Gotham Gazette Tue, 25 Jun 2019 01:56:54 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) For Total of 20 Potential Reforms, Charter Commission Adds 3 More Proposals to November Ballot crc 2019

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

Supporters of adding new teeth to investigations of police misconduct thought one of their priorities failed last week, when the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission voted down a proposal that would allow the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to investigate potentially false statements made in the course of its investigations.

At a major hearing last week, the commission voted through 17 proposals to change city elections and governance that will be put into ballot question language and presented for approval or disapproval by voters in November. Four of those measures strengthen the CCRB, which is tasked with investigating complaints against members of the NYPD and currently consists of a board of 13 appointees.

The commission also last week didn't take up or voted down a few proposals included in its staff report that had helped guide its final deliberations. One of those was the measure to propose to voters changing the city charter to allow the CCRB to investigate potential lying during its investigations, opening up the possibility that police officers who lie to the CCRB would be punished for doing so.

But on Tuesday night, the charter commission met again to consider a few final proposals for possible inclusion in what it presents to voters and it reconsidered and passed the additional CCRB measure.

Proposal 7, as it was known, was previously considered at the June 12 meeting, where commissioners discussed and approved the 17 proposals for the November ballot. At Tuesday’s meeting commissioners finalized the language on two approved proposals from the prior meeting, voted through three others, and discussed any proposals not on the previous meeting’s agenda that commissioners sought to raise.

The commission ultimately decided to add three more proposals to the 17 passed at the prior meeting, including the CCRB item, as well as restricting political donations from Conflict of Interest Board members, and extending the period that prohibits elected officials from lobbying to a city government entity. The commission is made up of 15 commissioners, with four appointed by the mayor, four by the City Council, including Chair Gail Benjamin, and one each by the public advocate, comptroller, and five borough presidents.

Change of Heart on Lying to the CCRB
On the added CCRB measure, Commissioner Sateesh Nori, appointed by then-Public Advocate Letitia James, said he thought the commission should reconsider the proposal because of the importance of truth.

“I want us to hold truth and honesty as an ideal for our elected officials, for our judges, for our teachers, and maybe most importantly for our police officers,” Nori said. “This isn’t about being for or against cops. This is about the rule of law, about accountability, and about justice.”

Commissioners who voted yes Tuesday but voted no in the June 12 meeting said talking with supporters of CCRB reform made them reconsider.

Carl Weisbrod, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and one of the commissioners who voted against the proposal last week, said “representatives of the CCRB” he spoke to already thought they had the power to investigate false claims. But he said this was one reason he decided to change his vote in support of the proposal.

“I do believe that it’s really important for this commission to affirm what the CCRB considers its power,” he said.

He added, “I think it’s really important for this commission to affirmatively assert that we won’t tolerate, as a society or as a city, false official statements – especially in the times in which we are living.”

Commissioner Lisette Camilo, appointed by de Blasio, said she would stick with her no vote because the measure would not necessarily change the CCRB’s power. “I do not believe that passing this will largely change anything,” she said. “This is more of a symbolic action.”

Other Votes
Commissioners also moved ahead several other measures.

They revisited proposals 8 and 16, both previously discussed and approved in the June 12 meeting, but that approval was contingent on commission staff expanding the respective proposals’ details.

Proposal 8 would create a guaranteed budget for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, requiring a CCRB budget that funds a headcount at the agency no less than 0.71% of the budgeted headcount of uniformed police officers in the NYPD. It would kick in for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 2020.

The amended version of the proposal allows that budget to be lower if the Mayor deems it fiscally necessary. In that case, the Mayor must provide detail for the basis of that determination and prove that cutting the CCRB budget is part of an overall plan to address financial downturn.

Similarly, proposal 16, as originally written, would create an independent or guaranteed budget for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate and require that these respective budgets be set at or above the Fiscal Year 2019 budgets.

The amended proposal requires the budgets to be set or above the Fiscal Year 2020 budgets, adjusted moving forward by the lesser of either inflation or the percentage increase in relation to the city’s total budget. Just like in the case of the CCRB budget, the budgets can be lower if the Mayor deems it fiscally necessary. In that case, the Mayor must provide detail for the basis of that determination and prove that reduction of the Public Advocate and Borough Presidents’ budgets is part of an overall plan to address any financial downturn.

The commission also agreed to prohibit sitting members of the city’s Conflict of Interest Board from making financial contributions to political campaigns. Opponents of this proposal said that it was a violation of board members’ first amendment rights, but it was passed in an effort to reduce conflicts of interest for those tasked with ruling on conflicts of interest by elected and appointed officials.

Voters will also get to weigh in on a proposal that will extend a rule that bans elected officials from lobbying a city political entity from one to two years after leaving city government.

There were other measures raised by commissioners Tuesday that were voted down, including a proposal that would establish a “democracy voucher” system for public campaign finance in the city; a proposal that would give Borough Presidents the power to call joint-agency meetings related to land use; a proposal to clarify the bounds of the Mayor’s budget impoundment power, and one to establish a commission to study the management of the city’s public pension fund.

Although these measures were voted down, the commission agreed to include some language recommending further review of a few of the proposals, like the one calling for a democracy voucher system, in their final staff report. That system, pushed by Commissioner Sal Albanese, appointee of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, would completely overhaul public campaign financing in New York City, eliminating all private money from campaigns and providing each voter with donation vouchers to give to their preferred candidates.

In a Wednesday statement, Adams, a likely 2021 mayoral candidate, called the disapproval of democracy vouchers a “short-sighted decision.” He added, “My hope is that democracy vouchers and other transformational ideas around campaign finance reform are put directly to voters in the future, so they can decide for themselves.”

While charter revision commissioners have now approved all of the proposals they plan to put on the November ballot, they will meet for a final time in July to formally adopt the final proposals with ballot language and groupings, and submit the ballot questions to the City Clerk. The commission will then begin months of public education and a push to get voters to approve all of their recommendations for charter change on November 5.

[READ: Charter Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot]

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

For Total of 20 Potential Reforms, Charter Commission Adds 3 More Proposals to November Ballot Wed, 19 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Charter Revision Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot build lc charter2019nyc

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

After a nine months-long process of public hearings, private meetings, and spirited discussion, the 2019 Charter Revision Commission approved 17 proposals for the November ballot on Wednesday evening.

