The Charter Draft: An Assessment

On March 29 the Charter Review Commission held a forum to present a draft of their proposed new charter and ask the public for comment. The document is still a work in progress although we are now two months beyond their original target date of February 15. I have a number of concerns about both what is in and what is not in the document.

Let me start with 2 particular problems I have with what they are proposing in the document they presented.

Extending the Length of Office for City Council members.

Their proposal calls for a seven member council which would include a full-time mayor. All seven plus our two county supervisors would serve for four years rather than the current two year terms.

Charter commission representatives have made a couple of arguments in support of this change.

First they feel four year terms would provide greater stability and continuity by avoiding the possibility of a turnover in government every two years. This would also allow officeholders a longer time to complete projects they may have started.

This seems to me a solution in search of a problem. I have lived in Saratoga Springs since the 1970’s and in my experience  and from what I understand of the history of the city before my arrival the situation we have now with the current council where all members have served multiple terms is the norm. My friend Tom McTygue served for decades as Public Works Commissioner.  Our previous mayor, Scott Johnson served for 3 consecutive terms before deciding not to run again, and so on.

In addition major projects would be the responsibility of the city manager, not the council so I don’t understand this argument of the need for more time.

I would also note that the entire NY State Legislature and the US House of Representatives all serve two year terms. At the risk of snarkiness I do not hold these institutions up as models of good government but I have not heard any cogent argument that their problems are caused by two year terms.

The charter committee’s second argument for longer terms has to do with what Chairman Bob Turner calls the “silly season”. He was referring to that annual fall event commonly known as elections. As near as I can tell, the charter committee wants to protect elected officials from enduring going before the voters every two years. I believe that implicit in the concept of referring to elections as the “silly season” is the belief that policy decisions are simply a question of good management and that by insulating elected officials from the “mob” they will be better able to exercise their “good judgment.”

The committee seems excessively fixated on seeing good government as merely a management issue. While proper management is of course an important feature of government, seeing this as the only or at least the overriding goal ignores the fact that factions exist in every community and in a democracy government plays an essential role in how these factions resolve their conflicts.

We saw this play out in our community quite clearly in the last local election cycle. Those who wanted to see increased development in the greenbelt put together a PAC to back candidates who they felt would change zoning restrictions in the outer district to accommodate such projects as the resort planned by Saratoga National Golf Course. Other candidates such as Chris Mathiesen ran on a clear platform opposing such development. There was nothing “silly” about this election. Two very different visions of how the city should grow were offered, debated, and left up to the voters to decide.

This is not to dismiss the reality that campaigns can involve pettiness and ego. It is, however, a reminder that in Saratoga Springs as in other communities there are substantive issues that citizens must decide, and they make these decisions by voting for the person who best reflects their views. The public should not be burdened by waiting four years before they can remove someone who they believe is acting against their interests.

I don’t usually agree with Democratic Chair Charlie Brown but I shared the concerns he voiced at the meeting. He spoke about his concerns that since it would be easier to run for just a council position, less qualified candidates who ran good campaigns but may not turn out to be capable council members could be elected and he was not happy about the prospect of being stuck with them for four years. Chairman Turner reassured him that there will be a “robust pool of candidates” so presumably having inept office holders will not be a problem in his opinion.

For me the ability of voters to choose their council representatives every two years is so important that if four year terms  are included in the proposed charter I will be a “no” vote.

A Full Time Mayor

The Charter Committee is proposing that the mayor’s position be made full time. The salary for this position will not be included in the charter which makes sense, but estimates made by Bob Turner and Pat Kane at the meeting were for something between $40,000 to $70,000 not including benefits. No mention was made of whether this full time mayor would require a staff as well. Would he/she need a secretary, a deputy, an administrative assistant?

The committee made two arguments for making the mayor’s position full time.

The first is that all the past city mayors they interviewed felt the demands of the job made it full time. I would agree that this is an accurate description of what the current job involves. The new charter, however, assigns many of the duties that are currently the responsibility of the mayor to the proposed city manager so with all due respect I don’t find this argument credible.

At the public meeting a gentleman from Alexandria, Virginia, told the audience his city is many times larger than Saratoga and they had functioned quite well with a city manager and only a part time mayor.

The Committee’s second argument is that they envision the future mayor as being kind of a community organizer who would work to mobilize community resources. They don’t want him/her to be just a figurehead.

I see a real potential for conflict between the city manager and a full time mayor. In his presentation Chairman Turner stated that he expected a new city manager to meet with the businesses in town to better coordinate city government efforts with the needs of the private sector. I would expect the city manager to find him/herself having many of the same kind of meetings the current mayor has. This seems like fertile ground for turf conflicts. Given the possibility that strong competitive egos could be involved there seems a real possibility of conflicting visions  leading to conflicting agreements being made as the two network through the city. The possibility that the manager will be from outside the city while the mayor will be a local could add to the intrigue.

A part time mayor who chairs council meetings, nominates board members, and represents the city at public events, while more modest ,is less fraught with problems and would save a considerable amount of money.

Dialing Back Expectations

It may amuse the readers of this blog to learn that I am a bit of a conservative when it comes to management issues. Having run a modestly large organization for a decade I learned many lessons, some the hard way. The old clichés about “if something can go wrong…”, “everything takes longer…”etc. are all true as far as I am concerned.

