Mar 4, 2017 - Uncategorized    4 Comments

Is this the year to slay Saratoga Springs’ five-headed monster?

Saratoga Springs residents will vote in November whether to change the city’s form of government, a proposal that five-year council member Michele Madigan views with a skeptically raised eyebrow.

The city under its current form is fiscally sound, she points out. Taxes are reasonable. Competent and caring people work together and get things done.

But in a recently published piece, she too cavalierly dismisses City Hall’s greatest weakness: No one is in charge.

Saratoga Springs’ rare form of government consists of five part-time council members, each of whom, including the mayor, is elected as head of specific segments of city operations. They are both legislators and administrators.

They often work cooperatively. And plenty of times, they don’t. I’ve seen both firsthand and up close, beginning with my stint as City Hall reporter for The Saratogian in the late 1970s and through my years as editor of the paper.

If, say, the council members in charge of public works and public safety don’t get along, they don’t share information and projects that overlap their jurisdictions languish. The mayor has the same single vote as the other four council members, who are “commissioners” of this and that, and cannot order any of them to get something done. There is no full-time manager overseeing and responsible for City Hall’s daily and long-term operations.

Madigan discounts the description of the City Council as five “silos.” She notes that as the commissioner in charge of the city budget, she deals with all the departments. But successes she rightly points to were realized in spite of, not because of, the system.

I wrote my share of editorials over the years decrying the five-headed monster that is the City Council. But when push came to shove, I shied away from urging voters to dump a system fraught with inefficiencies in favor of new form with its own shortcomings.

The City Charter wisely calls for the mayor to appoint a commission to periodically review the government and recommend changes than ranging from piecemeal tweaks to major overhauls. As with past commissions, volunteers have devoted many hours looking into how City Hall could be both affordable and efficient. As with most past commissions, this one is confident that replacing the current form of government will best serve Saratoga Springs for years to come.

Could this be the year to take the risk and make the leap?

I’m not sure, not yet. The commission had hoped the charter change vote would take place in May, but I’m glad the City Council wouldn’t fund a special election. Madigan and I agree: The upcoming weeks and months will give people time to study and weigh the options and make an informed decision when going to the polls in November.

4 Comments

  • During the research being done by the 2016-2017 Charter Review Commission some very interesting facts have come out. The most prolific fact was that in the 2001-2004 charter referendum very strict financial processes and procedures were put in place. Since that implementation the city has had rock solid financials and has been applauded numerous times in the 15 years and FOUR Finance commissioners. Despite the elimination of VLT Revenues and the world wide economic downturn, the city remains on a remarkable 15 years track record. Those strict practices and procedures are being included in the new charter soon to be presented to the citizens of Saratoga Springs. Along with Finance Commissioner Lenz, McCabe, Ivins, and Madigan the city has and will continue to have remarkably prosperous future. Special thanks to Mayor Ken Klotz and the 2001 charter commission member Mark Lawton for such sound financial leadership.

  • Saratoga owes its success as a city to many things, but the commission form of government certainly isn’t one of them. Geology, location, history, and the efforts of a lot of great people deserve the credit. Our mineral springs, the pioneers who first built the city around them, the growth of tourism, and our impressive Victorian architecture all were firmly established before the commission form was invented. City government under the commission form presided over the city’s decline through the 1970s. Our resurgence is a testament to the vision and hard work of many people. But to the limited extent that city government had anything to do with it, the people in office succeeded despite the flaws in the commission form. What are a few of the flaws, and how would they be fixed by the council-manager system?

    1. No city executive. In our current commission form, the mayor has one vote, just like the commissioners. The city workforce is divided up among 5 elected supervisors who may not get along, and don’t have to. Service delivery is uncoordinated and inefficient. In the council-manager system, a professional city manager serves the elected city council as the city’s executive. City staff work together under a single leader as a single team.

    2. Few people run for office. As a current commissioner has said, under the commission system, the only people who run are independently wealthy, retired, or crazy. Relatively few people are willing to participate in making all the important policy decisions for the city while also supervising an entire city department for $14,500 a year. Since 1977, in 20 out of 25 elections, at least one race went uncontested. Under the council-manager plan, elected council members would concentrate on policy issues, free of supervisory responsibilities. More people would be enticed to run, and we’d have a more diverse, vibrant city council.

    3. Accountability. As things stand, often you can’t vote someone you don’t like out of office, because there isn’t a good opponent. Also, there is little the council can do to reign in a commissioner who is unwilling to abide by a majority decision. According to a recent survey of city staff, a significant majority believe that the commission form doesn’t do a good job making commissioners accountable for the performance of their departments, or protecting taxpayers from wasteful spending.

    4. Separation of City Services from Politics – Under the commission form, many Saratoga Springs business owners are careful not to enroll in a political party for fear that their politics might not conform with elected officials responsible for providing city services. Under council-manager, because the city manager reports to the city council as a body, the city workforce, and the people of the city, are insulated from the influence of politics in service delivery.

    5. Professionalism. Now, our elected officials appoint deputies from the local area who are not required to have any education or experience in government administration. A city manager would be required to have an advanced degree and experience in government, and would be hired after a region-wide search.

    Hardly a radical change, the council-manager plan was created around 1912 as a reform of the commission plan. Since then across the country the commission system largely has faded away. Mechanicville is the only other city in the State that holds on to it. Meanwhile, the council-manager plan has grown to be the most successful and popular form of city government in the country. It’s a wonder that Saratoga has waited so long to step up.

    • I am especially interested to see the plan for how the City Council will be set up. A strictly legislative role could make it more inviting for capable people to run for office.

      • Under the proposed charter, the City Council is a pure legislative body. They would vote for laws, approve budgets, and represent the interests of the city. They would hire and fire the city manager, provide for annual audits, approve mayoral appointments to the land use boards, and represent the voters. The exact language from the charter is below.

        2.12. Finance and property

        The City Council shall have the control of the finances and property of the City, except as otherwise provided in this Charter.

        2.13. Audits.

        A. The City Council shall provide for an independent annual audit of all City accounts and may provide for more frequent audits as it deems necessary.

        2.14. Legislative powers.

        The City Council shall be the legislative, policy-making and appropriating body of the City. It shall have all the powers and perform all the duties now or in the future conferred by this Charter or imposed by law upon the legislative body of a City.

        2.15. Legislation.

        The City Council shall have the power to enact local laws, ordinances, and resolutions consistent with the US Constitution and the constitution and laws of the state, for purposes including but not limited to:

        A. The preservation of the order, peace, health, safety and welfare of the City, its residents and visitors.

        B. The benefit of trade, commerce and economic development within the City.

        C. The protection of the quality of life within the City.

        D. The protection of the business and property interests within the City.

        E. The government of the City and the management of its business.

        2.16. Actions requiring enactment by ordinance or local law.

        A. The City Council shall, by ordinance or by local law:

        (1) Establish rules or regulations and provide for fines or other penalties for violations thereof.
        (2) Levy taxes;
        (3) Grant, renew, or extend a franchise;
        (4) Regulate the rate charged for its services by the holder of a franchise;
        (5) Convey or lease, or authorize the conveyance or lease, of any lands of the City; or
        (6) Amend or repeal any ordinance or local law previously adopted.

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