Commission staff will draft ballot language for these proposals and the commission will take a final vote to approve the proposals on July 24. It will have one more meeting - on Tuesday, June 18 - to discuss adding other proposals to the list.

Potential changes to the city’s central governing laws and constitution -- the city Charter -- the proposals include items like ranked-choice voting, bolstering police oversight, and city budget reform. Most of the proposals chosen by the 15 commissioners were based off the preliminary staff report released in April, which narrowed considerations after a series of commission meetings. Following the report’s release, the commission held a final round of public hearings, one in each borough, as well as private deliberations before Wednesday night’s public vote by the commissioners at City Hall.

Commissioners further placed considerations into five ballot groupings: elections and redistricting, Civilian Complaint Review Board (the NYPD oversight body), governance, finance, and land use. There were 18 total proposals for consideration by the commission. One proposal failed to pass and two passed on the condition that revisions by commission staff be made, which will be verified by the commission soon.

The commission staff will now start to draft ballot language to be submitted to the City Clerk and then Board of Elections, with voters able to approve or disapprove of each grouping through “yes” or “no” votes on the November 5 ballot. But before the commission’s recommendations are finalized and ballot language fully drafted, the commission will have one more public meeting, on June 18, to make any other final decisions.

Here’s what was decided Wednesday night:

Elections and Redistricting
One of the commission’s top issues of interest since its formation was ranked-choice voting, which commissioners voted to approve at Wednesday’s meeting. This voting system is aimed to limit costly run-off elections, which typically see low voter turnout, while also ensuring that winners of crowded races have broader support.

Under the RCV system, voters rank up to five candidates (including write-ins) by order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they are the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated and the voters who chose that candidate first have their second choice receive their vote. The elimination process is repeated until one candidate reaches the majority threshold. The commission decided that RCV would be suggested to voters for primary and special elections, but not general elections.

Currently, there are only run-offs for citywide positions where one candidate does not hit 40% of the vote, otherwise in all other races whichever candidate receives the most votes wins. This system has led to expensive, low-turnout run-offs in the 2009 and 2013 Democratic primaries for Public Advocate, and it has led to winners of Borough President and CIty Council races who enter office having secured well below a majority of the vote.

Ahead of the commission’s meeting, 27 elected officials – including Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer – and 14 organizations released a statement urging the commission to put ranked-choice voting on the ballot.

"I urge the Charter Revision Commission to include ranked choice voting for all of our elections in its recommendations for the November ballot. Ranked choice voting has proven effective elsewhere and would make our city's elections more fair and representative of the true will of the people," Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer said in the statement. "Our current winner-takes-all system is flawed and in need of reforms. We should not allow candidates to win races with only a small plurality of the electorate, and we should do all that we can to avoid ridiculously expensive, low turnout run-offs. Allowing voters to rank their preferences on the ballot will ensure that the winner is actually a consensus choice."

Although most charter commissioners agreed to move ahead with ranked-choice voting, some felt that because the proposal would only apply to primary and special elections, it wouldn’t accomplish enough. Commissioner Stephen Faila proposed an amendment that would include general elections, but it didn’t pass.

There were also those in opposition to the underlying proposal, like commissioner Merryl Tisch, who called RVF a well-intentioned experiment, but said she could not support it because it could allow politicians to have unclear positions for the sake of garnering more votes.

“If we enacted such a system it could well give candidates an incentive not to take clear issue positions, preferring to play to the audience for being everyone’s second choice, by offending as few people as possible, to rack up second and third choice votes,” Tisch said.

The commission also approved to extend the time period from the announcement of a special election and when it is held. Currently, that time period is 45 days (or 60 days for a mayoral special election). The approved proposal changes that to 90 days.

The final approved elections and redistricting ballot proposal amends the timing for establishing Council district boundaries to ensure that there’s sufficient time after redistricting and before the start of the ballot petitioning period for the next election.

Civilian Complaint Review Board
The commission also approved proposals reforming the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates the public’s complaints against New York City police officers.

One proposed change is to how CCRB members are appointed. Currently the mayor appoints all 13 members, but the proposal expands the board to 15 members. Under this expansion, one of the members would be appointed by the Public Advocate and the other would be jointly appointed by the Mayor and the City Council Speaker. The City Council would also be granted power to directly appoint people to the board, currently the Council can only designate members.  (The commission had decided not to move ahead with the idea of a popularly-elected CCRB, as was urged by some advocates.)

The commission also voted to recommend a requirement that the Police Commissioner provide an explanation in all cases where the commissioner intends to depart from the board’s disciplinary recommendations and that the CCRB be allowed to delegate its subpoena power to the CCRB Executive Director.

There was debate over another CCRB consideration, which would require that the CCRB budget be no less than 0.3% of the NYPD’s multi-billion-dollar budget. Commissioners decided to have staff rework some of the proposal’s language and discuss it further at the June 18 meeting.

The only proposal that did not pass was the one regarding false official statements in CCRB matters. It allows the CCRB to investigate and recommend discipline against a police officer at the subject of a CCRB complaint, if said officer makes a false material statement within the course of that investigation.

The commission approved proposing to voters the creation of a mandatory “Rainy Day Fund” for city budgeting, where the city government can put surplus revenues when the economy is booming and draw down savings when in a crisis or significant downturn.

The idea behind the fund, strongly recommended by entities like the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission, is that in cases of major economic hardship, service cuts and tax increases are avoided. This proposal would be reliant on the expiration, repeal, or amendment of the State Financial Emergency Act, which, since the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, is a state law governing city budgeting practices.

Voters would approve the creation of a Rainy Day Fund with certain specific criteria, but it would only be created if state law was amended to allow it.

Charter Commissioner Stephen Fiala, who said this proposal was his top priority on the commission, said it is important because it protects lower- and middle-class people, as they are typically impacted the most by city service cuts and tax increases.

“If there was nothing else that we did, this is the most important thing we will have done. And it isn’t about numbers...,” said Fiala, who was appointed to the commission by Staten Island Borough President James Oddo. “This is really about the poorest of the poor and the middle class because they are the ones who have – from the time we started having recessions until now – they’re the ones who always suffer.”

