Madigan Takes On Charter Commission

Speaking Out Piece By Michele Madiga:

I have been hearing and reading a lot lately about our City’s Commission form of government, and I can honestly say that after serving you for 5 years as one of the Commissioners in that government I do not recognize this phantom menace that Chairman Bob Turner and other members of the Charter Review Committee keep describing. While I have no great attachment to the current way we govern ourselves, it is important that the public debate surrounding the upcoming ballot question regarding our Charter is based on facts, not fantasies or straw-men. So, let’s look at some of those facts.

A common criticism one hears about our government, both now and in years past, is that each Commissioner focuses only on their own “silo”, and has no incentive to cooperate or collaborate with other Commissioners. This is simply not true, and not even possible. Three of the five Commissioners run Departments that are administrative in nature, with duties that spread across the entire City (Accounts, Finance, and the Mayor), so they don’t even have “silos”. Secondly, all five of us are legislators that must work together to get anything done at the Council table – it takes at least 3 votes to accomplish anything; every contract, every project, every budget transfer or capital budget amendment, everything we do is discussed and put to a vote at City Council meetings. How could anything ever get done if we were each solely concerned with our “silos”? And then there is the City’s obvious successes, which certainly could not have been achieved if we were all focused only on our own sandboxes, with no concern for other Departments.

An argument has recently been put forward that new fiscal realities and looming financial challenges facing local governments place us in dire jeopardy unless we adopt a city manager approach. Say what you will about our Commission form, an inability to see and plan for these realities and challenges is certainly not a valid criticism. This has been one of my central priorities since I took office 5 years ago, and I am pleased to say that the Council has worked well together as I continue to budget for the present while planning for the future. Since I have taken office the City has achieved stellar municipal bond ratings from both Moody’s and S&P (both of which were affirmed within the last year), had a stable tax rate, and realized improved Fiscal Stress Monitoring reports from the NYS Comptroller – culminating in a perfect score in October 2016 (the only city out of 61 in the entire state to receive a perfect score). Furthermore, we are moving forward with much needed public safety improvements, building improvements, infrastructure investments, equipment needs, recreation programs, and transportation/trail projects. We are in excellent fiscal health, are adequately planning for the future, and are working together as a Council to get things done. We have long recognized these new fiscal realities and looming financial challenges, and we are doing something about them. Far from resting on our laurels and assuming our success will continue, we remain vigilant and are continuously seeking new ways to promote further and enhanced economic activity, generate new sources of City revenue, and control City expenses (for example, we decided not to use taxpayer funds for an unnecessary special election in May or June for a new form of government that has not yet been determined), all while protecting our quality of life. One great example of this is my Smart City initiative, wherein we are working to make Saratoga Springs an upstate technology hub with high-speed broadband Internet infrastructure and high tech entrepreneurs and business start-ups.

Another odd argument I’ve recently seen from a Charter Committee member is that “the existing form of government incentivizes conflict”. That’s a funny thing about democratic governance. There are many forms of government that do not incentivize conflict, and in all their many forms they share one unacceptable characteristic: authoritarianism. I prefer democracy, wherein people are encouraged to vigorously express their opinions and protect their interests, respecting that others may differ, and then honoring the governing bodies’ decisions once they’ve been made. That is what we have here in Saratoga Springs. Conflict is part of the bargain; it is a feature, not a bug.

Professor Turner, chair of the Charter Review Committee, began one of his previous opinion pieces with a quote from Thomas Jefferson stating that the US Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. Somehow we’ve managed to muddle along for 228 years by just amending it 17 times since it (and the Bill of Rights) was adopted in 1798. For some inexplicable reason we haven’t formed a committee to scrap the Constitution and start over with a clean sheet of paper. Saratoga Springs has used the Commission form of government for only 102 years. We’ve revised our Charter a few times along the way and we seem to be doing pretty well, despite the protestations of those who clearly know better than our voters and taxpayers. Our Charter is not perfect; I and many others provided the Charter Review Committee with suggested revisions to improve it. The Committee, however, according to Professor Turner, chose to design “a charter for Saratoga Springs for the 21st century” instead of first reviewing the existing charter and determining how it could be made to work even better. That’s a shame.

