 under then-Mayor Ken Klotz, according to Turner. Saratoga Springs operates under a city council form of government, one of only a few still left in the state, composed of the mayor and four commissioners; on each for finance, accounts, public works and public safety. Each of the five council members have equal voting power in regards to amendments, ordinances, resolutions, etc.

Klotz’s goal with establishing his Charter Commission was to keep the status quo but make a series of incremental changes over time, Turner said. At the time, the city council government was already established, but Klotz’s charter would give it a new sense of direction.

Klotz’s successor, Michael Lenz, attempted to form his own Charter Commission in 2005, but lost re-election to Valerie Keehn in 2006. Lenz’s commission would have included Pat Kane, a highly involved member of the Saratoga Springs public, who would later be among the leaders of a charge to replace the council form of government with a city manager form of government in 2012.

Keehn’s commission advocated for a strong mayor form of government, which would give the mayor more power compared to the equal voting power of the current form of government, which current and former elected officials seem to agree causes power struggles amid the council. That would eventually go on to be voted down. When Keehn testified to the current Charter Review Commission in August, she noted that the old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” does not apply here, saying the government must evolve.

Kane’s 2012 movement was one of three ways that a charter can change, Kane said. One is with a mayoral commission, another is if the council itself appoints a commission and the other is by citizens’ petition. Kane and his bipartisan, citizen-based group Saratoga Citizen got the appropriate amount of signatures but the initial document they presented to the city in 2010 was shot down and ruled invalid. The group would continue to fight, including taking the City Council to court in a legal battle that Saratoga Citizen would eventually win.

In 2012, the group’s charter change proposition for a city manager form of government finally made it onto the ballot but was voted down by Saratoga Springs residents 5,991 to 4,423. The current commision has not ruled out that possibility, though, as they have interviewed two successful city managers, Mark Ryckman of Corning and Jason Molino of Batavia.

Today, the consensus among former and current Saratoga Springs elected officials seems to be that the charter and form of government needs to change. WMayor Joanne Yepsen said that “there’s definitely room for improvement within city government and within City Hall.”

Most recently, the commission interviewed on Tuesday former Commissioner of Public Works Tom McTygue and former and current commissioners of Public Safety Lew Benton and Christian Mathiesen, respectively. Kane said it is a testament to the need to change the charter that long-time opponents of changing it are now in favor of it, such as McTygue, who said that there needs to be more professionalism within City Hall.

Mathiesen said on Tuesday that he was very skeptical of the city council form of government before stepping into his role, and five years later he is even more skeptical. He, and many others who have been interviewed, believe the current form of government limits those who can run because the job is so extensive that anyone with a normal “9 to 5 job” would not be able to balance it all.

“We really need to have a separate legislative body that represents the interests of our citizens, a body that makes it possible for people to run for public office and gives people a sense of belonging to our city,” Mathiesen said.

“It’s the people, not the form of government, that makes Saratoga Springs great,” Kane said. “But the form of government should enable them to be great.”

http://www.saratogian.com/government-and-politics/20161001/saratoga-springs-commission-takes-in-depth-look-at-city-government