“By putting a Rainy Day Fund on the ballot, the charter commission would provide New Yorkers with an important opportunity to strengthen one of the few flaws in the city’s budgeting processes and would create significant momentum for the changes needed in state law,” Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, wrote in a June 10 op-ed at Gotham Gazette.

The commission also approved the creation of a mechanism for the Council and the Mayor to jointly establish a structure for budget units of appropriation outside of the budgetary season and a requirement for budget modification timing that requires periodic financial plan updates for budget modifications. These modifications would be filed with the Council within 30 days of the plan update.

Voters will also see a proposal on the appointment of the city’s Corporation Counsel, or top lawyer, which provides for the counsel to be nominated by the mayor with City Council approval.

Another proposal would restructure the Conflicts of Interest Board. COIB members are currently appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the City Council. The restructure provides for two mayoral appointees, one Comptroller appointee, and one Public Advocate appointee.

The commission also approved a proposal to require the citywide director of the minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE) program report directly to the mayor and that this director be supported by a mayoral office of MWBE.

Although the proposal passed, some commissioners noted that this still doesn’t accomplish enough, and a chief diversity officer for the city would be the ideal solution.

“Enshrining an office of minority- and women-owned businesses in the city’s charter is really only a small step forward that does not match the scale of the problem that we are facing,” Commissioner Allison Hirsh, appointed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, said. “While we must support every effort to improve diversity in our city, by merely enshrining an existing initiative into law, the office of M/WBEs is ultimately a little disappointing in terms of what we could have accomplished on this commission.” Stringer has made the push for a citywide chief diversity officer and a CDO at each city agency his top priority in charter revision, but the commission is not heading in that direction.

Land Use
The commission also voted on suggesting reforms to land use procedures, specifically by modestly increasing community involvement. One recommendation moving ahead is to provide more time and earlier opportunity for Community Boards and Borough Presidents to review and comment on applications before the start of the Uniform Land Use Procedure (ULURP), the process that determines if the city will allow a particular land use change.

The commission will suggest to voters an extension of the ULURP pre-certification notice period and require project summaries be transmitted to affected Borough Presidents and Community Boards. There was an amendment that would extend this period from the originally proposed 30 additional days to 60 days, but commission members said this would extend an already lengthy process too much further.

“I think there are places and ways in which ULURP could use some fresh air on all sides, we all know that community boards are not all equal; they do not all use their time periods well, but to establish a pre-ULURP ULURP just seems to me to avoid the question of ‘what’s wrong with ULURP,’” said commission Chair Gail Benjamin, the former head of the City Council’s land use division and appointee to the commission of Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

Although the amendment failed, the underlying proposal passed. Commissioners also approved  to give community boards 90 days to review ULURP applications, rather than the current 60 days, before they issue a non-binding opinion.

June 18 meeting
Commissioners will meet again on June 18 to finalize two proposals (unless the two are finalized before the 18th) and any proposals not outlined at Wednesday’s meeting, which focused on moving ahead, or not, with the recommendations in the preliminary staff report.

A decision on two proposals is pending staff revisions: one on the guaranteed CCRB budget and one on independent or guaranteed budgets for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate. The CCRB budget proposal requires that the CCRB budget be no less than 0.3% of the NYPD budget. The proposal for guaranteed budgets for Borough Presidents and the Public Advocate requires that these budgets be above their respective Fiscal Year 2019 budgets.

Commissioners voted Wednesday that there should be a guaranteed budget for each of the CCRB, Borough Presidents, and the Public Advocate, but on June 18 they will vote on details of those budget requirements. The commissioners may come to a consensus prior to the June 18 meeting and then a vote won’t be necessary.

by Caitlyn Rosen, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Charter Revision Commission Approves 17 Proposals for November Ballot Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Spirited Discussion Anticipated as Charter Revision Commission Finalizes Ballot Proposals mbdb chirlane publib

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission is set to hold one, perhaps two, public meetings to decide on what changes to city governance and elections it will propose to New Yorkers on the November ballot. The first of the potentially two meetings will be Wednesday night at City Hall, where the 15 commissioners, appointed by various local elected officials, will attempt to agree on which proposals to instruct staff to craft ballot questions around.

They are mostly working off of the “preliminary staff report,” published in late April, that narrowed the field of considerations after a series of public and private commission meetings.

But there remain several areas of disagreement, and one commissioner, former City Council Member Sal Albanese, says there’s likely to be spirited debate to hammer out the selection of the final proposals, and the commission may very well need both potential meetings, the second of which would be next week.

One proposal -- ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting -- is very likely to make it onto the ballot, Albanese said, nearly confirming what has been apparent as the commission has done its work over the past nine months.

The 2019 Commission was the first ever created through legislation in the New York City Council. Past commissions have been convened by successive mayors, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who empanelled his own commission in 2018. The mayor’s commission placed three proposals on last year’s November election ballot to expand the city’s campaign finance program, to impose term limits on community board members, and to create a citywide Civic Engagement Commission. All three proposals were overwhelmingly approved by voters.

The mayor’s commission received testimony broadly in support of ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to choose candidates in order of preference. If no candidate crosses a required threshold (say 40 or 50 percent) to claim victory after all ‘first preference’ votes are counted, then the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are awarded the votes, a process repeated until a winner is crowned.

The system is meant to eliminate costly and laborious runoffs with low turnout, like the ones held for public advocate in 2009 and 2013. But the commission punted on the issue, saying it needed more time to study it, and urged any future commissions to take it up.

The Council-created commission, first spearheaded by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James, includes appointees from the mayor, Council, and borough presidents. It has worked with a longer timeline than de Blasio’s commission and has spent months delving into complicated issues around city governance, land use and planning, budgeting, police accountability, voting, campaign finance, and more. Ranked-choice voting was one of the issues to which it has paid significant attention.

When the commission released its preliminary staff report in April with detailed recommendations for possible amendments to the City Charter culled from the four focus areas that informed the commission’s public hearings: elections, governance, finance, and land use, there were also several proposals categorized as best left off of future consideration.

The 80-page report narrowed down more than 300 proposals that the commission heard, and made two dozen recommendations to the commissioners. It’s not likely that all of those proposals will advance.

