Gotham Gazette Sat, 28 Nov 2020 14:47:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) What's the [DATA] Point? 3, with Cesar Perales, Charter Commission Chair whats the data point

What's The [Data] Point? Episode 58 -- 3, Cesar Perales, chair of the mayor’s 2018 charter revision commission [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

cesarpicCesar Perales, chair of Mayor Bill de Blasio's 2018 Charter Revision Commission, joined the podcast to discuss the commission's work and the three ballot proposals it put forth that go before voters on Election Day: Tuesday, November 6, which deal with campaign finance reform, creating a civic engagement commission, and term limits for community board members, among other details.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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What's the [DATA] Point? 3, with Cesar Perales, Charter Commission Chair Thu, 01 Nov 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot charter revision commission 2018

The Charter Revision Commission (photo via Charter Commission)

After months of meetings and deliberations, thousands of suggestions and dozens of hours of public hearings, the charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted to put three broad questions on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the proposals would significantly reduce campaign contribution limits in city elections, create a new agency to civically engage the public, and apply term limits and appointment reforms to community boards.

De Blasio created the commission to review the city charter with an eye on reducing the impact of wealthy donors and special interests in electoral campaigns and drawing more New Yorkers to participate in elections and civic life. The 13-member commission largely stuck by that mandate, though it did consider and reject other significant proposals including independent redistricting of City Council districts and instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, which the mayor does not support. (A separate City Council-created charter revision commission is also beginning public hearings this month and could possibly take up the issues left unresolved by the mayoral commission. It will recommend ballot questions in 2019.)

On Tuesday, the members of the mayoral commission met for the final time, at the New York Historical Society west of Central Park, to approve their final report and three “yes” or “no” questions that will be put to voters on the November 6 general election ballot.

“Our job was to try to figure out what could make our city more just, more fair and more democratic and then to put it on the ballot to see if New Yorkers wanted the city to be run in this new fashion,” said Cesar Perales, chair of the commission, on Tuesday. “That’s what we did. I think we did that well and it’s going to be up to the voters in November to determine whether or not these things would be better for our city.”

The first question proposes expansive reforms to the campaign finance law and the city’s public matching funds program, which incentivizes grassroots fundraising by matching the first $175 of every eligible campaign contribution at a 6-to-1 ratio for candidates who choose to participate in the program.

The proposal would reduce contribution limits for participants from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide candidates, from $3,950 to $1,500 for candidates for borough president, and from $2,850 to $1,000 for City Council seats. The proposed limits for those who choose not to opt in to the program are $3,500, $2,500 and $1,500 respectively.

The proposal also increases the matching ratio to 8-to-1 for the first $250 raised by a citywide candidate and for the first $175 raised for all other seats. It would increase the cap on public funds disbursements from 55 percent to 75 percent of the spending limit for a seat, while also doling out the funds earlier in the election cycle.

There was some clear disagreement about how the new campaign finance rules would be applied. A majority of commissioners agreed that candidates should be able to choose to abide by the new rules for the next citywide primary in 2021, and that the rules would be mandatory thereafter.

Two of the commissioners, John Siegal and Wendy Weiser, disagreed with that implementation plan, though both voted to approve the question. “I do not think it is wise public policy to have a situation in which regulated parties get to make the decision as to whether they will or will not follow new regulations,” Siegal said. “I cannot think of another situation in which a regulatory agency has been put in that position. I do not think its necessary. I actually don’t think there’s any benefit to it.” He did, however, hold out hope that candidates would see the benefit of voluntarily participating, since the lower contribution limits would be accompanied by potentially more public funds.

“While I do share the concern about having a choice, I am heartened by the assurances that this is really unlikely to come to pass,” Weiser said, “that everyone is really likely to follow the new system. It is the one that makes much more sense.”

Carlo Scissura, the commission secretary, was the sole dissenting voice on the campaign finance question. He conceded that the commission published an “overall great report” but has in past hearings expressed doubts about increasing the taxpayer contribution by creating a larger public matching funds program. “I wish that on the campaign finance, that we took a little different approach but it does reflect the will of what we heard and the will of the majority of the commission,” he said.

The second question, which was unanimously approved, would create a new 15-member Civic Engagement Commission, with eight appointed by the mayor -- including the chair and executive director -- two by the City Council speaker and one each by the five borough presidents. The mayor would have to appoint at least one member from each of the city’s largest and second-largest political parties, which, likely in perpetuity, means Democrats and Republicans.

Among the roles the commission would play are administering a citywide participatory budgeting program starting in 2020 (it’s currently employed by City Council members in dozens of districts); providing interpreters at poll sites; working on civic engagement with advocacy groups and nonprofit service providers, with a particular eye on outreach to limited English-language speakers; and providing annual reports on progress on those fronts. The proposal also allows the mayor to delegate more powers and responsibilities to the commission.

