By Mark Berkey-Gerard and Gail Robinson
Table of Contents
- Pros and Cons On Charter Change
- Question 1: Children's Services
- Question 2: Gun Violence and School Safety
- Question 3: Human Rights
- Question 4: Public Health
- Question 5: Public safety
Voters who go to the polls November 6 may be surprised to notice six
questions running down the right side of the ballot. For the third
time since 1998, New Yorkers are being asked to change the city's
charter, the basic document of city government. In previous years,
the charter changes produced controversy and debate, but this
year, the questions have been largely ignored, partly because
of the World Trade Center disaster and partly because many of
the proposals seem innocuous.
There is, though, some real substance. If one proposal were to
pass, critics charge, a teacher could be punished for not immediately
telling the police that a fourth grader punched a classmate in
the nose. Several of the questions are intended to preserve adminstrative
changes that Mayor Rudy Giuliani made, such as his reorganizing
the child welfare agency.
But much of the opposition to the five
questions focuses more on the process of charter reform than
the substance of the proposals themselves.
PROS AND CONS ON CHARTER CHANGE
The charter defines the duties of city government and how that government
should function. The charter governs mayoral succession, for example; it does
not say where people are allowed or not allowed to smoke. While the charter
is the city's basic governing document, the current one is only 12 years old
and has already been amended about 90 times. Such changes can be made through
local law, which is how most of the changes have been made. The mayor can
also create a charter reform commission to suggest amendments to be put bef
ore the voters.
Since he become mayor in 1994, Rudolph Giuliani has done that
three times. And critics charge he has had ulterior motives each
time [see blue box]. In 1998, some say he was trying to stop New
Yorkers from voting on a
new stadium for the Yankees. A year later, his target was
the city's succession law, because, critics charged, he did not
want to see Mark Green become mayor.
When the mayor returned to charter reform this January, observers
The Mayor and the Charter
This year marks the third time that Mayor Giuliani has
set up a Charter Revision Commission and gone to the voters
with suggested changes to the city's chief governing document.
In 1998, commission came up with a proposal to ban all
corporate contributions to candidates for municipal office.
The measure was approved
overwhelmingly, but critics charged that mayor and his
appointees had not been guided by an altruistic interest
in clean government but by his legendary enthusiasm for
the Yankees. If the mayor's commission has charter revision
proposals on the ballot, no other revisions can appear.
By naming a charter commission, Giuliani kept a referendum
on whether public money should be used to build a new stadium
for the Yankees from going to the voter. The stadium was
then a pet project of the mayor's.
A year later, the mayor went back to the charter process
again. This time, his target was the city's succession law,
which makes the public advocate mayor if the mayor dies
or is unable to serve. Giuliani was then mulling a run for
Senate in 2000 and supposedly wanted to make sure that if
he was elected, Public Advocate Mark Green would not get
to fill out his unexpired term.
By the time a package of 14 proposal reached the ballot,
though, the measure aimed at Green was for all intents and
purposes gone. Under the revisions, the special election
provision would not take effect until 2002. That, though,
didn't help the package with voters. The vote was a simple
yes or not an the whole array of proposals, and voter said
no by a 3-to-1 margin.
that his aim was to be make city elections nonpartisan.
But, by the time the final proposals emerged from the Charter
Revision Commission in late
August, the most controversial ideas, including nonpartisan
elections, were gone. "Nonpartisan elections and mayoral succession
deserve to be more fully explored and to have more public debate,"
commission chair Randy Mastro told reporters. "That's why the
staff recommended that consideration on those issues continue
after the election cycle."
That did not disarm some critics, though, who focused on the
process and said the mayor was trying to use charter revision
to make permanent changes he had made to the city government.
The Bar Association
of the City of New York said there was "an unreasonably short
period of time for public consideration of changes to the city's
fundamental governing document."
In opposing all the questions, Citizens
Union echoed that, saying, "The procedure taken to arrive
at these proposals provided neither adequate time nor an appropriate
forum for the public to make suggestions to or address the recommendations
of the commission's staff."
Further, the organization said, many of the proposals would be "better
pursued by going through the legislative process not around it. The Charter
Revision Commission should not be a mechanism for the mayor to bypass a
In fact, Council Speaker Peter Vallone has noted that the mayor was unable to
get some of these proposals, such as those merging city agencies, through the
The Charter Revision Commission disbanded after it decided on
the five question this summer. Its report on the proposals is
available at its web
site, but no agency exists to answer public or press queries
on the measures.
While voters in 1999 cast a single vote on 14 different proposals, this year
the array of changes have been divided into five separate questions, each to
be voted on separately. The first proposal listed on the ballot is a state
amendment that would make the language in the New York Constitution
gender-neutral. So city residents will have six questions to vote on. Doing
that, though, could challenge even the most informed voter. While the
questions and brief explanation will run down the right side of the ballot,
the levers will not be alongside them but at the bottom of the ballot.
QUESTION 1: CHILDREN'S SERVICES
Make the Administration for Children's Services an independent
agency: This measure is one of the few that has garnered widespread
support. While Vallone opposes it because he thinks that such
a change should be made by the council. City Councilmember Madeline
Provenzano testified in support of it at a public hearing in August.
She says the agency has made impressive reforms and improvements
in services since its creation in 1996. The Citizens
Committee for Children of New York also supports the measure.
Giuliani created the Administration of Children's Services to
replace the Child Welfare Agency after the beating death of six-year-old
Elisa Izquierdo in 1995. The charter change would preserve the
agency, insuring its existence after Giuliani leaves office.
