Gotham Gazette Wed, 21 Mar 2018 20:51:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Council Speaker Backs Charter Commission Bill That Gives Him More Sway Corey Johnson

Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said last week that the Council would forge ahead with legislation to create a Charter Revision Commission to review the broad structure of city government, bucking Mayor Bill de Blasio’s intention to unilaterally create a commission meant to explore campaign finance and electoral reforms. And Johnson’s support of the bill -- first proposed in December by Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer -- also came with one significant change to its language. Instead of the commission members electing a chair and vice chair from among themselves, the speaker would get to appoint the head of the commission.

The original James-Brewer bill was introduced amid a frenzy of other activity on the last day of the 2014-2017 session of the City Council and, just two months later, was undercut by de Blasio’s announcement in his State of the City address that he would convene his own commission. The mayor said that he would solicit input from others, but that he would appoint all the commission members, exercising his executive prerogative.

On Friday, however, The New York Times reported that Johnson would support the James-Brewer proposal, which calls for a commission with four members appointed by the mayor, four appointed by the Council speaker, one member appointed by each borough president, and one member appointed by each the public advocate and the comptroller.

The original version of the bill proposed that the commission would get to choose one of its members to lead it through the process of examining, debating, and reimagining the charter, effectively the city’s constitution. The process takes months at the minimum, depending on the scope of the commission’s review, and its proposals are put to the voters on the ballot.

The amended version of the bill, on which Johnson was added as a lead co-sponsor along with James and Brewer, contains the change giving him more power. “The speaker of the city council shall appoint from among the membership a chairperson,” it states.

Joseph Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College who was research director for the Charter Revision Commission convened by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010, said the change “certainly makes the Speaker a more important player in this.”

“A very important function of the chair is to select the staff of the commission, the executive director, and the research director,” Viteritti said, pointing out that much of the work is driven by those staffers. “From a working point of view, I think it is significant...That’s what drives the process in the end.”

Jennifer Fermino, a spokesperson for Johnson, maintained that the change in the bill was not noteworthy. “The structure of the commission remains unchanged. The sponsors of the bill agreed that having a chair appointed by the Speaker would make the process of setting up the Commission more efficient, as it has for past Commissions. The Chair can accept space and initial staff which will enable the Commission to get to work more quickly,” Fermino said in a statement.

Spokespeople for James and Brewer did not provide comment for this article. A mayoral spokesperson declined to comment.

Viteritti did note that any commission, whether created by the legislative branch or the executive, is virtually unhindered in scope and can choose to explore any section of the charter its members deem necessary. Both camps proposing a commission -- the mayor on one side and the council speaker, public advocate and Manhattan borough president on the other -- have made clear the issues they want to pursue, however.

De Blasio was more direct, stating in his February 13 State of the City speech that he would appoint a commission and “give it the mandate” to propose changes to campaign finance law, reducing the influence of wealthy donors in elections, as well as empower the city government to handle responsibilities currently entrusted to the Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency.

Johnson is hoping for a broader assessment of city government, without any “pre-baked” ideas and proposals, and not including proposals that fall under the Council’s legislative authority, such as campaign finance reform. “A Charter Revision Commission should look at things that are structural in the governance of New York City,” he said when asked by Gotham Gazette, at an unrelated news conference last week, two days before The New York Times report.

Among the ideas he floated -- some of which have been supported by James and Brewer as well -- are independent budgeting for the offices of the public advocate, the borough presidents, the comptroller and community boards; an “advise-and-consent” role for the Council on additional mayoral appointees and nominations; examining changes to the city’s land use process and units of appropriation as part of the budget process.

“Those are things that we at the Council cannot legislate,” Johnson added. “They’re in the City Charter, they go to the structure of city government and we can’t legislate them. The issues that the mayor put forward, while they may be worthy issues, they’re not issues that the public needs to vote on as part of a Charter Revision Commission. The council could legislate those items.”

The Council bill is set to be heard by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations on Friday.

“You never can entirely predict where a commission is going to go,” Viteritti said. “If you know where you’re going before you get there, what’s the point of calling a Charter Revision Commission.”

