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Ruling boosts Spa City reform effort

Vote possible this fall on government overhaul



Contributing writer


A local citizens group won a major court ruling last month in its effort to force a referendum on overhauling the Saratoga Springs city government, but it’s not clear yet whether voters will get to weigh in on the issue this fall.

Saratoga Citizen collected more than 2,200 petition signatures in 2010 for a referendum on its proposal to replace the city’s commission form of government, which the group views as outdated. But the city fought the effort in court, losing an initial ruling in 2011 and an appeal last month.

Despite the loss in court, Mayor Scott Johnson said he’s waiting for more legal opinions before he’ll support sending the proposal to voters in November.

Johnson, a Republican, stressed in an interview that he has no position on the proposal itself.

“That would be improper for me as an incumbent mayor,” he said.

He said his concern is that the private initiative has no legal precedent in New York state, and he wants to ensure that opponents of the reform can’t mount their own legal challenges.

“I need to be sure the law is followed,” Johnson said.

The idea of revamping the city government has been a hot topic in Saratoga Springs for several years. Johnson’s predecessor as mayor, Democrat Valerie Keehn, pushed a 2006 referendum that proposed replacing the city’s current form of government with a “strong mayor” system. The proposal lost in a landslide after critics cast it as a power grab by Keehn, who also lost her re-election bid in 2007.

Since 1915, Saratoga Springs has been governed by a mayor and four commissioners, each of whom is charge of a city department and is elected citywide. The mayor and four commissioners serve as equals on the City Council.

The mayor’s department handles human resources, civil service, recreation, and planning and economic development. The other four councilors are the commissioners of the departments of finance, accounts, public safety, and public works. They commissioners each hire deputies to manage their departments on a daily basis, while the mayor has sole authority to appoint a city attorney and members of city boards.

“The commission form of government is a dinosaur,” said Patrick Kane, the president of Saratoga Citizen. “Very few other cities our size have commissions any longer.”

Nearly every small city like Saratoga Springs has an elected city council that hires a professional city manager, Kane said. The manager, who has to meet civil service requirements, is in charge of city operations, including hiring department heads who are themselves qualified under civil service.

Pushing professionalism
Kane contends a council-manager form of government is more efficient. Instead of city workers divided among five competing teams, there would be only one team reporting to the city manager.

“The councilors would represent people instead of their departments,” Kane said. “They would be planning for the city.”

As elected officials, Saratoga Springs’ city councilors aren’t required to have any particular qualifications for the department they head. Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, for example, is a dentist, Kane said.

He noted that in the last city election, candidates in four of seven open positions ran unopposed. The city also has had only five women elected to citywide office in the past century, Kane said. One of those, Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, is currently on the City Council.

“Part of the reason” for the lack of candidates “is the departmental responsibilities,” Kane said.

The change his group is pushing would get more people to run for office, he said.

“They can have a day job,” Kane explained.

Other reforms sought by Saratoga Citizen would give the City Council veto power over mayoral appointments. Terms of office for the mayor and councilors would increase from two years to four years.

Kane admitted that “from a performance perspective, the city has been successful, maybe in spite of its government.” He credited the city’s success in part to its strong civic and charitable organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, and Saratoga Arts.

The city government “just plays a portion of the city’s life,” he said.

A nonpartisan issue?
Kane said support for his organization has come from Republicans, Democrats and independents. Among Saratoga Citizen’s 81 or so steady volunteers, “party is never a topic of discussion,” he said.

But when the group presented its petitions in 2010, Johnson and two other members of the City Council voted to reject the petitions. Johnson contended the petitions needed an estimate of the proposed reforms’ financial impact.

In January 2011, a state Supreme Court justice ruled that petitions were valid even without the financial study. The city appealed the decision, but appellate court sided with Saratoga Citizen last month.

The city spent nearly $50,000 on legal costs fighting the petitions, while Saratoga Citizen is out more than $100,000 on the court battle.

Kane said more than 200 people have contributed to Saratoga Citizen’s legal fees, and the group is continuing to raise funds.

“We have no corporate sponsors,” he said.

Johnson said proposals to change government charters aren’t unusual. But he said this is the first time in the state’s history that a proposal is coming from a private group rather than the government itself.

Although there’s plenty of legal precedent for municipal proposals, there’s none for government charter changes initiated by private groups, he said.

“This is not voter suppression,” Johnson said. “This is a contested issue in our city. I wouldn’t be surprised if opponents post legal challenges if it goes on the ballot. I need to do what I believe is best to legally protect the city.”

Accounts Commissioner John Franck, however, wants the City Council to adopt the petition, which he has updated with dates for the 2012 elections, and put it on the ballot for November. Franck, a Democrat, set a public hearing on the petition for May 1 and expects to call for a City Council vote on May 15.

Johnson said he’s asked for written legal opinions from the state Department of State’s legal division and the New York Conference of Mayors.

“I expect to hear at the latest in a couple of weeks,” he said in late April.

Because the city has until 60 days before the November election to adopt the petition, the mayor said he sees no need to rush the council vote.

Johnson has the option under state law of forming his own charter commission. If such a commission proposes reforms to the city government structure, those would displace Saratoga Citizen’s proposals from the ballot.

The Times Union of Albany and The Daily Gazette of Schenectady recently ran editorials supporting Saratoga Citizen’s call for a referendum. Although the Times Union said it wasn’t ready to endorse the specific changes put forth by Saratoga Citizen, it added that the city’s government “can charitably be described as arcane.”

The city’s politics have changed dramatically over the past 15 years as Saratoga Springs has grown. Republicans had controlled the city government for decades, but since the late 1990s control of the City Council has swung back and forth repeatedly between Republicans and Democrats, and citywide election races have tended to be close. In November, Democrats reclaimed a City Council majority after four years in the minority.

“There are 26,800 citizens in Saratoga Springs,” Kane said. “The majority are from another community which probably had a council-manager form of government.”

Since the courts ruled in favor of the petition, he said, the momentum for reforming the city government has grown.

“People are more interested in getting involved,” Kane said. “Our goal is to deliver factual information to help people make a decision. It shouldn’t be an emotional decision.”


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