SARATOGA SPRINGS — For the second year in a row, city residents are being asked to consider changes to the City Charter, though this year’s proposal is much different from the total redesign of government that voters turned down — narrowly — last year.
Voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether to make changes that keep the city’s commissioner form of government but shift some functions and appointment powers between offices. Voters could also add two new members to what is now a five-member City Council.
The changes proposed are much more modest than the wholesale revisions put on the ballot in 2006, 2012 and 2017, none of which won voter approval. In the 2017 election, a plan to transform the city’s mayor-commissioners form of government to a legislative City Council overseen by a city manager had been approved by a margin of just 48 votes on Election Night. But, when all absentee ballots were counted a week later, the proposal was rejected by 10 votes — 4,458 to 4,448. It was a bitter loss for those who pitched the change.
The current City Council includes the mayor and four commissioners, each of whom also manages some of the city’s government functions: a public safety commissioner, a public works commissioner, a finance commissioner, and an accounts commissioner.
The changes proposed this year were developed by a Charter Review Commission that included the four elected commissioners and six other city employees, but no members of the general public — a change from past charter commissions, and one that has been criticized.
Last week, eight of the members of last year’s citizen charter commission, including commission chairman Robert Turner, announced they believe the public should vote against this year’s changes, which they said would weaken the mayor’s powers and remove the limit on commissioner’s $14,500 annual salaries.
“This was four commissioners and six of their employees,” said Turner, a professor of political science at Skidmore College. “There was no citizen participation. That hasn’t happened before in the history of the city. You need to have that independent voice.”
Mayor Meg Kelly, saying she was looking for ways to make city government more efficient, appointed the 10-person Charter Review Commission at a March 6 City Council meeting. Kelly is not a member of the commission.
“We have had the commission form of government since we were incorporated as a city in 1915, and it is a unique form of government, but so is Saratoga Springs [unique],” said City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis, chairman of the 2018 commission. “There have been numerous attempts over the years to change the form of government, but all of them have failed.”
DeLeonardis said the commission was charged not with looking at wholesale changes to how the city is run, but at how to update its structure.
“We were charged with making recommendations for modernizing and seeking efficiencies within the current form of government,” he said.
One proposed change would remove the $14,500 annual salary for commissioners from the charter, allowing the City Council to set the salaries. Commissioners generally believe the part-time salary no longer reflects the numbers of hours needed to manage city departments, though the council voted 3-2 at an Oct. 2 meeting to keep the salary at that level for the 2020-2021 council, even if the changes pass.
Turner and other dissenters from the 2017 charter commission, in an open letter to voters, called the move to have council members set their own salaries “bad public policy and government without oversight.”
DeLeonardis noted that, under state law, an elected council can only grant a salary increase to future councils, not to themselves during a term in which they are already serving. He also noted that salaries typically aren’t set in a city charter, which establishes the governing framework for a city.
The salary issue, he said, needs analysis — the position Kelly took in voting against keeping the salaries at $14,500 for the 2020-2021 council. Kelly said she is doing the job full-time, in spite of the salary.
“The hours and responsibilities are significant,” DeLeonardis said; “$14,500 is not a great deal of money. It warrants study and analysis.”
Turner and the seven other 2017 charter commission members who signed the letter — Gordon Boyd, Laura Chodos, Beth Wurtmann, Minita Sanghvi, Jeff Altamari, Patrick Kane and Ann Casey Bullock — said they’re also concerned that the proposed changes diminish the power of the mayor.
The plan removes the Recreation Department from the mayor’s authority, giving that oversight to public works. It would also require that the appointments of the city attorney, director of human resources and appointments to volunteer land use boards be approved by the City Council. Those appointments are now made unilaterally by the mayor.
“It’s appropriate to have appointments to these citywide boards and services approved, and we think it is appropriate to be done with the advice and consent of the council,” DeLeonardis said. “There’s an important legislative function to be performed in providing advice and consent.”
Critics also fault the plan to add two legislative council members to the council, noting they would lack the wider powers that the commissioners have, because the commissioners also have day-to-day control of the departments they oversee. Adding the two council members will be a second referendum question, relevant only if the first question about the proposed changes is approved.
“It really creates two classes of legislators,” Turner said. “I can’t find anywhere in the United States that’s done it this way.”
The commission form of government itself is usual, rooted in the early 20th-century concept that having the people who run the city departments directly elected will reduce corruption. Today, Saratoga Springs and the city of Mechanicville use the system, but basically every other city in the United States uses a system in which professional department heads run functions like police and fire departments and public works, with those professionals overseen by elected officials.
DeLeonardis said the charter commission members felt there should be an opportunity for people who want to serve in office without the responsibilities of running departments, and a public survey suggested people didn’t like the idea of simply making the city’s two representatives on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors members of the council.
“It recognizes that there are difficulties for individuals in having the time to serve as both legislators and as department heads,” he said. “Their votes will be equal.”
If both charter questions pass, the two additional City Council members would not be added until Jan. 1, 2020. The remaining charter changes would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
To view the proposed charter, visit www.saratoga-springs.org.
To educate the public, copies of the proposed charter changes are also available at the library and the recreation center. There will also be a presentation on Tuesday at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, beginning at 6:30 p.m. One mailer has already gone out to city voters, and DeLeonardis said there will be another within the next week or so.
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