Oct 29, 2018 - Uncategorized    2 Comments

Saratoga Springs charter changes do little to improve city operations

Changes to Saratoga Springs city government are on the Nov. 6 ballot.

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.

2 Comments

  • The terms for land use boards are set by law. Without going into the technicalities the terms in effect are based on the number of members. If you want to shorten the terms you have to reduce the number on the board.

  • Mrs. Lombardo,
    As we discussed over email, below are corrections and comments related to the post above. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to respond.

    In response to your post “Saratoga Springs charter changes do little to improve city operations”, there are items we believe warrant a correction, so that your readers are correctly informed when they cast their ballot on November 6th:

    – Regarding your third bullet point, the City Attorney currently reports to the City Council as a whole. Per Section 8 of the existing Charter [emphasis mine], “There shall be a City Attorney who shall report to the Council regarding all legal matters affecting the City. The Mayor shall appoint the City Attorney, and the Council shall establish his or her compensation. The City Attorney shall serve as general legal advisor and shall be responsible for providing legal services and guidance to the City and all its departments and entities. The City Attorney shall maintain regular and updated records and shall report to the Council on the progress of all legal matters conducted by or on behalf of the City, as required.” This language, through which one City employee reports to the Council as a whole, has been in place since the 2001 Charter was approved by voter. The proposed Charter treats HR and IT similarly, given the City-wide functions they serve. I would also note that the City Manager form inherently would have one person, the city manager, reporting to a multi-person body.

    – Regarding your fourth bullet point, the salary in the current Charter does not represent a “salary cap.” The methods by which a City Council can change Council salary remain unchanged. If a City Council wants to change their salary while in office, that can only be approved through a voter referendum. If a City Council wants to change the salary for a future City Council, they need to go through the local law process, which includes public notice and a public hearing. This does not “eliminate the need for a voter referendum” as you state. There is no scenario whereby a City Council can unilaterally give itself a raise. The 2018 Commission removed the $14,500 figure from the proposed Charter as the advice of our outside counsel, and as most charters do not include them. Per meeting minutes from last year’s Commission, their outside counsel stated “the model charter rejects putting compensation in the Charter” (2/6/17) and 2017 Commission member Pat Kane said “the Department of State and NYCOM recommend that salaries not be in charter.” (3/6/17)

    – Regarding the potential cost of expansion, the annual estimated impact for both per our financial analysis is $31,218 or $81,846, using the same $14,500 salary of today’s City Council members and assuming the most expensive healthcare plan. By saying “$15,000 to $80,000 a year each”, the “each” gives the impression you mean per Council Member-at-Large, which is not the case. The estimate is “$15,609 or $40,923 each” or “$31,218 or $81,846 combined”.

    Voters will ultimately decide the merit of the amendments within the proposed Charter, and we hope each does that in a well-informed way. For this reason, we ask that you correct the items referenced above.

    Thank you,
    Mike Sharp

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