Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/977 Wed, 20 Jun 2018 03:27:41 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7744:mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7744:mayor-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-campaign-finance-reform charter comm rev2

The Charter Revision Commission


The Charter Revision Commission empaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio met on Thursday at NYU for the second of four expert advisory issue forums, discussing what could be the marquee issue for this year’s commission: changing the city’s campaign finance system. The first meeting, held Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform.

Like the first hearing, Thursday’s saw the commission hear from invited experts on the topic at hand, and was broken into two sections. For campaign finance, the first panel discussed context and perspective of the city’s system from politicians and experts, and the second provided recommendations.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by 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.

Representatives from the city’s nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board provided five recommendations to the commission for improving the city’s public campaign finance system and its centerpiece, the public matching funds program. The board recommends:

  1. Lowering individual contribution limits from $5,100 to $2,250 for citywide offices, from $3,950 to $1,750 for boroughwide offices, and from $2,850 to $1,250 for City Council seats.

  2. Increase the matching funds rate from 6-to-1 (for every dollar under $175 raised via an individual contribution, the city disburses $6) to 8-to-1. This would be coupled with an increase of the maximum matchable amount, from $175 to $250.

  3. Increase the cap on public funds as a percentage of a campaign’s total spending limit from 55 percent to 65 percent.

  4. Lower the threshold to qualify for matching funds for citywide races, from $250,000 from 1,000 eligible contributors for mayor and $125,000 from 500 contributors for public advocate and comptroller, to $125,000 and $75,000 respectively with the same number of contributors.

  5. Lower the minimum individual contribution counted toward the public match threshold, from $10 to $5.

Others, including advocates, elected officials, and academics, also provided recommendations to the commission, with some differing from the CFB and others in line with it.

The city’s public election financing system, whereby donations to candidates of up to $175 are matched by public dollars at a rate of 6 to 1, has been cited as a model nationwide for placing more power in elections in the hands of the average voter. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca testified to the committee that he never would have been able to mount an insurgent campaign without the system, and that it also allowed him to spend more time with voters rather than donors from out of the district.

“What the system allowed me to do was to have a conversation with donors at $5, $10, and my branded experience of $38 for the 38th District, about the campaign finance,” Menchaca said. “That was my beginning part of my conversation with everyone, that their dollars would multiply by six. That allowed folks to feel empowered in a challenger, and for people that were not entrenched in the system, which is where I had to go build my political support, became possible.” Menchaca said his average contribution amount for his 2013 campaign, in which he pulled off the rare feat of unseating an incumbent, was “around $100.”

The public matching program came into being in 1989, after a wave of corruption scandals in city, state, and federal government led to the passage of Local Law 8, which established a 1:1 match. The match was increased to 4:1 through the 1998 Charter Revision Commission, and was increased again to the current 6:1 in 2007.

The system has significantly lowered candidate reliance on political action committee (PAC) money and other “big money” donations found at other levels of elected government, including state-level elections in New York. The CFB presented data comparing an unnamed City Council member’s finances with that of a member of Congress and of the state Senate. The member of Congress raised 77 percent of their money from PACs and 0.6 percent from small contributions of $200 or less. The state senator raised 89 percent from PACs and 7 percent from small contributions. The City Council member, on the other hand, raised 25 percent from PACs, and 62 percent from small contributions when matching fund allocations were taken into account.

However, for citywide offices, the contribution percentages can be a red herring. In 2017, while 73 percent of contributions to mayoral candidates participating in the public match program came from donors who contributed under $175, 45 percent of the actual dollar value of the total contributions came from 650 individuals who donated the maximum for the 2017 election, which was $4,950 (it has since risen automatically, per law, to $5,100). For the City Council, the distribution is more equal, and in fact, Council candidates as a whole received more money in 2017 from small donors than from contributors of the maximum amount allowed by the program.

Non-participants in the program can take the form of a rich self-funder like Michael Bloomberg, but can also take the form of an incumbent without serious competition not wanting to use taxpayer funds for a formality election or interested in looser restrictions on their spending. Non-participation in competitive races is fairly rare, though. According to the CFB’s Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs, Eric Friedman, 28 out of 64 non-participants in the public finance system in 2017 reported raising $0.

Others who testified were largely in line with the CFB on raising the match rate and reducing the maximum allowable contribution by about half. Advocates broke with the CFB on the issue of the match cap: while the CFB recommended that the cap be lifted to 65 percent, Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany and Michael Malbin of SUNY Albany’s Campaign Finance Institute recommended that the cap be eliminated entirely, which would have the city provide more public funds relative to the spending limit.

“I don’t see what purpose that serves,” Malbin said of the matching cap. Camarda and Malbin both endorsed raising the rate of matching funds rate above 6-to-1, but did not recommend a specific rate.

For the 2021 election, the spending limit for a City Council candidate is set at $190,000, and the maximum public funds disbursement is $104,500, or 55 percent of the spending limit. Eliminating the cap would mean that a candidate could spend up to 85 percent of the spending limit using public funds. City Council Member Ben Kallos recently re-introduced a bill that would eliminate the matching funds cap.

