SARATOGA SPRINGS — The city would be divided into six wards and governed by a city council chosen from those different parts of the city under a proposed charter revision residents are looking to get on the November ballot.
The proposed charter revisions are part of a renewed effort by city residents looking to change the city’s longstanding city commissioner system and would be the third consecutive year the city’s residents are asked to consider changes to the city charter — the last two of which both failed.
“As Saratoga Springs has grown, I think we have outgrown our current system of government,” said Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political scientist and one of the leaders of the charter reform effort. “Whether it’s the $14 million rebuilding of City Hall that’s already over budget and delayed, the lack of long-term planning for water and road infrastructure, or the lack of progress in the last 12 years to create a citywide emergency management system, I think there’s a lack of responsiveness to a lot of issues.”
Turner said he and other city residents involved in a 2017 effort to revise the city charter think there has been growing momentum toward charter reform and have studied what people would have liked to see different in the 2017 effort, which fell 10 votes short of adoption. Since the city was formed in 1915, there have been upward of a dozen attempts to revise the city charter, most of which have been rejected by voters. The last major changes, which mostly focused on the budget process, were adopted in 2001.
Turner and colleagues have started collecting signatures to place the latest charter referendum on the ballot for the November election. They need to collect over 2,000 signatures by an Aug. 1 deadline to qualify.
The key changes in the latest charter proposal would establish a six-person city council, elected from wards in the city, and empower a stronger full-time mayoral position. The city council and mayor would be tasked with hiring a professional city manager to oversee the city’s day-to-day operations.
The city council would be elected every two years, and the mayor, whose pay would rise to $65,000 under the proposal, would be elected every four years. Turner argued creating small city council wards would give residents a clear person to communicate issues to and would connect the elected officials closely to the challenges facing their constituents.
“If a resident has an issue, whether it’s potholes, a stop sign, a zombie house, flooding, lack of EMS service, they have a single point of contact to go to,” Turner said of the city council model. “These council members have to be very representative of their neighborhoods’ wishes or they are not going to get re-elected.”
Turner argued the city’s current formation, which divides executive powers among four commissioners elected to run different parts of the city and a mayor, fosters jurisdictional squabbles among officials and confuses residents about where to go to get questions answered and concerns addressed.
He also said city residents are turned off from running for a commissioner position because of the administrative duties tied closely to a specific area of expertise – finance, public works and public safety, for example. Under the city council model, Turner argued, more people would run for office.
He argued that many issues facing the city cross multiple departments and would be better managed by a devoted city administrator, hired on annual basis by the mayor and city council and required to carry an advanced degree in public management, under the charter proposal.
“The city manager has a real focus on delivering results for the bottom line,” Turner said.
The new charter would also strengthen the mayor’s office and empower the mayor to articulate a political and policy vision for the city, coordinate among the various city interests and institutions and attract new businesses and organizations to Saratoga Springs.
John Franck, the city’s commissioner of accounts, said he plans to “stay on the sidelines” if residents gather enough signatures to get the new charter changes on the ballot and called for a civil political discourse around the potential changes.
But Franck also defended the city’s current commissioner form of government, citing the city’s relatively low taxes and budget surpluses. He said he didn’t think a city manager would be any more effective at managing the city.
He said the city’s commissioners, who also serve as the city’s legislative body, are intimately familiar with how the city functions because of their administrative responsibilities. He also argued that citizen complaints and political squabbling will find its way into any form of city government.
He acknowledged that the commissioner form of government may drive away some people who would otherwise be interested in running for elected office.
“I think the commissioner form has served the city really well, Saratoga is a jewel in New York,” he said. “But at the end of the day this decision is up to the voters.”
Mayor Meg Kelly could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and other city commissioners did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Turner said he recognized some people may argue Saratoga is doing just fine – better than many cities that operate under a city council model – but argued it would do even better under a new structure.
“The slogan against [charter reform efforts] going back to the 1950s has been: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Turner said. “Ours is: ‘We can do better.’”