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City Council Hears Bill on Charter Revision Commission

Fernando Cabrera

Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.

The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.

On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)

As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.

James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.

“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.

“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.

James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.

Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.

Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.   

But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.

James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.

Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.

James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”

Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.

Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.

Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.

Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission;  and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.

He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.  

Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”

“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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.

Unions Max Out to Council Speaker’s Inauguration Committee

Corey Johnson Stuart Applebaum

Above: Speaker Johnson and Stuart Applebaum (photos: William Alatriste/City Council)

Political action committees affiliated with prominent unions in the city invested heavily in the 2017 municipal election cycle, contributing to candidates in races for City Council, borough-wide and citywide positions. And that giving continued after the election was over, with many of the same unions having another opportunity to donate to elected officials. The new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was one of the beneficiaries of that giving, taking in maximum-allowable donations from several union-linked PACs for his transition and inauguration committee.

During the January 22-31 period, which came after Johnson was formally elected to lead the Council, the new speaker’s transition and inauguration entity (TIE) took in $31,500 in 14 donations from political action committees, according to disclosures filed with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. Ten of the donations were for the maximum amount of $2,750 that donors can give to City Council candidates.

The committee spent $31,254 on Johnson’s inauguration, which was hosted at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Midtown Manhattan. Johnson was sworn in by U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, with several prominent Democratic elected officials and party leaders in attendance including members of Congress, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and dozens of Council members.

Most of the maximum donations to Johnson’s TIE came from groups that had already maxed out to his reelection campaign -- during which he faced no significant competition but generously moved money to colleagues’ campaigns as he sought their support for his speaker bid -- effectively meaning that they gave him $5,500 in total.

Those PACs, many associated with major labor unions, include the 32BJ United American Dream Fund, New York Hotel Trades Council’s PAC, the Local 6 Committee on Political Education, the Doctors Council SEIU COPE, the Mason Tenders’ District Council PAC, and the United Federation of Teachers.

A few PACs didn’t donate to Johnson’s reelection committee but did so for his transition, after his election as speaker, while others gave larger donations to his transition after giving to his reelection. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union PAC, for instance, gave Johnson’s transition committee $2,750 after only a $1,000 donation to his reelection effort, while the Building and Constructions Trades Council PAC gave $2,750 to the transition after foregoing a contribution to his reelection. Others like the Council of School Supervisors PAC gave lower contributions to the transition committee after having already donated to his reelection.

“We want the new Speaker to be successful, and we wanted to support his transition efforts and his agenda for working New Yorkers,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in a statement. “We have contributed to him in the past for both of his elections to the city council; and we would expect to contribute to him again in the future. When he first ran for city council, his campaign operation was located in our offices.”

Johnson’s transition fundraising is barely a drop in the bucket compared with his own campaign, which raised more than $505,000 and spent about $416,000. But the contributions are a window into the groups, many of them with business before the city, seeking to curry favor with the leader of the city’s legislative body.

The Hotel Trades Council, the largest hotel workers union in the country, whose PAC donated generously to Johnson, has been pushing for stronger regulations against home-sharing services such as Airbnb. Metropolitan Public Strategies, a political consulting group with ties to HTC, also helped Johnson in his bid for the speakership. Just last month, Johnson, who has long-running ties to HTC, promised a strong crackdown on illegal hotels and illegal Airbnb listings.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association PAC, affiliated with the largest uniformed police officers union in the city, also gave to Johnson, both for his reelection and his transition. The PBA stepped up its involvement in local races in the 2017 election cycle, hoping to increase the sway it holds over members of a body that has, in the last few years, proposed and passed a slew of policing reforms.

In December, three weeks before the speaker vote, Johnson was among the majority of Council Members who voted to pass a controversial police reform package known as the Right to Know Act. One of the two bills in the final package, sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres, was roundly criticized, both by police reform advocates for being watered down at the behest of the mayor and the NYPD, and by the PBA for being a cumbersome burden on police officers. Chris Coffey, a consultant at Tusk Strategies, represents the PBA and is also a close advisor to Johnson, having worked on his speaker bid.

Many labor unions have exercised strong influence over legislation under the previous class of the City Council and through de Blasio’s first term. One notable example is 32BJ SEIU, the building-service workers union, which played an active role in shaping a package of legislation related to non-unionized fast-food workers, down to the very bill language, according to a Politico New York report.

Neither a spokesperson for Johnson's campaign nor a spokesperson for Johnson's City Council office returned a request for comment for this article.

This year wasn’t the first time Johnson created a transition committee. After the 2013 cycle, when he was first elected to the Council, he raised $35,147 and spent $34,831 on his inauguration. Of the 22 donations he received that year, however, only five came from PACs.

Along with Johnson, several other elected officials also created TIEs. Save for Mayor de Blasio,  -- who raised about $78,000 and spent about $77,000 on his transition -- Johnson outspent all the others including Comptroller Stringer and Public Advocate Letitia James.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that RWDSU donated $1,000 to Corey Johnson's reelection effort.  

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