A Brief History

  • In 2017, then Mayor Joanne Yepsen, as required by law, appointed a Charter Review Commission, composed of citizens representing a cross-section of the Saratoga community. After over a year of deliberations, this Commission proposed to replace the current Commission form of government with a City-Manager form.  The proposal failed by 10 votes and a recount, blocked by the Saratoga County Board of Elections, is being litigated.
  • In 2018, Mayor Meg Kelly blocked a citizen-led petition drive to reconsider the proposed new charter via referendum by appointing another review commission composed of the Commissioners and their deputies. Their proposed tweaks to the current charter were defeated 65% to 35% in the November 2018 election.
  • A new petition drive is now underway to once again give the citizens of Saratoga Springs the opportunity to change the form of government to the City-Manager approach. The proposal is based on the work of the 2017 Charter Review Commission, with minor changes, based on feedback from the 2017 campaign.

The process

  • The City’s Charter can be changed only through a referendum. A change proposal can be placed on the ballot either through a Mayor-appointed Commission (as it was done in 2017 and 2018), or through a citizen petition.
  • A minimum number of signatures, based on the voter turnout in the previous election, is required to place a referendum question on the ballot.
  • Those signatures must be certified by the City and registered with the County Board of Elections.

Who is sponsoring this petition drive?

  • This petition gathering effort is being led by a large group of concerned citizens, which started with members of the 2017 Charter Review Commission.
  • The movement has spread to embrace citizens from all parts of the city, united by common concerns about:
    • The lack of checks and balances, transparency, and accountability in our current government
    • The absence of strategic leadership and long term planning
    • The influence of developers and special interests to the detriment of ordinary citizens
    • The constant litany of problems, poor decisions, insider deals, lack of progress, corruption, and nepotism that drive the daily headlines
    • The need for progress and getting things done to secure our City’s future

What are the key goals of changing the charter?

  • Representation – a City Council close to home, responsive to neighborhood needs; city direction driven by citizen needs, not special interest influence
  • Checks and Balances, accountability, and professionalization – separation of powers
  • Lower taxes, not higher – savings from professional management and efficiencies
  • Strategic leadership from our legislators – long term planning
  • Bottom line – getting things done for the citizens of Saratoga Spring.  We can do better.

The proposal

Move from this…  

 

To this…

 

Improvements from the 2017 charter:

  • City Council members elected from Wards, rather than “at large” – direct representation for neighborhoods
  • Mayor’s term = 4 years – provides continuity and strategic leadership
  • Council members terms = 2 years – emphasizes responsiveness to neighborhood needs

You can review the proposed Citizens’ Charter here.

 

Information about City Council Wards

Council wards will be formed from 2020 census data, if sufficient time is available after the census is complete.  They will be constructed to:

  • Ensure equal representation for all citizens (ward size contains the same number of citizens)
  • Create neighborhoods wards with similar interests, concerns, and issues

 

This is a diagram of a possible way that neighborhood wards could be defined, based on election district data.  It could be used as the basis for defining wards, if census data is not available.

 

 

Talking points, with supporting information

  • Representation, a City Council close to home
    • You and your neighborhood would have your own personal representative on the council.  Real accountability- you have a pothole, development, tree planting, flooding, zombie house, runaway dog, skunks- you call that person any time, any day.
    • No one is listening to you now; when was the last time a council member came to your door, to your neighborhood
    • We are a city of neighborhoods. Each has different concerns and issues; for some – the lack of EMS services; for others – property usage, or maybe quality of water, water infrastructure, homeless population, potholes, etc.
    • Removing administration responsibilities encourages more candidates to run for true legislative offices – don’t need big money to run for office, can knock on your neighbors’ doors to gather support
    • serve the city without large work load – Anyone can run for office, opens the door to people who work, people with young families. we get a City Council that looks like Saratoga.
  • Checks and Balances, accountability, and professionalization– a traditional, proven legislation – administration form of government is the best way to prevent corruption and fraud, waste and abuse
    • Eliminate insider dealing, incivility
    • Commission form of govt is recipe for fraud and nepotism. Examples:
      • Energy contract – a political payoff, no public bids
      • Uncollected back taxes – city still does business with tax delinquent owners
      • 30 year “Smart Cities” contract with no guarantees
      • Water waste
      • Street potholes
    • Where is the strategic, long-term plan?
    • City managers are trained to manage a city’s administration and operations (it’s their job, not a hobby). They follow best practices.  Well run cities everywhere have them, including Rye, NY, Lexington, MA, Montpelier, VT
  • Lower taxes, not higher – Financial savings through professionalization
    • Long-term planning possible with high-yield projects: e.g. technology & infrastructure
    • Elimination of duplicative positions in current “silo” of each Commissioner
    • Administrative unity will produce efficiencies.
  • Stronger Mayor and elected legislators provide strategic leadership
    • Legislative deliberations, policy making, less infighting and power struggles –
    • Provide strategic leadership to develop long term plan on big issues like:
      • Parking
      • Intelligent development, downtown and in neighborhoods
      • Emergency Services
      • Parks and open space, trails
    • Citizens’ priorities, not developers’ influence
    • Mayor with 4-year term, city wide elections provide the continuity, mandate, and political leadership to forge consensus on the issues
  • Bottom line, getting things done
    • Over 10 years and no parking solution, no EMS facility, no low income housing strategy
    • Replace infighting and insider deals, with open, productive government

