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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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