Charter Commission Dips Its Toes Into The Specifics Of Their New Form Of Government

[JK: I received this press release from the Charter Commission.  Unfortunately, the video of the meeting had not been posted as of this morning (Monday, January 16).  Your loyal blogger usually endures viewing these meetings.  Often it is worth while because, as is understandably the case, other matters often come up that provide more insight to the process.  I would observe that there were apparently no actual votes on these things.  I will be posting some comments on this shortly]

Charter Review Commission Proposes New Direction for Saratoga City Council

Seven members, four-year staggered terms, term limits, neighborhood districts and at-large districts Saratoga Springs:

After seven months of interviews, hearings, interviews, and fact-finding, the Charter Review Commission got down to the business of drafting a new city charter, at its meeting on January 12.

Last month, the Commission voted 12-3 to draft a new charter that separates the legislative responsibilities from the administrative ones.

“In drafting a new charter, we wanted to start with the City Council, because a strong Council is at the heart of a responsive and efficient government.” said Bob Turner, Commission chair. The Commission discussed the number of members, the length of terms, term limits, and the merits of neighborhood districts versus at- large districts.

The first issue discussed was whether to keep the current number of city council members at five.  Turner, who teaches political science at Skidmore, pointed out that James Madison, in Federalist #10, said that there is no magic number, however, it must be large enough “in order to guard against the cabals of a few; (but) must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude.”

The Commission reviewed national and New York data on the tremendous variation in the size of city councils. The consensus of the Commission was that seven members seemed appropriate for the size of this city.

The second issue discussed was whether to keep the current term length at two years. Former city council members and City Hall employees, in interviews, have stated that campaign politics in the second year of a term detracts from a focus on governance.

Council members felt that having a four year term would reduce the frequency of fundraising and campaigning. Approximately 70% of city governments in America have four year terms.  The Charter Review Commission supported staggered elections for the city council.

The most lengthy discussion concerned the merits of neighborhood districts versus at-large elections. Under the current system, Commissioners are elected in city-wide elections.  Under a neighborhood district system, council members are elected from a neighborhood or smaller geographic area. Candidates would have to live in the district they represent.

Neighborhood districts would make a positive contribution to the electoral and governance process of the City. Neighborhood districts make it easier for new candidates to run for office since they would only have to reach out to approximately 4,500 voters instead of 18,000.  The smaller size would keep campaign costs down and enable an enterprising candidate to potentially knock on every door in their district.

The Commission’s studies have revealed that the vast majority of City Council candidates from the past 15 years have come from a small cluster on the central east side of the city. Neighborhood districts would ensure more geographic representation in City Council affairs. Commission members Gordon Boyd and Matt Jones thought the mix of at-large and district representation would reduce NIMBYism in city politics.

The tentative consensus of the Commission was that the Council members should be a combination of four neighborhood district representatives and three at-large district representatives.

The Commission also supported giving the City Council confirmation power over all Mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments pending state law.  The Commission felt that this was an important step in restoring checks and balances to a new system.

The Charter Review Commission’s next meeting is Thursday. January 19th when they will discuss the merits of city manager versus a strong mayor.  The current commission form of government was adopted by Saratoga Springs in 1915.  There are only two other cities in New York with the Commission form of government, Mechanicville and Sherrill.

The Charter Review Commission is a 15-member citizen board appointed by the Mayor and City Council.  A new charter would be placed before the voters in a special election on May 30th.

 

18 thoughts on “Charter Commission Dips Its Toes Into The Specifics Of Their New Form Of Government”

  1. 4 year staggered terms? You’ve got to be kidding. So they want us to go from a system that is supremely responsible to the voters allowing citizens to review the performance of all of our elected representatives every two years to a supremely unresponsive system where voters never get to weigh in on those who govern them all at the same time. With this commission’s proposal it could take years if ever to change the make up of a government citizens feel is unresponsive. Why are they so anxious to change to a form that is so much less democratic??