CFB representatives were asked by Commissioner Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center, why the board is endorsing a 65 percent cap instead of elimination. CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said that raising it to 85 percent would be impractical.

“We make public funds payments to candidates who are on the ballot and who are opposed on the ballot, therefore we can only make those payments once the ballot has been set,” said Loprest. She noted that according to state election law, ballots could only be set after the end of petitioning. “The ballot is set roughly at the end of July, beginning of August. Which means that we make our first public funds payments at the beginning of August, which leaves about five weeks before the primary.” She noted that this would cause campaigns to be constrained to spending most of their money in the five weeks before the primary.

Camarda agreed in part.

“I think that in citywide races, 65 percent is plenty because citywide candidates don’t often hit the cap,” he said. “Our concern would be for City Council, because as I mentioned, 30 percent of the candidates in 2013 actually hit the cap.” The CFB stated that it wouldn’t oppose eliminating the cap, but that it was not its first preference.

The commissioners, including Chair Perales, a former Secretary of State under Governor Andrew Cuomo, appeared receptive to the changes proposed by the CFB and the other testifiers, for the most part. Most lines of questioning were of an inquisitive rather than adversarial tone. The commissioner who was most skeptical and critical of the proposed changes was John Siegal, an attorney and a de Blasio appointee to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“The reason, clearly, that mayoral candidates rely more on big contributions is because it takes a lot of money to run an effective mayoral campaign,” said Siegal, who donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “And while it sounds good and feels good to say ‘let’s lower the contribution limit,’ that is going to have consequences. Candidates are going to have to work way harder to raise money. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time raising money.” He noted that there is an “efficiency to getting on the phone and getting 500 people to give $4,500 or $5,100 that is going to be lost here.”

The CFB’s Chair, Frederick Schaffer, said that he would agree with Siegal if the only recommendation made by the Board was to lower the contribution limit.

“That’s why we want to increase the match for citywide officials from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, and increase the actual amount from $175 to $250,” Schaffer said. “We crunched those numbers precisely with this problem in mind, and we think that the overall effect of those three things together meets the concern that you have just expressed.”

Siegal was also critical of a proposed “geographical requirement” for citywide candidates, which would force them to fundraise around the city. Malbin’s presentation to the commission noted that most money raised for citywide contests comes from only five City Council districts, representing Manhattan around Central Park and Brownstone Brooklyn. For citywide candidates, Malbin recommended that they must show a minimum number of contributors in 20 of 51 Council districts to qualify for public matching funds. The CFB suggested that citywide candidates raise 50 contributions from each borough.

Siegal called this a “fundamentally different requirement than we’ve ever had in the system,” saying that previous campaign finance law was limiting the money candidates can raise rather than explicitly saying who it must be raised from, which he said would set a bad precedent, “engineering campaign fundraising.”

“Have you actually looked at how many Republicans raise 50 matching contributions in [the] Bronx? Or how many Democrats actually raise 50 contributions in Staten Island? And do we really want to tell candidates that they have to go out and introduce themselves to communities where they have no background and no ties, and the first thing they have to do is go ask for money. That doesn’t seem to me that it’s getting money out of politics, it seems to me like it’s pushing the fundraising race into places for other reasons,” he added.

Schaffer dismissed the notion that 50 contributions per borough was unattainable for a seeker of citywide office.

“We’re trying to identify people who are reasonably likely to be real candidates, and so we thought the number 50 was really quite minimal, even for a Democrat in Staten Island or a Republican in the Bronx,” Schaffer said. There are currently three citywide elected offices: Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller.

Other commissioners also had questions and concerns. Dale Ho, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, questioned whether it was appropriate to put such specific numbers, limits, and thresholds into the city charter, which he characterized as difficult to change and rarely brought up for debate, versus the easier-to-change city code.

“As you can see from all this machinery here, [the charter] is quite difficult to amend,” Ho said. “If it turns out that the number should change over time, maybe the limits need to be reduced even more, maybe the match numbers need to go up even higher, maybe we miscalibrate something and we need to adjust something. If these changes are in the city charter, that kind of ties the hands of the city in a way that if they’re in the code, maybe they’re a little easier to adjust.”

Schaffer, a former top appointee in the office of the city’s Corporation Counsel, its top lawyer, said he believed that the City Council can amend the charter “just like ordinary legislation,” which Perales agreed with.

Other issues beyond those encompassed by the CFB’s recommendations also arose.

Government reform group Citizens Union remained neutral on increasing public funds disbursement to candidates, but gave suggestions for transparency measures if the commission decided to increase the disbursement. Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s director of public policy, called on the commission to prohibit public funds disbursed to candidates to be used to pay consultants that also lobby the city, subject candidate coordination with union members to campaign finance regulations, tighten Local Law 181, which regulates the nonprofits of elected officials, restrict the transfer of campaign funds running for one office to another office, and to transfer lobbying reporting and enforcement to the CFB.

When asked by Siegal if the CFB was interested in regulating lobbying, Loprest was ambivalent on whether the organization’s independence lent itself to being a watchdog on lobbying.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for eliminating money from politics entirely and moving to a 100 percent publicly funded system. Adams said that candidacies receiving public funding could be gauged by petition signatures, or by reaching a threshold through $1 donations that would end up in the public finance system. He also suggested that the members of the commission, none of whom have held elected office, were not fully equipped to know what raising money as a politician is like, and that they should hold a “mock election” to gain fuller experience.

“I think a good mock exercise is for everyone at CFB, everyone who’s making these decisions, to run a mock election,” Adams said. “Those who have never felt what what you go through to run an election can never really understand. I think to run a mock election, give them the task of calling people and giving them $500, if ever you want people to lose your number, try to raise that $500.”

Adams has already made his own appointee to the charter revision commission empaneled through City Council legislation, which will begin its business soon and put forth recommendations next year. Adams has chosen former City Council Member Sal Albanese, who has been a proponent for campaign finance reform, organizing much of his 2017 mayoral run around the “democracy vouchers” program that has been implemented in Seattle.

“Money is the enemy,” Adams said. “It is always going to be the enemy. We are always going to have a problem with corruption until we get money out of campaigns.”

The mayoral charter revision commission will meet twice more next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to hear expert testimony on community boards and land use, then civic engagement and independent redistricting.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform Fri, 15 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7735:campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7735:campaign-finance-board-to-propose-reforms-at-charter-commission-hearing mayor cityhall march

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


New York City’s modern campaign finance system is undoubtedly a model program -- it’s being emulated in other municipalities -- that has diversified and democratized the city’s quadrennial local elections since it was created 30 years ago. Among its strengths is that the public-matching program is consistently tweaked and updated with the times, and the Campaign Finance Board is taking the opportunity afforded by a mayoral charter revision commission to propose further reforms to the system.

CFB officials are set to present five proposals to the charter revision commission, empaneled in April by Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Thursday afternoon, at an issue forum at NYU focused on campaign finance reform, which was one of the mayor’s stated goals in creating the commission. The commission has been holding public hearings for the last few months and is now digging deeper into a few core subject areas including election administration, voter access and participation, land use, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting.

The CFB’s proposals are meant to enhance its voluntary public matching funds system, which encourages candidates to seek small-dollar donations that are matched at a 6-to-1 ratio for contributions up to $175, or the first $175 of larger donations. The program aids those seeking public office without the help of wealthy donors or support from political party machinery, and gives everyday New Yorkers a greater voice by boosting the impact of their contributions.

Perhaps the CFB’s most significant proposal involves significantly lowering contribution limits for all offices. Currently, individual donors can give candidates for citywide office up to $5,100; candidates for borough president can receive up to $3,950, and City Council candidates can get $2,850 at maximum. The CFB proposes reducing those limits by more than half to $2,250, $1,750, and $1,250 respectively.   

There’s a clear rationale for these changes. In the 2017 election, the CFB noted, contributions to mayoral candidates larger than $2,250 accounted for only 5 percent of all contributions but 59 percent of the total funds raised by those candidates. Similarly, donations of $1,250 and more made up only 2 percent of contributions to City Council candidates but 32 percent of the money raised.

A few of the proposals are directly targeted at citywide positions -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate -- where large donors tend to play a greater role. The CFB suggests increasing the matching fund ratio for citywides from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and increasing the matchable donations from $175 to $250. In essence, candidates would be further incentivized to seek small-dollar donations, which would carry a bigger reward. For instance, a donation of $175 to a participating candidate would currently get them another $1,050 in public funds. The changed formula would mean that a $250 donation would net candidates an additional $2,000 in public funds.

Reforms along the lines of the CFB’s proposals have been advanced in the City Council but members have waited to act as the charter commission carries out its work. The CFB, an independently-operating body whose members are chosen by the mayor and the City Council speaker, releases a mandated post-election report every four years with a series of recommendations that typically leads to City Council legislation and at least some tweaks to the system that are passed into law. Such a report is expected by September, and is likely to include proposals similar to those being presented to the mayor’s charter revision commission. When de Blasio announced his charter revision commission and said he intended it to focus in part on campaign finance reform, some questioned why he wouldn’t allow the usual process to unfold.

The mayoral charter revision commission’s proposals will be announced in early September and placed on the ballot in the November general election, with city voters approving or rejecting them.

A second charter revision commission is being formed after legislation passed the City Council earlier this year. Its work will culminate with ballot proposals in 2019.

One bill currently at the City Council, proposed by Council Member Ben Kallos, would increase the cap on public campaign matching funds from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular seat to 85 percent. The CFB is now proposing a more moderate increase to 65 percent of the spending limit, reasoning that it nonetheless boosts small donations while giving candidates the flexibility to raise and spend funds from private sources since public funds payments are usually doled out in the closing stretches of each election cycle.

Two other new CFB proposals would alter the thresholds for candidates to qualify for public funds. As it stands now, citywide candidates have to raise a minimum amount from a minimum number of donations. As an example, mayoral candidates have to raise at least $250,000 from at least 1,000 donors who gave a minimum of $10, while comptroller and public advocate candidates have to raise $125,000 from 500 donors giving at least $10. The CFB is proposing reducing these thresholds to $125,000 for mayor and $75,000 for the other citywide seats, while also pitching a new “geographic requirement” that each candidate receive at least 50 contributions from each of the five boroughs. They are also proposing lowering the minimum qualifying contribution to $5 for all elected positions.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing Wed, 13 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting and Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7733:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-voting-and-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7733:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-hears-expert-testimony-on-voting-and-elections de blasio voting charter

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


The New York City Charter Revision Commission called by Mayor Bill de Blasio convened on Tuesday afternoon to collect expert testimony on ways to foster increased participation in municipal elections.

Eleven of the commission’s 15 members sat at the hearing, which was divided into two parts, one focused generally on voting rights and election administration in the city, and a second centered on the ranked-choice voting system, otherwise known as instant runoff primaries, that may be proposed to voters later this year, among other measures deemed appropriate by the commission.

The charter revision commission was established by de Blasio in April and is charged with collecting public input on recommendations to amend or revise the Charter of the City of New York, a slate of proposals that will be made official in September and placed on the ballot in November. Though any charter revision commission is able to look at any aspect of city governance it chooses, de Blasio said he was forming this commission to look at voting, elections, and campaign finance reform.

After an open hearing in each borough where members of the public were invited to testify, the commission announced its focus areas, which led it to four additional public meetings to hear from invited experts.

Panelists for the first portion of Tuesday’s hearing — Catherine Gray, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the City of New York; Perry Grossman, of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project; Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York; Jerry Vattamala, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Andrew Wilkes, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Generation Citizen — spoke at length about specific challenges facing New York City voters and what they identified as problems with the city’s electoral system.

Grossman opened testimony recounting the “archaic voting practices” restricting voting in the city. New York State (and thus the city), he said, does not allow early voting, automatic registration, same-day registration, or online voting registration, and has restrictive access to absentee ballots.

Adopting these measures, as several states and other municipalities have already done, would go far to increase voter turnout here, Grossman said, pointing out that New York State ranked 47th nationally in voter registration and 44th nationally in turnout for the 2016 Presidential Election.

His suggestions to the commission, including instating early voting and strengthening the ability of city agencies to electronically transmit voter registration records to the Board of Elections were echoed by several other panelists.

But they ran up against a question inherent to the commission’s role as a city body attempting structural change with statewide and national implications: How far can it go?

Commission Chair Cesar Perales, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s former Secretary of State, told Grossman that it’s “not clear what the city can do on its own without violating state law,” specifically with regard to expanding access to absentee ballots, which is legislated by the state. All of the reforms Grossman called for have been the topic of debate in Albany, where they have failed to pass the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Commissioner Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, echoed Perales’ concerns, asking Grossman if New York City’s home rule gives it greater freedom in running its own elections to the extent that it could offer expanded voting rights for municipal elections while retaining restrictive measures for state and federal elections.

Grossman answered affirmatively, and several others who testified, advocating for measures ranging from lowering the voting age to 16 to enfranchising non-citizens to adopting voter pre-registration, proposed similar systems of tiered franchise, by which the city could give new classes of New Yorkers the ability to vote in local elections, but not anywhere else.

Several panelists also pointed out that the city’s lackluster language services restrict voting in what is, by some measures, the world’s most lingually-diverse place.

Vattamala, of the South Asian Legal Defense Fund, focused his testimony on this hindrance, recounting the Board of Elections’ repeated failures to provide City Council-mandated translation services. The BOE is a state entity that the city funds and thus has some oversight of.

In 1990, Vattamala explained in providing examples, after the City Council ordered the provision of Chinese-language voting services, the Board of Elections sent Mandarin translators to the mainly Cantonese-speaking Chinatown in Manhattan and Cantonese translators to the mainly Mandarin-speaking Chinatown in Queens.

In 2000, the Board of Elections mistranslated Chinese ballots in the primary election, writing “Democrat” where the English said “Republican” and vice-versa, and, in 2013, the Board simply failed to provide the Bengali-language ballots necessary in Queens.

Horror stories of the Board of Elections were widely-recounted at the hearing. Common Cause’s Lerner spoke of the BOE preventing translators from entering polling stations during the November 2016 election, and failing to implement several initiatives of the City Council and the previous charter revision commission.

Several commissioners seemed keenly aware of the difficulties of enacting whatever they may propose for a new charter.

Commissioner Rachel Godsil responded to Lerner’s specific suggestions to the commission — that the charter should amplify a constitutional right to vote, clarify conflicts of interest law, and consolidate and enhance already-existing city agencies, among other proposals — with a question about the feasibility of effecting change.

With the Board of Elections not following previous recommendations, she said, “can we do anything?”

Later, Commissioner Larian Angelo asked a panelist who’d spoken at length about incompetence among some poll workers how, in that case, she could see “any reforms happen, ever?”

Panelists offered several ideas for accountability mechanisms for the commission’s recommendations, but the question of enforcement remained.

Throughout the three-hour hearing, the commissioners’ faces betrayed little. A few times throughout, a commissioner seemed particularly interested in a suggestion: Commissioner Dale Ho nodded when Andrew Wilkes suggested lowering the municipal voting age to 16; Wendy Weiser nodded at the proposal that the city’s charter offer an express right to vote in local elections.

While the problems and solutions brought up at the first half of the hearing ranged widely in scope and subject, the second half was tightly focused on ranked-choice voting, a reform that has widespread support and appears likely to be included in the commission’s recommendations.

Ranked-choice voting is a system used in 16 American cities and in limited capacity in several states, including Maine and Virginia. It allows voters to specify a first-choice candidate, second-choice candidate, third-choice, and so on, until the legal maximum. If no candidate wins a majority -- or whatever the set threshold -- in the first round of voting, the least-supported candidate (or, in some jurisdictions, all but the top two) is disqualified, and that candidate’s voters have their votes added to the totals of their second choices. Low-performing candidates are winnowed off until a single candidate has amassed enough votes to claim victory.

Four panelists — Rob Ritchie of Fair Vote; Jerry Vattamala; Susan Lerner; Grace Wachlarowicz of the Minneapolis City Clerk’s Office; and David Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute — seemed to support New York City adopting ranked-choice voting. (Though Wachlarowicz clarified, for the record, that, as a civil servant, she could not personally advocate for or against a political proposal.)

Panelists explained what they saw as the benefits: incentives for candidates to appeal to voters beyond their base; cost-saving; and retained participation relative to an expensive and poorly-attended runoff election, which is the current next-step if a candidate does not win in the first round of voting; and, based off the results in American jurisdictions that have implemented ranked-choice, seemingly increased election of candidates of color.

The commissioners seemed generally supportive, or, at least, interested in the system.

Commissioner John Siegal told Ritchie that he has “an open mind about this proposal,” and questions to those testifying mainly concerned the commissioners’ own understanding and feasibility concerns, like cost and machine malfunctions.

When the final expert, Hofstra University Professor Craig Burnett, spoke about the system’s flaws, which include “ballot exhaustion,” the prospect that all of an individual’s ranked choices will be eliminated in early rounds of vote-counting, and racial and ethnic minorities being less likely to complete a full ballot and therefore facing a higher risk of exhaustion, he faced a less-friendly commission.

Chair Perales interrupted Burnett during his five minutes of testimony, which he had not done to any other panelist, and asked Ritchie to “retort” immediately following Burnett’s speech.

The final round of questioning was more free-wheeling than previous rounds, which had been directed at a single panelist. In closing the hearing, the commission asked the assembled experts about the risks of strategic voting, dynamics of incumbent power, minority community representation, and effects on campaign finance.

Then, citing “commission exhaustion,” Perales asked for a motion to adjourn. The commission will hold a second of its four expert hearings on Thursday, with a focus on campaign finance.

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Focus Areas]

***
by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to clarify remarks made to the commission by Perry Grossman.

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting and Elections Tue, 12 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Preliminary Agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7705:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-announces-preliminary-agenda http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7705:mayoral-charter-revision-commission-announces-preliminary-agenda img 5961

The charter revision commission meets (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission announced its initial areas of focus on Thursday, hewing closely to the mayor’s mandate that the members look at campaign finance and electoral reforms as they review the city’s governing document.

The commission homed in on its preliminary agenda after public hearings across the city in the last two months where the commissioners heard from elected officials, various advocacy groups, and members of the public in each borough. They also sought insight from city officials and heads of agencies.

In a resolution passed at Thursday’s meeting, the commission decided to delve deeper into a few broad areas: voter participation and measures to improve elections, including instant runoff voting; reforms to the city’s campaign finance system; fair representation in city government, particularly through independent redistricting of City Council districts; and strengthening civic engagement, including through exploring the role of community boards.

Over the next month, the commission plans to convene three hearings with subject matter experts to testify and participate in panel discussions on the preliminary agenda, even as it continues to drill down on the hundreds of recommendations made in the last few weeks to find areas of broader public interest.

Commission Chair Cesar Perales acknowledged early on in the Thursday meeting, held at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan, that the commission has a tight deadline for its work since its proposals are to go to the voters on the ballot in November, meaning they must be in to the Board of Elections in early September. He speculated that the commission may have to hold a fourth issue-focused hearing.

“Maybe on further analysis, we might find that there’s another issue that we ought to be focusing on, because the comments keep coming,” he said.

Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, echoed that sentiment. He said the initial agenda had been derived from more than 400 recommendations made by more than 100 people at the various hearings, on social media, through phone calls, and even snail mail to the commission’s office. But he noted that the agenda was not just limited to the issues approved on Thursday. “While these themes have emerged as most central, we continue to systematically review and consider each and every comment received by the commission,” he said.

In particular, Gewolb said the commission is still analyzing testimony around land use issues, which he said has emerged as an area of interest both in public testimony and for particular commissioners. For instance, at some hearings, people have recommended that community boards should have a greater voice in the city’s land use review procedure and that their role in those decisions should be more than just advisory.

“As neighborhoods are fighting back against gentrification, is this part of the impetus for wanting to review land use?,” wondered Commissioner Una Clarke, a former City Council Member from Brooklyn.

Perales agreed that it was an important aspect of the conversation. “I take that as a recommendation that when we, and I think we should but we haven’t made that decision yet, when we make land use part of our expert analysis and discussion, that we include not just facilitating development or building but that we also look at the issue of gentrification,” he said.

Wendy Weiser, another commissioner, suggested that land use be discussed in the same vein as the role of community boards and fostering civic engagement, “because that will be one of the main issues that people will want to get involved in in their communities that might bring them to participate.”

Land use also seemed to be a priority for Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, who is also president and CEO of the New York Building Congress. He emphasized that the commission should do “something separate on it,” possibly at one of the expert panels in June.

Commissioners raised various other questions and issues. Scissura brought up nonpartisan elections, which Gewolb said needs more review. Commissioner Kyle Bragg, secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, said the commission could also look at representation in community boards and, separately, the structure and functions of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which examines complaints about police misconduct.

“I’m scared to death of having 42 expert hearings,” Perales said as he prepared to close the hearing. “I’m going to force staff to see if they can do this in a manageable way so that we can get expert counsel and advice on as many issues as possible. And If they have to eliminate some issues, it’ll have to be those that were not raised very often. We have to be guided by what the community said they were interested in.”

The first subject matter hearing is set for June 14. Following those hearings, the commission will release a report of its preliminary recommendations and will again put those to the public with another round of hearings in all the boroughs.

The commission’s final recommendations are due by September 7.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Preliminary Agenda Thu, 31 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Revising The People’s Charter with Open Minds http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7608:revising-the-people-s-charter-with-open-minds http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7608:revising-the-people-s-charter-with-open-minds City Hall Mayor's Office photo

City Hall (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Revision of the City Charter, our central governing document, should not be a one-person show, focused on a single issue. Over the last 25 years, charter revision commissions have been wielded as political tools by mayors to block the building of a West Side Stadium, keep a political rival from potentially ascending to the mayoralty, and stop a referendum that would have limited the size of public school classes. Revisions have largely been narrow and myopic and the end results have been pre-baked according to the mayor’s will.

The last truly transformative commission, convened in 1989, only came about in response to a Supreme Court decision and a series of scandals too big to ignore. But today, that all changes.

We believe this city can do better. A new charter revision commission, which was approved Wednesday by the City Council, can and should be truly democratic and capable of broad systemic reform without predetermined conclusions.

We support campaign finance reform, but also believe that the city’s land use, budget, and planning processes must be overhauled. We want to see the creation of a charter revision commission, but do not believe it should be an extension of one person’s will. That is why we proposed a commission on which no one official would have majority control and that would examine the charter as a whole, without preconditions or marching orders.

We have thought a lot about New York City’s foundational governing document and have numerous specific proposals we would like to see considered. But what we really want is a truly independent commission that will enter the process with open ears and open minds - something that the entire City Council agrees with. Everything should be on the table, nothing should be off limits, and the final product should not be preordained by anyone. We proposed this as elected officials whose very offices have been threatened with elimination in past revisions, so it should be clear we have the courage of our convictions.

Mayor de Blasio’s proposal to lower campaign contribution limits through a revision commission he is calling is a commendable attempt to limit the influence of money in politics. Our commission, which was proposed before the mayor’s, is not a rebuke of his specific policy goals. But our intention is to create a commission that will consider the entire charter and put forth a set of proposals on whatever needs fixing.

It has been nearly 30 years since the City Charter has truly been looked at top-to-bottom with an eye towards real reform. The people of this city deserve an independent commission that will not be directed to take a specific action, but charged with the responsibility to look at the whole picture and bring its recommendations to the people. It should consider whether the Council should have more say over the budget process, whether communities will have more input in land use before deals are all but finalized, whether our current system of checks-and-balances is sufficient to ensure meaningful oversight of mayoral agencies. Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what to consider and what conclusions to reach.

This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition. The mayor’s commission can move forward and pursue the ‘democracy agenda’ he envisions. Meanwhile his four appointees can join our commission for an open discussion of what else our charter needs to do to grow and change along with the city. The City Council has already expressed its support and, if the mayor will join us, we can all come together to do what’s best for the people of New York.

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Gale Brewer is Manhattan Borough President and Letitia James is Public Advocate. On Twitter @GaleABrewer and @TishJames.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Revising The People’s Charter with Open Minds Wed, 11 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Hope Knight to Join City Planning Commission at 'Exciting Time' http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6040:hope-knight-to-join-city-planning-commission-at-exciting-time http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6040:hope-knight-to-join-city-planning-commission-at-exciting-time hope knight city planning

Hope Knight (photo via @rorylancman)


"It's an exciting time to be joining the City Planning Commission," City Council Member Brad Lander said Tuesday to Hope Knight, a mayoral nominee to the commission at the nexus of controversial housing-related policy being pursued by the de Blasio administration.

