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

Gazette Letter by Raymond Watkin, former Mayor

Need charter

change to break up


Vote ‘yes’ on Charter

Some members of the Saratoga Springs City Council are showing their true colors behind a smokescreen of phony concern for the taxpayer.

The city’s Charter Review Commission has developed a thoughtful approach to reforming city government. Development, failing infrastructure, overdue public safety facilities, and spot-zoning in residential areas are affecting the city. The petty disputes that are daily business on the City Council have prevented a coordinated response to a host of needs. Recently, two council member/commissioners spent more than 45 minutes disputing each other about dog licenses. Professional management is needed.

The Charter Commission’s fiscal estimate is a reasonable and reliable benchmark for voters to evaluate the cost of change. Moreover, the commission is required by state law to provide this information to the voters, no matter what the incumbent council members might say. If we voters approve the new charter on Nov. 7, the next administration will have clear sailing to save the taxpayer more than $400,000 a year.

How did it come about that Commissioners John Franck (D), Skip Scirocco (R) and Michele Madigan (D) — all of whom are unopposed for re-election — are taking the same negative position on the charter? They are in a state of distress that their fiefdoms, and the rigged elections they have arranged for each other, will all come to an end with a new form of government.

Mr. Franck promised last winter that if the charter referendum was moved from May to November, he would remain “neutral.” Now that he has broken his word on that, how can his views be trusted on the fiscal estimate?

The proposed city council/manager charter will break up the politics at City Hall, assure competitive elections, and open the door for greater participation by motivated citizens of all parties. The Madigan-Scirocco-Franck monopoly on political power will end.

I urge my fellow Saratoga Springs residents to vote yes for a new charter and a more Democratic way of doing the public’s business in City Hall.

Raymond Watkin

Saratoga Springs

The writer is the former mayor.

Saratogian: Letter from Thomas McTygue, former Commissioner

Changing Charter Will Add Checks and Balances

October 6, 2017

What we’ve seen with Saratoga Springs city government over the past several years should be reason enough for city residents to support the new City Charter and with it a new form of City Council governance.

Many reasons have been thoroughly detailed by the City’s Charter Commission for changing to a more representative and efficient form of government for Saratoga Springs. In recent years, under the current form of government, its been one bad decision after another. The inside dealing and the lack of real political checks and balances within city government should be reason enough for city residents to turn away from our current form. Let’s look at the record.

The City Council’s decision to dump the city’s long-standing policy on charging new building construction a water connection fee to help cover the costs of important and future improvements to the city’s water system is a dramatic example of the current system lacking adequate checks and balances. Dumping that program and then passing that burden onto the backs of city taxpayers in the form of new sky-rocketing water fees was another example of putting Council member’s personal political needs ahead of doing what’s right for the city and it’s taxpayers.

As a result, we are still awaiting the report from the New York State Comptroller’s investigation concerning the DPW Commissioner’s flagrant abuse in granting of nearly $1 million in connection fees without City Council’s knowledge or authorization.

That policy decision along with the City Council’s inept decision to swap a valuable downtown municipal parking lot for construction of a emergency services station on the outer east side, a decision that was ultimately blocked by the New York State Attorney General for being illegal, was another classic failure under the current system, costing huge sums of money in legal fees and lost time.

These two failures in public policy alone should serve as a modern-day indictment of the current form of government.

As the city’s former Commissioner of Public Works, I had the honor of serving 32 years in elective office as a member of the City Council. I have a fairly good idea how the current form of government operates, having served with 8 different Mayors and 14 different Commissioners. In the past, I supported the current Commission form of government and for good reason. Very simply, we generally worked together and got things done.

What used to work as a system of checks and balances today has been replaced by the sheer personal politics of a “working majority” or a “gang-of-three” that has gamed the system and ruled the City Council with impunity. They have rigged the system to the point whereby a majority of the City Council is running unopposed in November. To further secure their incumbency, they have even gone so far as to put the Chairman of the “Independence Party” on the public payroll, thus guaranteeing an advantage with an additional line on the election ballot.

