Advocating For Democracy

By Betsy Gotbaum

8 July 02

Mayor Michael Bloomberg believes that the city's charter should be changed to say that, if he has to leave office for any reason, the first deputy mayor would take charge until a special election can be held. The current charter gives the right of succession to me, as public advocate.

I wish Mayor Bloomberg good health and sometimes even tell him to stop piloting his own helicopter. Succession is a ghoulish topic, but now that the mayor has raised it, I want to make a case for the existing process.

As recently as 1999, New Yorkers rejected former Mayor Giuliani's attempt to alter mayoral succession. The last mayoral administration used the charter change process as mere political convenience. Last-minute commissions were appointed, their recommendations known before they were selected. Now Mayor Bloomberg apparently plans to mirror the Giuliani approach.

A hastily appointed mayoral commission will make recommendations on two very important issues this summer -- on succession and non-partisan elections -- and then they will be voted on in the November election. The public needs time to learn more about both of these ideas before they are asked to make any decisions.

First, the charter does not allow the mayor to extend his authority beyond his tenure. Should the mayor be unable to serve, his position falls to the public advocate, another citywide official, known to the public, who has survived the rigors of a public election process.

The first deputy mayor is the man (and it always is a man, by the way) the mayor hires to put his ideas into practice. The people do not know him. More importantly, he has not gotten to know them through a citywide campaign. It is a travesty of democratic process to allow the appointee of an elected official to succeed the mayor in office -- even for a few months.

Second, the current system works. It is a puzzle to me why the mayor wants to use staff and money on such a project at this moment in our history. I am trying not to take it personally. The public advocate is the presiding officer of the City Council, a position that has been first in line of succession for over 100 years. In the 20th century, the process resulted in a smooth transition through a new election three times: Ardolph L. Kline temporarily succeeded on the death of William J. Gaynor in 1913, Joseph V. McKee succeeded after the resignation of James J. Walker in 1932, and Vincent R. Impelletieri succeeded after the resignation of William O'Dwyer in 1950.

I see the public advocate as the watchdog over government who helps New Yorkers cut through red tape. When my office assists people with individual problems, we are looking for signs of systemic failure in need of reform. This means I have to work with city commissioners to persuade them to make changes when the bureaucracy gets in the way of public service. The public advocate is the natural successor to the mayor because he or she has familiarity with city policy, practice, and personnel.

The mayor also apparently expects us to vote in November on the issue of nonpartisan elections. That means no more Democrats or Republicans on the ballot. Some experts argue that nonpartisan elections actually depress voter turnout, favor candidates from a high socioeconomic stratum and weaken minority voting rights. The public needs time to learn more about the idea before they are asked to make a decision.

If the mayor wants to change the charter he could focus on the fact that it now takes too long to hold a special election should one be needed. Right now, the process of setting up an election can stretch to 14 months. Perhaps we should consider reducing the period of time. That would be a charter reform in the direction of increasing, rather than circumventing, the democratic process.


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