[JK: This is part one of a series of posts on the city manager charter proposal]
For those who know me it will come as no surprise that I am not enamored with the commission form of government. Unfortunately, the proposed new charter is sufficiently flawed that I cannot support it.
The Worst Possible Timing
The timing could not be worse for the advocates of charter change. The city is operating during a pandemic. We are in what appears to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We are facing a $7,000,000.00 budget short fall for 2021 and, unless the Federal government comes to the rescue of municipalities across the United States, severe problems will only continue in 2022 when this charter would take effect.
Uncharted Waters In Both Cost And Structure
The cost and staffing for this new city manager design are more than unclear. The literature and public pronouncements by its advocates are actually contradictory.
On their website they have published a skeletal break down of alleged cost savings that are based on the elimination of all of the Commissioners and their Deputies along with the Deputy Mayor. All of their duties would be replaced by a single city manager. In his public remarks, the co-chair of the group advocating for the new government, Ron Kim, has reaffirmed that the work of all nine of the administrative positions will be absorbed by a single city manager.
[JK: This is a video from the last campaign for a city manager government in 2017. John Franck shreds their financial estimates based on similar calculations.]
This fits into a narrative put forward by the charter change advocates. They contend that the full time Deputies are basically the beneficiaries of patronage and perform little in the way of productive work. It is instructive that while the 2017 Charter Commission that came up with the city manager structure interviewed many, many city hall employees and elected officials, both past and present, they conspicuously did not talk to any Deputies.
As for the Mayor, who currently has a number of managerial responsibilities including overseeing the Building and Planning Departments, the proposed charter is quite specific that her administrative duties will be eliminated so the city manager would have to pick up her duties as well.
It seems axiomatic that the advocates would have wanted to know whether any of the duties performed by the Deputies and Commissioners involved essential work and if so how much time was required to perform it. Unfortunately, they apparently did not see the need to look into this. There is also the unfortunate possibility that they knew that the Deputies did perform essential duties and preferred to maintain a self imposed ignorance.
On its face it seems awfully ambitious to have one person, the city manager, absorb all of these duties.
This brings us to the actual proposed charter. The charter calls for the formation of a “Transitional Task Force.”
The Task Force shall prepare a detailed work plan addressing, at a minimum, the following transition issues:
re-allocation of the specific duties of each commissioner and deputy commissioner to new or existing positions;…
…recommendation to the City Council of amounts necessary to adequately fund reasonably foreseeable new positions in the fiscal year beginning January 1, 2022; and estimation of any other expenses necessary to include in the 2022 fiscal year budget to fund a smooth transition to the new charter.Proposed Charter 8.09 Transition to the New Charter
Now I think that this provision of the charter is prudent. It actually acknowledges that the Deputies may have performed duties that will have to be absorbed by the new form of government. It does, however, seem inconsistent with the optimistic cost savings promised in the advocates’ current campaign materials. It appears to acknowledge that a prudent and careful formulation of the new government may require the hiring of additional staff.
Of equal concern to me as the cost of additional staff is the very thorny problem of what exactly the elements of this new government will look like. I have considerable experience as both the executive of a non-governmental agency and as a consultant to not-for-profit organizations. Even with that background or because of that background, I would find it very intimidating to serve on a task force meant to craft the staffing for a new Saratoga Springs government under a city manager.
I am particularly worried that the proponents of this new form of government seem over-confident in their ability to successfully carry out this very challenging task.
The Thorny Business Of Hiring An Executive
I am sure those with experience in hiring in general share my experience. While over time I made some excellent choices, I had my share of painful mistakes. Only the very foolish or inexperienced approach hiring without worry.
In 2017 the advocates for a city manager government frequently pointed to Watertown, New York’s city manager government as an example of success. In their previous campaign, they brought the then city manager to Saratoga Springs to promote their campaign at least twice. In fact, that city manager abruptly left her position just two months before her contract was up. Watertown is now on its fourth city manager in three years. Their current city manager is in an interim position, and they are now searching for yet another candidate. They are hoping to have their latest city manager on board by January 1.
This is not to say that were we to adopt the new charter, that we would fair as badly as Watertown. On the other hand Watertown is by far not the only example of a city manager being hired who hasn’t worked out. It seems imprudent to assume that we would be immune to similar problems.
The problem is that there is no plan B. The advocates simply assume they will find the right candidate and things will proceed painlessly.
Were we embarking on a new government under other circumstances this would be less worrisome. Only a year ago we had an excellent surplus and an exemplary bond rating. The latitude for error then was considerable.
Putting aside my other reservations about the proposed charter, it seems beyond obvious that this is not the time to try out a new form of government.