Reader’s View: The challenges facing local government

Thomas Jefferson famously supported rewriting the Constitution every 19 years. He said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” What he meant was that a constitution or charter should be designed to address the challenges of the future rather than the past. Before designing a charter for Saratoga Springs for the 21st century, the Charter Review Commission asked ourselves, what challenges face Saratoga Springs in the 21st Century?

For the past 8 months, we have read multiple municipal finance reports including the NY Comptroller’s “New Fiscal Realities Challenge Local Governments” and Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernake’s speech on the Economic Challenges for State and Local Governments. They paint a clear and stark picture of the challenges facing Saratoga Springs.

Federal and state aid to cities is shrinking. Cities can no longer expect Washington or Albany to bail them out. Cities are growing increasingly dependent on sales tax and tourist revenue which can fluctuate significantly with the national economy. We know increased competition from the Rivers Casino in Schenectady and the new Albany Convention Center will likely to cut into the city’s tax revenues. Meeting long term pension liabilities and retiree health-care expenses will become increasingly difficult and Governor Cuomo’s property tax cap limits the city’s ability to raise revenue. Saratogians understand this.

Future infrastructure costs will continue to rise. A 2014 New York State Comptroller report, Growing Cracks in the Foundation, shows that strained finances coupled with rapidly rising costs in construction materials have caused NY cities to fall behind in their efforts to maintain and improve their aging water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure. Our primary drinking water source dates from 1870. Federal mandates for stormwater runoff, safe drinking water, and the prevailing wage act requirements further strain local government finances.

What is the implication of less money and more demands for the City Charter? New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli states that cities need to be “able to shift their emphasis from reacting to short-term or emergency infrastructure needs to being proactive and planning for the future.” While a five member Commission with their own administrative silos and two year terms may have certain advantages, proactive long-term planning is not one of them. Each commissioner is concerned with their own department, be it finance, public safety, or public works.

If the challenges facing city government today are high, Saratogians’ expectations for city government have never been higher. In Saratoga, we want bike paths, parking garages, a waterfront park, solar field, a homeless shelter, a top tier city center, a community farm, a safe and clean downtown, and sports fields. We expect to be able to pay our bills, submit building designs and find information about government services from our smart phones. Since Amazon can deliver anything in 48 hours, we expect our emails answered within 24 hours and cannot fathom why a routine building or sign permit should take more time.

Governing a city in 1915 was simpler– Collect taxes, build roads, provide licenses, and protect the public. Increasing fiscal challenges, rising infrastructure costs, and fierce competition make providing those services and the meeting the higher demands of citizens significantly more difficult. Saratogians want and expect a responsive, proactive, and agile city government. We need a new charter that meets those challenges. To learn more about the Charter Review Committee’s work, see saratogacharter.com. As always, we hope to hear from you via email at saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.

Bob Turner is chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission. Megan Schachter is a student at Skidmore College.

Times Union: Saratoga Springs proposed charter nearly complete

Spa City’s proposed code likely to be ready for public consumption by week’s end

Published 10:39 pm, Sunday, February 19, 2017
Saratoga Springs

By the end of the week, the proposed city charter will likely be ready to be rolled out to the public.

Bob Turner, charter commission chairman, said that drafts of the new charter have been going back and forth between the 15-member commission for the past eight weeks. So far, the commission agreed upon many points including the preamble, duties of the city manager, appointment and responsibilities of the city attorney and the makeup of the city council. On Thursday, the charter commission members will finalize the role of a “dynamic mayor” and the salary structure of manager, the mayor and the city council members.

“We are getting very close. I know citizens want to see the final product as soon as possible,” said Turner. “While we have the main provisions of the charter, there are a number of important details we have to get right.”

The charter is being drafted by Robert Batson, the government lawyer in residence at Albany Law School who in the past 10 years has drafted new charters for Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Cohoes, Oneonta and Glen Cove.

