I’m voting yes on charter change in Saratoga Springs, for one overriding reason: to trade a system in which City Council members are both legislators and administrators, each with separate silos of responsibility, for a structure in which City Council members are policy-makers who hire a city manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of City Hall.
Everything else about the change are just details, though that’s where some say you’ll find the devil.
Changes you’d notice: A council with seven members instead of five, including the mayor; staggered four-year terms, allowing for continuity, instead of everyone up for re-election every two years; and the introduction of term limits. Present council members could run under the new form, and Saratoga Springs would be well-served if some of them did.
If you have a request, complaint or question about the city and its services, you could still contact the specific department, or you could contact the city manager’s office or any City Council member, including the mayor. And the carrying out of City Council directives will no longer depend on council members’ willingness to allow their departments to cooperate.
Other changes optimistically promised by the pro-change group include a less expensive City Hall, markedly increased efficiency, less politics in government, and a surge in council candidates. We’ll see.
City residents who, like me, are proud to call this city their home, have raised their families here, and participate in civic life – intelligent, caring people whose opinions I respect – are on both sides of the issue.
A few in the pro-change leadership have been disappointingly condescending about the ability and integrity of those currently running the city. They would have been better advised to follow the lead of level-headed charter change supporters like former Mayor A.C. Riley, focusing on the advantages of having a professional manager running the city rather than an arcane system where literally no one is really in charge and commissioners are encouraged to be department caretakers rather than pro-active policy-makers.
Both sides include Republicans and Democrats and some odd bedfellows.
Among anti-change donors are a large number of big-money pro-development Republicans such as Tom Roohan, Frank Parillo and Bill Dake, as well as some liberal Democrats, like former Mayor Ken Klotz and former city Democratic chairwoman Jane Weihe. Meanwhile, among those on the pro-change side are Dake and Riley’s son Gary Dake, the Stewart’s Shops president, land preservation advocate Barbara Glaser, longtime local League of Women Voters leader Barbara Thomas, and brothers Bill and Tom McTygue of the former city public works dynasty.
Two city council members strongly supporting the status quo, John Franck and Michele Madigan, have successfully challenged many of the pro-change group’s financial claims. But they have not convinced me that the commission system, which relies on council members’ willingness to work together, is more effective or efficient than the proposed council-manager form.
I asked former Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Joe Dalton to explain his interest in spearheading the no vote. He talked about how politicians by nature avoid making decisions, especially controversial ones, and that council members’ basic roles are to maintain government services and carry out initiatives brought forth from outside City Hall. He is concerned, it seemed to me, that the council-manager form with seven at-large council members would weaken the influence of those with whom he is aligned.
In contrast, I would like to see more council members with varied backgrounds and long-term vision who are interested in taking initiative rather than being custodians. The council-manager form lends itself to that much better than the commission form.
You can find more about charter vote donors on the Saratoga Springs Politics website by John Kaufmann, whose even-handed blogging I respect even though our charter votes will cancel each other out. You can also learn more on the websites saratogacharter.com, saratogaspringssuccess.org and itstimesaratoga.com.
Issues facing the city will be the same regardless of the form of government, such as: a budget that holds down property taxes by dipping into the city’s rainy-day fund, delaying and likely exacerbating eventual tax increases; disputes over land use and where and how the city should grow; the uncertain future of horse racing as a major driver of the city’s economy; and housing too steep for service industry employees on whom local businesses rely.
That said, this is a thriving, lively city with reasonable taxes, solid business involvement, and community members generous with both their volunteer time and money. The city will likely be OK whatever its form of government. But we have a rare opportunity on Nov. 7 to take an educated leap, to let a full-time professional run City Hall and expect elected City Council members to steer Saratoga Springs into the future. Tear down the silos.