Saratoga Springs

Endorsement: Vote yes on Saratoga Springs charter change

New system would be more representative, responsible, efficient
Saratoga Springs City Hall
Saratoga Springs City Hall

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.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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