I recently learned that Meg Kelly is willing to meet with me… ten days after the election if she wins.
It’s Time Saratoga! is the PAC working on behalf of the Charter Review Commission to promote charter change in Saratoga Springs.
Given the expensive mailings and other media done by them I was curious where the money came from. As it turns out, approximately 75% of the money raised by It’s Time Saratoga! came from the national and state associations of city managers.
The International City/County Management Association is located in Washington D.C. It gave a $15,000.00 donation to It’s Time Saratoga. In addition the New York State City/County Management Association located in Valhalla, NY gave $2,500.00.
There is nothing illegal about their contributions. In fact it is not surprising that they want to see their network expand.
The problem is that the Charter Commission people have gone on ad nausea about how completely apolitical city managers are. In fact, as far as I can tell, these associations do preclude their individual members from participating in politics. This, however, apparently does not preclude the associations themselves from pursuing their own self interest by involving themselves in one of the most contentious city elections in my memory.
Like so many of materials, the apolitical nature of city managers was at least overstated.
I expect the people at It’s Time Saratoga! and many of their supporters will shrug this off as they have all the other abuses committed by this group in their zealous pursuit of charter change.
Below is a list of the contributors to It’s Time Saratoga! from the New York State Board of Elections site where PACs are required to report.
|INTERNATIONAL CITY/COUNTY MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION 777 NORTH CAPITOL ST, NE, SUITE 500 WASHINGTON, DC 20002-4201||15,000.00||17-OCT-17|
|NEW YORK STATE CITY/COUNTY MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION 20 FOXHILL RD VALHALLA, NY 10595||2,500.00||12-OCT-17|
|ALDRICH, PHYLLIS 49 GRANITE ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||10-OCT-17|
|BARNETT, TIM 22 FIFTH AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||21-OCT-17|
|BOARDMAN, JOHN 118 WHITE ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||25.00||17-AUG-17|
|BOARDMAN, JOHN 118 WHITE ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||01-JUN-17|
|BOYD, GORDON 99 STATE ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||250.00||12-SEP-17|
|BOYD, GORDON 99 STATE ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||500.00||26-JUN-17|
|CUNEO, JULIE 7 BEACON HILL DR SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||250.00||26-JUN-17|
|DAKE, GARY PO BOX 435 SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||500.00||26-JUN-17|
|ENGLERT, LINDA 52 FRANKLIN ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|FENTON, RICHARD T 23 LEFFERTS ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|FENTON, RICHARD T 23 LEFFERTS ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||20.00||17-MAY-17|
|GAGNE, MARGARET 22 VICHY DR SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|GEIGER, J T 51 WATERVIEW DR SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|GLASER, BARBARA L 110 SPRING ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||500.00||03-JUL-17|
|GOLD, JAMES 199 WOODLAWN AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||250.00||04-OCT-17|
|HART, SARAH 177 SPRING ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|HOLMBERG, ARTHUR 21 SUMMERFIELD LA SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||50.00||26-JUN-17|
|KANE, BETH BRUCKER 19 MARION PL SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||200.00||26-JUN-17|
|KRACKELER, RACHEL 190 LAKE AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||300.00||26-JUN-17|
|LAIRD, MARTI 12 PINEWOOD AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||23-OCT-17|
|MASIE, CATHY 46 CIRCULAR ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||17-OCT-17|
|MORRISON, CHARLES 88 COURT ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||400.00||26-JUN-17|
|NICHOLSON, JOHN 306 NELSON AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||27-SEP-17|
|PROUGH, MARGARET 22 FERNDELL SPRING DR SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|RILEY, ALMEDA 156 LAWRENCE ST #203A SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||500.00||26-JUN-17|
|SCHULTZ, FRANCIS X 18 PINEWOOD AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||200.00||08-AUG-17|
|SCHWARZ-LAWTON, HELEN 209 NELSON AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||03-JUL-17|
|SHOEN, TIM 136 NELSON AVE SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||50.00||15-OCT-17|
|THOMAS, BARBARA PO BOX 964 SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||200.00||26-JUN-17|
|THOMPSON, RICHARD 26 FREDERICK DR SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||50.00||26-JUN-17|
|TRYPALUK, BARBARA 211 CIRCULAR ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||50.00||25-SEP-17|
|VAN METER, MARGIE 175 WASHINGTON ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
|WAINWRIGHT, JOHN 80 CRESCENT ST SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY 12866||100.00||26-JUN-17|
There is a wonderful irony about this post. By its nature it is directed at people who do not read my blog. I am writing for people who are actually interested in drilling down on issues and understanding them better. They do not necessarily agree with my perspective but they are interested in the facts and documented narratives that are at the heart of what I write. In fact, they may very well disagree with me on charter change as is the case with my friend Chris Mathiesen. The readers welcome the challenge of rethinking issues.
This charter campaign has been a teachable moment for me. What I have been learning has not been necessarily pleasant but it has revealed a trend in politics that I had begun to sense but had not quite grasped. To me the charter change campaign is a reflection of the worst of what has become routine cynical campaign techniques.
Matt Taibi is the political essayist for Rolling Stone Magazine. In a talk he gave recently on the past Presidential election, he explained that there is an entire sub specialty among political operatives that crafts speeches for these campaigns. Using a variety of methods including focus groups and polling (you will remember that Bob Turner promoted one of these polls before it was “outed”), they seek phrases that will resonate with voters. These are things like “wealth creators”, “common ground”, etc. They then string these together to create the appearance of a speech. They are looking for the “tune” that will make voters feel good about the candidate. “Such and such will stand up for America.” “Such and such is committed to inclusion not prejudice,” ad nausea. These are all phrases with no real policies behind them because once you get into actual substance, messages tend to lose their happy factor.
This technique has become particularly popular in the age of the web where tweeting and Facebook have become the new forms of communication. In a time when ideas are limited to being expressed in 140 characters or to photographs with captions or memes, a mass of people have no time or interest in anything requiring sitting down and spending time carefully considering the complexity of issues. For many the only question is how many stars did they get.
There is also the tribal effect. The scope of information is further reduced by the fact that the only people to be listened to are members of your particular tribe. People are busy and it is so much easier to go to the Facebook page of a reliable leader of the tribe to find out what the correct position should be.
We can find many of these techniques in the current charter campaign in the city. While examples of the use of these techniques can be found on both sides of this issue the pro charter forces seem to me to most consistently use the techniques described above.
“Silos” and “fiefdoms” are tag words liberally used in charter materials and these are words I often hear repeated almost by rote from many of their supporters both in the press, in person, and on social media. These terms are rarely accompanied by any specific examples. When specific examples are given they turn out to be projects that have been held up because of factors that have nothing to do with interdepartmental rivalries or tensions or the form of Saratoga’s government.
Take their complaint that extending the Geyser Crest Bike path has taken 13 years. This is true but the delay has had nothing to do with the Commission form of government or tensions between departments. In fact the Council vote was 5-0 in favor of the path. Getting state approvals and funding were the main culprits in this process and that won’t change with a city manager. What is most disingenuous is that some of the projects that have not been completed are due to lawsuits brought by some of the very people who are now cynically telling voters to blame the Commissioners and the form of government. And guess what—citizens sue cities that have city managers too.
But the current campaign for charter change is also incorporating many of the techniques its supporters found most distasteful in the Trump campaign.
I have found myself in casual conversation with a variety of charter supporters who are the same people who look down their noses at the people who supported Donald Trump. They marvel at the gullibility of such people who believe Trump’s promises to say bring back coal production. They contemptuously ask how “those people” can ignore facts and they consider themselves far superior in intellect and knowledge to the people who voted for Donald Trump.
I have attempted to engage some of them in conversation about the proposed charter. I have found that they often have never heard or read anything critical of the charter and that they have absolutely no interest in hearing any counter arguments. What I hear from them are beliefs that there will be no politics or conflict once we have a city manager. Projects will be completed quickly and efficiently. Remember, these are often the same people who cannot understand how people accept everything Donald Trump says and yet they similarly have often accepted the arguments for charter change without considering that some of these arguments may be based on misrepresentations.
So let’s look more closely at some of the materials from the charter change leadership, particularly the group It’s Time Saratoga are distributing in the community. Their door hanger is a shrewd and pernicious piece of propaganda, a study in shallowness and spin. To me it epitomizes the decline in political discourse.
Here is what it promises. My comments are in parenthesis:
SAVE MONEY, LOWER TAXES (Well, there is a phrase that anyone can latch on to)
IMMEDIATELY: HALF A MILLION $$ PER YEAR (The web people like to use symbols like $$ when they can. The highest savings number the Charter Commission has used is $403,000.00 but apparently the author(s) of this door hanger thought $500,000.00 has a better ring to it).
GET BETTER SERVICES (Your street will be plowed continually during snow storms. No more need for snow tires, no more walls of packed snow in front of your driveway)
DEPARTMENTS RUN BY PROFESSIONALS RATHER THAN POLITICIANS (This business with the word “professionals” shouts competence. One wonders how the USA has survived continuously electing people as President or allowing people to be appointed to the Supreme Court without requiring any degrees or experience)
A UNITED CITY HALL, NOT FIVE DEPARTMENTS (“United” has a clarion ring to it. This nicely plays up the narrative of the divisiveness that people hate about politics. Except there will still be departments and conflicts as in any organization )
HOLD CITY HALL ACCOUNTABLE (Harder to do with a council with four year staggered terms!)
NO MORE $750,000.00 OFFICE RENOVATIONS WHILE ESSENTIAL SERVICES DON’T GET DONE (Commissioner Mathiesen, who is a major proponent of charter change, told me that city hall is in serious need of renovation. He also took exception to the allegations that essential services aren’t getting done. Still “while” is great because it establishes that the crisis is here now.)
No More Back Room Deals ( Now there is a great phrase right out of the spin room. If Donald Trump promised this these people would be doubled over with laughter, but coming from the proponents of charter change phrases like that are perfectly ok.)
I am going to put these three together:
GEYSER ROAD PATH: 13 YEARS
NEW POLICE STATION: 20 YEARS AND COUNTING
EASTSIDE FIRE STATION: 20 YEARS AND COUNTING
(Chris Mathiesen and I discussed these claims. He was intimately aware of the issues of the eastside fire station which he and his deputy spent a huge amount of time on. People do not want their taxes going up so you cannot just open up the city’s pocket book and buy up land. There are issues about where it should be and what environmental factors might complicate the building of the facility depending upon the land. As Chris noted the city has a bare bones staff so it is not easy to put the resources into these projects given the other demands on the players in all of this. And then there is the lawsuit brought against the project which was only recently dismissed. Ironically some of the same people involved in this and other lawsuits cynically overlook the role they themselves have played in slowing down these projects and join charter supporters in peddling the myth that if it weren’t for the commission form of government these projects would have been finished by now. )
The leadership of the Charter Commission have crafted a campaign based on “alt facts” and false promises. The repeated references to the phony city hall “survey”, the interviews with deputies that never happened and the false promises of “no more back room deals” and “end delays” are readily embraced and shamelessly echoed by their supporters.
These are the techniques used and the promises made by callow politicians…and the leadership of the Charter Commission.
Tom Denny is a retired Skidmore professor of music. I have always admired Mr. Denny. He has served Sustainable Saratoga as the head of their urban trees program. As such he has championed the planting of trees in our city and has headed up the volunteer battalions that annually plant trees throughout the city.
A letter that Mr. Denny wrote appeared in both the Saratogian and Gazette newspapers. In it he asserts that:
“Nearly two-thirds of City Hall employees in Saratoga Springs (65.3%) believe that “city Hall would operate better with a city manager. Only one in seven City Hall workers (15%) disagree with that statement.” (The data comes from a poll of City employees conducted by the Charter Review Commission.)”
The Charter Review Commission distributed a questionnaire to city employees on charter change. They called it a “survey” .I have written extensively about the problems with the methodology (or lack thereof) used in designing, executing, and interpreting the results of this questionnaire. If you may recall the problems included that according to the CRC chair, Bob Turner, they had no idea how many or who received these questionnaires. No effort was made to design a scientific sample. No controls were established to insure that potential respondents were inappropriately influenced. In other words, no effort was made to design this process to meet the most minimal standards of gathering valid data.
In addition to all these problems the city has 398 employees. According to the CRC 76 employees responded to the “survey” although not all 76 answered each question. All percentages that can be truthfully used are percentages of the 76 respondents, not of all city hall employees and not all city employees.