At Wednesday’s hearing (and potentially the second one), the commissioners will determine what will be included in the final report as ballot questions. The commission will then pass a resolution to direct staff to prepare the report, which will then have to be approved by a majority of the commissioners. 

Since the preliminary staff report was released, the commission has also held another round of public hearings, one in each borough. The Manhattan hearing focused primarily on the city’s land use process, city planning, and neighborhood rezonings. The staff report had recommended consideration of giving borough presidents and community boards a slightly greater say in how land use rezonings are approved, and had also suggested creating a more coherent process of long-term planning for the city by combining several disparate processes and planning-related documents -- but the staff did not recommend further consideration of possibly suggestion the requirement of a comprehensive city plan, something a coalition of advocates and elected officials has pushed.

The measures the staff did recommend advancing received general support from the public, members of community boards, and from elected officials. There was also testimony in support of ranked-choice voting, creating a rainy day fund for city budgeting, and creating chief diversity officers (a proposal spearheaded by Comptroller Scott Stringer) at city agencies under one new CDO in the mayor’s office.

The hearing in the Bronx also saw support for ranked-choice voting and land use reform, but most of those who testified came out to push for strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent city entity that monitors and investigates complaints of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers. Some called for a popularly elected CCRB, instead of the current structure where CCRB members are appointed by elected officials, mostly the mayor.

The commission is set to meet Wednesday, JUne 12, to debate the final proposals, and has tentatively planned to hold another hearing on June 18. JoAnne Wasserman, a spokesperson for the commission, said the chair, Gail Benjamin, was unlikely to comment prior to the Wednesday meeting.

“I’m expecting two meetings because I believe that there’ll be extensive debate on a number of issues,” said Albanese in a phone interview, arguing that two hearings would also allow the public to gain a better understanding of how the commissioners will arrive at their final vote.  

“I think one of the areas that we seem to have general consensus on is ranked-choice voting,” he added. Though he said there might be debate on how it should be implemented -- whether it applies to primary and special elections or general elections as well, and for which offices -- he was certain that it would be included in some form as a ballot question.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a good government group, was glad the commission appears to be moving ahead on ranked-choice voting. “Establishing ranked-choice voting for primary and special elections could be very significant,” he said in a brief phone interview, “if it was done for all offices.”

The commission may also look at additional ballot proposals that weren’t included in the preliminary staff proposals.

“The report that the staff put together is not necessarily going to be abided by,” said Albanese, the commission appointee of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in part for Albanese’s campaign finance reform advocacy, noting that the preliminary staff report is not “the final word” and the commissioners have the authority to go beyond it. For his turn, he intends to continue pushing for a five-year ban on lobbying for all former elected officials and for “democracy vouchers,” which would transform the city’s campaign finance program by giving all New Yorkers an equitable amount of money to donate to campaigns.

He said, though, that the elected CCRB proposal seems certain to fail. “It’s not that it’s controversial, I think a lot of people think it’s just not workable,” he said. “I could be wrong but that’s the consensus that I hear across my conversations with other commissioners.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Spirited Discussion Anticipated as Charter Revision Commission Finalizes Ballot Proposals Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Rainy Day Fund New York Needs mayor bdb fiscal year budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

With so much attention focused on the mayor’s presidential campaign, rent regulation renewal, and the state of the transit system, most New Yorkers are unaware they will have the opportunity this fall to vote to dramatically change their city government.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is considering what amendments to the City Charter, which defines the structure and powers of city government, it will recommend to voters for a yes or no vote on the November ballot. Notable proposals include ranked-choice voting for local elections, enhancing community board review of land use proposals, and multiple changes to the city’s budget process.

One budget proposal the commission should approve and advance to voters in November is the creation of a Rainy Day Fund (RDF). An RDF is essentially a savings account that would allow city government to put away revenues received when the economy is growing and use them to stave off the most crushing service cuts and tax increases during an economic downturn or catastrophic emergency—the rainy days.

To weather the last two recessions, the city reduced police and ambulance staffing, cut library hours, suspended recycling, and increased personal income, sales, and property taxes. A well-structured RDF can ameliorate the need for this level of municipal pain, helping everyone from those who depend on city and social services to individuals and businesses feeling the strain of high taxes.

By and large, charter provisions and state laws enacted in response to the 1970s New York City fiscal crisis provide a strong budgeting and financial management framework that has served New York well—producing balanced budgets and prudent revenue estimates, while allowing the city to fund services New Yorkers desire.

Ironically, the city charter’s balanced budget requirement, among the most stringent in the nation, is what makes using an RDF impossible. Balancing the annual budget requires city services delivered in one year to be funded only with revenues generated that same year. Saving money in a strong economy to use later in a recession misaligns that timing, and violates the accounting rules relied on by the charter.

The solution is for the charter commission to leave the charter’s budgeting and financial management framework intact except to seize the opportunity to improve the charter by allowing an RDF, well structured to preserve both long- and short-term stability.

Absent an RDF, the city has devised legal work-arounds to provide some fiscal cushion. The city pre-pays expenses, freeing up money in the next year. The city has also used its Retiree Health Benefits Trust—money put aside to pay for municipal employees’ retirement health benefits—as a de facto RDF by paying for current bills with the trust’s assets rather than budget revenues.

These workarounds are problematic. Not enough money can be put aside; there are limits to what and how many expenses can be prepaid. In addition, there is no requirement to put money aside even in the best of times. Finally, using the RHBT as de facto RDF makes future taxpayers pay for current bills, which is hardly fair to the next generation.  

True, the city has set aside some funds. The current financial plan includes $1.25 billion annually for reserves, but this pales in comparison to the need. Citizens Budget Commission estimates the projected three-year revenue shortfall from a recession comparable to the past two would be $15 billion to $20 billion.

How would a well-designed RDF be structured? The first step is to determine the right size of the fund. Based on past revenue trends, CBC estimates that 17 percent of tax revenues would be a good target size to mitigate a recession or emergency’s most damaging impacts.

Second, regular deposits should be required during economic expansions. CBC recommends annual deposits of 75 percent of all tax revenues in excess of 3 percent growth; this would allow spending on services to grow in excess of long-term inflation and still generate substantial RDF resources. Had this been in place during the current record-long recovery, the city would now have nearly $9 billion in its RDF.

