Three former New York City Public Advocates argued for strengthening the powers of the office. Former and current Law Department officials defended the agency’s independence. Experts on city government argued for and against expanding the powers of non-mayoral elected officials. And a Board of Elections official detailed the logistics of implementing ranked-choice voting in New York City.
Those were the broad themes of a Monday night hearing held at the City Council chambers by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, which is tasked with examining the powers and functions of city government with the aim of improving them. The commission, whose members are appointed by a variety of the city’s elected officials, will put forth proposals to change the city’s constitution that will go before voters this November.
Monday’s was one in a series of “expert hearings” being held by the commission as it considers specifics within its previously outlined focus areas. Before Monday, expert hearings had been held on police accountability, election reforms, city budgeting and contracting, and conflicts of interest and a proposal to create a chief diversity officer across city government.
Strengthening the Public Advocate
Among the ideas the commission is considering is giving more authority to the public advocate -- or to eliminate the office entirely if not -- and three of the four former officeholders were at the hearing to defend the role of the city’s ombudsperson. They included Mark Green, Betsy Gotbaum and Letitia James, who held the position before being elected attorney general last year. James was also one of the original sponsors, along with Borough President Gale Brewer, of the legislation that created the charter commission.
The only former public advocate not in attendance was Mayor Bill de Blasio. City Council Member Jumaane Williams is currently public advocate-elect after winning the February special election. He’ll take office soon. The public advocate is the city’s watchdog and ombudsperson, one of just three citywide elected officials and first in line to the mayor if the city’s chief executive is unable to finish his or her term.
James, Gotbaum, and Green all defended the responsibilities of the office they once held, and called for giving the public advocate greater authority. James pushed for subpoena power for the office and for the statutory ability to bring lawsuits against city agencies on behalf of New Yorkers, an issue she pursued after using litigation to mixed effect against the de Blasio administration. She called on the commission to “finally fulfill the promise of a fully empowered people’s watchdog.”
All three also argued for an independent budget for the public advocate, where it would receive a certain percentage of the city’s overall budget or financing based on some other statistical model, removing its reliance on the mayor’s whims. The office receives about $3.6 million in funding for the current fiscal year. Though de Blasio, a former public advocate himself, has increased the office’s budget and is proposed another small increase for next fiscal year, previous mayors have not been so generous. “It was this constant dance and constant fight,” said Gotbaum, now the executive director of government reform organization Citizens Union, of her fight for greater funding under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “That’s just unnecessary.”
Green was the only one to suggest a number: at least $6 million to carry out the office’s duties. “It is wrong and foolish that if an office does its job, it loses its job because of a mayor who is politically or personally antagonistic,” he said.
He also urged the commission to finally put to rest the idea that the public advocate should be eliminated, a suggestion that was even put into legislation by a few City Council members earlier this year.
Though the commission seemed open to the former public advocates’ ideas, Commissioner Sal Albanese, a former City Council member and three-time mayoral candidate, repeatedly asked them to justify the office’s existence, citing anecdotal evidence that people believe it is a wasteful use of taxpayer money. He insisted that City Council members can perform the same duties and that the public advocate was a “vestigial” institution in the city’s political system.
Naturally, the three former public advocates pushed back. James cited the thousands of complaints she fielded and resolved for New Yorkers, and the bills she introduced that were passed into law -- more than all public advocates before her combined, as she is fond of noting. Green cited the office’s push for the creation of the city’s 311 helpline, among other successes, saying it was “spurious and silly” to consider scrapping the office altogether.
James and Gotbaum also advocated for giving the public advocate the power to appoint members to other watchdog agencies such as the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Conflicts of Interest Board, and the Human Rights Commission. “Putting more public officials on those committees would at least get a better balance of interests on those committees so that the mayor isn’t so, so powerful,” Gotbaum said.
Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College who has worked with previous charter commissions, did later agree with Albanese that the public advocate’s office has been ill-defined since it was created by a 1989 charter revision commission that drastically changed the structure of city government -- the last major overhaul to the city’s governing document and structure. “It derives from the ambiguity of the position,” Muzzio said during his testimony. “It was never decided what the purpose of the body was...All the reforms are random decorations on the christmas tree. They’re not integrated into a purpose that is coherent, logical, and adequately funded.”
Conflicts at the Law Department
In its recommendations to the charter commission, the City Council raised questions about the corporation counsel, the city’s top lawyer and a mayoral appointee, and the Law Department, specifically wondering who the agency represents if there are internecine disagreements in city government. The Council has in the last year sued the city to block a development project on the East River waterfront and even filed a lawsuit against the corporation counsel, arguing for the ability to file amicus briefs in court.
