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.