News

TU: Saratoga County absentee vote count fuels call for lawyer oversight

City charter, public safety races still undecided
Updated 9:53 pm, Sunday, November 12, 2017

SARATOGA SPRINGS — On Monday, the city council plans to vote on hiring an election lawyer to ensure that every ballot is counted in the city elections.

“Basically, we want to preserve the vote,” said John Franck, commissioner of accounts, who called for a special city council meeting at noon to get a vote on hiring a lawyer.

He believes the charter change advocates have hired a lawyer with the intention of discarding votes.

“Our lawyer will be there to observe. If there are any ballots thrown out, we will have three days to bring it to court,” he said.

With the charter referendum vote only split by 48 votes in favor of change and the Commissioner of Public Safety seat divided by 197 votes, now in favor of Peter Martin, the absentee votes have become critical.

The Saratoga County Board of Elections said on Tuesday that the number of absentee votes was higher than normal. It usually issues about 500 ballots, but this year it issued 711. About 550 have been returned.

Of those 550 ballots, 70 absentee ballots are from the Wesley Community and the Home of the Good Shepherd. Twenty-one voters from the nursing homes were attempted to be contacted by the Times Union by phone Sunday.

A 94-year-old voter at the Home of the Good Shepherd had difficulty speaking by phone. A health assistant who took the phone from her said she believed the woman would be “cognitively unable” to submit an absentee.

Martin’s rival, Republican Don Braim, is on the board at Wesley. Cliff Van Wagoner, who is a contributor to SUCCESS, the group that strives to preserve the 100-year-old form of government, is the pharmacy director at Wesley.

Van Wagoner said he knows nothing of a push for absentee votes at Wesley. Braim said it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on the absentees from the nursing home.

Braim did say more absentee votes may have come in from Wesley “maybe because I am on the board.”

Bob Turner, the chair of the now dissolved city’s Charter Review Commission, said he couldn’t respond to questions surrounding the absentee ballots.

However, he does question the city’s hiring of an attorney.

“The process is open to the public,” Turner said. “Any citizen can attend. Why does John Franck want to hire a high-power Albany law firm to ‘observe’ the proceedings?”

Rick Fenton from It’s Time Saratoga — the charter change advocacy group — initially tried to raise funds online for an attorney to review the absentee ballots. He said he has withdrawn his plans and also questions the wisdom of spending taxpayer dollars on a lawyer.

“Having been thwarted by the voters, it now seems they plan on using taxpayer dollars to advocate for their interests,” Fenton said. “Hiring an election attorney to have all ‘proper absentee ballots’ count amounts to public money being spent on the individual members’ personal and political interests.”

Franck dismissed their claims.

“The city has two attorneys but we need an election attorney,” Franck said. “It’s only going to cost a couple hundred bucks, unless we go to court.”

http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/Saratoga-County-absentee-vote-count-fuels-call-12351698.php

Saratoga Today: Near-Deadlocked Charter Vote in Uncharted Territory

Saratoga Today Illustor

 

THURSDAY, 09 NOVEMBER 2017 19:09

“It’s like Florida 2000 all over again”

SARATOGA SPRINGS – After 16 months of study, dozens of public meetings, threats of litigation, and a volley of contentious words, 8,356 city residents headed to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to change, or maintain the Commission form of governing that has ruled the city for the past 102 years. The Election Day verdict: Too Close To Call.

At the end of the day, residents in favor of adopting a new Charter held a 4,202 to 4,154 advantage, but the narrow margin of victory requires that absentee ballots be counted. The county Board of Elections mailed 711 such absentee ballots and more than 500 were received back, by Election Day. Those ballots have yet to be counted.

Ballots returned by Nov. 14 – the last day absentee ballots may be received at the county Board of Elections – will be counted on Tuesday, Nov. 14, after which a clear winner may be determined. Military ballots have until Nov. 20 to be received at the county board. Military ballots are anticipated to number less than 20 in total, although that count could not be officially verified by Thursday.

Less than half of the approximately 18,000 registered city voters took part in Tuesday’s election; More than 95 percent of city residents who did cast ballots voted one way or another on The Saratoga Springs Charter Proposition.

The study of ramifications in changing from a Commission form of government to a Council-Manager form has been lengthy, and the dialogue among some, contentious.