The new charter, if approved by voters on May 30, would change the 100-year-old commission form of government to that of a city manager with a council composed of a mayor and six at-large council members.

Not all of the commissioners who now run the city are on board with plans for a new charter.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen have said they support the charter commission’s call for a special election on the city’s fate. But the other three commissioners are opposed. Commissioners John Franck and Michele Madigan disapprove of the cost: $37,000 for the special election and $46,000 for administrative costs. Commissioner of Public Works Anthony “Skip” Scirocco said the idea of changing the government is “ludicrous” as the city is running well already.

The charter commission clearly disagreed, saying the current form stymies growth and progress.

The debate will be on Tuesday’s city council agenda where funding of the effort will be discussed and voted upon.

Whether the funding is there or not, the charter commission will begin to introduce the newly drawn charter proposal to the city residents in a series of public meetings and mailings.

“It’s important to educate the public,” Turner said.

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

LINK: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Saratoga-Springs-proposed-charter-nearly-complete-10944737.php

Reader’s View: Why a May 30 charter referendum?

By Bob Turner

February 11, 2017

 

On May 30, Saratoga Springs will hold a referendum on whether to approve a new charter for our fair city. Some people have asked why hold the charter referendum on May 3 instead of the city election in November.

Some have suggested that there is something unusual about holding a referendum on the charter separate from the city election. However, it is not unusual at all.

When the United States approved our Constitution, we did so in ratifying conventions that were separate from the normal elections.

A charter is not a Republican or Democratic issue, a liberal or conservative issue. It is a constitutional issue.

Holding the charter referendum during a city election means that the charter vote would get wrapped up into the personal and partisan conflicts of the city election.

We hold presidential, state, local and school board elections at different times. Why? We don’t want to overload voters by placing too many issues on the ballot at the same time.

At the November city election, the charter would have to compete for voters’ attention with five city council races, two county supervisor races, a judicial race and a statewide question on a Constitutional Convention.

Campaign spending is estimated to be approximately $750,000 in 2017. Local free media coverage would be difficult to come by since the media would have to report on the mayoral, finance commissioner, public works commissioner, public safety commissioner, account commissioner, and two county supervisor elections in addition to a statewide ballot question and a potential county referendum in addition to the city charter.

Moreover, in the 2017 city election, the charter referendum question would be on the back of the ballot. When the citizen initiative charter came before voters in 2012, more than 2,000 voters failed to turn the ballot over and vote on the Charter.

Why? They hadn’t heard anything about it.

Deciding whether to adopt a new charter is one of the most important decisions citizens can make. Holding the charter referendum on May 30 will give Saratogians more than three months to focus on the specific provisions of the charter, without the partisanship or personal politics that often characterize Saratoga Springs city elections.

It will be the dominant local political issue and will receive extensive media coverage and debate among the citizens. When we reviewed the media coverage of the 2006 and 2012 charter votes, it was dominated by discussions of the personalities on each side rather than the merits of the proposal.

Ask yourself, for those charter proposals, how many members were on the City Council? How long were the terms? How was the city attorney selected? How were citizen board appointments handled?

Why May 30, the Tuesday after Memorial Day? Originally, the Charter Review Commission proposed a date in April. Members of the City Council were concerned that some snowbirds might not be back by then and that an April date wouldn’t give voters enough time to study the issues.

In response to the Council’s concerns, the Charter Review Commission selected May 30. Primary nomination papers for the City Council start being circulated on June 7.

May 30 is the latest an election can be held while also allowing new candidates to choose to run for the City Council based on whether the charter referendum succeeds or fails.

Some opponents of charter reform have suggested that voters will not vote in a May charter referendum, comparing it to school board, library, or primary votes.

However, we know changing a city charter is different. Saratoga Springs’ voters are very educated and passionate about their city. They understand that deciding on a city’s charter is extremely important. We are very confident that there will be record turnout even higher than a city election. For more information on the charter, log on to saratogacharter.com.