"It's a tough time to be joining," Knight said during her appearance in front of Lander's committee, which is tasked with vetting potential appointees to several commissions. Knight, who is all but sure to be approved Wednesday by the Rules, Elections, and Privileges Committee, then the full City Council, will fill a vacant seat on the 13-member City Planning Commission, which plays a key role in city land use decisions.

The commission is about to hold a major public hearing on de Blasio's zoning plans, then make recommendations for changes before the plans go to the City Council for hearings and, likely, further tweaks before a vote. The plans, which are aimed at spurring more affordable housing development and improving neighborhoods, have received major pushback from local community boards, advocacy groups, and borough presidents. They have also received some support from labor unions, advocacy groups, and others.

Acknowledging the intense circumstances, Knight said of land use planning, "the issue is so important to this city, it's critical to the future. There is this affordability crisis that we've got here. Our local land-use tools are available to us to help address this. And so, I hope that I am able to bring [my] community planning and economic development background and perspective to this position and this process, and be able to consider these issues in a very thoughtful way."

Knight is currently the CEO and President of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a position she will retain while creating the necessary "firewall" so that she does not deal with issues before the city, she said Tuesday. Knight explained that she has received guidance from the city Conflicts of Interest Board and will follow it. Previously, Knight was Chief Operating Officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone for about 12 years after several positions in finance.

In her pre-hearing questionnaire, Knight wrote to the City Council that the City Planning Commission "must be sensitive to the needs of communities and establish many channels of communication."

Knight also wrote that "The strategy of zoning changes to allow residential buildings with additional density, provided that affordable housing is included, is one of the few land use tools that the City has access to in order to greater leverage the development of more affordable housing units."

While the City Planning Commission does much more than zoning amendments, that is the focus of the work right now.

With Knight there to observe, the City Planning Commission will hold a much-anticipated public hearing Wednesday on two proposals by Mayor Bill de Blasio that are essential pieces of his affordable housing plan. Both proposals are changes to the city's land use rules by way of zoning language and have been the source of a great deal of recent debate.

Many community boards and all five borough boards have voted against de Blasio's Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and Zoning for Quality and Affordability proposals. These votes are only advisory, though, and the future of the plans, known as MIH and ZQA, will come down to a City Council vote in early-to-mid 2016. Reasons for opposition and desired tweaks to the plans vary by borough and neighborhood, but some include thresholds for affordability, changes in parking requirements, and increased density or allowable building heights.

Between the advice of the community and borough boards and the City Council getting its shot at tweaking the plans, the City Planning Commission will issue its recommended changes. These recommendations will be based, in part, on Wednesday's hearing, which is expected to be long and contentious.

On Tuesday, Knight appeared to grasp what she is signing up for, discussing her long career in community planning and advocacy, as well as her outlook on land use decision-making. Lander and his fellow committee members were impressed by Knight's candidacy and appear ready to vote her through to the full Council for approval.

Knight will join six other mayoral appointees on the City Planning Commission, as well as one appointee from each borough president, and one appointee by the public advocate. The commission is under the leadership of Chair Carl Weisbrod, who is also the commissioner of the city's Department of City Planning and serves at the discretion of the mayor. Other commission members serve alternating five-year terms. Knight will fill the seat vacated by Bomee Jung, who took a position within the de Blasio administration earlier this year, and will serve the rest of Jung's term, until June 30, 2018. She can be reappointed after that.

According to the City Council, the City Charter says that members of the City Planning Commission "are to be chosen for their independence, integrity, and civic commitment."

On Tuesday, Council members including Lander, Dan Garodnick, and Margaret Chin, praised Knight for her dedication to community planning and neighborhood advocacy. Council members also wanted to make sure that Knight would hear community feedback around land use policy. Council Member Steven Matteo asked Knight how much weight she puts on community concerns. "I would put tremendous weight on what the community has to say," Knight responded of her approach if she is indeed approved, adding that she has been "at the table" representing communities in land use negotiatons in the past.

Repeatedly citing the city's "affordability crisis," Knight also explained that she understands fear of gentrification and that the city must be cognizant of an "aging population."

Knight was not questioned about her independence from de Blasio, who nominated her to the commission after his appointments office identified her as a strong candidate.

"[I]n order to create more affordable units," Knight said, "we have to look at various land-use tools to implement the possibility of creating units. So, I think that MIH, ZQA, they're all components of the mayor's...housing plan and will have to be more greatly considered to support the growth of new housing."

During a Tuesday appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio's planning chief, Weisbrod, said of Wednesday's City Planning Commission hearing and the zoning plans, "We expect to hear a lot of comments on all sides of this issue." The controversy around MIH and ZQA, he said, "Won't get fully resolved until the City Council decides this early next year."