The notion of an Office of Civic Engagement has recently been pushed forward by City Council Member Brad Lander, who has introduced legislation to create one. If approved, the charter revision creation of such a commission would appear to negate Lander’s legislation. The Brooklyn Council member testified to the commission about the idea of creating a civic engagement body and has held his legislation as the charter commission proceeded with its work.

The most controversial proposals the commission is putting on the November ballot deal with community boards, the most local form of city government. The third question would establish staggered term limits for community board members, to reduce mass simultaneous turnover. Those members appointed or reappointed on or after April 1, 2019, would be allowed to serve four consecutive two-year terms; those appointed on April 1, 2020 may serve five terms; and those appointed after that would again only serve four terms.

The commission also recommended changes to the appointment process, to make it consistent across the five boroughs and to promote diverse membership. The civic engagement commission, if passed, would also be tasked with providing technical assistance to community boards, particularly urban planning expertise and language access. Eleven commissioners voted in favor of the question, while Commissioner Angela Fernandez abstained from the vote.

The commission’s final report was also approved unanimously, and the questions will be delivered to the City Clerk to place on the ballot, giving the commission two months to educate and inform New Yorkers that they’ll be able to choose more than just candidates in November, when New Yorkers will be voting largely on state-level elected positions, including for Governor and members of the state Legislature.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Puts Three Questions on November Ballot Tue, 04 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report de Blasio McCray voting

Mayor de Blasio votes (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

With less than two months left to complete its work, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission released a preliminary report on Tuesday outlining five broad issue areas -- campaign finance, municipal elections, civic engagement, community boards, and redistricting -- that it will continue to explore in public hearings and community events over the next two weeks.

The report was prepared by the commission staff after two initial rounds of hearings held in the last three months across the city at which members of the public, advocacy groups, subject matter experts, and elected officials recommended improvements to the City Charter. “New Yorkers have been engaged since the start of this process and this report reflects the wide range of issues we discussed in all five boroughs,” said Cesar Perales, commission chair, in a statement.

Though the commission was empowered to examine the entire charter, it closely followed the mayor’s brief in empaneling it: that it look at improving electoral participation and reducing the effects of money in city elections. At a meeting on Tuesday at Pratt University, the commission members discussed their positions and concerns on the staff report. 

An outline of the commission report was provided to Gotham Gazette and other news outlets Monday evening. To reform the campaign finance system, the staff recommends in its report that the commission should consider ballot proposals to lower donor campaign contribution limits and enhance the Campaign Finance Board’s voluntary public matching funds program, which currently matches small-dollar contributions at a 6-to-1 ratio and is seen as a national model. The CFB caps the amount of matching funds a participating candidate can receive at 55 percent of the spending limit for the position they are seeking. The report recommends a proposal to increase that cap. Those suggestions are in line with the ones made by the CFB to the commission.  

Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, urged caution about the level of increase in matching funds, noting that more and more candidates run for office each election cycle. "Let’s be careful of the city budget," he said. Commissioner John Siegal worried that lowering contribution limits could affect people's First Amendment rights and could only be justified with a "compelling anti-corruption rationale", while Commissioner Sharon Greenberger said the commission should carefully consider the timing of rolling out changes to the campaign finance system.  

The staff report is less definitive on improving municipal elections through voting reforms, urging the commission to continue reviewing proposals such as instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, and improved language assistance services. Perales said there was no unanimity among his colleagues on instant runoffs. Some found it "intriguing" while others like Commissioner Larian Angelo wanted more data on its benefits and drawbacks. Perales also noted that the commission can do little to change election law, which falls under state jurisdiction. "This is going to be a tough one," he conceded. 

Voter participation could also be improved through civic engagement, the report states. The commission has been assessing a proposal, put forward by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander, to create a new Citywide Office of Civic Engagement. At hearings, commission members have spoken of the idea approvingly, and the staff report suggests that they evaluate how that office would function, how it would be structured and whether it can bolster the city’s DemocracyNYC and participatory budgeting programs. On Tuesday, though, Perales said it was another area where the commission lacked consensus. Scissura, for instance, said he was "a fan of less bureaucracy," and did not support the creation of a new office. Participatory budgeting was a more popular subject, with a few commissioners agreeing to explore ways to expand it across the city. 

On community boards, the staff recommends term limits that can diversify board composition, a standardized appointment process, increased resources, and ensuring representative membership. Commissioner Marco Carrion, who is also Commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said Tuesday that the commission report was a "very good starting point" on how to democratize community boards.

The most complex and perhaps most politically charged question before the commission was whether they could make improvements to the process of redistricting City Council boundaries. There are currently 51 Council districts across the five boroughs, the lines of which will be impacted by the next U.S. Census, set for 2020. But, the charter commission may recommend to voters a change to the redistricting process, which could even include changing the number of Council districts.

The charter commission report does not take a hard position on redistricting other than recommending that the commission keep studying it, keeping in mind “procedures to address the effects of the redistricting process on the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups,” including perhaps independent review mechanisms. The report also underscores the importance of limiting the role of elected officials in districting commissions and putting in place plans to mitigate the effects of a potential undercount in the 2020 census from the addition of a citizenship question by the Trump administration, a plan that is currently the subject of litigation. On Tuesday, it was clear that the commissioners were not in full agreement. Commissioner Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, stressed that redistricting needs to be "more inclusive" to reflect the city's diversity, and Perales said the commissioners "need to see alternatives" to the current process to make an informed decision. 