Finally, withdrawals should be limited to periods of recession or emergency. Economic triggers should be defined in law and RDF funds should not all be used in one year.  

By putting a Rainy Day Fund on the ballot, the charter commission would provide New Yorkers with an important opportunity to strengthen one of the few flaws in the city’s budgeting processes and would create significant momentum for the changes needed in state law.

Yes, some more political and proximate issues may be more galvanizing, and sadly, elected leaders and the public too often accept as inevitable the pain of hard choices during a recession. However, the annual impact of modest deposits in the good times will be significantly outweighed by preserving the services New Yorkers need during times of economic hardship.

Andrew Rein is president of Citizens Budget Commission. On Twitter @cbcny.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

The Rainy Day Fund New York Needs Mon, 10 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
At Manhattan Charter Commission Hearing, Pleas to Reconsider Major Planning Changes anhd thriving communities rally

(photo: @ANHDNYC)

The City Hall chambers of the New York City Council were packed with over 100 people on Thursday evening for a hearing of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission. New Yorkers who attended, including some elected officials, were largely focused on always-contentious land use issues and processes that the commission is considering as part of its larger effort to rethink aspects of city governance.

The Manhattan hearing was the fourth of the five boroughs, to be followed by Staten Island on Tuesday night, where the 15-member commission heard reactions to its recently-released “preliminary staff report,” wherein the commission staff sought to narrow the scope of the body’s final months of deliberations as commissioners propose changes to voters on the November ballot. The commission will announce its city charter revision proposals this summer, providing months for public education on the potential changes that could touch on the powers of certain elected offices, city budgeting, voting procedures, and more.

Many who testified -- and rallied outside City Hall ahead of the hearing -- were members of organizations in the Thriving Communities Coalition, which is calling for more sweeping changes to city planning and land use processes than the charter revision commission appears to be considering.

Other topics of interest among those who testified over the course of more than six hours were elements included in and excluded from the staff report, such as the creation of a budgetary rainy day fund, instituting ranked-choice voting, strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which deals with police misconduct allegations, and the creation of a city chief diversity officer.

The Thriving Communities Coalition argues the status quo in city planning is racist and socio-economically unequal. Members of the New York City Council Progressive Caucus, which is backing the idea of the city charter being amended to include a mandatory comprehensive city plan every ten years, something the charter commission appears disinclined toward, joined the rally to urge the commission to consider such a proposal.

Council Members Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso, and Brad Lander were among those who spoke. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also spoke at the rally and proceeded to give testimony in front of the Charter Revision Commission.

“The city needs to and must intentionally plan and invest for communities like the South Bronx, if it wants to assure an equitable, diverse, and thriving future for the city,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera, leader of Community Action for Safe Apartments.

Uniform Land Use Procedure (ULURP) and Broader City Planning
The rally leading up to the hearing mostly focused on the city’s ULURP process, neighborhood rezonings, and city planning. Several people who testified at the hearing said they believe the possible charter revisions being considered by the commission, per the staff report, are appropriate, but inadequate.

Community Board 8 Manhattan Chair Alida Camp asked that boards like hers, which provide non-binding input on land use matters that require city approval, receive earlier notification and an additional 45 days as part of the process to provide public notice and vote on applications. Camp also said the Mayor has too much power in the rezoning process. “We ask that mayoral zoning overrides be prohibited,” she said.

Borough President Brewer urged that the possible proposals on ULURP as outlined in the commission staff report go forward. These include providing more time for the early stages of the ULURP process and clarifying how city plans and projections impact each other. She also advocated that Borough Presidents should play more of a role in ULURP.

Brewer also criticized the mayoral administration over neighborhood rezonings that have been moved for targeting neighborhoods of low-income people of color, urging for the Department of City Planning to take a more long-term approach.

“I further urge the commission to propose a charter amendment requiring decennial review of the zoning resolution,” she said.

Brewer further argued the charter should mandate a publicly accessible map portal for Zoning Lot Development and Easement Agreements as well as specifications regarding how “major” and “minor” modifications are defined when it comes to Special Permits from the City Planning Commission.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board
As it has at other hearings, the CCRB received a lot of attention during the Manhattan meeting on Thursday. The consensus for most people giving testimony was that the Police Department needs further oversight via the CCRB and that the NYPD commissioner should not have the current level of discretion in the disciplinary process.

Whether the CCRB should be elected or appointed by elected officials as is currently the set-up was subject to more debate because of perceived bias from the City Council, which must approve the 13 appointees.

Charter Revision Commissioner Sateesh Nori came out strongly against the idea of popular elections of CCRB members. “That is why we have Donald Trump in office,” he said of decisions by the masses. When challenged on that stance, he responded saying that the CCRB discussion was “hinging on an election when every other discussion is about how elections are flawed.”

When Brewer testified, commissioners asked her if she thought the CCRB should be decided through a vote, and she said, “I am not supportive of the vote because people don’t turn out unless they are aware.” She agreed with the charter commission’s proposals, but also suggested further amendments, which included codifying the current Memoranda of Understanding to ensure cooperation between the CCRB and police department and setting the CCRB budget at 1% of that of the Police Department’s.

Ranked-Choice Voting
As has been the case throughout the charter commission process, most who testified and discussion ranked-choice voting on Thursday expressed strong support for instituting the process, which would help avoid costly runoff elections and also provide for more apparent popular support among the winners of heavily contested elections.

New York City only currently holds runoffs for citywide positions, where as elections for borough presidencies and the City Council can be won by simple plurality. Ranked-choice voting could eliminate run-offs and provide so that the winner of all races has reached whatever the set threshold is, perhaps 50%, after multiple rounds of tallies.

Rainy Day Fund
Andrew Rein, President of the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a non-partisan, nonprofit watchdog and think tank, gave detailed testimony supporting the creation of a possible Rainy Day Fund (RDF), which would also need state approval and, he said, help the city better prepare for recessions and tough budgetary times. He recommended mandates that the RDF be big enough to cover a two-year, multi-billion-dollar budget gap and be provided minimum annual deposits when there is economic growth, with restrictions on withdrawing from the fund unless there is an economic contraction.

