Charter Review Truce: Welcome News

Gordon Boyd has published a letter in the March 23rd Gazette Newspaper.  He writes: “As a former member of the Charter Review Commission and an activist in the Yes campaign, I think it is in everyone’s interest at this point to lower the volume and give the community a breather.” 

The irony of Mr. Boyd advising people to show greater civility will not escape the people who follow this blog.   While I look forward to a period of calm regarding their charter proposal, I am not sure how to interpret his reference to “breather.”  It seems to imply that not only will his group be back but that they will be returning to the shrill tactics that this city suffered through for a over a year.

Mr. Boyd notes in his letter that Mayor Meg Kelly has established a new charter commission to review the existing charter and  propose changes.  He then offers “Fortunately, the 2016-17 Charter Commission produced a compendium of recommendations in this direction [JK: amending the existing city charter] (separate from the Council Manager proposal) that the new commission would do well to consider.”  

 The problem is that his commission never produced such a document.  It’s not clear to me what recommendations Mr. Boyd is referring to when he writes that the Commission produced a “compendium of recommendations in this direction.” 

The most significant effort by the Commission in this area was the work of the Drafting Committee appointed by Chairman Robert Turner in September 2016.  The charge to the Drafting Committee was to evaluate the current Charter and make recommendations for changes to it similar to the approach used by the 2001 Commission.  Chairman Turner appointed four members of the Commission to serve on the Drafting Committee including attorney Matt Jones as Chairman and members Beth Wurtmann, Pat Kane, and attorney Ann Casey Bullock. 

 The Drafting Committee met from September 2016 to January 2017.  During that time, they interviewed roughly a dozen city employees, most holding senior management positions.  In December 2016, however, the full Charter Review Commission voted to draft an entirely new charter with a council/manager form of government with the goal of placing it on the ballot in a special election in May 2017.  As a result of the Commission’s decision to pursue the council/manager form of government, Mr. Jones decided against expending the resources of the Drafting Committee to conduct further interviews to complete its work.  The Drafting Committee did not vote on final recommendations nor did it issue a final report. 

Mr. Jones responded to my inquiry regarding the work of the Drafting Committee.  He indicated that he felt there was consensus among the Committee on several proposed changes to the current Charter, but neither the Drafting Committee nor the Commission ever voted on these recommendations.

So, the question remains for Mr. Boyd.  Specifically, what recommendations are you talking about, who prepared the recommendations, and when, if ever, did the Commission vote on them? 


Here is the full letter from Mr. Boyd:

Last November’s referendum on the Saratoga Springs City Charter produced an excruciatingly close result. The 10-vote margin against change, out of more than 9,000 cast has, if anything, amplified the voices on both sides who want the issue to be settled their way. As a member of the former Charter Review Commission and an activist in the Yes campaign, I think it is in everyone’s best interest at this point to lower the volume and give the community a breather.

Mayor Meg Kelly has formed a new Charter Review Commission comprised of the commissioners and deputies, to review the existing charter and propose improvements. Fortunately, the 2016-17 Charter Commission produced a compendium of recommendations in this direction (separate from the Council Manager proposal) that the new commission would do well to consider.

Amending the existing charter was our hedge against the possibility that the council/manager proposal was defeated at the polls. So in this way, at least, the mayor’s initiative is in keeping with the former commission’s mandate. If the new commission’s proposal is on the November ballot, there will be plenty of time and space to comment.

For now, advocates of charter change need to lower their voices so that the discussion can be heard how the commissioners want to change things. We also need to give Mayor Kelly the consideration due to anyone who enters a competitive election and ends up on top. The voters made their choice, and the outcome deserves its time on the stage.

GORDON BOYD

Saratoga Springs

City Awards Moneys For SPAC to Promote City As Arts Destination

The city wants to support an advertising and PR campaign planned by SPAC that will promote Saratoga Springs as an arts destination as well as the performing arts venue.  The city will allocate $14,000.00 of economic development money  to SPAC for the effort.  This is a link to an excellent story from the Saratogian that explains what is planned.

http://www.saratogian.com/general-news/20180321/spac-spa-city-partner-on-campaign

City Reverses Course and Allows the Sale of Water by Youth in front of the Saratoga Race Course

This is an interesting story about the city reconsidering its ban on youth selling water.  The city passed a resolution re-establishing the policy of allowing these sales with some restrictions.  One of the things that makes this interesting is the way John Franck worked with interns from Skidmore College to come up with a policy that enjoyed a unanimous vote adopting the program.  This is a link to the WAMC story on this.

http://wamc.org/post/saratoga-springs-will-allow-trackside-water-bottle-sales-restrictions

 

 

Council Moves To Create Citywide Fiber Optic Network

At the Tuesday, March 20 City Council meeting, the city awarded a bid to SiFi Networks to construct a fiber optic network that will reach every home and business in the city.  SiFi Networks was the only company to respond to an RFP issued by the city.

