SARATOGA SPRINGS – The final draft of the proposed Saratoga Springs Charter was distributed Tuesday afternoon at the City Center, where members of the Charter Review Commission staged a daylong informational Open House. A referendum on the proposed changes of the way the city is governed will be on the November ballot.
The proposal calls for a change from the current “Commission” form of governing – the only form the city has known since its inception in 1915 – to a “council-manager” form, which is the most popular and most efficient form in the country, according to charter review member Pat Kane.
The council-manager structure specifies a composition of six councilmembers and one mayor – all electable positions – and one city manager, who would be hired by the council.
The city manager would direct and supervise administration of all departments, appoint and suspend or remove city employees, and prepare and submit the annual comprehensive budget and capital program plan to the council for approval.
The city manager would also represent the city in the collective bargaining process, as well as implement contracts on behalf of the council, and attend all council meetings, but will not cast a vote at the seven-member council table. The mayor would be recognized as the head of city government for ceremonial purposes, but have no administrative duties. Council meetings would continue to be held twice a month.
“I think local municipal government has gotten far more complicated and really does scream out for professional management,” Kane said. “These people would come in with skills that we just don’t have from an elected official prospective. It also opens the door for the local city council, where anyone can run with no requirements as far as job skills are concerned. “
The council would serve as the legislative and policy-making body of the city, conduct the search, set the salary and oversee the hiring and appointment of a city manager. Prerequisites for the city manager ‘s positions include a master’s degree with a concentration in public administration, public affairs, or public policy, and five years of managerial or administrative experience in municipal government. The salary for the position is anticipated to be in the $125,000 per-year range – which is higher than any current council member or deputy earns annually. It would ultimately provide financial savings however, the commission says, because the five current deputy positions – each earning about $73,000 annually (about $110,000 annually when benefits are factored in) would be eliminated or altered and would serve “at the pleasure of the city manager.”
“Most people thought it would be a deficit, but this would be a significant savings,” said Kane said, adding that bringing a professional level of qualified management to the city would eliminate weaknesses in current checks and balances, and guarantee a less expensive city government. “The efficiencies jump out at you. It’s so much more efficient when you’re running with one team as opposed to five teams. “
Detractors aren’t so sure a change would provide a financial savings and are additionally leery about what they say will be create more difficulty in communicating grievances with City Hall.
“Now if you have a problem you pick up the phone and call the department head. If you don’t like the answer, well, they’re only in there for two years,” Jane Weihe told a group of three dozen area residents who gathered at Gaffney’s on May 30 for a get-together of the SUCCESS group. The acronym stands for: Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential for Saratoga's Success. Those assembled vowed to fight against charter change.
Weihe said a citizen with an issue in the council-manager form of governing would need to bring the issue to the city manager and if the response wasn’t acceptable it would create an intricate process to lobby the majority of the city council to remove the department head, which would come at a financial price.
“Two questions: Who are you going to call, and what’s it going to cost,” Weihe said. The removal of a city manager would come either at the request of the city council, or by their majority vote, and would require a public hearing.
The May 30 date is significant. It was initially the day the referendum vote was to be held. Commission members had said the standalone date would give the proposition the attention it deserved rather than becoming muddied in an already busy election season in November. Detractors of the plan alleged an off-peak election was an attempt to suppress voter turnout.
“I moved here over 40 years ago and dealt with many mayors and council members. I’ve seen the system at work – and it works,” Joe Dalton told the SUCCESS group.
“To say that that it ain’t broke is probably the biggest misconception out there,” countered Kane. “It may feel like we have a multitude of success – and we do – but we can do better. It’s like an upgrade in software. We’re operating at Windows 1.0 when we should be operating at Windows 10. We’re not changing services, we’re changing how the services inter-relate to one another,” he said.
How a Transition Would Work
Should the change be approved by voters this November, in November 2019 residents would elect a mayor and six councilmen and the change would be enacted Jan. 1, 2020. The mayor and the three council members receiving the greatest number of votes would serve four-year terms; the remaining three council members would serve two-year terms. This would eventually be adjusted to have separately contested elections with staggered four-year terms for each of the seven members. Term limits would be set at a maximum of 12 years.
Compensation for the six council members, the mayor, and the city manager – as well as that of a potential assistant city manager – would be designated by the outgoing council in 2018. Two elected supervisor positions would continue in a similar capacity, although would eventually increase to four-year electable terms.
The City Manager at Work
“The city manager is the CEO and responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city,” explained Sharon Addison, city manager of Watertown, N.Y., which has a similar population and annual budget to Saratoga Springs.
“The city council legislates, adopts local laws and resolutions and it’s my responsibility to execute on that,” she said. “We’ve got multiple department heads – similar I think to your commissioners – and I work very closely with the department heads to make sure the goals and objectives are accomplished in each of those departments.”
Paid position staff members that report directly to Addison include the fire chief and police chief, superintendents of the DPW and Parks and Recreation, a city engineer, library director, purchasing manager, and city assessor. Overall, Addison oversees more than a dozen different departments, each with their own independent budgets that are combined into the general fund budget.
Addison worked for more than a quarter-century at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, prior to becoming Watertown’s city manager in 2012.
“Leadership and management qualities are pivotal, as well as experience in financial management,” she said.