“This preliminary staff report reflects a focus on civic life and democracy in New York City — a theme that is particularly appropriate and relevant in contemporary times,” said Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, in a statement.

The commission’s final report is expected by the end of August and its proposals, which will be presented as ballot referenda in the November general election, are due by September 7 at the latest. The mayor’s commission is also distinct from another one created through legislation by the New York City Council, which held its first meeting on Monday evening at City Hall and aims to put its proposals on the November 2019 ballot.

[Read: Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with coverage of the commission's meeting on Tuesday, July 17.  

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform bill charter

(photo via the Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission, convened to examine the city’s central governing laws, concluded the second leg of its public input process last week with a series of forums where they sought expert opinions on campaign finance reform, electoral access, civic engagement, redistricting of City Council boundaries, land use decision-making, and community boards. As the commission continues to narrow its tentative list of proposals to present to voters on the ballot in November, Commission Chair Cesar Perales, a former secretary of state of New York, said in a phone interview that commission members are not looking to “invent the wheel” but rather are focused on improving the functions and structure of city government where they can.

The mayor formed the commission with specific ideas in mind, that it explore ways to minimize the impact of money in elections and increase electoral participation in a city increasingly known for low voter turnout. “[O]ne of the things we’re going to do in this city is we’re going to present to the people in November a ballot initiative for public financing of elections to take our already very progressively public finance system for elections and build upon it even more deeply to get big money out of politics,” de Blasio said in his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday.

Though de Blasio made his priorities understood before naming the 15 members of the panel, any charter commission created by mayoral fiat has unlimited reign over its agenda and can consider all issues pertaining to what is essentially the city’s constitution.

After a first round of open-ended public hearings, the commission homed in on four major areas on which subject-matter experts provided testimony: election administration, voter participation, and voting access; campaign finance; community boards and land use; civic engagement and independent redistricting. “I just had a series of conversations with individual commission members and I think there’s a universal sense that we’ve identified the right issues,” Perales said in the interview on Wednesday.

“We don’t have to invent the wheel,” he later added. “There are things going on out there...If it’s a good idea, then it’s something we as the members of the commission ought to be thinking about. Is it something that belongs in the charter? Is it something that ought to be done citywide?”

The mayor’s announcement about the commission initially raised eyebrows, with City Council members and government reform groups questioning the rationale behind it. Changes to the campaign finance system are usually made legislatively through the City Council and are largely based on recommendations from the independent and nonpartisan New York City Campaign Finance Board, which issues a detailed report after each four-year election cycle.

Perales said the commission was justified in taking on that role. “You’re saying the City Council could do this. The reality is, they haven’t,” he said. “The reality is that there may be political reasons why it’s much more difficult for somebody who’s concerned about reelection to become engaged in campaign financing. I’m not running for reelection. I listen to people and come to the conclusion as to what is fair, what would work better, how do we get money out of our elections.”

Perales also cited the commission’s focus on redistricting, a process in which experts insist that incumbent elected officials and those seeking office should be excluded. “There’s another example where we can look objectively as to whether or not the way districts are being drawn today is the best way to do them,” Perales said. “We don’t have to worry about running on those lines. We can listen to, for example, the Asian community saying ‘We are disadvantaged by the way lines have been drawn in the past and there must be a better way.’”

At the same time, the commission’s creation has led some City Council members to hold off on legislation lest it become a part of the agenda. For instance, Council Member Brad Lander’s proposal to create an Office of Civic Engagement -- for which he introduced a bill in the Council -- has been front and center in the commission’s discussions and Lander has said that he will avoid pushing it forward if it is taken up by the commission. Lander testified at length at the commission’s expert hearing on civic engagement.

Other bills at the Council on campaign finance have similarly been static as the commission could potentially propose the same or additional reforms. On campaign finance particularly, government reform groups have privately expressed concern that the commission could propose a drastic overhaul of the existing campaign finance program, which is considered a national model. “Clearly we’re looking to use this opportunity to improve the way things work that need to be improved,” Perales said. “Whether it’s a major overhaul or a minor overhaul, we will ultimately find out and it’ll be in the eyes of the beholder as to whether or not it is major overhaul.”

On electoral access and participation, there’s less latitude for the commission to make major improvements since those fall under state law, a factor the commission has kept well in mind. “Of course, we certainly don’t want to do something that is going to run up against the state Board of Elections or violate the state constitution,” Perales said. “We’re doing a lot of talking to the lawyers as to what we can do and how far we can push the envelope...Anyone who’s been at these hearings will know that lots of things that people want us to do are things that we don’t have the power to do. And we’re trying to figure out what it is we can do.”

