Charter Commission Makes Wrong Turn

Note:

I received a post from Pat Kane on July 14th in which he addressed issues associated with the Charter Commission’s plans to eliminate the deputy positions.  The full text of his post appears below and I have also posted it as part of the original thread it was directed to.

I found Mr. Kane’s comments quite disturbing.  As part of responding to him, I sent the comments to someone who has a keen knowledge of government processes in general and Saratoga Springs processes in particular.  I think sufficiently highly of this person that I would venture he/she would put this blog out of business were he/she ever to decide to blog on politics.  Here is the text of the response.

JK


Observers Comments

Full disclosure, while I’m not totally supportive of the charter commission’s recommendations, (and I am extremely disappointed in the way this was handled by the mayor, and subsequently by Mr. Turner and Mr. Kane) I’m 100% in favor of ending the commission form of government in our city.   There is a reason, perhaps an almost Darwinian reason, that this form of government went from existing with some regularity in the early-mid twentieth century, to being almost non-existent today.  I believe we are only one of three municipalities in the state that still have this form.  It increases inefficiency, duplicates services and operations, and leaves the staff and deputies subject to the whims of elected officials, some of whom are shockingly un-invested in the day-to-day operations of City Hall.

I have several issues with Mr. Kane’s response and perspective on this.

1) I would love to know how Mr. Kane and the charter commission (CC) picked which deputies to interview.  Doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it, which to me, makes it a sloppy bit of research.  By his own telling, Mr. Kane says that they interviewed only 3 who served in 2017, which begs the question: why did you only interview 3 out of 5 (60%) of the deputies currently in the city’s employ? I find that odd. Other people should too.

2) While I understand that concerns abound regarding “patronage” jobs, it is not at all unusual for mayors, city council members, state assemblypersons, state senators, governors, etc., to put people in top positions that they are familiar with.  Given the level of complexity and sensitivity of the jobs, and the fact that voters put a particular elected official in that spot largely based on his or her policy beliefs, it makes sense to have an elected official employ a like-minded person – a person who is capable and comfortable executing that vision.  Mr. Kane (and others) routinely conflate the idea of jobs that are politically appointed (e.g., deputies) with “patronage” jobs – which in the political world, have a certain “not what you know, it’s who you know/gravy train” connotation to it.  It feels like he is trying to make the idea of an appointed job a dirty or insidious thing; it is not.

It should also be noted that a city manager and asst. city manager would also be appointed, and would not be totally void of politics.  You wouldn’t necessarily want the arbitrary results of civil service examination picking your top operations person for you.

3) Mr. Kane’s January 2018 forecast on deputy tenure sounds arithmetically right to me, but it couldn’t be clearer that he is picking a yardstick which distorts the data in his favor.

So, in January 2018, the longest deputy will have served for 2 and ½ years, and he goes on to cite the other would-be tenures to come to an average of “about 1 year per deputy.”  When he cherry-picks the timeline like that, he is actively choosing to massage the statistics in his favor.  Shauna Sutton served for 6 years; Joe Ogden for 2.5 years; Lynn Bachner for almost 5 years; Tim Cogan for many years; and Eileen Finneran is completing her her tenth year having served as a deputy under Mayor Keehn, Commissioner Kim and Commissioner Mathiesen.  That average of deputy experience is considerably more than “1 year.”   He then proceeds to directly and disingenuously compare this “average” of 1 year with the idea that the incoming city manager and assistant city manager would have 15-20 total years of general experience and he seems to suggest that this manufactured juxtaposition should make the choice a no-brainer.  Mr. Kane is only considering “deputy” experience to build his 1 year “average”; Mr. Kane then allows himself to consider all of one’s work experience when considering the 15-20 years the prospective managers would have. My understanding is that Joe Ogden who served as Mayor Yepsen’s deputy for 2.5 years, served something in the range of 10 years of public finance and state government experience coming into that job. All of the deputies currently serving in City Hall have had other jobs, for many years.  It’s absolutely ridiculous for him create this 1 year versus 15 years comparison that is not only wildly misleading, but false.

Also, he seems to be casting the “deputies come and go” reality as the disease and not the symptom, when it is really the other way around.  The city election cycle is two years, and people plan for that reality accordingly.  The deputies, the highest ranking non-elected officials in city government, are also paid about half of what the city’s top grossing employees make.  The deputies often leave because the mayor and the City Council  lack the requisite political courage to say: “the deputies are high-level managers; they work many hours; they put up with a lot; they are there in our stead; they need to make more.”

