(photo: Mihael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission held its final meeting at City Hall in July to officially approve the language of 19 ballot proposals that will be put before voters for the November 5 general election. (The commission dropped a proposal related to units of appropriation in the city budget, which had earlier been approved for inclusion.)
The meeting concluded a year of activity for the commission, which was created through legislation passed by the City Council and included members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, former Public Advocate and now State Attorney General Letitia James, and the five borough presidents. Over more than 65 hours of public hearings and meetings – and doubtless dozens of hours of discussions behind closed doors – the commission sifted through hundreds of suggestions about how to amend and improve the charter, the city’s governing document that establishes the powers and functions of municipal entities and officials.
The ballot proposals that the commission settled on are as varied as they are numerous, and are grouped into five overarching questions that will appear on the November ballot, when voters across the city will have few electoral races to decide but significant potential changes to city governance and elections to approve or disapprove. New York is also rolling out early voting for the first time, so voters will have nine days before Election day, from October 26 to November 3, to cast their ballots. (Early voting sites can be found here).
The ballot questions will be grouped by those about elections and redistricting; the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates police misconduct; ethics and government; city budget; and land use. New Yorkers will have to cast a “yes” or “no” vote on those questions, each of which needs a simple majority to be approved.
As the July 24 meeting in the City Council chambers got underway, it was almost immediately disrupted by Black Lives Matters protestors, who were displeased that the commission did not advance a measure to create a popularly-elected CCRB. Commission Chair Gail Benjamin was forced to recess the meeting temporarily until the protestors voluntarily departed.
There were few amendments proposed to the draft report that the commission had approved earlier. Commissioner James Caras said there was a lack of consensus on language for the units of appropriation proposal, but that he had been assured by the City Council and the mayor’s office that they would work together on the issue, which is about how clearly budget line items are presented, outside of the charter revision process.
Elections and Redistricting
The first of the three elections-related proposals would establish ranked-choice voting in primary and special elections for all city government seats beginning in January 2021. Ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, allows voters to rank as many as five candidates in order of preference. If no candidate meets a set threshold of first-preference votes after a first count, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to other candidates. The process continues till a candidate can be declared a victor. RCV eliminates costly and labor-intensive runoff elections in primaries for citywide seats and helps create a stronger sense of a popular mandate behind the winners of crowded elections.
The second proposal would extend the time between a vacancy and a special election, to bring it in line with state and federal laws. Currently, special elections are held after 45 days in case of a vacancy for public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents and council members, and after 60 days for the mayor's seat. The proposal would increase that period to 80 days.
The third proposal would change the timing of the process for redrawing City Council districts, which happens every ten years. The proposal would ensure that is it completed before candidates begin collecting petition signatures to get on the ballot for the next primary election after redistricting.
Civilian Complaint Review Board
The CCRB is an independent civilian agency charged with monitoring and investigating complaints of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers. The charter commission’s proposals would expand the Board’s membership from 13 to 15. One of the two new members would be appointed by the public advocate, and the second, who would also serve as chair, would be chosen jointly by the mayor and City Council speaker. The proposal also allows the Council to directly appoint members to the body rather than requiring the mayor’s approval.
Besides tweaking the structure, the ballot question also expands the CCRB’s authority. The board, with a majority vote, would be able to give the executive director subpoena power; it would receive a guaranteed personnel budget – equal to 0.65% of the NYPD's budget for uniformed officers – unless the mayor expressly determines otherwise; and it would allow the board to investigate and discipline officers for lying during a CCRB probe.
Another proposal requires that the NYPD commissioner provide a written explanation any time they do not abide by a disciplinary recommendation made by the CCRB or by the Police Department's Deputy or Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Trials.
Former city officials and employees currently face a one-year ban from appearing as a lobbyist before the agency or branch of government they served. The commission proposed expanding that to two years for anyone leaving their post after January 2022.
Commissioner Sal Albanese said it was a “modest improvement” on the revolving door of city officials and the lobbying industry, and proposed amending the implementation of that proposal to make it effective by January 2020. But his amendment failed.
“My ideal is a lifetime ban,” he rued. “I proposed a five-year ban, I settled for a two-year ban.”
The ballot question also contains significant changes to the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board. The board currently has five members appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. The ballot question would replace two members with one appointee each of the comptroller and the public advocate. It would also ban COIB members from working for political campaigns in the city and lower the maximum amount of money they can donate to campaigns to $400 (the “doing business” limit).
Another proposal in the question would give the City Council advice and consent power in the appointment of the corporation counsel, who heads the Law Department and is the city’s top lawyer; and it would also require the citywide director of the Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise program to directly report to the mayor and be backed by a mayoral M/WBE office.
Though the city sets aside billions of dollars each year in reserves that can be used in case of an economic slowdown, there is no specific charter-approved or -mandated fund for that purpose. The commission proposed allowing the creation of such a “rainy day fund” that can cover revenue shortfalls if the city should face them. This measure, however, would also require separate authorization from the state Legislature because of the city’s troubled fiscal history of decades ago.
Commissioner Stephen Fiala sought to set parameters for any proposed rainy day fund and tried to strengthen the language of the charter amendment. But that proposal, like Albanese’s, also failed to get support, with other commissioners worrying about the unintended consequences of last-minute changes.
The ballot question also proposes guaranteed budgets for the offices of the public advocate and the borough presidents, therefore preempting the mayor’s office from slashing their funding at its discretion. At minimum, these offices would receive a budget increase in line with inflation or the percentage by which the city’s expense budget increases, whichever is lower.
Two other proposals would give the City Council a more even hand in deciding budget allocations with the mayor’s office, requiring that the mayor provide non-property tax revenue estimates to the Council on an earlier timeline, and to provide proposed budget modifications to the Council within 30 days when making changes to the city’s financial plan.
On land use, the commission did not propose sweeping changes that many advocates wanted. Nonetheless, the ballot question proposed would give borough presidents and community boards more information and a somewhat greater voice in the approval of land use applications through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).
The proposal requires the Department of City Planning to provide detailed summaries of ULURPs to the borough representatives at a minimum of 30 days before the application is certified for public review. It would also give community boards additional time to review land use applications.
Election Day -- when the five questions with 19 proposed city charter amendments will be on the ballot -- is Tuesday, November 5. The charter commission will dedicate resources over the coming months to making sure that New Yorkers know they can and should go vote on the charter revision proposals in November.
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
Note - this article has been updated.