In spite of this we are continually told as in Mr. Denny’s letter (and he is not alone) that this flawed survey shows that such and such a percentage of city hall employees, (or sometimes it is presented as percentages of city employees) think such and such about the current government and charter change. Neither Mr. Denney nor anyone on the Charter Commission has any idea what any percentage of city hall employees think. Nor do I. This does not keep charter supporters from continually restating these figures as though they were facts.
I know Mr. Denny to be a sophisticated person. He is someone who no doubt understands the science of sampling. How is it that he would write a letter making a statement that he has no way of knowing is true and publish it in two newspapers? How can someone like Mr. Denny promote the idea that the city employees overwhelming oppose or support the current form of our government based on a “survey” that is so manifestly flawed? How have we come to this?
Whether or not you support charter change, how does one explain the zealotry and excess that has marked the campaign for charter change? What a disturbing and corrosive event this has become. People like Tom Denny are better than this. How poorly this city has been served by this endeavor.
In an earlier post I indicated that I would seek the research that Jeff Altamari told the Saratogian he had done to arrive at the savings the Charter Commission alleges the city would gain with charter change. If you recall he went on at some length about the study’s “in-depth” character and how he had selected thirteen municipalities in five states to analyze the staffing that would be required here were the proposed charter to be adopted.
I wrote to Bob Turner requesting a copy of Mr. Altamari’s materials but regrettably he never responded.
So I submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for any documents related to his research. Note the language of my FOIL:
This email constitutes a FOIL request. I am seeking all documents related to the Charter Review Commission’s study of thirteen cities in New York and other states that they used to determine whether under the new charter the work of our city’s commissioners and their deputies could be absorbed by the proposed city manager. If possible I would like to receive this in electronic form.
I subsequently received the following email from Ann Bullock, the Charter Review Commission’s secretary. Ms. Bullock is an attorney. She responded as follows:
From: Ann Bullock <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: October 20, 2017 at 7:33:31 PM EDT
To: John Kaufmann <email@example.com>
Cc: “Robert Turner (Government)” <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Bob Turner <email@example.com>, Tony Izzo <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Request for documents
Dear Mr. Kaufmann,
Please be advised that, as Secretary of the Charter Review Commission (“the Commission”), I am tasked with maintaining the books and records of the Commission. As such, I enclose the following documents relating to your request for documents pertaining to the mailing of Commission materials [JK: Emphasis added]:
Agenda and Minutes of the Commission meeting of September 18, 2017; and
Agenda and Minutes of the Commission meeting of September 28, 2017.
I trust that these documents are responsive to your request. No other records exist to satisfy your request.
Ann C. Bullock
Charter Review Commission
As the readers of this blog will note, my request is quite clear and it is not for documents related to their mailing. I asked for documents pertaining to Mr. Altamari’s alleged study.
It is difficult to understand her confusion. I have written to her asking again for the documents.
[JK: If there is anyone out there actually willing to consider both sides on this issue, here are two venues that should be substantive and informative]
Two opportunities to hear Saratoga Springs proposed charter issues debated:
*Thursday, October 26, 7PM, City Center: pros and cons of proposed charter debated sponsored by Saratoga Today. Former Deputy Accounts Commissioner Michele Boxley, Charter Commission member and attorney Matt Jones, and SUCCESS member Richard Sellers will argue against charter change. Charter Commission member Gordon Boyd and Chair Bob Turner and one other yet to be announced person will argue in favor of the proposed charter.
*Commissioner of Accounts John Franck and Charter Commission member Gordon Boyd will debate whether the proposed charter will save or cost money. 7PM Monday, October 30, Saratoga Springs Library. Sponsored by SUCCESS [JK: Egos the size of sumo wrestlers bellies!]
After months of listening, reading and writing about the proposed Saratoga Springs charter I have moved from being open to the change to being skeptical of the change to being opposed to the change. Here are my thoughts about why I will be voting No on November 7.
Saratoga Springs is successful and well managed.
The city has won repeated awards for the quality of life here. We are among the lowest taxed cities in New York State. We have one of the highest bond ratings that Standard and Poor’s awards. How can we achieve all of this and be mismanaged? Consider that when Standard and Poor’s gave us an AA+ they were telling potential investors that the city’s financial condition and its management are sufficiently strong as to be a reliable organization to lend money to. Bear in mind that bonds must be paid back over time so they are expressing confidence that the city can be expected to be well managed into the future.
