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From City Pragmatist: behind the Charter Revision Commission, an effort to shift power to the mayor

So, it turns out that the Charter Revision Commission did nothing--beyond a hearing--to grapple with issues like land use reform. And while a complicated term limits vote is one of the two proposals on the November ballot, the real import of the Commission's work is the second proposal, which--despite a fig leaf of reform--would essentially strengthen an already strong mayor.

Credit CityPragmatist blogger Alvin Berk, who's been following the Commission closely, concluding, NYC Charter Revision Proposals: A Hobson’s Choice.

He writes:
Here are the proposals being placed on November’s ballot by the New York City Charter Revision Commission. The commission has restricted voters’ options by lumping the changes into just two ballot questions, putatively because this year’s new paper voting forms are too small to show the proposals individually.
He's skeptical--and any serious reader of these long and thus confusing ballot questions would have reason to agree. (The Daily News also slammed the decision.)

City Question 1. Term Limits:

The proposal would amend the City Charter to:
  • Reduce from three to two the maximum number of consecutive full terms that can be served by elected city officials; and
  • Make this change in term limits applicable only to those city officials who were first elected at or after the 2010 general election; and
  • Prohibit the City Council from altering the term limits of elected city officials then serving in office.

Shall this proposal be adopted?

Berk notes that the two-term limit won’t take full effect until 2021, but if the proposal is rejected--in other words, if people vote "against" term limits--the current three-term limit enacted by the Council and the mayor in 2008 stays in effect.

Berk: "A lot can happen between now and 2021. We don’t think Question 1 deserves your vote."

The second ballot question is a very long one.

City Question 2. Elections and Government Administration:

The proposal would amend the City Charter to:

  • Disclosure of Independent Campaign Spending: Require public disclosure of expenditures made by entities and individuals independent from candidates to influence the outcome of a city election or referendum;

Berk: "Sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but it doesn’t affect candidates who are wealthy enough to fund their own campaigns"

  • Ballot Access: Generally reduce the number of petition signatures needed by candidates for city elective office to appear on a ballot;
Berk: "This would make it easier for newcomers to challenge party regulars, and for third-party candidates to unseat Democrats and Republicans. Several critics, including Jim Brennan, who heads up the State Assembly committee that oversees municipal charter revisions, have cautioned against it. Yes, he’s a Democrat."
  • Voter Assistance and Campaign Finance Board: Merge voter assistance functions, including a reconstituted Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, into the Campaign Finance Board, and change when Campaign Finance Board member terms begin;

Berk: "This makes sense, but ultimately it won’t affect who gets elected."

  • Conflicts of Interest Law: Require all public servants to receive conflicts of interest training, raise the maximum fine for a public servant who violates the City’s conflicts of interest law, and allow the City to recover any benefits obtained from such violations;

Berk: "This proposal is intended to get voters to vote “yes” for the two proposals that follow it, which voters might not do without a “good-government” sweetener. Mandatory Conflicts of Interest training and increased fines would have minimal effect on how well our government works. The third provision — recovery of benefits — never was discussed by the charter commission members; we don’t know how it would work."

  • City Administrative Tribunals: Authorize the Mayor to direct the merger of administrative tribunals and adjudications into the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and permit the Department of Consumer Affairs to adjudicate all violations issued by that department;

Berk: "This is about more centralization of mayoral control, and about applying a “one size fits all” approach to diverse agencies through the unified selection and training of Administrative Law Judges. It may violate collective bargaining agreements. It also could make it easier for future mayors to use their political influence to control ALJ selection or assignment. Not a good idea."

  • City Reporting Requirements and Advisory Bodies: Create a commission to review requirements for reports and advisory bodies and waive the requirements, subject to City Council review, where the commission finds they are not of continuing value;

Berk: "The devil is in the details. The way the rules are written, the City Council could enhance or expand reports required of the mayor only if such enhancement or expansion was first approved by a commission controlled by the mayor. Not a good idea."

  • Map for Facility Siting: Include in the City’s facilities siting map those transportation and waste management facilities operated by or for governmental entities, or by private entities that provide comparable services.

Berk: "Sounds good, but this information already is publicly available. Doesn’t get at the real Fair Share problems, especially City Hall’s ability to withhold siting information from the public until the last minute, thereby squelching effective public opposition."

Shall this proposal be adopted?

Berk: "Lumped together like this, absolutely not."

The power shift

Earlier he wrote:

A second, omnibus, ballot question will ask each voter to cast a single vote to approve an array of “good government” initiatives lumped together with unrelated “efficiency improvements.” Some of these could subtly shift power from the Council to the mayor.

...Although speaker after speaker implored the charter revision commission to avoid combining any unrelated ballot proposals, commission chair Matthew Goldstein justified his group’s decision by blaming the city’s new computerized voting machines, which, Goldstein asserted, provide insufficient space on their paper ballot forms for individual charter proposals.

...We can expect editorials from the Times, the News, and the Post to apologize for Goldstein’s decision, but to urge voters to vote “Yes” on Question 2 nonetheless. History suggests that media owners want the mayoralty to be as strong as possible.