Very simply, the business of city government today has degenerated into personal fiefdoms and political alliances that have not served this city well.

On November 7 bring real accountability back to City Hall and vote “yes” on a new City Charter.

Thomas G. McTygue

Saratoga Springs

The author was Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Works from 1972 to 1978 and 1982 to 2008.

Gazette Letter to the Editor: Charter Change will get Better Candidates

Charter will only improve election choices

On Nov. 7, I will be voting “yes” on charter change for the city of Saratoga Springs, and I hope you will too. For me, it’s all about the quality of our democracy.

Under our old system, elected commissioners must be both lawmakers and administrators, all on a part-time salary. This narrows the field of potential candidates to a small club. Few people with full-time jobs or young families can afford to run. No wonder three of the five city offices are uncontested in this year’s election.

If we adopt the new charter, these responsibilities will be separated. Administration will be done by a professional city manager who is chosen by a city board of seven dedicated lawmakers. These dedicated lawmakers will then be free to focus on the important decisions about our city’s future.

Many cities before us have made this change and proven that the new charter will increase the number of talented citizens, from many different walks-of-life, willing and able to stand for office. Our elections will be competitive and Saratogians will have the healthy democracy we deserve.

The potential of our city is incredible, and by improving the quality of our democracy, we directly unleash the source of that potential: our people.


Saratoga Springs

Saratogian: Spa City commission holding ‘Meet the Manager’ night on Monday


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. >> The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission is holding the first of three “Meet the Manager” nights on Monday, Oct. 2, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the H. Dutcher Community Room at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.

The event will feature a short presentation by Matt Horn, the city manager of Geneva, New York. He will then answer questions from the public.

“I think this is a great opportunity for voters to hear for themselves what a city manager does and ask the hard questions,” Laura Chodos said in a news release.

Commission Chair Bob Turner said, “The Charter Review Committee is committed to providing citizens with as much information as possible and educating the public about how the proposed council manager system would work.”

Voters can email questions for the city managers in advance to saratogaspringscharter@gmail.com.

The event will also be livestreamed on the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission facebook page and a video will be available on the city website at a later date.

Under the proposed charter, the mayor and city council approves the budget, determines the tax rate and focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and such long-term considerations as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The council would hire a highly trained, non partisan, professional city manager to carry out these policies with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery, the release said.

Managers would serve at the pleasure of the governing body and can be fired by a majority of the council. Under the proposed charter, the city council would hire the city manager. The city manager would replace the deputy commissioners as the day-to-day operations manager of the city.

The measure to change the charter will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Times Union blog: New group pushes for change…

New group pushes for change in city

charter; hosts library meetings

A group of Saratoga Springs residents, including current and former mayors, has joined to form a new organization called, It’s Time Saratoga! The organization’s mission is to help educate city voters about why their support for the new city charter, developed by the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, is needed to ensure a vibrant future for Saratoga Springs.

“Our name says it all,” said Rick Fenton, spokesperson for the group. “We enthusiastically agree that it’s time for a new city charter. Saratoga Springs is growing and changing. To keep up, our city government must be equipped to meet the demands of a modern city – land use planning, management of infrastructure, energy, transportation and parking, emergency services, environmental protection and affordable housing. Our outdated commission form of government just isn’t serving residents, businesses, or city staff the way it should,” he said.

It’s Time Saratoga! will host an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Sept. 28 and  Oct. 5 in the Sussman Room in the Saratoga Springs Public Library on Henry Street.

The new organization invites everyone who can help by walking door-to-door, hosting an informational meeting in their home, making a donation or putting up a lawn sign.

Under Saratoga’s existing charter, the mayor and four commissioners serve both as members of the city council and supervisors of city departments.

