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Virtually ignored by the Charter Commission report: a strong mayor, weak Borough Presidents, and the fact that there's "no real local government"

The news from the city's Charter Revision Commission is that a vote on term limits (and maybe Instant Runoff Voting) are apparently on the agenda, but more substantive change, regarding issues like more public input into land use and expanded power of Borough Presidents, is not.

That's plausible, given the tight schedule to get measures on the November ballot, but the commission's staff report was dismissively brief, ignoring many legitimate criticisms posed by the Borough Presidents and others.

As the Staten Island Advance reported yesterday, that ticked off one Commission member:
"The fact the conversation on borough presidents and community boards warrants maybe two paragraphs, to me is utterly disrespectful to the communities," said Carlo A. Scissura, who is chief of staff to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.
The fundamental problem

The failure to address the BPs' concerns reflects a larger issue, one that doesn't get traction in the Commission report, and one that explains the hundred successful rezonings under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his ability to get agencies to march in lockstep to support projects like Atlantic Yards.

"The fundamental principle in this city is that there’s no real local government," suggested Gerald Benjamin, a professor at SUNY New Paltz, speaking at a June 10 hearing of the Commission. So "trapping the discourse as to whether the Borough President should have a guaranteed budget… drives discussion to margin rather than core."

That, to City Pragmatist blogger Alvin Berk, chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 14, was exactly the wrong thing. He wrote:
Benjamin, comparing NYC with other cities, observed that “the fundamental principle in this city is that there’s no real local government,” and then gave the 2010 commission an excuse to avoid this issue by commenting that its time frame forces it to “trap the discourse” at the marginal level of deciding whether borough presidents’ budgets should be formulaic, instead of considering what their duties and powers should be.
What next?

City Limits reported:
Adam Friedman, the executive director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, which has recommended comprehensive changes to the city's land use process, says he is "cautiously optimistic" that the panel might pursue a wider agenda than the staff has recommended.

"The dilemma everyone faces is that, yes, it is very complex. There's something about the commission process that makes it very hard to deal with complex issues," he says. But if the current panel has too little time, Friedman says, it's important not to waste time starting the next one. "If it's too complex to get onto the [November] ballot, you have to start right away on the 15-month process of hearings" for the next commission, he says. The current commission, or a new one, must be reappointed to begin that process.

Limited models

So it’s not Markowitz’s fault. Not really. Given the government structure in New York, where Borough Presidents lost most of their political juice with the 1989 dissolution of the Board of Estimate, there are only a couple of avenues available for a BP.

Sure, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, his eye on higher office, has created in part a policy shop, turning out reports on topics from land value taxation to an analysis of gridlock.

But Markowitz has produced another, inevitable model, that of cheerleader, of Brooklyn everyman, of "Marty’s On the Block" and "as Brooklyn as they come."

But he still knows he--or his successor could do more.

The recommendations

Stringer, for example, has issued a package of statements, including a call for the beefing up of the 59 community boards, each of which, he noted, is “approximately the size of Syracuse by population” but wields a tiny budget (about $200,000).

Stringer would like to see each community board be required to have an urban planner, a required written application process and public outreach process for appointments, and centralized administrative support from the BPs’ offices. He’d also like to see a new Independent Planning Office.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall says the BPs and the community boards should get a guaranteed minimum baseline budget, just as does the Independent Budget Office; that BPs should have the power to make binding recommendations within ULURP, so only a supermajority of the City Planning Commission can override them; and that each BP should chair a borough infrastructure committee to better plan for such things as transportation, parks, and public safety.

Markowitz's take

Markowitz, in his April 20 testimony, also asked for broader powers for the BPs including formula-based yearly budgets for borough presidents, public advocate and community boards; a determination, not recommendation, in ULURP, requiring a CPC and City Council supermajority for an override; and “advice and consent” role in the appointment of borough commissioners of mayoral agencies; and a consistent budget for community boards.

As he testified:
So when it comes to things like land use, economic development, affordable housing, and ensuring equitable distribution of city resources, Borough Presidents are truly the only elected officials charged with considering the needs of each borough as a whole.

We are elected with more votes than any office other than the three citywide offices in this city (and sometimes, we even get more votes than those running for citywide offices do in our boroughs!). These voters elect us expecting that we have the power to help them — to be ombudsmen, ambassadors, and most importantly, to be a voice independent of city council and city hall. They look to us as the “chief executive” of the borough, with the power to plan and implement and truly fight for their interests.

Consider this: Brooklyn is home to 2.6 million residents. If it were its own city, it would be the fourth largest “city” in the United States. As it stands, I absolutely view my office as the “nerve center” of Brooklyn, and I leverage our land use powers and capital budget, as well as the power of the press and “bully pulpit,” to forge partnerships that result in economic development and more responsive, better city services. And of course, to make sure Brooklyn always gets its fair share.

Some might say I’ve been effective (well, those who like what I’ve done), but frankly, to truly be effective — to be able to do what voters entrust us to do, to be the independent voice and essential “checks and balances” in a “strong mayor” system — the position of borough president must be enhanced, with a stronger voice on land use issues, a more robust executive role with regard to borough commissioners and agencies, and an independent budget determined by formula — not, as it now is, by the subjective yearly decisions of the City Council and the Mayor.
The June 10 hearing

The June 10 hearing, concerning the power of the BPs and the Public Advocate, was held in Staten Island, and got a preview in the Staten Island Advance.

City Limits, which has provided regular coverage of the issue, also offered an extensive preview, noting that the experts, along with Benjamin, would be Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio, Hofstra Law School's Eric Lane, former chair of Manhattan Community Board 2 Brad Hoylman, and former deputy mayor and current CUNY official Marc V. Shaw.

Beyond the aforementioned BPs, City Limits noted that Staten Island BP James Molinaro “asked for the modest power to convene multiagency meetings with commissioners from key agencies” and Bronx BP Ruben Diaz, Jr. “asked for independent budgeting, more land use power, a vote on the Board of Standards and Appeals and more muscular ‘borough service cabinets.'"

Quinn: minor changes

At the hearing City Council President Christine Quinn led off, suggesting minor changes to make the land use process more representative of community perspectives:
We recommend that the City’s Franchise Concession Review Committee, the Board of Standards and Appeals and the Landmarks Preservation Commission have greater Borough President and community representation. We recommend expanding the Board of Standards and Appeals to 13 members, and giving one appointment to each borough president and one to the Council, expanding the LPC to give the Borough Presidents a voice in the landmarking process, and eliminating vote sharing by the borough presidents on city-wide concessions and franchises on the FCRC.
A report from the Council also stated:
The precertification process should be reformed to allow for community input. Within 30 days after the Department of City Planning (DCP) forwards to the Community Board and Borough President the materials that it receives pursuant to section 197-b, DCP must, upon request, meet with the affected Community Board or Borough President to discuss possible alternatives to the action or applications. The comments received at such meeting shall be included in the certification application described in section 197-c.
Hoylman’s testimony

Hoylman, endorsing two of Stringer’s recommendations, said each CB should have its own full-time, funded urban planner and that the appointment process for CBs be beefed up, with an independent screening panel and fixed terms of office, which would end the practice of board members being removed because they’ve fallen out of political favor (as in, left unstated, the case of Brooklyn CB 6 and Atlantic Yards).

Hoylman’s comments drew got a rebuke from Berk, who noted that Hoylman works for the Partnership for New York City, "the pre-eminent policy and public relations arm of New York’s big business and real estate development community and its principal advocate for a strong-mayor, weak-community form of government."

Berk added:
Hoylman’s co-panelists also have credentials that raise serious issues about their ability to take a fresh look at City Hall’s structure: Eric Lane, who with F.A.O. Schwarz, Jr., shaped NYC’s current strong-mayor government; Gerald Benjamin, who helped Lane to do this; Doug Muzzio, a CUNY Baruch College political affairs professor who develops and delivers “cultural diversity training programs for the New York City Police Department;” and Marc V. Shaw, a member of the city and state permanent governments since 1981 who currently works for commission chair and CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein as Interim Senior Vice Chancellor for Budget, Finance and Financial Policy.
See critical comments on City Pragmatist as well as Berk’s follow-up, in which he suggested that, regarding the addition of urban planners to community boards, one size doesn’t fit all in a diverse city:
In our view, a mandated emphasis on planning would compete with the ability of community boards to monitor, coordinate, and advocate for improved local service delivery — something 311 doesn’t accomplish. It would bring them closer to a pro-development mindset than to a balanced one, and would diminish their value as lay advocates for their communities. Eventually, this could cause an erosion of public support for the boards.
Questioning the experts

During the hearing, Commission member Scissura, asked what the 1989 commission tried to accomplish regarding the BPs.

Responded Shaw, “The goal was in the context of the end of the Board of Estimate... our goal was to strengthen the borough voice. The difficulty always is, how do you do it."

Scissura argued for an independent budget:. “One of the biggest problems facing these offices is that we are, or the Borough Presidents are, basically the same as any nonprofit group. Our budget will get cut by the mayor and then has to be restored by the council.”

While most BPs have a great relationship with the delegation, he said, if they don’t, the modification would not occur, “which really ties the hands of an independently elected official, who by the way in nine of ten cases, has gotten more support than either speaker or individual councilperson."

Who has the veto?

Scissura also said that advisory opinions on ULURP limits the BP role. He noted that Lane said that the end of the Board of Estimate took away the BP’s veto: “What we’ve done instead is given veto power to an individual council members, as opposed to a borough president, who sometimes may see an issue on a grander scale as opposed to local.”

Lane said that if that’s the case--and it can be, though not always--”I think that is very, very bad business…It’s intellectually corrupt, leads to the potential for real corruption.”

“I see an argument for guaranteeing a budget,” he said, suggesting it should not be fixed but be a percentage.

Muzzio agreed on the budget issue, suggesting it be a percentage. “My feeling is independent elected officials should be insulated from the punishments of the executive and the legislature.”

From Staten Island

Stephen Fiala, Richmond County Clerk and a former City Council member who served on 2004-2005 Charter Revision Commission, commented, “What has been lost is a meaningful voice at the borough level. The ‘89 Charter Commission, I believe, really intended that the Borough Presidents would have a meaningful role. I don’t believe their intent was to eviscerate that office."

"Twenty years’ experience tells us that the city populace is largely unsatisfied with the outcomes with regard to the office of Borough President and borough representation," he added. "The question is: are the mechanisms that were envisioned in the ‘89 charter sufficient to meeting the task?”

Muzzio said later on, “The Borough President has charter powers you can’t effectuate… you need to define, sharpen, focus and pay for those functions.” He cited the BPs’ role in capital and expense budgets.

Unelected government

Only late in the hearing did a former Staten Island Council Candidate, John Tabacco, bring home some oddities in the discussion.

"It’s odd that tonight’s panel would be to talk about structure, because, when you look at the political landscape.. there seems to be no structure these days,” he said. “When you look at New York state, we have an unelected governor, we have an unelected comptroller, we have an unelected lieutenant governor, we have an unelected senator, and many would argue that we have a mayor who was not legally elected."

That comment, as with Benjamin's observation that "there’s no real local government," lingers out there for any student of democracy as practiced in this city and state.