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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Votes to Create Final Ballot Proposals

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Mayor Bill de Blasio casts his vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio to review and revise the city charter passed a resolution on Tuesday instructing its staff to create ballot proposals related to enhancing the municipal campaign finance system, increasing civic engagement and improving the role and structure of the city’s 59 community boards. At the same time, the commission punted on issues related to instant runoff voting and independent redistricting, leaving those to be resolved by a future charter revision commission.

The charter revision commission has spent months fielding testimony from experts, elected officials and members of the public on ways to improve the structure and functions of New York City’s government. In hours-long public hearings and community events across the five boroughs, and through expansive digital and social media outreach, the commission received hundreds of recommendations. After homing on a few broad areas, the commission largely came to agreement on several concrete proposals and directed its staff on Tuesday to prepare specific ballot questions along those lines. The resolution was approved with ten votes in favor, one against and one abstention.

On campaign finance, the commission proposed separate contribution limits depending on whether candidates choose to participate in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, which matches the first $175 of each contribution at a rate of 6-to-1.

The commission recommended a $2,000 contribution limit for participating citywide candidates, $1,500 for borough president candidates and $1,000 for City Council candidates. For those not participating in the program, the recommended limits were $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The commission also proposed matching the first $250 at an 8-to-1 ratio for citywide offices and the first $175 at 8-to-1 for borough president and City Council offices. They called for earlier disbursements of public funds and increasing the public funds cap from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for an office to 75 percent.

Matt Gewolb, executive director of the charter revision commission, said the proposed reforms would reduce the “perception of corruption” that New Yorkers feel about the current system and that had emerged in testimony before the commission.

Another ballot question the commission requested would create a citywide Civic Engagement Commission, inspired by Council Member Brad Lander’s legislative proposal for an Office of Civic Engagement.

The proposed CEC would launch a citywide participatory budgeting program, provide technical expertise to community boards, coordinate current civic engagement initiatives carried out by city agencies in partnership with the public and private sector, as well as promote and aid voter registration and access efforts. It would also be charged with developing initiatives for New Yorkers with limited English proficiency and expanding language access services in underserved and minority communities. The office would have to collaborate with the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs to expand voter education and outreach, and to ensure adequate interpretation services at polling sites.

The charter commission also proposed sweeping changes to community boards, by recommending ballot questions to establish term limits of four consecutive two-year terms with staggered implementation. The proposal would allow members who have already served for that amount of time to be reappointed if they are out of office for a full term. The commission endorsed reforms to the appointment process as well that would provide uniformity across the boroughs and called for annual reporting on the composition of community boards and recruitment and selection methods. Overall, the measures would ensure that community boards are “more reflective of the communities they represent,” Gewolb said.

Several commission members expressed disappointment that proposals on the two subjects that might have been the most consequential -- independent redistricting and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting -- were not included in the resolution, owing both to a lack of sufficient clarity and time to adequately explore the ramifications of each issue.

Commissioner Larian Angelo seemed wary of a proposal on instant runoff voting, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference so that if one candidate does not meet the threshold, the candidate with the least number of first-preference votes is removed and their votes redistributed. Angelo said IRV implementation had not been uniform in other jurisdictions and that it could potentially disenfranchise voters.

Most other commissioners, however, seemed to agree that it is a valuable measure to avoid costly runoffs and to encourage candidates to cast a wider net when appealing to voters. Commissioner Dale Ho echoed other commissioners as he said the commission’s “truncated process” over just a few months did not allow them to study the issue thoroughly.

Wendy Weiser, another commissioner, said she was “deeply persuaded” that reforms to the city’s redistricting process for the City Council should have been included, reiterating the opinions of several of her colleagues.

Commission Secretary Carlo Scissura was the sole dissenting vote on Tuesday’s resolution. He aired concerns that the campaign finance reforms could lead to “additional burdens on the taxpayer” by increasing the amount of public funds awarded to candidates in each cycle, and he also worried that the Civic Engagement Commission could potentially add “another layer of bureaucracy” for community boards to navigate.

But the commission did not entirely reject both issues, recommending that they be taken up by a subsequent commission. The New York City Council has in fact already launched its own charter revision commission, which held its first organizational meeting in mid-July and is working towards presenting its proposals for the November 2019 election, potentially allowing it to delve deeper into the mayoral commission’s unfinished business.

In the coming weeks, the mayoral commission’s staff will issue a final report containing the language on the several ballot proposals recommended on Tuesday. The commission will then meet again to vote on the report and to approve the questions before filing them with the city clerk before a September 7 deadline. The questions will be presented to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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