After a proposal was put forth to stage the referendum last May rather than in November, there was significant push-back from City Council members John Franck, Michele Madigan, and DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco – three commissioners who coincidentally ran unopposed in their respective re-election campaigns.  “This will come down to a lawsuit, I suspect, and the courts will decide what they’re going to do with this,” Franck said in February. “There may even be a lawsuit at the City Council level.”

Election Day was anticipated as the date to finally settle the matter. But given the slim 48-vote difference – with those in favor of change leading the count – it has not turned out that way.

“I woke up this morning and thought: win or lose the charter debate was going to end today,” Saratoga Springs City Charter Review Commission Chairman Bob Turner said in the early morning hours following the election tally. “I realize now, we’re just beginning. It’s like Florida 2000 all over again and I have a feeling it’s going to be drawn out to a re-count, and a hand-count of ballots.” Turner is in favor of Charter change.

“I have a feeling we are heading toward very brand-new legal territory in the next week,” Turner said.  “New York Municipal Home Rule Law 36, which governs the charter review process, (says) the charter review commission ends on the day of election, so it’s not even clear whether we are going to have legal standing after today. Who is turn is representing the voters who at present are up 48 votes?”

Accounts Commissioner John Franck on Thursday called for a Special City Council meeting to take place at noon on Monday to hire an election law attorney “to defend the city’s right to have all proper absentee ballots counted and defending the city’s voters in any potential court proceedings.”

“It is new territory,” said Richard Sellers, a spokesman for SUCCESS, a citizen organization that supports maintaining the current form of governing. “We’re reminded of the cliché that every vote counts, and we are waiting for all the votes to be counted. We’re confident in the Saratoga County Board of Elections and we look forward to a clear outcome.”

The county Board of Elections is anticipated to begin counting absentee ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 14.

Gazette: Absentee ballots will determine outcome of Spa City charter referendum

They will be counted next week

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The morning after a too-close-to-call city charter referendum, two members of the Charter Review Commission — Mayor Joanne Yepsen and City Attorney Anthony Izzo — marched into the Saratoga County Board of Elections to learn what’s next.

On Tuesday night, the charter change question came down to around 50 votes, with 4,202 votes cast in favor of and 4,154 votes against moving from the current mayor-and-commissioners governmental system to a government overseen by an appointed city manager.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions for all of us, as the numbers went back and forth,” said Bob Turner, chairman of the commission. “Every vote matters.”

Absentee ballots will determine the outcome of the charter referendum. Out of the 709 ballots issued by the Saratoga County Board of Elections, 482 had been received as of Wednesday.

William Fruci, Saratoga County’s commissioner of elections, said the process now is similar to any other election: The county will re-canvass the voting machines Thursday and begin counting absentee ballots Tuesday.

Absentee ballots must be postmarked no later than Nov. 6.

Fruci added that military ballots are accepted until Nov. 20, as long as they are also postmarked no later than Nov. 6.

“We may have all the ballots in that were sent from military members [by Nov. 14],” Fruci said. “Hopefully, it’ll be by the end of the month, unless litigation is brought about, which would make it take longer.”

Commission member Gordon Boyd, who is also a member of It’s Time Saratoga, a non-partisan citizens advocacy group that supports charter change, said he and Turner would be talking to their colleagues about how they want to represent themselves going forward.

“We’ll talk to those on the commission and It’s Time Saratoga about how to proceed from here,” Boyd said. “We’ll take consideration into seeking legal representation.”

Boyd added that, while he and Turner feel confident the ballots will be kept secure until Nov. 14, they have concerns about what went on at polling locations.

“Efficiency at some of the polling places was not optimal, as some voters were not told to turn over the ballot,” he said, referencing the fact that the charter question was on the back of the ballot.

Turner said there were 368 fewer votes cast on the charter referendum than were cast in the mayoral race. But Fruci said inspectors at the voting booths were told to tell voters to turn ballots over, and the ballots had arrows with instructions.

“Not everybody votes for everything on the ballot,” he said. “In some cases, we have people turn in blank ballots, and while that’s not common, that’s their decision.”

Fruci added that close elections are common in the county.

“We’ve had ties before, so this is nothing unusual,” he said.