As a review of past blogs will confirm when the charter committee announced they expected to have a completed charter ready for a vote on May 30, I expressed great skepticism. My cautionary warnings were dismissed by my friends on the committee. It is now mid April, two months after their original target date to have a document ready for a May 30 vote and in my opinion they still have much to do before they have a competed document ready for a public vote.

So now for what’s not discussed in this proposed charter.

The proposed charter does not describe any departments or duties aside from the city attorney, the city clerk, and the city assessor. This makes sense if you are going to empower a new city manager to create a new integrated management structure for the city which will require the elimination of some positions and the creation of others.

It does, however, highlight the enormous challenge facing a new city manager who will be expected to restructure the entire city government. The degree to which this restructuring not only improves on the current government but makes the transition as seamlessly as possible depends of course on the knowledge and skills of who is hired as city manager.  I find the hyper optimism of the charter committee regarding the ease with which the transition will occur as troublesome as I found their confidence that the document would be ready by the middle of February.

This brings us to the issue of the challenge of finding the right person for the city manager job. The committee is insisting that the city manager be an “at will employee”. Section 3.01 reads that “The City Manager shall serve an indefinite term at the pleasure of the City Council.”  The proposed charter stipulates that this person shall have a master’s degree and five years experience. This person will also have to be proficient in budgeting and fiscal policy, have strong management skills, not to mention strong social skills to work with a seven member council that will no doubt have its own set of internal conflicts in spite of the committee’s constant reassurances that their charter will “take the politics out of government.”  I think finding such a person who will probably need to relocate their family here without some kind of job security will be much more challenging than the committee is anticipating.

Since the council will set the city manager’s salary and benefits, which I presume will include a severance package, this is not addressed in the proposed charter. The committee offers only average ranges of what this position may cost. We also have no firm numbers for salaries and benefits for the council and mayor. While it makes sense not to include these numbers in the charter it makes it challenging to get a handle on what this change in government will cost.

State municipal law requires that charter proposals be accompanied by a financial analysis. I wrote to Bob Turner to inquire about the proposed charter’s financials.

He responded that “Once Jeff [Altamari] come[s] back he is going to be doing a full financial analysis and presentation. However trading 5 deputies and benefits for 1 city manager will be a significant savings.”

I found this response troubling. As in the past with charter review committees, I think this committee too may not appreciate the amount of work done not only by the deputies but by the commissioners themselves. How this work will be reassigned and to whom will be an enormous challenge to an incoming city manager.  I find the hyper optimism of the charter committee regarding the ease with which this transition will occur worrisome . It also adds to my belief that any financial analysis will necessarily be speculative.

The proposed charter also references a transition team (8.07) but leaves many questions unanswered. What would be their responsibilities? How would it be formed? Who would make the appointments? When would they begin work? Would they need a budget and staffing? None of this has been dealt with.

While the committee has worked hard I have felt from the beginning that the members of the charter committee were both underestimating the scale of the task they were taking on and overestimating the impact of what a city manger would achieve. This charter proposal is still a work in progress. I would feel better if in doing their work the committee were more realistic in their consideration of how truly difficult a transition will be and if they recognized that they can give no assurances about the cost of this change.

 

8 thoughts on “The Charter Draft: An Assessment”

  1. Well said John! In all realty the current charter only needs to be updated! end of story,,but when you have a career politican as our Mayor( and also a dweller in a gated community per se) this form of gov’t has become tinny and according to her needs to step up it’s game which means it’ll cost more to operate.This is her committee made up of people that had already decided we need a new form of gov’t based on testimony from a few over paid city hall workers,and by the way these same employees refer to the Yepsen Administration as a group of over payed cry babies….Benefits for taxpayers??–More Government,More Money,More Headaches,More egos,and More nothing……..Google City Manager.

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  2. I totally agree, JK. Of course the other evidence of their enthusiasm for protecting officeholders from voters is their decision to go with a form of government where the executive branch, the city manager, is hired not elected.

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  3. A very good analysis and POV… The devil is in the (budget) details… I believe that they are planning to advocate eliminating the Deputy positions, but we’ll have to see. The Mayor on steroids position’s salary needs to be spelled out too. I’m not going to take a position on this until I see everything, but this drip-feeding is annoying already. Tick tock guys…

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  4. Without the Deputy positions, it will mean that somebody will need to be at least a 9 to 5 person for each department. And if that somebody is the head of their department, he/she will at least need a secretary……or two.
    So, what is really being gained?

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  5. Anything is better than what we have…I know that sounds undeveloped and snarky, but after much invested time analyzing the details that’s all I got. In the end, any council members who choose to obstruct this committee are in direct conflicts of interest. We should not be looking toward the people in power to change their status. It will never happen, both dems and Rep will fight to keep their influence.

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  6. Not sure what you mean by council members obstructing this committee? Are you saying only council members who favor the charter change can voice their opinion? Or are you saying that any current council members who run for office this November can only speak if they are in favor of the proposed charter leaving all other candidates free to take whatever positions they want? And why wouldn’t Dems and Reps still have influence no matter what the form of government?
    And, oh, ABM, be careful what you wish for.

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  7. Good point by Straight Shooter. One council member, Mr Mathieson, has already expressed his support for charter change. To be fair, the other council members should be free to express their opinions/support or non-support as they wish.

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    1. He doesn’t like the Commission Form (although he sat and was elected and reelected three times and he doesn’t like it?)….of course he doesn’t like it!..he was exposed by it!

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