The commission is expected to again foray into the five boroughs to solicit opinions on the more narrower list of issues. Internally, Perales said, there is no final consensus on any one issue, nor is there major disagreement and no ideas have been rejected outright. The commission staff is currently preparing a preliminary report with the pros and cons of a number of proposals, he said, which will then be aired to the public.

Perales himself is “piqued” by Lander’s OCE proposal while participatory budgeting received “universal praise” from members, he said, referring to the City Council’s current program carried out in select districts and suggestions that it be expanded citywide. He was also impressed with Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony before the commission on community boards, wherein Stringer recommended that each community board hire a professional urban planner and train members in issues related to land use.

There has been debate, of course. One idea that has overwhelming support among good government groups and also prominent elected officials is instant runoff voting, also known as ranked-choice voting, which helps avoid costly and laborious run-off elections with low turnout. Most believe it is a no-brainer. Perales disagrees.

“I don’t know that it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think there are some people who still like the idea that everybody would get to vote for the two finalists,” he said, speculating that in an instant runoff, voters choices might be invalidated completely if they fail to pick either of the top two vote getters. “So there are arguments. On the commission, there is not a total agreement on an issue as complicated as this,” Perales said. “Just as there is no total agreement immediately on what the campaign limits ought to be in terms of contributions. This is a lot more complicated than people like to think.”

It is widely expected that the commission will recommend lowering the maximum contribution amount allowed by an individual to a candidate. There are also expectations that the commission will propose an increase in public matching funds that candidates can earn.

An ironic aspect of the entire exercise is that even as the commission delves deep into suggestions around improving civic participation to get New Yorkers informed and engaged across the city, the commission hearings have received little attention in the media. “I’ve been around long enough to not be surprised by this,” Perales said, expressing some disappointment. “Most people don’t understand what the city charter is, how it gets changed and what it does...Obviously I would have preferred greater attention to it but I’m not surprised. It’s certainly not going to affect the way I approach it, and I don’t think it’s going to affect the way any of the commission members approach this.”

[Read Gotham Gazette’s full coverage of the mayor’s charter revision commission here]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Chair Says Charter Commission Will Step In Where Politics Has Slowed Reform Fri, 29 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use corey jo comm board 2

A community board meeting (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The mayor’s Charter Revision Commission met on Tuesday at the Pratt Institute for the third of its four expert advisory issue forums, this time discussing potential changes to community boards and the city’s land use process. The first meeting, held last Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform, while the second, held last Thursday, focused on campaign finance reform.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Chair Cesar Perales, will finalize a list of proposed changes to the city charter by early September that will then appear on the general election ballot in November for voters to approve or disapprove.

Stakeholders and experts such as City Comptroller Scott Stringer, community board members, academics, and advocates provided commentary and recommendations for the commission regarding the issues of community boards and land use; on some issues, the panelists and the commissioners all seemed to be in broad consensus, while on others there was evident discord.

One area of relative cohesion was a recommendation that all community boards have a full time expert on urban planning as a paid staff member, though it is unclear that this would rise to the level of being charter-mandated (there has been City Council legislation introduced to make such a requirement for each community board, which, if passed, would become a part of the city’s administrative code, not the charter). Most community boards are said to be understaffed and rely on volunteers to do important work; board members are all volunteers, which can both tilt the demography of the boards in certain directions, like wealthier than the represented area, and lends itself to a general lack of intimate knowledge of planning.

Stringer, who noted that he became the youngest ever appointee to a community board in 1977 at the age of 16, made his position clear, saying “what is truly needed” is “a full time urban planner on the staff of every community board.”

“The sole responsibility of this planner would be to support the board’s analysis in the development of recommendations on land use matters and to coordinate community based planning activities,” he continued. “Expertise of the urban planner would better enable community boards to conduct comprehensive community planning.” Stringer said the urban planner should have a degree in urban planning, architecture, real estate development, public policy, “or similar disciplines,” and that the city must “include the necessary budget appropriations to fund this position.”

“A community planner would be a game-changer in communities that are experiencing extraordinary land use applications, and quite frankly, they don’t have the expertise and they’re at a tremendous disadvantage,” Stringer said.

Kyle Bragg, a charter revision commissioner and secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, questioned whether all community boards would need a land use professional, saying that land use applications (ULURPs) are not constantly being considered in a community board like Far Rockaway as much as in Midtown Manhattan. Stringer disagreed, saying that development is occurring all over the city and that “gentrification knows no bounds.”

Stringer also recommended that the city provide training on issues of land use to members of community boards on a periodic basis, something that Stringer said he prioritized as Manhattan Borough President (borough presidents appoint most community board members in their respective boroughs).

Stringer did not, however, endorse community board member term limits, breaking with some of his fellow testifiers. “When you have term limits, you also have a lame duck status that sets in,” he said. “We’re gonna see that with people now in their fifth year wondering what office they’re gonna run for next, and I dare say you’re gonna see a lot of musical chairs and people thinking about the future, not necessarily the job in front of them. And that’s just the reality of elected term limits,” he said, in apparent reference to the dozens of City Council members, five borough presidents, and three citywide officials who are all term-limited at the end of the current term. Instead, he endorsed a process undertaken during his borough presidency of periodic reviews of board members, reappointing those doing a good job and sacking those who weren’t.