Yepsen said the election results show how engaged the Saratoga Springs community is with the issues.

“I’m happy with the turnout,” she said. “It was one of the best years in terms of the city participating in a local election, and I’m thrilled to be mayor of a city that is activated and engaged.”

Turner said the charter referendum has resulted in Saratoga Springs residents engaging in conversations and debates about city government.

“Hopefully, we encouraged civic life in Saratoga Springs,” he said. “That’s a great outcome, no matter what.”


Where charter referendum stands

  • Votes in favor: 4,202
  • Votes against: 4,154
  • Absentee ballots received as of Wednesday: 482
  • Absentee ballots mailed to voters: 709
  • What’s next: Absentee ballots, which must be postmarked by Nov. 6, will be opened on Nov. 14. However, military ballots arriving by Nov. 20 will also be counted, provided they are postmarked by Nov. 6.

Times Union – Saratoga Springs’ future rests on absentee ballots

Decision on city charter should come before Thanksgiving
Updated 5:16 pm, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

SARATOGA SPRINGS – City residents will have to wait another two weeks before they know the fate of the city’s 100-year-old commission form of government.

With a difference of only 48 votes from the polls on Tuesday – 4,202 for change and 4,154 to preserve the current government structure – the vote will be decided by the 711 absentee ballots issued, which will be counted by the Saratoga County Board of Elections beginning Tuesday, Nov. 14.

John Marcellus, Republican deputy commissioner with the county board of elections, said every absentee ballot will be opened and counted. A total of 519 have been returned, but more could come in. As long as they were postmarked by Nov. 6, they will be included in the count. Military ballots have until Monday, Nov. 20, to be received.

“We will check and recheck the numbers and we will be done whenever we are done,” Marcellus said. “Hopefully, that will be before Thanksgiving.”

But the wait, after such a heated debate over the form of government, is agonizing for those who fought to modernize the city’s government with a city manager and an expanded city council, and those who battled just as fiercely to preserve the role of specialized commissioners.

“It was a roller coaster last night,” said Bob Turner, the chairman of the charter review commission that recommended the proposed charter. “We were up, we were down. Now we want to make sure every vote was counted.”

It was just as tough on the SUCCESS, the anti-charter group, that watched the returns on Tuesday night with members of the Saratoga County Republican Committee. Richard Sellers, the group’s spokesman, responded to each shift in the count with a tentative smile or a slap to his head. He recalled the last two charter change votes in 2006 and 2012, when change was rejected, as equally tortuous.

“Every single election, it’s like this,” Sellers said.

But on Wednesday, Sellers was laying low, only saying the vote is “in limbo” and he can’t speculate on which way it will turn.

Turner, on the other hands, wants to know why 368 of the 8,724 total ballots cast in the city did not indicate a vote for the charter. He and Gordon Boyd, another member of the charter review commission, were told by voters that not all of the poll workers told them to turn over the ballot, as the workers should have.

“We are concerned by the under vote,” he said.

The city’s Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, for whom the city clerk works, said he does not know of any irregularities at the polls and that it is often the case that voters don’t turn over the ballot, even when they are told to. But Franck said he didn’t tour each polling site this year like he usually does.

“I didn’t go because with all the B.S. I didn’t want it to be misrepresented,” he said.

He has been the most vocal opponent to charter change, first by defeating a proposed special referendum on charter change last May and then going on to dispute the charter review commission’s cost estimates. He also filed complaints against the commission with the state Board of Elections, the state Attorney General’s office and with the U.S. Postal Service and feels the group violated state law by telling people to vote “yes” on the group’s Facebook page.

The charter review commission countered that Franck’s involvement in the fight was also a violation of state law because elected officials are to remain publicly neutral when a city voters considers adopting a new charter.

Now Franck said he believes the absentee ballots will not change the outcome because they historically reflect the voter’s voice.

“At this point, I’m assuming charter change will pass,” Franck said.

Turner said whatever the outcome, the election proves that every vote counts.

“These 18 months, we have engaged in passionate and vigorous debates and conversations in the future of Saratoga Springs we all love,” he said. “We are all better for that.”

http://www.timesunion.com/news/article/City-s-future-will-be-determined-by-absentees-12341509.php

Times Union – Saratoga Springs charter change too close to call

Democrat Meg Kelly wins mayoral election over Mark Baker
Updated 12:49 am, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Saratoga Springs

The city’s future path right now is too close to call.

