Saratoga County League of Women Voters Charter Panel Violates Their Standards of Fairness and Balance

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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18 thoughts on “Saratoga County League of Women Voters Charter Panel Violates Their Standards of Fairness and Balance”

  1. John – in the LWV the term “consensus” has always been taken to mean “substantial agreement”, not unanimity. I believe that this is the usual, acceptable definition of “consensus”. “Consensus” is NOT a synonym for “unanimity”.

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  2. That is great that you complain that this meeting is not fair yada yada yada….How about providing something useful like the date time and place of this event so that people can go and fact check what you are posting?

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  3. Betty, I agree with what you are saying about the word consensus and the way the League uses it. The point of this argument is that the local LWV does not have a consensus on changing the form of government in Saratoga Springs to what will be on the ballot in November. Jane pointed out the many areas that will be different under the new form of government. These areas have not been studied by the League. Under their own rules both sides should be at the debate to present both sides of the issue. I hope they will change their minds and keep the debate fair and have both sides talking. What do they have to loose by including SUCCESS?

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  4. Remember reading that Barbara Thomas also tried to orchestrate a one-sided LWV event on changing the Saratoga Springs city charter in 2006.

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  5. This is terribly disappointing.

    Consensus is derived through compromise – in which all sides are given a fair hearing.

    However, I just learned that the LWV, which has scrupulous standards of objectivity regarding contested offices like our city’s Mayor position, can take a position of a given proposition facing voters, and not present the opposing view. Disappointment #1.

    When I saw the list of appointees to the Charter Review Commission, I realized that the Mayor had stacked the deck with many who have advocated a wholesale change in government structure, for whatever reason she may have had. But, having familiarity and a working relationship with Barbara Thomas and the League, I felt that she would be a voice for examining both sides of the issue, and one who would help to build a real consensus. Disappointment #2.

    The weakness of this is that the outcome insofar as the public is that the Charter Review Commission has been heavy-handed, paternalistic, and frankly biased in their proceedings and their presentation to the public. I want to believe that the public is smarter than they are being credited for – but who knows? I certainly didn’t think the public would elect our current President…

    My hope, however, is that OUR public – that is, residents of zip code 12866 – will see this flim-flaming for what it is: A biased Commission that refused to consider examining the (admitted) weak points of our government structure and make suggestions as to how they might be buttressed and or modified, but instead adopted the “baby with the bathwater approach” with supporting documentation that is either fake (surveys), or incomplete (budgets and interviews) – all presented with an arrogant “trust us” attitude that amazingly acts like victory is a foregone conclusion, conveniently ignoring that this same scheme (call it what it is) was resoundingly defeated on more than one occasion previously!

    My hope is that this biased Commission is sent packing again. I have traveled a long road on this issue – but now it is as clear as day to me. I am voting “No,” and urge my fellow neighbors to do the same. This Commission’s behavior has been abhorrent, and should be told so where it counts – at the ballot box. Don’t let there be a Dissapointment #3, for it will be a biggie.

    I further hope that the next Mayor, regardless of who it is, appoints a real Charter Review Commission -a balanced one – drawn from people where all viewpoints are welcomed – to examine issues like centralized payroll, purchasing, and perhaps eliminating a Deputy position or two – might make things more efficient. These are but a few examples of what a balanced commission might make progress on and be able to sell to the public, as it would be derived from true consensus as described above.

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  6. Arthur. Your best posting, without a doubt.
    I am totally with you.
    And, at the same time, disappointed in the LWV. I always thought they had their “stuff” together.

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    1. Thank you, Henry. To clarify, I have learned that the City does have a centralized payroll and purchasing structure. It is the time reporting structure that is not centralized at this point. I stand 100 percent behind everything else – in fact, as I re-read my words, I am getting angrier at the members of the Commission and their paternalistic attitude towards the electorate. Your activities were funded by us taxpayers, and I wish you could be officially censured for wasting our money and time. The best thing we can do is send these people back home as resounding losers. We deserved better from you.

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  7. Factual point. Like the existing charter, the proposed city charter does not provide for a full time city attorney. Rather it changes how the appointment process works. We heard from several people, including Commissioners Madigan and Scirocco, that the City Attorney should be responsible to the City Council as a whole, rather than hired and fired solely by the Mayor.
    The Charter Commission interviewed the two current city attorneys as well former city attorney Jeff Waite about the position as well as Commission member Matt Jones who has worked closely with all of the past attorneys. What we heard was that the City would benefit from greater continuity in the city attorney position.
    The text of the proposed and current charter are below.
    PROPOSED CHARTER
    4.03 City Attorney
    The City Attorney shall be appointed by the City Council from a list of at least two qualified candidates nominated by the City Manager. The City Attorney shall serve as general legal advisor to the City Council and to the City Manager, and shall be responsible for providing legal services and guidance to the City and all its departments and entities. The City Attorney shall maintain regular and updated records and shall report to the Council on the progress of all legal matters conducted by or on behalf of the City, as required.
    An employment agreement between the attorney and the City, approved by the Council and executed by the Mayor, shall provide for compensation and such other terms to which the parties may agree.
    The City Attorney may, with the approval of the City Manager, engage legal professionals to provide additional, specialized legal service to the City or to any department or entity. Contracts with all such legal professionals shall be reviewed and approved by the City Attorney.
    EXISTING CHARTER
    8.1City Attorney.
    There shall be a City Attorney who shall report to the Council regarding all legal matters affecting the City. The Mayor shall appoint the City Attorney, and the Council shall establish his or her compensation. The City Attorney shall serve as general legal advisor and shall be responsible for providing legal services and guidance to the City and all its departments and entities. The City Attorney shall maintain regular and updated records and shall report to the Council on the progress of all legal matters conducted by or on behalf of the City, as required.
    The Council may, from time to time, engage legal professionals to provide additional legal service to the City or to any department or entity. Contracts with all such legal professionals shall be reviewed and approved by the Council.

