When I first came to Saratoga Springs and started paying attention to our local politics, I was blown away by the make-up of the municipal government. The mayor was paid $14,500 and was but one member of a five-member City Council that was the legislative body. The other four Council members headed major city departments. Having worked in government most of my professional life, I anticipated the legislative process: “You vote for my 10 new employees and I’ll vote for yours.” It was little wonder that taxes in the city were significantly higher than in Boston from whence I came.
Then, in 2006, there was an effort to change the city’s Charter, replacing the current structure with a “strong” mayor (i.e., full-time with executive responsibilities). The ensuing campaign was marked by a remarkable level of vitriol reflective of a debate that clearly had less to do with the merits than with personal politics. The vote was overwhelming to keep the current system, and I thought the decisive theme - apart from the nastiness – was that voters did not have enough time to consider the issue.
This time around, a group called Saratoga Citizen organized a seemingly endless series of meetings to develop a new charter revision, taking care of the objection of insufficient time for consideration. Instead of a strong mayor, the city would be run by a City Manager selected by the five Council members, including the Mayor, all of whom would be elected on a city-wide basis and serving four-year terms. The City Manager would actually run the government, appointing department heads and hiring and promoting employees. He or she could be removed by a majority vote of the Council.
I never understood the opposition to what seemed to be a sensible way to run a municipal government, and attended the October 25 forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, primarily to learn about the reasons for maintaining the status quo. It turns out there were features of the current system of which I was unaware; it’s even more bizarre than I thought upon my first exposure to it. Not only is the mayor a part-time employee being paid $14,500, but so are the four department heads. After being elected, the department heads then appoint a full-time Deputy Commissioner who actually runs the department on a day-to-day basis. So what is the purpose of electing a department head who is not actually going to run the department, but instead hire someone else to do it?
What are the arguments advanced by proponents of the current system? At the LWV forum, the “Vote No” group was represented by former mayor Ken Klotz and Jane Weihe who chaired the Saratoga Springs Democratic Committee for a number of years. They seemed to have two basic arguments in support of the current structure. The first is that Saratoga Springs is an award-winning city, and that the structure of government is responsible for that. The other centers around accountability and responsiveness, or as their leaflet stated, “no bureaucrats are placed between you and those who are responsible to provide city services.”
While being an award-winning city is certainly nice, I do not think the superficial awards conducted by the likes of Travel & Leisure magazine should be a particularly compelling argument when deciding how one is to be governed. But more significantly, how does the structure of the government contribute to that result? When asked that question by moderator Dale Willman, the former mayor actually used as an example his getting a phone call from the mayor of Lake Placid asking about the flower program run by the Department of Public Works. Not only is his response to a question going to the heart of his argument beyond silly, but why would a Public Works head appointed by a City Manager not be equally supportive of such a project?
An argument opposing the change because of reduced accountability or accessibility is a much more compelling one. The “Vote No” organization, Saratoga SUCCESS, asserts that citizens “can talk with commissioners who are directly responsible for delivering specific services.” Jane Weihe claimed that in a City Manager government, a citizen could not call a department head. But there is nothing in the proposed Charter that would lead to such a conclusion. There is a prohibition on City Council members giving orders to any … officer or employee. This, of course, makes sense, since any direction on providing services should come from one’s manager, even though SUCCESS believes that “five leaders are better than one.”
Ken Klotz also raises the specter of an ”outsider” who does not understand the City being brought in - by a City Council composed of residents. At the LWV forum he even raised the prospect of someone from California or Florida bringing in their own entourage to takes top city jobs. While I do not understand why those two locales are particularly nefarious, this is yet another argument that is spurious. If the mayor of New York City can be born elsewhere - near Boston, no less - what is disqualifying for this city? Interestingly, one of the panelists supporting the Charter reform was Jason Molino, the City Manager of Batavia. Molino is a graduate of Saratoga Springs High School.
The proponents of Charter reform, Molino and Brent Wilkes of Saratoga Citizen, were much more compelling. While Saratoga Citizen seems to be searching for an appropriate metaphor - Wilkes brought a rotary phone and smart phone to the forum - I thought the most effective one was a restaurant. According to Wilkes, the city government is like a restaurant where one person runs the kitchen, another the dining room, a third the bar, and a different person for reservations, with no one in charge.
As someone who is not steeped in the political intrigues of Saratoga Springs, here is how I look at the relevant considerations:
- A system where multiple people are responsible means no one is responsible. What is an example of a successful organization where responsibility is divided among several people, let alone five?
- The current system has four of the five elected Council members responsible for separate departments. They will inevitably protect their turf, fight for resources and make trade-offs with their colleagues that will further their own parochial interests, but not necessarily those of the city as a whole. Why is a body whose five members are charged with representing the interests of the entire city not a preferable one?
- There is no need for management bureaucracies in separate departments that could be streamlined and run as a coordinated entity in an organization with one boss. Do we need separate personnel offices in Public Safety, Public Works, etc., or could one centralized human resources office ensure consistent personnel policies for the entire city? Is there a need for separate vehicle maintenance facilities in Public Works and Public Safety, or could one operation, with streamlined management, do the job more effectively and efficiently?
- Whatever the form of government, people are going to contact department heads when there is a problem. That happens when you have a strong mayor, city manager, or the current Saratoga Springs government. What is important is responsiveness. If in today’s government you do not get satisfaction from, say, Public Works, to whom do you appeal? In the proposed reform, you can call the City Manager, Mayor or each of the four at-large City Councilors. If you think this lessens your access to government, I think you misapprehend how politics works, whether it is here or New York City.
In my opinion, this is a clear-cut decision. Yes, Saratoga Springs is a wonderful place to live - which is why I am here - but the only word I can think of to describe its governing structure is bizarre. I think the arguments against the Charter reform are wafer-thin, relying on inchoate fears of what could happen should the Charter pass. The reform presents the possibility of a more professional government with significant opportunities for increased efficiency and effectiveness. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to the current structure.