With all districts reporting, the “yes” votes to charter change were ahead of the “no” votes, 4,202 to 4,154 Tuesday night. Chair of the Charter Review Commission Bob Turner said the city will likely have to turn to the nearly 500 absentee ballots to see if the proposed charter will change from a commission form of government to one run by a city manager and an enlarged city council of average citizens.

“This is agonizing,” Turner said.

While results were murky for the charter, Democrat Meg Kelly defeated Republican Mark Baker for mayor with a 4,630 to 3,911 lead.

“I’m feeling great,” Kelly said. “It’s a great win, a boots-on-the-ground, grassroots campaign. I look forward to moving the city forward. I’m super excited right now.”

Baker conceded, saying he wished Kelly well.

“I plan to be around to help her,” he said. “I’m disappointed, but I couldn’t be prouder of our campaign.”

Commissioner of public safety, however, was too close to call. Democrat Peter Martin was up slightly over Republican Don Braim, 4,217 to 4,021.

In the city’s five-way Board of Supervisor’s race, Republican incumbent Matthew Veitch maintained his place on the 23-member county board with 4,524 votes. Democrat Tara Gaston will be following him on the board with 3,823 votes. Republican John Safford had 3,522 votes with Democrat Patricia Friesen with 3,609 votes. Green party candidate Joseph Levy had 245 votes.

Democrat Francine Vero will remain on the bench as she overtook Republican Andrew Blumenberg for justice with a tally of 5,152 to 3,150.

All commissioners John Franck, Michele Madigan and Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, all of whom opposed charter change, will remain seated until 2020.

Polls were busy on Tuesday with a fairly high turnout. Complaints came in that Baker was handing out apples at the polls. Others complained that Skidmore College students doing exit polls were not standing 100 feet away from the polls.

If the charter is approved, nothing in city government will change until 2020. On Election Day 2019, voters will elect six city council candidates and a mayor. The three council members with the most votes will have four-year terms and the three candidates with the next highest vote counts will get two-year terms. Going forward, this will allow the city to stagger its council elections. The mayor and all council members will have four-year term eventually.

Before a new council is elected, either current Mayor Joanne Yepsen or Kelly will appoint a committee to interview and hire a city manager who will realize the vision of the council and the mayor.

In the days leading up to the charter vote, the fight got contentious. There was a lot of name calling and threats of lawsuits between advocates for charter change and its opponents.

Regardless, the results might be decided by the 709 absentee ballots issued by the Saratoga County Board of Elections. On Monday, a total of 482 were returned.

 

http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Saratoga-Springs-charter-change-city-officials-12339523.php

Saratogian Letter: For the charter plan: Proposal exceeds what Saratoga Springs has

By Bob Turner, For The Saratogian

POSTED: 11/04/17, 12:18 PM EDT

In 1915, Saratoga Springs made the bold decision to adopt the commission form of government. It was a novel form of government that had been created only 14 years earlier in Galveston, Texas. We don’t know for sure, but I would bet there was a group, even then, saying “if it’s not broke…”

However, Saratogians made the bold decision back then to look to the future and not the past. That choice set our city up for success for the last 100 years.

Today, we face a similarly momentous decision, and once again we must look to the future. The independent Charter Review Commission spent 18 months talking to Saratogians. We kept the best parts of the current charter, namely the financial provisions from the 2001 charter reform that are responsible for our excellent bond ratings, but adapted provisions for more representative government and professional management.

Since then, Saratogians have passionately discussed and debated whether to maintain the 1915 system or adopt a more modern form of government. The new charter has been endorsed by the League of Women Voters, the Times Union, the Daily Gazette, numerous community leaders, a bipartisan group of mayors including Yepsen, Riley, and Watkin, and even the most vocal opponent of charter reform, Thomas McTygue. They all agree the new charter establishes a more representative, accountable, and efficient government, which serves the long-term interests of all its citizens.