Can the city be managed better? Of course it can but let’s be honest, to listen to the Charter Review Commission you would think the city is awash in waste, ugly turf battles, and incompetence. If the city were run that poorly we would be unable to keep taxes low and we would never receive a bond rating that high. In a later piece I will argue why the commission form is far more efficient than most people give it credit for. It is stunning to me how brazen the advocates for charter change are in dismissing any suggestion that the city may be doing something right.
My sense is that the success by the Charter Commission in portraying the city as mismanaged has a number of roots. Most prominent is probably the conflicts that often erupt at the City Council meetings. It is easy for people to assume that the animosity that occurs at the Council table spills over into the administrative level. But literally none of the conflicts that occur at Council meetings have anything to do with conflicts over departmental issues
The city’s capital budget projects funding for projects six years out. This is potentially a major source of all kinds of conflict over which department’s needs should be prioritized. Instead this has produced relatively little heat over the years. The only capital budget conflict I remember was over funding for the bike path and not only was that subsequently resolved, it had nothing to do with the internal needs of any particular department. In fact, the budget has been easily approved year after year (granted there have been a few exceptions, especially during the 2008 crash).
When one honestly thinks about it, the conflicts really have to do with major citywide policies. The recent ones that come to mind are casino gambling, Saratoga Golf Course’s desire to become a resort, the city center/parking facility, the hospital expansion, the ethics board decision, and, most recently, whether to fund the charter mailing. These community issues are what generate conflict and they do so because they reflect the conflict within the broader community.
My point here is that if there were serious problems between departments one would reasonably expect to hear about them at the Council table, especially given the personalities involved.
The Charter Commission’s evidence is flawed and their financial projections are not credible
Over the last four months this blog has documented repeated misrepresentations by the Charter Review Commission and by documented, I mean produced records and data.
The Charter Commission rests much of its case for change on alleged widespread employee dissatisfaction based on a survey that I have documented cannot honestly be considered to be a valid survey. It is possible that a majority of the employees may opposes the current commission form but the charter commission cynically promoted something that they knew was invalid as though it were proof. In the Goebbels tradition if you say something enough people will believe it. Not a day goes by that someone does not tell me with authority that the employees of our city want a new charter.
The projection of financial savings that will result from the change to a city manager is based primarily on the assumption that the work of all five fulltime deputies and four part time commissioners can be replaced by the city manager and possibly an assistant city manager. This assertion is undermined by their refusal to actually interview the deputies and commissioners to find out what they do in order to determine what staff will be required to replace them. They have based this decision on the untested assumption that deputies are political operatives benefitting from patronage who perform little relevant work. They also claim that they have successfully analyzed cities in multiple states that somehow make actually asking our own people irrelevant. Similar to the “survey” it turns out, though, that the Charter Review Commission has no materials of any kind to show that an in depth study of cities was ever done.
The financial plan put forward by the Charter Review Commission fails to provide any money for the operations of the new city council or the mayor. Given their expectations for the new mayor, it seems obvious that there will be a need for some kind of administrative support that they have failed to budget for.
Again, they rely on simply stating over and over again that the city will save some $4000,000.00 without providing any documentation to support their claim that one city manager can perform the duties of four part time commissioners and five deputies.
I would refer the readers to a previous post in which I document the lack of clarity in the role of the proposed new mayor and the potential institutional conflict this could entail.
The promise of no politics is unrealistic
Charter Commission members claim that the proposed city manager will be completely apolitical. This person will not be a member of any political party. This person will not contribute to any political campaign or provide any support for any candidate. This assertion is based on the assumption that the person would be a member of the International Association of City Managers which requires its members to follow these guidelines. There is nothing in the charter that would require a city manager to be a member of this association and therefore bound by this ethos. Nor does the charter have any such requirements. I also have not been able to find out what penalties there are should a member of the IACM violate any of these standards. When I have attempted to point this out to several of the leaders of the Charter Commission they simply talk over me.
There are problems with the provisions for the City Manager
The qualifications for the city manager are in the charter. These include an advanced degree in the field. My friend, Lew Benton, wryly observed that some of the worst bosses he worked for in government had impeccable academic credentials.
