Monday, July 19, 2010

Citizens Union to Charter Commission: some sharing of power needed, but not fundamental change (hearing tonight)

The venerable good-government group Citizens Union (CU), as I wrote in March, has played it carefully regarding Atlantic Yards, in December 2006 calling for a “limited delay” but saying it “does not align itself with those who oppose the project"--and never speaking out further.

Now the CU, which has a special role in the Charter Revision Commission's work, is also playing it carefully, proposing reforms--some of which (land use review regarding security and architectural character) could affect future Atlantic Yards-like projects, at least if they are be subject to city review.

But those reforms would not fundamentally change the power balance in the city.

CU will present its 49 recommendation to the Commission at a hearing tonight at 6 pm at Brooklyn College, the first of five hearings in response to a preliminary staff report.

That report scanted issues of land use and concerns about local decisionmaking (as pointed out by Brooklyn representative Carlo Scissura, Borough President Marty Markowitz's Chief of Staff), but stressed term limits and instant runoff voting (IRV)--the latter of which apparently has already been dropped.

CU's balance

CU has some important recommendations, but, as City Pragmatist blogger Alvin Berk has suggested, it's not rocking the boat:
The most important recommendation made by the Citizens Union is its first: “Maintain a strong Office of the Mayor. Preserve the office’s authority to set revenue estimates for the city budget and appoint commissioners without council approval.”

By explicitly articulating this preordained conclusion, the Citizens Union protects its status as the favorite “civic organization” of mayors past, present, and future.
Actually, CU is walking a fine line, since it also gives several nods to those who wish power to be dispersed:
  • the borough presidents and public advocate deserve more support
  • the City Council should have "an appropriate, but limited, increase in authority and responsibility"
  • the city "needs to find a better way to conduct land use decision-making and planning that is more inclusive and sensitive to the fabric of its neighborhoods and communities, while still encouraging and supporting... economic development"
Too little attention

The Commission is getting very little coverage; one commenter on Berk's blog pointed out, "It is a shame that the Commission’s work is getting little if any coverage from the city’s traditional press outlets. I remember 2 or 3 Times reporters covering every meeting of the 1988-89 commission."

He's right: see for example this list of stories.

CU's dilemma

As the Daily News reported in March, Citizens Union board member Joel Berger resigned, saying the organization--which opposed Mayor Mike Bloomberg's removal of term limits but then endorsed him in the race--was too cozy with power.

And it's walking a fine line with the commission, too, according to the Daily News:
[Executive Director Dick] Dadey was offered a spot on Bloomberg's new Charter revision commission, but after consulting with the board, declined the post so he wouldn't be seen as crossing a line. Still, he prominently praised the commission in Bloomberg's press release.

..."CU has become kind of a good-government chamber of commerce," Berger said. "They get too close to the power structure and they limit their response as a result."
Electoral process

CU is rightly concerned with opening up elections and increasing abysmal voter turnout. Berk wrote:
Several of CU’s recommendations already have been echoed in a July 9 preliminary report by the charter revision commission’s staff. These include: reducing the number of signatures needed to get a candidate on the ballot; and consolidating the Campaign Finance Board with the Voter Assistance Commission. The charter commission’s staff report did not embrace CU’s recommendation for non-partisan (“top-two”) primary elections.
Local balance

While the CU would give the BPs and Community Boards an independent budget, it would not give them any greater weight in the land use process, as they have requested.

Then again, the CU suggests that the Commission focus on what is needed now and postpone other matters for further discussion in time for inclusion on the 2012 ballot.

Some of the recommendations:
3. Keep the Offices of Borough President and assign them greater authority and provide them with an independently funded budget as well. Give the borough presidents the power to require the appearance of borough commissioners at monthly interagency meetings led by borough presidents. Allow them to share an appointment to the Board of Standards and Appeals, similar to the arrangement they presently have on the Franchise and Concessions Review Commission.

