SARATOGA SPRINGS — A familiar debate in the fall election season — whether the city should abandon its unique form of government — is underway again.
There will be a proposition on the city election ballot Nov. 3 to change the current commissioner form of government to one with a City Council elected from geographic wards, an elected mayor, and a professional city manager handling day-to-day city operations.
In 2012, and again in 2017, a very similar proposal lost. In 2017 the results were so close the measure was decided by absentee ballots. In the end it was defeated by 10 votes, giving advocates of change encouragement to try again.
This year, familiar players from past debates are lining up on each side of the issue: those who believe reform is needed, and those who believe the city manages well under the current system. Under the current system — in place since 1915 — four elected “commissioners” oversee various functions of city government and operate together with the mayor as the City Council. The proposed change is back on the ballot after 1,500 residents in 2019 petitioned for a new vote.
This week, the leaders of a group calling itself CommonSenseSaratoga outlined why they believe charter reform will benefit all citizens of the city. The referendum would create a City Council with six members elected from neighborhood wards and a mayor chosen city-wide.
“This is an historic opportunity for voters to make sure their voices are heard at City Hall and to make government work for all residents,” said Ron Kim, a co-chair of CommonSenseSaratoga and former public safety commissioner. “We need to bring accountability, real representation and transparency to City Hall. By voting ‘yes’ on the charter, our neighborhoods will have real representation and our departments will be overseen by professional leadership.”
The proposed wards would cover the “Inner East Side,” “North Side, “Outer East Side,” “South Side,” “West Side,” and “South West Side.”
“As someone who worked to get a multi-use structure for what is now our new parking garage, I saw first-hand how ineffectual the current structure of our commission form of government is,” said Julie Cuneo, a community activist and co-chair of CommonSenseSaratoga, said at a press conference on Thursday. “We deserve to know how our tax dollars are spent to make sure citizens’ concerns are prioritized. By voting ‘yes on charter reform,’ citizens will install an accountable government with transparency.”
Opponents, who have organized as “Saratoga Works,” believe city government is operating without significant problems, and with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the wrong time to ask voters to make a change they say will add to the city’s administrative costs.
“We are concerned with the third attempt in eight years to change our city’s form of government to a more expensive, less stable and risky option particularly during this time of pandemic and extreme economic crisis,” the group said in a statement when it launched its anti-change effort in August. “Abolishing and setting up a whole new form of government is expensive, disruptive, and challenging under the best of circumstances. Imagine doing this during a pandemic and national economic crisis equal to the Great Depression!”
The group says the change would take power away from commissioners who are now elected and “give it to an appointed bureaucrat called a city manager who cannot be voted out. It will also politicize our neighborhoods by dividing them into wards.”
If the change were to go through, members of the City Council would be legislators only, they wouldn’t serve as commissioners overseeing departments — public safety, public works, accounts and finance — as they now do. (The mayor oversees land use planning, the legal department and many ceremonial functions.)
Most Capital Region cities, including Schenectady, Albany, and Amsterdam, have city councils that only legislate and set policy, though they vary in whether council members represent geographical wards or are elected city-wide. The only two cities in the state with the commissioner form of government are Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville.