Charter Change Debated In Saratoga Springs

Oct 27, 2017

Supporters and opponents of a plan to change the governing structure of Saratoga Springs debated Thursday night, less than two weeks before voters weigh in.

On Election Day, Saratogians will held to the polls to vote on a new city charter.

Saratoga Springs has a unique commission form of government, where the five city department heads also serve as the city council. It’s been that way since the city was incorporated more than a century ago, though there have been several attempts to change the charter in the past. 

What’s on the ballot is a plan presented by the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission that would change the city to a council-manager form of government. If chosen by voters, in 2020 the city council would expand to seven, including a mayor, and a city manager would be hired to oversee day-to-day operations.

One of the primary arguments for changing the charter is that the current system allows for politics at the council level to affect cooperation between departments.

Gordon Boyd is a member of the Saratoga Springs Charter Review Commission.

“And we feel that the present structure that we have expends a lot of time and effort fighting with itself and we need to be ready to  compete with other cities,” said Boyd.

Opponents say robust discussion between departments can actually be effective.

Matt Jones, also a member of the Charter Review Commission, is not in favor of the proposed document. Jones believes that the commission form has allowed for new commissioners to make an impact.

“I feel that you’ll lose that if we don’t continue the commission form of government.  I think the bureaucracy will tend to take over and stifle some of that initiative from new council members and I just don’t think that’s good for the city,” said Jones.

Another point of contention is the role of deputy commissioners. The charter proposal says full-time deputies may stay on at the pleasure of the city manager, but they are otherwise not written into the charter. Rick Fenton of the group “It’s Time Saratoga” pointed out that there has traditionally been high turnover among deputies.

“If they’re un-elected, then the deputy that works for the elected official is also out of office and there’s no institutional memory left in the office. And a new elected official comes in with a new deputy,” said Fenton.

A change opponent and former Deputy Commissioner of Accounts, Michele Boxley, defended the deputies and made the point that a city manager cannot possibly do the work of five full-time city employees. 

In the end, both sides were confident in their arguments. Richard Sellers is a supporter of the group SUCCESS who opposes charter change.

“I think we had the easier job of the two because we had the better story with the better form of government, so it’s almost an unfair competition between the two sides,” said Sellers.

Fenton made his closing argument in song, which brought applause and a handful of walk-outs.

“And every Saratogian will warble like a tanager when on Election Day they all vote ‘yes’ for council-manager,” sang Fenton.