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

Gazette: City Council delays vote on funds for special election

Lawyers advise lawmakers to negotiate with charter group

 February 8, 2017
BY NED CAMPBELL Gazette Reporter

The City Council continues to delay a vote to provide funding for a special election proposed by the Charter Review Commission.

The election, proposed for May 30 by the 15-member citizen group, would present a new charter to residents — one that would change the city’s commission form of government to council-manager.

The council did not vote on the group’s requested $37,000 for the special election, or $46,000 in operational expenses, as anticipated Tuesday night. Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan previously said the issue would be handled at Tuesday night’s council meeting after a Jan. 25 special meeting to decide on the expenses didn’t reach a quorum. That special meeting, called by Madigan, never took place because she, Accounts Commissioner John Franck and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco — who have all objected to a special election — were absent.

Madigan said Tuesday that because a majority of the council doesn’t support a special election, she was advised by two attorneys — City Assistant Attorney Tony Izzo and John Aspland of the Fitz-Gerald Morris Baker Firth law firm in Glens Falls — to try to come to an agreement with the review group before voting on the funds. She said she sought the added counsel of Aspland because Izzo also represents the charter review group.

“It was my inclination to at least bring it forward to get them to keep moving on their work, but based on the legal opinion that I received, the best thing to do is to continue to negotiate,” she said. “If the council moves and we don’t come to an agreement, it could lead to a lawsuit.”

Madigan said the council has 45 days from when the funds were requested to take action, citing state Municipal Home Rule Law 36. Bob Turner, chairman of the Charter Review Commission, has said the same home rule law gives the group the authority to call a special election funded by the city and that after 45 days, the city must provide the necessary funds.

Madigan said the 45th day is Feb. 24, according to one calculation, “but a legal opinion has been requested as to when the clock actually starts on the 45 days.”

“We think we should use the 45 days, to the best of our ability, to come to an agreement,” Madigan said.

That agreement, according to Madigan, should involve the charter vote taking place during the general election in November. Madigan said no council members take issue with the request for $46,000 in administrative expenses.

“I’d like to see them agree not to use taxpayer funds for a special election,” she said.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen stressed that the commission is independent from the City Council and should be allowed to continue its work drafting a charter for residents to consider.

“They are doing important independent, non-political work to set our city on a positive course for the future,” she said. “Obviously, the commission needs necessary funds to defray their expenses. Council members asked for more time but it will be on the next City Council meeting agenda.”

City Council members have criticized the proposed special election for being rushed, and predict a low turnout. Review group members say the special election would give the issue of the city’s constitution the attention it deserves, rather than have it compete with several contested local races expected to be on the ballot in November.

TU: Charter commission concludes city needs strong mayor, not ceremonial one

By  

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission unanimous agreed that it wants a dynamic mayor elected by voters to represent the city rather than a  ceremonial mayor.

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the commission voted 14-0 in favor of a council/manager form of government. Under traditional council/manager form, the mayor is selected by the council and has the same powers as other council members and plays more of a ceremonial role.  However, the commission felt that Saratoga Springs needed a mayor who could provide dynamic leadership and rejected the weak mayor model.

Commission Chair Bob Turner, who is also an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College, pointed out that very few city governments are a pure strong mayor or council/manager model.

“The vast majority of cities have a hybrid form that combine the political leadership and coalition building of the strong mayor model with the professional expertise and administrative efficiencies of a city manager or administrator,” said Turner.

The commission did not decide whether the mayor should be full time or not.
The commission also reviewed the research of New York’s constitutional scholar and SUNY Professor Gerald Benjamin on the appointment and removal of city managers.  The commission supported having the city council be able to appoint and remove the city manager.

The commission also supported having clear qualifications in the charter for the manager/administrator, covering the education and experience of the city manager in the charter.

The commission is expected to finish the draft of the revised charter by the middle of February.  Voters will have a vote in a charter referendum on May 30.

More information is available at Saratogacharter.com.  Comments on the charter can be sent via email to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.