Community board members who testified did not offer unequivocal support to term limits.

“I think it takes a couple of years to try to figure out how to write a resolution, how to understand city government,” said Shah Ally, chair of Manhattan Community Board 12. “But I also don’t think you need to be on the board 30 years, either.”

Rachel Bloom of government reform group Citizens Union, meanwhile, took an unambiguous stance in favor of term limits.

“Community board members should be term-limited, serving [up to] five consecutive two-year terms,” she said, while noting that the term limits should be phased in gradually to “ensure there is not a mass exodus of institutional knowledge from the boards.”

Stringer claimed that community boards have deviated significantly from their ancestral origin in 1951, at the impetus of Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, as Community Planning Boards. The comptroller said that, with numerous elected officials maintaining district offices, the use of community boards for constituent services draws resources away from the more integral tenet of land use.

During the portion of the commission hearing focused on land use, two general themes played out among the speakers: that the land use process does not adequately facilitate community input and that the process is more geared toward short-term zoning concerns and less toward long-term community planning.

“The symptom of the conflict, the neighborhood-city conflict, throughout much of the ULURP process that can both stop good things from happening and also not give communities power over unneeded or unwanted uses, is a sense that there is no ability to proactively community plan,” said Moses Gates, the vice president of housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That unless you’re able to put forth a positive vision that has some oomph behind it, and some ability to be recognized, that the only option you’re left with is an option of obstruction, or an option of essentially trying to go through the process and make the best of what might be perceived as a bad deal.”

Gates recommended the creation of an “Office of Community-Based Planning” to assist communities, and community boards, in land use and planning. Gates also recommended a charter codification of a “fair share” program, wherein communities shoulder burdens of ill-desired land uses, like a sewage treatment plant for instance, equally, instead of being shouldered disproportionately by communities without the political and social capital to fight those land uses.

“Planning is more than land use,” said Elena Conte, director of policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development. “It properly considers the systems and the structures into which land use fits. It’s about the social, environmental, and economic wellbeing, and land use is not planning. And so I think we are asking the wrong questions of our land use procedures, right? Both government, stakeholders, developers, and communities feel as though too much is being lumped onto the process unfairly.”

Others, such as Hunter College professor Tom Angotti, said that the important decisions are often made unaccountably in the “pre-ULURP” process, meaning a period before the city’s official Uniform Land Use Review Process that takes land use decisions from developers or the City Planning Department to community boards to the Borough President and Borough Board to the City Planning Commission and, finally, to the City Council.

“All those discussions that go on, side discussions, agreements that get made behind closed doors, are part of the undemocratic process that precedes ULURP,” said Angotti. “And it’s followed by a series of public hearings, at the community level, at the borough president level, at the City Planning Commission level, at the City Council level, which are more theater than true democracy. Why? Because we’re stuck in a method for participation that is bankrupt.” Angotti noted that concerned citizens are often forced to wait hours in order to testify for three minutes to a few sleepy-eyed bureaucrats.

Angotti also recommended that ULURP decisions be made based on preordained “197-a” plans submitted by community boards, rather than on an ad hoc basis. Since the 1989 charter revision that established 197-a plans considerable by the City Planning Commission, only 17 community plans have been submitted to the city.

“The biggest single reform could be a charter requirement that every ULURP action be consistent with a 197-a plan,” forcing both community boards to submit such plans and the City Planning Commission to take them seriously and not simply shelve them.

Commision Chair Perales, however, criticized the land use panel of testifiers as failing to clearly present their recommendations in a digestible manner.

“We are supposed to put something clear and concrete before the voters,” Perales said. “We’re not decision-makers here. We’re here to determine what it is the issues that you think should be addressed in a revision of the city charter. And if you have the opportunity, or are so inclined, maybe go back and send us something that will help us to digest, better understand, what your positions are on what we can do about land use with what are gonna be relatively minor changes in the city charter.”

“Remember,” he continued, “you don’t want to go into the voting booth and have to review a three page referendum that this planning commission put before you, so we have a tough job, and while we have been persuaded by many of your comments, I’m not so sure we understand how to put it before the voters.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Community Boards and Land Use Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting and Elections de blasio voting charter

(photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

The New York City Charter Revision Commission called by Mayor Bill de Blasio convened on Tuesday afternoon to collect expert testimony on ways to foster increased participation in municipal elections.

Eleven of the commission’s 15 members sat at the hearing, which was divided into two parts, one focused generally on voting rights and election administration in the city, and a second centered on the ranked-choice voting system, otherwise known as instant runoff primaries, that may be proposed to voters later this year, among other measures deemed appropriate by the commission.

The charter revision commission was established by de Blasio in April and is charged with collecting public input on recommendations to amend or revise the Charter of the City of New York, a slate of proposals that will be made official in September and placed on the ballot in November. Though any charter revision commission is able to look at any aspect of city governance it chooses, de Blasio said he was forming this commission to look at voting, elections, and campaign finance reform.

