A Ward/District Approach To The Charter

The Charter Commission has decided to drop the idea of having city council members represent districts (aka wards) in their proposed new charter.

I have been an advocate of wards.  For many of you who are concerned about  some of the decisions of our council and our land use boards, the only way of changing this is to elect people who represent a different set of values.  The reality is that it is very difficult to find people willing and able to run for office. 

Having people run who would represent their neighborhoods is an important way of addressing this problem.  To begin with the problem of having  to campaign citywide would be addressed.  Currently, if you  run citywide you have to raise a great deal of money to do mailings, TV, and other media to simply get the attention of the voters.  The need for money plays into the hands of groups such as the Saratoga PAC.  In addition, many people who would be terrific on the council have difficulty soliciting money from people.  The need for money would be greatly minimized by a ward system.

The other important vehicle for reaching people is to go to door. Running to represent  just a district rather than the entire city makes this much more doable.

The other important factor is that it makes it easier for constituents to approach their representative on the council.  Having someone who is part of the local neighborhood as a Council member  would make them far more accessible and responsive.

In a ward system the council would potentially also be far more responsive to land use issues.  As documented on this blog we have had incident after incident where the city’s building inspectors and the land use boards have failed to defend neighborhoods from the abuse of zoning laws by irresponsible players.  I have been frustrated by the failure of the council to address the failures of our land use boards and staff.

Not only would a neighborhood representative be motivated to bring these issues to the city council table but the other council members, representing other neighborhoods, would be more sympathetic to this kind of issue.

I contacted Bob Turner as to why the Charter Commission had decided not to go for wards/districts.  He was kind enough to respond.  As he notes his response was dashed off so it is not very polished but it is a thoughtful response.

From: John Kaufmann [mailto:john.kaufmann21@gmail.com]

Sent: Monday, February 20, 2017 10:10 PM

To: Robert Turner (Government) <bturner@skidmore.edu>

Subject: Districts

What were the arguments that won in terms of discarding the districts option?

In looking at the other charters, what was the predominant way by which council members were elected?

Hi John,

I will take your questions in reverse order.  I apologize, it is late and I still have to walk my dogs and do the dishes so my reply is not as polished as I might like.  I am teaching all day tomorrow.

At large is by far the most common form for selecting city council members.

Municipal Form of Government, 2006 Trends in Structure, Responsibility, and Composition

How are your council members selected? (Check only one.)

66.0  a. All at large

17.3 b. All by ward/district

16.7 c. Combination of at large and ward/district.


There are also regional differences.  81% of cities in the Northeast elect their city council at large (p. 6).


Larger cities are more likely to have districts.  Smaller cities at large.  Saratoga Springs is small in this category.  The percents are different because the one below is a survey of larger cities.  Almost all cities over 250,000 have districts.  See below

Breakdown of Types of City Council Elections by City Size

Small (25,000-69,999) Medium (70,000-199,999) Large (200,000 And Up)
At-Large 48.9% 43.7% 16.4%
Mixed-System 25.0% 25.4% 38.2%
District 26.1% 31.0% 45.5%

Svara, James H. Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils. Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 2003.

The shift from at-large to district elections or vice versa is on the most common changes adopted by charter review committee.



I would predict that if our proposed charter passes, that in 10 years the charter review committee will be considering districts.  And also that if we had put in districts now, the committee would be considering at large.

What was the commission’s thinking                    

I think the commission had very different views on the districts versus at large question.  I think it was probably one of the most discussed issues with many people changing their minds repeatedly.  I know I changed my mind several times and the 11-2 vote probably overstates the consensus on the issue.  Ultimately, the commission’s primary goal was to increase the number of people who run for office.  We feel that making the city council more representative of the city as a whole will be a major benefit.  Our candidate survey showed that the commission form of government has the effect of shutting out many people who feel they do not have the experience/education or time to serve as a commissioner, especially women.  Our survey data showed clearly that switching to a traditional city council where members serve as part time legislators would dramatically increase the number of people feel qualified and who can be recruited.  Combined with increasing  the number of city council seats from 4 to 6 (not including the mayor), these two changes alone will increase the diversity of voices and perspectives on the city council even with the at large elections.