“Nobody is in charge,” Fenton said. “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 discussion are more about turf battles than collaboration. With benefit of group discussion, department decisions are made by the elected department head alone, out of the public eye. Government actions lack transparency and accountability, services suffer, projects are delayed and cost more.”  

With the new charter, the elected city council will retain complete control over all major policy and legislative decisions, including the budget and taxes, but responsibility for the day-to-day supervision of city operations will be transferred to a professional city manager.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen thinks the change is needed.

“Our commission form of government prevents many of the talented people in our community from even considering running for a city council position. Under the new charter, people from currently under-represented neighborhoods, more people with jobs and families, and more women will run and be elected. We will have more competitive races, and a greater diversity of voices in city government,“ she said. “Going back to 1915, only seven women have ever had a seat on our city council. We’ve never had a woman for commissioner of accounts or public safety, and only one woman as commissioner of public works in the 1940s.”

A.C. Riley, Saratoga Springs supervisor from 1980 to 1987, and mayor from 1990 to 1995, agreed.

“Managing the city isn’t a job for amateurs,” Riley said.  “Everything in our world is getting more complex, including local government. In the old days, most people could fix their own cars, or the kitchen sink. How many people can do that today? We call a professional, someone with training and expertise, so we get good results. Under the new charter, that professional will be our city manager, who will be the leader of all city departments. Our elected city council will make all the important decisions, and direct the manager to carry them out. The charter will require the manager to be educated and experienced in how to read and carry out laws and regulations, how to develop and manage a budget, and how to negotiate with unions. The council will rely on the manager to direct several projects at once and get things done on time.”

Former Mayor Raymond Watkin previously opposed charter change, but now sees things differently.

“I look forward to supporting the campaign to adopt a new city charter,”  Watkin said. “Our city government is unable to keep up with the demand for services from our growing community. In-fighting and a ‘me-first’ attitude among the commissioners has prevented progress on meeting infrastructure, public safety and community needs.”

More information is available at the group’s website, www.itstimesaratoga.com, or by emailing info@itstimesaratoga.com.

Saratoga Springs voters will have a chance to vote on the proposed new city charter in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7. The question will be on the back of the ballot.

LINK: http://blog.timesunion.com/saratogaseen/new-group-pushes-for-change-in-city-charter-hosts-library-meetings/31151/


WAMC: Charter Change Documents Sent To Saratoga Springs Homes

 • September 29, 2017

The Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission is now sending information to homes in the Spa City about the proposed city charter on the ballot Election Day. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard was at the Commission’s meeting Thursday night when the documents were approved.

Materials about the proposed city charter in Saratoga Springs are in the mail.

The Charter Review Commission’s plan, if approved on election day, would change Saratoga Springs’ governing structure from its current commission-style to a more common council-manager style.

In 2020, Saratoga Springs would go from a system where five department heads also serve as city legislators, to a seven-member city council that includes a mayor, and a separate full-time city manager appointed by the council.

Charter Review Commission Chair Bob Turner stood by the effort of all those involved over the past several months.

“We’ve spoken to well over a hundred, 150 people formally and informally over parties, on the streets, in coffeehouses about what they think about city government, what their hopes are for the future, and what we can do to make Saratoga Springs even better,” said Turner. “And their drive, really, to make it better is what was always motivating us throughout the entire, almost two-year process.”

Thursday night, the Charter Review Commission approved a more detailed financial review of the charter reform plan after backlash from some members of the city council and the public.

Originally, a one-page financial snapshot showed a savings from the proposed charter of $391,000. The longer financial review estimates a $403,000 savings, but also includes additional disclaimers about potential costs not included in the one-page version.

“And people will be getting a seven-page detailed version that they can read. There’s, I think, a lot of disclaimers in there about it. But I think we feel confident that it is a reasonable estimate of what this will cost in the short-run and some estimates about the long-run as well.”

Opponents of the proposed charter have questioned the financial review’s assessment of the role of the city’s deputy commissioners. Nearly $600,000 in cost reductions are attributed to the removal of the five full-time deputy commissioners.

