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Saratoga Springs Charter Reform Advocates Brace For Close Defeat

Saratoga Springs City Hall
Lucas Willard

Supporters of changing Saratoga Springs’ system of government are preparing for a narrow defeat after the counting of absentee ballots.

It appears Saratoga Springs will not change the system of government that it’s had for more than a century.

After the Saratoga County Board of Elections counted absentee ballots from last week’s ballot referendum, the “no” votes led by only 10 votes.

Former Charter Review Commission chair Bob Turner spoke after the votes were tallied Tuesday.

“I’m gutted to have worked so hard and come up 10votes short,” said Turner. “On the other hand, being involved in the democratic process is a tremendous inspiration for anyone who is involved to see the passion that Saratogians have for their future.”

If approved, the city would change its commission-style form of government to a more conventional council-manager style in 2020. That would mean going from a system where five city councilors also serve as department heads to a seven-member city council that includes a mayor. A hired city manager would also oversee day-to-day operations.

This is the third attempt to change the city’s system of government in 11 years.

Richard Sellers rallied against charter reform with a group called SUCCESS.

“It was obvious based upon looking on five years ago that we likely would pick up additional votes from the absentee ballots, but it was far from certain how many would pick up,” said Sellers. “And it was even better than I anticipated.”

There were 18 military ballots still out after counting on Tuesday.

Turner predicted that Democrats would support the charter change. 

“My observation watching the absentee ballots as well as my own preliminary analysis of the data is that the charter did very well among Democrats and was getting about 1 in 5 among Republicans,” said Turner.

Saratogians elected Democrat Meg Kelly to be their next mayor on Election Day. As deputy mayor, Kelly supported charter change during the campaign. Her Republican opponent Mark Baker was against charter reform.

Politics surrounding the charter debate continued right up until the absentee ballots were counted. Commissioner of Accounts John Franck called a special city council meeting Monday to hire an election attorney to oversee ballot counting at the Board of Elections.

The three councilors who were present and voted to hire the counsel also ran unopposed on Election Day. They all expressed doubts about the charter plan. 

Outgoing Mayor Joanne Yepsen said she and fellow outgoing Commissioner of Public Safety Chris Mathiesen had not been informed of the special meeting. That claim was disputed by Franck and Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. Yepsen called the decision to hire an attorney a “misuse of public dollars” while those in favor said the attorney was hired to ensure “any representatives in attendance don’t attempt to alter the count.”

Richard Sellers suggested the charter revision would have been more popular if the existing form of government was tweaked to find efficiencies, rather than a complete overhaul, as was successful in 2001.

“The charter should have been reviewed and with changes recommended. This was never done. That was a mistake and poor service to the city,” said Sellers.

Turner said he did not know what his next steps would be.

But the push to change the charter is bound to appear again on a future ballot. The city code calls for a review of the current charter at least once every ten years.

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