After a conversation with Commissioner Madigan and a brief review of the SiFi website (http://sifinetworks.com/)  I have some “impressions.”  I use that word because the scope and nature of what is being proposed is both exciting and overwhelming at the same time.

The city has awarded a bid to SiFi Networks to deploy a citywide fiber optic network.  As many people know, fiber optics radically increases the speed of telecommunications.

It is my understanding that SiFi, along with its partners, has developed a rapid deployment method that lays underground cable with  minimal impact on infrastructure.  The basic concept is that the city grants them the use of its right of ways and in return SiFi deploys and operates a fiber network that covers the city.  As I understand it, most of our city’s streets are right of ways owned by the city.

Apparently, two other municipalities have some sort of agreements with SiFi.  They are Fullerton, CA and East Hartford CT.  Neither has reached the operational level yet. 

As I understand it, SiFi would charge vendors for the use of their network.  The theory is that a variety of companies would use the network to provide web services to customers.  So theoretically, Spectrum, ComCast, Charter, etc. would compete for residential customers to use their products.  Similarly, phone companies would vie to provide telecommunications.  I am assuming that local firms here in the city that need special secure and high speed connections between offices would similarly pay.

 If I am correct (always a risky assumption) one of the key questions would be how much SiFi would be charging for the use of their network because those costs would have to be passed on to the customers using their services.  I do not know if they would require exclusive rights for networking the city or if other companies might also deploy competing networks.  Knowing technology, I would assume that over time the cost of such deployments might drop.  There is also the possibility that the satellite industry might, over time, develop high enough speeds and bandwidth to compete.

Central to this would be a number of questions.  How many vendors would be attracted to compete in order to keep costs down?  What protections would the city have that the charges by SiFi are not problematic both initially and in the future? 

My sense in talking to Commissioner Madigan is that she is excited by the potential this has for both the residents and businesses of this city but that she is keenly aware of the complexity of what is being considered.  She has indicated that while the city has awarded the initial bid, should the city fail to come up with an actual contract that protects the interests of the city, the city faces no liability from walking away.

The city will be assisted in its negotiations with SiFi by New York State Technological Enterprise Corporation.  NYSTEC is a not for profit corporation providing IT consulting services to public institutions in the state.  https://www.nystec.com/

So while it is exciting that Commissioner Madigan has started this ball rolling, in a conversation I had with her, she made it clear that the city is in the very early stages of this process.  Much work needs to be done to identify and address the complex issues of how this will be implemented, how it will be maintained, and how its costs might impact the residents and businesses of the city.

I assume that Spectrum will be threatened by this project and that they will aggressively identify potential problems with it.


MEDIA ANNOUNCEMENT

For Immediate Release: March 21, 2017 From the Office of Commissioner of Finance, City of Saratoga Springs, Michele Madigan

Contact: Michele.Madigan@Saratoga-Springs.org or 518-526-9377

 

City of Saratoga Springs awards fiber project bid to SiFi Networks: 

Aims to bring fiber access to every home and business in the city 

 

Saratoga Springs, NY – During last night’s City Council meeting, the City of Saratoga Springs awarded the broadband infrastructure project bid to SiFi Networks.  The goal of the broadband infrastructure project is to improve access to high-speed internet for Saratoga Springs residents and businesses.  SiFi Networks, which intends to oversee the financing, design, construction, and operation of a city-wide fiber optic network, plans to partner with telecommunications experts such as Nokia and Adcomm.

 

Madigan stated: “This project has the potential to be a game changer in how the City can improve the online experience of residents and enable businesses to access technology previously thought unavailable.  From an economic development standpoint, a gigabit-speed fiber optic network would be a massive driver of efficiency and productivity, and it would provide cutting-edge infrastructure that allows the businesses that drive today’s economy to thrive in Saratoga Springs.” 

 

The next step for the City will be finalizing a contract with SiFi Networks.  Given the scope of the project, every department in City Hall will have input in the process. The City will also be engaging with NYSTEC, which acts as the City’s IT consultant, and the Saratoga Springs Smart City Commission, which Commissioner Madigan created in February 2016, for additional input.