14. Strengthen the 59 local community boards by providing them with an independently funded budget and on-call professional planning staff. Require a more rigorous process of selecting members to the community boards that allows for a more professional approach to recruitment, retention and service.
Land use

The report recommends:
15. Begin reforming the process of making land use and zoning decisions by modestly starting with changing the fair share provisions of 1989 that was undercut by rulemaking, standardizing responses from the various groups involved in ULURP, and creating a stricter process for integrating 197-a plans into the strategic planning and land use decisions of the city.
Notably, CU also recommends that the City Planning Commission establish new rules, including:
iv. uniform guidelines to community boards, borough presidents, and borough
boards for providing recommendations for different types of applications such as the impact on local schools, housing, public space, streetscapes, environmental sustainability, and coherence with the community’s architectural character.
The latter, as noted, might affect projects like Atlantic Yards. But it's still too soon for major change:
In the long run, there is a need for a mandated and well-resourced comprehensive planning process that coordinates the disparate approaches currently in existence while integrating community planning.
The report does not express concerns about the city allowing the state to usurp the city's role in land use review for projects like Atlantic Yards.

Lulus and discretionary funding


Also worth noting is full reform on legislative stipends (aka lulus), which are used to favor and disfavor Council Members, but no call for Council Members who have day jobs (like, say, Dominic Recchia) to give them up:
10. Lulus should be banned and future compensation increases should only occur for the prospectively elected officials and not those presently serving. The discretionary funding reforms should be enshrined in the charter and distributed equally among all fifty-one members of the council, regardless of relationship to the speaker or party. Council members should be allowed to continue to earn outside income but only if greater disclosure of financial activity is required to ensure no conflicts of interest or self-dealing are occurring by maintaining a job outside the council.
Would you believe that, according to the CU, no other Council or state legislature in the country, with the exception of New York, awards lulus? They range from $4,000 to $28,500 for the Speaker of the City Council (on top of an existing salary of $112,500); 46 of 51 members currently earn a lulu.

CU also wants Council Members to have a lot more oversight when it comes to discretionary funding, with requirements for disclosure of conflicts of interests, preclearance of organizations by the Mayor's Office of Contract Services, and a searchable database of allocations and applications.

Also, discretionary funding should be distributed equally to all 51 members of the City Council, thus diminishing another tool of the Council Speaker. (It currently ranges from $358,000 to $1.3 million.)

After all, "in 2008 when, as a result of a federal investigation, it was revealed that the City Council used fictitious organizations to serve as false place holders for $17.4 million in taxpayer dollars since 2001." (There's already a lot more transparency, such as a commitment to create an online searchable database of such allocations.)

Transparency

There are some good recommendations regarding transparency:
Require the proactive publishing of city government reports and data that are currently publicly available under law in a singular web portal.

...Require each city agency, committee, commission and task force and the City Council to webcast and record its open meetings and hearings subject to the Open Meetings Law. Public entities that receive significant city funds, such as the New York City Board of Elections, should also be required to webcast and record their meetings. This video should be archived for at least twelve months and made available to the public on the City's website in a centralized location or on an expanded “C-Span” like website.
The Charter Commission, thankfully, is webcasting its meetings; otherwise people like me wouldn't be able to "attend." (You'd think someone at the three dailies would be watching the webcasts, or hiring journalism students to live-blog, or otherwise take note.)

CBs, BPs, and land use disagreements


The report makes a veiled reference to Community Board appointments that perhaps invokes Atlantic Yards:
Community board members can only be removed for cause since they are public officers under New York State Law by virtue of their Charter-mandated responsibilities. However, borough presidents have, on occasion, been able to circumvent the law, particularly when board members have contradicted borough presidents on development projects.
Members of Brooklyn Community Board 6 were not fired but not reappointed. Similarly, members of Bronx Community Board 4 were not reappointed after voting against Yankee Stadium.

Could CBs rely on BPs' urban planners?

Also, the report says that urban planners in the Borough Presidents' offices--as Markowitz has said, "we encourage them to use our services"--might not work when the BPs and CBs are at odds:
While housing urban planners with the borough presidents is aligned with their current responsibilities to “establish and maintain a planning office...for the use, development or improvement of land located in the borough”... and to “provide training and technical assistance to the members of the community boards” it becomes problematic when the borough president may disagree with a community board on a land development issue.

Citizens Union Charter Revision Report

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