The local citizen group One Saratoga announced Tuesday that it would oppose a proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot to change the city’s form of government to a more-conventional city council form of government, with City Council members representing geographic wards.
“We strongly believe that carving Saratoga Springs up into wards, as this proposal does, would pit our neighborhoods against one another at a time when we need unity,” said One Saratoga Chair Courtney DeLeonardis at a press conference Tuesday in High Rock Park.
Members of One Saratoga, which formed in 2019 when a number of long-time Democrats left the city Democratic Committee following a nomination dispute, say they are also concerned that the proposal would raise costs at a time when city finances are under extreme stress.
“We know for a fact there are going to be a great deal of transition costs, and then unknown costs,” said Charles Brown, who like DeLeonardis, is a former chair of the city Democratic Committee.
DeLeonardis said One Saratoga originally planned to stay neutral on the charter change proposal. However, it decided to take a position because of what she said were misleading social media posts that linked the group with support for the change.
The proposal going before city voters would change the current elected commissioner form of government to one with a City Council elected from six geographic wards, a mayor elected citywide, and a professional city manager handling day-to-day city operations.
In 2012, and again in 2017, similar proposals lost in voter referendums. 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. A petition they circulated in 2019 led to this fall’s vote.
The current system — in place since 1915 — has four “commissioners” elected citywide who oversee the various functions of city government and operate together with the mayor as the City Council, setting policy. There are commissioners of public safety, public works, finance, and accounts, as well as a mayor.
The city Democratic Committee has endorsed the change, and is actively campaigning for its approval, said Democratic Committee Chair Sarah J. Burger.
“It promotes our most fundamental, small-d democratic values,” Burger said. “Right now, all the commissioners wear two hats, legislator and department head. We believe the department heads should be accountable to a city manager.”
As a party chairwoman, Burger said the current system makes it hard to recruit candidates, since the deputies of the job are so extensive, and the annual pay is only $14,500. “It’s an antiquated system,” she said. “Across the country a lot of cities have switched away from it, and none have switched back. There’s a reason for that.”
A separate citizen group called CommonSenseSaratoga also supports charter reform, saying it would increase accountability, guarantee representation to the city neighborhoods, and increase transparency. CommonSenseSaratoga and Burger both said the change won’t cost more money — CommonSenseSaratoga on its website contends that overall costs would be lower.
The referendum would create a City Council to represent wards that would cover the “Inner East Side,” “North Side, “Outer East Side,” “South Side,” “West Side,” and “South West Side.”
Opponents of the proposed change generally 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.
Another opposition group, SaratogaWorks, 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.”
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.
The wording of the question before city voters will be: “Shall the Saratoga Springs City Charter be amended to provide for a City Council elected from six neighborhood wards of equal population, presided by a Mayor elected citywide, and for the appointment of a professional City Manager and other administrative officials accountable to the Council?”