The Poorly Defined Mayor In The Charter Invites Future Conflict

During the gestation of the charter, the Commission wrestled with what the role of the mayor should be.  Given that they had eliminated all the administrative duties that the mayor under the current charter has, they still wanted the new mayor to play some sort of leadership role beyond running the council meetings and appearing at public events representing the city.

If you were obsessive like me and listened to the charter meetings you would have heard members of the charter commission articulate a vision of the mayor as kind of a community organizer.  This mayor would work in the community to mobilize resources for unspecified projects.  The problem was that they could not find language to put in the charter that articulated this concept.  Instead they incorporated the following items under the mayor’s list of duties (section 2.04):

“Represent the City in Intergovernmental relationships”

“Perform other duties as may be specified by the City Council.”

Consistent with the lack of clarity surrounding this new type mayor, the Commission never specified whether this person would be part time or full time.  They raised the salary to $40,000.00 but the rationale for choosing this number, which has been discussed at length in other posts, had no discernible logic.

Some members of the charter commission saw the position as part time, others offered that some mayors will spend more time on the job than others.  It seemed particularly odd that the position includes health benefits.  The commission was quite proud that they had eliminated health benefits for the other members of the council.  They never explained why a position that appeared to be part time would receive these benefits.  Health benefits can cost the city upwards of $25,000.00.  The position seems to suffer from the neither fish nor fowl syndrome.  The position still seems to pay too little to get someone full time with the skill set that they envision.  On the other hand, given that the job includes no administrative duties and the fact that the median salary for mayors statewide in municipalities that have city mangers is $12,000.00 the pay seems too generous.

An Indifference To the Potential Dangers When Clarity Is Lacking

The central management problem with this design of the mayor’s position is that it is simply impossible to draw a clear line between the internal administrative operations of the city and organizing community resources for projects.

As just a practical example, let’s say that this new mayor decides that the city needs another recreation field.  He/she starts meeting with community groups to get input on where this new field should be placed.  In order to pursue this project the mayor will need support from various city departments.  He/she will probably need help from the planning department, from the city engineer, from the administrator for parks and recreation, from the department of public works, and from the city attorney.  In fact, assistance may be necessary even to arrange for meeting rooms and for some kind of administrative assistance to contact people for meetings.  Now according to  section 2.08 of the charter the mayor may only deal with city employees through the city manager. So what this mayor will need most of all is the active support and assistance of the city manager. But what if the city manager has set other priorities for the city and  finds that he/she simply cannot provide the resources the mayor requires for his/her project in a timely manner or at all.  Any sober person with management experience can see the potential for conflict here. If this seems abstract or unnecessarily pessimistic, one has only to do a Google search to learn otherwise.  Here is a link to what happened in Portland, Maine.

Link to Portland Story

My friend, Lew Benton, observed recently that the problem with the proposed charter is that no one is really in charge.  I know this is the criticism often put forward by the Charter Commission regarding our current commission form but Lew appropriately saw a similar problem with the city manager/mayor design proposed by the Charter Review Commission.

This is perhaps why the strong mayor/council form of government is so much more popular in New York than the city manager form.  Only sixteen municipalities in New York State have city managers and a number of cities that tried city managers switched to strong mayors.  With a strong mayor you have greater clarity regarding who is responsible for the management of the city. There is the added advantage that his person is elected and therefore directly responsible to the voters.

The fact is that there is no perfect design.  The strong mayor form has its own problems.  The frustration for me is that the Charter Commission refuses to acknowledge and try to address problems with the government they have designed in their charter.  They simply dismiss any concerns that are raised assuring us that everything will be perfect under their new system.  Problems like those in Portland Maine are ignored.  The need for clarity about distinguishing the roles of the city manager and the proposed mayor in writing their charter are simply not discussed.

Will It Actually Work?  Why Worry?

The last duty of the mayor listed in the proposed charter reads: the mayor shall “perform other duties as may be specified by the City Council” (section )2.04 The inclusion of this provision makes one wonder if any charter members have been observing the city council for the last five decades.  It’s not a stretch at all  to imagine a council asking a mayor to do something and the mayor telling the council, “I don’t have time to do that” or “that would be wrong and I will not do it”?  With respect to the members of the charter review commission, this  represents a serious lack of understanding about government in general and our government in particular.  How do the members of the charter commission expect this to be enforced?  If  readers of this blog think this provision should have been included in the charter, I invite them to explain how they think it will be enforced.

