This is a rather long piece. The length is necessitated by the gravity of my accusation against an institution which I believe to have played, up to now, a vital role in our democracy. I deplore cheap attacks and to understand what the League has done, it requires understanding the history of the League and the specifics of what has occurred. I have included at the bottom a copy of the League’s explanation as to what they have done.
The National League’s Standards For Fairness
[This excerpt is from the National’s narrative on how to arrive at an organizational position. Note that the process is not exclusive to the members of the board but is supposed to involve the membership]
“The first step is vital: STUDY. League members across the country must look at all sides of an issue, study the facts, the ramifications of all approaches to that issue, alternative solutions, the impacts on people, places and things, the costs and benefits. Only after studying the issue do League members come together in their own local Leagues to discuss that issue at a meeting to arrive at the “consensus” of their League on the issue.
The results of all local Leagues discussing the issue are compiled to determine the consensus of the League as a whole. CONSENSUS is not a vote – rather, consensus is a mutual agreement of League members arrived at through civil discourse, the hallmark of the League of Women Voters.
In the process of discussing the issue, League members must turn the issue upside down, sideways, backwards and forwards. Because of our nature, training, upbringing, experience and hearing others’ ideas, League members will see an issue differently. In fact we cherish the fact that we bring different perspectives on issues. Because the process of coming to consensus is an amalgam of members’ thoughts, ideas and ways of looking at the facts, members attending the consensus meeting must dig deeply into the issue. That is why we cannot typically pose a consensus question in the frame of “Do you support the NPV compact approach to electing the President?” Consensus questions are designed to spark a discourse about the issue akin to the discussion we would expect policymakers to have when they deliberate the issue. Consensus questions are not black and white, yes or no questions. There is no right or wrong answer to a consensus.”
How The Local League Studied The Forms Of Local Government And What They Decided
Concerned about the organizational effectiveness of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and other municipalities the local League initiated a “study” in May of 2015. Consistent with the standards of its national organization it labored over this work for two years and issued its position in April of 2017. Note how modest their finding is. A mere two paragraphs, it reflected the caution that is consistent with both its history and the nature of the process. Here is the text:
“The League of Women Voters of Saratoga County believes that it is important to have a clear separation of powers, and checks and balances in County Government and therefore we support having an elected County Executive. Additional reasons for supporting a County Executive are that because the County Executive would be elected county-wide the Executive would be focused on the needs of the County as a whole; and because the term of office would be longer than the current one-year term of the Chair of the Board of Supervisors continuity and long range planning would be enhanced.
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.”
The Local League Pushes Through Endorsement At Board Meeting
As noted in the excerpt from the National League, decisions are supposed to be the result of consensus which is supposed to involve the membership. No notice was sent out to the membership of the local League advising them that the board planned to take action on endorsing the proposed city charter.
In a release to the media, the board of the local League defended their action by asserting that they had studied the charter to determine that it was consistent with their previously adopted position, to wit, that it would separate the legislative duties from the administrative duties.
This piece of legal sophistry is painfully thin. The proposed charter involves far more than the separation of powers. I will be going through the issues of the charter in a series of related posts but here are just a few. The proposed charter changes the terms of city council members from two to four years and staggers the terms. It creates a mayor who no longer has any administrative duties but whose salary is roughly triple the current mayor’s salary. As of the date at which the League made its decision there had been no financial analysis of the cost of the new form of government although members of the charter commission have made claims that it will save many hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are more but these are just some of the substantial issues involved.
Most conspicuous was the League board’s failure to invite representatives who opposed the proposed charter to their endorsement meeting. The only person with an in depth knowledge of the document was Barbara Thomas who is one of the rotating League presidents, who is on the board, and who is also on the Charter Review Commission. This seems rather out of keeping with the National’s admonish, “members… must look at all sides of an issue.”
So using the terms from the national, would anyone argue that at this single meeting of the board our League “…study[ied] the facts, the ramifications of all approaches to that issue, alternative solutions, the impacts on people, places and things, the costs and benefits…” Or that the “League members [had turned] the issue upside down, sideways, backwards and forwards.”
It is also worth noting that as a member of the charter review commission, Ms. Thomas’ decision not to recuse herself from the vote is quite troubling. When asked by the Saratogian about this, Ms. Thomas responded that she “did not see it as a conflict.” It seems to me that people of good faith could argue over this issue. The thing that I used to admire about the League was that it would go the extra mile on issues like this to avoid even the appearance of a problem. Their main concern was insuring their credibility in the eyes of a public grown cynical about manipulation.
