Charter Commission “In Depth Study”? I Don’t Think So!

Weeks ago I FOILed the Charter Review Commission for materials related to the alleged “in depth” study that they supposedly did of municipalities with city manager governments.  This study you may recall was repeatedly cited especially by Jeff Altamari as the evidence for the Charter Commission’s claim that no staff would be needed in the new government to do the work of the four commissioners and five deputies that were to be eliminated in the proposed charter. The elimination of these positions was the basis for the savings they promised would come with charter change.

On Friday night, November 10th, three days after the election, I received the response to my FOIL. Three to four inches of documents were hand delivered to my door by Ann Bullock who was the secretary of the Charter Review Commission.

As a veteran of FOIL requests it has been my experience that there are two tactics employed by institutions that are hostile to such requests.  The first is to simply deny that any relevant documents exist.  The second is to overwhelm those requesting the documents with loads of items no matter how remotely relevant.

In the case of Ms. Bullock I am willing to believe that the volume of documents she delivered was probably a zealous approach to transparency.

To be fair, it is better to err on the side of transparency and I will accept that they have sent me everything remotely related to my request.

JohnAndStudyTape

JohnAndStudyDogs
Clyde, Miss Kate, and blogger discuss the documents.

The documents can be roughly broken down as follows:

  1. Some notes of a meeting that apparently occurred on May 17th that involved the International City/County Management Association.  This is the organization that donated $15,000.00 to “It’s Time Saratoga!”.  There is nothing in the document to indicate where this meeting took place (perhaps it was a conference call?)or who participated.    In fact, the notes consist simply of a list of cities/towns.
  2. A handwritten page with the date June 6, 2017, with the heading “Auburn” . Below the heading is a list of what appears to be departments.  Much of the document is roughly written and difficult to read.
  3. A spreadsheet like columnar report listing cities and towns with some related attributes.
  4. A huge dump of web pages from fourteen cities/towns.

There were no pages of narrative, no analysis of the data, no discussion of conclusions, no explanation of methodology. These documents consisted of raw data, some of which  might possibly be useful in a staffing study, but there was no study as such included in the many sheets of paper that were delivered .

As I understand it from viewing meetings of the CRC, the “study” was authored by Jeff Altamari.  As noted in other posts, Mr. Altamari is a Certified Public Accountant whose most recent career before retiring was working as an executive for the oil and gas industry in Texas.

The CRC relied on his work, including this “study” in accepting the financial impact study of the proposed charter he authored.  Interestingly, the CRC simply took his word for both the thoroughness of his study and its conclusions.  The “study” itself was never presented to the CRC.

At the risk of appearing snarky, my idea of an “in-depth” study is very different from Mr. Altamari’s.  I would think that providing the standards for the study would be paramount.  Central to this would be a discussion of methodology used.  How were the municipalities chosen? In what way were the municipalities comparable to Saratoga Springs?  Given the unique attributes and success of our city this would be quite difficult.  Just for instance Saratoga Springs has many more miles of roads to patrol and maintain than Watertown, New York, and of course more significantly we are a major resort destination.  All of this and more put unique demands on the city and impacts our staffing needs. A study that would try to look at municipalities with city managers to determine what Saratoga Springs’ staffing needs would be under a different form of government would require some sort of detailed discussion about the deviations in character between municipalities and how these differences affected the conclusions.

In defense of the CRC, given their meager resources, doing a rigorous authentic study was simply not possible.  One thing is certain, though, I would never have boasted, as Mr. Altamari did in a letter to the Saratogian and on Look TV, that what he produced was  an “in-depth” study.  This kind of hype has been the problem with the leadership of the CRC and with their advocacy group, “It’s Time Saratoga!” all along.   They repeatedly grossly exaggerated both the data supporting their proposal and the problems with the commission form of government.

One thing is unequivocally clear.  The enigmatic notes and the undisciplined nature of the web document dump make any serious assessment of the “study“ itself impossible.

The Selection Process

Comparing the handwritten notes from what I assume was a telephone conference call involving the International City/County Manager Association [see heading of doc] with the web dump and the tabular list it appears that the ICMA was the source of the municipality selection.

