SARATOGA SPRINGS – After 16 months of study, dozens of public meetings, threats of litigation, and a volley of contentious words, 8,356 city residents headed to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to change, or maintain the Commission form of governing that has ruled the city for the past 102 years. The Election Day verdict: Too Close To Call. 

At the end of the day, residents in favor of adopting a new Charter held a 4,202 to 4,154 advantage, but the narrow margin of victory requires that absentee ballots be counted. The county Board of Elections mailed 711 such absentee ballots and more than 500 were received back, by Election Day. Those ballots have yet to be counted.

Ballots returned by Nov. 14 - the last day absentee ballots may be received at the county Board of Elections - will be counted on Tuesday, Nov. 14, after which a clear winner may be determined. Military ballots have until Nov. 20 to be received at the county board. Military ballots are anticipated to number less than 20 in total, although that count could not be officially verified by Thursday.  

Less than half of the approximately 18,000 registered city voters took part in Tuesday’s election; More than 95 percent of city residents who did cast ballots voted one way or another on The Saratoga Springs Charter Proposition. 

The study of ramifications in changing from a Commission form of government to a Council-Manager form has been lengthy, and the dialogue among some, contentious.

After a proposal was put forth to stage the referendum last May rather than in November, there was significant push-back from City Council members John Franck, Michele Madigan, and DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco - three commissioners who coincidentally ran unopposed in their respective re-election campaigns.  “This will come down to a lawsuit, I suspect, and the courts will decide what they’re going to do with this,” Franck said in February. “There may even be a lawsuit at the City Council level.”

Election Day was anticipated as the date to finally settle the matter. But given the slim 48-vote difference - with those in favor of change leading the count - it has not turned out that way. 

“I woke up this morning and thought: win or lose the charter debate was going to end today,” Saratoga Springs City Charter Review Commission Chairman Bob Turner said in the early morning hours following the election tally. “I realize now, we’re just beginning. It’s like Florida 2000 all over again and I have a feeling it’s going to be drawn out to a re-count, and a hand-count of ballots.” Turner is in favor of Charter change.  

“I have a feeling we are heading toward very brand-new legal territory in the next week,” Turner said.  “New York Municipal Home Rule Law 36, which governs the charter review process, (says) the charter review commission ends on the day of election, so it’s not even clear whether we are going to have legal standing after today. Who is turn is representing the voters who at present are up 48 votes?”

Accounts Commissioner John Franck on Thursday called for a Special City Council meeting to take place at noon on Monday to hire an election law attorney "to defend the city’s right to have all proper absentee ballots counted and defending the city’s voters in any potential court proceedings."  

“It is new territory,” said Richard Sellers, a spokesman for SUCCESS, a citizen organization that supports maintaining the current form of governing. “We’re reminded of the cliché that every vote counts, and we are waiting for all the votes to be counted. We’re confident in the Saratoga County Board of Elections and we look forward to a clear outcome.”

The county Board of Elections is anticipated to begin counting absentee ballots on Tuesday, Nov. 14.  

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SARATOGA SPRINGS – The final draft of the proposed Saratoga Springs Charter was distributed Tuesday afternoon at the City Center, where members of the Charter Review Commission staged a daylong informational Open House. A referendum on the proposed changes of the way the city is governed will be on the November ballot.

The proposal calls for a change from the current “Commission” form of governing – the only form the city has known since its inception in 1915 – to a “council-manager” form, which is the most popular and most efficient form in the country, according to charter review member Pat Kane.  

The council-manager structure specifies a composition of six councilmembers and one mayor – all electable positions – and one city manager, who would be hired by the council. 

The city manager would direct and supervise administration of all departments, appoint and suspend or remove city employees, and prepare and submit the annual comprehensive budget and capital program plan to the council for approval.

The city manager would also represent the city in the collective bargaining process, as well as implement contracts on behalf of the council, and attend all council meetings, but will not cast a vote at the seven-member council table. The mayor would be recognized as the head of city government for ceremonial purposes, but have no administrative duties.  Council meetings would continue to be held twice a month.

“I think local municipal government has gotten far more complicated and really does scream out for professional management,” Kane said. “These people would come in with skills that we just don’t have from an elected official prospective. It also opens the door for the local city council, where anyone can run with no requirements as far as job skills are concerned. “

The council would serve as the legislative and policy-making body of the city, conduct the search, set the salary and oversee the hiring and appointment of a city manager. Prerequisites for the city manager ‘s positions include a master’s degree with a concentration in public administration, public affairs, or public policy, and five years of managerial or administrative experience in municipal government. The salary for the position is anticipated to be in the $125,000 per-year range – which is higher than any current council member or deputy earns annually. It would ultimately provide financial savings however, the commission says, because the five current deputy positions – each earning about $73,000 annually (about $110,000 annually when benefits are factored in) would be eliminated or altered and would serve “at the pleasure of the city manager.”

“Most people thought it would be a deficit, but this would be a significant savings,” said Kane said, adding that bringing a professional level of qualified management to the city would eliminate weaknesses in current checks and balances, and guarantee a less expensive city government. “The efficiencies jump out at you. It’s so much more efficient when you’re running with one team as opposed to five teams. “

Detractors aren’t so sure a change would provide a financial savings and are additionally leery about what they say will be create more difficulty in communicating grievances with City Hall.

“Now if you have a problem you pick up the phone and call the department head. If you don’t like the answer, well, they’re only in there for two years,” Jane Weihe told a group of three dozen area residents who gathered at Gaffney’s on May 30 for a get-together of the SUCCESS group. The acronym stands for: Saratogians United to Continue the Charter Essential for Saratoga's Success. Those assembled vowed to fight against charter change.

Weihe said a citizen with an issue in the council-manager form of governing would need to bring the issue to the city manager and if the response wasn’t acceptable it would create an intricate process to lobby the majority of the city council to remove the department head, which would come at a financial price.

“Two questions: Who are you going to call, and what’s it going to cost,” Weihe said. The removal of a city manager would come either at the request of the city council, or by their majority vote, and would require a public hearing.   

The May 30 date is significant. It was initially the day the referendum vote was to be held. Commission members had said the standalone date would give the proposition the attention it deserved rather than becoming muddied in an already busy election season in November. Detractors of the plan alleged an off-peak election was an attempt to suppress voter turnout.

“I moved here over 40 years ago and dealt with many mayors and council members. I’ve seen the system at work – and it works,” Joe Dalton told the SUCCESS group. 

“To say that that it ain’t broke is probably the biggest misconception out there,” countered Kane. “It may feel like we have a multitude of success – and we do – but we can do better. It’s like an upgrade in software. We’re operating at Windows 1.0 when we should be operating at Windows 10. We’re not changing services, we’re changing how the services inter-relate to one another,” he said.

How a Transition Would Work

Should the change be approved by voters this November, in November 2019 residents would elect a mayor and six councilmen and the change would be enacted Jan. 1, 2020. The mayor and the three council members receiving the greatest number of votes would serve four-year terms; the remaining three council members would serve two-year terms.  This would eventually be adjusted to have separately contested elections with staggered four-year terms for each of the seven members. Term limits would be set at a maximum of 12 years. 

Compensation for the six council members, the mayor, and the city manager – as well as that of a potential assistant city manager – would be designated by the outgoing council in 2018. Two elected supervisor positions would continue in a similar capacity, although would eventually increase to four-year electable terms. 

The City Manager at Work 

“The city manager is the CEO and responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city,” explained Sharon Addison, city manager of Watertown, N.Y., which has a similar population and annual budget to Saratoga Springs.

“The city council legislates, adopts local laws and resolutions and it’s my responsibility to execute on that,” she said. “We’ve got multiple department heads – similar I think to your commissioners – and I work very closely with the department heads to make sure the goals and objectives are accomplished in each of those departments.”

Paid position staff members that report directly to Addison include the fire chief and police chief, superintendents of the DPW and Parks and Recreation, a city engineer, library director, purchasing manager, and city assessor. Overall, Addison oversees more than a dozen different departments, each with their own independent budgets that are combined into the general fund budget.

Addison worked for more than a quarter-century at the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland, prior to becoming Watertown’s city manager in 2012.  

 “Leadership and management qualities are pivotal, as well as experience in financial management,” she said.

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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.”

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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.

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