4) He appears to lack an understanding about city operations regarding this idea that 2 people can do the work of 5.   That simply will not happen.  Again, Mr. Kane is totally confusing the structure of government as codified in a charter with the goods and services the public requires that government to produce. The best example of this is the deputy commissioner of finance.  The deputy commissioner of finance not only serves as the traditional deputy for that department, but that job also – and more importantly – serves as the city’s budget director.  Even if the deputy job went away, you would have to hire a budget director as that job is far too big to be absorbed by the finance director, a unionized job which is already akin to being the city comptroller.  Honestly, it would appear to a non-city employee that that job is the hardest deputy job.  The deputy mayor job would be/should be eliminated in the face of a city manager, but the work currently being done by these individuals will have to get done by someone else. And a city manager and assistant city manager, reporting to the mayor/City Council and to a very active, very involved public, will not be able to absorb all those functions. Mr. Kane’s comparison here does not hold water.

5) Mr. Kane also seems to be confusing the notion of what it costs the city to employ someone with their compensation package. Deputies make about $72k and a family plan for health insurance costs about $23k per year is my read of info from the city is about right. That’s $95k in compensation If you’re taking the family health insurance option.  The additional $15k in expenses that the city incurs (retirement/social security contributions) are not considered compensation.  Again, Mr. Kane tries to make it look as if the “16k per year of experience” is the better bargain, because he counts all of the city manager’s job experience when crafting that number, and he then he turns around and tells us that the deputies are costing us “110k per year of experience” as he conveniently leaves out any other job experience, counting only the deputy job experience.  If that isn’t being disingenuous I don’t know what is.

6) Mr. Kane’s comment about the 3-4 high level, experienced employees in each department is true, but he is wildly mistaken if he is banking on those employees absorbing deputy functions. Those employees are largely – if not exclusively – unionized and they are not supposed to be working more than 40 hours per week or outside their job title.  Even if the charter changes, the collective bargaining landscape will not.

I think charter change is a generally good idea, but it has been executed so poorly from beginning to end that it’s really hard to get behind this particular iteration.


Pat Kane’s Original Comment

Patrick Kane commented on Deputies: Challenging Charter Commission’s Prejudices

“This week Finance Commissioner Madigan announced the appointment of a new deputy, Michael Sharp.  This is one of the five …”

I too served on the charter commission this year. I personally interviewed 7 people who served as deputies in our commission form of government. 3 who have served in 2017 and 4 who have served in the last 3 years. Every single person would speak on the condition that their name would be left out. All current deputies or former deputies were perfectly clear in their professional opinion that The Commission Form of Government does not serve the City of Saratoga Springs in a professional manner. The most common terms used was ” constant fighting and bickering among commissioners and departments”. 6 of the 7 felt that they brought little or no professionally specific skills to the job. 5 of the 7 also stated that they had a personal relationship with the person who appointed them prior to the appointment.

In January of 2018. Deputies Tenure The longest serving deputy will have 2 1/2 years experience. Finance deputy will have 5 months service, public safety will be brand new to the job, Public works will have 1 1/2 years, and the deputy mayor will be brand new. That average is about 1 year per deputy. Currently deputies have a 110,000.00 compensation package or 550,000.00 for 5 (110K per year of experience)

Professionally trained and experienced Professional City Manager and Assistant City Manager The combined experience with two professional management positions will likely be 15-20 years. Their salary package for both will be an estimated 330,000.00 ( 16K per year of experience) So is 550,000.00 for 5 people with and average tenure of 1 year of on the job training, equal to 2 people with 15-20 years of professional training and experience at 330,000.00 ? The show will go on. Lets not forget that there are 400 full time employees that have been serving the public year after year regardless who is in office or who that commissioner appoints as deputy to work in their department. Additionally, there are 3-4 senior level employees ( non-deputies) in each department that have served in their departments longer than 15 years in their role.

With a two year transition period, the needs of the city will be reviewed and a professionally crafted plan will be in place for a seamless transition on January 1, 2020.

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4 thoughts on “Charter Commission Makes Wrong Turn”

  1. If it has already been mentioned I apologize.
    But I haven’t seen it said yet, that the Commissioners and Mayor are usually employed elsewhere. Yes, some are retired, but for the most part, employed elsewhere. I heard that it is common practice for commissioners to come into City Hall, after normal business hours, peruse emails and written correspondence, and then contact……or meet with their Deputy to discuss the recent happenings, prepare for upcoming meetings, meet with constituents (with Deputy present), and any other miscellaneous whims of the commissioner, for whom he/she served. Will the city manager(s) do this?

