Gotham Gazette Fri, 21 Sep 2018 07:55:57 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) 2019 Charter Revision Commission Holds First Public Hearing charter rev thing

The first hearing of the 2019 charter commission (photo: @Charter2019NYC)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission may be done with its work but a separate commission, empanelled through legislation passed by the City Council, is just getting started.

The City Council-created commission, conceived by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James, held its first hearing on Wednesday to get suggestions about improving the city’s charter, the document that outlines the central powers, structures, and functions of city government. The 15-member commission is composed of members appointed by the Council speaker, the mayor, the comptroller, public advocate, and the five borough presidents. It is working towards putting questions on the ballot for the November 2019 election (the mayor’s commission recently approved three questions for this year’s general election ballot).

The 2019 commission, as it is being called, has a much broader mandate than de Blasio set for his, though by law charter revision commissions, once established, are able to examine whatever parts of the charter they see fit. The mayoral commission stayed fairly close to de Blasio’s directive, putting forth proposals regarding campaign finance reform, civic engagement, and community board reform. The 2019 commission has been expected to consider major changes related to land use and budgeting processes, and beyond.

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot]

While the commission will do its own internal deliberations and staff research, it is embarking on a public process to hear from New Yorkers, including issue-area experts and advocates, and everyday people.

Wednesday’s hearing, held at Lehman College in the Bronx, saw more than a dozen New Yorkers present a myriad of ideas over the course of three hours. The proposals broached everything from housing affordability protections and community board structure to government transparency measures and oversight agencies. Among the prominent ideas repeatedly suggested at the hearing were a broad push for police accountability and sweeping changes to the city’s land use policies, which many expected since the commission is being chaired by Gail Benjamin, the former land use division head for the City Council who was appointed by current Speaker Corey Johnson to head the commission.

In testimony, Hannah Birnbaum, who handles community engagement for 32BJ SEIU, the prominent labor union, stressed a “need for a more equitable and more democratic approach to land use decisions.” Among her recommendations were prevailing wage requirements for building service workers when the city disposes of public property, imposing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) for new construction on land owned by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and a central public database of land use applications.

A prominent voice for land use reform was Manhattan and Bronx City Council Member Diana Ayala, who testified at the hearing as co-chair of the City Council’s 22-member Progressive Caucus. “It is no secret that the city’s land use and planning processes are deeply flawed,” she said, emphasizing that the city’s approach is largely “reactive” and “randomly” addresses crucial issues of homelessness, environmental justice, rampant private development, and necessary infrastructure. “The status quo of ad hoc planning is just not working…We need a larger vision based on equity, a vision in which low-income communities do not have to slowly bear the brunt of the city’s every housing and infrastructure need.”

Ayala said the caucus’ proposals were based on five guiding principles -- equity and fairness, proactive and responsive plans, inclusive engagement, resiliency and sustainability, and transparency and accountability. She pushed for a “comprehensive planning framework that includes a fair share analysis,” an independent City Planning Commission, and empowering communities to have a voice before, during, and after a land use application process.

Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, the former city planning chief, pointed out that there are existing fair share principles for siting municipal facilities. “How would you suggest they be changed to make them more effective?” Weisbrod asked.

“I would eradicate them because they don’t work,” Ayala said bluntly.

Early on, Jed Holtz, an organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party, recommended allowing noncitizens to vote in municipal elections and also pushed the commission to address the “complete lack of accountability of the NYPD.” Holtz was one of several people who testified to that point, advocating for an entirely new structure of oversight of the police.

The central idea several advocates pushed was the creation of a publicly-elected Civilian Complaint Review Board, which hears and investigates complaints about NYPD officers -- CCRB members are currently appointed by the mayor, City Council, and police commissioner -- and establishing an elected special prosecutor dedicated to NYPD officer discipline. Current disciplinary procedures, they noted, allow the NYPD commissioner to have the final word on disciplinary recommendations made by the CCRB, and commissioners past and present have more often than not diluted and ignored those recommendations.

Though the advocates insisted that state law does not prohibit the creation of such an elected CCRB and prosecutor, they did struggle to answer probing questions from the commissioners about how the city could set those up without inviting legal challenges. “We’ve done a thorough review of all state law and we can’t find anything in the state law that says that this couldn’t happen,” one advocate said, when Commissioner Sal Albanese questioned whether it would be compatible with the state’s civil service law.

Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, emphasized the urgency of those proposals. “What we have here is the opportunity for New York to be a trailblazer on an issue that has plagued our society since the inception of policing in black and brown communities,” he said, as he went on to cite the names of several New Yorkers killed at the hands of police. “You have the opportunity to right wrongs.”

An appointed CCRB, he said, could never be free of political considerations even if its independent on paper. “This is implicit bias. You know who signs your checks, you know who appoints you, and this is who you’re loyal to,” he said.

There were of course several other proposals, some serious, others parochial and impractical.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, suggested an overhaul of Chapter 47 of the city charter, which covers public access to meetings and information. Carl Lanzano, a member of Community Board 12, floated the idea of a Community Board Council made up of members elected from each of the city’s 59 community boards, which would then elect five members -- one from each borough -- to sit on the City Council and introduce and vote on legislation. Dmitri Daniel Glinski, president of the Russian-speaking Community Council of Manhattan & the Bronx, suggested scrapping the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and creating a new commission proportionally composed of members of the city’s immigrant communities. Another individual lambasted the Department of Investigation and said its head should be elected, not chosen by the mayor.

The commission also unanimously approved the appointment of Ed Atkin as the new executive director. The previous executive director, Jeff Metzler, resigned in mid-July.

The commission will continue its initial round of evening public hearings in each borough with events in Brooklyn on Monday and Queens on Thursday, with Staten Island and Brooklyn the following week.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated to note that Dmitri Daniel Glinski, president of the Russian-speaking Community Council of Manhattan & the Bronx, testified at the hearing. Glinski was not named in an earlier version of this article.

2019 Charter Revision Commission Holds First Public Hearing Thu, 13 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot charter revision commission 2018

The Charter Revision Commission (photo via Charter Commission)

After months of meetings and deliberations, thousands of suggestions and dozens of hours of public hearings, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted to put three broad questions on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the proposals would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits in city elections, create a new agency to civically engage the public, and apply term limits and appointment reforms to community boards.

De Blasio created the commission to review the city charter with an eye on reducing the impact of wealthy donors and special interests in electoral campaigns and drawing more New Yorkers to participate in elections and civic life. The 13-member commission largely stuck by that mandate, though it did consider and reject other significant proposals including independent redistricting of City Council districts and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, which the mayor does not support. (A separate City Council-created charter revision commission is also beginning public hearings this month and could possibly take up the issues left unresolved by the mayoral commission. It will recommend ballot questions in 2019.)

On Tuesday, the members of the mayoral commission met for the final time, at the New York Historical Society west of Central Park, to approve their final report and three “yes” or “no” questions that will be put to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

“Our job was to try to figure out what could make our city more just, more fair and more democratic and then to put it on the ballot to see if New Yorkers wanted the city to be run in this new fashion,” said Cesar Perales, chair of the commission, on Tuesday. “That’s what we did. I think we did that well and it’s going to be up to the voters in November to determine whether or not these things would be better for our city.”

The first question proposes expansive reforms to the campaign finance law and the city’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes grassroots fundraising by matching the first $175 of every eligible campaign contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

The proposal would reduce contribution limits for participants from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates, from $3,950 to $1,500 for candidates for borough president, and from $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council seats. The proposed limits for those who choose not to opt in to the program are $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The proposal also increases the matching ratio to 8-to-1 for the first $250 raised by a citywide candidate and for the first $175 raised for all other seats. It would increase the cap on public funds disbursements from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit for a seat, while also doling out the funds earlier in the election cycle.

There was some clear disagreement about how the new campaign finance rules would be applied. A majority of commissioners agreed that candidates should be able to choose to abide by the new rules for the next citywide primary in 2021, and that the rules would be mandatory thereafter.

Two of the commissioners, John Siegal and Wendy Weiser, disagreed with that implementation plan, though both voted to approve the question. “I do not think it is wise public policy to have a situation in which regulated parties get to make the decision as to whether they will or will not follow new regulations,” Siegal said. “I cannot think of another situation in which a regulatory agency has been put in that position. I do not think its necessary. I actually don’t think there’s any benefit to it.” He did, however, hold out hope that candidates would see the benefit of voluntarily participating, since the lower contribution limits would be accompanied by potentially more public funds.

“While I do share the concern about having a choice, I am heartened by the assurances that this is really unlikely to come to pass,” Weiser said, “that everyone is really likely to follow the new system. It is the one that makes much more sense.”

Carlo Scissura, the commission secretary, was the sole dissenting voice on the campaign finance question. He conceded that the commission published an “overall great report” but has in past hearings expressed doubts about increasing the taxpayer contribution by creating a larger public matching funds program. “I wish that on the campaign finance, that we took a little different approach but it does reflect the will of what we heard and the will of the majority of the commission,” he said.

The second question, which was unanimously approved, would create a new 15-member Civic Engagement Commission, with eight appointed by the mayor -- including the chair and executive director -- two by the City Council speaker and one each by the five borough presidents. The mayor would have to appoint at least one member from each of the city’s largest and second-largest political parties, which, likely in perpetuity, means Democrats and Republicans.

Among the roles the commission would play are administering a citywide participatory budgeting program starting in 2020 (it’s currently employed by City Council members in dozens of districts); providing interpreters at poll sites; working on civic engagement with advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers, with a particular eye on outreach to limited English-language speakers; and providing annual reports on progress on those fronts. The proposal also allows the mayor to delegate more powers and responsibilities to the commission.

The notion of an Office of Civic Engagement has recently been pushed forward by City Council Member Brad Lander, who has introduced legislation to create one. If approved, the charter revision creation of such a commission would appear to negate Lander’s legislation. The Brooklyn Council member testified to the commission about the idea of creating a civic engagement body and has held his legislation as the charter commission proceeded with its work.

The most controversial proposals the commission is putting on the November ballot deal with community boards, the most local form of city government. The third question would establish staggered term limits for community board members, to reduce mass simultaneous turnover. Those members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019, would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms; those appointed on April 1, 2020 may serve five terms; and those appointed after that would again only serve four terms.

The commission also recommended changes to the appointment process, to make it consistent across the five boroughs and to promote diverse membership. The civic engagement commission, if passed, would also be tasked with providing technical assistance to community boards, particularly urban planning expertise and language access. Eleven commissioners voted in favor of the question, while Commissioner Angela Fernandez abstained from the vote.

The commission’s final report was also approved unanimously, and the questions will be delivered to the City Clerk to place on the ballot, giving the commission two months to educate and inform New Yorkers that they’ll be able to choose more than just candidates in November, when New Yorkers will be voting largely on state-level elected positions, including for Governor and members of the state Legislature.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy comm board 3

A Manhattan community board meeting (photo: @ManhattanCB5)

Community boards are our most participatory, hyper-local form of government in New York City. In November, we will have the chance to vote for necessary reforms that will help ensure our community boards represent the diverse perspectives of our communities. These reforms will likely include term limits for community board members, greater transparency in the appointment process, and better technical assistance for community board members to make fully informed decisions. They will be put before voters as a result of Mayor de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission; exact ballot language is due early next month.

As a member of my own Community Board 2 in Queens since April 2017, I have seen the need to open up our community boards, and I urge you to support these measures in November.

Our community boards play a crucial role in shaping the development of our neighborhoods, advising elected officials and agencies on the delivery of city services, and communicating with the broader community at large. To that end, it is crucial that community board membership look, feel, and think with the diverse perspectives that make up each community. It is essential that people of varied backgrounds -- professional, racial, ethnic, and otherwise -- are able to represent their neighborhoods.

Term limits, while not a panacea for better board representation, will help ensure that turnover on the community boards ushers in diverse voices that too often get crowded out when there aren’t many vacancies on boards. True diversity and genuine community representation on community boards can contribute to better city services. After all, community boards whose membership consists of a more holistic cross-section of the community will be in a better position to accurately advise city agencies and local elected officials on the efficacy of city services and additional needs that exist throughout a given community board district.

Board members who are term-limited, as I hope to be one day, can continue to serve in other vital capacities: civic associations, parks conservancies, tenant groups, are just a few of the ways that everyone in the community can participate. This is, of course, in addition to attending community board meetings and speaking at the public comment section, which is open to everyone, including former board members.

The appointment process itself is also in dire need of reform. Board applications should ask not just for character references and organizational affiliation, but also ask applicants about their community knowledge, overall civic participation, and other skills that will be valuable to the boards. This allows board members to be appointed who may not have ties to political offices or previous knowledge about the complex application process. Further, community board membership should be evaluated to assess for diversity among members. Boards that reflect the communities they serve will be stronger and more robust, able to accomplish more for our neighbors.

We also need better technical assistance on the boards to help make objective, thoughtful decisions and requests when crucial issues come before us. This is especially true on matters of public safety and critical land use decisions.

Community boards serve an important purpose. Board members hold city agencies and locally elected officials accountable to local needs. From sidewalk cafes to bike lanes to liquor licenses, community boards touch on everyday life for all New Yorkers. That’s why it’s so critical to open up the process of applying to the community board, and make sure that borough presidents and City Council members place a premium on selecting board members from a broader swath of the community. Join me in November to support these reforms.

Jeremy Rosenberg is a community activist, attorney, and member of Community Board 2 which serves Sunnyside,Woodside, and Long Island City. Reach him on Twitter at @jeremyr1992.

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Term Limits and Other Community Board Reforms Strengthen Local Democracy Thu, 23 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Votes to Create Final Ballot Proposals 29662531635 782845d55b z

Mayor Bill de Blasio casts his vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio to review and revise the city charter passed a resolution on Tuesday instructing its staff to create ballot proposals related to enhancing the municipal campaign finance system, increasing civic engagement and improving the role and structure of the city’s 59 community boards. At the same time, the commission punted on issues related to instant runoff voting and independent redistricting, leaving those to be resolved by a future charter revision commission.

The charter revision commission has spent months fielding testimony from experts, elected officials and members of the public on ways to improve the structure and functions of New York City’s government. In hours-long public hearings and community events across the five boroughs, and through expansive digital and social media outreach, the commission received hundreds of recommendations. After homing on a few broad areas, the commission largely came to agreement on several concrete proposals and directed its staff on Tuesday to prepare specific ballot questions along those lines. The resolution was approved with ten votes in favor, one against and one abstention.

On campaign finance, the commission proposed separate contribution limits depending on whether candidates choose to participate in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which matches the first $175 of each contribution at a rate of 6-to-1.

The commission recommended a $2,000 contribution limit for participating citywide candidates, $1,500 for borough president candidates and $1,000 for City Council candidates. For those not participating in the program, the recommended limits were $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The commission also proposed matching the first $250 at an 8-to-1 ratio for citywide offices and the first $175 at 8-to-1 for borough president and City Council offices. They called for earlier disbursements of public funds and increasing the public funds cap from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for an office to 75 percent.

Matt Gewolb, executive director of the charter revision commission, said the proposed reforms would reduce the “perception of corruption” that New Yorkers feel about the current system and that had emerged in testimony before the commission.

Another ballot question the commission requested would create a citywide Civic Engagement Commission, inspired by Council Member Brad Lander’s legislative proposal for an Office of Civic Engagement.

The proposed CEC would launch a citywide participatory budgeting program, provide technical expertise to community boards, coordinate current civic engagement initiatives carried out by city agencies in partnership with the public and private sector, as well as promote and aid voter registration and access efforts. It would also be charged with developing initiatives for New Yorkers with limited English proficiency and expanding language access services in underserved and minority communities. The office would have to collaborate with the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs to expand voter education and outreach, and to ensure adequate interpretation services at polling sites.

The charter commission also proposed sweeping changes to community boards, by recommending ballot questions to establish term limits of four consecutive two-year terms with staggered implementation. The proposal would allow members who have already served for that amount of time to be reappointed if they are out of office for a full term. The commission endorsed reforms to the appointment process as well that would provide uniformity across the boroughs and called for annual reporting on the composition of community boards and recruitment and selection methods. Overall, the measures would ensure that community boards are “more reflective of the communities they represent,” Gewolb said.

Several commission members expressed disappointment that proposals on the two subjects that might have been the most consequential -- independent redistricting and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting -- were not included in the resolution, owing both to a lack of sufficient clarity and time to adequately explore the ramifications of each issue.

Commissioner Larian Angelo seemed wary of a proposal on instant runoff voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference so that if one candidate does not meet the threshold, the candidate with the least number of first-preference votes is removed and their votes redistributed. Angelo said IRV implementation had not been uniform in other jurisdictions and that it could potentially disenfranchise voters.

Most other commissioners, however, seemed to agree that it is a valuable measure to avoid costly runoffs and to encourage candidates to cast a wider net when appealing to voters. Commissioner Dale Ho echoed other commissioners as he said the commission’s “truncated process” over just a few months did not allow them to study the issue thoroughly.

Wendy Weiser, another commissioner, said she was “deeply persuaded” that reforms to the city’s redistricting process for the City Council should have been included, reiterating the opinions of several of her colleagues.

Commission Secretary Carlo Scissura was the sole dissenting vote on Tuesday’s resolution. He aired concerns that the campaign finance reforms could lead to “additional burdens on the taxpayer” by increasing the amount of public funds awarded to candidates in each cycle, and he also worried that the Civic Engagement Commission could potentially add “another layer of bureaucracy” for community boards to navigate.

But the commission did not entirely reject both issues, recommending that they be taken up by a subsequent commission. The New York City Council has in fact already launched its own charter revision commission, which held its first organizational meeting in mid-July and is working towards presenting its proposals for the November 2019 election, potentially allowing it to delve deeper into the mayoral commission’s unfinished business.

In the coming weeks, the mayoral commission’s staff will issue a final report containing the language on the several ballot proposals recommended on Tuesday. The commission will then meet again to vote on the report and to approve the questions before filing them with the city clerk before a September 7 deadline. The questions will be presented to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Votes to Create Final Ballot Proposals Tue, 14 Aug 2018 22:45:06 +0000
NYPD Watchdog Seeks Sharper Teeth Through Charter Revision ccrb exec director twiter2

CCRB reps, including Jonathan Darche, middle (photo: @CCRB_NYC)

When the NYPD decided earlier this month to move ahead with its departmental trial against two officers involved in the 2014 death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, it tasked the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent watchdog agency, with prosecuting the charges. But that prosecutorial authority has yet to be codified into the City Charter, the city’s central governing document, a change that CCRB officials are seeking through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission.

In testimony last week before the charter revision commission, which will propose charter amendments to voters on the November Election Day ballot, the CCRB’s executive director, Jonathan Darche, urged commission members to consider expanding the board’s powers and solidifying its place in the city’s constitution.

A 13-member body composed entirely of civilians, the CCRB investigates, and prosecutes, allegations of police misconduct, including complaints about use of force and abuse of power. The current iteration of the agency dates back to 1993 when the body was given subpoena power and the ability to make disciplinary recommendations after substantiating complaints against police officers.

It was the CCRB last year that substantiated the complaints against Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who held Eric Garner in a banned chokehold that led to his death. The CCRB recommended the highest possible penalty it can against Pantaleo -- charges and specifications, which are then prosecuted by CCRB lawyers in an administrative trial. Ultimately, the CCRB issues its recommendations to the police commissioner, who makes the final determination on a disciplinary proceeding.

With the mayor’s charter revision commission close to concluding its work and announcing its proposals in early September, Darche testified at one of the commission’s hearings across the boroughs, on July 26 in Queens. Darche’s testimony follows on a letter sent by the CCRB to the charter commission in May, which enumerated the four proposed changes, which include codifying the Board’s Administrative Prosecution Unit (APU), which is handling the Pantaleo trial; enabling the board to give subpoena signatory power to the agency’s highest ranking staff; clarifying and expanding the NYPD’s duty to cooperate with CCRB requests for documentation and data; and amending the agency’s budget to equal one percent of the NYPD’s budget.

Eric Phillips, a spokesperson for the mayor, declined to comment for this article. The NYPD did not respond to emails seeking comment. When Mayor de Blasio announced the charter revision commission in February he said he wanted it to focus on election and campaign finance reform, but it has heard testimony on a wide range of matters and is considering, as is its right, focus areas beyond the mayoral mandate.

The most significant proposal put forward by the CCRB relates to the Administrative Prosecution Unit, which was created in 2012 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the NYPD. As is the case with Pantaleo, the APU handles prosecutions in cases with the strongest disciplinary recommendation. According to the CCRB, the unit has prosecuted officers in 367 trials since its creation. 

“As evidenced by the APU’s prosecution in the Garner case, the APU is a vital part of the disciplinary process for officers who commit misconduct,” Darche said during his testimony. “Amending the City Charter to codify the APU will ensure that this independent and effective tool for civilian oversight will continue.”

Carolyn Martinez-Class, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a broad coalition of police reform advocates, welcomed the CCRB recommendations as “important initial proposals to improve police accountability and transparency generally,” in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “In order to be effective, the proposed change to codify the Administrative Prosecution Unit must also codify the original MOU's intent to make transparent instances when the Police Commissioner disagrees with CCRB recommendations so that those instances and rationale are made public as originally intended,” she added.

Though the commission members asked no questions of Darche at the hearing in Queens, and police oversight has not been one of the main issues the commission is exploring, Darche will have another opportunity to push those proposals.

The mayor’s commission is expected to put out its final report within weeks and will propose ballot measures for the November general election, but the New York City Council has created a separate charter revision commission, which convened for the first time earlier this month. That second commission -- which includes commissioners appointed by the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, City Council, and borough presidents -- is working with a longer timeline, aiming to put its proposals on the ballot in November 2019, allowing it ample time for a more holistic review of the charter.

City Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, said in a statement that he was “absolutely in support” of the CCRB’s proposals to the charter commission. “Increased transparency and accountability are essential to improving police-community relations and the CCRB should absolutely have a stronger presence in that process moving forward,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD Watchdog Seeks Sharper Teeth Through Charter Revision Mon, 30 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report de Blasio McCray voting

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

With less than two months left to complete its work, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission released a preliminary report on Tuesday outlining five broad issue areas -- campaign finance, municipal elections, civic engagement, community boards, and redistricting -- that it will continue to explore in public hearings and community events over the next two weeks.

The report was prepared by the commission staff after two initial rounds of hearings held in the last three months across the city at which members of the public, advocacy groups, subject matter experts, and elected officials recommended improvements to the City Charter. “New Yorkers have been engaged since the start of this process and this report reflects the wide range of issues we discussed in all five boroughs,” said Cesar Perales, commission chair, in a statement.

Though the commission was empowered to examine the entire charter, it closely followed the mayor’s brief in empaneling it: that it look at improving electoral participation and reducing the effects of money in city elections. At a meeting on Tuesday at Pratt University, the commission members discussed their positions and concerns on the staff report. 

An outline of the commission report was provided to Gotham Gazette and other news outlets Monday evening. To reform the campaign finance system, the staff recommends in its report that the commission should consider ballot proposals to lower donor campaign contribution limits and enhance the Campaign Finance Board’s voluntary public matching funds program, which currently matches small-dollar contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio and is seen as a national model. The CFB caps the amount of matching funds a participating candidate can receive at 55 percent of the spending limit for the position they are seeking. The report recommends a proposal to increase that cap. Those suggestions are in line with the ones made by the CFB to the commission.  

Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, urged caution about the level of increase in matching funds, noting that more and more candidates run for office each election cycle. "Let’s be careful of the city budget," he said. Commissioner John Siegal worried that lowering contribution limits could affect people's First Amendment rights and could only be justified with a "compelling anti-corruption rationale", while Commissioner Sharon Greenberger said the commission should carefully consider the timing of rolling out changes to the campaign finance system.  

The staff report is less definitive on improving municipal elections through voting reforms, urging the commission to continue reviewing proposals such as instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and improved language assistance services. Perales said there was no unanimity among his colleagues on instant runoffs. Some found it "intriguing" while others like Commissioner Larian Angelo wanted more data on its benefits and drawbacks. Perales also noted that the commission can do little to change election law, which falls under state jurisdiction. "This is going to be a tough one," he conceded. 

Voter participation could also be improved through civic engagement, the report states. The commission has been assessing a proposal, put forward by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, to create a new Citywide Office of Civic Engagement. At hearings, commission members have spoken of the idea approvingly, and the staff report suggests that they evaluate how that office would function, how it would be structured and whether it can bolster the city’s DemocracyNYC and participatory budgeting programs. On Tuesday, though, Perales said it was another area where the commission lacked consensus. Scissura, for instance, said he was "a fan of less bureaucracy," and did not support the creation of a new office. Participatory budgeting was a more popular subject, with a few commissioners agreeing to explore ways to expand it across the city. 

On community boards, the staff recommends term limits that can diversify board composition, a standardized appointment process, increased resources, and ensuring representative membership. Commissioner Marco Carrion, who is also Commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said Tuesday that the commission report was a "very good starting point" on how to democratize community boards.

The most complex and perhaps most politically charged question before the commission was whether they could make improvements to the process of redistricting City Council boundaries. There are currently 51 Council districts across the five boroughs, the lines of which will be impacted by the next U.S. Census, set for 2020. But, the charter commission may recommend to voters a change to the redistricting process, which could even include changing the number of Council districts.

The charter commission report does not take a hard position on redistricting other than recommending that the commission keep studying it, keeping in mind “procedures to address the effects of the redistricting process on the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups,” including perhaps independent review mechanisms. The report also underscores the importance of limiting the role of elected officials in districting commissions and putting in place plans to mitigate the effects of a potential undercount in the 2020 census from the addition of a citizenship question by the Trump administration, a plan that is currently the subject of litigation. On Tuesday, it was clear that the commissioners were not in full agreement. Commissioner Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, stressed that redistricting needs to be "more inclusive" to reflect the city's diversity, and Perales said the commissioners "need to see alternatives" to the current process to make an informed decision. 

“This preliminary staff report reflects a focus on civic life and democracy in New York City — a theme that is particularly appropriate and relevant in contemporary times,” said Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, in a statement.

The commission’s final report is expected by the end of August and its proposals, which will be presented as ballot referenda in the November general election, are due by September 7 at the latest. The mayor’s commission is also distinct from another one created through legislation by the New York City Council, which held its first meeting on Monday evening at City Hall and aims to put its proposals on the November 2019 ballot.

[Read: Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with coverage of the commission's meeting on Tuesday, July 17.  

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape gg city council hearing committee

(Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)

The New York City Council’s commission to review the city charter -- a separate effort from an existing commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has been fully appointed and is set to begin its work next Monday, July 16.

The City Council passed a bill in April, spearheaded by Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to create a commission to analyze the city’s governing document and recommend potentially significant changes to the structure and functions of city government. Although any such commission is allowed to consider the entire composition of the city charter, Brewer, James, and Johnson have pointed to a few broad priority areas including improving the city’s land use policies, strengthening the City Council’s ‘advise and consent’ role in approving mayoral appointees to city agencies and commissions, enhancing the Council’s power over city budgeting, and implementing stronger oversight of the mayoral administration.

At a March 17 hearing on the bill, James emphasized that the commission could achieve groundbreaking improvements similar to the 1989 charter commission that upended the entire structure of city government. She contrasted it with the mayor’s approach, which she said suffers from “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.”

The Council’s commission, composed of 15 members, is meant to carry out its work over the next 16 months, presenting ballot referenda to voters during the November 2019 general election. The mayor’s commission, created by de Blasio through an executive order, has a shorter timeline and a narrower brief, and will be proposing its own recommendations on Election Day this year.

The Council commission’s members include four appointees of the speaker, including the chair, four mayoral appointees, and one each chosen by the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents.

Johnson picked Gail Benjamin, the former director of the Council’s land use division, to serve as commission chair. His other appointees include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former de Blasio deputy mayor and the former chair of NYC Health+Hospitals, the city’s municipal hospital system; Rev. Clinton Miller, pastor at Brown Memorial Baptist Church; and Merryl Tisch, the former chancellor of the state Board of Regents and current vice chair of the SUNY board of trustees.

“The appointment of these members of the Charter Revision Commission is the first step towards bringing the City Charter into the 21st century,” said Johnson in a statement announcing the full commission. “All of these individuals represent civic engagement at its best, and I am so grateful for the time they are giving to make our city a better place…The City Charter is in good hands.”

In a phone interview, Benjamin said she was "excited" about leading the commission. "This is kind of the culmination of my career as a government official,” she said. Benjamin drew a distinction between the work she will oversee and that of the mayor's commission, which is expected to release its preliminary report soon. “This commission has a much broader mandate than the mayor gave to his commission and I think that all of the 15 members who have been appointed are excited about the broadness of the mandate and the ability to really examine how this city functions governmentally and what we can do to move it into the future," she said.   

Though the two commissions will not overlap substantially, Benjamin said the Council's commission will review the testimony presented to the mayor's commission, as well as the reports and testimony from every commission convened since 1989. "There are lots of issues that [the mayor's] commission, I don’t think, has had the time to really flesh out," she said, citing city procurement practices, non-citizen voting and instant run-off voting as a few examples. "I would think that we would want to look at those kinds of issues also and that we’ll have the time to do that because we’ve got over a year and not just a few months," Benjamin said. 

Mayor de Blasio mostly plucked his Council commission appointees from his own administration. Among them are Lisette Camilo, the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services; Paula Gavin, the city’s Chief Service Officer who heads up NYC Service, the agency tasked with promoting volunteering efforts; Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; and former City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod, currently a de Blasio appointee to the MTA board.

Most other elected officials had already announced their selections to the commission or had quietly appointed members with little publicity.   

In late May, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams chose former City Council Member and repeat mayoral contender Sal Albanese to represent him, citing Albanese’s outspoken positions on campaign finance reform. “I have called for, and am reiterating again now, for 100 percent publicly-financed campaigns where every candidate has an equal footing to express their ideas,” Adams had written in testimony at the March hearing before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which was considering the charter commission bill. “Fully publicly-financed elections will see more women running for office at a time when representation in the City Council has decreased since our last election. Fully publicly-financed campaigns have shown to increase minority participation in elected politics. A fully-funded system also takes away the quid pro quo corruption and will help restore faith in our electoral system.”

Albanese, in a statement accompanying his appointment, said, “Charter revision is an opportunity to make our government more democratic and responsive to its citizens.” During his 2017 primary challenge to de Blasio, Albanese’s top policy plank was the “democracy vouchers” program that would drastically reduce the influence of private money in municipal elections.

Last month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appointed former City Council Member James Vacca to the commission. “Jimmy has a wealth of experience in government and cares deeply about our borough and our city,” Diaz Jr. tweeted at the time.

More recently, Public Advocate Letitia James tapped Sateesh Nori, a Legal Aid Society attorney, as her representative on the commission. “Mr. Nori brings with him the wisdom and expertise necessary for the role, as well as a lifelong commitment to public service and to his City,” James said in a statement. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s pick was Alison Hirsh, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the prominent property services workers union.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chose her general counsel and director of land use, James Caras, to serve as her representative. “After three decades, it’s time for a thorough, expert review of how our City Charter is serving New Yorkers and how to make our government work better,” Brewer said in Monday’s announcement.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz picked Eduardo Cordero Sr. And Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s choice is Richmond County Clerk Stephen Fiala, who was previously a City Council member.

While the Council-created commission is about to begin its work and will take an extended timeline before its ballot proposals are announced next year, the mayoral charter revision commission is in the final two months before it makes its recommendations public by early September, in time to be included on the November ballot. That commission recently made clear its areas of focus -- voting and election reform, campaign finance reform, land use decision-making, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting -- and held relevant expert hearings.

[Read: Chair Says Mayoral Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape Mon, 09 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform bill charter

(photo via the Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission, convened to examine the city’s central governing laws, concluded the second leg of its public input process last week with a series of forums where they sought expert opinions on campaign finance reform, electoral access, civic engagement, redistricting of City Council boundaries, land use decision-making, and community boards. As the commission continues to narrow its tentative list of proposals to present to voters on the ballot in November, Commission Chair Cesar Perales, a former secretary of state of New York, said in a phone interview that commission members are not looking to “invent the wheel” but rather are focused on improving the functions and structure of city government where they can.

The mayor formed the commission with specific ideas in mind, that it explore ways to minimize the impact of money in elections and increase electoral participation in a city increasingly known for low voter turnout. “[O]ne of the things we’re going to do in this city is we’re going to present to the people in November a ballot initiative for public financing of elections to take our already very progressively public finance system for elections and build upon it even more deeply to get big money out of politics,” de Blasio said in his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday.

Though de Blasio made his priorities understood before naming the 15 members of the panel, any charter commission created by mayoral fiat has unlimited reign over its agenda and can consider all issues pertaining to what is essentially the city’s constitution.

After a first round of open-ended public hearings, the commission homed in on four major areas on which subject-matter experts provided testimony: election administration, voter participation, and voting access; campaign finance; community boards and land use; civic engagement and independent redistricting. “I just had a series of conversations with individual commission members and I think there’s a universal sense that we’ve identified the right issues,” Perales said in the interview on Wednesday.

“We don’t have to invent the wheel,” he later added. “There are things going on out there...If it’s a good idea, then it’s something we as the members of the commission ought to be thinking about. Is it something that belongs in the charter? Is it something that ought to be done citywide?”

The mayor’s announcement about the commission initially raised eyebrows, with City Council members and government reform groups questioning the rationale behind it. Changes to the campaign finance system are usually made legislatively through the City Council and are largely based on recommendations from the independent and nonpartisan New York City Campaign Finance Board, which issues a detailed report after each four-year election cycle.

Perales said the commission was justified in taking on that role. “You’re saying the City Council could do this. The reality is, they haven’t,” he said. “The reality is that there may be political reasons why it’s much more difficult for somebody who’s concerned about reelection to become engaged in campaign financing. I’m not running for reelection. I listen to people and come to the conclusion as to what is fair, what would work better, how do we get money out of our elections.”

Perales also cited the commission’s focus on redistricting, a process in which experts insist that incumbent elected officials and those seeking office should be excluded. “There’s another example where we can look objectively as to whether or not the way districts are being drawn today is the best way to do them,” Perales said. “We don’t have to worry about running on those lines. We can listen to, for example, the Asian community saying ‘We are disadvantaged by the way lines have been drawn in the past and there must be a better way.’”

At the same time, the commission’s creation has led some City Council members to hold off on legislation lest it become a part of the agenda. For instance, Council Member Brad Lander’s proposal to create an Office of Civic Engagement -- for which he introduced a bill in the Council -- has been front and center in the commission’s discussions and Lander has said that he will avoid pushing it forward if it is taken up by the commission. Lander testified at length at the commission’s expert hearing on civic engagement.

Other bills at the Council on campaign finance have similarly been static as the commission could potentially propose the same or additional reforms. On campaign finance particularly, government reform groups have privately expressed concern that the commission could propose a drastic overhaul of the existing campaign finance program, which is considered a national model. “Clearly we’re looking to use this opportunity to improve the way things work that need to be improved,” Perales said. “Whether it’s a major overhaul or a minor overhaul, we will ultimately find out and it’ll be in the eyes of the beholder as to whether or not it is major overhaul.”

On electoral access and participation, there’s less latitude for the commission to make major improvements since those fall under state law, a factor the commission has kept well in mind. “Of course, we certainly don’t want to do something that is going to run up against the state Board of Elections or violate the state constitution,” Perales said. “We’re doing a lot of talking to the lawyers as to what we can do and how far we can push the envelope...Anyone who’s been at these hearings will know that lots of things that people want us to do are things that we don’t have the power to do. And we’re trying to figure out what it is we can do.”

The commission is expected to again foray into the five boroughs to solicit opinions on the more narrower list of issues. Internally, Perales said, there is no final consensus on any one issue, nor is there major disagreement and no ideas have been rejected outright. The commission staff is currently preparing a preliminary report with the pros and cons of a number of proposals, he said, which will then be aired to the public.

Perales himself is “piqued” by Lander’s OCE proposal while participatory budgeting received “universal praise” from members, he said, referring to the City Council’s current program carried out in select districts and suggestions that it be expanded citywide. He was also impressed with Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony before the commission on community boards, wherein Stringer recommended that each community board hire a professional urban planner and train members in issues related to land use.

There has been debate, of course. One idea that has overwhelming support among good government groups and also prominent elected officials is instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, which helps avoid costly and laborious run-off elections with low turnout. Most believe it is a no-brainer. Perales disagrees.

“I don’t know that it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think there are some people who still like the idea that everybody would get to vote for the two finalists,” he said, speculating that in an instant runoff, voters choices might be invalidated completely if they fail to pick either of the top two vote getters. “So there are arguments. On the commission, there is not a total agreement on an issue as complicated as this,” Perales said. “Just as there is no total agreement immediately on what the campaign limits ought to be in terms of contributions. This is a lot more complicated than people like to think.”

It is widely expected that the commission will recommend lowering the maximum contribution amount allowed by an individual to a candidate. There are also expectations that the commission will propose an increase in public matching funds that candidates can earn.

An ironic aspect of the entire exercise is that even as the commission delves deep into suggestions around improving civic participation to get New Yorkers informed and engaged across the city, the commission hearings have received little attention in the media. “I’ve been around long enough to not be surprised by this,” Perales said, expressing some disappointment. “Most people don’t understand what the city charter is, how it gets changed and what it does...Obviously I would have preferred greater attention to it but I’m not surprised. It’s certainly not going to affect the way I approach it, and I don’t think it’s going to affect the way any of the commission members approach this.”

[Read Gotham Gazette’s full coverage of the mayor’s charter revision commission here]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform Fri, 29 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting lander and hidalgo at crc

Council Member Lander and Noel Hidalgo testify

The charter revision commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio held its fourth and final issue-focused forum on Thursday afternoon at NYU, hearing testimony from experts on the city’s civic engagement efforts and hearing proposals for independent redistricting of City Council districts.

The central question before the commission on civic engagement was whether the city should create a new independent, nonpartisan Office of Civic Engagement. The proposal is the brainchild of New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, who was among those who testified Thursday. If the commission decides to take up that and other proposals heard at previous hearings, they would be presented to voters as ballot referenda in November. The three previous issue-focused expert hearings were on voting and elections; campaign finance reform; and community boards and land use.

Panellists who spoke before the commission on Thursday sought to define civic engagement, its limits and challenges, and the mechanisms by which it is currently carried out by city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community-based advocates, and comprehensive approaches to combining all those disparate elements.

Naomi Zauderer, chair of the NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, informed the commission about VAAC’s continuing voter engagement and registration efforts, acknowledging a fact that the commissioners were familiar with: the city’s abysmally low voter turnout in recent elections. “[T]he real challenge in New York City is getting people to turn out to the polls,” she said, noting that a lack of information about elections and candidates serves to discourage voters.

Paula Gavin, chief service officer of NYC Service, the city agency charged with encouraging volunteering efforts, said a big challenge is New York City’s low volunteering rate -- only 14 percent, compared with the national average of 25 percent. She said increasing the city’s volunteering and civic participation rate through a “continuum” of agencies and elected officials working together with community-based organizations would also lead to an uptick in turnout. “It is shown that those who volunteer more, vote more. Those who vote more, volunteer more. So the tide will rise,” she said.

But Zauderer and Amy Loprest, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, where VAAC operates, said voter engagement should continue to be housed under the CFB, which already has a well-established voter information and outreach operation that continues to be improved. They agreed that an Office of Civic Engagement is a laudable idea, but one that should coordinate with the VAAC’s existing efforts rather than subsume its role.

“I think we would support the idea that...any organization that’s called an Office of Civic Engagement be a nonpartisan and independent agency, because I think that insulates it from any kind of political pressures or the desire to follow any particular person’s priorities,” Loprest said.

She added, “There’s many, many aspects of civic engagement...and if we worked on the voter engagement and outreach work that we’re doing, we would work very closely with that office of service to collaborate.”Similarly, Gavin said it would be “unrealistic” to place all those agencies and initiatives at a lone, new agency but supported the idea of a coordinated umbrella of efforts. “I do feel strongly that a framework that brings together the various aspects of civic engagement would be very important,” she said. Citing her agency’s work across the city with other departments, in schools and communities, she said “I don’t know that it has to be everything working within the one framework. I think it’s more of a coordinating effort that would be valuable.”

Beyond the framework, panellists also pointed out blind spots in current civic engagement efforts that they said should be avoided under a newly empanelled agency. Underserved populations -- such as the disabled, low- and moderate-income communities of color, immigrants -- tend to be ignored by civic institutions, they said. Others stressed the need to inculcate a sense of civic duty in New Yorkers, particularly by starting at an early age in the city’s schools.

DeNora Getachew, New York executive director of Generation Citizen, a civics education provider, urged an emphasis on “action civics,” ensuring that young people can actually use the civic knowledge they’re given to enact change in their communities. “We know that too much emphasis is placed on voting as a way to be civically engaged and, rather, there is a spectrum of civic engagement opportunities that we need to be presenting to young people and also to adults,” she said. Getachew urged the commission to consider the OCE proposal, among other things, including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and providing more government jobs to young people in city employment programs.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney and member of OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, insisting that immigrant communities are eager to contribute to the city’s civic life but must see their efforts reciprocated by city government. “If you’re to encourage volunteerism in the immigrant community, it has to be a comprehensive strategy that also includes their involvement in democratic policy decision-making.” The city’s outreach, she said, should occur through existing networks of religious institutions and neighborhood groups that immigrants trust.

Ifeoma Ike, founding partner of Think Rubix, a civic-action oriented think tank, echoed a similar point of caution, stressing the need for equitable, culturally relevant and ongoing outreach to communities of color, and not a “transactional” approach centered around an election that arrives every four years. “We must not dismiss these communities as apathetic,” she said.

Another significant issue that has long been ignored, said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, is the city’s lack of disability access, which affects everything from voting and civic participation to employment and housing affordability.

“We find retrofitting efforts with accessibility concerns after the fact is a poor way of accomplishing inclusion,” she said of the city’s civic engagement efforts, emphasizing the need for disability literacy training and early phase consultation with disability advocates.

“[P]eople with disabilities feel that they’re being made invisible, We want to go out and vote in a public space like our neighbors because we want to be seen,” she later said, noting that the disabled community faces particular obstacles in accessing polling sites. “It’s terrible to tell people they have a duty to do something that you then prevent them from doing,” she said.

Noel HIdalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology organization, said the OCE could be a “digital steward” for new government services initiatives that he said should be designed in consultation with the people they are serving. He pushed for digital literacy programs, improving the city’s technology infrastructure starting at the community board level, something BetaNYC has been doing with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and for an enhanced participatory budgeting system that employs technology that is broadly accessible.

Council Member Lander similarly pushed for a citywide participatory budgeting program that could be run by the OCE. “We’re really facing a crisis in our democracy in New York City,” he said of the city’s low turnout. “But it’s...part of this broader issue of decline in civic trust in all our institutions, in government especially but across the board. People just don’t think of reaching out to government as a way of getting issues resolved, even where those issues are government issues.”

Though most commissioners asked about how the OCE would work, only one commissioner, John Siegal, questioned why it was necessary. “I’m worried that if we do this...that it will atrophy,” he said, speculating that it would be left to the whims of each subsequent mayor. Siegal also struck a skeptical tone as he noted that none of the panellists had spoken to the role of the private sector in improving civic engagement.

Though civic engagement dominated most of the forum, the other focus issue, and one with a looming challenge, concluded its agenda: independent redistricting. The City Council’s 51 districts are redrawn every ten years after the federal census, which is due to take place in 2020. Currently, law stipulates that the mayor appoints seven members to a city districting commission and the City Council appoints eight members. The charter commission may propose changes to the system.

John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College and a New York City Board of Elections commissioner, made a slew of suggestions at Thursday’s forum. He said the city could create as many as 70 Council districts of smaller sizes and stressed the need for proportional representation for the five boroughs based on populations.

Flateau and other panellists cited California redistricting model as one the city could follow, which prohibits incumbent elected officials from sitting on a redistricting commission and invites applications that are independently screened.

“Think of redistricting...that could be one of those triggers, one of those mass civic engagement exercises, figuring out how to set up this process going forward so that individuals, communities, neighborhoods feel ownership for wanting to participate in this process and learn more about their government,” he said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, testified on a video call to the commission. Among other ideas, she said there could be a robust list of conflicts of interest to limit who could serve on a redistricting commission, that districting commission members should be diverse and could be picked based on a set of qualifications, with the goal of ensuring the maximum public confidence in how maps are drawn. An application process like California’s, she said, would ensure that a commission attracts participants who are willing to commit their time to a laborious process. And she emphasized several transparency measures a commission should follow.

Flateau and the others did warn that any efforts at independent and equitable redistricting would be predicated on an accurate count in the 2020 census, which is threatened by the Trump Administration’s decision to include a citizenship question that could depress the count in immigrant communities. He also said that previous commissions fell under the preclearance mechanism of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- where the federal government would first approve any changes to local voting districts -- which was struck down by the Supreme Court in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In its absence, Flateau said the city could possibly set up its own preclearance system for municipal districts under the corporation counsel’s office.

James Hong, the former co-director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, agreed that applicants should be screened and ideally, the commission would be made of “academics, demographers, people who are really into data and connected with their community, and community members,” and would prohibit past elected officials from serving.

“Redistricting from start to finish needs to be protected from partisan operatives,” he said.

Over the next month, the charter commission will hold another round of public hearings across the city. The commission’s proposals are due by September 7.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting Thu, 21 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use corey jo comm board 2

A community board meeting (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The mayor’s Charter Revision Commission met on Tuesday at the Pratt Institute for the third of its four expert advisory issue forums, this time discussing potential changes to community boards and the city’s land use process. The first meeting, held last Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform, while the second, held last Thursday, focused on campaign finance reform.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Stakeholders and experts such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, community board members, academics, and advocates provided commentary and recommendations for the commission regarding the issues of community boards and land use; on some issues, the panelists and the commissioners all seemed to be in broad consensus, while on others there was evident discord.

One area of relative cohesion was a recommendation that all community boards have a full time expert on urban planning as a paid staff member, though it is unclear that this would rise to the level of being charter-mandated (there has been City Council legislation introduced to make such a requirement for each community board, which, if passed, would become a part of the city’s administrative code, not the charter). Most community boards are said to be understaffed and rely on volunteers to do important work; board members are all volunteers, which can both tilt the demography of the boards in certain directions, like wealthier than the represented area, and lends itself to a general lack of intimate knowledge of planning.

Stringer, who noted that he became the youngest ever appointee to a community board in 1977 at the age of 16, made his position clear, saying “what is truly needed” is “a full time urban planner on the staff of every community board.”

“The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in the development of recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community based planning activities,” he continued. “Expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning.” Stringer said the urban planner should have a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy, “or similar disciplines,” and that the city must “include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.”

“A community planner would be a game-changer in communities that are experiencing extraordinary land use applications, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise and they’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stringer said.

Kyle Bragg, a charter revision commissioner and secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, questioned whether all community boards would need a land use professional, saying that land use applications (ULURPs) are not constantly being considered in a community board like Far Rockaway as much as in Midtown Manhattan. Stringer disagreed, saying that development is occurring all over the city and that “gentrification knows no bounds.”

Stringer also recommended that the city provide training on issues of land use to members of community boards on a periodic basis, something that Stringer said he prioritized as Manhattan Borough President (borough presidents appoint most community board members in their respective boroughs).

Stringer did not, however, endorse community board member term limits, breaking with some of his fellow testifiers. “When you have term limits, you also have a lame duck status that sets in,” he said. “We’re gonna see that with people now in their fifth year wondering what office they’re gonna run for next, and I dare say you’re gonna see a lot of musical chairs and people thinking about the future, not necessarily the job in front of them. And that’s just the reality of elected term limits,” he said, in apparent reference to the dozens of City Council members, five borough presidents, and three citywide officials who are all term-limited at the end of the current term. Instead, he endorsed a process undertaken during his borough presidency of periodic reviews of board members, reappointing those doing a good job and sacking those who weren’t.

Community board members who testified did not offer unequivocal support to term limits.

“I think it takes a couple of years to try to figure out how to write a resolution, how to understand city government,” said Shah Ally, chair of Manhattan Community Board 12. “But I also don’t think you need to be on the board 30 years, either.”

Rachel Bloom of government reform group Citizens Union, meanwhile, took an unambiguous stance in favor of term limits.

“Community board members should be term-limited, serving [up to] five consecutive two-year terms,” she said, while noting that the term limits should be phased in gradually to “ensure there is not a mass exodus of institutional knowledge from the boards.”

Stringer claimed that community boards have deviated significantly from their ancestral origin in 1951, at the impetus of Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, as Community Planning Boards. The comptroller said that, with numerous elected officials maintaining district offices, the use of community boards for constituent services draws resources away from the more integral tenet of land use.

During the portion of the commission hearing focused on land use, two general themes played out among the speakers: that the land use process does not adequately facilitate community input and that the process is more geared toward short-term zoning concerns and less toward long-term community planning.

“The symptom of the conflict, the neighborhood-city conflict, throughout much of the ULURP process that can both stop good things from happening and also not give communities power over unneeded or unwanted uses, is a sense that there is no ability to proactively community plan,” said Moses Gates, the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That unless you’re able to put forth a positive vision that has some oomph behind it, and some ability to be recognized, that the only option you’re left with is an option of obstruction, or an option of essentially trying to go through the process and make the best of what might be perceived as a bad deal.”

Gates recommended the creation of an “Office of Community-Based Planning” to assist communities, and community boards, in land use and planning. Gates also recommended a charter codification of a “fair share” program, wherein communities shoulder burdens of ill-desired land uses, like a sewage treatment plant for instance, equally, instead of being shouldered disproportionately by communities without the political and social capital to fight those land uses.

“Planning is more than land use,” said Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It properly considers the systems and the structures into which land use fits. It’s about the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing, and land use is not planning. And so I think we are asking the wrong questions of our land use procedures, right? Both government, stakeholders, developers, and communities feel as though too much is being lumped onto the process unfairly.”

Others, such as Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, said that the important decisions are often made unaccountably in the “pre-ULURP” process, meaning a period before the city’s official Uniform Land Use Review Process that takes land use decisions from developers or the City Planning Department to community boards to the Borough President and Borough Board to the City Planning Commission and, finally, to the City Council.

“All those discussions that go on, side discussions, agreements that get made behind closed doors, are part of the undemocratic process that precedes ULURP,” said Angotti. “And it’s followed by a series of public hearings, at the community level, at the borough president level, at the City Planning Commission level, at the City Council level, which are more theater than true democracy. Why? Because we’re stuck in a method for participation that is bankrupt.” Angotti noted that concerned citizens are often forced to wait hours in order to testify for three minutes to a few sleepy-eyed bureaucrats.

Angotti also recommended that ULURP decisions be made based on preordained “197-a” plans submitted by community boards, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Since the 1989 charter revision that established 197-a plans considerable by the City Planning Commission, only 17 community plans have been submitted to the city.

“The biggest single reform could be a charter requirement that every ULURP action be consistent with a 197-a plan,” forcing both community boards to submit such plans and the City Planning Commission to take them seriously and not simply shelve them.

Commision Chair Perales, however, criticized the land use panel of testifiers as failing to clearly present their recommendations in a digestible manner.

“We are supposed to put something clear and concrete before the voters,” Perales said. “We’re not decision-makers here. We’re here to determine what it is the issues that you think should be addressed in a revision of the city charter. And if you have the opportunity, or are so inclined, maybe go back and send us something that will help us to digest, better understand, what your positions are on what we can do about land use with what are gonna be relatively minor changes in the city charter.”

“Remember,” he continued, “you don’t want to go into the voting booth and have to review a three page referendum that this planning commission put before you, so we have a tough job, and while we have been persuaded by many of your comments, I’m not so sure we understand how to put it before the voters.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000