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

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Hope Knight to Join City Planning Commission at 'Exciting Time' Tue, 15 Dec 2015 23:40:35 +0000
At Initial Hearing, Council Members Question Budget Transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5615:at-initial-hearing-council-members-question-budget-transparency http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5615:at-initial-hearing-council-members-question-budget-transparency ferreras

CM Ferreras questions administration officials (photo: @JulissaFerreras)


NEW YORK—Mayor Bill de Blasio calls his budget fiscally responsible, progressive, and honest. But is it transparent? According to members of the City Council, it needs some improvement in that regard.

On Wednesday, the Council held its first in a series of hearings on the mayor's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget. Gone were the muffins and soft lines of questioning from the initial council budget hearing last year, the first budget cycle for the new mayor and largely revamped council. Instead, Council Member Julissa Ferreras, chair of the Finance Committee, and her colleagues came armed with pointed questions, particularly related to transparency.

Ferreras cited the continued use of broad units of appropriations, lack of detail about key proposals, such as the City's housing plan, the council receiving delayed access to information, such as the Education Five Year Capital Plan, and the lack of clarity around how the administration will find savings without the use of mandated cuts across agencies.

"The lack of transparency in the budget and the administration's failure to timely provide budgetary information to the Council impedes the Council's ability to make informed decisions about the City's current fiscal condition, properly assess past and current proposals, and adequately make long-term planning decisions," Ferreras said at the budget hearing on Wednesday.

In its budget response last April, the Council demanded large units of appropriation, particularly around education funding, be broken up into specifics to better track spending and progress on initiatives.

"We are greatly concerned with the lack of transparency in units of appropriation in the Executive Budget," the April 2014 response reads. "Dividing funding for Universal Pre-Kindergarten, Elementary and Middle Schools and High Schools into smaller units of appropriation would increase accountability and transparency in a massive budget, making it easier to track categories of spending and ensure that all school funding is scheduled in the appropriate budget code."

Council members were hoping to curb the transparency issues that had plagued the Bloomberg administration, where including overly broad units of appropriation was common place. The Council asked the de Blasio administration to expand units of appropriations (U of A) in six areas. As of the preliminary budget, the de Blasio administration has complied with three of the six: renaming the U of A in the Miscellaneous Budget to "Reserve for Collective Bargaining," moving networks and clusters from the Schools to Regional Administration, and moving charter support costs to the Charter U of A.

The request to clean up U of As for Disease Control and Epidemiology is expected by the executive budget, but a new U of A for Early Intervention and a new U of A for Universal Pre-Kindergarten has not been complete.

Ferreras asked de Blasio's Budget Director, Dean Fuleihan, what is causing the delay, to which he responded that the City is committed to releasing the fourth detailed U of A by the executive budget, due in April.

"That's still not six. And that is still in fiscal year 16, as opposed to fiscal year 15 as we had discussed," Ferreras fired back, exemplary of a somewhat surprisingly tense session, even as the Council is largely supportive of the mayor's policy and budget plans.

Ferreras added the expanded U of A for universal pre-K, a $340 million state-funded program, was very important to the Council.

"We made a commitment and we will make sure that we keep that," Fuleihan said.

Ferreras noted that the Council is expected to make more requests related to U of A, and Fuleihan said that his team would work to make it happen.

PEGs
When de Blasio released his first budget in early 2014, he did away with Programs to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), which had become infamous during the Bloomberg years, when the mayor required agencies to identify ways to cut spending. The Council would expend enormous energy to restore proposed PEG cuts to things like firehouses and libraries, cuts which rarely made it into the executive budget.

Instead of PEG programs, de Blasio decided to use agency efficiency programs, asking each agency to take a look at their departments and propose cuts. But that process has not been made public and the agency efficiency proposals for FY16 are not in the preliminary budget.

"We want to make sure when we are here in FY17, we can follow whether the efficiency failed or not," Ferreras said.

Fuleihan noted the administration will be presenting that information soon and is open to discussing the format in which the Council would like to receive it. When presenting his preliminary budget, de Blasio told reporters that the cost savings identified by agency commissioners would be made clear in the April executive budget.

Capital Plans
The City Charter requires the administration to release a 10-year capital plan every two years. The plan allows the administration to showcase its vision for building things like schools and parks. This document is typically filled with dense narratives, charts, and graphs.

But this year, the first in which a 10-year capital plan is due for the de Blasio administration, the plan was not as detailed as it has been in the past, at least according to Ferreras, whose opinion was challenged by Fuleihan. He argued the administration included major agency zeroes and significant reductions in the Department of Education for the second five-year period, something not done in the prior administration.

"I would argue what we presented you was much more detailed," Fuleihan said. "We are happy to work with you and discuss the merit, but we believe this was a more realistic plan than the last 10-year capital plan that was presented."

Fuleihan noted it was a preliminary plan and several items would be affecting it that had not come down the pike yet, including the new PLaNYC, which is due in April, as well as state education funding, also due in April, and federal funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which is set to expire in May.

"They would like more transparency," Fuleihan said following the hearing. "We agreed to additional provisions last year in the adopted budget and we will continue to work with them. There is no reason not to work with them."

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by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

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At Initial Hearing, Council Members Question Budget Transparency Wed, 04 Mar 2015 21:16:23 +0000