Overall, Rein said CBC hopes the commission will keep its proposals for changes to city budgeting minimal. “Since the current system isn’t a problem, we shouldn’t try changing it,” he said.

Chief Diversity Officer
Wendy Garcia, the Chief Diversity Officer from City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, stressed the need for a citywide chief diversity officers as well as one at every city agency. Stringer has made the push for such requirements his number one priority in charter revision.

Garcia indicated that there is evidence of the effectiveness of her position, saying that it has helped the comptroller’s office increase contract spending with minority- and women-owned businesses from 11% to 29%.

*Note: Gotham Gazette did not stay for the entire six hour-plus hearing.

by Ashad Hajela, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

At Manhattan Charter Commission Hearing, Pleas to Reconsider Major Planning Changes Tue, 14 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Diaz Jr. Submits Charter Revision Testimony Focused on Land Use and Police Accountability ruben bx brf

(photo: office of Ruben Diaz Jr.)

One week after the 2019 Charter Revision Commission held its final hearing in the Bronx and one day after its last borough hearing, but before the commission decides what proposals it will put before voters this fall, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. released his testimony to the commission on Wednesday.

While the 15-member charter commission, on which Diaz Jr. has one appointee, is considering a wide range of possible changes to city governance and elections, Diaz Jr. focused his written testimony on two crucial measures: land use and planning, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which performs police oversight. He also touched on budgeting for the borough president offices. His testimony is in large part a reaction to the charter commission’s preliminary staff report, which helped narrow the commission’s likely focus areas as it headed into the now-completed final round of borough hearings and more deliberations.

Diaz Jr. is calling for more community input in land use matters, but not sweeping reforms to the process, and for more power for the CCRB, though he did not come out in favor of a popularly-elected CCRB (its members are currently appointed by several public officials). The CCRB was the focus of significant attention during the Bronx hearing of the charter commission held May 7, at which Diaz Jr. did not appear. And Diaz Jr. wants the charter to codify protections for budget allocations to the borough president offices.

While Diaz Jr. agrees with parts of the commission’s preliminary report on land use, he called the city’s current Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) process “insufficient.” He called for more comprehensive reviews of potential displacement from a proposed change in land use rules or a development project. Currently, the CEQR rules do not trigger a socioeconomic impact review until 500 residents or 100 jobs are at likely risk of displacement. Diaz Jr. called for a “lower threshold of estimated residential or commercial displacements,” but did not specify a number.

Diaz Jr. also recommended that the Charter Revision Commission “explore” a requirement for the chair of the City Planning Commission to need a two-thirds approval from the rest of the planning commission in order to be elected -- the chair is currently appointed by the mayor, while members of the commission are appointed by the mayor, public advocate, and borough presidents, and approved by the City Council. “This would give the borough presidents and public advocate a greater voice in the ULURP process, and give the chair greater accountability to all members of the City Planning Commission,” Diaz Jr.’s testimony reads.

He also suggested that the City Planning Commission either vote on certifying ULURP applications “out of the commission,” or that the relevant City Planning Commission Borough Commissioner should reserve the right to place a 30-day hold on certification in cases where they feel “additional consultation” with borough-level officials are needed.

Harkening to the contention over the proposal for a new jail in each of the four boroughs other than Staten Island that will in part make shuttering the Rikers Island jails possible, Diaz Jr. further suggested that when there’s a multi-site proposal like the jail plan, the charter “dictate unequivocally that each borough’s site must undergo a separate ULURP process, to avoid issues such as minimization of community input that is occurring in the jail siting process currently underway.”

Diaz Jr. has repeatedly slammed the process for grouping all four jail openings together, rather than allowing each borough separate input through the ULURP process, where the borough presidents and community boards have advisory input. Diaz Jr.’s charter commission appointee, former City Council Member Jimmy Vacca, advocated for the same idea in last week’s Bronx charter hearing.

Notably, Diaz Jr. did not call for major changes to the land use process, such as giving the borough president the power to effectively veto or restart negotiations on a development proposal. Though there appears to be a lot of discontent across the city about how land use decisions are made and a top-down approach from mayoral administrations, there has not been an apparent appetite among elected officials for sweeping alterations to ULURP.

Like land use, police accountability is a perpetually controversial topic in New York City, brought into particularly sharp relief this month given the NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s 2014 death.

In his charter testimony, Diaz Jr. also wrote in support of the CCRB provisions included in the commission’s preliminary staff report, which advocate for increased transparency in the process, particularly in terms of the NYPD commissioner being required to explain when he or she differs with a CCRB recommendation in holding an officer accountable.

Diaz Jr.’s testimony expresses his support for guaranteed funding for the CCRB, at 1% of the annual NYPD budget, and creating a “non-binding disciplinary matrix to make discipline for violations clearer and more consistent.”

“This transparency will help restore faith in the good women and men of the NYPD who work so hard to keep us safe,” he wrote. Diaz Jr., who is overtly readying his run for mayor in the 2021 election, is among those attempting to toe the line between community activists and police reformers on one hand and a working relationship with the NYPD and its members’ labor unions on the other. It’s a balancing act that has at times confounded Mayor Bill de Blasio, among others.

Calling borough presidents' offices "conveners, constituent services providers, policy hubs, planning departments, and watchdog agencies" Diaz Jr. also called on the charter commission to protect the budgets of those offices. "Borough presidents’ budgets ought to be set with the current total allocation as a floor that shall not be decreased either in total for all borough presidents’ offices or for any individual borough president’s office. Increases should factor in any increases to the Department of City Planning’s Budget," he wrote in his testimony. Diaz Jr. said the "only exception" to that requirement would be in years when the city's financial picture includes a reduction in the expense budget.

This testimony is the first that Diaz Jr. has submitted to the charter revision commission. When asked on the Max & Murphy podcast in late March if he would submit testimony, he said, “Absolutely. I’m not here for window dressing.”

According to a Gotham Gazette review of Diaz Jr.'s recent schedules, he held an April 1 meeting with Vacca, his commission appointee.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo both released testimony during early stages of the charter revision commission process, in September of 2018. Brewer also testified at the Manhattan borough hearing last week. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz have not submitted testimony to the commission.