After an open hearing in each borough where members of the public were invited to testify, the commission announced its focus areas, which led it to four additional public meetings to hear from invited experts.

Panelists for the first portion of Tuesday’s hearing — Catherine Gray, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the City of New York; Perry Grossman, of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project; Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause New York; Jerry Vattamala, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Andrew Wilkes, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Generation Citizen — spoke at length about specific challenges facing New York City voters and what they identified as problems with the city’s electoral system.

Grossman opened testimony recounting the “archaic voting practices” restricting voting in the city. New York State (and thus the city), he said, does not allow early voting, automatic registration, same-day registration, or online voting registration, and has restrictive access to absentee ballots.

Adopting these measures, as several states and other municipalities have already done, would go far to increase voter turnout here, Grossman said, pointing out that New York State ranked 47th nationally in voter registration and 44th nationally in turnout for the 2016 Presidential Election.

His suggestions to the commission, including instating early voting and strengthening the ability of city agencies to electronically transmit voter registration records to the Board of Elections were echoed by several other panelists.

But they ran up against a question inherent to the commission’s role as a city body attempting structural change with statewide and national implications: How far can it go?

Commission Chair Cesar Perales, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s former Secretary of State, told Grossman that it’s “not clear what the city can do on its own without violating state law,” specifically with regard to expanding access to absentee ballots, which is legislated by the state. All of the reforms Grossman called for have been the topic of debate in Albany, where they have failed to pass the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Commissioner Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, echoed Perales’ concerns, asking Grossman if New York City’s home rule gives it greater freedom in running its own elections to the extent that it could offer expanded voting rights for municipal elections while retaining restrictive measures for state and federal elections.

Grossman answered affirmatively, and several others who testified, advocating for measures ranging from lowering the voting age to 16 to enfranchising non-citizens to adopting voter pre-registration, proposed similar systems of tiered franchise, by which the city could give new classes of New Yorkers the ability to vote in local elections, but not anywhere else.

Several panelists also pointed out that the city’s lackluster language services restrict voting in what is, by some measures, the world’s most lingually-diverse place.

Vattamala, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, focused his testimony on this hindrance, recounting the Board of Elections’ repeated failures to provide City Council-mandated translation services. The BOE is a state entity that the city funds and thus has some oversight of.

In 1990, Vattamala explained in providing examples, after the City Council ordered the provision of Chinese-language voting services, the Board of Elections sent Mandarin translators to the mainly Cantonese-speaking Chinatown in Manhattan and Cantonese translators to the mainly Mandarin-speaking Chinatown in Queens.

In 2000, the Board of Elections mistranslated Chinese ballots in the primary election, writing “Democrat” where the English said “Republican” and vice-versa, and, in 2013, the Board simply failed to provide the Bengali-language ballots necessary in Queens.

Horror stories of the Board of Elections were widely-recounted at the hearing. Common Cause’s Lerner spoke of the BOE preventing translators from entering polling stations during the November 2016 election, and failing to implement several initiatives of the City Council and the previous charter revision commission.

Several commissioners seemed keenly aware of the difficulties of enacting whatever they may propose for a new charter.

Commissioner Rachel Godsil responded to Lerner’s specific suggestions to the commission — that the charter should amplify a constitutional right to vote, clarify conflicts of interest law, and consolidate and enhance already-existing city agencies, among other proposals — with a question about the feasibility of effecting change.

With the Board of Elections not following previous recommendations, she said, “can we do anything?”

Later, Commissioner Larian Angelo asked a panelist who’d spoken at length about incompetence among some poll workers how, in that case, she could see “any reforms happen, ever?”

Panelists offered several ideas for accountability mechanisms for the commission’s recommendations, but the question of enforcement remained.

Throughout the three-hour hearing, the commissioners’ faces betrayed little. A few times throughout, a commissioner seemed particularly interested in a suggestion: Commissioner Dale Ho nodded when Andrew Wilkes suggested lowering the municipal voting age to 16; Wendy Weiser nodded at the proposal that the city’s charter offer an express right to vote in local elections.

While the problems and solutions brought up at the first half of the hearing ranged widely in scope and subject, the second half was tightly focused on ranked-choice voting, a reform that has widespread support and appears likely to be included in the commission’s recommendations.

Ranked-choice voting is a system used in 16 American cities and in limited capacity in several states, including Maine and Virginia. It allows voters to specify a first-choice candidate, second-choice candidate, third-choice, and so on, until the legal maximum. If no candidate wins a majority -- or whatever the set threshold -- in the first round of voting, the least-supported candidate (or, in some jurisdictions, all but the top two) is disqualified, and that candidate’s voters have their votes added to the totals of their second choices. Low-performing candidates are winnowed off until a single candidate has amassed enough votes to claim victory.

