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Spa City mayoral candidates spar over charter reform

Spa City mayoral candidates spar over charter reform

Mayor's salary would jump from $14,500 to $40,000 under new charter
Spa City mayoral candidates spar over charter reform
Mayoral candidates Mark Baker and Meg Kelly.
Photographer: Provided

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Mayoral candidate Mark Baker on Wednesday said he opposes doing away with the city’s century-old commission form of government, citing a 175.9 percent increase in the mayor’s salary that is called for in the proposal to switch to a council-manager government.

Baker's position prompted his opponent, Deputy Mayor Meg Kelly, to side strongly with the 15-member Charter Review Commission's argument that the current mayor's salary of $14,500 discourages people from running for the time-intensive job. 

City residents will vote on a new charter, which would result in the city moving to the council-manager form of government, during a referendum Nov. 7.

“My 33-year career as executive director of the City Center was defined by fiscal responsibility and accountability, both of which are sorely absent from the lone charter reform proposal,” said Baker, a Republican who retired in December from the City Center post. “Leadership is about being brave enough to face challenging situations and deal with them honestly. A proposal for a 175.9 percent increase in the mayor’s salary — while neglecting the hard work and dedication of the City Council commissioners — is not an honest or credible proposal. It’s one that lacks financial discipline.”

Mayor Joanne Yepsen, in announcing she would not seek re-election last spring, herself said the current pay was too low, citing an 80-plus-hour work week. Yepsen, who appointed the 15-member commission to study the charter in May 2016, supports the change.

Kelly, a Democrat endorsed by Yepsen, said the increase would encourage more residents to seek public service, “an appalling situation under our current charter.” 

“I would welcome a discussion with Mr. Baker on his claims of bravery,” she added. “Examples of same would be appreciated.”

Bob Turner, a Skidmore College political science professor and chairman of the review commission, said the proposal would save the city at least $403,000 per year — despite the increase in pay for the mayor. 

“That comes from replacing five political deputies who have no experience or educational requirements with a professionally trained city manager who has [a minimum of] five years of experience and an advanced degree in public management,” he said.

Savings would also come from cutting health care benefits for the part-time council members, who currently serve dual roles as legislators and department heads. Under the charter proposal, six legislative-only council members and a mayor would make up a seven-member council, instead of the four commissioners and the mayor forming a five-member board. 

If the referendum is approved by residents, the mayor’s annual salary would increase from $14,500 to $40,000. Turner said the commission interviewed several past mayors during its review of the charter, and they said a pay increase was needed to match the hours the job demands. They suggested a range of salaries — from $30,000 to $120,000, he said.

Turner also said the average salary for a city mayor in New York state, at $50,000, is higher than the group’s proposal.

“We wanted to open up a pool of candidates who could serve as mayor beyond those who were retired or rich,” he said.

Baker, in addition to objecting to the pay increase, also said the new form of government would promote a “lack of structure and accountability in City Hall.”

“With this lone proposal, who would be accountable to whom? That’s not clearly defined,” he said. “Saratogians should have trust and faith in the elected officials they represent to make sound decisions — ones that should not be made by appointed bureaucrats.”

Kelly argued that under the five commissioners, “five independent silos with five independent council members” are “accountable to no one until re-election time.”

“They [the review commission members] have learned that our system is rife with pettiness and politics that make daily workdays difficult for all,” she said. “Their plan to have a six-member legislative City Council overseeing a competent professional city manager, who is also under the scrutiny of an internal auditor, makes sense. Hopefully it will lead to better accountability, efficiency and needed long-term planning ability. Five-hundred cities have abandoned our format and gone to council-manager for good reason.” 

The charter proposal can be read online at www.saratogacharter.com.

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