Ever since Saratoga Springs voted to keep its commission form of government intact in November 2020, Saratoga Living has been focusing in on the duties of each of the city’s five commissioners to give Saratogians a better idea of how their local politicos operate. And it’s all come down to this: Election Day is Tuesday, November 2, and each commissioner’s seat is up for grabs. Here, we recap our commissioner coverage from the last year so that you can be as informed as possible ahead of this year’s vote.
Commission Form of Government
One source of the controversy regarding Saratoga’s governmental structure is the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s relatively rare. Only three percent of US cities use a commission form of government, in which voters elect multiple commissioners—each of whom are responsible for a specific city department and one of whom is designated “mayor”—to a small governing board. The commissioners, who are elected every two years, also constitute the legislative body of the government.
Cities in New York That Have a Commission Form of Government
• Saratoga Springs
• Sherrill (also has a city manager)
Of the 30 most populous cities in the US, Portland, OR (No. 29), is the only major city with a commission form of government.
The seeds of Saratoga’s governing style were planted more than 1,800 miles away in Texas. Originally called the Galveston Plan, the commission form of government debuted in Galveston, TX, following a devastating hurricane there in 1900. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, a commission was appointed to govern Galveston while it was being rebuilt, and eventually, the commissioners came to be elected by popular vote, instead of being appointed. The new form of government spread in popularity across Texas, and then the rest of the country between 1907 and 1920, during which 500 cities, including Saratoga, adopted it.
Fast facts about the mayor position:
• The mayor is considered the “CEO of the City,” but doesn’t have any more power than the city’s four other commissioners.
• The position is technically supposed to be part time—but in actuality, it’s very much a full-time role.
• The mayor’s annual salary is just $14,500. “It’s ridiculous,” says current Mayor Meg Kelly. “You can put that quote in there. ‘The mayor says it’s ridiculous!’ But that’s why we can’t get people to run. It’s a real big problem.”
• There’s no term limit. Addison Mallery (1936-59) was the longest-serving Saratoga mayor, logging eight two-year terms.
Some notable Saratoga mayors include:
• Harry E. Pettee (1918-19), who embezzled $300,000 after his term ended
• Clarence H. Knapp (1924-27), a humorist and contributor to The New Yorker
• Sarto J. Smaldone (1970-73), owner of the Malta Drive-In
• Almeda C. Dake (1990-95), mother of Stewart’s Shops president and CEO Gary Dake
This year’s mayoral race is between four candidates:
Heidi Owen West, the republican; Ron Kim, the democrat; Robin Dalton, who is running on the Saratoga Stronger Together ballot line; and Maxwell Rosenbaum, who is running on the Working Families ballot line.
The Commissioner of Public Safety
The Commissioner runs:
• The Police Department
• The Fire Department
• Emergency Management
• Traffic Control
• Animal Control
• Code Enforcement
The Commissioner oversees:
• Approximately 200 employees (compared to the mayor’s department, which has 30 employees)
• A budget of about $26 million (compared to the mayor’s department, which has a budget of $2.57 million)
In a typical year, the Public Safety Commissioner…
• Works on particular safety issues at hand and the initiatives he or she campaigned upon
During COVID, the Public Safety Commissioner also…
• Had the daunting task of implementing the city’s COVID response and emergency management plan
This year’s Public Safety Commissioner race is between three candidates:
James Montagnino, the democrat; Tracey LaBelle, the republican; and David Labate, who is running on the Working Families ballot line.
The Commissioner of Public Works
Public works, by definition, deals with the structures and services essential to a city and its citizens. That’s everything from upkeep of public buildings to managing a city’s sewer system.
In Saratoga, the Commissioner of Public Works’ responsibilities include:
• Oversight of street and highway maintenance (snowplowing, leaf pickup, sanding/salting)
• Maintenance and beautification of the city’s buildings and grounds
• Maintenance and inventory of the city’s infrastructure
• Administration of water and sewer billing
• Maintenance and use of Congress Park
• Use and rental of the carousel, Canfield Casino and other city facilities
• Oversight of the City Engineer’s office
This year’s Public Works Commissioner race is between three candidates:
Domenique Yermolayev, the democrat; current Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, the republican; and Donald Reeder, who is running on the Working Families ballot line.
The Commissioner of Finance
The Commissioner of Finance serves as the…
1. Substitute for the mayor
2. City tax collector
3. Bursar (a fancy name for financial administrator) of city funds
4. Internal auditor
5. Custodian of city monies
6. Keeper of city financial records
7. Budget chairperson
8. Certifier of city payrolls
But that’s not all:
“In this form of government, we’re also councilmembers,” says current Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, who has already announced that she will not seek reelection this November. “As such, I can really take on any project I want. In my 10 years as a councilmember, I’ve taken on plenty of things that fall outside of the traditional duties of the commissioner of finance, like the 2.5-megawatt solar park. I led that forward in a partnership with Sustainable Saratoga.”
This year’s Finance Commissioner race is between four candidates:
Minita Sanghvi, the democrat; JoAnn Kiernan, the republican; Adam Israel, who is running on the Saratoga Stronger Together ballot line; and Sierra Hunt, who is running on the Working Families ballot line.
The Commissioner of Accounts
The Commissioner of Accounts serves as the…
1. City Clerk, who is keeper of the City Council meeting minutes; custodian of city documents; keeper of the city seal; issuer of licenses and permits; and recorder of birth, death and marriage certificates, burial permits and certificates of residency
2. City Assessor, responsible for the assessment of property, maintaining assessment records and overseeing the Board of Assessment Review
3. City Purchasing Agent, who ensures all city purchases are made in compliance with New York State law and city purchasing guidelines
4. Registrar of Vital Statistics, who receives, files, indexes and acts as the custodian of all city documents
5. Issuer and Collector of License Fees and Rents, who collects fees and rents for matters within the commissioner’s jurisdiction
This year’s Accounts Commissioner race is between three candidates:
Dillon Moran, the democrat; Samantha Guerra, the republican; and Angela Rella, who is running on her own Accountability Party ballot line.