According to Gail Nayowith of the Citizens Committee for Children,
the creation of agency "rescued children's service from obscurity
in the city's social service bureaucracy... Children have their
own commissioner who reports directly to the mayor." (For
further discussion on this, see Lynda Crawford's article)
QUESTION 2: GUN VIOLENCE AND SCHOOL SAFETY
Create gun-free zones: The proposal would bar guns within
a 1,000 foot radius of every school and day care center in the
city. Federal law already makes it a crime to have a gun with
1,000 feet of a school, although there are some exceptions that
this measure would eliminate. Someone can, for example, have a
gun on their private property even if it is across the street
from a school. State law also bans the possession of gun on school
grounds for someone convicted of a felony.
The proposed charter amendment would reinforce the federal and state laws and
in reality make all of Manhattan a gun-free zone, since 1,000 feet is equal
to a four block radius.
"This city is trying to pass something that would make it easier to enforce,"
said Andy Pelosi, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
Prohibit selling a gun to anyone under 21: Although city
law already prohibits anyone anyone under 21 from receiving a
permit or owning most types of guns, there are exceptions for
rifles and shotguns that this measure would eliminate.
As Derek Alger reported
in GothamGazette early this year, New York State already has
some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Gun legislation,
signed into law by Governor George Pataki last summer, made New
York the first state in the nation to require background checks
on anyone interested in buying any firearm, including guns available
at gun shows. And 80 percent of the guns used in crimes in New
York are not purchased in the state, but are brought in from other
states with less strict laws.
Require Board of Education employees to report suspected crimes,
including sex offenses and violent crimes, to police: This
is perhaps the most controversial of the charter revision questions.
In June, the City Council drafted legislation that would essentially have
done the same thing. A vote on the measure has been indefinitely postponed.
The calls for such legislation were sparked after it was learned that several
cases of sexual assault in schools had not been reported to police. While
this provoked outrage, some advocates believes a law requiring reporting, and
leaving virtually no discretion to principals and teachers, runs the risk of
putting youngsters who act badly but not illegally in the criminal justice
(For a more detailed discussion, see Tracey Middlekauff's article
as Cops" in Gotham Gazette)
QUESTION 3: HUMAN RIGHTS
Make the Commission on Human Rights a permanent agency, elevate
the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs to a mayoral agency and
protect immigrants' access to city service: When charter revision
was last voted on in 1999, the first two proposals were part of
a big package that voters rejected two to one. Now they are up
for consideration on their own. But many organizations involved
with these issues, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union
and Empire State Pride Agenda, have not taken a formal stand on
these charter revisions.
Margie McHugh of the New
York Immigration Coalition said that her constituent groups
are divided. Some are happy with what they have now, she says,
while others would like to solidify the access that a mayoral
agency can provide. But her real concern is that the measure does
not address the most important issue for immigrants in the city,
such as language access.
(For more detailed discussion, see Andy
Humm's article on the human rights commission)
QUESTION 4: PUBLIC HEALTH
Merge the city's health and mental health services into a
unified, permanent Department of Public Health: The mayor
has tried to affect such a merger before but was thwarted by the
City Council. And so, one City Councilmember has called this proposal,
"one of those Freddy Krueger ideas in government," likening it
to the horror movie character who will not die. Some critics fear
a single agency would give short shrift to mental health issues,
while proponents argue that having one health office would deliver
services more effectively and reduce duplication of effort.
(For a more detailed discussion, see Andy
Humm's examination of the arguments for and against the merger)
Expand the Board of Health to 11 members: The board currently
has five. It would also reduce the term of office from eight to
QUESTION 5: PUBLIC SAFETY
Make the Office of Emergency Management a permanent city agency:
Giuliani created the office in 1996 as a descendent of the city's
Office of Civil Defense and the Police Department's Office of
Emergency Management. The agency, which includes personnel from
the Police and Fire Departments, Emergency Medical Service, and
other city agencies, was intended to deal with catastrophes such
as a chemical or biological attack or a "mass fatality situation."
However, until the attack on the World Trade Center, many of the
emergencies it had confronted were far less dire, such as the
threat of the Y2K computer virus, an infestation of longhorn beetles,
and an influx of rodents.
But now, the threat of terrorism has become a reality and support for the
office has increased. Michael Emmerman, the government liaison for the
American Red Cross, recently testified in support of the proposal.
"My ability to do my job efficiently has been directly enhanced by the
existence of the Office of Emergency Management," said Emmerman. "The ability
to have all of the resources of this great city available and structured,
that's the important part of this. To respond in times of need is something
that is absolutely necessary and not a luxury."
(For a more detailed discussion, see Gail Robinson's article
York's anti-terrorism policies.)
Consolidate the various agencies that regulate crime in the
food, transportation, and shipping industries into a single Organized
Crime Control Commission: This is the latest effort of a mayor
who has made it his mission to root out organized crime through
administrative regulation and licensing city contractors. However,
opponents say that the charter change is unnecessary, because
the city already has a robust police force charged with eliminating
unsavory business dealings. And even those who support the substance
of the commission question whether the charter revision might
be giving it too much power.
(For a further discussion on this, see Michael Burger's
article on organized crime in Gotham Gazette.)
Create a permanent Office to Combat Domestic Violence:
This agency would coordinate domestic violence services and formulate
new policies for victims of domestic violence.
The mayor has not always been on the same side of legislators
who have tried to pass domestic violence legislation. Last December,
he signed into law a bill -- the first of its kind in the country
-- that gives domestic violence victims the right to sue their
former abusers for compensatory and punitive damages, but he initially