 

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Mr. Altamari, You Are Better Than This

Charter Commission member Jeff Altamari bitterly attacked John Franck in an October 13 Reader’s View  in the Saratogian regarding criticism of the Charter Commission’s analysis of what the proposed change in government will cost.  He wrote:

“Then the shouting started.  At its September 18 City Council meeting (he has the date wrong, it was on the 19th) …Frank using profanity in the public forum, ridiculed the Commission’s work, accompanied by Madigan and Scirocco.”  Mr. Altamari goes on to urge people to view the video of the meeting.  He further states that “It’s disgraceful Franck angrily claimed the Commission’s findings ‘misrepresented the facts.’” 

I can understand why Mr. Altamari is stung by this criticism but rather than simply state that Franck’s allegations are false, it would have been more convincing and meaningful if he had addressed Franck’s points and  refuted them.

Given the regrettable record of inaccuracies and over statements regularly made by the Charter group, I decided to check out Mr. Altamari’s description of this meeting and watch the video.  Now I can understand and have sympathy for Mr. Altamari reacting viscerally to some very sharp and pointed criticism of his financial analysis of the charter proposal, but I have reviewed the video and to begin with there is no shouting.  I myself did not hear any profanity but I spoke with John Franck and he admits to using the word “bullshit” at one point. While Commissioner Franck is clearly disturbed by what he characterizes as numbers that simply lack logical credibility, neither he nor any of the other Council members, in my opinion, lose their composure.

I am terribly disappointed in Mr. Altamari. Although I have often disagreed with him, I had heretofore seen him as prudent and responsible.  This attack on Commissioner Franck seems  recklessly exaggerated on Mr. Altamri’s part and  out of character.  It cheaply plays to the prejudices of many regarding politicians.  I, like Mr. Altamari urge the readers of this blog to take the time to watch the video and decide for themselves.  

Video of September 19

In his letter Mr.Altamari also makes the kind of absolute statements that have been unfortunately  too commonly used by Charter supporters.   “There is no accountability”  he writes referring to the current city government. This is the kind of sound bite that so troubles me.  City council members are acutely aware that they must run for office every two years.   Would he not  consider that  accountability?  I would urge the readers to review his letter.  He goes on to claim that “Timely, long-term planning is nearly impossible.”  This shrill overstatement ignores  the city’s capital budget which does exactly that and has produced the bike trail, addressed the swamp that used to plague Congress Park, replaces aging fire trucks, etc.  Mr. Altamari does not do nuance.

In his explanation of how he arrived at some of the numbers in his financial impact statement Mr. Altamari writes that “over 20 cities with city managers were examined.” (He later refers to 31) He notes that “thirteen of these were studied in-depth [emphasis added]: five in New York, three in New Jersey, two in Massachusetts, and one in Vermont.” 

So I went to the Charter Commission’s website and under the tab titled “research” I could not find his study.  As this is one of the bases for their financial plan, it is more than odd that it has so far not been available to the public.  I have written to Robert Turner, the chairperson of the Charter Review Commission asking for a copy  of the study.  When I receive it I will share it with the readers of this blog. 

I would note that while looking at how city manager governments are structured in other communities  can be useful, the applicability of these examples is clearly limited.  This is particularly  true in the case of municipalities in other states  where differing mandates and responsibilities for services can have a significant impact on cities’ staffing and budgeting.

The bulk  of the savings Mr. Altamari is claiming in his financial analysis comes from the elimination of four part time commissioners and five full time deputies. It simply begs credibility that a man of Mr. Altamari’s experience would recommend the elimination of all of these employees based on looking at other cities rather than carefully analyzing what essential functions these people may perform in Saratoga Springs and how many hours these activities entail before assuming that a proposed city manager and maybe an assistant could absorb these duties.  There is also the suggestion that existing staff such as the city’s director of finance or the fire chief or the chief of police would take on some of the duties.  Unfortunately, neither Mr. Altamari nor the Commission saw the need to actually ask any of these people if they had the time to absorb these extra responsibilities.

The Commission also assumes there will be savings from two positions a year eliminated through attrition.  Even Commissioner Mathiesen who is a strong advocate for charter change characterized that as unrealistic.

It is quite frustrating to me that Mr. Altamari is fully aware of these criticisms but has chosen not to address them.  Whatever one thinks of Mr. Franck’s comportment it does  not  absolve Mr. Altamari from answering the very legitimate concerns expressed at the Council meeting on the 19th

At the next City Council meeting on October 3rd  John Franck did a power point presentation on why he contends that the Charter Commission’s financial analysis badly misrepresent the true costs of implementing the proposed charter.   It is no rant.  He meticulously and methodically lays out the errors in the document.  His presentation goes well beyond the issue of the eliminated positions. 