 

Broadband infrastructure is one of the focuses of the Saratoga Springs Smart City Roadmap.  According to Madigan:  “Connectivity is key.  Internet access at globally competitive speeds is no longer an optional luxury.  In other words, broadband has become an essential resource — no different than any other utility — for residents, businesses, service providers, and government.  For Saratoga Springs to become a smarter city, we must do more to make the internet accessible at faster speeds throughout the city.”

 

About SiFi Networks:  SiFi Networks is a global developer and operator of fiber optic networks, enabling service providers to deliver dozens of next-generation applications, including superfast internet, video, and phone.  http://sifinetworks.com/

 

About the Smart City Commission:  In February 2016, Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan announced the formation of the Saratoga Springs Smart City Commission comprising a diverse community membership, with the goal of helping set Saratoga Springs on a path to becoming a smarter city.  https://www.saratoga-springs.org/2288/Smart-City-Commission

 

About NYSTEC:  NYSTEC is an independent, not-for-profit technology advisor headquartered in Rome, NY, with offices in Albany and New York City.  A smart city technology leader, NYSTEC worked with the City of Saratoga Springs and the Smart City Commission on the Smart City Project, which culminated with the publication of the Saratoga Springs Smart City Roadmap.  https://www.nystec.com/

 

Michele Madigan. Commissioner of Finance, City of Saratoga Springs

 

City And City Center Agree To End Gun Shows

The City Council, in a special meeting on Friday, adopted a motion to revise its lease with the City Center to bar the selling of non antique guns and ammunition.  Antique guns are generally considered to be guns manufactured prior to 1899.  They are exempt from federal laws controlling the selling of guns such as the requirement for a background check. This is a link to Wikipedia on  antique guns (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antique_firearms

I disagree with the decision by the Council.  Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former US Representative Gabby Giffords attended a gun show at the City Center in 2013.  Ms. Giffords was the victim of gun violence and suffered a bullet to her head.  She is an advocate of strengthening gun laws.  Both Giffords and Schneiderman praised David Petronis, the organizer, for running a responsible gun show and lauded it for the rigorous implementation of background checks.  One of the criticisms of gun shows has been that they have been used to circumvent such checks but that has not been a problem in the Saratoga Springs shows.

There is no difference between buying a gun at the City Center gun show and buying one at a gun store.  The city has at least one gun store.

I do not believe that the end of selling modern guns at a gun show will make the people of Saratoga Springs safer.  The people attending this event are responsible, active hunters and target shooters in our area who will now be penalized.

Still, I have complete sympathy for the Mayor’s desire to do something to curb the terrible killing that seems to happen with greater and greater frequency in our country even if it is only a symbolic action.  This is a complex issue and the vehemence of many on both sides has made seeking meaningful solutions extremely difficult.

I am impressed with the skill the Mayor showed in achieving the ban.  This has been an issue that has been a source of controversy for years in Saratoga Springs.  It took  Mayor Kelly less than three months to affect the change.

 I think I am not alone in welcoming the quiet way the mayor has gone about initiating change. 

 

Disappointing Editorial In Times Union Re Mayor’s Charter Review Commission

This editorial appeared in the March 8th edition of the Times Union Newspaper (  https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Editorial-Whose-government-is-it-12739871.php ):

After last year’s divisive battle over Saratoga Springs’ charter, it’s understandable that the new mayor would want to avoid a repeat of the fight.

The way Mayor Meg Kelly is now looking to tweak the existing charter, however, is not the way to do it.

The mayor has appointed a city charter review commission to go over the existing charter and propose improvements and efficiencies. The goal is to fine-tune the city’s existing commission form of government, not to do the kind of broader review that led to last year’s referendum on an entirely different city manager form of government. That proposal lost by 10 votes.

Much as advocates of that rejected charter might want another shot at it, Mayor Kelly is right to choose not to do that now. It’s not in the public interest to keep having a do-over of votes once citizens have spoken — as the mayor, who supported the charter proposal, recognized. There may be a time down the road to reconsider that idea, or some other form of government, but a constant state of uncertainty over the basic form of government is unhealthy for a community.

The mayor’s plan to instead review the commission form of government is not a bad idea in itself. It’s an opportunity to use the city’s experience to improve this rather uncommon structure. And it’s a chance for both sides of the charter debate to work together on an effort of mutual interest.

Or it would be, if the mayor hadn’t gone about it the way she has.

Mayor Kelly put together a ten-person commission made up entirely of city officials and employees — the city attorney, the commissioners of accounts, finance, public works and public safety, their deputies, and the deputy mayor.