[Read: De Blasio Promises Fairness, Democracy in State of the City Address]

[Read: Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio's Charter Revision Commission]

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Speaker Backs Charter Commission Bill That Gives Him More Sway Tue, 13 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission Mayor de Blasio State of the City

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in his State of the City speech that he would convene a commission to consider changes to the city charter, New York City’s seminal governing document. De Blasio said the charter revision commission would undertake the significant task of reducing the impact of “big money” on local elections and to engage voters in a democracy that has suffered from their apathy. The mayor is hoping the commission members, whom he has yet to name, will prepare recommendations in time for voters to approve or reject the commission’s ideas on Election Day this November through one or more ballot questions.

De Blasio is ready to utilize a power available to him, though some are already questioning why he isn’t pursuing his desired changes through legislation at the City Council, while others are criticizing the mayor for pre-determining the panel’s outcomes. But, de Blasio will do as several predecessors have done and call a commission. How exactly does it work?

The mayor has the power to call a Charter Revision Commission under Section 36 of the state’s municipal home rule law. A commission can be composed of between 9 and 15 members, who would all have to be residents of the city. The mayor simply has to file the names of his chosen members, who can include current public officials, with the City Clerk’s office. There is no public vetting process, but de Blasio has conceded that he is open to input from concerned elected officials about who should serve on the body.

“I’m going to act in the manner stipulated in the City Charter,” the mayor said at an unrelated news conference on Feb 14, when asked by Gotham Gazette if he’d let other elected officials choose members for the commission, as some were calling for even before de Blasio’s announcement. “So, I’ll be naming the commission. I’m happy to talk to my colleagues in government about people they think would be right to serve, but I will name the commission just as previous mayors did.”

De Blasio said in his State of the City speech that he would “give [the Commission] the mandate to propose a plan for deep public financing of local elections.” Despite being elected with maximum contributions from wealthy donors (the limit is $4,950 per person to a mayoral candidate), the mayor has been a frequent critic of the influence of big money in elections. He also established multiple extra-governmental fundraising entities that took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities with city business and led to new city laws restricting such groups.

De Blasio has directly spoken out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates to untold amounts of unaccountable election spending, and has repeatedly called for broader campaign finance reforms to be enacted by the state.

“I will also charge the Charter Revision Commission to propose a plan to empower the city government,” de Blasio continued during his State of the City, insisting that the city should be able to take on duties he believes are currently mishandled by the New York City Board of Elections, a quasi-state agency.

However, the mayor cannot technically charge the Commission, which is meant to be independent, with exploring any specific agenda item. A commission could take up any issue its members deem appropriate and recommend changes to the charter that even the mayor could not reject. Final recommendations would have to be approved by a voter referendum.

“The mayor I think has made it clear he has certain questions in mind, which seem to be well intended,” said Joseph Viteritti, a professor at Hunter College who served as research director for the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Viteritti also recently wrote a book about de Blasio). “That said, once a commission is appointed, it can go where it chooses.”

The 2010 commission held public hearings in each of the five boroughs and, based on feedback from the public and from elected officials, examined five broad subjects: voter participation, public integrity, government structure, term limits for elected officials, and land use. In its final report, the commission made several recommendations which ultimately formed the basis for two ballot questions that were both approved by 52 percent of voters.

The first question reduced the number of terms that city elected officials can serve from three to two for those elected in 2010 and after, and prohibited the City Council from changing term limits for incumbents. The second question dealt more widely with elections and government administration. Among other things, it required the disclosure of independent expenditures in city elections; reduced the number of ballot petition signatures that candidates need to run for office; tasked the city’s Campaign Finance Board with voter assistance functions; established mandatory conflicts of interest trainings for all public servants, while also increasing fines for violations.

“I would assume they’ll have public hearings and when you do that...people can introduce things that may or may not be on the agenda,” Viteritti said. “Any commission opens up the entire charter to review potentially. There’s no constraints once it’s appointed.”

Notably, the 2010 Commission did not propose a ballot question on nonpartisan primary elections, a change that Bloomberg had made clear in the past that he wanted to see happen and that would allow any registered voter to vote in one party primary of their choosing. The Commission debated the issue extensively -- although Bloomberg did not raise it again that year -- but it did not include it in its final recommendations. “We decided not to propose that because we didn’t think we had enough time to consider the potential consequences of such a major change,” Viteritti said. “What that should tell anybody is that the mayor can express his priorities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be reflected in the final deliberations of the commission.”