Persons truly interested in assessing whether the financial document is accurate and valid would do well to take the time to watch the video.  I  have included the power point visuals here.   

Power Point Presentation: Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-1Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-2Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-3Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-4Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-5Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-6Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-7Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-8Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-9Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-10Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-11Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-12Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-13Corrective Analysis of Charter Review Commissions Financial Disclosure Summary 10032017-14

 

And the video of the presentation:

I also urge Mr. Altamari to thoughtfully respond to Commissioner Franck’s critique in the manner it deserves.  I would be happy to post unedited his point by point answers or post a video of his response if he would prefer that medium.  Since this is such an important issue in deciding whether or not to support the charter, I can think of no reason why a person like Mr. Altamari who is committed to educating the public would not take the time to address the issues. 

Finally, SUCCESS has approached both John Franck and Jeff Altamari about participating in a debate which seems to me the best way to serve the public and address the issues.  Commissioner Franck has accepted and SUCCESS is awaiting Mr. Altamari’s response.  Hopefully he will be willing to attend.

 

The Commission also assumes that they will save money by not filling two positions a year related to attrition.  Even Commissioner Mathiesen who is a strong advocate for charter change characterized that as unrealistic.

Remigia Foy Speaks Out On Charter Change

Remigia Foy is an old friend with a legacy of service for this city.  She has asked me to post on my site a letter she has written .

A brief bio:

Ms. Foy served three terms as Commissioner of Finance.  She was a Fulbright Scholar twice .  She was the assistant vice principal of Mechanicville High School.

During her tenure as Commissioner of Finance she was a full-time Social Studies teacher. She also taught a course at St. Rose.


10/12/17

For some months your readership has been treated to a series of news articles and letters to the editor advocating for a new system of Government in Saratoga Springs known as City Manager/Mayor by the Charter Review Commission. This new system is predicated on the following notions;

1 The Commission System does not work because it is old and outdated having been instituted in 1915,

2 Council members act as both the legislative and administrative heads of Departments. This is also called the five-headed monster, The five silos or the five fiefdoms and doesn’t work.

3 The professional Manager will eliminate dysfunction of Elected Officials managing Administrative Departments in conflict with one another.

4 The proposed Charter will bring competition to local elections.

Let’s remember that 11 of the 15 members of this Committee were appointed by Mayor Yepsen who is in favor of Charter change.

They didn’t analyze the present Charter and make some changes. They already had the idea for a new Charter based on  Pat Kane’s 2012 Charter proposal which was soundly defeated by1750 votes

They claim that this bogus system, under the aegis of “Professional Leader”, will eliminate political bickering, the dysfunction of administrative/ legislative heads of departments, reduce the cost of Government and bring competition to local  elections.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Commissioners are in a better position to prepare budgets for the departments they head. They are both responsible and accountable and answer to the taxpayers every two years.

Furthermore, the elimination of the independently elected assessor will mean that the person who decides the value of a property will not be elected by the people.

Under our present system, we enjoy the second lowest property tax rate in the State. There has been plenty of competition for elected offices in our city. When there is no competition could it be that the people are satisfied?

Our system has succeeded through two World Wars, two recessions 1929 and 2008 and the times in between. No one knows what a faceless unelected bureaucrat will cost and how he will run all the departments that’s why I am voting NO and urge Saratogians to do the same.

Remigia Foy.95 oak st saratoga springs NY 518 584 2528…Former Commissioner of Finance 3 terms and chair of Success.

Charter Commission: That Employee Survey They Did – It Wasn’t A Survey

One of the key arguments put forward by the Charter Commission for changing the form of government is a “survey” that purports to show an overwhelming desire by city employees to change the form of government.   Given my past experience with the declarations of the Commission I secured a copy of the raw data of the survey to take a look at it for myself.  What I found was yet again, the extraordinary misuse of data by the Commission in their literature and presentations.

Surveying is a serious business.  To the lay person it’s about just asking people some questions.  A century of academic study has shown that to produce valid data, the authors must be disinterested and objective.  The crafting of questions, the method by which people are selected, and the vehicle by which the targets of the survey are contacted require a vigorous and time consuming process.  The reality is that a poorly designed survey provides unreliable results.  A survey to be a source of real decision making must address things like how representative are the respondents of the population under consideration?   In the case of this “survey”, the respondents were self selected  meaning the respondents had to take the initiative to respond, they were not randomly selected. There is no way of knowing therefore to what extent those who chose to respond might be representative of city employees as a  whole. Might those who responded, for instance, be those who are particularly unhappy with their jobs or have something else in common. The chair of the charter commission, Bob Turner, admitted that he had no idea who actually got the surveys.  In fact, he admitted at a meeting I attended that he did not know how many people were actually surveyed.