Affordability in Saratoga Springs is a common concern. How can we know if the new charter will save money? In 2010, Mechanicville, the only other city with the commission form of government in New York, hired John Franck, a CPA, to conduct a fiscal analysis of their government. His report concluded that the rationalization of administrative functions under a single executive, like the new charter proposes, would result is significant efficiency and cost savings in the long run.

City Hall employees agree about the fiscal benefits of the new charter. In our survey, 66 percent said they felt the current system does not prevent wasteful spending or protect the taxpayers. The city’s Director of Finance Christine Gillmett-Brown told us, “I spend half of my time on political stuff and personality conflicts between Commissioners. … I think a city manager would be more professional and efficient.”

One of the biggest complaints we heard is that our current form of government is reactive, not proactive. We have missed opportunities resulting in unrealized gains. We do not have a long-term economic development strategy or anyone in charge of implementing one. The loss of AYCO and 371 high paying jobs from downtown is a perfect example of how our current form of government has failed us. Or how about the fact that we are sitting on a valuable piece of property that could be bringing in $2 million annually with tax revenues but instead we sit paralyzed with commissioners arguing amongst themselves. We have massive and unnecessary, ongoing legal bills born out of lack of hierarchy and professionalism. We have serious infrastructure needs that are stalled by lack of leadership and long term plans — no EMS station for the Eastern Plateau, an unsafe DPW fuel tank near an elementary school, dangerous and illegal truck traffic on Broadway, and aging and unsafe water lines throughout our city. We see five commissioners protecting their fiefdoms instead of the rest of us.

Do you think Saratoga Springs is succeeding because of the politicians in City Hall or the hard work and civic engagement of its citizens and businesses? Do you think having 3 of the 5 city council members running unopposed this year is a sign of a vibrant democracy? Does our city council seem more focused establishing a long term vision for the city or on settling scores and personal vendettas? Do you want the decisions about whose building fees get waived made by a civil servant accountable to the public or a politician accountable to his campaign contributors?

My fellow citizens on the Charter Review Commission have volunteered countless hours working your behalf. Their task has been made harder by three entrenched and unopposed politicians interfering in our operations, hindering our research, and assassinating our character at every chance. Please do not be distracted by their scare tactics and rumors. The facts are with us. Take a look at who is interfering and ask yourselves, why they seem more intent on protecting their fiefdoms than the people? These same politicians, along with the few elites who have donated thousands of dollars with hopes of keeping the existing government, have everything to lose. The rest of us have everything to gain. If the Charter passes, there will be a shift of power from the few to the many. This is why we are working so hard.

While this charter may not be perfect, it far exceeds what we have. Remember, too, it is a living document that can be improved as we go. Please don’t let this opportunity for a more representative, efficient, accountable, and transparent government slip away.

On Nov. 7, vote yes on the new charter.

 

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

 

Gazette Endorsement: Vote yes on Saratoga Springs charter change

New system would be more representative, responsible, efficient

Over the past couple of weeks, three major league baseball managers who led their teams to this year’s playoffs got fired.

Obvious success isn’t always a sign that all is well within the system.

So it is with the government system for Saratoga Springs, an archaic, unusual and largely abandoned form of government that was implemented to handle emergencies, not the day-to-day service of residents of a city.

It should be replaced with a more representative system that makes elected officials answerable to all city residents, while placing the day-to-day operation of the city under the authority of a professional manager who serves at the pleasure of that elected council.

In practicality, such a system is more representative, responsible and efficient.

Opponents of changing the form of government say it doesn’t need changing because the city is thriving in every aspect, including culture, business, development and financial health. Why mess with something that isn’t broken?

But the city’s current success isn’t built upon the form of government, but on an active and involved citizenry and a vibrant business community that care about the city and who offer their skills, expertise and money to make the city better.

The current crop of elected officials happens to be talented, level-headed and cooperative. But what about the past, when the city wasn’t the paragon of municipal government? What will happen in the future when the city can’t rely on the talented, dedicated, selfless individuals serving in those same positions?

Not withstanding the city’s successes, the current form of government puts too much power in the hands of individual commissioners serving narrow functions of government, asking them to manage their individual departments and also represent the city as a whole. The two functions are naturally at odds.

Every single social structure we have has someone at the top responsible for what goes on underneath, someone to both be accountable and to hold others accountable.

