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Some Spa City officials balk at new government

Some Spa City officials balk at new government

City leaders mull future of city government
Some Spa City officials balk at new government
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, in 2015.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- City councilors are weighing in on a proposal to replace the current commission form of government with a council-manager form — a move that would, with one exception, do away with the positions city leaders now hold.

Under the 15-member Charter Review Commission’s proposal, only the mayor’s job would remain intact, though it would change.

“I work in the commission form of government, and I personally think it works very well, especially from a financial point of view,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. She, the other three commissioners and the mayor make up the five-member City Council under the commission form of government that has been in place since the city’s incorporation in 1915. “We probably have the highest bond ratings of any municipality in the state.”

Madigan also took issue with the commission’s decision to have the changes, if approved by the voters during a special election set for May 30, take effect in 2019 — halfway through the two-year terms to which council members will seek reelection in November.

“I don’t even know if I would run for commissioner of finance if the form of government is going to change,” she said. “Maybe I would run for mayor.”

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen argued that a council-manager form would make city government more efficient, more democratic and more representative of the people. He called the commission form outdated and “inherently contradictory.”

“You can’t be a legislator and an executive at the same time,” he said. “This is the United States of America — this is not a dictatorship — so you have separate bodies, and you have a balance of power. Well that’s missing in Saratoga Springs, and the ability for people to participate directly in city government is very limited.”

He added, “These five people all have too much power — each of them, including me.”

Under the council-manager form, the city council hires a professionally-trained manager to carry out its policies. The manager serves at the pleasure of the council and can be fired by the council with a majority vote. 

It’s the most popular form of local government in the country, states a news release from the review commission. Among cities like Saratoga Springs with populations of 25,000 to 49,999, 63 percent use the council-manager form, compared with 31 percent under mayor-council control. Only 1 percent of cities use the commission form, also known as the Galveston Plan because it originated as an emergency response to a hurricane that devastated the island city of Galveston, Texas, in 1900. 

Saratoga Springs is one of two cities in the state still under the commission form, with the other being Mechanicville. 

Bob Turner, the Skidmore College political science professor who chairs the review commission, said the group will discuss the mayor’s role under the proposed form on Tuesday. 

“There are as many varieties as you can imagine,” he said. 

Up for discussion are whether the mayor should have veto power over the council’s actions; who prepares the budget and what role, if any, the mayor should have in appointing and removing department heads, Turner said.

The group also still has to decide whether a mayor would be elected by voters or the council, and if the term length should stay at two years or be extended to four. 

As part of its eight-month review, the group interviewed the mayor of the council-manager controlled city of Canandaigua, Ellen Pollimeni.

“She doesn’t have much in the way of formal powers, but because she is freed up from the day-to-day operations of running the city, she has a lot more time to be out in the community, to be fashioning consensus about where the city should go,” Turner said.

As the commission continues to work on a new charter, councilors remain at odds over the review group’s decision to present the changes, to be included in a new charter draft, to the voters during a special election this spring.

Madigan said there’s no money in the budget for the election’s estimated $37,000 cost, and that voters need more time to learn about the proposal, predicting a low turnout. Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco and Accounts Commissioner John Franck have expressed similar concerns.

“They don’t’ even have a document written yet,” Madigan said.

She said she doesn’t expect the group’s request for $37,000 in special election funding to be approved by the Council, refuting Turner's position that Municipal Home Rule Law 36 gives the commission authority to call for an election and have it be funded by the city. 

“I believe the the Council has to take a stand on that,” Madigan said. “There’s not really a lot of case law in terms of municipal home rule law.”

She expects the Council to support the commission’s request for $46,000 to cover administrative costs for 2017, however. She said the funding requests will be voted on separately during a special meeting, which has not yet been set. 

“They are expending funds without the authority to do so right now, and that’s a problem for me,” she said. “My name goes on all the checks that go out from the city.”

Mathiesen, who is joined by Mayor Joanne Yepsen in supporting a special election, said the other councilors appear to be blocking the review group’s efforts to create a charter that would eliminate their positions.

“There’s a real problem here in terms of conflict of interest,” he said.

He also said putting the charter on the ballot in November would be a “very bad idea.”

“I think it would mix up the issues regarding the referendum with the politics of the candidates who are running at that time,” he said.

Yepsen, who appointed the commission's members in June, was not available Monday for comment.

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