SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Council held a lengthy and at-times heated discussion Tuesday night about whether to fund a Special Election in May or June as requested by the Charter Review Commission, to potentially change the way the city is governed.
Since its inception as a city in 1915, Saratoga Springs has operated under a Commission form of Government – that is, with four commissioners and one mayor each running separate departments and all having equal say. Mandated to review the City Charter every 10 years, the Charter Review Commission, a 15-person group appointed by members of the City Council, recommended bringing to voters a proposal that the city adopt a Council-Manager form of governing. Under such a plan, the council would be charged with hiring a professional city manager to carry out policies.
A measure to fund the Commission’s $46,000 administrative budget – which includes fees for legal consulting, sending informational mailers to residents and a clerk to transcribe meeting minutes – received unanimous council approval, but a $37,000 request to fund a Special Election in May or June was rejected by a 3-2 vote.
City Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who voted to support funding the Special Election, said if the Charter Commission desired to hold a vote in May, then it was their right to do so. “I think we’ve got to let the voters decide. I don’t think it’s up to us - when it should be, or what they should put on the referendum,” Yepsen said. “I think it’s in our best interests to move this forward regardless of what we all think personally.”
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who vehemently opposed funding a Special Election, argued that the council’s actions are not politically motivated whereas the Charter Commission’s are, and received like-minded commentary from Accounts Commissioner John Franck. “To say this group has not advocated for a change in the form of government is blinking at reality,” Franck said. “They’ve been disparaging the current form of government, but telling about this new form of government. They’re not supposed to be doing this. They’re supposed to be educating.”
Franck, Madigan, and DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco rejected the funding request, and each stated the public would be better served – both in cost savings and by a larger voter turnout - should the referendum be held in November.
“I think it disenfranchises people. This is voter suppression, I don’t care what anybody says,“ said Scirocco.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, like Mayor Yepsen, voted in favor of funding the Special Election. He argued that the issue requires its own attention rather than it being added to this November’s Election Day slate, which will include all five council member seats up for vote.
“I think this is such an important issue and a vital part of looking at where our city is going that it needs to be decided upon separately, and in an environment not muddled by the political intrigue that often comes with our November elections and all the special interests that rise up,” Mathiesen said. Following the vote, Yepsen attempted to provide information about the ramifications of the council’s vote and what the next steps might be regarding the Charter Commission’s potential actions, but was not permitted to do so by other members of the council.
“This will come down to a lawsuit, I suspect, and the courts will decide what they’re going to do with this,” Franck said. “There may even be a lawsuit at the City Council level.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Wednesday’s “Special” City Council meeting lived up to its noteworthy title: so special it was that it never took place.
The meeting was called to discuss funding for the May 30 special election when voters will be asked to decide whether to maintain the status quo of the city’s century-old commission form of governing, or change to a council-manager form.
Following eight months of committee meetings, community surveys and interviews conducted with city employees, the Charter Review Commission - a 15-member group independent of the council - recommended a special election be held on May 30. The group estimates total budget expenses to be about $46,000, in addition to approximately $37,000 in costs associated with a special election. There has been growing disagreement among council members debating the timing and costs of holding a special vote in May, versus placing the issue on an extension of the standard November ballot, which is when all five council seats will also be up for vote. Those in favor of the May date say adding a Charter vote to an already busy city election season would muddle matters. City Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner Chris Mathiesen were the two lone members attending Wednesday’s meeting, leaving the board one member short of a quorum, and forcing the 17 people and two council members in attendance to leave City Hall without discussing the matter.
Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco issued a statement following the cancellation of the meeting to say after “it had been indicated that both Commissioner Madigan and Commissioner Franck would not be in attendance,” he also would not be attending. “I feel it only fair that when voting on an important issue that impacts all city residents, and our future as a city, that all members of the council are in attendance.”
Commissioner Michele Madigan said in a statement, that after learning Commissioner John Franck “would not be attending the meeting for professional reasons,” she contacted the mayor’s office to ask the meeting be cancelled because she wanted all five members of the City Council to be present to discuss and vote on the budget amendments from the Charter Review Commission. Some in attendance remarked after the cancelled meeting that council members opposed to a change in the form of governing were using delay tactics.
The City Council has until February 20 to approve the request to fund the Commission’s expenses as well as the special election; if it fails to do so, it is believed the mayor has the ability to approve the amount of funding sought to defray expenses for the Commission’s budget and for the special election.
Under the council-manager form of government, the city council approves the budget, determines the tax rate and focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and long-term considerations such as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The council would be charged with hiring a highly trained non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out these policies with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery. Managers serve at the pleasure of the governing body and can be fired by a majority of the council. Among the Commission’s other recommendations are: increasing the number of council members from five to seven and terms of service from two years to four years putting a system in place to ensure members come from all corners of the city, and giving council members confirmation power over all mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the City Council is Feb. 7.