For the third time in eight years, a proposal that would change Saratoga Springs’ system of government will appear on the November ballot.
Saratoga Springs has had since its incorporation as a city in 1915 a commission form of government. That is, four elected commissioners and the mayor serve as department heads and also make up the five-member city council, sharing power.
The unusual style has survived multiple challenges at the ballot box. A 2018 charter change measure that would have made some changes while preserving the commission-style government was defeated by a two-to-one margin.
One year earlier, a measure that would have moved the city to a council-manager form of government lost by only 10 votes.
Now, in 2020, the charter will again appear on the November ballot after a volunteer group gathered enough signatures in a citizens’ petition.
And, as before, a group has organized against the change.
Members of the campaign called Saratoga Works, wearing matching t-shirts, kicked off their campaign against the charter change on Wednesday.
Jane Weihe is a member of the group.
“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!”
The latest charter proposal, like 2017’s, would create a council-manager form of government. An elected mayor would remain, while the commissioners and deputy commissioners would be eliminated. An appointed city manager would oversee day-to-day operations.
Unlike the 2017 measure, the 2020 proposal also creates a ward system. The Spa City, which is the fifth-largest city in the state geographically, would be split into six wards, each with an elected city councilor.
Connie Woytowich, who also spoke Wednesday against the proposed charter, said wards would create division in the city, pitting neighborhoods against each other.
“Like, what would you do as a wardsperson? You are going to look out for the interest for your ward and not necessarily for the whole city. So it sets up this new dynamic, these new decisions that are not necessary.”
Gordon Boyd, one of the volunteers who organized the 2020 charter campaign, disagrees. He said with districts, the city would function like the state legislature or Congress.
“We think that with districts, those priorities would be able to be brought to the table and worked on collaboratively with…on the city council,” said Boyd.
While critics have said a city manager would not be accountable to the people, Boyd defended the position.
“Professional managers around the country are a professional cohort that have high integrity, they don’t mess with politics, and they remain accountable to whatever legislative body has brought them in,” said Boyd.
An argument used against the council-manager form in 2017 was the elimination of the deputy commissioners in the existing charter, who unlike the part-time elected commissioners, serve full-time in their departments and often carry years of experience.
A common argument against the commission form of government is that it splits city government into silos and that political divisions could impact dialogue or decision-making across departments.
Weihe argues there are too many uncertainties with setting up a new system of government.
“There are only four people mentioned – the city manager, the assessor, the city attorney, and the clerk. And everything else, in terms of staffing our city under new government, is left up first to a transition team and then to the city manager. So we don’t know what this new government will cost,” said Weihe.
But Boyd, citing the razor thin margin of the 2017 proposal, thinks that the 2020 proposal will gain majority support.
“We believe that this proposal will attract wider support, even, than we had three years ago. And we have a well-funded and well-organized campaign that will be really rolling out after Labor Day.”