We do know that of 398 city employees 75 responded to the survey according to the Commission’s website.

Of the 75 employees, 70 responded to the following statement (#15): I believe city hall would operate better with a full time professional city manager.

The 70 respondents produced the following results:

Strongly Agree                                  17

Agree                                                  13

Somewhat Agree                              18

Neither Agree Nor Disagree            12

Somewhat Disagree                         10

 

Interestingly, unlike the other questions in the survey, for this question they changed the possible responses.  In the other survey questions they had:

Strongly agree

Somewhat agree

Neither agree or disagree

Strongly disagree

Why they chose to change the responses to this question is a mystery to me.  It may have just been sloppiness.  By the way, the label at the bottom of the chart for those opposed was mislabeled (see chart)

 

So if you total the first three responses which indicate some kind of support for a city manager you come up with 48.  In order to create the greatest contrast, they factored out the people who had no position.  This left the 10 who did not think city hall would operate better with a city manager.

 

Now since these raw numbers were still embarrassingly small, they chose to use percentages Instead.  This very much ginned up the impression for the public of their significance.  Remember that these are only the percentages of the 70 who responded to this particular question in the survey and not of city employees.

The result is a chart that shows 65.3% pro city manager and 15.3% negative.

So from a small, unscientific sampling—kaboom: the Commission declares the employees of Saratoga Springs overwhelmingly support charter change.

City-Hall-Employees-survey-results-23

Now I don’t know what the numbers are in city hall regarding feelings toward the two forms of government but neither do the members of the Charter Commission based on this kind of “research.”  What I do know is that  this should be considered a “questionnaire” rather than a survey.  It violates pretty much all the standards of what any serious social scientist would characterize as a survey and it’s results are anecdotal at best and cannot be legitimately used to draw any larger conclusions about what city employees think.

Robert Turner, who chairs the Charter Review Commission is a professor of political science.  He was instrumental in creating this “questionnaire” and in reporting its results.  For a person who is a social scientist he has both the knowledge and the responsibility to accurately portray what the data produced by this questionnaire represented.  If he were not going to characterize it as what it was, a questionnaire, he had the responsibility to include some disclaimer explaining to the public the limited character of the data.    Instead, he and the Charter Commission have recklessly presented these results as evidence of widespread discontent in city hall and support for a change of government on the part of city employees.  I finish with a quote from a letter to the editor Mr. Turner published in the Saratogian on September 10th.

“These results explain why 63.3 percent of City Hall employees said they believed city hall would operate better with a city manager.”  No, Mr. Turner, they indicate that 48 out of 398 city employees ,roughly 12%, have indicated some level of support for a city manager form.

 

 

Reasserting Our Better Angels

The conflict over charter change has at times descended to some very bad places.  It is too easy, if humanly understandable, to slide into personal animosity or to view the issue of charter change as some kind of competition rather than a question of public policy.  I must admit, I have not been immune to all of this.  In the end, such reactions not only undermine thoughtful analysis but are downright unhealthy for one’s peace of mind.

Readers may disagree with me, but I think it is possible to characterize someone’s actions as for instance unethical without going into Manichean mode where one sees the person as “bad.”  None of us is without sin and we are capable of failures in judgment which doesn’t make us “evil.”

What I have found is that many of the people I chat with have taken on a tribal mentality.  Anything the other side says is not even listened to.

In the course of moderating this blog I have rejected a number of comments that were simply ad homonym.  I have no problem publishing criticisms, even sharp ones, as long as the tone is reasonably civil and the author offers documentation for their assertions.

 

Reflections On The Obstacles To Running For Office Under The Commission Form Of Government

I have long been concerned over the problem of motivating people to run for office.  The problem is not unique to Saratoga Springs.  It seems increasingly difficult to get people to run for elected office on all levels of government.  I expect that the increasingly abusive nature of public discourse is contributing to the problem.  It seems citizens feel entirely within their rights to express their displeasure with the decisions of elected officials with open rudeness and contempt.  Who among us wants to be the subject of such abuse?  There is the related issue that elected officials are held in low regard.  The very word politician is something of an epithet.  Nowhere was the contempt for politics more evident than at the Charter Commission’s meetings.  Many members of the Commission repeatedly asserted that they were going to take the politics out of government as though that were a good thing let alone possible.  To some of us, the conflict that they refer to as politics is rooted in the fact that many decisions made by our government have winners and losers.   Unfortunately, in an age of campaign consultants, the conflict over public policy has often taken on such ugly excesses as to leave the public alienated from their own democracy.

