Saratoga Springs voters should vote no on both charter change propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot.
This is not déjà vu. The 2018 propositions are nothing like the 2017 proposal – defeated by only 10 votes – that would have put a city manager in charge of City Hall and allow City Council members to serve strictly as legislators.
What’s on the ballot this time are changes formulated by a commission consisting entirely of the people who are running City Hall – the council members and their full-time appointed deputies, with the city attorney as chair. I attended two public sessions, read their proposals and have followed arguments for and against. My concerns about the propositions were reinforced Saturday when I received what looks like an official city mailing that eagerly promotes approval of the changes with blatantly biased and disputable claims about “enhanced efficiencies and organizational improvements.”
The major changes in Ballot Question No. 1 would:
- Require that the mayor’s appointments to land-use boards be approved by a City Council vote. (Legitimate concerns about appointees could be addressed by revising the length of board terms and enacting term limits, and focusing on the mayor’s land-use attitudes as a key election issue.)
- Move the Recreation Commission from the mayor’s department to the public works department. (This appears to be a logical realignment. But it wouldn’t be necessary if the public works commissioner and his full-time deputy paid appropriate attention to public priorities beyond their silo of responsibilities.)
- Have the city lawyers, risk manager, human resources and information technology staff all answer to the entire City Council. Since 2001, this has applied to the city attorney. (The promotional material calls that giving them “appropriate autonomy.” I call having several employees reporting to a five-member council tantamount to reporting to no one. These employees should be able to serve all of City Hall while reporting to, say, the deputy mayor.)
- Remove the stated City Council salary of $14,500 from the charter. (Whether removed or not, the council can raise the salary of the next council with a local law that would require a public hearing. By the way, the group did not seek to eliminate the lifetime health insurance available to council members serving at least 10 years, saying this would be up to the council to change by local law.)
- Expect City Council members to hire full-time deputies with appropriate education and expertise. (A vague way to say “Don’t appoint unqualified hacks.” Council members who don’t know better ought to be bounced out of office.)
The second of the two proposals on the ballot would add two at-large city council members. (The mailing says this “increases the opportunity to participate in city government.” True. But these legislative-only members would lack the practical access and authority of their peers, who control their specific administrative fiefdoms. Not worth the added cost of about $15,000 to $40,000 a year each to taxpayers, to start, depending on whether they accept city health insurance. By the way, this council expansion had to be a separate proposition for technical legal reasons, but the city decided that even if approved by voters it would be enacted only if the first proposal is approved as well.)
Given last year’s close vote, a change in the city’s form of government is on the horizon. Meanwhile, the new mayor decided to try to amend the city charter within the existing form of government for the first time since 2001. Restricting the task to the people whose own jobs are affected was a mistake. It was a misstep for the previous mayor’s charter group to shut out the council members and their deputies; the new mayor made the same gaffe in reverse.
It’s easy to cite operational shortcomings small and large resulting from or exacerbated by the commission form of government. Three examples: A conscientious mother was bounced between department for weeks last winter seeking a straight answer about sledding in Congress Park and ended up having to address the entire City Council. Neither an elected public safety commissioner nor his full-time appointed deputy carried out their administrative oversight responsibilities according to a pending lawsuit about police misconduct allegations. The council did not challenge a colleague’s decision to carry an unqualified relative on his department’s payroll.
I think many members on the 2018 commission worked hard to meet their charge from the mayor. Most of my experiences with City Hall have been positive and productive. Dedicated, competent people are committed to their jobs and service to the public. The city is thriving and taxes are reasonable.
But continued success depends not only on having the right people, but also the right structure. (The condescending tone and misinformation spread by some leaders of the 2017 charter movement reflect the opposite problem: right structure, wrong people.)
Despite good intentions, the charter changes on the 2018 ballot don’t offer much to make City Hall more responsive, efficient or accountable. Instead, they illustrate incurable weaknesses in the commission form of government.