Four panelists — Rob Ritchie of Fair Vote; Jerry Vattamala; Susan Lerner; Grace Wachlarowicz of the Minneapolis City Clerk’s Office; and David Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute — seemed to support New York City adopting ranked-choice voting. (Though Wachlarowicz clarified, for the record, that, as a civil servant, she could not personally advocate for or against a political proposal.)

Panelists explained what they saw as the benefits: incentives for candidates to appeal to voters beyond their base; cost-saving; and retained participation relative to an expensive and poorly-attended runoff election, which is the current next-step if a candidate does not win in the first round of voting; and, based off the results in American jurisdictions that have implemented ranked-choice, seemingly increased election of candidates of color.

The commissioners seemed generally supportive, or, at least, interested in the system.

Commissioner John Siegal told Ritchie that he has “an open mind about this proposal,” and questions to those testifying mainly concerned the commissioners’ own understanding and feasibility concerns, like cost and machine malfunctions.

When the final expert, Hofstra University Professor Craig Burnett, spoke about the system’s flaws, which include “ballot exhaustion,” the prospect that all of an individual’s ranked choices will be eliminated in early rounds of vote-counting, and racial and ethnic minorities being less likely to complete a full ballot and therefore facing a higher risk of exhaustion, he faced a less-friendly commission.

Chair Perales interrupted Burnett during his five minutes of testimony, which he had not done to any other panelist, and asked Ritchie to “retort” immediately following Burnett’s speech.

The final round of questioning was more free-wheeling than previous rounds, which had been directed at a single panelist. In closing the hearing, the commission asked the assembled experts about the risks of strategic voting, dynamics of incumbent power, minority community representation, and effects on campaign finance.

Then, citing “commission exhaustion,” Perales asked for a motion to adjourn. The commission will hold a second of its four expert hearings on Thursday, with a focus on campaign finance.

[Read: Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Focus Areas]

by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to clarify remarks made to the commission by Perry Grossman.

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Voting and Elections Tue, 12 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Preliminary Agenda img 5961

The charter revision commission meets (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission announced its initial areas of focus on Thursday, hewing closely to the mayor’s mandate that the members look at campaign finance and electoral reforms as they review the city’s governing document.

The commission homed in on its preliminary agenda after public hearings across the city in the last two months where the commissioners heard from elected officials, various advocacy groups, and members of the public in each borough. They also sought insight from city officials and heads of agencies.

In a resolution passed at Thursday’s meeting, the commission decided to delve deeper into a few broad areas: voter participation and measures to improve elections, including instant runoff voting; reforms to the city’s campaign finance system; fair representation in city government, particularly through independent redistricting of City Council districts; and strengthening civic engagement, including through exploring the role of community boards.

Over the next month, the commission plans to convene three hearings with subject matter experts to testify and participate in panel discussions on the preliminary agenda, even as it continues to drill down on the hundreds of recommendations made in the last few weeks to find areas of broader public interest.

Commission Chair Cesar Perales acknowledged early on in the Thursday meeting, held at the Pratt Institute in Manhattan, that the commission has a tight deadline for its work since its proposals are to go to the voters on the ballot in November, meaning they must be in to the Board of Elections in early September. He speculated that the commission may have to hold a fourth issue-focused hearing.

“Maybe on further analysis, we might find that there’s another issue that we ought to be focusing on, because the comments keep coming,” he said.

Matt Gewolb, executive director of the commission, echoed that sentiment. He said the initial agenda had been derived from more than 400 recommendations made by more than 100 people at the various hearings, on social media, through phone calls, and even snail mail to the commission’s office. But he noted that the agenda was not just limited to the issues approved on Thursday. “While these themes have emerged as most central, we continue to systematically review and consider each and every comment received by the commission,” he said.

In particular, Gewolb said the commission is still analyzing testimony around land use issues, which he said has emerged as an area of interest both in public testimony and for particular commissioners. For instance, at some hearings, people have recommended that community boards should have a greater voice in the city’s land use review procedure and that their role in those decisions should be more than just advisory.

“As neighborhoods are fighting back against gentrification, is this part of the impetus for wanting to review land use?,” wondered Commissioner Una Clarke, a former City Council Member from Brooklyn.

Perales agreed that it was an important aspect of the conversation. “I take that as a recommendation that when we, and I think we should but we haven’t made that decision yet, when we make land use part of our expert analysis and discussion, that we include not just facilitating development or building but that we also look at the issue of gentrification,” he said.

Wendy Weiser, another commissioner, suggested that land use be discussed in the same vein as the role of community boards and fostering civic engagement, “because that will be one of the main issues that people will want to get involved in in their communities that might bring them to participate.”

Land use also seemed to be a priority for Carlo Scissura, secretary of the commission, who is also president and CEO of the New York Building Congress. He emphasized that the commission should do “something separate on it,” possibly at one of the expert panels in June.

Commissioners raised various other questions and issues. Scissura brought up nonpartisan elections, which Gewolb said needs more review. Commissioner Kyle Bragg, secretary-treasurer of labor union 32BJ SEIU, said the commission could also look at representation in community boards and, separately, the structure and functions of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which examines complaints about police misconduct.

“I’m scared to death of having 42 expert hearings,” Perales said as he prepared to close the hearing. “I’m going to force staff to see if they can do this in a manageable way so that we can get expert counsel and advice on as many issues as possible. And If they have to eliminate some issues, it’ll have to be those that were not raised very often. We have to be guided by what the community said they were interested in.”

The first subject matter hearing is set for June 14. Following those hearings, the commission will release a report of its preliminary recommendations and will again put those to the public with another round of hearings in all the boroughs.

The commission’s final recommendations are due by September 7.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Preliminary Agenda Thu, 31 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Starts Its Work charter commission first meeting

Charter Revision Commission (photo: Samar Khurshid)

A commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to review the City Charter and propose reforms to how city government functions kicked off its work on Thursday with its first public meeting in Downtown Manhattan.

Huddled elbow-to-elbow at tables stretching across an auditorium stage, the members of the Charter Revision Commission -- former public servants, law professors and attorneys, union leaders and community activists -- introduced themselves to the 20-odd members of the public in attendance (and whoever might have been watching the live-stream).

Over roughly an hour, Commission Chair Cesar Perales did most of the talking at what was billed as an initial organizing meeting, discussing the law, rationale, and guiding principles behind the creation of the commission.

“[W]e’ve attempted in forming this commission to cover the geography of all of the boroughs of the city, the ethnicities, and to have everybody represented...We’ve also called up people with tremendous government experience, enormous experience in voting rights, even a [former] member of the City Council,” Perales said. “So I think we are very well represented but in order for us to do our work, we’re gonna need the participation of the people of this city. We want them to learn as much as possible about what is in the City Charter and to come to us with ideas about revising the City Charter, making it better.”

Any Charter Revision Commission is, under the law, an independent body and has the authority to examine the entire charter, though past commissions have been convened by mayors with limited interests in mind, a fact that Perales acknowledged Thursday. De Blasio too charged his commission -- though he cannot control their agenda -- with looking at the city’s campaign finance laws and ways to improve voter participation and access.

“This mayor, much to my delight, is interested in improving democracy and improving the way we elect our leaders,” Perales said. The commission would focus on elections, he insisted, but would also “be looking at the entire City Charter” and the issues presented to them at hearings over the next few months.

Perales also pledged a thoroughly transparent process -- before he spoke, he made sure to check that the hearing was indeed being live-streamed -- that would include ample testimony from the public. “We’re gonna hear from more people than anyone ever imagined,” he said.

Among the first acts of the commission was the nomination and appointment of Matt Gewolb, former legislative director at the New York City Council, as its executive director and Christine Billy, a lawyer from the Department of Sanitation, as general counsel. Candice Cho, deputy chief of staff at the Law Department, will serve as the commission’s chief of staff.

Much of the commission’s staff, which will work out of the David Dinkins Municipal Building, will be borrowed full-time from city agencies, Perales said, though the commission can request funding from the mayor and already has a budget that will allow it to hire consultants. “We’ll have all we need but we’re not gonna be spending a fortune on getting it,” he said.

The commission will hold its first borough hearing on Staten Island, though the full schedule has yet to be decided. At Thursday’s meeting, the commissioners did agree on a few broad ground rules for public outreach: holding multiple hearings in each borough at different times of the day to ensure maximum participation; preventing any barriers to access for immigrants; a robust social media presence and a marketing campaign.

“I think it’s especially important because some of these boroughs are very large,” said Commissioner Angela Fernandez, executive director and supervising attorney of Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. “For example, folks in East New York or in Washington Heights are unlikely to go to more centrally located...area of the borough.”

“I wanted us to take a look at the demographics of the city because things are changing, and a sense of who is where is going to be important in decisions that we make for our deliberations,” added Commissioner Una Clarke, the former City Council Member from Brooklyn.

In particular, Clarke warned of how the national political scene and the federal government’s policies could depress immigrant input. “I think we ought to be very sensitive to the new immigrant communities. Because of what’s happening in Washington, many people will not come out and speak with us, and we have to be able to bring them out because whatever we do is going to affect their lives,” she said.

Fernandez suggested a “simple but creative marketing campaign” to invite the public into the process.

As the commission does its work, examining the city charter and city government and taking pubic testimony, it will prepare recommendations that then go to voters for approval or disapproval.

Thursday’s meeting marked the latest start for any Charter Revision Commission convened in the recent past, and Perales conceded that they will have to work hard and fast to meet the September 7 deadline to have their recommendations included on the general election ballot in November. “We’ve got some really serious time constraints,” he admitted, though he said he was “optimistic” about getting the work done.

What wasn’t raised at the meeting was the parallel Charter Revision Commission being created by the City Council through legislation that passed last week. The Council’s commission will include appointees of all the city’s top elected officials and will work through this year into the next, to present ballot proposals for the 2019 general election. De Blasio, who appointed all the members of his commission, will have four appointees to the Council-led commission.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Starts Its Work Thu, 19 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000