The Commission’s Financial Disclosure Summary projects a salary for the city manager of $125,000 plus benefits. They used a survey of the state to come up with the figure. They are completely confident that there will be a raft of great candidates to chose from in spite of the fact that there are city employees who make more than this and that there will be no job security as the city manager can be fired at any time by the city council. The Commission does not entertain even the possibility that there could be a problem.
In addition the Commission has put off the selection of a city manager until after the new charter has gone into operation with a new city council and mayor in 2020. That means it is impossible to have the new city manager on the job on day one. In fact it means there is no way of knowing when a new city manager will be in place. Anyone who has observed the pitfalls of hiring executives knows how unpredictable this process can be. Candidates back out at the last minute or have current jobs that prohibit them from leaving with little notice. Who will run the city prior to the arrival of the new city manager? Not clear.
The Charter Commission simply refuses to acknowledge and plan for problems. Anything that takes them off message is simply dismissed.
Four year, not two year terms for the mayor and council are too long
I am also adamantly opposed to changing the term of office for the council members and mayor from the current two years to four years.
The Charter Review Commission sees four year terms as an advantage because officeholders will not have to go through the burden of running every two years and they will also be more insulated from what they see as the “whims” of public pressure. I don’t see protecting politicians from the public as an advantage.
There are lots of ways to do checks and balances
One of the criticisms charter supporters often make of our current commission form of government is that it does not separate legislative and executive functions as is done on the state and national level. The council members we elect to make policy also oversee departments that carry out these policies.
I reject the idea that separating the executive duties from the legislative duties in a city manager form will be an enormous benefit. In fact it can be argued that politicians make better policies when they know they are also responsible for carrying them out.
School boards, town boards, and many county governments in New York State do not separate legislative and executive functions nor do most of the governments of the world which have parliamentary systems. England, Denmark, and Finland are just a few examples.
Having said all of this, I do think charter supporters have a legitimate concern that the requirements of being a commissioner discourage some people from running for office. I think this is a very important issue and in fact, this reform could potentially produce more candidates. For me, though, the problems I have identified are sufficiently problematic that they trump this goal of increasing the candidate pool.
The Charter Commission’s campaign tactics have been disappointing
As should be clear, I have been more than disappointed by the way the Charter Commission has conducted their campaign. I think they have overstated or misrepresented many, many issues in their zeal to convince the public to adopt this charter. They have played badly on people’s discomfort with the conflict that constitutes so much of today’s politics. If the new charter is adopted, I feel more than confident that the conflicts and egos will still be with us.
In the end we have a great and vibrant city and while I think their charter will create major problems if adopted, the city has survived gangsters and depressions so I guess it will survive this as well.
Commissioner Chris Mathiesen and I had a long conversation regarding the charter and the campaign to pass it.
1, I asked Chris about the difficulties of coordination that might exist between departments. He told me that he felt it was a problem. The question was, how serious a problem. We agreed that in any large institution, the problem of coordination between elements of an organization are going to exist. Each department has its own sense of priorities and friction between departments over priorities is endemic to bureaucracies. Having a central manager as advocated by the charter commission is not going to end such issues. He did, however, believe that the commission form of government exacerbated this problem. He told me that he believed that having a city manager would significantly affect better coordination.
2. I asked him how much time he and his deputy spend on administrative duties in the running of the Public Safety Department. He estimated that he spends well in excess of twenty hours a week. While he is in his office frequently, most of his work is done away from the office responding to emails and reading documents. He told me that his deputy spends over thirty-five hours a week on administration. I then asked him to consider how much of their time is spent simply reviewing decisions and policies recommended by the regular staff.
3. I asked this because I wanted to explore to what extent the Commissioner and the deputy simply represented another layer of bureaucracy as charter supporters claim. He told me that in fact, most of his time was spent doing just that. There is a very capable civil service administrator in his office who prepares much of these materials. He basically told me that he thought that in spite of the many hours of work he and his deputy devoted to the job, that eliminating them and having the administrator in their office report to a city manager would not require a great deal more additional staff time to replace them. He was careful to point out to me that the nature of what goes on in other departments is very different from his and that he was unwilling to draw any conclusions about the other departments based on what goes on in his.