It will be up to our voters, hopefully in November, to decide what they think is best for the future of Saratoga Springs. Do we stick with the existing form of government, even though it is in need of improvements that the Charter Review Committee had the opportunity to identify and propose to resolve but chose not to? Or do we adopt a new form of government? I hope that whatever decision is made will be based on fact and not on specious arguments and needless vilification and misrepresentation of all we have accomplished as a City since 1915.


19 thoughts on “Madigan Takes On Charter Commission”

  1. While Commissioner Madigan and I see the Commission form of government differently, I certainly agree with her statement that the upcoming ballot question regarding our Charter should be based on facts, not fantasies or straw-men. It is important that our citizens fully understand how the current Commission form of government works and what the Charter Commission suggestions for revision would entail. There should be sober and thorough consideration given to any proposal for change.

    Commissioner Madigan states that an unfair criticism the Commission form of government that she has heard is that each Commissioner focuses only on their own ‘silo’ and had no incentive to cooperate with other Commissioners. I don’t know where she has heard this but I agree with her that this is not a valid criticism. It is imperative that there be cooperation. Sadly, as we have seen, the level of cooperation in a Commission form of government varies widely from year to year and situation to situation.

    I don’t know where Commissioner Madigan heard the claim that the City will be in dire fiscal jeopardy if we do not abandon the Commission form of government. Commissioner Madigan and the Finance Department has done an excellent job of managing City finances over the past nearly 5 1/2 years. However, fiscal management could also be very effectively provided by professional, non-political control. ./

    I don’t understand Commissioner Madigan’s ‘incentivizes conflict’ argument. She disapproves of ‘authoritarianism’ and prefers ‘democracy’. Yet, it is the Commission form of government that is more authoritarian and less democratic. The genesis of the Commission form of government was a civil emergency that required immediate action unimpeded by the niceties of local democratic government. Just as Mussolini’s trains ran on time, we have leaves that are picked up on a regular basis. But we don’t have a legislative body whose primary purpose is to give a broad swath of citizens the opportunity to participate in City government. It should also be noted that the City which first instituted the Commission form of government to deal with their emergency abandoned it long ago.

    As Commissioner Madigan discusses Thomas Jefferson and the US Constitution, she conveniently ignores one of the most important strengths of the federal government; the system of checks and balances. Our federal government, all state governments and nearly every city government have separate legislative and executive branches. The biggest problem with Saratoga Springs City government is that it is run by only very powerful five people who are each both executives and legislators. These roles are inherently contradictory. The City would be better served with a separate legislative body overseeing an executive branch of professional management as is the case for hundreds of very successful cities throughout the country.

    Chris Mathiesen
    Commissioner of Public Safety


    1. Thanks for not running again,your solution is not a solution but it is a mistake…it’s interesting you’d rather have four people run the city as opposed to three!! As you ride off into the setting sun let these few words give you solace “The Government that governs least governs best”.


    2. Chris,

      I have to disagree with you here vehemently. I’m sorry but as one who has met with you and other council members more than enough times to count as well as with other local municipalities that do NOT have the commission form of government that we do I can assure you it is preferable to work for a majority decision rather than one person that is and will always be against you – which leaves your hope of getting something solved only in the hands of the electors in voting said city leader out of office. That isn’t really democracy at its best – a consensus of the city leaders is. In fact, I would prefer to see MORE democracy within our city so political appointments are split evenly between the council members rather than just the mayor. If we had this, we wouldn’t have had the problem with this commission being ‘loaded up’ (and EVERYONE knows it is just that) – or the zoning boards for that matter.

      I believe Michele statements of ‘silos’ and such stem from commission members submissions to the local newspaper. I’ve read the same comments from them.