We also spoke with several “party insiders” who said that what they would try to do is to recruit a “balanced ticket” with candidates from different parts of the city (i.e. East, West, and South) to build support for the party’s ticket across the city.

Others concerns ranged from 1. districts would foster NIMBYism and East Side-West side divides; 2. How would the districts be drawn to prevent gerrymandering 3. Are there “natural” political communities in Saratoga Springs that would form the basis for districts?  4. Would they shut out a quality candidate from running because there is already someone from that district.  5. Trying to explain a hybrid or blended system, which we had originally proposed, was too difficult given some of the other changes.

Every member of the commission went out and spoke to their network of friends and acquaintances about districts.  Ultimately, almost all we heard back was negative about districts.  You were the sole champion of districts.  A lot of the opposition was very vehement.  I had thought that districts would be very popular, but there were really no one outside of our committee and you who seemed very excited.

I also spoke with Professor Nelson, a Political Scientist at Northern Illinois, and she convinced me that in a city like Saratoga Springs districts versus at large would not make as much of a difference as I thought.  See her talk here http://www.triblocal.com/elgin/2011/07/22/expert-gives-pros-cons-of-ward-system/

Finally, the other crucial point we heard from two of the city managers was that a city manager can help prevent a politically vocal part of the city from getting more resources than a less vocal part.  I can’t remember if it was Jason Molina or Mark Ryckman, but they talked about how a one city council member was asking for more money to pave the roads in his district.  The city manager had done a study of pavement quality which gave a # to every street in the city.  The ones in his district were an 82, but only a 71 in an other part of the city.  The goal for the city was to have all roads at an 80 so the data helped solve the problem.


Bob Turner

Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies and Sciences

Director, Environmental Studies and Sciences Program

Director, Faculty Student Summer Research Program

Skidmore College

Saratoga Springs, NY 12866


4 thoughts on “A Ward/District Approach To The Charter”

  1. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “all or nothing” referendum format. If there’s going to be a special election, offer choices like district representation vs. at large or a mix of the two, and so on. With a single issue to be decided, there’ll be plenty of room on the ballot for fine-tuning the sub-chapters. Even in a November election, there aren’t going to be that many offices up for a vote and there should still be enough room without going to the other side of the ballot. Or just hand voters two ballots, one for candidates up for election and one for the referendum.

    I generally like the proposed charter, which has been much better researched than previous efforts, but the rationale for a May or June vote is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, with the possibility of a suit by the Charter Commission, will the city spend more on legal fees to defend the Council’s position than it would to simply fund the special vote? And, as a city panel, will we ultimately have to pick-up the Commission’s legal fees, too?


    1. But we don’t know yet what the proposed charter is, Joseph. They have yet to show us a finished document. Not to mention an accounting of what it would cost. They do seem to be settled on a city manager but their research on that doesn’t seem to be much different from what was done the last time it was proposed and defeated just four years ago. I believe they talked to many of the same people. At this point, and I guess this can still change, they are talking about a manager who can be fired at any time by the council. I’m wondering who they are going to find who is any good who would take a job like that. Most city managers have contracts that cover a period of time. To get rid of them before their contract expires you have to buy out their contract–an expensive proposition that we’ve seen played out with the firing of some school superintendents in this area. Also the council, as they have most recently configured it, has four year staggered terms. So if Saratogians don’t feel the manager is doing a good job we could have to suffer through four years(or possibly longer depending on how they set up the staggered terms) before we could elect a council willing to find a new city manager. This seems to me to be very bureaucratic and a lot less accountable than what we have now where we can review the performance of elected officials every two years and do the firing directly ourselves at the voting booth if we don’t like how they are running a city department or making policy as council members.


  2. I also do not understand Joe’s comment: “I generally like the proposed charter, which has been much better researched than previous efforts,……”
    In the absence of a document, please explain.


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