Diaz Jr. Submits Charter Revision Testimony Focused on Land Use and Police Accountability Wed, 15 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Contentious Bronx Charter Commission Hearing Centers on Voting, Police Accountability Reforms charter 2019 bronx hearing

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission held a lively public hearing on its preliminary staff report in the Bronx on Tuesday evening. Public testimony largely focused on boosting support for ranked choice voting, which the commission is pursuing as a likely inclusion of what it will propose to voters on the November ballot, and advocating for an elected rather than appointed Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which the commission does not appear to be considering.

After Bronxites offered their opinions, the commission publicly deliberated on the testimonies, where they occasionally butted heads, but largely reinforced their vision of a revamped city charter better guided by community empowerment.

As the commission’s process moves to its final stages, the recently-released staff report outlined a variety of areas for the commissioners to give further consideration and hear public input -- with one hearing in each borough -- as they move toward announcing which changes to city governance they will recommend to voters.

The preliminary staff report moved forward several possible provisions aimed at increasing community participation in governmental processes. The Bronx hearing was the third of the commission’s latest wave of borough meetings, after those in Queens and Brooklyn and just ahead of Manhattan and Staten Island. After taking in the latest round of public feedback and holding private conversations, the commission will his summer decide what to put before voters in November.

In between that decision and the yes or no vote, the commission will attempt significant voter education on its proposals, in part to drum up participation in what is expected to be a very low turnout Election Day. The commissioners will also have to decide whether to present their recommended charter changes to voters as one package or to separate it into multiple parts.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. did not submit testimony, despite saying in late March on the Max & Murphy podcast that his office was the in process of brainstorming, but “when the time comes, we’ll come out with our proposals and of course we’ll make them public.”

Diaz Jr. is not alone among the borough presidents; only Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo have submitted testimony throughout the charter commission process. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have kept their distance. Each borough president has one appointee to the 15-member commission.

While only a few dozen Bronxites attended the meeting at Lehman College, those who did gave passionate testimony, predominantly about election reform, police accountability, and land use. Some current and hopeful politicians also appeared and gave sweeping testimony about the commission’s preliminary report as a whole.

Supporters of an elected CCRB comprised a significant portion of the audience and public speakers. Advocates argued that a democratization of the CCRB, whose members are currently appointed by various government officials, is the best path to holding police officers accountable for wrongdoing. New Yorkers will “elect people like them,” Chivona Newsome from Black Lives Matter Greater New York argued, “community members, mothers, fathers, people living above and below the poverty line.”

The Bronx, she said, is well-equipped to speak to problems with the CCRB. “My beloved borough ranks number two for the most complaints filed in the city,” despite having the fourth-highest population, she said. “The only way bad cops will ever be held accountable is with an elected civilian review board,” she said.

Currently, the City Council, police commissioner, and the mayor each appoint CCRB members. The charter commission’s report put forth the notion of strengthening City Council’s role in designating CCRB members and potentially allowing the public advocate to make appointments. The commission staff further advocated exploring bolstering the legal authority given to the CCRB.

Several Bronxites, however, argued that the commission’s report was inadequate. Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, railed against their suggestions and called the report an insult to African-Americans. It was, he said, “a waste of paper and a waste of oxygen for those of you who debated it.”

Hawk Newsome asked commissioner Jimmy Vacca, former City Council Member from the Bronx and appointed to the commission by Diaz Jr., to look up from his phone twice during his testimony. He concluded his impassioned appearance by telling the commission that the NYPD “has all the protection in the world, and we have none. And the reason we have none is because of people like you.” While others on his panel spoke, Newsome held up a photo of Eric Garner, who was killed by an NYPD officer in 2014.

Betty Maloney, a feminist activist, also advocated for an elected CCRB based on the NYPD’s “abysmal failure” in properly addressing sex crimes. She told the commission that after she reported her rapist, a police officer asked her if she was “a prostitute.”

“If you fail to act for justice, whether you’re a woman or a man,” she told the commission, “you will be known by the ever-expanding #MeToo movement for your failure to act.”

Frank Morano, a radio host and political activist, focused on a different theme, but also chided the commission as “beneficiaries of the system,” though he complimented the group for a report that incorporated “hundreds of ideas.”

Morano delivered an animated testimony against the city’s current campaign finance laws. “We still have legalized bribery, we have a system that’s more costly than ever,” he said of the 8-to-1 public matching system the city uses for smaller contributions. “Who are we helping?” Morano espoused the use of democracy vouchers, a campaign finance system used in Seattle that largely eliminates private donations to candidates and engages more people in the process by providing them with money that must be donated to the candidates of their choice. It’s a program favored by charter commissioner Sal Albanese, a former City Council member appointed to the commission by Adams.

Morano closed his testimony by warning against blindly following the commission report. “Please, don’t go along with what the staff recommends,” he said. He implored the commission to put democracy vouchers “on the ballot and let the people vote.”

Several Bronxites attended the meeting to voice their opinion about ranked-choice voting, a reform that would allow voters to rank candidates and avoid costly runoffs. The commission staff suggested studying it further, including around which offices would benefit from the system. Some form of ranked-choice voting appears destined for the final recommendations.

Many testifiers spoke in favor of ranked-choice voting citywide and argued that it would reduce voter disillusionment.

“People should not be afraid to step outside the box and express their true preference on the ballot,” said Debra Rosario from the Bronx Green Party. “It’s hard to get excited about an election when the hope is the lesser of two evils,” said Paul Gillman, Bronx resident from the Green Party New York and 2014 state senate candidate in Queens.

“I don’t think this is an ideological issue,” echoed John Reynolds, a resident of the Bronx for 68 years, “I think it’s an issue of faulty democracy.”

Contrarily, Roxanne Delgado, an activist from the Bronx who frequently testifies at hearings on public policy, spoke out against ranked-choice. She argued that the system disadvantages low-income communities where less effort may be put into voter education. She also worried that a complicated ballot would delay the city’s process of counting votes. “I see no benefits to ranked-choice voting,” she said.

City Council Member Andrew Cohen, who represents the northern Bronx, gave broad testimony supporting provisions like easing the ULURP process, increased police accountability, and strengthening the Conflicts of Interest Board. But much of his testimony focused on his concerns about ranked-choice voting, leading to a lengthy discussion between Cohen and several commissioners.