      I want to note a few other things here to be perfectly clear. I met Pat Kane during the last ‘go round’ for charter change at a house party for this (at Molly Gagne’s actually). I’ve heard his spiel. It’s persuasive no doubt. And I agreed with him THEN – until I really started dealing with city hall myself. The very thought of even THINKING to give an unethical mayor more power (and let’s not kid ourselves here, that’s exactly what a ‘dynamic’ mayor will do) is horribly wrong. I also know that it would be impossible to deal with just one person on an issue – but it becomes possible with five. Pat has called me 4-5 times in the past month to get me on board with this. It hasn’t happened for him. Nor will it. In fact I gave Pat one good reason why I would never go for it: my own ‘battle’ here with workforce, senior, veteran housing and the homeless issue. As hard as it may be to get 3 council members on board with me, it would be virtually IMPOSSIBLE for me to get it done under one mayor unless I had a mayor completely on board with me.

      The idea of the citizens paying for this ‘special’ election at a time where it was blatantly obvious the voter turnout would be low made me sick to my stomach. Without a doubt that is voter suppression. But think about this too: this commission is all about ‘educating the public’ on this issue. Yet they have already done this to the vast majority of citizens here twice in the past 11 years, and claim to need more time to do it – yet they want to jam this election through at the earliest possible date? Come on….. We ALL know what this is about.

      And for the record, I am not against change. But we can fix what needs to be fixed without burning down a pretty nice house just to change the color.

      Last, Michele’s latest Reader’s View absolutely nailed it. Props to her for saying what needed to be said.


    3. Commissioner Mathiesen your commentary is an excellent, well thought out position, based on factual information. You clearly articulate why this form of government is a suspended form of democracy, resulting in ineffective, inefficient governance that lacks a set of checks and balances resulting in inconsistent outcomes at best. Thank you.


  2. Commissioner Mathiesen: the arguments about “silos” and fiscal challenegs facing us were both put forward by Professor Turner in the Saratogian last Sunday

    You and I just disagree about the democratic nature of our form of government. A few tweaks to the charter could get more people to run for office. We certainly have a lot of citizen participation in local government as can easily be seen at every Council meeting and by noticing all the various City boards. (btw, the “incentivizes conflict” argument against the Commission form was put forward by a Charter Committee member in a recent Saratogian article

    Regarding Jefferson, Professor Turner brought him up in the aforementioned Saratogian opinion piece. I was merely pointing out that despite what Jefferson may have said we have not rewritten the Constitution every 19 years but have used the same one for 228. I was making no larger point.
    Commissioner Michele Madigan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ms. Madigan states:
    “We are in excellent fiscal health, are adequately planning for the future, and are working together as a Council to get things done. ”

    To find the truth, one must ask this simple question:

    In who’s best interest is it in changing the charter?
    There has been absolutely no uprising from the vernacular rabble of the peasantry; so whom is so inclined to effect (affect?) such change?

    Ahh, therein lies the rub.
    And lies is the operator in that sentence.

    Get lost Mr. Turner.
    You’re adopted, nobody loves you.

    As for Dr. Mathiesen’s comment on lack of checks and balances:
    Elections every 2 years is all we need.
    You check, we balance.

    Thank you for all that you do.
    All of you.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a fan of Commissioner Mathiesen and am usually on the same page as he on most issues. I beg to differ, however, on many of the points he made in response to Commissioner Madigan’s statement on charter change.

    First, the reference to “silos” can be found in many of the LookTV interviews Charter Commission chairman Bob Turner has given as well as in the Readers View he wrote for the Saratogian (2/19/17) where he also insists that charter change is necessary for the city to be able to meet future fiscal challenges.

    In his blog comment Commissioner Mathiesen states “the level of cooperation in a Commission form of government varies widely from year to year and situation to situation.” I would argue this could be said of any government and indeed of participants in almost any organization I can think of.