Corporations, government bodies, sports teams, social organizations, families, even beehives and wolf packs, all have top-down management systems.

The reason for that is that it is organizationally sound. It allows for better management of employees, more direct and accountable service to citizens, and better control for the representative elected board.
Imagine if your business had no one in charge, if the success of the company depended on each individual department functioning well on its own with no collective mission, no oversight and no guidance from above.

With the council-manager form of government, there is someone in charge, a single office door that someone can knock on with a complaint, a person who knows not just what goes on in their own department, but in all the departments. That individual can adapt resources and make changes to best serve the individual and collective needs of the citizens.

The city manager is not beholden to an individual government function, as current commissioners are, and the city manager’s success, and re-election chances, is not dependent on the successful operation of a single department.

These individual compartments are naturally isolated and often at odds with one another. But many government services are not that narrow in scope. They often require the work of multiple departments within the structure. A professional city manager responsible for all city services would help direct the efficient flow of services to ensure that residents are best served.

Well, you can say, if we have a problem in Saratoga Springs and we don’t know which department we need, we can always go to the mayor. But in the commission form of government, the mayor is a title that has no more executive powers or oversight of the city than any of the other commissioners. The only reason they didn’t name the job “Commissioner of Miscellaneous” is because it wouldn’t fit on the name plate.

This is an emergency-style government formed after a Texas hurricane that occurred in 1901 that’s based on immediate completion of tasks, not representative government designed to govern over the long term. When the emergency is over, you have to govern.

The current system has other flaws besides the narrow definition of functions.

It discourages people who want to serve as elected officials. That’s because to qualify for one of the commissioner positions, one must be heavily schooled in that field.

If you’re not experienced in fire and police matters, the commissioner of public safety job on the council is not for you. If you’re not intimately familiar with the daily operations of a public works department, you’ll have a hard time serving as commissioner of public works.

These skill sets are important for the heads of departments. But these individual silos of authority and responsibility significantly narrow the field of who can effectively serve on the city council, and therefore discourage people from running who can bring a broader base of experiences and talent to the council.

For those who believe the new form of government will be a panacea to all that’s wrong with the current form of government, it won’t be.

There’s not going to be a massive amount of savings from a switch, no matter how the supporters try to portray it.

Whatever structure of government is in place, tasks must get done. The city still will need a large number of civil servants to conduct the people’s business, to manage employees and carry out functions. There will still be the need for accountants and clerks and highway workers and police officers and firefighters and maintenance people and people to run city programs.

That won’t change whether the city has individual commissioners answerable to no one or a single city manager overseeing everyone.

And a new city manager won’t come cheap. The savings will be derived over the long-term through a reduction in redundancies and inefficiencies that come from having professional management in place.

This vote isn’t about saving money. It’s about responsiveness.

Saratoga Springs has been riding a wave of success. But don’t let that fool you into believing it’s due to the form of government.

City residents will be better served by a different form of government that’s professionally run, more democratic and responsive, and encourages more people to serve in elected office.

City residents should vote yes on the charter change proposal on Nov. 7.

Times Union Editorial Board: “Spa City charter: Vote yes”

Spa City charter: Vote yes

Published 9:34 pm, Wednesday, October 25, 2017

 

THE ISSUE:

Saratoga Springs voters will consider a new form of government Nov. 7.

THE STAKES:

It’s an opportunity for both more professional management and more representative government.

Defenders of Saratoga Springs’ commission form of government like to quote the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” leaping past the real question: Is this system of government really working?

Some easily conclude that the commission form of government must be working or Saratoga Springs wouldn’t be the vibrant city it is today. One might wonder, though, how to explain all those less prosperous years before the city’s revival — decades when that same form of government was in place.

A more realistic reading of history suggests that it was in spite of that form of government that Saratoga Springs came back, thanks to a mix of entrepreneurial spirit and citizen engagement. Thanks to a foundation laid in the 1960s and ’70s not by a hidebound and parochial city government, frequently hobbled by infighting, but by local businesspeople and citizens who formed an action plan to reverse the city’s decline. Thanks to investors piqued by the early success of businesses that reflected the changing times, iconic bars like Tin & Lint and the counterculture mecca of Caffe Lena. It happened thanks to people who saw the untapped potential of the summertime crowds drawn to horse racing, springs, and the performing arts, and a growing, affluent student body at Skidmore College.