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    1. The proposal for 4-year staggered terms is better than the current system of concurrent 2-year terms for a few good reasons. That may be why 70% of city governments in America have 4-year terms.

      1. Less Politics, More Work – Most who have served on our city council have said that they spend one year concentrating on city business, and the next year running for office. That’s a big complaint of city staff. Council members should have more time to spend on what we elect them for – the people’s business. Many city government projects take time to unfold. Our elected officials should have the time they need to build knowledge and support, secure funding, and move forward on their initiatives.

      2. More Democracy – It is tempting to think that the old commission form of government is more accountable and more democratic. But quite simply, because commissioners are expected to represent us on all issues facing the city at the same time they run city departments, all for $14,500 a year, nobody wants to run. Often incumbents run unopposed. Others run against the same person again and again. So if you don’t like the job a commissioner is doing, and you want to vote them out, who’s out there to take their place? We need a system that allows council members to concentrate on making the big decisions, leaving the supervision of city staff to a single executive. That way, more people would consider running for office. So the proposal is actually more conducive to democracy than what we have now.

      3. More Continuity, Less Disruption – With concurrent terms, as we have now, it’s possible that the entire council would be replaced in a single election by an entire slate of political newcomers. With staggered terms, there would still be an election every 2 years, when the electorate would still be able to send a strong message about their opinion of government direction, but any changes would happen more gradually, allowing more continuity, a smoother transition, with the retention of experienced leaders and the preservation of institutional memory.

      I found a couple additional reasons for staggered terms in an article supporting a change to staggered terms in another city:

      “They reduce the power of voting blocs, special interest groups or political action committees to stage a takeover of city government at a single election.

      And they reduce the possibility that voter wrath over a single controversial issue will cause a drastic shift in city leadership.”

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      1. Thankyou Rick. You have provided a rational and reasoned response to the critics and purveyors of misleading fake facts and news. Keep at it.

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  2. A correction John – the City of Sherrill has had a council-manager form of government (the city refers to it as a city manager form) since 1916. They call their legislators commissioners – hence the confusion. Unlike Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville, Sherrill’s commissioners appoint a city manager, who is the chief executive officer, in charge of all departments. So Mechanicville is the only city in the state other than Saratoga that still has the commission form of government.

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  3. I notice Turner has repeatedly stated that the vote was 12-3 to write a new charter. I may be wrong but my recollection from watching the video of that meeting was that the vote was 11 (Yepsen appointees) for change, 1 opposed (Elio Del Stte appointed by Madigan) and 3 undecided (Matt Jones, appointed by Scirocco, Rob Kuczynski appointed by Franck, and BK Kermati appointed by Mathiesen). Is that correct?

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  4. I agree with Rick Fenton. Four year staggered terms for the legislative body makes sense. Continuity is important.

    I disagree strongly with ‘Disgusted Democrat’. There is nothing at all democratic about the Commission form of government. People in our community don’t even understand how our City government presently works or what the elected members of City government actually do. And who is representing the interests of our citizens as the five members of the Council focus on overseeing their departments. A system that precludes nearly all eligible voters from running for elected office is inherently undemocratic. We have five people sitting at the Council table each with entirely too much power. I know. I am one of the five.

    Chris Mathiesen

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    1. How are people precluded from running for Office? if that be the case the system would have died long ago….your a dentist and ran for Public Safety comm…with NO back ground in the dept and won was that a mistake?…..how can John q Public say you must be experienced in the dept you head in order to vote on your budget…..but then turn around and say “the average joe or jan should be the make up of a city council”,and what becomes one of their jobs? to vote for budgets they know nothing about! The Commission form of Gov’t is very democratic it allows anyone to run you’re living proof of that!

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  5. This is a serious discussion about form and function of government, which in itself is a good thing. I see that the Charter Commission, deliberately or not, is striving to build credibility by releasing details of their vision gradually.

    So far, plausible way to proceed. And yet the full form & structure has yet to be revealed. Indeed, we have seen the body, yet not the head.

    Stay tuned. We are being asked to pay decent $$ – more than one Commisioner’s salary (!) – for a special election – and we STILL do not know what leadership structure we are voting on… Thursday’s meeting looms large.

