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The Charter Commission's missed opportunity to address real change, and the "Morton's fork" faced by voters Tuesday on term limits, reform package

New York City voters on Tuesday will turn over their ballots to see two ballot referenda in small type, the relatively minor but not unimportant results of a Charter Revision Commission, appointed by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, that, this summer, heard much concern about issues such as land use reform.

Instead, the commission devised a question on term limits that's quite cynical--the current three-term limit, enacted after the City Council did Bloomberg's bidding, would be replaced by the old two-term limit, but not apply to current incumbents.

And, rather than offer yes-no voting on several other issues, the commission--claiming it was told that ballot strictures required it--lumped seven disparate reform measures into one vote.

On term limits, cynicism time

Wrote Craig Gurian in a Remapping Debate commentary headlined And then they’ll say we ratified their scheme:

We won’t know the outcome, of course, for another week. But there is something that we can safely predict. If voters reject the [term limits] proposal, those apparently believing in the divine right of municipal officials to a third term will say: “See, voters really don’t want us limited to three terms.” If voters approve the proposals, they will describe the outcome as: “See, voters think that relaxing limits to permit three terms is a good idea.” Heads the New Royalists win; tails we lose.

Will press coverage do anything more than uncritically convey the spin that term limit extenders choose to rationalize the ultimate outcome? As the Journal’s Riley put it two years ago: “[T]here's something deeply disturbing about a local press corps that lets the political class get away with it.”

Missed opportunities on planning

"In retrospect, we didn't have a charter revision process," observed Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer October 22 at the closing of the Municipal Art Society's Summit for New York City. "We took care of a couple of political issues."

He lamented that proposals for a Food and Markets Commissioner and an independent planning office got short shrift.

"The City Planning Commission is not about long-term planning," Stringer said. "They look at a proposal, help shape it... but they're not thinking about agency planning over time." In the case of Atlantic Yards, which didn't go through a formal city review, the City Planning Commission played an orchestrated role in suggesting minor changes.

His interlocutor, Julie Menin of Manhattan Community Board 1, noted that Charter Commission was appointed by mayor, so not independent.

"It would be great if you could empanel a blue ribbon commission free of politics," Stringer mused. "What you really need is to have a mayor, in their third term, who wants to leave a legacy, to put their best people on the panel... We have not had that look since 1989... I really felt this was a missed opportunity."

Implicit in his statement is that Bloomberg had that opportunity.

A warning on Question 2

CityPragmatist blogger Alvin Berk, who's reported thoroughly on the Charter Commission, offers his take in a 10/29/10 City Limits op-ed headlined Vote 'No' On A Mayoral Power Grab:
Question 2 contains a few provisions—the VAC-CFB [Voter Assistance Commission-Campaign Finance Board] merger, the conflicts of interest enhancements, the site map requirement—that could marginally "reform" the way government works.

But its core proposals are intended to help those who want mayors to be even more controlling than Mike Bloomberg, and even more resistant to compromise. This is not what New York City needs.
Haberman warns of "Morton's fork"

In a 10/29/10 column headlined Referendum Sticks Voters With a Fork, New York Times Metro columnist Clyde Haberman suggested voters faced a "Morton's fork," a "choice between two alternatives that will produce equally unpalatable results."

There's no way to punish current City Council members who voted to reward Bloomberg, Haberman pointed out, adding that Bloomberg's support for the measure (“it’s better than what we have now") is a "journey through the looking glass," given that the mayor engineered the situation that now faces change.

As for Question 2, Haberman recognizes it's a mixed bag.

He pointed to billionaire Ronald Lauder, who bankrolled the original 1993 referendum on term limits, then agreed to give the mayor a pass, and now is paying for commercials supporting a return to two terms.

Haberman did not exempt newspaper editorial boards, suggesting "some seem to suffer from a severe case of short-term memory loss," supporting "the Bloomberg-Quinn deal" to overturn term-limits but forgetting their role.

Simon says no

I got an email from Jo Anne Simon, Female District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District, explaining that she would vote no on both ballot measures. While she doesn't support term limits in general, she favors three terms for the legislative branch but only two for executives.

As for the second questions, she noted that lumping seven questions together means "Voter Beware time."

The Times

In a 10/30/10 editorial headlined Voting on the Fine Print, the Times recommended a no vote on the first question, because it "offers no choice at all to anyone who opposes all term limits, as we do."

The Times sticks to its stance that "[e]lections are the best way to turn out bad public servants and keep the good ones," which is a fine position if there is relatively equal opportunity for candidates to get their messages out.

(That's an argument for term limits to apply more for state positions than city ones, given the city's campaign finance funding, but it also points to Bloomberg's overwhelming advantage in self-funding.)

As for the "package of seven good-government changes to the charter," the Times recommends a yes, concluding--with little analysis--that "these changes are needed to make elections fairer and help the city work better."

The Daily News

The Daily News, in a 10/20/10 editorial headlined Vote yes on term limits for New York City elected officials, went through several gyrations, acknowledging that the public demands term limits, suggesting that Bloomberg's effort to overturn term limits was "the right call," given "that 60% of New Yorkers view him positively" (that's not a logical connection), and criticizing the commission for exempting current officeholders.

The editorial concludes:
That said, the best course is to vote yes now and hope to close the escape hatch offered to the select few in yet another referendum. And take heart: The proposition would strip the Council of the power to rewrite the law.

The bottom line is simple: Back to two.
Similarly, Charter Commission member Anthony Cassino, in a 10/20/10 op-ed in the Daily News headlined Vote for term limits, but demand another crack at it next year, described a divided commission in which a small majority favored the plan that emerged.

His advice:
That is why I propose that if New Yorkers vote yes on Question 1, they be given a chance next year to vote on whether the two-term limit should apply to incumbents as well. The only way that will happen is if all New Yorkers who agree with this suggestion speak up and demand this choice.
As far as I can tell, the Daily News has not opined on the second ballot measure.

The New York Post

In a notably cynical 10/24/10 editorial, headlined Ballot question: Skip it, the New York Post opined:
That is, New Yorkers have twice before voted overwhelmingly for term limits — yet the politicians have fashioned work-arounds to thwart the law.

We have no doubt they’ll do so again, when the time comes for them to leave public office and seek honest employment. They are so resourceful, don’t you know.

We also don’t doubt that voters who manage actually to find the question on the ballot will embrace limits again.

But why bother?

Politicians treat terms limits with contempt. The people should, too.

Ignore Question One on Nov. 2.
Unmentioned: the Post treated term limits with contempt itself, supporting Bloomberg's override.

As far as I can tell, the Post has not opined on the second ballot measure. In a 8/30/10 editorial headlined Charter-change choke, the newspaper lamented that the Charter Commission bypassed "the big issues... term limits and governmental structure -- i.e., whether the city might run more effectively without such offices as borough president and public advocate."

I'm not sure that governmental structure as defined by the Post was the big issue; many people were interested in such things as reforms of procedures regarding land use.

New York Civic

New York Civic's Henry Stern, in a 10/27/10 column headlined Term Limits On Ballot Tuesday: Move to Overrule City Council, Which Thwarted Two Referenda, gingerly supported both measures:
A thought: voters should not take out their justified anger and frustration with government by opposing, on principle, the legitimate, but limited, proposals that are being put before them, anachronistic as Question 1 may be.