 

Possible objections

  • Charter fatigue, charter “gang” won’t give up (why now?)
    • Response: We think this concern comes mostly from opponents of change, who are worried that the proposed city-manager charter might pass this time – we only lost by 10 votes and the recount is still in the courts. There may be some “fatigue”, but either we put this on the ballot this year, or wait until 2021 – the 2020 presidential election will absorb all the spare political energy.  The evidence supporting a change keeps growing.  Look at the list below.  Everyday this list gets longer.  These issues can’t wait.  They require professional, not amateur, city management.  They can’t wait another effectively four years (2021 to pass and 2023 to implement).
  • Objection: Still not broken, Fatigue; charter gang wont’ give up.  – why charter again?
    • Response: If by not broken you mean the leaves are picked up and the streets plowed, then the city is not broken. But we all read about the ethics problems, the bad decisions regarding contracts, the lack of long term planning, the incivility, the infighting, the lack of progress on big issues, the under-insurance on city hall, and hospital’s attorney donating to the Finance Commissioner preceding important votes on hospital land use.
  • Objection: You can see what is happening in each department and confront them; there is accountability
    • Response: I have found the website hard to navigate and many neighborhood problems cross department lines. The burden should not be placed on the citizen to be the “general contractor” to solve problems, but in our government that’s exactly what happens.
  • Objection: Saratoga is special and unique, deserves a unique or special form of government
    • Response: Our “special” form of government has been shown to have more problems, than benefits. It has a record of corruption and nepotism and for that reason the vast majority of cities in the US have abandoned the “commissioner” form and changed to council-manager or strong mayor.  Shouldn’t we want a form of government that is proven, not suspect?  300 years ago leaches and bleeding were leading edge, “special” medical practices, but experience and learning has discredited them.
  • Objection: Better devil you know, risky, and therefore dangerous
    • Response: Any change carries some risk, but the risk is greater if we retain our outmoded and inefficient government structure. Why have 500 cities changed their government to Council-Manager?  Are we so unique that we have nothing to learn from other cities?
  • Objection: Transition team is all powerful, not accountable.
    • Response: The transition team is temporary and responsible to- and appointed by- incumbent elected officials.
  • Objection: We don’t need a cookie cutter form of government
    • Response: When has using a proven approach become a bad thing? We want to use what works for the benefit of our city.  We want to discard what doesn’t work.  And what we see is that other cities have decided to change.  We also see the problems that our current government has. Fixing them requires changes, not status quo. And it is not ‘cookie cutter’. This charter considers Saratoga’s unique needs and was crafted by a diverse group of bi-partisan long-time residents
  • Objection: It will cost more, raise taxes.
    • Response: That may be what opponents will say, but let’s do the math: eliminate 5 deputies at $80K annually, plus benefits ($25K), and add one city manager at $120K annually, plus benefits ($25K). Now add efficiencies from professional management, savings from internal reviews, etc.
    • Note: Eliminating the deputy positions DOES NOT mean that all of their functions fall on the shoulders of the Manager. The department heads and staff who do the day-to-day work remain. “Flattening” the organizational structure of the City by removing a layer of management will save money as corporations across the country have shown.
  • Objection: How is this different?  Why did you change?  What did you learn?
    • Response: This latest version of the new charter learned from the comments and reactions after the 2017 proposal. Most everything is the same, except for the addition of City Council members representing Wards, which adds an additional element of accountability for. Don’t forget. The 2017 charter referendum lost by 10 votes and 9,000 citizens came to polls.