Saratoga Springs voters will get to decide in November whether they want a new form of government, after the City Council last week agreed to put the proposition on the ballot.
The council had long sought to block a vote, and stubborn Mayor Scott Johnson continued to vote against one last week. But the decision served the democratic process, and was a deserved victory for Saratoga Citizen, the community group pushing for the governmental change.
That does not, however, mean voters should necessarily embrace it. It’s going to be up to Saratoga Citizen and its supporters to try to prove their case.
“We advocate replacing the current commission form of government with a council-manager form,” says Saratoga Citizen on its Web site. The proposed changes include: “The role of ‘commissioner’ or department head is eliminated from the role of the city council. ... The city council will hire a professional city manager, qualified by education and experience, to oversee the entire city workforce.”
This would be a more conventional form of government in contemporary New York state, but not necessarily a better one. Under the current system, according to the city Web site, “There are five at-large City Council members, all responsible for taxation, appropriations, ordinances, and other general functions. However, each Commissioner also has individual functions as the head of and specific to their respective departments. The five departments are Mayor, Finance, Accounts, Public Works and Public Safety.”
The existing system has the advantage of democratic accountability. Voters elect people to run specific departments, and can find out who is in charge of what. The proposed change would reduce the direct powers of elected officials, especially the mayor, and create a new, nonelected position of city manager who would do the real work of running the city. While the new manager would be a professional, he or she might well have less expertise about a particular department than an elected commissioner. And the new system might lead to increased bureaucratic costs.
While politicians bicker in Saratoga Springs as they do every place, the city has thrived in recent decades under Republicans and Democrats alike — unlike most others in the Capital Region and the rest of upstate New York. Its form of government is not the prime reason for Saratoga’s flourishing, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt.