When voters across the country went to their local polling places in November of 2012 to vote for president, residents of Saratoga Springs, New York also voted on a ballot measure to change the city’s charter to bring in a new system of government. Overall, turnout was pretty good – 75 percent of the small city’s registered voters went to the polls.
William Fruci, a Commissioner of Elections with Saratoga County said, “it’s a presidential year – people are going to come out in droves to vote. You have people that participate only once every four years.”
The 75 percent turnout was more than double the year before in the city. Only 37 percent turned out to vote in 2011, when incumbent mayor Scott Johnson was reelected.
Even still, with a near complete change in local government on the ballot, only 86 percent of voters participated in the contest that would change their city’s charter.
“So there were 13,500 participants in the 2012 presidential election – of the 13,500, 11,610 participated in the vote for charter change," said Fruci.
The ballot measure was ultimately defeated, but the question remains…why did 1,890 voters choose not to vote on the charter change proposition?
Saratoga Springs’ charter, adopted in 1915, is unusual by modern standards. The city’s commission form of government involves five elected city commissioners – all with separate responsibilities and equal voting power. There’s a commissioner of Public Safety, Commissioner of Accounts, a Commissioner of Finance, and a Commissioner of Public Works. The fifth member of the city council is the mayor, who serves as the city’s CEO.
The charter change would have established a council-manager form of government – the most favored system of city government in the United States.
A political group Saratoga Citizen was formed and led the call for the charter change on the 2012 ballot. Saratoga Citizen Organizer Pat Kane said the council-hired subordinate manager serves as a sort of jack-of-all-trades in local government.
“Whether it’s the environmental issues, whether its taxation, you’ve got someone that’s on their game of managing their city of this complexity,” said Kane.
In 2010, Saratoga Citizen submitted petitions to place its charter change measure on the ballot, but the validity of the petition were challenged by the city’s commissioners. Saratoga Citizen appealed, and the petition was sent to court. The New York State Supreme eventually court ruled in Saratoga Citizen’s favor, and the measure was set to appear on the ballot two years later than initially anticipated.
Kane admitted part of the reason why the ballot measure didn’t pass was that charter change was old news by 2012.
“Because of the court cases it got to be kind of stale – had we gone on in 2010 – obviously I’m a little biased here – but I think we would have one in 2010 because we were on the front page of the Saratogian 12 times that year.”
Bob Turner, an Associate Professor at Skidmore College’s Government Department, said he found it unusual that the charter-change proposition was included on the 2012 ballot, the same year as the presidential election.
Turner said he thinks "part of the reason that it failed is that it just did not get enough public scrutiny and public attention amidst the noise of the presidential election.”
Turner suggested that when voters do not understand what’s on the ballot, especially if their attention is being drawn away because of other races, they’ll usually vote “no.”
Turner said, “with referendums voters are often lacking complete information and so you see a set of campaign promises from each side….and in the face of that conflicting information and if they don’t receive any cues from decision makers – like a party, or even a downtown business association – they’re just going to vote no.”
An organized opposition to the 2012 charter change proposition was formed called SUCCESS - Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential to Saratoga's Success.
Ken Klotz, a member of the group and former two-term Democratic mayor of Saratoga Springs, said the reason city residents rejected the charter change is partially because the current system has been viewed as a successful form of government, and has proven itself to work well in a setting with a large amount of community participation.
Saratoga Springs, with a population just below 27,000, is home to a thriving business community, lower taxes, and a lower crime rate than many cities its size.
Klotz said that it’s unfair to compare Saratoga Springs with other cities that have moved away from the commission form of government
“We don’t have the problems that many cities do, and the ones we do have we don’t have that severely. And I think the commission form of government is perfectly workable for the kind of city we have. And if that makes us unique I think that’s a good thing and not a bad thing,” said Klotz.
In 2006, the city also voted down a change to a strong-mayor form of government. Klotz said that both votes show that Saratoga voters are not interested in a charter that hands too much power to one person, an elected mayor or hired town manager.
Klotz assembled his own charter review commission during his tenure between 2000 and 2003. In 2001, small changes to the existing charter were implemented. The revision retained the two-year term for city commissioners and updated language defining the responsibilities of commissioners. A department of Human Resources and a department of Parks, Open Space, and Historic Preservation were also added.
Klotz added that city residents could have been more open to a new city charter if those pushing for change had altered their message delivery – a message that Klotz claimed seemed at times like marketing.
“The marketing tactics – I think these were people who said ‘we’re going to sell this, we know how to sell it’ and they kept making analogies that were to products that you sell – like buying a new car – and I think that strategy of focusing on the marketing instead of persuasiveness of the argument basically turned a lot of people off,” said Klotz.
As for Pat Kane, he said believes that citizens should always be on the lookout for ways to improve their government. And while a slew of campaign strategies could be considered and tested to ensure a measure’s passage, Kane believes the issue will come around again.
“There’s been a lot of people before and I’ms ure there’ll be a lot of people that will try to change this form of government – it’ll happen someday but it didn’t happen last year….it will happen soon.”