Saratoga County

Voter Guide: Saratoga again considering charter change

saratoga ward map (proposed)
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It isn’t every day that a city’s residents decide whether its entire form of government should be set aside for something new. But in Saratoga Springs, recently, it’s almost every other year.

Whether to change the city charter is before voters again this fall, after a 2017 proposition to change the form of government was defeated by just 10 votes when all absentees were counted – after having led by about 50 voters on election night.

In 2018, a different proposition would have modernized some aspects of city government without changing its basic structure, but it was also defeated by voters.

At the heart of the issue: The city, which calls itself “The City in the Country” – and has become synonymous with economic success – has one of the most usual forms of government in the country, with four elected commissioners to oversee city management.

Whether an elected-commissioner government still works in the modern world is the central question in the current debate. There are powerful advocates on both sides.

The proposal going before voters on Tuesday would establish a six-member City Council whose members would be only part-time legislators. They, along with a mayor, would set legislative policies, while day-to-day management of city operations would be left to a city manager.

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The current system – conceived in the early 20th century as an anti-corruption initiative – has the heads of the public works, public safety, finance and accounts departments directly elected citywide by the public, and those four people functioning together with the mayor as the City Council.

The system was once more common, but today Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville are the only cities in New York state that use it.

The commissioners are considered part-time city employees and earn $14,500 annually -– but each has a deputy commissioner who is a full-time city employee and helps manage the department.

While the jobs are considered part time, most commissioners in recent history spend something closer to full time on city business.

One of the main goals of the change would be separating the legislative and management roles commissioners play.

“We will have a more effective form of government,” said Joanne Yepsen, who was mayor from 2014 to 2017 and is backing the proposed change.

Under the proposal, the departments would be overseen by mid-level managers, who would report to the city manager. The six council members would be elected from neighborhood-based wards, with the goal of giving citizens a local representative who can bring their issues to the council.

The most high-profile citizen group supporting the change is Common Sense Saratoga. Among its arguments is that the change will broaden the number of people who can run for public office, since they will no longer need to also be managers.

Opponents say there is no need to change a system that has contributed to Saratoga being economically successful. They think any change would cost the city money at a time when it is under extreme financial stress due to the pandemic.

Change supporters say the cost of government would actually be less, since the full-time deputy commissioners would no longer be needed.

The Saratoga Springs Republican Committee is opposed while the city Democratic Committee favors the reforms. “Saratoga Springs is the absolute treasure that it is and crown jewel of upstate due in part because of our form of government,” GOP committee Chairman Chris Obstarczyk said in a news release.

The city’s Democratic Committee contends the proposed new system would increase accountability and bring a greater diversity of people into government roles.

“It promotes our most fundamental, small-D democratic values,” Democratic Committee Chairwoman Sarah J. Burger said last month. “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 duties of the job are so extensive. “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 different citizen group called Saratoga Works, which includes Obstarczyk, some Democrats and some prominent local citizens say change isn’t needed — but especially not during a pandemic.

“Abolishing and setting up a whole new form of government is expensive, disruptive, and challenging under the best of circumstances,” Saratoga Works says on its website. “Imagine doing this during a pandemic and national economic crisis equal to the Great Depression!”

The 2017 charter change referendum came about through a proposal developed over the course of a year by a city charter change commission that held multiple public meetings, but the current referendum – which is similar to, but not identical to, the 2017 proposal – is on the ballot because more than 1,500 city residents petitioned for a vote last year, triggering a referendum requirement.

Most of the current city commissioners have not taken a public position on the proposal, but at the Oct. 20 City Council meeting Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton – whose office oversees the Police Department and Fire Department – spoke about her concerns that there hasn’t been enough public discussion about the new form of government. She said she would not support it.

If the change were approved it would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, giving the city a year to transition to the new form of government.

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 citywide.

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?”

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