Saratoga Springs Committee Unveils Draft City Charter

Mar 30, 2017

In November, voters in Saratoga Springs will decide if they want a new form of city government. The city’s Charter Review Commission gathered input on its new draft charter at a public forum Wednesday night.

The Charter Review Commission hosted a discussion with dozens of curious Saratogians Wednesday night at the city library.

The new form of government proposed in the draft charter would consist of a seven-member city council that includes a mayor, as well as a separate city manager hired by the council.

Members of the commission went into depth about what they claimed were advantages over the current commission-style form of government: a five-member city council, including the mayor, where each member also oversees a government department.

That system has stood in place for more than a century and has survived previous attempts at change, most recently in 2012.

Charter Review Commission member Jeff Altamari said a new form of government would have to ensure professional, qualified financial management, improve structural weakness, ensure a lower-cost organization, and preserve what was best about the existing charter.

When it comes to structural weaknesses, Altamari said there’s currently a lack of an effective internal audit.

“The way we’re currently structured, the person who is responsible for all the cash, is responsible for auditing themselves. That is a non-starter, OK? You don’t see that in private industry, neither do you see that in government,” said Altamari.

The Charter Review Commission argues that a city manager would supervise the day-to-day business of the city, prepare and submit an annual budget and capital program, and assist the city council to develop long-term plans. That, they say, would separate politics from administration.

The mayor, under the new charter, would be there to “pick up the phone,” as it were. The mayor would represent the community on outside business, present an annual state of the city address, be able to create advisory committees, and preside over city council meetings. The mayor would chair a finance committee but would not have administrative or budgetary powers.

The city councilors would hold “at-large” seats. All told, the Charter Review Commission argues the new system would allow for three times the amount of candidates to run for city office.

The plan is already facing some criticism.

John Sullivan, a former mayor of Oswego, compared the draft charter to a “seven-headed hydra” and said without a strong mayor, there would be a lack of accountability.

“In my view, government that serves best is government that is accountable. And I think you get that with a strong mayor,” said Sullivan.

Others prefer the status quo. The simple argument is that the city is economically strong and that’s attributable to a knowledgeable council and staff in city hall.

Richard Sellers is part a group called Saratoga Springs SUCCESS.

“I’ll take the complexity of four people having their oversight and judgement before money is spent before I give that power to one single individual called a city manager,” said Sellers.

Charter Review Commission Chair Bob Turner said the commission will have plenty more discussion in the coming months.

“We plan on spending the next two months holding as many public forums and events to hear what people have to say about how to make the charter better, and based upon tonight, I’m really grateful,” Turner said.

Originally the charter plan was set for a vote on May 30th, just two months away and the day after Memorial Day.

After considerable pushback, that date was moved to election day in November. Turner said he was initially concerned about the move but now feels good about it.

“I appreciate having more opportunity to hear from people, to really educate it. In retrospect it would have been rushed to try and do the May 30th deadline, and I’m really grateful that people pushed back and we listened,” said Turner.