The most glaring problem goes to the very concept of democracy and self-governance: The government itself would redraft the very blueprint that governs that government.

Moreover, nearly half the commission is made up of deputies who work for (that is, owe their livelihoods to) other panel members. It’s like giving two votes to several members. This would be like Congress and the president getting together to decide how to tweak the Constitution.

So this is not an objective or independent group, nor are the prospects good for it to be a deliberative one.

The mayor and the commission — whose members, unsurprisingly, are content with this arrangement — describe this as more of a technical fix, best left to those most familiar with day-to-day operation of government. They note that charter changes would be subject to a public referendum, so citizens will have the final say — on a revised charter that most likely will be unanimously endorsed by a commission full of conflicts of interest.

This is not about efficiency, but about something less tangible yet far more essential. As some wise people once wrote, “governments are instituted … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That’s in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, of course. Creating, or in this case re-creating, the foundational charter of government is a right, a privilege and a responsibility of the people — the citizens of Saratoga Springs, not their government. The mayor should go back and do it right.

There is no doubt an argument to be made that it would be valuable  to appoint people beyond city hall to the proposed charter review commission.  There is also an argument to be made in support of Mayor Kelly’s decision, however.

To begin with, the TU editors made a stunning error.  In their criticism of the Mayor’s proposal to have City Council members sit on the charter review commission they wrote, “This would be like Congress and the president getting together to decide how to tweak the Constitution.”  Well, actually although the President is not involved, Congress does decide how to tweak the Constitution and, by the way, the New  York State Legislature is similarly involved in making changes to the NY State constitution.

In the case of New York State, the Legislature drafts and passes  amendments which then have to be approved by the voters.

The procedure for amending the US Constitution is laid out in Article V of that document. First either two thirds of the states or two thirds of Congress propose an amendment.  Then three fourths of the states are required to ratify the  proposed amendment.  Congress determines how the states will do this.  All the amendments to the US Constitution so far have been drafted by  Congress.  It is troubling that the TU editors would not know this and make such a basic mistake.

It strikes me that the plan the Mayor is proposing is very similar to the methods used to amend both the US and NY State constitutions.  In her proposal there will also be two steps with the City Council members and their staffs drafting the changes. For the proposed changes to go into effect, however,  the public will have to ratify them in a November vote.

The editorial also seems to view government as some disembodied entity existing apart from the people.  But the Council members of this charter review commission were democratically elected by the people of this city to represent them and make decisions.  I think that grants them the status to take on this responsibility.  There is something that verges on hysteria in the TU’s assumptions of self dealing.

I think the Mayor should be commended for going out of her way to share the responsibility with all the members of the Council.  Contrast this with the previous charter commission where eleven of the fifteen members were selected by one member of the Council, the Mayor.  I do not think it was coincidental that that charter review commission adopted the then Mayor’s goal of changing to a city manager form of government.

I think that people of goodwill can differ on how to form a charter review commission.  I think it is unfortunate that the Times Union was unnecessarily harsh in their differences with the Mayor’s decision.

 

 

 

Interesting Drama Over Mayor’s Charter Review Commission During Public Comment Period Of City Council

Here are two videos from the city website showing the public comment period from the March 6 City Council meeting.  The comments from the public were all concerning the decision by Mayor Kelly to establish her own charter review commission.

 I have a certain sympathy for the frustration of the people supporting the charter that was defeated.  Many worked very hard in support of the city manager form of government.

 Having said that, the videos reflect the anger and conflict that dominated this last year over the issue.  As someone who has endured many struggles over many years, a sense of historical perspective and of proportion seems in order.  The Mayor’s initiative means the that those seeking to totally change the city’s form of government will have to wait till 2019 to put their proposal on the ballot again. This delay  of not quite two years seems like a blink to me.  The city is flourishing and there is no crisis.  I know that their narrative during the campaign was one of urgency to address what they saw as a crippled government.  This tendency to raise even modest issues (and I would say that changing our form of government pales before more serious crises in the world)  to heated levels rivaling going to war cripples our ability to argue civilly with each other.

 I must say that watching the Council in this video is a welcome sight compared to what is going on in Washington.

 My guess is that the Mayor decided that the city would benefit from a year or so without the craziness that created a poisonous environment in our city during this past year.  I give her great credit for having the poise and self confidence to not respond to the pointed attacks on her made by members of the public during the comment period. 

This is a video of the statements by the public:

This is a video of the Council members’ responses: