Gazette: Saratoga residents weigh in on charter proposal

Man who chaired a charter commission years ago shares thoughts
Saratoga residents weigh in on charter proposal
John Sullivan speaks at Wednesday’s charter commission forum in Saratoga Springs.
PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICA MILLER

 

John Sullivan chaired a commission that got a new charter passed in the city of Oswego in 1977, served as mayor of that city 10 years later and has lived in Saratoga Springs for four years.

Naturally, he had some ideas for the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, which presented its recently drafted charter proposal to about 100 residents who packed into the Saratoga Springs Public Library Community Room for a forum on Wednesday night.

Sullivan said the charter he helped write strengthened the mayor’s power and lengthened the term from two to four years. He served one four-year term starting in 1987, during which time he started Harborfest, a popular summertime festival still going today, he said with a bit of pride.

“To me, when people vote for mayor, they want to know that that person’s going to make sure the streets are plowed, they want to know if someone’s going to suggest a budget that needs a tax increase, that someone’s accountable. The buck has to stop on someone’s desk,” he said after speaking at the forum.

Sullivan questioned where the buck would stop under the council-manager form of government being proposed by the 15-member charter group appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen last June. The city manager would be hired — and could also be fired — by a seven-member City Council, which would include the mayor. The manager would be responsible for preparing and administering the budget and overseeing the city’s finances, among other duties, according to the 24-page charter draft, which can be viewed online at www.saratogacharter.com. The mayor position, now part-time, would also be upgraded to full-time.

“I’ve got a lot to say about this topic, and I hope I have that opportunity,” Sullivan said.

Interestingly enough, Sullivan’s comments during the meeting followed the Saratoga Springs review group chairman Bob Turner’s promise that he would never run for office in Saratoga Springs in response to being asked how much the city manager and mayor would earn under the new form of government. Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor, said that would be up to the City Council under the current charter draft.

“I think I was always going to run,” Sullivan admitted.

Turner did provide his own personal estimate for what a mayor might earn, of $60,000 to $70,000, while vice chairman Pat Kane floated $125,000 as an estimated salary for a city manager.

“I think that’s a political decision [that] our elected officials should make,” Turner stressed.

The role of the mayor was a recurring topic among speakers — about 20 residents provided feedback and asked questions at the forum, which started with a 45-minute presentation by Turner and other commission members on the draft released this week.

Under the proposal, the mayor’s term would be extended, from two years to four years, and the six council members would also serve four-year terms. That’s an extension of the two-year terms now served by the four commissioners, who now make up the council but whose positions would be eliminated if voters approve the charter proposal during a referendum planned for November. If ushered in by the voters, the new form of government would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, with the first election in 2019.

George Bergmann, a Saratoga Springs resident since 2015 who lived in Alexandria, Virginia, for 34 years, questioned the need to make the mayor full-time. He said Alexandria had a much larger population and a part-time mayor under a council-manager form of government with six council members.

“All of our issues were addressed,” he said. “In our 34 years, we never had a problem.”

Turner said that need was determined from talking to seven past mayors of Saratoga Springs, who all said it’s a full-time job, at least.

Charles Brown, the city’s Democratic committee chairman, responded to statements made by the commission members that the proposed form of government would make it easier for more people to run for office in the city.

“I’m very concerned that we’re opening the door for potential candidates that ran a good campaign but do not understand the depth of the decisions they have to make,” he said.

Some residents questioned the number of councilors proposed, suggesting four councilors and a mayor would be enough. Turner said the commission wasn’t bent on a seven-member governing body.

“It has to be odd, we know that,” he said.

Sullivan commended the commission members for moving the vote to November, after originally planning a special election for May 30 — an idea that was rejected by the City Council.

“There’s a lot more time, and I would hope a lot more consideration to be given,” he said.

Turner said all of the night’s comments would be taken into consideration, and encouraged people to send more via email to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.

“It is not written in stone,” he said, referring to the current charter draft.

Saratogian: Charter Review Commission holds first forum after revealing draft charter

Bob Turner presents the city charter draft Wednesday
Bob Turner presents the city charter draft Wednesday  
Joseph Phelan jphelan@digitalfirstmedia.comBob Turner presents the city charter draft Wednesday

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.>> Residents had their first opportunity to discuss the city charter draft Wednesday night at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. Charter Review Commission President Bob Turner presented the 15-member commission’s present work. The Commission released a charter draft March 26 in hopes to complete the final draft by May 30 to place in front of voters in the November general election.

In the charter draft, a council-manager form of government calls for a city council to be made up of six council members and a full-time mayor. The idea of a full-time mayor resonated with a number of residents, including a man named George who lived in Alexandria, VA that had a city manager just like this charter draft proposes. George said the council-manager form of government worked greatly, but the mayor served part-time.

Turner said that, according to mayors the commission has interviewed, the job beyond full-time.

“Saratoga is a big league city,” Tunrer said. “We’re a really important city. We have a lot of outside stakeholders, a lot of people are coming through and that there needs to be someone there to, as someone said to us it’s really important to have someone here to pick up the phone if something calls, and it shouldn’t be a deputy mayor, it shouldn’t be someone else. It should be the mayor itself.”

Turned also said the mayor would have responsibilities including, but not limited to, appointing members to boards and committees with city council consent, creating advisory committees, presenting State of the City addresses..

Turner and fellow commission member Pat Kane estimated a full-time mayor would range anywhere from $40,000-$70,000, but Turner said the commission believed it wasn’t their responsibility to include a salary in the charter.

“The salary and benefits of the mayor and the city council are to be determined by whoever we elect in November,” said Turner. “Let’s assume the charter passes…they have to set what the salaries are going to be by Dec. 31, 2018. This is what most cities do. They don’t put it in there. The US Constitution doesn’t establish [salary]. I have a sense what I think those numbers should be but it’s not for me to do that. I think that’s a political decision. I think it’s a policy decision and I think it’s something our elected officials should make and not us.”

Kane said a city manager would cost about $125,000-$150,000 a year, but the commission would provide examples of how similar sized cities pay city managers in the coming months.

In the charter draft, seven city council members would serve four-year teams with a maximum of three terms.

Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee Chariman Charles Brown said he had concerns about the legislative side of the charter, specifically the seven council members serving four year terms.

“I’ve very concerned that we’re opening a door for potential candidates that we’ve elected based on a good campaign but are not committed,” said Brown. “…If we give them a four-year cycle, we are living through four years with those kind of decisions.”

Turner said the seven spots would give more representation to voters.

According to the draft, the city council members would no longer have responsibility for administering departments like they did under the commission form of government. The city manager would take over those responsibilities. The commission provided a city manager’s biography from the City of Elk Grove to demonstrate what type of background the city manager would have. She had obtained a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The commission recommends the city manager applicants have at least five years serving as a city manager in a similar sized city.

“They have to be a trained expert and they have to be appointed by a majority of the city council, it’s not just the mayor’s appointment,” said Turner. “This is really important because it assures that the city manager is responsive to the city council as a whole.”

The charter review commission asks anyone who wants to comment or ask a question to send an email to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.

To view the 24-page charter, click here.