For me the most compelling question is how do we get good people to run for office?

Having To Run A Department Is A Significant Impedimant For Some People Thinking of Running Locally

The Charter Review Commission has identified a real problem with the commission form of government which is that it adds a significant disincentive for people considering running for office.   The idea of becoming the executive for one of the city’s departments is downright intimidating to some people.  Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, who I believe has done a superb job heading Public Safety, has described to me the grueling time required by the position and the stress that comes with running an institution that the citizens of this city rely on.

I, in fact, was prepared to support a change in government that would make it easier for people to run.  The health of our democracy requires finding citizens prepared to take on the burden of elected office. 

The question for me then became how can we make it easier for more people to run for office and to structure any new model in a way that is as responsive to the citizens as possible.

While going to a council that has only legislative duties is a step in the right direction, in the real world I believe this will  have only a modest impact on the candidate pool.  According to the proposed charter the new legislators will run “at large.”  In other words, they will have to run citywide.  To me, this represents a very large hurdle to get over.  The traditional way to run is to knock on doors in order to make personal contact with voters and to do mailings and use other media.  Knocking on doors is, to say the least, hugely time consuming and increasingly difficult to do in Saratoga Springs. The proliferation of apartments and condos and large estates make large numbers of voters impossible to meet .  Raising money to do mailings is also a problem.  Many people who would make good legislators find it understandably hard to ask others for money.  I know that personally, I find it more than awkward.  It also raises the importance of money in general.  People may recall that the Chamber of Commerce helped set up a PAC which offered money to the candidates that the Chamber and its allies felt would represent their interests.  In the last campaign at least one of the candidates for Mayor raised over $100,000.00 for the campaign.  So while ending the administrative responsibilities for elected officials would be an improvement, the Charter Review Commission’s approach still leaves the power of money in our elections very much a continuing problem.

With that in mind, I urged the Charter Commission to have candidates represent districts within the city.  Unfortunately, this raised that nasty word, “ward.”  Between Tammany Hall and Mayor Daley of Chicago, the word seems to generate a visceral reaction among many people, the members of the Charter Commission among them. 

In the course of writing this blog I have met many fine people from all across this city who have been involved in local conflicts regarding development issues in their neighborhoods.  I have observed that in the best tradition of democracy, leaders have arisen for whom their neighbors developed trust and respect.   It seemed pretty clear to me that it would be far easier to get these people to consider running for office if the voters they had to reach out to lived in their area as neighbors.

This would greatly reduce both the cost in media and the time required to reach out to the people they needed to vote for them.

Consider the related factor.  The dependence of money to buy media for a citywide race goes in the opposite direction.  It allows the people with deep pockets and private agendas greater influence.

There is also the added advantage of a candidate being connected to their constituents.  People are far more likely to know the person representing them on the city council and feel more comfortable approaching them with their concerns.

With respect to the Charter Commission, while I think eliminating the responsibility to run a department will eliminate a significant barrier, I do not share their promotion of the idea that this will bring out the numbers of people to run that they expect.

They Cannot Restrain Themselves

One of my key problems with the Charter Commission is that in their zeal to pass the charter, rather than thoughtfully craft their arguments, they go into selling mode.  The legitimate issue of the barrier of being a Commissioner is simply not enough for them. 

So they claim that changing the form of government will bring more women into government.  To begin with, this city already has a strong record of electing women to office.  During my time in this city we have had three women mayors.  We have a woman who is the Commissioner of Finance and Remigia Foy served in that office for several terms. We have also had many women run for office but who did not win including female candidates for Public Safety and Accounts.

I also find it at least modestly sexist to think that women will not run or cannot be elected as Commissioners of Public Safety or Public Works.  Sarah Berger ran in a primary against Chris Mathiesen to be Public Safety Commissioner in the last election.  In addition, Eileen Finneran has run the department as the fulltime Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety in two administrations.  

I would concede that given the preponderance of male contractors, there is an argument that could be made about the difficulty of finding women to run for Public Works.  I still think that there are women out there quite capable of running that department.

This is the kind of campaign that spin doctors promote.  Repeat enough that there will be more women involved under the new charter to give it that air of being progressive and attract the women’s vote.

Ironically, over 85% of the city managers in the country are men. 

Below are links to three articles from professional publications including one from the ICMA (International City Managers Association) about the difficulty women experience in the world of city managers. 

http://patimes.org/times-changing-women-city-management/

 https://icma.org/articles/women-leading-government-1

 http://www.naspaa.org/JPAEMessenger/Article/VOL18-4/02_BeatyDavis.pdf