When Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a charter revision commission in 2003 to study the issue of non-partisan elections, it was the fifth such commission in five years.
The mayor's request to eliminate party primaries was defeated by a landslide, and we heard nothing about charter commissions or ballot proposals last year.
But now they are back. A new commission is being asked to consider three new proposals.
This year's Charter Revision Commission is a prestigious group, from the president of Hunter College to a former borough president of the Bronx, as well as a former deputy mayor, a former state budget director, a former state attorney general (in full disclosure former Attorney General Robert Abrams is the President of Citizens Union Foundation, the parent of Gothamgazette.com). It is led by Ester Fuchs, special advisor to the Mayor for Governance and Strategic Planning and professor at Columbia University.
While the issues that are being examined will certainly not be the most thrilling to voters, and most likely could be handled legislatively, they appear to be prudent, well-intentioned and most likely of benefit to the city. But the devil is always in the details and the commission has yet to propose what the details will be. As it stands the commission will be examining charter amendments (in pdf format) to address the following:
1- Fiscal Stability
When the city was faced with bankruptcy in the 1970's, it was bailed out in part by the New York State Financial Emergency Act for the City of New York. The object of the law (called FEA for short) was to ensure a greater level of fiscal responsibility and to restore confidence in the city's finances, specifically in the city's ability to repay its debt, and it did this through the creation of what was at first called the Emergency Financial Control Board, but whose name was changed to simply the Financial Control Board.
Since 1986, the majority of requirements of the law have been in a "sunset" period as the city's finances are sufficiently healthy. Should the city have an operating deficit of more than $100 million, or lose access to public credit markets, the law would be required to begin a "sunrise" of the Financial Control Board.
The law and the Financial Control Board are set to expire in 2008. The new charter revision commission is considering what if any fiscal controls should be incorporated into the City Charter to replace or supplement certain expiring provisions of this law.
Key elements that are not in the New York City Charter but are required in the "sunset" phase are:
1-a detailed four-year financial planning process
2-an ongoing balanced budget requirement
3-restrictions on short term debt and
4-protections for city bondholders through a general debt service fund.
The commission is currently seeking comment on what provisions from the Financial Emergency Act should be included in the City's Charter.
2- Administrative Tribunal Operations
The mayor has also asked the commission once again to study administrative judicial reform, specifically focusing on ways to improve management of the city's administrative justice system, including administrative tribunals and executive branch courts. This issue appeared on the 2003 ballot as well, where it was defeated.
New York City's administrative tribunals and executive branch courts serve to resolve citizen complaints and disputes and are often the only interaction that citizens have with their local government. These tribunals and courts handle noise complaints, parking fines and other "quality of life" issues of the average New Yorker.
The commission is examining methods, and soliciting public comment on how to coordinate operational policies and management practices of these bodies, as well as whether the creation of a uniform code of conduct to govern the actions of administrative law judges and hearing officers should be established.
3- Governmental Efficiency and Accountability
Finally, the commission has been charged with investigating the use of innovative technology to improve government efficiency and accountability. Building on the mayor's creation of the 311 Citizen Service Center, the mayor believes that technology can be leveraged to help the government better assess how to utilize its resources, improve service delivery, streamline government, promote greater inter-agency coordination, and make government more accessible to citizens.
The mayor has asked the commission to examine how performance-based data and reporting, such as is contained in the Mayor's Management Report, can be collected and used more widely to measure results, set goals and objectives, and be more useful for assessing the delivery of services to the public.
The mayor has also asked the Commission to evaluate how the charter might be revised to allow for greater agency flexibility to meet their mandated objectives.
Come One, Come All
A series of public hearings related to the three proposals has begun -- on Staten Island on Wednesday, March 30th at 6 pm at the Richmond County Juror Assembly Center; on Monday, April 4th at 6 PM at Hunter College in Manhattan.
This will be one of many opportunities for citizens to address the issues under consideration, as well as any other issues they believe the Commission should address. All citizens are invited to testify at the hearings; provide written comment through the Commission’s website; or in writing to the Commission’s office at 2 Lafayette Street, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10007. Â