Council Member Fernando Cabrera (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
A day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced initial appointments to a Charter Revision Commission that he is convening to examine the city’s campaign finance laws, Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer testified before the City Council on their own alternative proposal to create a Commission to examine the structure of city government.
The Charter is the city’s seminal governing document, laying out the powers and functions of every level of city government. It is also a living document, and state law allows the mayor to create a 15-member Charter Revision Commission under his executive authority and also gives the City Council power to create one through legislation. Past mayors have availed of this power, some more than once. In February, de Blasio announced at his State of the City address that he intended to call a commission that could put proposals on the ballot for the November general election.
On Friday, speaking before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, James and Brewer advanced their proposal, which they had put before the Council in December and which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently signed on to as a lead co-sponsor. (The hearing had been on the schedule all week, perhaps explaining the timing of the mayor’s Thursday announcement.)
As opposed to the mayor’s commission, where he appoints all 15 members, the James-Brewer bill would allow other elected officials a say in the process. The mayor would get four appointments, as would the City Council speaker. The five borough presidents, the public advocate, and the comptroller would each get to choose one member. An updated version of the bill grants the Council speaker the power to appoint the commission’s chair, a change that coincided with Johnson signing on as a co-sponsor and the Council pushing ahead with Friday’s hearing.
James, in her opening statement, lauded the mayor’s intent in creating a commission but said it suffers from the same problems as previous commissions: “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.” During his State of the City and since, de Blasio has indicated he wants his commission to focus on campaign finance and electoral reform, though he has acknowledged that by law the commission can look at the entirety of the charter.
“The bill you will consider today...is a vehicle for a truly democratic and holistic process,” James said. Although both James and Brewer spoke of changes to the charter that they would be glad to see -- for instance, a stronger role for the Council in city budgeting, a greater voice for communities in land use decisions, enhanced oversight of city agencies -- they emphasized that those were not mandates that their proposed commission would be charged with. (Perhaps the only issue that James said she would not want on the table is changes to term limits for elected officials.) Rather, they would empower a commission to deliberate on the entire charter with ample time to consider the ramifications of any changes -- their commission would make proposals to go on the ballot in 2019.
“Those discussions will not be had if the mayor simply appoints a slate of proxies and tells them what conclusions to reach,” said James, a Democrat like de Blasio, Brewer, and Johnson who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2021.
James and Brewer also sought to dispel the notion that the commission they are proposing would competing with the mayor’s, pointing to the 2019 timeline and noting that they invited the mayor to join their effort. “This does not need to be a zero-sum game, or even a competition,” James said.
Brewer, in particular, emphasized that past commissions had been formed by mayors to fulfil particular agendas and that appointees of the mayor were unlikely to consider proposals that could curb, in any way, the power of the mayor’s office. “I think all of our ideas would benefit from the give and take and compromise that would be necessary in a commission not controlled by any one elected official,” she said.
Council Member Fernando Cabrera, chair of the committee, praised the bill and said he supported it because it was a “far better approach” than the mayor’s. “It will be a charter revision for everyone,” said the Bronx Democrat.
But, Council Member Kalman Yeger, who was just elected to the Council in November, wasn’t sure about the proposal. “My perspective is that I have some discomfort with outsourcing my work, if you will, to an unelected body of 15 people,” he said, noting that though the speaker may get appointments on a commission, the other 50 Council members would not. He also raised concerns about proposing ballot referenda in 2019, an off-year in the election cycle when voter turnout is expected to be extremely low.
James pushed back against those concerns. “I believe we should democratize this process,” she said, acknowledging that all the stakeholders in the commission would have to work hard to engage voters and generate interest in the revision process.
Yeger, a Brooklyn Democrat, also pointed out what is most ironic about the two commissions: that they are being proposed by Democrats who ardently opposed holding a Constitutional Convention to examine the state constitution, which was a question on the ballot last November. Both Brewer and James conceded that though they opposed the ConCon, as it was colloquially called, the charter revision process has sufficient checks and balances, particularly with diverse appointees on a commission.
James also noted that one of the big fears about the ConCon was about the individuals behind the curtain who would control it, which isn’t the case with their proposed commission. “There is no Wizard of Oz in this particular process,” she said. “It’s the Manhattan borough president and Letitia James, who you both know and work with.”
Representatives for the four other borough presidents also testified in support of the bill, as did a number of government reform groups and advocates.
Stanley Fritz, campaigns manager at Citizen Action of New York, encouraged the Council to set aside funds for a public education campaign to engage voters in the charter revision process. The bill currently calls for the Commission to hold at least one hearing in each of the five boroughs and to conduct extensive outreach to civic and community leaders.
Fritz also advocated for amending the bill’s prohibition on appointing lobbyists to the commission, insisting that it should ensure that only lobbyists employed by for-profit entities should be barred, and that those who advocate for non-profits should be allowed to serve. Otherwise, “it would exclude virtually the entire New York City good-government community, including the sorts of advocates who are testifying before you today,” he said.
Doug Muzzio, political science professor at Baruch College's School of Public and International Affairs, has also testified before an expert panel of the 2010 Charter Revision Commission created then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On Friday, he emphasized that any new commission should “articulate clear and compelling goals” related to broad subject areas such as governmental structure and land use, without which it would be directionless. He also said the commission should look at the unfinished business of past commissions, and “beware the unintended consequences,” though he didn’t offer specifics.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said the bill was “skeletal” and should add language to ensure that staff of those elected officials making appointments should be excluded from working for the commission. She also questioned why Speaker Johnson would be allowed to appoint the chair of the proposed commission, as opposed to the commission members choosing their own leader.
Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, had a few prescriptions for a potential commission. He said the speaker and mayor should jointly appoint the chair of the commission; and stressed that the commission should abide by the state’s Freedom of information and Open Meetings laws, and should require public posting of events, materials, reports and archives.
He also suggested that the bill include language requiring commission members and staff to solely use government emails to carry out their work and that any lobbying directed at the commission should be publicly reported.
Camarda also encouraged the Council and mayor to work together on one commission, warning that two commissions could result in “conflicting policy, public confusion, excessive politicization, inefficiency, and litigation.”
“There is no doubt two commissions convened in the same year would be unprecedented in recent memory and create a high degree of uncertainty,” he said.