    Time to show your cards, Charter Commission. All of them.

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    1. Arthur,anything this dishonest group presents to the Public has already been rejected……they will just change the names of a few things…”City Manager”will now be “City Administer”…..”Wards we be “Districts”and on and on…Yepsen will be soundly rejected like her “mentor” Val Keehan….we Saratogians’ don’t want a divided up city….will not happen!

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  6. I completely agree with Rick and Dr. Mathiesen.

    When the Commissioner writes, “A system that precludes nearly all eligible voters from running for elected office is inherently undemocratic,” I interpret it to mean that there are citizens who’d like to be involved with the legislative process and there are those who’d like to be involved in hands-on department management, but there aren’t many who’d like to do both. Hence, the pool of otherwise qualified candidates is diminished by the nature of the job.

    Under the current system, candidates run for two jobs. In terms of oversight, that means there’s also an inherent conflict of interest, both at the administrative level and in dealing with citizen complaints. Having city council members whose only job is constituent representation would also mean that citizens will finally have a public advocate when they have problems with a city agency.

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    1. Joseph Levy- that’s like saying ‘we the people’ can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s a second job. People can run for office if they so desire to spend the time to do so. Regardless of the type of government it STILL comes down to having the $$$ and backing to run a campaign and getting a party to support you (for the best chance to win anyway).

      I have always said that a city manager would be a good idea for our city, but we do NOT need to make wholesale changes to do that. We do NOT need ‘wards’ either. Sheesh – don’t we have enough dealing with the neighborhood associations and such as it is now? And you want to give them even MORE power? Nope – no way I’m on board for that fiasco. Deal me out.

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  7. Merlin, my point is not whether ‘change’ will fly… But rather that their project at this point is incomplete. 7 council members vs 5 / at large vs wards is only part of the picture. What structure is at the top? A strong mayor/ a council manager / maybe something else?
    Like in poker – I am calling the hand – it’s time for them to show their cards.

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    1. OK,have they showed this Commission form does not work here??? NO Arthur they have not they never addressed it NEVER….LISTEN MAN,… this is about getting rid of people who have censored the weak mayor yepsen for unethical behavior..think about it..it’s diabolical granted but I really know players it’s true….what a scheme by yepsen——- perfect Machivellian

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      1. Of course they went in – composed a certain way, and pre-disposed to change the structure, Merlin.
        I fail to see where you think we disagree. I am saying: Commission – go on record and reveal what you are favoring, from head to toe.

        We are being asked to pay – by the time it is said and done, enough to fund the Mayor’s and all Commissioner’s salary, and commit to a special election – and we don’t even know what we are being asked to vote for! I don’t play three-card monte or shell games. I will withhold official judgment until then, but make no mistake, i am aware of the power play behind people pushing Charter change, and the people who have brought it to this point.

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  8. Now that the “big reveal” has occurred, I can evaluate… Based on current conditions, I’m voting no on charter change.

    If there is a clause inserted that charter change takes place after the current occupant of the Mayor’s office leaves, then I will consider it. But that would have made this commission’s charade pointless…

    So I won’t hold my breath. But I will vote no. And, resent in November, anyone who votes to pay for this travesty.

    I sign my full name today.
    Arthur Gonick
    Voter, since 1974 (ouch!)

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  9. Mea culpa, John and readers. My previous comment above was based on something I had read – from a source who is usually accurate – that the commission had voted for a Council MAYOR form of government, not Council Manager. The latter is what they voted for, which is a significant difference. That source has corrected the record, and so am I…

    Subsequently, John posted a release from the Commission that accurately reflects their 14-0 vote for a Council Manager form of city government. I cannot say how I will vote on this should a special election be held, but I will consider it carefully – a strong Mayor form would have gotten an automatic “no” from me.

    I hope this clarifies things. Let us move on to a serious discussion as to the best form of city government for the future.

    I guess I should sign my name to this too.
    Arthur Gonick

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