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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


The Charter Commission's Unfinished Business

The city has gone through many charters -- and revisions of charters -- since Peter Stuyvesant and his counsel prepared one in 1652. And, writes Scott Stringer, a lot more work needs to be done.

New York City voters will be deciding several proposals for City Charter reform on the November ballot -- and I urge all readers of the Gotham Gazette to participate in this year's election. It's crucial that the people's voice be heard on such issues, and we're fortunate that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed a city Charter Revision Commission with intelligent, hard-working members who take their job seriously.


But I'm disappointed that voters will not be able to review a more comprehensive list of reforms this year -- changes that could have had a dramatic impact on everything from overcrowded schools and inefficient land use planning to innovative food use policies and the empowerment of our community boards. Indeed, I see this year's charter election as a missed opportunity. We have a mere handful of proposals before us this November, and no indication that a more thorough consideration of local government is in the offing.

With a 21-year-break since the last comprehensive charter revision, there was no need to rush the deliberate process of charter reform. And yet that's essentially what the commission did. It had a rare opportunity to engage New Yorkers in a careful re-thinking of our municipal constitution, but instead focused on getting a package before voters in this election.

Earlier this year my office released a 76-page report to the New York City Charter Revision Commission, outlining a series of comprehensive proposals for reform. The city could deal with these and other proposed changes and put them on the ballot next year -- but only if the mayor appoints and convenes a new commission. I strongly recommend that he do just that. With proper public hearings and input, we could finally have a long overdue discussion about the future of our city.

There are a number of instances where the current Charter Commission could have proposed action to remedy a problem facing New York but failed to do so. Here are just a few examples:

  • The issue of overcrowded schools, for example, shows no signs of abating. Every year we hear new horror stories of children unable to enroll in neighborhood schools because of a lack of space. The problem, as my office has shown in several reports, stems from a lack of planning. We revealed that, in one year, New York issued permits for residential construction that would bring 2,300 new students into Manhattan schools, but added only 143 new school seats.

The Department of Education may simply not be well equipped to do this critical planning, but other city agencies already have the expertise and data to plan. Therefore, my office proposed a charter revision requiring that an agency other than the Department of Education focus on this problem: The Department of City Planning would provide student enrollment projections; the Office of the Comptroller would conduct regular needs analyses on school capacity.

  • Our local Community Boardsare thriving in Manhattan, and they play an increasingly visible role in land use decisions. But they need better tools to represent our citizens. I proposed a charter amendment restoring the role of Community Boards as Community Planning Boards. Among a variety of recommendations, I suggested that each board should have the ability to hire a full-time urban planner. This would enable more robust community-based planning and give all of our neighborhoods a greater voice in decisions about New York’s future.
  • As borough president, I have spearheaded Go Green projects in East Harlem and the Lower East Side that promote more environmentally responsible policies and healthier and more sustainable food policy. Indeed, food is at the intersection of health, hunger and the local economy. Rates of diabetes and obesity rosean alarming 17 percent between 2002 and 2004. Today 1.6 million New Yorkers are on food stamps and 3.3 million have trouble affording food. That’s why I sponsored a proposal calling for a Department of Food and Markets to promote food access and economy, and make New Yorkers healthier.
  • For decades, the city's Department of Buildings has been plagued by corruption and dysfunction. Many buildings are notoriously unsafe, with only rare or sporadic inspections. In fall 2009, my office conducted a thorough review of open Department of Buildings and Environmental Control Board violations and foundthat there were nearly a quarter of a million open violations in Manhattan alone. A full third of those were considered "Class 1" or "hazardous." Violations in New York buildings remain open -- or unresolved -- for nearly five years on average. We can't keep waiting for tragedies to happen. I proposed a charter amendment transferring building inspection and remediation duties from the buildings department to a new and independent Office of Investigation.
  • The responsibilities of a borough president have evolved since the position was created in 1897. Today the charter mandates a key role in land use and capital budget decisions, contract oversight, strategic planning, oversight of community boards and appointments to key boards and commissions. The job is largely what you make it: In Manhattan I’ve launched Bank On, a program aimed at persuading thousands of unbanked New Yorkers to open accounts; we created a new 600-seat school as part of negotiations over NYU expansion; we opened a community asthma center in East Harlem that is one of the first of its kind.

    Although borough presidents are meant to be an independent check and balance to the mayor and City Council, their budgets are set and approved by those branches of government. I've proposed a charter amendment granting borough presidents independent budgetary authority, so these elected officials would have a freer hand. Another proposal would allow borough presidents to hire land use counsel to help them beef up planning reviews as they help shape the growth of our city.

    These are the kind of proposals that could and should be on the ballot next year, but only if Mayor Bloomberg appoints a new Charter Revision Commission. As borough president, I will continue to fight for meaningful charter reform, so we finally have a chance to tackle long overdue changes in the nation’s largest city. No one knows what needs to be improved in New York City’s government better than the 8 million people we’re supposed to serve. It's time to begin the conversation.

    Scott M. Stringer is Manhattan borough president.

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