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Charter issue divided Spa City

Charter issue divided Spa City

Vote has caused rifts among residents
Charter issue divided Spa City
Bob Turner, chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission, in his office at Skidmore College.
Photographer: ERICA MILLER

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The question of the city's future form of government has dominated the past 18 months of Bob Turner's life.

The chairman of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission said Saratogians have spent the past year and a half discussing and debating how city government could be more representative, efficient and transparent.

"I'm in awe of my fellow citizens who took government very seriously," Turner said. "The charter presented some great learning opportunities for the community."

RELATED: Spa City charter referendum swings to 'no'

On Nov. 7, the charter referendum vote on whether to transition the city from its current mayor-and-commissioners governmental system to one run by an appointed city manager was too close to call. On Tuesday, after absentee ballots were counted, it appeared the effort to change the charter had failed by a narrow margin, though the vote must still be certified.

Despite feelings of hope that the charter referendum process brought out in Turner, who is a professor at Skidmore, it's also had an impact on his personal life.

"A tenured professor is about as untouchable as you can be, or so I thought," he said. "I thought people couldn't threaten my livelihood or my job; however, baseless accusations were made that did."

Turner added, "You can't take my job away, but there are other people on the commission whose livelihoods are closely tied to their reputation, and to have commissioners say you're committing mail fraud endangers their livelihood."

Three City Council members — Commissioner of Accounts John Franck, Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan and Commissioner of Public Works Anthony Scirocco — held a news conference Nov. 2, during which they claimed special-interest investments were made to influence the outcome of the charter referendum.

Turner said that if he could go back in time and were asked again to chair the Charter Review Commission, the answer would still be "yes."

"It's a tremendous privilage and responsibility to come up with a plan to make your city better for your children and grandchildren," he said. "We wanted it to be as data-driven, transparent and inclusive as possible."

Turner added that, change or no, the city of Saratoga Springs has a lot of work ahead.

"If the charter wins, we have to work on the transition into the new system," he said Monday. "If it loses, we need the city government to demonstrate that the commission form of government can function efficiently and continue to deliver results for taxpayers."

Richard Sellers, spokesman for the non-partisan citizens organization that opposes the charter, S.U.C.C.E.S.S., said he's been personally insulted on Facebook as a result of the charter referendum vote. The group's acronym stands for Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga's Success.

"The animosity towards us was coming from the 'yes' group," he said.

Sellers added that politics in Saratoga Springs is interesting.

"Your enemy in this event could very well be your friend in six months on the next issue," he said. "Also, listening to the [absentee ballot count], just when I'm thinking I'm hearing a pattern, it breaks, so the 'yes' and 'no' votes weren't aligned with a political party."

Saratoga Springs resident Robin Dalton said there needs to be more collaboration with the community going forward.

"In discussing the charter, it seems deeply personal to those who came up with the proposed charter, which I understand, but it leads to defensiveness and arrogance, and there needs to be openness between them and the community," she said. "We need to have conversations and ask questions that aren't met with anger and defensiveness."

She said the charter vote has caused rifts in many of her friendships.

"At the end of the day, I like to say, 'While we don't agree, we can agree to disagree,' and while I'm hopeful and optimistic for the future of Saratoga Springs, it's definitely stressed relationships," she said. "I hope we can find ways to converse and connect and not become polarized because we don't see eye-to-eye on issues."

Linda Ambrosino, owner of G. Willikers on Broadway, said she also hopes the city can move forward after the results of the referendum are finalized.

"I hope we continue to grow the same way we have been, and that no matter which way it goes, that all these people who came out and cared about this will continue to care," she said. "I think it was exciting that people got that involved, and I hope they stay involved."

Interviews last week and over the weekend conducted in downtown Saratoga Springs yielded many resident responses that the issue was too controversial to talk about.

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