Voters in Saratoga Springs will once again decide whether to adopt a new city charter on Election Day. As WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, the effort has mobilized two political organizations in the Spa City.
Efforts to change Saratoga Springs’ unusual system of government have repeatedly failed at the ballot box – even if narrowly.
In 2017, a charter change measure failed by only 10 votes. By comparison, a ballot measure in 2018 that would have preserved the Commissioner style but make changes elsewhere was defeated by a two-to-one margin.
The 2020 charter measure is similar to 2017’s. The proposal would move the city from its current Commissioner system – where five city councilors also serve as city department heads – to a model common around the country. The 2020 plan, if adopted, would create a city manager position to oversee day-to-day operations, working under a new city council without departmental responsibilities, elected through a ward system. A mayor would remain, but the other four city commissioners would be eliminated.
Supporters of the 2020 measure say the Commission-style government in place since 1915 is antiquated, inaccessible, and creates divisions within City Hall.
The primary argument from charter change opponents this year is that it would be too unpredictable and too expensive to reform city government in a pandemic.
But notable this year is that the charter contest puts into relief an existing divide between the city’s Democratic committee and a group formed last year after Democratic leaders left their party’s city committee during a contentious election for city finance commissioner.
Unlike other recent charter measures, the city’s Democratic committee endorsed the charter change proposal in 2020. Sarah Burger, the committee chair, says the current system excludes candidates from running for office.
“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.
Under a former Democratic mayor, Joanne Yepsen, Burger served for a time as City Attorney. Yepsen also endorses the 2020 charter change document. Common Sense Saratoga, the primary group boosting the charter change effort, is touting endorsements from some other former city commissioners too.
Though part-time on paper, city commissioners take on a managerial role and have often described their jobs as a full-time responsibility. The current city charter sets pay for city commissioners at $14,500 per year – pay is higher for full-time deputy commissioners, who are appointed by and serve under the elected commissioners.
Joining charter change opponents this year is the One Saratoga platform. The group formed during the 2019 city hall contest, after city Democratic committee members left their group when the committee endorsed challenger Patty Morrison against incumbent Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. Madigan lost the Democratic primary but would go on to win the general election in November.
The One Saratoga platform in 2019 also endorsed incumbent Democratic Mayor Meg Kelly and Republican Robin Dalton, who won an open seat for Commissioner of Public Safety.
On Election Night 2019, Kelly and Madigan held their own watch party, snubbing the city Democratic committee, and appeared at GOP headquarters to celebrate Dalton’s victory and the bipartisan “city over party” message of the One Saratoga platform.
Courtney DeLeonardis, who heads the One Saratoga platform, chaired the city’s Democratic committee before the split in 2019. She is also a member of Saratoga Works, the 2020 campaign against the current charter change measure.
If her name sounds familiar, DeLeonardis’ husband Vincent currently works as the Saratoga Springs City Attorney.
DeLeonardis said initially One Saratoga was not going to become involved in the charter debate.
“And then we were made aware that the pro-charter people – pro-charter change people, I should say – were actually creating fake sites of One Saratoga and basically people would click on the sites and it would bring them to pro-charter-change information,” said DeLeonardis.
DeLeonardis agrees that a change now would be too destabilizing in the pandemic.
“There is a financial crisis going on. We can’t imagine taking on a change in government at this time,” said DeLeonardis.
But that’s up for voters to decide Tuesday.