I will be following up this post by going through the charter identifying what I believe to be the critical policy issues outside of whether a reader prefers the commission form or prefers the council/city manager form. When you vote in November, notwithstanding the League’s myopic approach, you will decide on some very important changes to our government beyond these two models.
One can only hope that the board of the League will see the folly of what they have done and take action to acknowledge the error and to assure the public that they will again adhere to the policies that have made them such an important resource for the community.
Finally, I would take exception with the League’s original position that the legislative players in government should be structurally separated from the executive players. Most democracies in the world have parliamentary systems. These include Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. When a political party wins a majority of seats, the prime minister selects individual members of parliament to serve as the heads of the country’s key institutions. There are positions like minister of health, minister of transportation, minister of housing, etc. Many, myself among them, think that this is a more democratic model and less prone to the kind of executive excess and gridlock that our own country seems to suffer from.
[The League’s statement to its members]
15 thoughts on “Saratoga County League of Women Voters Sacrifices Years Of Trust In Their Haste To Endorse Proposed Charter”
The League has made an admirable decision. Those who have an intimate knowledge of our commission form of government, and an objective perspective on the new charter, agree overwhelmingly that we need to get this done, if we don’t want to be literally the last city in the country to get the message. (Among cities our size and larger, the only ones still stuck with the commission form are us and Portland Oregon. The 2015 yearbook of the International City/County Management Association lists 28 cities, but when you get into their charters, you find that all but 2 have different systems.)
It is curious that some suggest the city’s official charter review commission should be categorized as some kind of advocacy organization. They were charged with looking at our charter and making recommendations for improvements, which they have done, based on months of serious research, interviews and public meetings. They have crafted an excellent product, and their job now is to inform the public about what they saw and why they made the choices they did. And the entire city needs to get behind them. But the old barn-kickers are still at it, trying to knock down anything new, no matter how much better it is.
It’s not clear that SUCCESS would be much help in the League’s study of the charter issue. It doesn’t appear that they really know much about the actual workings of council-manager government, concocting scary stories about “dictators” and “czars,” and some massive bureaucracy who will hypnotize a helpless city council and build a great wall to protect them from the public. Their research consists of Googling newspaper articles and reporting only those that contain anything remotely negative about a city that happens to have the council-manager form. They have a rather extreme conception of the power of our city government, revering the commission system as the font of our city’s greatness, apparently responsible for everything from our mineral springs to our Victorian architecture.
The analogy between the commission system and parliamentary government is interesting, but not quite apt. The commission system is like a parliament without a prime minister, with cabinet ministers of warring parties. How long would England have survived WWII with a system like that?
The commission system is deeply flawed. We can’t allow ourselves to bog down the change our city so desperately needs in niggling over a modest raise for the mayor or 4-year staggered terms, which most cities have.
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“The commission system is deeply flawed. We can’t allow ourselves to bog down the change our city so desperately needs in niggling over a modest raise for the mayor or 4-year staggered terms, which most cities have.”
Fine, Mr. Fenton. Let’s concede that this is true – although flaws are in the eye of the beholder. I then have only one question:
Why can’t you guys win fair and square?
Here’s what I see:
1- Going into this election – charter change is a multi-time loser. Still a maiden.
2- A completely stacked deck on the Charter Review Commission’s roster
3- An acknowledged flawed, incomplete, biased and fake survey
4- Incomplete and inaccurate budgeting and financial assumptions played up as objective facts. Included in this is a fanciful statement about mega-savings “From Day One” that have not been identified or quantified.
5- Use, and yes, abuse of student’s time. Being taught what NOT to do insofar as proper scientific survey research
6- An ‘endorsement’ by a tainted, purported ‘objective’ branch of the League of Women Voters, with an obvious (yet blithely dismissed) conflict of interest. They are the laughingstock of the entire country. Our LWV’s conduct here should be reported to their HQ. I predict that they will be admonished – John, let’s write this letter together if you like.
7- Finally Rick, WTF is wrong with Portland? Seems like a beautiful city with lots of parks and a nice restaurant and arts scene.
I doubt I am the only one who sees this flim-flam of fakery for what it is. I have always respected your opinion Rick, and continue to do so. The leaders of the Charter Change movement could have used you more. Instead, they are desperately cheating to get their way, and I for one, hope and pray that this ‘conduct’ gets soundly booted out the door – again – at the ballot box.
You had a great chance to win on merit, in the marketplace of ideas. Your leaders let you down.