    My main disagreement with Chris, however, is his characterization of the Commission form of government as more “authoritarian than democratic.” He offers as evidence that “we don’t have a legislative body whose primary purpose is to give a broad swath of citizens the opportunity to participate in City government.” I would argue that the main purpose of a legislative body in a democracy actually is to make policy. Participation is limited one way or another in every body I can think of with the US Senate being a prime example. There are many ways for citizens to participate in government and many reasons why they choose or don’t choose to run for a particular office. Having run for city office twice myself I’m not convinced that the city’s form of government should be changed primarily so perhaps some people who don’t want to run for a Commissioner position may possibly run for a council position. It is interesting that there has not for many years been a full slate of candidates for the position of county supervisor which for Saratoga Springs is a purely legislative job. If there is a pool of candidates eager to run for a legislative position perhaps they should consider making our Supervisor races competitive. It is also important to recognize, I think, that the challenge of finding candidates to run for any office is widespread and occurs for many reasons.

    Chris also points to the lack of a traditional set of checks and balances as evidence that the commission form is undemocratic. Our divided government is not, however, the normal configuration for most of the other democracies in the world. He argues that executive and legislative roles (which are combined in the commission form of government) are inherently contradictory but I’m not sure why. I would argue that there are distinct advantages to combing these roles in our city government. As Commissioner Madigan points out it takes a majority vote to pass any budget. Department heads are forced to listen, negotiate, and compromise. In addition since they are creating a budget that they will then have to work with directly, it could be argued that these budgets are more realistic than what is often put together by a separate branch that then has no responsibility for trying to make it work.

    Democracy is defined as “a system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives.” I would argue that the commission form fits this definition far better than a city manager form. What critics of the commission form ignore, I think, is that the ultimate check in this form of government resides with the people. We Saratogians are not limited to voting just for a legislative branch but can actually also directly review the job performance of department heads as well. Don’t like how your leaves are picked up? Have a problem with how city assessments are done? We Saratogians have the power to affect these things directly every two years. I personally prefer this to being limited to being able to only vote for a legislator every four years who then turns the running of city departments over to a hired manager who I have no direct say in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The statement “Commissioner Madigan points out it takes a majority vote to pass any budget.” is not an accurate statement. The Commissioner of finance proposes a default budget that is automatically adopted if there is not a majority vote. That is too much power for one person, the commissioner of finance, to have. No wonder she does not want to give up this form of government.


      1. Paula – considering the stellar job she has done in regards to our city’s finances, that isn’t an issue at all. Or maybe you’d like the previous commissioner of finance back?


  5. Paula, this is a good example of something that you don’t like that you could have asked the charter commission to address that would have required only the tweaking of the existing charter not a whole new form of government to address. I believe this feature was a proposal of the 2001 charter commission that was approved by voters. You might want to review their reasoning for adding this to the charter.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John and Jane:
    As past contributors to The Saratogian, a question regarding the Saratogian’s Reader’s View policy.
    I believe there was a time when The Saratogian set a limit, let’s say once a month, as to how many Reader’s Views were permitted by an individual. By my casual count, Assoc. Prof. Turner has been given a free rein. Which raises the question about where The Saratogian stands regarding all of this Charter Change discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Speaking of limits, go back and watch the last public comment period at the city council meeting. Take off your watch and time each person that’s speaking. I don’t think you’ll find it a surprise that anyone from the charter commision who spoke was not warned of the two minute limit as others were, and some spoke MUCH longer than the allotted two minute time requested by the mayor at the beginning of the comment period.



  7. Michele Madigan is right — and wrong — about Saratoga Springs’ form of government. It’s not black and white. Good things happen in spite of, not because of, the commission system. Check out my latest Done With Deadlines blog post.

    On Sat, Feb 25, 2017 at 5:13 PM, Saratoga Springs Politics wrote:

    > John Kaufmann posted: “Speaking Out Piece By Michele Madiga: I have been > hearing and reading a lot lately about our City’s Commission form of > government, and I can honestly say that after serving you for 5 years as > one of the Commissioners in that government I do not recognize” >


    1. You didn’t mention the Saratogian’s policy for reader’s view submissions. Are they allowed more than once a month?


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