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2019 Charter Commission Report Indicates Areas of Focus for Crafting Ballot Proposals


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(photo: Michael Appleton/mayor's office)


The 2019 Charter Revision Commission released its preliminary staff report on Tuesday, outlining recommendations from staff to the commissioners to further examine and pursue proposals to change city governance. This summer, the 15 members of the commission will decide which changes to city governance they will put before voters in November.

The commission staff recommended moving ahead with consideration of changes to voting procedures, strengthening police accountability processes, reducing conflicts of interest for public servants, increasing the powers of the public advocate, and giving community boards and borough presidents a slightly stronger voice in the city’s land use process.

The commission has spent the last several months studying the New York City Charter, the city’s foundational governing document, and hearing from experts and members of the public about improvements to city governance and administration. The staff report’s recommendations were culled from more than 300 ideas proposed to the commission which, in December, narrowed its broad focus to the major topics of elections, governance, finance and land use.

The recommendations will underpin another round of public hearings, one in each borough, that will be held in the next three weeks before the commission releases its final proposals, which will be presented to voters on the November ballot for approval or disapproval.

One of the most significant proposals in the report is a recommendation that the commission consider establishing ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, for city elections. Currently, the city holds runoffs in citywide primary elections for mayor, comptroller, and public advocate if one candidate does not garner a requisite 40% of the vote. In other cases, the candidate with the most number of votes is simply declared the victor. The report said the commission should study which offices and elections would benefit from ranked-choice voting (primaries, specials, or general elections), whether it should be phased in and whether a hybrid system could be employed so that, if no candidate gets 40% after all ranked votes are counted, the race would move to a traditional runoff. 

Runoffs are cost- and labor-intensive and often show minimal voter turnout. Under ranked-choice voting, voters can rank candidates in order of preference and if no candidate meets the threshold for victory, the one with the least number of first-rank votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed until a winner emerges. This kind of system would help avoid a runoff like the one held in the 2013 Democratic primary for public advocate, which cost more than $11 million that year, or about four times the annual budget for the office at that time.

The report also recommends bringing the city’s special election timelines in line with the state’s, to give the Board of Elections adequate time to send out military ballots, and to give candidates elected in special elections a longer term to avoid holding an election so quickly after they take office. Case in point, Jumaane Williams became public advocate in February and will have to defend his seat later this year.

A prominent issue before the commission, and one that the de Blasio administration has struggled with, is the lack of accountability and transparency regarding police disciplinary procedures in the city. Advocates repeatedly urged the commission to consider giving the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints of abuse of power and force by police officers, more teeth and the commission staff seems to have heeded those pleas.

The report recommends further consideration of changes to how members of the CCRB are appointed, possibly by giving the public advocate an appointee on the board and allowing greater input by the City Council. It proposes that commissioners consider requiring the police commissioner to formally explain when he or she does not abide by the CCRB’s disciplinary recommendations and the creation of a non-binding disciplinary matrix that standardizes penalties for disciplinary violations. And, it recommends giving top staff at the CCRB the power to issue subpoenas and to investigate instances where police officers make false statements in ongoing CCRB investigations and prosecutions. 

As far as broader government oversight goes, the commission staff seemed to take a strong position on increasing the powers of non-mayoral entities. The report also pushes for giving subpoena power to the public advocate, if not some other mechanism to facilitate the office’s requests for information from city agencies and officials, and recommends exploring ways to give borough presidents increased authority as well.

The commission also explored stronger protections against conflicts of interest for public servants. The staff report proposes allowing the public advocate and comptroller to each appoint a member to the Conflicts of Interest Board, and recommends increasing the amount of time that former public servants are prohibited from lobbying city officials. Such post-employment restrictions, the report notes, are stronger at the state level than in the city.

A more esoteric area of conflicts that the report also addresses involves the Corporation Counsel, the city’s top lawyer. The report suggests requiring that appointment to be made for a set term with the advice and consent of the City Council, as opposed to a strictly mayoral appointment as it currently stands, as well as mandating that the corporation counsel issue a set of rules regarding how conflicts of interests are navigated when the office represents different city entities against each other.   

The report also recommends continuing to look at slightly shifting the balance of power in the city’s land use approval process, possibly by proposing that borough presidents and community boards get more time, potentially within a fixed window, to weigh in on land use applications before they are certified. Like in other areas of city governance, this potential proposed tweak is far less significant than some called for.

Several elected officials and urban experts who testified before the commission advocated for the requirement of the creation of a comprehensive plan for the city that takes a more holistic approach to the city’s future. With those proposals in mind, the commission staff detailed the city’s planning landscape, which they found is already vast, with as many as 12 separate kinds of planning-related documents, but does not necessarily fit together. The report recommends creating a “planning cycle” and incorporating all the disparate elements with clear progress indicators and a uniform public engagement process, among other things.

The report also attempts to improve the city budgeting process by requiring more transparency around budget units of appropriation -- which are meant to reflect spending on programs or personnel; clarifying the instances where the mayor can use impoundment powers; and requiring the city’s revenue estimate to be issued at an earlier date so it cannot be used as a political tool in budget negotiations. 

Separately, the report urges the commission to identify city agencies and offices that would be better served with either a guaranteed or independent budget. It mentions, for example, the public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents, Conflict of Interest Board, CCRB, Board of Correction, and Department of Investigation.

The report also takes stock of the city’s attempts to promote diversity in procurement through an Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises, run by a top official under the mayor’s office. The report points out that there is no legal requirement for that office to continue under future administrations and that it may be worthy of including one in the charter, headed by a deputy mayor or other senior official who reports to the mayor.

With hundreds of proposals presented to the commission, the staff took note of several that were worthy of inclusion but would be better pursued through local law passed by the City Council. They included a system of “democracy vouchers” for election campaign financing, improvements in nonprofit procurement, stipends for members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and shifting oversight of animal welfare away from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The charter revision commission will now hold a public hearing in each borough over the next several weeks in order to solicit feedback on the preliminary staff report and path ahead.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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