I ask you again: Why can’t you guys win fair and square?
This posting, John, is a waste of 10 minutes of my life. The self-serving spin is very apparent. The first paragraph you quote does not apply to the cities in Saratoga County only the second paragraph applies to the cities. This second paragraph is very applicable and supportive of the current charter change. These quotes came from the county level so there is support there.
“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.”
Sound like the county organization is speaking directly to the City of Saratoga Springs.
Mr. Fenton’s comment is right on. Thank you for all of your time and effort to make the city of Saratoga Springs a much better place to live.
arthur’s comment is a winey-crying “it is not fair” losers argument. Argue on the merits and facts and stop the winey argument it is not fair. Stop embarrassing Saratoga Springs with this childlike behavior.
To answer authur’s one question what is wrong with Portland? So much. So much.
Single-family homes that are out of reach of any working couple, $500,000 starters.
High unemployment. No one works in Portland because the average housing price appreciates more than the average salary. Can you say bubble housing market. Because of this homelessness is rampant or more than 10% of the population. Public works is replacing all water lines after years of neglect and stagnation because of lead, sewer lines too. with taxes heading thru the roof. Drug problems associated with legalization. shall I keep going?
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I’ll judge on the merits and facts when I actually get some numbers that make sense. Right now I have a work of fiction as I see it.
Paula, calling people names is undignified and I am surprised at you . I could answer in kind and call you a judgmental, pompous oaf – but I have no desire to visit your sewer.
On the merits, the problems you cites occur in every urban area. Really you think homelessness is only occurring in cities that have commission forms of government. A pompous judgmental person might call you a fanciful dope. And you sourced none of your data, like a good journalist would.
But your not a journalist Paula, nor a judge thank God.
Arthur, I see a lot recurring themes in the campaign of the opposition, which you succinctly list. Here’s what I see about what you see:
1. The fact that people have voted down change before isn’t proof that the proposed change is bad. It’s evidence that it’s hard to get people to embrace change. SUCCESS just likes to pat themselves on the back for the past success of their campaign of selective and imaginary information.
2. For her appointments to the charter review commission, the mayor didn’t ask what people thought about the form of government. You should ask them. In the beginning, those against change was sure the commission would all vote to give the mayor more power, a position which, as it turns out, they unanimously opposed.
3. Undoubtedly most of the 75 people who responded to the commission’s survey work in city hall, where they are most likely to be affected by the way the government works. Clearly there is a strong sense among those people that things need to change. Of course the survey wasn’t the basis for the proposed change in the form of government, just supporting information. But SUCCESS has been using their usual tactics – mention a couple survey comments that are somewhat supportive of the status quo as if that balances the dozens of submissions that support change, and use that as justification for keeping our city in the stone age.
4. There will be substantial savings considering the change in payroll alone. (If anyone doubts that a manager and an assistant manager can replace 5 deputies, they should talk to a manager, not just lie back, close their eyes and dream.) Beyond that, can anyone doubt that consolidating 5 uncoordinated departments into 1, under the oversight of a manager with an advanced degree and years of experience specific to government management, and a nationwide network of colleagues, won’t save money?
5. Comments about the League’s decision to support the new charter sound like a pretty severe case of sour grapes to me.
6. I must say, all this focus on Portland is pretty funny. It’s like SUCCESS is in a debate class, and for exercise, is given the impossible task of defending the worst form of city government in America. “What do we do? Well, we have to find something positive to say, and really crank it up. Hey look! There’s another city in the country that still has it! And it’s even bigger than us! Sure, it’s the only other one, but let’s not mention that. We’ll just point out that it’s a big city, and quickly move onto some other sort of positive thing we can say. There must be something. Anybody?”
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Thanks 4 your civilized comments… To clarify:
I am not a member of SUCCESS nor have I ever been.
I believe you brought up Portland. Not SUCCESS, not me.
The Mayor didn’t directly ask a ‘litmus test’ question, that is true. Not to single out my friend Pat Kane, but do you really have to ask how he feels about the Charter?
The League can take a position. They failed to do due diligence on the document itself- and certainly before the finances, such as they are, since they just were distributed yesterday. Let’s face it: they made themselves look stupid. But realistically, how many votes will their endorsement swing? So you can have their ‘grapes’ – sour or otherwise…
Your leadership, and the Charter Commission Chair – one and the same – has failed you stupendously. You got caught with your hand in the fake survey cookie jar, and you want to blame SUCCESS for your own side’s malfeasance.
