Editor's Note: The editorial has been corrected in paragraph 11 to state that the mayor claimed she was not notified of the meeting about the hiring of the lawyer, but that the other commissioners refute her version and say she was indeed notified. This information does not alter the points made in the editorial.
Rather than take it as a victory, Saratoga Springs government officials should take the outcome of the charter change vote as a message — and a warning to shape up.
After absentee ballots were counted Tuesday, voters in the city turned down a proposal to change the current form of government from a commissioner model to a more common city council/city manager form of government.
Unlike past votes on the subject, this one was nail-bitingly close — decided by 10 votes out of more than 8,900 cast. Barring some kind of miracle with the 18 outstanding military ballots (11 out of 11, or 15 out of all 18, would have to be in favor of the change in order to alter Tuesday’s outcome), Saratoga Springs will be keeping its form of government for now.
But the vote should not be taken by government officials as some kind of affirmation that voters are satisfied with the way things are going.
The main argument for keeping the commission form of government — which places individual commissioners in charge of task-oriented department (finance, public works, public safety ...) — was basically: “Why mess with the form of government when things are working so well?”
One might ask that question of the 4,448 citizens — 49.94 percent of the voters — who voted to change the government, despite all the city’s success.
Could it be that they’re dissatisfied with the way government operates, despite everything that’s going well in the city?
Many people have complained that city officials don’t cooperate with one another, seeing that as a direct result of the government design that places individuals in charge of separate government functions without having responsibility to the city as a whole.
Why should any city commissioner cut his or her budget, or share a secretary with another department to save money, or work with another commissioner on a broad city matter, when the electorate holds that commissioner responsible for one department and one department alone?
A good example of that lack of cooperation occurred right after the election when three city commissioners held a meeting and voted to spend up to $5,000 of taxpayer money on a lawyer to protect the city’s interests in the counting of the absentee ballots.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen said the three commissioners, knowing they had the votes to pass it, didn’t even invite the her and the commissioner of public safety to the meeting. The three commissioners dispute the mayor's allegation and said she and the other commissioner were indeed aware of the meeting.
Regardless of who is telling the truth, this is the kind of political, self-serving garbage that 49.94 percent of the voters voted against. That’s why despite all the happy news coming out of the Spa City, they voted for change.
The vote on charter change was a message and a warning.
Citizens are sick of the lack of cooperation between commissioners and departments. They’re sick of the overlap and inefficiencies. They want commissioners to behave as a group representing the entire city and not just their individual fiefdoms.
The 2017 vote may have supported the current form of government, but it didn’t support the way government conducts itself.
If things don’t change, there just might be enough momentum to carry another effort to change the government.
And next time, it might go a different way, with a much more resounding result.