Accounts Commissioner John Franck doesn’t support having a special election this spring to decide on a new city charter with a new form of government, but his office will be responsible for hosting one, regardless.
Franck said he expects a much lower turnout than if the vote were to take place during the general election in November, pointing to low representation at the annual school budget votes. The special election would be the city’s first and cost an estimated $37,000.
“I think it’s suppression of the vote,” he said Thursday. “And I’m not against changing the form of government, but I’m against spending taxpayer money to do this.”
He added, “The way this government works, I’m actually the election commissioner. We’re going to have to do everything from our office. All we’ll get from the county is the machines.”
Franck, along with Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, this week expressed opposition to having a special election after the 15-member Charter Review Commission last Thursday set a date for May 30. The commission formed in June.
During the special election, the public will vote on a new charter, which will include a new form of city government to replace the current commission form in which four elected commissioners oversee the government functions of public safety, public works, finance and accounts. Alternatives being considered are strong mayor-council and city manager-council, but the form to be included in a new charter has not been determined yet. The review group debated the merits of both at its Jan. 12 meeting.
“They don’t even have a document ready,” Franck said. “Usually, when you have a charter change, you go through this at least a year.”
The City Council debated the issue Tuesday during its review of the commission’s request for the election funding and an additional $46,000 for general administrative expenses for 2017, a total of $83,000.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen recommended the council allocate the funds with a budget transfer, similar to when it funded the city-sponsored review commission’s activities last year.
“This is bigger because we have to amend the budget,” Madigan countered. “We don’t have the money in the budget right now.”
On Thursday, Yepsen, who has stressed the commission’s independence, declined to comment on the special election, but said the group incurs costs every time it meets, “and they need to be covered right now with a budget by the city.”
“I’m not commenting on that because I believe strongly that we have appointed a charter commission to do their work, and they haven’t even come back with a proposed charter that they're going to be putting on referendum, but that’s their job and I’m going to let them do their job,” she said. “If people say they haven’t put out a draft yet, or educated the public on it, it’s because they need the money from the city to do that.”
The city is ultimately required to pay for and run the election, said commission Chairman Bob Turner. He pointed to state Municipal Home Rule Law 36, which gives the commission the authority to call a special election funded by the city.
“After 45 days, they have to pay,” he said, referring to the time after the request for funding is made. “This is the law. It’s designed to make us independent.”
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen said Tuesday that he did not feel the special election would prevent voters from turning out.
“I don’t believe this is voter suppression, because I believe there are more voters in the city on May 30 than there are in early November,” he said.
Scirocco agreed with Franck, saying the process was being rushed.
“At least let it run the gamut until November,” he said.
Franck pointed to nine past attempts to change the form of government during general elections in the city’s 100-year history, which were all voted down.
“They know this going in, and that’s why I believe they're asking for a special, because they just feel they can’t get it passed in November,” he said.
But Turner argued that previous attempts to change the form of government during general elections were overshadowed by the people running for office. In November, all four commissioners as well as the mayor will be up for re-election. He said he expects turnout for the special election to be high because “Saratogians are passionate about their politics” and they know the importance of the city’s charter.
“It’s not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue,” he said. “These are constitutional issues, and they deserve special attention.”