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.