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    1. Dear Henry 37 (whoever you are),

      In all fairness, I can report that I am in City Hall routinely DURING normal business hours for at least a few hours (more than a few hours on Wednesdays) each day as well as the many after business hours that I spend on City business. I am on vacation in Maine tonight but still conducting City business from this remote location. In fact, while I do take vacations from my dental practice, I have never had a true vacation from my duties as Commissioner of Public Safety. Mayor Yepsen, Commissioner Scirocco and Commissioner Madigan spend many more hours in City Hall during normal business hours than I do.

      While I agree that one of the most important reasons for Charter change is to ensure that more citizens will be able to serve as City legislators (without the increasingly unreasonable burden of overseeing a department), I have great appreciation for the many hours and extraordinary efforts Council members past and present have invested in their roles in City government.

      Chris Mathiesen

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  2. John and Full Disclosure,

    I stand by every statement I made.

    A. The deputy financial number I sited came directly from the office of the Commissioner of Finance office 60 days ago. Not sure where full disclosure got her facts, but I am going with the numbers that I got from city hall.

    B. City Managers are skilled financial mangers and well versed in Collective bargaining agreements.
    The Council Manager form will serve the city well
    C. I believe the 400 full time employees are highly capable to aid in the smooth transition in 2020

    I respect both of your opinions and look forward to more dialog in the future
    Patrick Kane
    518-857-6129
    pkane1@nycap.rr.com

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  3. I do not understand all of this skullduggery…secret meetings with Deputy Commissioners? After seeing this post, I contacted my appointee on the Charter Review Commission, Chair of the Civil Service Commission for the City Elio DelSette. These meetings with Deputies are so secret in fact that Elio is unaware of them or this data Mr. Kane presents in his post above. I can only assume other members of the Charter Commission are unaware of these meetings and the results outlined above. How is anyone to know these meetings ever actually took place, or if what is reported about them is true? This seems to be a violation of the Open Meetings Law as the Charter Commission is a public body subjected to the Open Meetings Law statue. This is not what transparent government is all about. How is anyone to believe what is said if there is no record of the meeting occurring?

    In addition, while I do believe our existing Charter required a much needed review and update – and sadly this will not happen – what we are getting is not a review or revision of our current Charter but an entirely new Charter and with that a new form of government with what I see as a skeleton Charter – the baby has been tossed out with the proverbial bath-water. The Change Management required to move from our 100 plus year old Commission Government to a City Manager will be expensive as Change Management is always expensive and tax payers will pay for this “change.” What is being requested and proposed is a large infrastructure change to how we do business today. To simply state there will be a 300K savings is nonsense, and to use the deputies to make the case for this savings is nonsense. The anonymous writer of the post above is absolutely correct, the City will require a Budget Operations Manager, I believe DPW will require Senior Level employees to report into a City Manager and I also think there is much work done by the Deputy Comm. of Public Safety when it comes to managing the largest department in City Hall. Either HR will require expansion or someone will be required in DPS to manage the staff issues and grievances – this is not a proper role for Chiefs. The new Charter outlines none of this. It has a brief 1.5 paragraphs on how to manage a transition if the new Charter is successful. 400 existing employees (some are professional and some are not) are not going to ensure or manage a smooth transition.

    I come from the start small think scalable mentality. Big change makes people nervous, and this one certainly should make people nervous as there is much left to the transition team to decide and potentially, if this change is accepted by the voters, by the City Manager. There is little in the way of an actual budget or actual real numbers. There is a lot that has been mandated such as an internal auditor (or this can be outsourced) and I can tell you that will be at least an additional $130K+ per year regardless of which way you go and seems highly unnecessary as we already have an independent audit yearly and the NYS Comptroller reviews finances and processes regularly too. I suppose this is to review our processes but that is not exactly what this new Charter states – it states an independent internal audit of all city accounts and it says the same thing occurs with an independent external audit. The current Charter already calls for internal audit function and this is handled at a manageable expense to the city.

    Finally, and I will have more coming in the following months, but the new proposed Charter allows the City Manager to establish and staff new departments as they see fit. He or she must consult with the Council, but approval from the Council is not required. This has the potential for government bloat. See section 4.01.B. Other huge problems I see are (1) the contract of the City Manager will not have a definite term and the person serves at the pleasure of the Council – this has the potential to make the position hyper-political (whenever a new faction / party / coalition gains a majority on the Council they can and likely will replace the City Manager with someone more to their liking), and (2) the City Manager may reside outside of Saratoga Springs (where – Albany, Schenectady, Troy, etc.) with approval of the Council – suppose the Council changes their mind? Would the City be on the hook for legal fees, real estate transaction costs, etc., in such a situation?

    Thank you,
    Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan

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