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.