Gazette Endorsement: Support Saratoga Springs charter changes

Tweaks to commission form of government are an improvement
Incoming Saratoga Springs mayor Meg Kelly is pictured.
Incoming Saratoga Springs mayor Meg Kelly is pictured.

We’ve never been big fans of the Saratoga Springs commission form of government.

Last year — in urging voters to support an overall change in order to make the government more representative and less isolated in the hands of individual commissioners who control specific functions of city government — we called for them to support a government structure that’s more democratic, accessible and transparent.

But by a narrow margin, citizens voted to keep what they had. That’s democracy for you.

On Tuesday, Saratoga Springs voters have a chance to make the existing form of government a little better by approving changes to the charter through two ballot propositions.

The first ballot question would authorize the city to shift around some of the duties and responsibilities of government offices to make them more appropriate for their functions and to give the City Council more authority over some appointments that currently are controlled by one person.

The second question would authorize expanding the City Council by two at-large members to give all citizens representation in the government.

The first proposition includes shifting the Recreation Department from the control of the mayor’s office to the Department of Public Works. 

This makes a lot of sense. The DPW maintains recreational fields and facilities, and the departments overlap on budget expenses.

The city will keep both the recreation director and the Recreation Commission. So there’ll be no extra work for the public works commissioner and no drop-off in the city’s running of the recreation programs.

The proposal also would take the offices of human resources, currently under the mayor, and IT, currently under the Finance Department, and make them accountable to the entire City Council, since they serve the entire city, not just one area of government.

The changes also would take appointment powers away from individual commissioners and the mayor and make them subject to approval by the entire City Council.

For those complaining about the powers of the fiefdom, this exposes certain appointments to boards and commissions to the entire elected council, making the appointment process more democratic and transparent.

Among those affected will be appointments to land-use boards (mayor’s office), Recreation Commission (public works commissioner), board of Assessment Review (accounts) and IT administrator (finance).

Opponents of the changes to the mayor’s office in particular say removing recreation from the mayor’s duties  — along with giving the City Council the ability to advise and consent on certain appointments currently made by the mayor — will gut the authority of the mayor and render the office largely ceremonial.

But the mayor isn’t losing much in this deal. The mayor is still the chief executive officer of the city and still oversees the building, planning, zoning and economic development departments, as well several other functions.

We doubt the current mayor, Meg Kelly, would have signed off on the changes if they were going to strip her office of too much power.

The second ballot question would expand the City Council from five to seven members by authorizing the public election of two at-large members who would represent the entire city.

They would have equal voting power with the current five members, yet wouldn’t be beholden electively or administratively to specific governmental functions like public works or public safety.

This change would create kind of a hybrid form of government that still retains many of the flaws of the commission form. But at least this gives citizens their own representatives beyond the department commissioners. 

And it might encourage more people who don’t have expertise in the areas overseen by the commissioners to serve in city government.

If the first question fails and the second question passes, the expansion of the council will not take place.

That’s unfortunate, in that it ties the hands of voters who want the expanded council but not the other changes. 

Some have also criticized the makeup of the 2018 Charter Review Commission that made the recommendations, noting that the 10-member board included no citizens from outside government

But rarely do citizens have a direct role in formulating government policy or writing referendums.

The citizens’ role was in being able to share their views about the proposed changes with commission members along the way.

And ultimately, citizens will have the final say on Election Day over whether the proposals are enacted or rejected. That’s called representative democracy.

Some fear the changes will make the government neither more representative nor transparent.

Others say the two additional council members will add to the cost of city government through additional salaries and staffs.

The council, under the new set of rules, will also get to vote to set salaries of its members, meaning they could raise the pay from the current $14,500 annual salary.

Voters will simply have to decide whether the extra expenses are worth the representation.

Setting out to build a horse and coming up with a camel is not the best way to organize government.

But these changes, while not perfect, do seem to represent an improvement to what they’ve got.

We urge voters to support both questions on Election Day.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion


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