Shortly after the 2018 Charter Review Commission (CRC) began its deliberations, its members issued an invitation to Skidmore Professor Robert Turner, Patrick Kane, and Gordon Boyd to address the Commission. As many of you will recall, these three were among the most active in the now-disbanded 2017 CRC. All three declined the invitation.
Their response, while a disappointment, came as no surprise. During the 2017 campaign those members made their view clear: the current Commission form of government in Saratoga Springs is a dysfunctional disaster that had not only historically damaged the City, but represented a real threat to its — that is to say, our — future. In declining the invitation I assumed that they wanted to broadcast that they felt the commission form was so dysfunctional that any change in it would have no real positive impact. In addition they seemingly did not want to lend credibility to the proposed new charter through their participation.
With only two weeks until we vote, the dissidents, along with five other former members of the past Commission, have now issued a rather ugly, scorched-earth attack against the proposed revisions being offered by the 2018 Commission. I find this troubling on many levels. I could fully have understood if they had urged a “no” vote for the reasons deduced above. They have made it clear that, as is their right, they plan to offer their proposed charter again as soon as legally possible. They could have used this moment as an opportunity to make their case for why the existing charter should be abandoned in favor of one in which City government revolves around a city manager.
Instead, the dissidents have adopted a bunker mentality, issuing a release that embodies much of what has gone wrong with politics in today’s America. It broadcasts their stark narrative that the members of the City Council are greedy politicians who will stop at nothing to gain power and enrich themselves at the City’s expense. This makes me think of John LeCarre who, in his great spy novels, portrayed a cycle in which the perceived venality of one’s opponents is used to justify replicating the same behavior — to win.
So Bob Turner, Pat Kane, Gordon Boyd et al. felt the need to cast the proposed changes to the charter as simple abuses of the public trust. Perhaps they have congratulated themselves for their timing, as we are just two weeks away from a vote. These tactics may in some instances succeed but we should recognize them for what they are: they are by design intended not to reason their way to consensus but to shock and wound.
Since the changes to the charter in Ballot Question One (as compared to Ballot Question Two which would add two members to the council) are both modest in scope and easily explained, Turner et al. had to go to extreme lengths to attack them.
For example (see previous post with all the details of all their accusations) they use shrill oratory to claim that the proposal to remove council members’ salaries from the charter will mean that future members of the City Council will be able to award themselves “unlimited” salaries. This plays on a skeptical public’s fears of “politicians” burdening the citizens with taxes while lining their own pockets. Put otherwise, we’re invited to fear that our government and our elected officials are our enemies. Does this sound familiar?
The problem is that Bob Turner, Patrick Kane, Gordon Boyd, et al. all supported making the same change in their own 2017 charter. So, logically, if you vote for their proposed charter sometime in the future, you will presumably be voting to award Council members “unlimited” salaries. As if borrowing from a Gothic novel we all know, these individuals must have the capacity to stare into a mirror and not see themselves.
The following is an excerpt from the white paper prepared by Vince DeLeonardis and Mike Sharp on this very subject:
… It is also curious why Mr. Turner and the others who signed the letter question the removal of salaries from the Charter, when their own legal counsel, Bob Batson, explained to them that “the model charter rejects putting compensation in the Charter” (see 2/6/17 Commission meeting minutes). Even Pat Kane recognized that “the Department of State and NYCOM recommend that salaries not be in charters” and that “most charters do not identify salaries in the charter”. Mr. Kane believed that “salaries should be left to the Council” and Gordon Boyd fully agreed, stating that “Council should set salaries” and proclaiming that “there is a moral and statutory obligation of the Council to set salaries” (see 3/6/17 Commission meeting minutes).
The Ghost Of Marshall McLuhan
The problem here is not so much whether or not these charter changes are adopted or rejected. Our City is healthy enough to withstand the impact of either the continuation of the existing charter or the adoption of a city manager form of government. Instead, what stands at risk is our ability to thoughtfully engage with each other as citizens in a democratic process. Healthy civic debate, however animated, should not be confused with combat.
And it is not just proclaiming falsehoods or gross misrepresentations, masquerading as fact, which puts us at risk; it is the creation of an overheated rhetoric which is so pernicious and toxic. It intimidates many from offering their opinions for fear that they will be subject to the kind of character attack that pervades documents like the release. Worst of all, it causes many to simply avoid even listening because the experience is so dreadful.
Marshall McCluhan famously observed that the “medium is the message.” That pretty much sums up our situation.
The Grim Decline of the League of Women Voters
In the past, the League of Women Voters set a standard and an expectation for the kind of public dialogue that now appears quaint. They were absolutely scrupulous about fairness and accuracy. Their forums were a study in decorum. If I wanted information on something about local government I could always turn to League-sponsored public events.
Unfortunately, the League appears to have been negatively impacted by the larger forces in our culture. Last year they held a forum on the proposed 2017 charter. They originally set it up so that only the supporters of that proposed charter could participate. Barbara Thomas, who was one of the three co-chairs of the League, was allowed to participate in the decision-making process and to be a panelist in spite of the fact that she was a member of the 2017 charter review commission. When the critics of the charter protested, the League responded by making them a poison-pill offer: there would be three representatives of the charter commission on the panel who would have unlimited time; they would add a representative from “It’s Time”, which was the public relations arm of the charter; and someone else would offer the opposing view. These latter two would be limited to ten minutes each. Needless to say the critics declined to participate in such a lop-sided forum.
This year I contacted the League asking if they planned to sponsor a public forum on the newly proposed charter. I was told by a member speaking for the League that, because they oppose the commission form, they would not be having a forum. I subsequently received an email back from one of the League’s leaders advising me that they did not have time to do a program. A letter to the editor in the Saratogian from League representative announced their opposition to the commission form of government and thus to this year’s charter proposal.
The League made its decision without inviting anyone from the current Charter Review Commission to address them. This could not be more out of keeping with the League’s history, nor more damaging to its public profile.
That the League of Women Voters would squander the trust it had so carefully cultivated over the years by insulating themselves and depriving the public of thoughtful debate and consideration of the most recent proposal for charter change speaks volumes about the state of the body politic in the country in general, and in our county in particular.
This country has had other dark periods in our history. Most obvious was the hysteria we faced during the McCarthy period, when organizations and institutions assumed to be stronger than demagogues failed. Enduring these periods was never easy but there is a native resilience in our democracy and I expect we will come through this one, too, though not unscarred.