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.