The Saratoga County League of Women Voters has a long and extraordinary history of serving our county regarding public policy issues and elections. They have earned a reputation for scrupulous impartiality. They have been tested on many occasions as they have become the established body to host the “candidate nights.”
In addition, they have taken on a kind of consumer reports function by studying a variety of controversial public policy issues and providing educational materials and events to share their findings. People rightly look at recommendations from the League as an important resource in assessing community controversies.
The League handbook states under Guidelines for Presenting Differing Views of an Issue at a League of Women Voters Information Meeting: “When the League of Women Voters Study Committee has studied an issue and arrived at consensus (my emphasis), it is legitimate that we inform the public of our position and why we support the stand. In such cases, it is not necessary to present opposition views.”
In April the League issued a position paper entitled “LWV Saratoga Position on Governance of Local Governments”. The position paper vigorously argued that Saratoga County government needed professional management and advocated establishing an executive who would professionally manage the county. Currently the county is managed by its legislature through subcommittees. It also included the following text regarding the cities in Saratoga County:
The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County believes that Cities in this County should separate their administrative functions from their legislative functions by having a City Council that makes policy and laws and either an elected executive or an appointed administrator to carry out administrative functions. The League supports this separation of functions in order to have a strong centralized administration, to have clear lines of responsibility and to eliminate waste.
Several weeks ago the League announced that it would hold a public forum on the proposed Saratoga Springs city charter. Three representatives from the Saratoga Springs Charter Commission would be the presenters. No one opposing the adoption of the charter was included. The League leadership cited the position taken in April on separation of powers and the section of their handbook cited above as the justification for presenting a panel on the charter that included only those in favor of the change.
Jane Weihe, my wife and one of the leaders of SUCCESS, a group opposing the adoption of the proposed charter, contacted the League. She pointed out that the proposed charter involved far more than the establishment of a city manager. For example, in addition to the replacement of the current commissioners with council members who only have a legislative function, it established a mayor’s position with an increased salary and decreased responsibilities. It revised the city attorney from a part time position to a full time position. It changed the terms of the members of the council from two years to four years and it staggered their terms. It established term limits for members of the council. It established a controversial plan for how the transition would take place. Many questions about what the new government would actually look like and what it would cost have been the subject of heated debate.
Jane would have had no problem with a one sided forum on the virtues of separating administrative from legislative functions in local governments as that was the position adopted by the League. What she took grave exception to was that the League has never studied the proposed charter (it still may not be complete) let alone endorsed it and it was specifically this document that was to be the topic of the forum
A common definition of “consensus” is unanimity. I know for a fact that there are members of the League who vigorously oppose the adoption of the charter. Not only has the League not formally taken a position on the charter, in light of the divisive nature of the issues it is extremely unlikely that they could adopt it by consensus. [JK: Betty Gallagher, who was one of the founders of the League has indicated that the League’s definition of “consensus” does not require unanimity.]
The League seems to not have considered that it is quite possible to support the idea of a city manager but to disagree with other facets of the proposed charter and thus oppose its adoption.
I would note that the League has a stellar history statewide of taking strong exception to maneuvers by politicians who stretch rules to serve their goals. It is hard to reconcile this record with the failure by the Saratoga County League to study and unanimously endorse the Saratoga Springs charter while putting on a panel consisting only of supporters of that charter.
My friend Barbara Thomas is one of the three people who head the League as a member of the Presidential Steering Committee.
I cannot think of a person in our city who has worked harder on social justice issues than Ms. Thomas. She was on my board when I was the executive director of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council. For decades she worked for Planned Parenthood championing women’s rights to healthcare and abortion. She has served for decades in a leadership position in the League of Women Voters. If there is an issue of injustice, I can fully expect that Ms. Thomas will be there to fight to right it.
Last year Mayor Joanne Yepsen appointed Ms. Thomas to the Charter Review Commission. I was concerned earlier this year when she defended the Commission’s plan to hold a special election the day after Memorial Day week end to vote on the charter by claiming the voter turnout on that day would be higher than the turnout at the regular November election.
She has now been selected by the League to be part of the three member Charter Panel. So Barbara chairs the League, is a member of the Charter Review Commission, and will be a panelist presenting the virtues of a new charter.
Following complaints by members of SUCCESS about the lack of balance on the proposed panel, the League emailed Jane. They proposed that in addition to the panel made up of 3 charter commission members, they wanted someone opposed to the charter and someone in favor of the charter to each speak for 10 minutes.
After consulting with other members of her group, Jane declined the offer. Three charter commission members were to be allotted an undetermined amount of time to state their case and in addition a member of the pro charter advocacy group It’s Time would be given another 10 minutes to make arguments for the adoption of the charter. That would leave 10 minutes for one member of SUCCESS to put forward arguments against adoption. 4 to 1 and an unbalanced time allotment did not meet the standards the League has always met for presenting balanced information on controversial topics.
I am simply stunned by all of this. There has been plenty of zealotry accompanying the controversy over the charter. As I have documented on this blog, some rather questionable tactics have been used by good people whose judgment has been compromised.
I would have expected my friend Barbara, in spite of her role in crafting the charter, to insist as the League always has, that both sides of the issue be scrupulously balanced so that all the facts would come out
Wherever one stands on the future of the proposed charter, I hope that you would share my concern that the League is tarnishing its extraordinary record and its credibility by violating the rules that are the essence of the trust they have earned over the years.
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