I don’t think it’s going to work, but you never know… Maybe the electorate likes to be flim-flammed.
But I’m voting NO.
2.. “For her appointments to the charter review commission, the mayor didn’t ask what people thought about the form of government.” Please, she has known each of them for years. She didn’t need to ask them, she already knew.
3. I don’t see Arthur arguing the responses to the survey but how the survey was presented. Anyone who has taken a pscyh course or two knows that the wording of the questions can skew the responses the way one wants.
4. I have to question if you have any idea what the deputies do – not just for their commissioner but in management of daily City Hall activities (budgets, staffing, daily problem solving, constituent services, to name just a few). There is no way this can be done as the new charter indicates. Also, it needs to be noted that some of those deputies may be retained yet that is not indicated in the financial report.
NOTE: I haven’t yet decided how I plan to vote on the change. I just want the facts to be real and they simply don’t seem to be.
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Sorry, John, but your entire premise is incorrect. I’ve been a long-time member of the LWV and the League’s policy of non-partisanship applies to political parties and specific candidates only, whom the League never endorses. A major part of the League’s mission is electoral and legislative reform. As such, it actively lobbies legislators on specifics, including easier voter registration, uniform primary and general election days, mail-in voting, and so on.
At the heart of the proposed charter is an expanded City Council whose duties would primarily be as legislators, not direct administrators, as the current commissioners are. Though some may disagree, this is a major step toward electoral reform and it is completely legitimate for the LWV to endorse the proposed charter without violating its policy of non-partisanship. Endorsing and promoting specific referendum issues that expand voters’ rights is along-time tradition with the LWV, a policy which you completely missed.
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And you missed the point of my post. The issue is not whether the League can take a position on the charter. They most assuredly can. The point is that they are supposed to thoroughly study something like the charter involving their membership (not just their board) and listening to all sides before adopting a position. They needed to use the same scrupulous approach to their analysis of county government and city government to come to a “consensus” on whether or not to endorse the charter. The fact that they did not seek the opponents’ analysis of the charter before making a determination is an egregious violation of the League process. This has nothing to do with whether you are for or against the charter. I would encourage you to re-read my piece.
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Rick Fenton said: “The change the city so desperately needs”. He’s right. Our taxes are out of control, public safety at an all tome low, no one visits our restaurants or stays in our hotels, property values are plummeting, no recreational facilities, no trails, no movement on clean sustainable energy at stable costs, residents fleeing the city in droves, the city is out of money and no one will lend us any, its all a big mess and we are so desperate.
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Hey, don’t forget our health-giving mineral springs, the Casino, Skidmore College, the race track, SPAC, the Northway, those big bass in Saratoga Lake, and the remarkably vivid blue of the sky. And in 7 years, thanks to the commission form of government, we’re getting the eclipse!
Well actually, I’m glad you brought up taxes. I’ve noticed that SUCCESS has been very careful to say our tax RATE is low. As a taxpayer wary of the things SUCCESS chooses to say, I took an interest. Of course the first thing I thought was that the tax rate really doesn’t mean anything to me. That’s just the formula for how much I actually pay in taxes, which does mean something. And yes, according to See Through NY, we have the 8th lowest tax rate out of 61 cities outside NYC in the state. And why is that? Mostly because we have the 3rd highest assessed property value per capita. So the tax rate is more a reflection of our unaffordable housing than taxes.
When you zero in on taxes, the picture isn’t quite as rosy. Out of 61 cities in the state, we are 8th highest in per capita city tax. Not including county or school, just city. And of the 48 cities in the upstate region, we are 3rd highest.
The envy of the State?
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Rick, you say:
3. Undoubtedly most of the 75 people who responded to the commission’s survey work in city hall, where they are most likely to be affected by the way the government works. Clearly there is a strong sense among those people that things need to change.
Henry says: For things to “change” in City Hall, do we need to change the form of government? Who says that a city manager is going to be an easy-going, easy to get-along-with bloke? Instead, I would vote for a Mayor who can be tough as nails, and save money, and get City Hall employees to answer the damn phone when it rings.
Henry, in a word – yes. Without a change in the form of government, the mayor can’t tell anyone what to do in any department supervised by a commissioner. We simply do not have the kind of mayor most people think we have. In our commission form, we have 5 elected officials overseeing 5 separate departments – nobody is in charge. That will change only if we make this change happen. Please come to the library on October 2 and 18. The commission is inviting some real city managers to meet people and show you what nice people they are.
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