The idea was originally brought forth by a petition submitted by the nonpartisan group Saratoga Citizen back in 2010. The city rejected the petition for a number of reasons, most notably the proposal's lack of a fiscal note detailing the cost for such a change to take place. Saratoga Citizen successfully sued the city and the city's case appeal was rejected earlier this month.
It seems the city council will finally make the decision on whether to include the measure on the ballot and let the people of Saratoga Springs decide this coming fall. At least four members of the city council have publically indicated their intentions to vote in favor of the measure being included. Mayor Scott Johnson has indicated he would prefer to wait for further counsel from the New York Council of Mayors before issuing further comments.
Saratoga Citizen has spent a lot of time, not to mention money, fighting to get their message heard. So now that they seem likely to get their day at the election booth, just what exactly is it that the group is proposing, and what does that mean for Saratoga Springs?
"This is by far the most popular form of government. It's not like we're bringing some wild concept to this community," said Patrick Kane, Saratoga Citizen's most vocal and prominent committee member. "Quite frankly, the concept of keeping the commission form of government doesn't really have much of a base. There's really only about five cities Saratoga Springs-sized and larger that still have the commission form of government. People have abandoned this plan decades ago."
Likely the most talked-about aspect of the changes would be the implementation of a city manager, who would assume all administrative duties of the current departments while rendering the city council to a strictly legislative branch. The city manager would be hired by, and answer to, the city council. He would attend city council meetings, and be encouraged to participate in discussion, but would not be permitted to vote. The real questions are what can a city manager do that we don't already have with a mayor, and why make this change at all?
"Change is always difficult. People look around and say things aren't that bad, why change," said Kane. "Opposition is largely coming from the emotional perspective rather than a factual perspective."
The city manager would ideally be someone who's been both formally educated and wields experience in the practices of local government. Qualified candidates would likely possess a master's degree in public administration and has served as a department head or assistant city manager for a different municipality. The manager would take over the tasks normally delegated down to deputy commissioners.
"What we do is we elect someone, and then they appoint someone to run the department. People say they want to elect someone to represent them in government, but they don't now. You elect a [Chris] Mathiesen or a [Skip] Scirocco but they appoint the deputy who carries out the daily operations. It's not unlike what we're suggesting. It's just that this way, we hire a qualified person to run the city so that we can get the most out of it."
The city manager would become the chief executive officer of the city, which would seem to cut considerably into the current responsibilities of the mayor. The mayor would still preside over city council, and be recognized as the head of the city's government for all ceremonial purposes, but all administrative duties would be shifted to the city manager. This includes, but is not limited to, appointing or removing all city employees, directing and supervising the administration of all departments, offices and agencies of the city; enforce laws; preparing and submitting an annual budget; and advise the city council to the financial condition and administrative activities of the city.
Of course, a mayor needs to be someone from the city itself. With a small city like Saratoga Springs, the number of qualified candidates isn't as easy to find as you'd think. A city manager would not have to be someone from Saratoga Springs, but certainly could be if they're qualified.
"You have to find someone who can be elected, wants to be elected, who's capable of being the mayor and wants to be the mayor," said Kane. "Those numbers dwindle dramatically because you're really looking for someone who has all of the skills you need in a community leader. The legal, judicial and budgeting skills in a single person – and then you have to get them elected."
The city manager would be hired by city council, meaning they would not have to take time away from their duties to campaign for office. The search would likely be nationwide, not unlike a hospital hiring a new CEO. City managers are also exempt from any sort of term limit being imposed. According to Saratoga Citizen, the average tenure for a city manager is about eight years.
Of course, what does this mean for the fiscal aspects of government? Aside from the much-discussed yet ultimately unnecessary fiscal note which held the proposal up for so long, how would a city manager change the way our tax dollars are spent in Saratoga Springs?
"Take this year for example, we didn't get a lot of snow," says Kane. "In the unified form of government, the city manager would see that the city saved money from not having as much snowplowing or overtime. They can allocate that money to other departments to help a different department with other needs. In a commission form of government that doesn't happen. Everyone holds on their money."
This would seem to include the recent surplus of over $1.5 million uncovered by the city's department of finance. Instead of using the money toward other future projects within the finance department alone, the money could immediately be allocated to a department with a greater need, whether it's new ambulances to overtime for city police officers patrolling Caroline Street during last call hours.