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Saratoga Springs Charter Change Supporters Kick Off Campaign

Ron Kim speaks at a press conference organized by It's Time Saratoga
Lucas Willard
Ron Kim speaks at a press conference organized by It's Time Saratoga

Saratogians seeking to change the Spa City’s system of government started their campaign today in support of a new city charter ahead of Election Day.

Since 1915, the of City of Saratoga Springs’ system of government has been defined by five city councilors – including the mayor – that serve as the city’s department heads, or commissioners.

Although adjustments have been made to the city’s governing document over the years, ballot questions to overhaul the governing system have failed again and again – most recently in 2017 by only 10 votes.

A 2018 effort that would have made changes while preserving the Commission form of government failed by a 2-to-1 margin.

On Thursday, the group It’s Time Saratoga kicked off its campaign to back a citizens’ charter that would change Saratoga Springs’ system of government to a council-manager system.

Ron Kim, a former city Public Safety Commissioner, had complaints about the current commissioner form of government from his time in office.

“The employees worked in a silo. Very often they didn’t know what the other department was doing,” said Kim.

The ballot question for 2020 is similar to the 2017 measure. An elected mayor would remain – with a higher rate of pay – but an appointed city manager would oversee day-to-day operations. The elected city council would serve as the city’s legislative body only. The 2020 plan would implement a ward system.

Supporters hope that requiring each ward to have its own representative would make city government more accessible and accountable to the people.

According to Kim, everyday concerns can go unheard or ignored under the current system.

“Now, I will say this: City Hall was open to those who were connected, who had their own attorneys, who basically had a voice through the political end. That’s cronyism,” said Kim.

Saratoga Springs resident Julie Cuneo, who unsuccessfully tried to push the city to add mixed use development to a parking garage project beside the Saratoga Springs City Center, echoed that sentiment.

“Saratoga works if you know which button to push, and what phone number to call, or what check to write. But if you’re an everyday citizen, Saratoga doesn’t work very well for you,” said Cuneo.

The charter change effort also has the backing of the city’s Democratic committee, chaired by Sarah Burger, who was named chair last year after several members left following the divisive primary for city Finance Commissioner.

“Over the last year, the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee spent a lot of time reviewing the proposal that will be on the ballot in November. And we decided to make a formal vote on it and adopt a resolution in support of it,” said Burger.

Burger hopes that a new charter would bring more qualified interested people into politics.

“They may have interest in running for office, but the idea of running the department of public safety, or being in charge of the department of finance, or accounts, etc., is often overwhelming to someone and they think they don’t have the qualifications to do it,” said Burger.

A group opposing the effort launched its campaign against the ballot measure in August. Jane Weihe, with Saratoga Works, questioned the timing of the charter change effort.

“Abolishing and setting up a new government is expensive, disruptive, and challenging under the best of circumstances. Why would we want to do it – imagine this – doing it during a pandemic and in the midst of probably the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? So our message is this…make love, not wards!”

Though the makeup of the Saratoga Springs city council will not be on the November ballot, those interested in the charter effort hope to see a solid turnout in a presidential election year.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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