Charter Reform Petition Aims for November 2020 Referendum
Proposal provides for neighborhood representation on City Council.
On July 20, a bipartisan group of 45 citizens, including former elected officials from both major parties, began collecting signatures to put a charter referendum before the voters of Saratoga Springs. While the group’s initial intention was to place the proposition on the November 2019 ballot, changes in the Election Law enacted by the legislature this year made it impossible to provide enough time for all the legal milestones and intervals to occur within the time available.
Therefore, after consultation with the City Clerk, John Franck, it has been decided to file the petitions later this year, thereby providing for a referendum on a new form of government on Election Day November 2020. If approved in November 2020, a new City Council, operating under the new charter, would be elected in November 2021 and take office in January 2022.
The proposed charter, similar to the 2017 proposal, changes Saratoga’s form of government to a Council-Manager approach, with one important improvement over the 2017 version – the City Council would be comprised of six neighborhood representatives, elected from wards, plus the Mayor elected city-wide. In the 2017 proposal, all members of the Council would have run city-wide.
Bob Turner, a leader of the reform movement, said “City Council wards will provide for better representation and greater competition in our democratic process. The 2020 election will have a large turnout of voters, making the referendum more reflective of the people’s will.”
The reform group has already collected enough signatures to get the ball rolling.
Under New York State Municipal Home Rule Law, citizen-led charter initiatives must collect petition signatures equal to 10% of the 2018 gubernatorial vote. In Saratoga Springs’s case, this equals just over 1200 signatures. As of July 31, the Citizen Charter Initiative had collected more than 1,250 signatures, more than sufficient to submit the proposal to the City Clerk for certification pursuant to state law.
Under the law, once petitions are received, the City Clerk must notify the City Council that a referendum question has been proposed, review the signatures and certify the petitions. The Council can decide whether to place the initiative on the ballot. If the Council allows the proposal to be placed on the ballot the process is done. If they do not, the petitioners can compel the initiative to be placed on the ballot by providing additional petition signatures equal to 5% of the 2018 gubernatorial vote. The proposal is then filed with the Board of Elections.
Obviously, even though the times for each of these steps are constrained by law, the process can take many months. Among the voting reforms enacted this year in Albany, the time required for ballot preparation was extended. Thus, timelines for petition drives and ballot creation to accommodate early voting, among other reforms, were altered. The result is that these changes took an already challenging schedule and made it impossible to complete in time for the November 2019 vote.
The petition group leadership therefore concluded that it would not be possible to put the initiative on the 2019 ballot. Commissioner John Franck affirmed that if the petitions are submitted later this year, they can be applied toward a November 2020 referendum. Thus, it was concluded that the best course of action is to give the city’s voters the opportunity to change the form of government in 2020.
As outlined by Gordon Boyd, there are some practical benefits that emerge from this change. Boyd said, “The Citizen Charter Initiative wanted to maximize public participation in the campaign to reform city government. By putting the initiative on the 2020 ballot, we will ensure the public has the time to consider the changes and be able to make an informed decision. It will also ensure that the initiative is voted on by the largest possible number of city voters.”
The petition drive is prepared to continue and move forward as required to place the proposal on the November 2020 ballot.
For more continuing information about this initiative, citizens can go to commonsensesaratoga.com.
Citizens Charter Reform Initiative: Jeffrey Altamari, Gordon Boyd, Ann Bullock, Pat Kane, Bill McTygue, Mark Pingel, Bob Turner