SARATOGA SPRINGS — City residents could be voting as soon as next spring on a referendum to change the way the city has governed for the duration of its 101-year history.
This week, the 15-member Saratoga Springs City Charter Review Commission unanimously approved the drafting of a new charter, and in a 12-3 straw poll voted to draft a motion for a new form of government. The work will begin immediately to prepare a proposal for an alternative form of government to be considered by the commission, with the goal of being placed before the voters in spring 2017. A new form of government, if approved by voters, could go into effect as soon as 2018. “Changing a city’s charter is not something to be undertaken lightly,” said charter commission chairman Bob Turner. “I think the members of the commission felt very confident in their understanding of the city charter to make their decision. It was a long process, but well worth it.”
Turner said the commission’s goal was to conduct the most comprehensive and in-depth review of Saratoga Springs’ city government that has ever been executed. Interviews were conducted with 20 current and former city council members, 10 city hall department heads, and six other mayors and city managers, in addition to separate surveys of City Hall employees and potential City Council candidates. A town hall meeting and 30 committee and subcommittee meetings were held over the past 6 months.
City Workers: Commission Form of Government Doesn’t Work
A 16-question survey distributed to City Hall and Public Safety employees from Nov. 25 to Dec. 8 received 75 responses. More than eighty per cent of those workers have worked at City Hall for at least six years. The majority responded that political conflicts or tensions between department commissioners affected workers’ ability to do their jobs and nearly half said they didn’t trust deputy commissioners to make decisions in the best interest of the city. As to the commission form of government specifically, 71.8 percent of the city employees said they don’t believe it provides for effective management of the city, and most opted instead for either a strong mayor, or city manager form of governing.
Five members – the mayor plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively – comprise the Saratoga Springs City Council, which operates in a commission form of government. That is, each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. The concept was founded in Galveston, Texas in 1901 after a storm ravaged the city, killing more than 5,000 people and creating the need for a useful way of post-disaster governing. Five department heads were given equal say in how the city should be reconstructed. It proved to be an efficient measure. The city of Houston adopted a similar form four years later. By 1912, 206 cities in 34 states followed suit, from Margate City, New Jersey - with a population of 129, to Oakland, California, with 150,000 residents at the time. Saratoga Springs followed suit shortly after it was incorporated as a city in 1915.
Survey: Commission Form of Government Excludes Diverse Voices and Talent, Chairman Says
In a second recently issued survey by the charter review commission, a pool of 182 potential City Council candidates who were queried revealed that changing from the commission form of government would dramatically increase the number of people willing to run for City Council. Only 8.2 percent responded they would be “somewhat,” or “extremely likely” to run for one of the four commissioner positions in the current system of governing. More than three times as many said they were “somewhat or “very likely to run” were they to serve as a part-time legislator and did not have any administrative responsibilities.
Commission positions are paid an annual salary of $14,500 and hire a full-time deputy to run their office. Interviews with current and former commissioners revealed that many found it challenging to balance a full-time job with the dual demands of running a major department and legislating, a combination unique to the commission form of government. Seventy percent of the survey respondents reported working full-time.
“We clearly have a large pool of civically engaged citizens who want to serve the city, but are unable to make the time commitment required under the commission form of government,” Turner said. “The data shows we are excluding a diverse set of voices and talent.”
The Commission has met two to three times each month since June to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the charter. The next meeting will take place 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27 at City Hall.
Upcoming Meetings: The City Council will host a pre-agenda meeting 9:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 19 and a full council meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20 at City Hall. The Zoning Board of Appeals will host a meeting 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 19 at City Hall.