SARATOGA SPRINGS — Two former mayors and several other former Saratoga Springs city officials on Thursday spoke out in favor of the charter change being proposed this year, which would give the city a form of government closer to what most cities across the country use.
“We will have an easier, more effective representation,” said Joanne Yepsen, who was mayor for two terms, from from 2014 to 2017. “We will have a more effective form of government.”
The referendum on the ballot for the Nov. 3 election — with early voting starting Saturday — would replace the current elected city commissioner form of government with a more conventional city council. Council members would only be legislators, and wouldn’t also run city departments, as the commissioners of public safety, public works, accounts and finance currently do.
Under the proposed change, the departments would be overseen by mid-level managers, with a professional city manager overseeing day-to-day operations. The mayor and city council members would set legislative policies, but not manage. The six council members would be elected from neighborhood-based wards, with the goal of having local issues brought to the council.
“It didn’t take me long to realize the commission form of government has inherent conflicts of interest,” said Valerie Keehn, who was mayor in 2006-2007.
Yepsen and Keehn both spoke at a press conference in High Rock Park organized by Common Sense Saratoga, a citizen group that is in favor of the change. With Election Day nearing, a mailer from the pro-change group went out on Wednesday to 8,300 households in the city.
Common Sense Saratoga says letting city council members be part-time legislators will also broaden the number of people who can run for public office. While commissioners are considered part-time, most work something closer to full-time hours. Commissioners have a $14,500 annual salary, set in the charter.
“One of the most exciting things about this is that we will get younger people, mid-careerists with families, maybe even people of color [to run for office],” said Ron Kim, a former public safety commissioner who is co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga.
Opponents of the referendum have also held press conferences and spoken out as the vote approaches, saying there is no need for change to a system that has contributed to the city being economically successful, and any change could cost the city money at a time when the city is under extreme financial stress due to the pandemic.
Earlier this week, the Saratoga Springs Republican Committee came out against changing the form of government, even though Democrats have controlled city government in recent years.
“The Saratoga Springs Republican Committee believes that our commission form of government and current city charter have served Saratoga Springs well and we are committed to this commission form of government,” committee Chairman Chris Obstarczyk said in a news release. “Saratoga Springs is the absolute treasure that it is and crown jewel of upstate due in part because of our form of government.”
This will be the third charter change vote in eight years. All have been defeated, but the 2017 referendum on setting up a similar government to what is proposed now lost by only a 10-vote margin.
The Republicans say the proposed system would add to management costs, and hired managers wouldn’t be directly responsible to voters. “In light of the global pandemic and current economic crisis Saratoga Springs is now facing, pushing this expensive and divisive charter proposal onto Saratogians yet again is dangerous and not in Saratoga’s best interest,” Obstarzyck said.
The city’s Democratic Committee has endorsed the proposed changes, saying they believe it will increase accountability and bring more people into government.
Members of Common Sense Saratoga contend that Saratoga Springs’ success is more in spite of its form of government than because of it.
“I have always thought there were deep flaws in this form of government,” said Chris Mathiesen, who was public safety commissioner from 2012 to 2017. Mathiesen, who has his own dental practice, said he was only able to run for office because he owns his own business.
“It’s time to have a more logical and widely accepted form of government for our city,” Mathiesen said.
Thomas McTygue, who was public works commissioner for 32 years before being defeated for re-election in 2007, said city government is more complex today than when he was in office.
“The community today is so complex you need professionals, you really can’t have part-time manager/legislators,” he said.
“[Commissioners] are very much siloed to the departments they run,” said Julie Cuneo, Common Sense Saratoga’s other co-chair. “We will have one professionally trained set of eyes looking at the budget … We have been successful despite the form of government. [The city] will still be successful under another form of government.”
But Courtney DeLeonardis, a former chairwoman of the city Democratic Committee who now chairs a group called One Saratoga, said her group believes that city government works well — ”You have commissioners who are experts in their areas” — and having the people who oversee city departments directly elected keeps them accountable to the public.
While the Republican and Democratic committees are on opposite sides, DeLeonardis said “there are lots of Democrats who are against, and also Republicans and independents.”
One Saratoga also believes this is simply the wrong time to change government.
“I think that right now we’re in a very difficult time, dealing with COVID, and I feel strongly officials are doing their best work,” said DeLeonardis, who is married to City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis. “I just can’t imagine dealing with this at a time when there is already so much upheaval … We are all unified in thinking this is not the right time.”
One criticism from those who favor the current form of government is that a ward system will have council members and neighborhoods pitted against each other. Long-time charter change supporter Patrick Kane said that 48 of the 62 cities in the state use a ward system, “and to my knowledge, none of them have ever gone back.”
The commissioner system of government has been in place in the city for more than a century. Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville are the only cities in New York state that use it.
The referendum question will appear on the back of the printed ballot, Yepsen noted, so voters need to be aware to look for it.