SARATOGA SPRINGS — If all goes according to plan, city residents will vote in a special election on May 30 that may alter the way Saratoga Springs has been governed since its incorporation as a city in 1915.
Plans call for a ballot providing voters with two options: keep the current City Charter and the commission form of governing as is, or revise the charter with a new form of governing. That proposed new form - the council-manager form of government, was approved by a 14-0 vote by the Commission late Thursday.
The Commission has staged meetings and conducted interviews and surveys during the past seven months. Among its recommendations are increasing the number of council members from five to seven, their terms from two years to four years, and putting a system in place to ensure members come from all corners of the city.
“There’s no magic number, but we felt seven was the right number and it’s also the average number of members in councils across the country,” Charter Review Commission chairman Bob Turner told the City Council on Tuesday. Additionally, the proposed four-year terms – similar to approximately 70 percent of city governments in America - would reduce the frequency of fundraising and campaigning, Turner said.
The commission’s lengthiest discussion concerned the merits of neighborhood districts versus at-large elections. Under the current system, commissioners are elected in city-wide elections. Under a neighborhood district system, council members are elected from a neighborhood or smaller geographic area. Candidates would have to live in the district they represent. Neighborhood districts would make a positive contribution to the electoral and governance process of the city, according to the commission. Neighborhood districts would also make it easier for new candidates to run for office since they would only have to reach out to approximately 4,500 voters instead of 18,000. Commission studies indicate that the vast majority of City Council candidates during the past 15 years have come from a small cluster on the central east side of the city, and argue that neighborhood districts would ensure more geographic representation in City Council affairs.
The Commission also supported giving the City Council confirmation power over all mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments pending state law.
The May 30 date is the last Tuesday that a special election can be held while also allowing new candidates to choose to run for the City Council in 2017, based on whether the charter referendum succeeds or fails.
“A special election in May also gives any candidates for public office the full picture of what the voters want for their form of government, one way or the other,” said commission member Gordon Boyd, in a statement.
What is the Council-Manager Form of Government?
Under the council-manager form of government, the city council approves the budget, determines the tax rate and focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and such long-term considerations as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The council hires a highly trained non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out these policies with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery. Managers serve at the pleasure of the governing body and can be fired by a majority of the council.
The council-manager form is the most popular structure of local government in the United States. Among cities with a 25,000-49,999 population, 63 percent of cities have a council manager structure, 31 percent have mayor council, and 1% has the commission form of government. Currently, Saratoga Springs and Mechanicville are the only cities in New York that have the commission form of government, according to the Commission.
Pat Kane, vice-chairman of the 15-member citizen board, said he anticipates total costs to be about $46,000 - $20,000 for legal drafting costs, $20,000 for community information outreach, and about $6,000 in clerical support expense. Additionally, a special election would cost $37,000. There has been push-back among some current council members regarding the timing and the expense of a special election. Specifically, Commissioner John Franck contends that residents will be less likely to make the effort to vote in a special election than they would be in a more traditionally timed vote in November. Commissioner Chris Mathiesen countered that in November all five current council seats will be up for re-election and that adding a charter review vote would only serve to complicate matters and not allow the issue the appropriate focus it deserves.
The council has until late February to approve the request to fund the Commission’s expenses as well as the special election; if it fails to do so, it is believed the mayor has the ability to approve the amount of funding sought. Representatives of the Charter Commission met with members of the city finance department Wednesday, and it is anticipated the council will discuss the funding requests in the near future. The council’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Feb. 7, although a “special” council meeting to specifically discuss the matter may be called for prior to that date.