The last time the city’s charter was thoroughly reviewed was by the 1989 Commission, on which Viteritti served as a consultant. That commission radically changed the structure of city government by eliminating the Board of Estimate -- a body made up of the citywide electeds and borough-wide officials who together exercised complete control over the city’s budget and land use -- and by assigning its roles to the City Council, which saw its number of seats increase from 35 to 51.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, praised the mayor’s announcement but said his priorities should be broader. “It’s gotta be far more extensive and it’s gotta be funded appropriately,” said Muzzio, who was on an expert panel on government structure that testified before the 2010 Commission.

Muzzio pointed to an alternate proposal put forward in legislation by Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, both second-term Democrats like de Blasio. The proposed bill would create a charter review commission composed of representatives appointed by the mayor, who would get a plurality of appointees, the speaker of the City Council, the borough presidents, the public advocate and the comptroller. “In terms of greater diversity of views on something as important as the charter, I would prefer the Brewer-James proposal,” Muzzio said.

“Charter revision is important and needed,” Brewer tweeted on Tuesday, “but appointments should come from many electeds and the issues to be discussed should come from the group.”

In a New York Daily News editorial in December, Brewer and James called for a revamp of the city’s charter, noting that “the last real overhaul” was in 1989. Citing a new world and new challenges, a charter revision commission, they said, could give communities a stronger voice in the city’s land use processes, provide City Council members with greater say over the city’s budget, and streamline agencies with shared responsibilities. “Our goal is simple: empower a panel of genuine experts to do a top-to-bottom review of how our government could work better, and put their recommendations up for public discussion and a vote,” they said.

Time will likely be a constraint on de Blasio’s commission and if they are to be ready to make recommendations by November, they will have to move quickly. The 2010 commission was convened in March and had issued its final report by August.

Both Muzzio and Viteritti also pointed out that many of the improvements to campaign financing and election laws that the mayor wants to accomplish are held back by inaction by the state Legislature and Citizens United.

Although the mayor may not drastically change how New York City’s massive municipal government works, he has nonetheless set the stage for a broader discussion of voting laws, election funding, and the city’s waning democracy, Viteritti insisted.

“To me the most important thing to come out of this is to raise the consciousness of people to how broken and troubled the democratic process is,” he said. “The more public discussion we have about these issues the better...We have to start the conversation somewhere. It’s not starting in Albany. It’s not starting in Washington, D.C., that’s for sure.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article noted earlier that the 2010 Charter Revision Commission did not take up the issue of nonpartisan primary elections. The Commission, in fact, debated the issue but did not include it in their final recommendations. The article has been updated.  

Next Steps and Recent Precedents for De Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Author Joseph Viteritti

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette

August 30, 2017 - De Blasio Author Joseph Viteritti

cover joe vitJoseph P. Viteritti, public policy professor at Hunter College, CUNY, where he is chair of the Urban Policy and Planning Department, has written a new book about Mayor Bill de Blasio: The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio's Quest to Save the Soul of New York. Published by Oxford University Press, The Pragmatist is due out September 5. After reading an advance copy, our Ben Max spoke with Viteritti about de Blasio and the book, in which Viteritti not only examines de Blasio's career and mayoralty, but puts de Blasio into historical perspective.

The publisher describes the book as the "Most comprehensive book on mayoral leadership in NYC currently available, beginning with La Guardia and progressives (Wagner, Lindsay), through the post-fiscal crisis mayors (Beame, Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, Bloomberg)." It traces de Blasio's early life and political career through much of his term as mayor. De Blasio is seeking a second term this fall, with The Pragmatist set for publish just a week before the Democratic primary, which the incumbent is expected to win, and two months before the general election, where de Blasio is also heavily favored.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Viteritti discusses his conclusions about and impressions of de Blasio.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @jarrettmurphy. You can hear the conversation through the embedded audio below or download it wherever you get your podcasts.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: De Blasio Author Joseph Viteritti Wed, 30 Aug 2017 04:00:04 +0000