The Charter is the document that sets up the structure
that assigns who has the power in the Council, and how
power is distributed in the Council.
So when you hear, for example, a member of the Council
being sent to Siberia for one thing or another, or how
committees work, it is in there. It is incredibly essential
to understanding how legislation gets passed. You can
ask, what is the source of all of this? What is organizing
all of this? What is allowing all of this to happen? It
is the Charter of the City of New York.
There are basically three Charters in the city of New
York. There's one in 1898, which was the amalgamation
of the city of New York. It combined two different cities,
Brooklyn, and New York into one city. That Charter, that
election, did not accomplish the purpose of the reformers
of the time. It left the hall in control of the city,
so they redid it over in 1901.
We have the second Charter, which is really the original
Charter of the city, because it created the Borough Presidents
jobs, and things such as that. Then we have a series of
change, which we have over a bunch of years.
Then we get to this Charter, which is the Charter of
1989. We lose the Board of Estimate and the city's policy
makers in a new expanded City Council.
WHAT IT DOES
Now for your interest, the Charter sets forth the fact
that you have 51 districts. It sets forth the obligation
that all of you will have to run again in 2003, which
happens only every twenty years not every ten years.
Some people think it is odd, but it sets fourth the structure
of the Council that chooses districts. It tells you which
standards for each district have to be created. It creates
the mechanisms for creating them, and it sets fourth the
term-limits of your office, and it also creates the term-limits
for which brings many of you here.
The Charter also authorizes the City Council itself to
create its rules. Although there are some requirements
that are very detailed in the Charter about what it is
that the Council members can do. For instance there has
to be a motion of discharge, that creates certain committees
that have to be in the Council, but for the most part
it leaves the Council free to design it's own rules.
WHY IT DOES IT
Every provision in the Charter has a story behind it,
because every provision in the Charter was either lobbied
around, or debated over. Whether it be internal debates
amongst the Charter commission, or debates regarding the
corporation Council, or city agencies, or the outside
Every provision has a history. The one that basically
leaves the design of the rules of the Charter Council
to the Council itself, you'll find that in every constitution
you know the rules of new legislatures will be decided
by itself. The constitution of the United States, the
New York State constitution has it, and the New York Charter
Now when we were doing this, we were lobbied substantially
to limit the role that the legislative leader had. In
other words we were asked to put expressed limitations
in the Charter to limit certain kinds of discretionary
actions that the Council Speaker had, and we were asked
to do that, because people had in mind the New York state
model, which is a frightening model to have in mind.
WHERE IT PUTS THE POWER
For the most part everybody can see that for a legislative
body to work you need to have a leader that has the power
to be the voice of legislator, but how substantial that
power would be, not was a question of great debate for
us. We opted for allowing the Council to decide it's own
rules, and not reducing the leader's power. We did that,
because hadn't had much experience with the Council at
that point. We were sort of concerned about turning the
We made the decision not to start to reduce leadership
power, because we were worried that is we reduced leadership
power in this new decade with this new Council we didn't
know what we were getting into. We had assumed that Vallone
would become Speaker during that period of time. He was
a Majority Leader at the time So it was a question of
our own sort of commission, not mine. Commissions deal
with how much power a leader should have in the context
of what we were doing, and what our historical moment
That still remains an issue. It remains an issue as you
people right now whoever you are running begin to talk
about who is going to become the leader. Especially after
September when the primaries are finished, when this mass
insanity goes on, and everybody here will be dealing with
who is going to become the next leader, and all this influence
will go to work.
The single most important thing a new Council member
has to pay attention is that early in January 2002, you
will have before you a little pamphlet.
You will be asked to vote on the rules of the Council.
Frequently members of the Council who are new will just
accept them. I can tell you that these rules are crucial.
They relate to substance of what you are going to be able
to do as a legislator, and they are crucial with respect
to the distribution of power.
WHAT IT CAN DO FOR THE CANDIDATE
How you operate in your first days is something that
you have to pay enormous attention too. It's absolutely
crucial, because somewhere down the road six months later
something is going to happen, and you are going to say
"Well how does this happen to me?" and they will say "Well
it's in the rules."
The Charter also contains your jurisdiction, because
I assume most of you are going there for good reasons,
but I mean one of your goals hopefully is that you have
some policy or preferences that you would like to have
transported in the law.
The Council is the place for you to do that. People come
together in these great institutions, and they merge this
kind of rich array of New York pluralism. They come with
their ideas, and they fight it out. Hopefully some kind
of compromise gets made at the end of the day, and you
make the city a better place.
What is your legislative power? What is the legislative
power of the city? What is your power if you don't like
some piece of property being developed some place in the
city of New York? What is your authority if you don't
like the way policing is done in your neighborhood? What
is your authority on sanitation? All the number of issues
that reflect the city's sort of governance promise.
The Charter is where you find what your authority.
Eric Lane is an attorney and Professor
of Law at Hofstra University. He served as Counsel and
Executive Director to the New York City Charter Revision