SARATOGA SPRINGS – A proposal to change the city’s form of government was trailing in in-person voting on Tuesday, but backers of the proposal remain hopeful, since there are still about 6,000 uncounted absentee ballots.
Unofficial results from the Saratoga County Board of Elections, with all in-person votes counted, showed the proposal to change the form of government to a conventional city council-city manager form of government behind, with 5,186 votes in favor, and 6,324 votes against.
“Basically we think at this point we’re down a little, but we want all the votes to be counted,” said Ron Kim, a co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga, which has advocated for changing the city’s unusual form of government.
The city, which calls itself “The City in the Country” – and has become synonymous with economic success – has one of the most unusual forms of government in the country, with four elected commissioners to oversee city management.
The proposal before voters 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.
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.
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 was defeated.
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.
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 said there is no need to change a system that has contributed to Saratoga being economically successful. They believed any change would cost the city money at a time when it is under extreme financial stress due to the pandemic.
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.