I’ve got homework (a printout of the 24-page draft), immediate concerns and thinking to do. But my gut takeaway from the March 29 standing-room-only public forum about changing the city’s forum of government is that the proposal crafted – and still being tweaked — by the current charter revision commission could be the one.
Here are my four main questions:
Why change the existing form in a 102-year-old city that seems to be quite healthy?
What’s it going to do to my property taxes?
Who will I call if my street needs plowing?
What affect will it have on who runs the City Council and City Hall?
First: Why change? Things get done in Saratoga Springs despite the form or government, not because of it. The existing commission form requires each of the five City Council members, including the mayor, to not simply be legislators but to also wear administrative hats with oversight of specific segments of city operations. No one, including the mayor, can force their colleagues to do something, and no one, not even the mayor, is truly in charge.
Second: What will it cost? Well, the charter review commission chairman is confident a switch to an elected seven-member council with an appointed city manager will cost significantly less than the current form. Opportunities exist to reduce spending by eliminating some redundant positions. But I’m skeptical. I’ve never seen government spend less, not really, have you? Cost estimates have yet to be seen.
Three: Who ya gonna call? Earlier this year, when I thought I needed the public safety department for assistance, I was politely told to call the public works department instead. And most citizens instinctively call the mayor’s office for things that are not in the mayor’s purview. Under the proposed form, citizens with a question or complaint could directly call the City Manager’s office. Or they could bug any of the City Council members — just like now, except that the council members could then go directly to the city manager, who would be in charge of all of the city’s operations. I’m still not clear, however, about the chain of command; the City Manager cannot have seven masters. That wouldn’t be any better than the present five-headed monster.
Four: Who’s in charge? It seems logical that City Council positions that are strictly legislative could attract more people to run for office. And it seems logical to have one appointed city manager responsible for all city operations. I’m not convinced, however, that a full-time mayor, as proposed in the draft, is warranted in a system with a full-time, professional city manager. The mayor’s duties may justify greater part-time compensation than the other council members, but that still sounds like a part-time job.
That’s it for the moment. Armed with a yellow highlighter and red pen, I’m going to read through the commission’s proposed charter, and I’ll get back to you. Meanwhile, you can do some of your own homework at saratogacharter.com. And I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts as well.