The financial assessment does include a disclaimer:

“The existing Deputy Commissioners or their designees shall continue to serve in their department management functions until the City Manager’s appointment is effective, at which time they shall serve at the pleasure of the City Manager.”

The assessment also mentions that transition costs could vary from $100,000 to $300,000, but says it is impossible to know how long a transition could take.

Richard Sellers, a supporter of the group called SUCCESS, which backs the current form of government, believes the costs will be much higher.

“The most important thing is not one page versus seven, it’s the flawed thinking in the document, whether it’s one page or seven,” said Seller. “One or two people cannot do the work of eight or nine, so there’s a $600,000 cost increase for moving to the city manager form of government.”

Former Deputy Mayor Shauna Sutton, who served under former Republican Mayor Scott Johnson for six years, questioned the Commission as to why former deputies were not surveyed.

“Interview the former deputies. Because these deputies spent, as I said, thousands of hours working here. And they know how the government and structure basically works,” said Sutton.

The Commission chose to interview several past elected leaders. The Commissionalso gathered input from 75 current city employees.

While a majority of respondents said the appointed deputies showed respect for city employees, attitudes toward assistance in problem solving and decision making ability were mixed.

Some deputies, including Sutton, have also served as staffers on their commissioners’ political campaigns.

The financial analysis is based on the elimination of all current commissioners and deputies. It does not account for future hires. The Charter Review Commission anticipates that  legislative and policy work currently performed by deputies and commissioners would be absorbed by the new seven-member city council.

LINK: http://wamc.org/post/charter-change-documents-sent-saratoga-springs-homes

Saratogian: Spa City Charter Review Commission OKs updated fiscal analysis


The commission approved its fiscal analysis last week, but at last Tuesday’s City Council meeting some commissioners spoke out against the analysis, saying it failed to provide key details.

The updated financial analysis will be sent to voters before the referendum, officials said. The proposed charter city residents will vote on in November would switch Saratoga Springs from a commission form of government to a council-manager form of government, meaning a city manager would have to be hired.

“We have been talking about the financial impact of the charter for several months now. We originally had a longer and far more detailed version of that and we thought that perhaps we should be shorter and more concise and only talk about the positions that were specifically outlined in the charter. We’re adding a city manager and we’re getting rid of the five deputy commissioners and we are ending health care benefits for commissioners,” commission Chairman Bob Turner said. “We’re also ending lifetime health care coverage for city council members who serve 10 years or more. What we heard from the city council [last week] was they wanted some more details on the specifics about what we thought the management structure would look like, about what it would cost for an independent audit as well as whether or not other management structure would be there.”

Initially, the financial statement was a one-page document. Now, voters will receive a seven-page financial disclosure summary explaining the estimated future cost savings the city would receive under the council-manager form of government.

The total estimated future annual savings based on the new charter and city manager actions would be $403,000.

In the document it says, “Estimated future annual savings reflects an approximate annual savings rate once the transition period is completed and the council-manager government is fully functioning and engaged.”

“Jeff Altamari did an incredible amount of research over the last two weeks looking at 20-25 cities with 30,000 people or larger from four different states about what their management structure was. We feel really good about the estimates that are in there,” said Turner. “We think they are very realistic and while in the past you’ve needed to have five commissioners and five deputy commissioners to run the five departments. We think we can do better. We think we can do it more cheaply and we can do it more efficiently and we think going for it for Saratoga Springs, that’s what would be best and that’s reflected in those financial estimates.”

Some commissioners mentioned they had issues with what the analysis included — or failed to include — about transition costs, the cost of an internal auditor and the fact city managers are able to keep deputies at their pleasure as written in the proposed charter.

This new fiscal analysis explains the transition costs as the most challenging aspect since nobody the Charter Review Commission spoke to had ever gone through a transition from the commission form of government to the council-manager format. The analysis provides several points for voters to note in approximating transition costs.