At the hearing, former corporation counsel Victor Kovner and Karen Griffin, senior counsel at the Law Department, defended how the department functions and attempted to clarify how legal decisions are made. Both urged caution and insisted that any attempts to interfere in the powers of the corporation counsel, including imposing term limits as some have suggested, would undermine the office’s independence.
“It would undermine the independence of that office at great cost to the city,” Kovner said.
“Ultimately, the charter gives the corp counsel the authority to make final decisions about what’s in the best interest of city,” Griffin said.
Though Griffin did not take a position on whether the City Council should be given “advise and consent” authority in the selection of the corporation counsel, as the Council has called for, Kovner rejected the proposal, again citing the office’s independent reputation. “I think it’s a great mistake...Leave it. It’s working well,” he said.
Griffin also explained that when conflicts arise in the Law Department’s representation of a city official against another, the agency would “independently decide which position is legally correct.” And, in cases involving the mayor facing off against the City Council, the department sides with the mayor as the appointing authority, which could change if advise and consent is approved as a policy. Otherwise, in those circumstances, the Council has called on the charter commission to consider mandating that the Law Department provide funding for outside counsel for all other non-mayoral elected officials.
Muzzio later suggested that the city do away with the corporation counsel and create the position of city attorney, similar to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Balance of Power
The commissioners questioned the third panel of experts -- Muzzio and Stanley Brezenoff, a veteran of decades of city government service who recently retired after holding several positions under de Blasio -- on improving the balance of power in city government, which heavily favors the mayor.
“Is there anything that either of you envision that a body like this could do to provide for a meaningful voice…to the borough executives without disrupting [the] strong mayoral formula?” asked Commissioner Stephen Fiala.
Muzzio suggested that the power of borough presidents could be enhanced through independent budgeting and by giving them a greater voice in the city’s land use approval process.
“We don’t have a government, fortunately, that is simply a top government and a bottom government. We have an intermediate government that can recognize the needs and desires of boroughs and at the same time work within a citywide paradigm,” he said. “This is a supplemental power, it’s not revolutionary. It’s not going to change the basic strong mayor structure of city government.”
He similarly argued that the City Council’s authority could be strengthened in various ways without undermining the mayor.
But Brezenoff warned of diluting the power of the mayor or the Office of Management and Budget, which sets funding levels for the borough presidents. “This surgical approach to governmental structure is hard stuff,” he said. Brezenoff also did not seem to agree with the idea that the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) should have set timelines under the charter. “This is a very difficult balancing act. I would just urge care,” he said. (ULURP will be one focus of Thursday’s expert hearing.)
Ranked Choice Voting and Special Elections
Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, was the final panellist to testify before the commission on Monday. Ryan primarily urged the commission to consider a change in the charter’s provisions on special elections, pointing to the recent one held for public advocate in February.
Currently, the charter requires that the mayor declare a special election, after a vacancy, to be held within 45 days. That short timeline, he said, precludes the BOE from being able to send out ballots in time, particularly military ballots, and also prevents candidates or voters from successfully challenging ballot petition decisions in court. It will also mean that once Council Member Jumaane Williams, now the public advocate-elect, resigns his Council seat, another special election will have to be held within just six weeks, instead of waiting for the already-scheduled election days this year, which are for a June primary and November general election.
Ryan said the commission should consider bringing the “glaring inconsistency” in the city’s special elections in line with timelines set for state special elections -- elections take place between 70 and 80 days after the governor’s proclamation. That would also be particularly necessary once the city begins to implement early voting for elections under a new state law, he said. “The more predictability that people have in the conduct of elections, the better off we’re all gonna be,” he said.
Asked about ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, Ryan said the BOE did not have an official position. A charter commission convened by the mayor last year declined to formally take up the issue, citing a lack of sufficient time to explore its pros and cons.
At the hearing. Ryan did lay out the prerequisites for implementing ranked-choice voting from his perspective. He said the BOE’s vendor of election systems would be able to implement it with its current mechanisms, though with duplicative counting required by the agency, and that a more automatic process would require more time to upgrade software. “Until we know what the rules are and what the expectation is, the algorithm can’t be determined,” he said of the ranked-choice formula that voting machines would have to use. [Read more about ranked-choice voting]
He did point out that the state BOE would have to approve any changes passed by the city, though he doubted it would face any opposition since it would be limited to New York City alone. “I can’t imagine a scenario where the state would say no,” he said.
Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.>