Twelve days prior to a vote that may change the only form of government the city has known, 150 residents attended a forum at Saratoga Springs High School on Thursday to hear the pros and cons of a proposed new city Charter.
The proposal calls for a council-manager form of government, under which the mayor and four council members, by majority approval, would hire a city manager to control day-to-day city functions. The five council members would each be elected to four-year terms and would create policy, enact local laws and approve tax levies and budgets.
The city’s current form of government, adopted when Saratoga Springs was incorporated as a city in 1915, has four commissioners and one mayor. Each is elected by voters to a two-year term and oversee their respective departments in public safety, accounts, finance, and public works. Each member also has a deputy. Under the new proposal, the five deputy positions would be eliminated and the equal power currently shared among the five council members would shift to the city manager.
Advocating for the change is the group Saratoga Citizen, and residents in favor of the proposed council-manager form say it will streamline local government which can get bogged down because the city lacks one leader. They say the city’s current commission form of government is an antiquated system which forces commissioners to put their respective departments ahead of the city’s overall interests.
The council-manager form, which dates to the 1920s, “has grown and flourished and developed,” said Brent Wilkes, who appeared at Thursday’s forum as a panel member in favor of the change. The commission form of government “has waned and died,” said Wilkes, who added that more than 900 American cities of comparable size to Saratoga Springs use the council-manager form compared to just five similarly-sized cities which have retained the commission form.
A group known as SUCCESS - Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga’s Success - wants to retain the current commissioner form of government.
“In this city we have a form of government that has been consistent with a flourishing and vibrant city for 100 years. I think that’s a compelling reason to stay with it,’ said former city Mayor Ken Klotz. “Why roll the dice and disrupt the track record of a city that is successful?”
Jane Weihe also advocated for the status quo and said the city council’s current two-year terms provide safeguards that four-year terms do not and that the current set-up provides for greater accountability. She said the proposed new charter document is “flawed, unfinished and needs an unknown Transition Team to finish the job.”
Wilkes said the costs to change the city’s form of government would be a break-even proposition and transition costs would be minimal. If approved by voters, a 10-member transition team would be appointed by the current council in 2013 and the new charter would take effect Jan. 1, 2014. Jason Molino, a Saratoga Springs Class of 1997 graduate also appeared as a panelist and said any concerns about a lack of communication or accountability issues are unwarranted in his experience as city manager in Batavia since 2006.
In 2006, Patrick Kane helped organize Move Saratoga Forward - a group which sought to change the city's form of government to a “strong mayor,” or mayor-council rule. That referendum was rejected by voters. Three years later, Kane began to explore other options to rewrite the City Charter and formed Saratoga Citizen. He was successful in putting the council-manager referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The commission form of government was created In Galveston, Texas in 1901, in the wake of a storm which ravaged the city and where having equal power among individual departments proved to be an efficient form of rule following the tragedy. Similar governing policies were adopted by hundreds of cities across the country, but many eventually adopted different practices as the century progressed.
Thursday’s event was co-organized by the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County, and Saratoga Wire. Dale Willman, co-publisher and Managing Editor of Saratoga Wire, served as moderator for the event, which was attended by about 150 people.
Saratoga Wire recorded the event. We present the audio below for those who could not attend. We also expect to have video of the forum later in the day on Friday. We will post the video as soon as it becomes available.
The first voice you will hear is Pat Nugent, President of the League of Women Voters of Saratoga County. She opened the forum.
ON THE WIRE