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Saratoga Charter Commission nears final draft

Saratoga Charter Commission nears final draft

Council to vote on funds
Saratoga Charter Commission nears final draft
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, seen here in 2015, said she expects the group’s general expenses to be approved.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

The city’s Charter Review Commission is closing in on a final draft of a new constitution to present to voters.

The current proposal would change the city’s commission form of government to one run by a city manager, who would serve at the pleasure of a seven-member City Council.

“We are getting very close,” said Bob Turner, commission chairman. “I know citizens want to see the final product as soon as possible. While we have the main provisions of the charter, there are a number of important details we have to get right.” 

The 15-member citizen group, appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen in June, wants to put the new charter up for a vote during a special election planned for May 30. A majority of the City Council, however, is against allocating the necessary funds and would like the charter vote to take place on election day in November. 

The council is expected to vote Tuesday on two budget amendments — one to provide $37,000 for the special election and another $46,000 for the charter group’s operational expenses for 2017. The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at City Hall. 

Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said she expects the group’s general expenses to be approved, “but it looks like the special election is potentially going to be an issue.”

“I don’t believe they’re going to have the votes to allocate those funds successfully,” she said

Madigan said she is against using taxpayer dollars for the special election, which would be the city’s first, and would prefer to see the charter vote take place during the general election in November. Accounts Commissioner John Franck and Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco are also opposed.

“This is not something the city has ever done before; we don’t have the skill set in house to manage a special election,” she said. 

Turner, however, contends that state Municipal Home Rule Law 36 gives the group the authority to set a special election funded by the city. Commission members say a spring election would give the issue of the city’s constitution the attention it deserves, rather than have it compete with a number of contested local races in November; opponents of the special election say the turnout would be low.  

During a meeting last week, the commission went line-by-line through a model charter provided by its legal counsel, Bob Batson, the government lawyer in residence at Albany Law School, according to a news release from the group. Commission members also reviewed council-manager language from the Oneonta and Canandaigua city charters.

“Our goal is to minimize the politics of administration and partisan bickering," said Beth Wurtmann, a commission member.

Out of that review, the group agreed on a preamble, duties of the city manager — to include serving as chief administrative officer, developing long-term goals, overseeing the fair implementation of laws passed by the council and preparing the annual budget — and having council members be elected to at-large seats. 

The group has also agreed to eliminate a requirement that the city’s two county supervisors attend City Council meetings.

“Interviews with the 2001 charter review committee revealed this provision was adopted in part because of a feud between then-City Council members and the county supervisors over water and sewer rates,” states the group’s press release. “Current county supervisors Matt Veitch and Peter Martin suggested removing the language on compulsory attendance.” 

The group’s current goal is to instill a system of checks and balances and professional government in the document, which would dictate a new direction for government functions over the next decade, the release states. 

At its next meeting set for 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, the commission will develop the role of the dynamic mayor, and make recommendations for a starting salary structure for the city manager, mayor and council members.

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