SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was standing room only in the City Council chamber Monday afternoon.
Three City Council members voted to hire Glens Falls law firm Fitzgerald Morris Baker Firth to monitor Tuesday’s absentee count at the Saratoga County Board of Elections.
On Nov. 7, the charter change question came down to around 50 votes, with 4,202 votes cast for and 4,154 votes cast against moving from the current mayor-and-commissioners governmental system to a government overseen by an appointed city manager.
As a result, just over 700 absentee ballots will determine the outcome of the charter referendum.
Commissioner of Accounts John Franck scheduled Monday’s meeting, which was also attended by Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan and Commissioner of Public Works Anthony Scirocco.
Franck moved to authorize Mayor Joanne Yepsen to sign an agreement with Fitzgerald Morris Baker Firth, at a cost of $300 per hour as principal attorney and $225 an hour for an associate attorney, and that the cost not exceed $5,000.
Several citizens expressed concerns at the meeting over the fact that the city, despite having City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis and Assistant City Attorney Anthony Izzo on its payroll, is using taxpayer money to hire outside attorneys.
“I’d love to use city attorneys; it’s the first thing I thought of, but I can’t use the city attorneys because they work with the Charter Review Commission and the City Council, so basically they’re out of it; they can’t give legal advice when it comes to two separate groups,” Franck said. “We have to use city money.”
He added that the outside attorney would observe and report back to the City Council and to the city attorneys about Tuesday’s absentee ballot count proceedings.
“The City Council would like to know what goes on there,” Franck said. “We’re trying to make sure every vote is counted, and I felt this was the best process.”
Yepsen and Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen were not present at Monday’s meeting.
“Unfortunately, our current charter allows for three council members to call a meeting without any notification to the full council,” Yepsen said in a prepared statement issued Monday. “In the rare case that a special meeting is called, the normal protocol has been to reach out to the full council to ensure availability.”
Yepsen said she found out about the Monday meeting from a member of the press.
“The three commissioners who have been very vocal against the new charter proposal, and in favor of the group S.U.C.C.E.S.S., chose not to include the mayor or the Public Safety commissioner in the scheduling process, both of us who are in favor of charter change,” Yepsen said in the prepared statement. “This is not how our city has done or should do business; this is not serving the whole constituency.”
S.U.C.C.E.S.S., which is made up of former commissioners and stands for Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga’s Success, opposes the charter change, while It’s Time Saratoga is a citizens advocacy group that is in favor of the change.
Both organizations said they would not seek legal council to oversee Tuesday’s absentee ballot count.
Suzanne Kwasniewski, former executive assistant to the commissioner of Public Safety, said she’s disappointed, but not surprised, that the commissioners voted to hire an outside attorney.
“These commissioners failed to recognize that they’re answerable to their constituents, and it’s another example of abuse of power,” she said.
Kwasniewski added that she hopes the citizens of Saratoga Springs can come together after the charter referendum is decided.
“I’d like people to recognize that, whether we disagree or agree, we’re all neighbors, and we need to be kinder to each other,” she said. “I feel that the anti-charter folks are acting out of fear, and those who support the charter recognize how dysfunctional the city government is and we need to move forward.”
Kwasniewski added, “We will be able to move forward in a more inclusive and policy-oriented way when we have an elected City Council that doesn’t have the administrative burden of running a city department.”
Dillon Moran said he’s especially invested in the charter referendum vote, as he voted by absentee ballot because he was on a business trip.
The lifelong Saratoga resident said this is the first time in the history of the charter referendum that it has been done well. The issue of changing the city’s form of government was also put before residents in 2006 and in 2012.
“It was done in a very open and transparent manner,” he said. “The Charter Review Commission did a thorough job and dedicated 18 months of their lives, and the city is truly indebted to them.”
Moran said whatever the outcome with the charter vote, he hopes city officials find a way to work together.
“If it winds up being a ‘yes,’ [Commissioners Franck, Madigan and Scirocco] will be required to take up the mantle of transition,” he said. “Do you think those people are capable of transitioning into a form of government they don’t believe in? I don’t.”
Moran added that he is confident in the Saratoga County Board of Elections.
“I’m fully trusting that the Board of Elections will do their job ethically and responsibly,” he said. “I think what you see is people clinging to the vestiges of their power circle and doing everything they can to retain that power.”