Issue of the Week
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Ballot Proposal One

4 November 02

by Gail Robinson

For a while this summer, it appeared that charter revision might be the hot issue on the November ballot. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted New Yorkers to vote on whether all elections in the city should be nonpartisan, meaning that no party names would appear on the ballot. The mayor also wanted voters to approve a proposal that would allow his deputy mayor - someone not elected by the public - to take over if he had to leave office for any reason.

Instead of following the mayor's suggestions, the 13-member commission put forth a less sweeping measure. It does not address the issue of nonpartisan elections, but it does suggest a change to the city's system of mayoral succession and, at the same time, alters the role of the public advocate, the city's number two elected official.

It is the only proposal on the ballot on November 5.

Shall the Charter be amended to require a special election in about 60 days after a mayoral vacancy (in addition to the later general election to fill the vacancy), with a runoff election if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote, and to make the Speaker of the Council responsible for presiding over meetings of the City Council instead of the Public Advocate?

If Ballot Proposal One passes, the public advocate would remain first in line to succeed the mayor if the mayor dies or leaves office. However the proposal, the only question on the ballot this year, would dramatically shorten the amount of time that the advocate would serve before facing the voters. Under current law, the public advocate can lead the city for as long as 15 months before an election to choose a new mayor. The ballot proposal calls for a special election to select a new mayor within 60 days.

In addition, the proposal would strip the public advocate of the power to preside over City Council meetings, a duty the public advocate took over after the post of City Council president was abolished. Currently the public advocate attends council meetings, conducts the roll call on votes, and cuts off the occasionally disruptive or long-winded council member who is out of order. In the event of a tie vote on legislation, the public advocate can also cast the deciding vote; however this has never happened since the first public advocate took office in 1994.

If the charter is revised, the duty of overseeing the council would fall to the City Council speaker. The public advocate would retain his or her other powers, such as they are. The commission has said this change is dictated by a legal technicality, required under state law so the public advocate can perform as acting mayor until a new mayor can be selected.

Individuals and organizations have staked out positions for and against approval of the ballot question. Mayor Bloomberg and his appointed commission want New Yorkers to vote yes; an array of civic groups and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum urge a no vote.

Bloomberg, for one, maintains that the current law makes the public wait too long for a new mayor. "In an ever changing world where cities compete on a daily basis for jobs, tourists and businesses, the costs of having an unelected mayor in office for up to 15 months could be crippling," the mayor said in a statement.

Gotbaum agrees that 15 months might indeed be too long to wait. But she told the City Council last week that 60 days is too short a period of time to mount and run a campaign and will make it difficult for candidates to qualify for matching public funds to finance their campaigns. And so, she argues, the short timeframe favors wealthy candidates or those with a small number of rich supporters.

Not surprisingly, Gotbaum reserves much of her ire for the proposal to take away her authority to preside over council meetings, saying that such authority gives her office "legislative teeth."

"Mayors are threatened by a strong public advocate and seek to diminish the position," said Gotbaum.

But many opponents of the measure, particularly good government groups, are less concerned about the details of the proposal than the process behind it, especially how little time the commission had to draft the proposal. The Women's City Club noted that the commission had to complete its ballot proposals less than a month after holding its first public hearing this summer. And Citizens Union said that, in its haste to get the proposal on the ballot, the commission may not have fully explored all the ramifications of its plan.

For more information, visit the Campaign Finance Board web site. The board gives a summary of the ballot proposal, arguments for and against the measure, and statements from public officials, professors, and good government groups.


Guide to Ballot Proposal One - Campaign Finance Board.

"Advocating for Democracy" by Betsy Gotbaum - the public advocate explains why the mayor's proposals are bad for the city (posted 07/08/02)

Members of the 2002 Charter Commission

Nonpartisan Elections


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