4. He supports the general direction of the charter in terms of the proposed mayor. While he acknowledged the potential for conflict between the mayor under this new structure and the city manager, he was less concerned about it than I am. He thought the $40,000.00 salary for the mayor was fair because the mayor would have more duties than the council members. These involved not just the ceremonial duties. The mayor will nominate individuals to city boards which will require city council approval. He saw the mayor as a liaison between the city manager and the council. He thought that dealing with the many contracts that would need review and signing would require significant time.
5. I know from a previous discussion that he does not share my concerns over changing the length of the term of office from two to four years. He thinks it will have little impact on the council members sense of vulnerability regarding the public’s ability to remove them.
6. He thought that many of the promises being promulgated by the proponents of charter change were excessive. He did not think the new charter would result in savings of $400,000.00. He agreed that they had not budgeted for the support costs for the new council and the mayor. He felt very strongly that the city staffing is “bare bones.” If we are to continue to provide the current level of services we would need to be prepared to hire more people. He thought the idea of not filling positions by attrition as advocated by the charter commission was unrealistic.
6, For all his concerns about the current form of government he rejected any suggestion that the city administration was “broken.” It functions reasonably well but he believes it would function better under a new charter. He expressed grave concern over the intemperate and exaggerated arguments put forward over the charter and lamented with me the absence of civil and open discourse.
In a follow up conversation I asked Commissioner Mathiesen to respond to the door hanger “Its Time” (the advocates for charter change) is circulating. Here are some of the claims made and Chris’ response:
- “Save money, lower taxes: Immediately: Half a million $$ per year.” Chris responded this is not true
- “Hold city hall accountable: No more $750,000.00 office renovations while essential services don’t get done.” Chris told me that city hall is in great need of repair. He told me he would prefer a more comprehensive plan for the renovation but he rejected the idea of equating addressing badly needed renovations with cuts in service.
- “End Delays: Geyser Road path: 13 Years” Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government
- “End Delays: New Police station: 20 years and counting” Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government
- “End Delays: East Side fire station: 20 years and counting” Chris rejected the idea that the long gestation of this project was due to the commission form of government
On their web page this evening the Saratogian has a story about the Kane telephone message. I assume it will appear in tomorrow’s paper. Here is a link to the story.
There are two things that I find revealing in this story.
The first is that Mr. Kane is completely unapologetic. He believes that he has every right to behave as he did in that message.
The second is the response by Bob Turner, Charter Commission chair. He ignored the question about Mr. Kane’s behavior and stayed on message simply repeating one more time the commission’s talking points on the charter.
Eugene Ionesco, the playwright of the absurd, wrote a famous play called “Rhinoceros.” It involves a hapless fellow who finds the people around him, his relatives, his co-workers, the politicians, turning into rhinoceroses. Of course on the stage they do not literally turn into rhinoceroses but they increasingly make snorting noises, stomp their feet at odd times, and their postures become increasingly distorted. Our hero finds this behavior baffling but when seeking confirmation of what he is seeing, people treat him patronizingly. They assure him that he is confused and not to worry.
When I read both Mr. Kane and Mr. Turner’s remarks in the Saratogian, I identified with the hero of the Ionesco play. For me, I find Kane’s behavior and Turner’s reaction reprehensible. For many around me, among them most of the members of the Charter Commission, Kane’s and Turner’s behavior is seen as normal. Mr. Kane and Mr. Turner seem sincerely oblivious of what I perceive to be odious behavior. The standards for civility and courtesy appear to be increasingly a quaint relic from a bygone era.
In the middle of last night’s City Council meeting Pat Kane, Vice Chair of the Charter review Commission, called Commissioner Skip Scirocco’s official city cell phone and left the following message.
I tried to reach Mr. Kane and left him a message but he did not return my call. I understand that he is at the Charter Commission ‘s program at the library tonight (Wednesday) so I am confident he received my telephone call but apparently decided not to reply. I had hoped to speak to him before posting this recording.
There are some very nice people who serve on the Charter Review Commission and I have been troubled by their passivity regarding a number of unpleasant things done in their name. It will be interesting to see their reaction, if any, to this phone call made by their Vice Chairman to a Council member.
My question to the readers of this blog: If you were a member of the Charter Review Commission and heard this tape, would you take some sort of action and if so what action would that be?