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    1. You misspelled Wait, Professor.

      Typical.

      Of course, how would you know? No one important in this town’s esteemed history was, or is named Wait. Right.

      I think several people named Wait assist Skidmore often… Dr, Glotzbach, can you please tell this guy to stop embarrassing himself and your great institution?

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    2. Bob—
      It is true that your charter does not specifically state that the City Attorney will be full time. However the document your group produced entitled “Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission 2017 Proposed City Charter Fiscal Impact Summary” states the following:

      “We also assume an increase in compensation for the City Attorney, to $90,000 plus benefits from the present $65,000 plus benefits, and retention of a part time attorney at $60,000.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I would like to apply for the city attorney job.
    It’s quite easy to be the person who hires outside attorneys to represent the city. For really big fees.
    Sorry to sound cynical, but hasn’t this been past practice? Seriously,….. flirting with people in DPW, and passing the buck seems to have been the norm for years.

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    1. henry37-
      Actually it has not been past practice for one person to hire outside attorneys to represent the city.

      Currently a contract to hire an outside attorney is looked at by many eyes. It must first have the approval of some of the city Directors such as Marilyn Rivers in the Accounts Department. Then final approval of a contract goes to the City Council for a public discussion and vote.

      The proposed charter, as I read it, would give much of that authority to basically one person —the City Attorney (with the approval of the City Manager who is not elected)—in a process that is much more centralized and less public.

      Section 4.03 of the proposed charter reads:
      “The City Attorney may, with the approval of the City Manager, engage legal professionals to provide additional, specialized legal service to the City or to any department or entity. Contracts with all such legal professionals shall be reviewed and approved by the City Attorney.”

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  9. I spoke with someone from the LWV yesterday who said that the original format called for a presentation by three members of the Charter Commission, followed by a panel discussion featuring three representatives from a “for” group and three from an “against” group (not SUCCESS). Apparently, the “against” group decided to withdraw, so the League cancelled the panel, leaving the Charter Commission as the sole presenter.

    It should be pointed out that SUCCESS held their own information forum last night at the SS Public Library, with no “for” speakers on the program.

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    1. What’s your point, Joe? It wasn’t a debate, SUCCESS put their presentation on and then opened it up to questions.most who asked questions have lived here for less than 2 years that’s just a fact, Joe!

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  10. Joe—I’m not sure who you talked to at the League. I emailed Barbara Thomas in August asking if the League were planning to hold a forum on the charter this fall. Here is what she sent me:
    **********************************************************************
    The New Charter Proposed for Saratoga Springs
    Learn about the Charter before you vote in November
    Panelists (all are members of the Commission):
    Gordon Boyd – founder of EnergyNext, Inc., former NYS Assembly staff member
    Minita Sanghvi -assistant professor, Management and Business, Skidmore College
    Barbara Thomas – community activist, retired health clinic director

    Moderator: Pattie Garrett (LWVSC)
    Thursday, September 21, 7pm
    Dutcher Community Room, Saratoga Springs Public Library
    *******************************************************************************
    After members of SUCCESS objected that this did not allow for an opposing view of the charter we received this offer from Pattie Garrett, co-president of the League:
    ******************************************************************
    “Good morning. I’m writing on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County to request a representative from your organization to present at our public form on the Saratoga Springs City Charter. We are asking SUCCESS and It’s Time Saratoga to provide a speaker.
    The format will begin with a panel of three from the charter commission. They will explain what’s in the charter proposal. This will be followed with a Pro vs Con presentation, 10 minutes each. Questions will follow with time set aside for audience members to state their stand or thoughts on the charter.
    The event will be held on Thursday, September 21, 2017, 7 pm at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, in the Dutcher Community Room.
    Please let me know if your organization will provide a speaker for this event. I will need the name of the speaker for our publicity by mid next week.
    Please let me how I can help with clarification or addressing your concerns.”
    ********************************************************************
    Since this format would allow supporters of the charter 4 speakers for 40 minutes and opponents one speaker for 10 minutes we declined and encouraged them to re-think the format to allow equal time and representation for both points of view.

    Let me note that in 2012 the League held a forum on the charter change that was proposed that year. They had a League member from Clifton Park present the contents of the charter, then gave equal time to two supporters and two opponents of the charter to present, followed by questions from the audience. Neither side objected to this format.

    So here is the response from Pattie Garrett, co-president of the League:
    *****************************************************************
    “Thank you Jane and the SUCCESS leadership for considering our request. We will hold the event as originally planned with a panel from the commission since there will not be anyone representing the opposition to the proposed charter.”
    Pattie Garrett
    **********************************************************************
    Please note, Joe, she says they will hold the event as “originally planned”.

    I would be happy to share with you the rest of my correspondence with Barbara Thomas, a League Board member, and Co-President Patti Garrett . Karen Klotz, a member and past president of the League also communicated with the board regarding their plans for a forum which evolved as John has described in his blog in more detail.

    As to the SUCCESS event last night, we are an organization opposed to the charter change. The panel last night was clearly advertised as an opportunity for the public to hear the critics of the proposal. We are not the League.

    The Charter Commission itself has already held three public events to present their proposal, one that was publically funded. They are holding more events including private house parties and a panel at the Unitarian Church, none of which include opponents to their proposal.

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