You couldn’t blame Saratoga Springs voters for having a sense of deja vu when they go to the polls every couple of years.
You also couldn’t blame them for getting more than a little annoyed.
Proponents of changing the city’s representative structure are back at it this year, preparing to approach voters once again with another proposal to dump Saratoga Springs’ unusual commission form of government in favor of a more traditional system featuring an executive and legislative body.
This wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried this. Many similar proposals have been on the ballot at various times over the past couple of decades, including in 2006, 2010 and 2017. And each time, proposals to change the form of government were defeated by voters.
Supporters got within a whisker of success two years ago, when their proposal to put a city manager in charge of city operations, with oversight by at-large city council members, was defeated by just 10 votes out of more than 8,900 cast. That outcome could indicate a sea change in residents’ attitude toward the existing form government that might justify another vote.
But other changes to the charter proposed last year — reasonable improvements that didn’t include dumping the form of government but which would have expanded the size of the city council — were soundly defeated at the polls, perhaps signaling that Saratoga Springs voters might be tiring of repeatedly being asked to change the charter. Can you think of one other community where this issue comes up so often?
Perhaps empowered by the closeness of the 2017 vote, charter change advocates have already started a new campaign to change the form of government.
While they’d hoped to get the changes on the ballot this year, more likely they’ll need another year to gather up the signatures required to qualify for the ballot and to prepare enough material to sway voters to their cause. Given that the 2020 election will likely bring higher-than-usual turnout because of the presidential election, they might believe 2020 is finally their year.
The new proposal, so far, would be similar to the narrowly defeated 2017 plan, with one major change being that the council seats would be elected from geographic wards rather than be at-large seats in which council members represent the entire city.
In the past, we’ve supported the charter changes they’ve proposed.
The commission form of government, modeled after the emergency form of government set up after a devastating hurricane in Galveston, Texas, in the early 1900s, puts council members in charge of individual government functions like public safety, public works and finances. Most modern government bodies have an executive, such as a mayor or supervisor, along with council members who represent groups of constituents. The latest charter proposals would have a city manager run the day-to-day operations, a task currently done by deputy city commissioners.
We’ve argued along with charter-change proponents that a more traditional system would be more transparent and responsive to citizens, whereas the commission system encourages commissioners to jealously defend the specific departments they serve, perhaps at the expense of the city as a whole.
The main argument against changing the form of government is that you don’t mess with success.
What small city in America can claim to be as successful as the city of Saratoga Springs? So why change the form of government when the city has thrived so well under the existing system?
Time and time again, that’s the message voters have sent to those who’ve pitched changing the form of government. Is it really fair to keep coming at them every few years, trying to wear them down or trying to bring out enough supporters to the polls to swing the vote the other way?
At some point, charter change supporters will have to accept the will of the people and stop asking them to change something as significant and fundamental as their form of government.
Unless something drastically changes with the city’s economy or with the manner in which the city currently operates to justify a change in government form, there should be no other reason to go back to voters again, regardless of how close the vote is this time.
So let the upcoming vote be the last time voters are asked for a while.
Proponents have about 15 months from now to the 2020 election to make their case once again, as do supporters of keeping the current system of government.
Hold all the informational meetings time allows, hold all the debates the public needs, and present all the information and literature available on the subject to make the case for and against change.
If voters once again say no, accept them at their word and leave it alone.
The best form of government is one that respects the will of its citizens.