The Charter Review Commission sees the impact of the internal auditor as a cost neutral.

“[Altamari’s] estimate for an audit is $75,000. Every audit he said he has ever done that size is going to pay for itself several times over. We just assume it was revenue neutral that it would 75,000 worth of savings,” said Turner. “I think that’s very conservative. Any large enterprise that’s $50 million or more is going to have to have an independent auditor who comes and looks at specific provisions.”

The updated fiscal analysis assumes the city manager, who would earn $194,000 — that figure includes a $125,000 annual salary and the value of standard city-rate benefits — would hire an assistant city manager for a salary and benefits package of $140,000.

Turner defended the estimated salary of the city manager.

“I spoke to Bob McEvoy at Rockefeller College who is a former city manager and I asked what kind of city manager we could get for the estimate that’s in our financial estimate, and he said [we’ll] be getting the cream of the crop at that rate,” said Turner. “It’s worth noting that every single city manager that we’ve interviewed makes significantly less than the estimate that we provide.”

According to the document, the deputies will serve at the pleasure of the City Manager during the transition period, but they are no longer deputies because, by definition, their positions have been eliminated by the repeal language in the proposed charter. It says, if there are no commissioners, there can be no deputy commissioners.

The analysis calls for an estimated $36,000 of yearly savings for discontinued post-retirement care, an addition of $140,000 for a full-time city attorney’s salary and benefits, an elimination of $101,000 for a part-time city attorney’s salary and benefits and $155,000 through efficiency through attrition — which means two employees will retire but will not be replaced in the future.

The commission will send out materials to voters for the charter referendum, which is set for Nov. 7.

“Charter Review Commissions are required by New York Municipal Home Rule Law to conduct a public education campaign for voters. We are required to mail them the information on the charter, on a summary of the provisions and a financial impact statement,” said Turner. “What we are sending represents those things.”

To view the financial statement, visit http://www.saratoga-springs.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/7121

The Curious History of the Commission Form of Government



by Bob Turner

Saratoga Springs is one of only 2 cities in New York and one of only 28 midsized cities in the country with the commission form of government.  On Nov. 7, Saratoga Springs voters will have the opportunity to decide whether to retain the 102-year-old system or adopt a new one. To better understand our system, it is worth delving into the curious history of the commission system. 

The commission form of city government originated in Galveston, Texas, in 1901, after a disastrous hurricane and tidal wave. Fearful that the city might never recover under the leadership of the incumbent city council, a group of wealthy businessmen known as the Deep Water Committee devised a plan to have the governor appoint a commission to govern the city during the rebuilding period. To appease critics who contended that appointed government was undemocratic, the plan was altered to provide for direct election of two of the five commissioners.

Galveston’s seeming success inspired Houston to adopt the plan in 1905. Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Denison and Greenville followed in 1907. By then referred to as the Texas Idea, the commission plan started to receive national attention and be viewed as a progressive reform. Des Moines, Iowa, was the first city outside Texas to adopt the commission plan. The Des Moines version of the commission form included nonpartisan balloting, merit selection of employees, and the direct-democracy devices of initiative, referendum and recall. Usually supported by chambers of commerce and other business groups, the commission plan spread rapidly from 1907 to 1920. In this period, about 500 cities adopted commission charters, including Saratoga Springs in 1915.  Leading Progressives of the time, including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, endorsed the plan.

Under the commission plan, the voters in citywide elections elect a small commission of between 3-9 members. Each commissioner heads a department. The commissioners perform executive duties for their departments and meet as a commission to pass ordinances and make policy decisions. The form represented a dramatic break from traditional American constitutional theory. By combining the executive and legislative authority in individual commissions, it abandoned the traditional checks and balances.  Second, instead of having a single executive, like a president, governor or mayor, it divided the executive powers for overseeing departments into multiple commissioners. 