The commission form of government — long ago abandoned by most cities — isn’t all bad, and certainly plenty of capable, civic-minded people have served over the years. With its sometimes blurry division of authority, however, it presents too many opportunities for day-to-day city business to get caught up in petty politics.

Having part-time elected officials run their own fiefs without necessarily having any relevant expertise is not only unprofessional but wasteful — they in turn hire full-time deputies, who help oversee actual managers. Having department heads also serve as the city’s legislators muddies the proper checks and balances between the executive and the legislative branches of government. It creates silos, each led by a commissioner often suspected of vote-trading.

The city’s Charter Review Commission, after 16 months of work, has produced a smart blueprint for change: a government whose day-to-day operations would be run by a professional city manager, reporting to an elected six-member council and mayor.

How much money this might save has been the subject of some dispute. Even if the savings is more modest than the commission estimates, though, there’s far more at stake here.

Right now, the only people who can afford to serve on this commission-style council are those financially secure enough to settle for a $14,500 salary. That may explain why the positions attract few candidates. The proposed new form of government would open the door for a true, part-time citizen legislature, one more reflective of the city’s growing, diverse population, to set policy and direction.

This is really about accountable, representative government. It’s about how democracy is supposed to work. A “yes” vote is best for Saratoga Springs.

http://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Spa-City-charter-Vote-yes-12307017.php

 

Times Union letter: Spa City officials stand in way of charter panel’s efforts

Spa City officials stand in way of charter panel’s efforts

By Jeff Altamari, Commentary Published 4:59 pm, Monday, October 23, 2017

Saratoga Springs’ City Council has joined a resistance movement but not the one you may be thinking of.

The Charter Review Commission labored 15 months to recommend a better form of government for the city. They chose a “council-manager” model. It allows an elected political body to set strategy, and a professional nonpolitical manager to run daily city business. Right now, 5,878 municipalities embrace it. It abolishes the conflict and inefficiencies inherent in the current “commission” form of government, in which nonprofessional politicians rule five independent silos.

Once the Charter Review Commission agreed on the council-manager model, discussions ensued with the International City Managers Association, mayors, city managers and citizens living in council-manager cities. More than 20 city manager locations were examined. Thirteen of these were studied in-depth: five in New York, three in New Jersey, two in Pennsylvania, two in Massachusetts, and one in Vermont. Median populations were between 24,000 and 29,000, similar to Saratoga Springs.

In every instance, an experienced city manager supervised nine to 13 direct reports. These mirrored Saratoga Springs’ fire chief, police chief, finance director, human resource administrator, recreation director, IT manager, etc. In some cases, an assistant city manager was present. There were no silos or political commissioners, or deputies. It was clear Saratoga Springs could structure a similar “flat” organization, maintain strong public services and eliminate the compensation of the political commissioners and deputies. The city could enjoy better governance at lower cost.

Future estimates are very difficult. The Charter Review Commission carefully worded its financial report. It stated estimating future costs and savings are challenging, that it was making good faith efforts and these were merely estimates, not guarantees of future results. It said there was $400,000 of potential estimated future annual savings. It did not say these began day one.

It estimated onetime transition costs between $100,000 and $300,000. This all seemed reasonable.

Municipal Home Rule Law states that the commission should be free from political interference by the City Council, and that council approval is not required. Nonetheless, this month and last, three City Council members vigorously attacked the commission’s work. They demanded that the analysis account for all of the current commissioner and deputy hours — positions not existing in any council-manager model.

In fact, cities examined showed proportionally fewer total employees than Saratoga Springs. Why? Expert management under a single nonpolitical executive without “silos” is significantly more efficient than Saratoga Springs’ government — a fact confirmed by several city managers.

Three commissioners, who are running unopposed in November, don’t like this. They called the commission’s efforts “advocacy” and have refused to pay the money previously earmarked for the public education mailer required by law. The courts will no doubt honor the city’s obligation to reimburse the commission, but it’s unfortunate these council members chose such an unproductive path.

Why are they afraid of voters receiving the Charter Review Commission’s work prior to the election? Why, indeed?

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.