ICMANotes1
Meeting Notes Page #1
ICMANotes2
Meeting Notes Page #2
AuburnNotes
Something To Do With The City Of Auburn

Clearly the word cryptic does not begin to describe the documents I received.  In this case there is nothing to indicate what criteria were used to select the municipalities.  Given that the ICMA provided the bulk of moneys to the local advocacy group, “It’s Time Saratoga!” for its campaign to pass the charter, one suspects that the selection was based on providing the most favorable picture of city manager run municipalities.  Mr. Altamari might have included some discussion of this issue in his “study” in order to protect its credibility.

The Web Dump

As best as I can tell, Mr. Altamari was looking for documentation on the management staffing of the municipalities.  Interestingly, in his letter to the editor on October 10 he said he focused on thirteen municipalities but there were fourteen municipalities included in the dump.

There were, to say the least, many pages with no apparent value as regards the staffing of the municipalities.

The following are a few examples:

SummitPoliceChief
Portrait of the Police Chief of Summit County
SummitFAQ2
Helpful answers for the residents of Summit, New Jersey such as the rules for their dog park.

 

Analysis?

This is the only document with any kind coherency.  For whatever reason there are thirteen municipalities analyzed but the dump included a fourteenth, Montpelier, Vermont.

atamariSpreadsheet2
What you see is what I got. Some sort of attempt at analysis.

DOCUMENT

The only thing these thirteen municipalities all seem to share is that they have strong Moody’s bond ratings.

They also seem to have very lean management structures.  Six have assistant city managers.  I am not sure what the parenthesis number beside the assistant manager means.  There was no annotation.

One of the problems with trying to do an analysis with this kind of limited data is that there is no information about the staffing below the manager level in these cities.  The CRC chose not to interview Saratoga’s deputies so they had no information on what their duties currently are.  In order to do a proper comparison, they would have needed to know what functions our deputies performed and then what staff handled these duties in these other municipalities.

For example, in our current commission form of government the deputy Commissioner of Finance plays a major role in crafting the city’s  annual budget.   This is a huge undertaking.   The city’s Director of Finance has a full time position handling the day to day operation of maintaining the city’s financial records and would not be able to pick up this work.  We do not know who in these other municipalities perform  these duties.   Similarly, the CRC did not know what the deputy for the Department of Public Works does.  While a municipality may not have a deputy, the duties done by our deputy may be done by someone in another fulltime position in these municipalities. Again as stated above, none of this takes into account that the size and responsibilities of a public works department may vary significantly given a city’s other attributes making staffing comparisons challenging to say the least.

There are also the obvious differences between a number of these municipalities given the fact that some of these are in other states.  For example, consider that in Massachusetts the state operates the department of social services whereas in New York these are operated by the counties.  This means that the cost of county operations in Massachusetts would be significantly less than the costs for New York counties.  This is an extreme example, but we simply do not know how to assess the costs of local municipalities because we do not know what services are handled or not handled by the state government.  This greatly complicates any comparison with municipalities outside of New York.  Yet nine of the thirteen municipalities compared here are from other states.

There are also the major differences in populations and budgets between our city and those in the list.  Our city has an operational budget of approximately $45 million.  Lexington, Massachusetts and Needham, Massachusetts have $186 million and $185 million dollar budgets respectively.

My Conclusion

While if it were properly documented and analyzed, this data might have offered some insight into the requirements of management staffing, to call this an “in-depth” study on which to make a decision on how to structure our own government seems manifestly inadequate.  Given Mr. Altamari’s strong credentials, it is hard to imagine that he would ask the CEO of a company he might work for to make a major decision to completely restructure the organization based up this kind of research.

3 thoughts on “Charter Commission “In Depth Study”? I Don’t Think So!”

  1. WoW!

    John–That was thoroughly entertaining (lol).
    Too bad we’re talking about some pretty serious stuff, here.

    Love the K9 advisory board!
    Love to chat but gotta go water the plants…

    -JC (Plant manager)

    Like

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