It was created by Progressives “with the best of intentions” and was viewed as a “laudable experiment,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Initially, it was seen as a means of diluting the concentration of power in a single elected official (the mayor) and promoting specialization in office. Advocates of the commission form argued that because power is concentrated in one set of individuals, decisions can be made quicker without all the “checks and balances” that typically delay action in the other structures. Advocates touted the simple organizational structure to this form of government—policy decisions are directly and swiftly implemented—no “middle men” to work around or through. 

However, enthusiasm for the commission system was short lived. A number of early adopting, large cities, such as Berkeley, San Diego, Wichita, Denver, Nashville, Knoxville, Lowell and Sacramento, abandoned the commission form of government within 10 years of adopting it. 

Rather than allowing a city to make quicker decisions, cities found there was often deadlock and inaction with each commissioner acting in the narrow interests of their own department, rather than the city government as a whole. The commission form of government encouraged departmental parochialism, making general administrative reorganization difficult to achieve. “The commission government normally assigns functions of the city to individual commissioners. Then, they kind of set up their own little fiefdom around their function,” said John Hamman, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University. The absence of checks and balances resulted in the commission forms of government being “known for their corruption,” said Hamman.

The commission form of government was inefficient in controlling spending. Budgets are often not scrutinized between commissioners because that only leads to retaliation among members. Rivalry and lack of cooperation developed between the commissioners. Budget decisions were decided by logrolling between commissioners.  Spending for one commissioner could only be increased if spending in another commissioner’s department decreased. Reorganizing personnel or duties to achieve efficiency proved extremely difficult to achieve as no commissioners wanted to lose power.

Cities also found that having multiple executives rather than a single executive authority hindered effective leadership. The commission form confused responsibility and scattered control between the commissioners as a body and as individuals. City employees sometimes engaged actively in politics on behalf of favorite department heads. A coordinating official such as a mayor or manager was felt to be necessary to provide administrative direction and accountability.

Finally, voters rarely took administrative skills and background into account when electing the commissioners. Commissioners chosen by the voters all too often lacked experience and competence for administrative work. 

After World War I, the council-manager system replaced the commission form as the preferred choice for municipal reformers. Since 1915, the Model City Charter, a set of best practices in municipal governances drafted by the National Civic League, has recommended this council-manager form of government. The fundamental principle of the model is that all powers of the city be vested in a popularly elected council that appoints a professional manager who is continuously responsible to and removable by the council. The council-manager system is the most widely used governmental structure in American cities. In 1960, Galveston abandoned its own child in favor of a council-manager system. In 1950 Des Moines scrapped it in favor of the council-manager system. From a peak in 1917 of about 500, the number of commission cities has dwindled to only 28 today. Currently, Saratoga Springs (pop. 27,763) and Mechanicville (pop. 5,196) are the last two commission forms of government in New York.

Bob Turner

Associate professor of political science at Skidmore College and chair of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission 




Gazette Letter: Charter change will get better candidates

On Nov. 7, I will be voting “yes” on charter change for the city of Saratoga Springs, and I hope you will too. For me, it’s all about the quality of our democracy.

Under our old system, elected commissioners must be both lawmakers and administrators, all on a part-time salary. This narrows the field of potential candidates to a small club. Few people with full-time jobs or young families can afford to run. No wonder three of the five city offices are uncontested in this year’s election.

If we adopt the new charter, these responsibilities will be separated. Administration will be done by a professional city manager who is chosen by a city board of seven dedicated lawmakers. These dedicated lawmakers will then be free to focus on the important decisions about our city’s future.

Many cities before us have made this change and proven that the new charter will increase the number of talented citizens, from many different walks-of-life, willing and able to stand for office. Our elections will be competitive and Saratogians will have the healthy democracy we deserve.

The potential of our city is incredible, and by improving the quality of our democracy, we directly unleash the source of that potential: our people.


Saratoga Springs

LINK: https://dailygazette.com/article/2017/09/29/charter-change-will-get-better-candidates