While he sees the merits of ranked-choice on a citywide level, he said, he fears it “could lead to mischief in a way that might not achieve the goals we want to achieve.” Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, a former official at the city Planning Department and appointee of Mayor de Blasio, asked why Cohen felt ranked-choice wouldn’t lead to elections where the “winning candidate was more fully embraced by the district as a whole.” Cohen answered that he appreciated the idea in the abstract, but feared that if implemented, ranked-choice would empower “people who feel passionately to come up with bad ideas to scheme and get people to vote the way they want.” Both Commission Chair Gail Benjamin and Commissioner Albanese disagreed with Cohen’s assessment.

The topic of land use also appeared to have struck a chord with Bronxites.

Maggie Clarke, founder of Inwood Preservation, argued that rezonings are “straining the very limited air and water resources we have,” and said that the city should curb its rapid development pace. She encouraged the commission to include a measure requiring the city government to fully consider alternative plans during the the land use review process (ULURP) and environmental impact study (CEQR) process.

Commissioner Vacca asked Clarke if a provision allowing for a city official to mandate a 30-day stall in the ULURP process if the community feels they haven’t been engaged would satisfy her critiques. She answered that the problem stretches beyond community input and is endangering the environment.

“This is the only opportunity that we’re going to have to fix the system in a way that allows environmental law not to be broken,” Clarke said.

Adam Weinstein, president of Fipps Houses, urged the commission to “encourage transparency” for the community. “Most folks appearing before community boards should be encouraged to show up long before the certification process,” he said of developers. “Only good things can happen.” He also voiced support for simplifying the complex documentation required of ULURP applicants.

Two GIS, or geographic information system, experts from Lehman College also gave testimony urging the commission to support an amendment to Chapter 48, which deals with information technology and telecommunications. They said that GIS technology helps the city with everything from 311 to superstorm preparation.

Michael Beltzer, a two-time candidate for City Council in the Bronx, gave broad testimony touching on many issues in the commission’s preliminary report. He voiced support for democracy vouchers, an elected CCRB, ranked-choice voting (but suggested limiting the ballot to six candidates), and increased budgetary power for the public advocate and potentially borough president offices.

George Diaz, who’s challenging Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz in next year’s primary, called for more pronounced and earlier involvement of community boards in land use decisions, an “empowered” CCRB, and a reformed and “less punitive” campaign finance system. He also voiced his support for ranked-choice voting, which could potentially benefit him in his 2020 race against the incumbent who has never faced a primary challenger.

“Do me a favor,” commissioner Albanese said, “look into democracy vouchers.”

After hearing 16 people testify, the commission moved into a public discussion, where they reinforced their overarching goals of empowering communities in local governing decisions and expanding democracy.

Commissioner James Caras, a land use expert appointed by Manhattan Borough President Brewer, kicked off the discussion by asking his colleagues how they envisioned consolidating land use and planning documents. Commission Chair Benjamin suggested, “one would rely on the work of the other,” ridding the process of redundancies. Commissioner Weisbrod added that documents should maintain a level of flexibility to “respond to conditions as they arrive.”

Commissioner Paula Gavin, former Chief Service Officer in the Mayor’s Office, said planning documents should be set up in a way to manifest a “unified vision of the city” set by the mayor in conjunction with City Council, the public advocate, and the comptroller.

Commissioner Vacca reinforced his call for stronger borough-based power during ULURP, citing the shuttering of Rikers Island jails and installation of four new jails in each borough but Staten Island as an example of how the process shortchanges the Bronx. The four jails are part of one ULURP bid, Vacca explained, calling them a “package deal.” Commission Chair Benjamin pushed back, saying that ideas within ULURP can be separated and accordingly struck down or approved, but Vacca maintained the need for a stronger borough-specific voice throughout the process.

Benjamin and Vacca butted heads again when discussing the powers of the commission itself: “Jimmy, we’re not a budgeting agency,” Benjamin said in response to Vacca’s suggestion of creating ULURP surveys.

Vacca disagreed, arguing that many of the proposals within the commission’s preliminary report are inherently budgetary––ranked-choice voting, for insistence, will require the city to spend money on voter education.

Some commissioners addressed the occasionally combative tone of the public hearing. “I don’t agree with how everything was phrased today because I don’t think we’re responsible for everything as a commission,” noted Rev. Commissioner Clinton Miller, a pastor from Brooklyn.

Commissioner Sateesh Nori, a Queens-based attorney, quipped on Hawk Newsome’s decision to wear his sunglasses as a pointed sign of disrespect for the commission, in return for what Newsome called their lack of respect for the people of New York City. “I’ve taken off my sunglasses as a sign of respect to you all,” Nori said.

Nori also reminded the public that the commission does not have legislative power, but that voting reform would help in creating legislative changes.

“Our overall goal,” Commissioner Gavin said, “is to strengthen our city and strengthen our democracy.”

Contentious Bronx Charter Commission Hearing Centers on Voting, Police Accountability Reforms Wed, 08 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus may b d blasio first ferry

(photo: mayor's office)

April 24, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission released its "preliminary staff report" on Tuesday, indicating which areas of city governance and elections the commission will further consider as it prepares to propose changes to voters in November. Gail Benjamin, chair of the 2019 commission, joined the show to discuss the staff report, the commission's work thus far, some of the proposals the commission will consider moving forward, and more. Then, city budget expert Carol Kellermann, former president of Citizens Budget Commission, joined the show to give her analysis of the commission's preliminary report.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus Wed, 24 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
2019 Charter Commission Report Indicates Areas of Focus for Crafting Ballot Proposals mayorbill sex harrass comm

(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.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

2019 Charter Commission Report Indicates Areas of Focus for Crafting Ballot Proposals Tue, 23 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan mayorsofficesi

(Photo: Spencer T Tucker/Mayor's office)

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission is deliberating whether to propose to voters in November that a requirement for a comprehensive city plan be added to the charter.

Should New York City have a comprehensive, well-considered plan?

A comprehensive, well considered, plan should be good for everyone. It would involve all of us in the creation and maintenance of a shared vision for our city and its neighborhoods. It would provide predictability for communities, property owners, developers, elected officials, and municipal and state agencies.  

It would provide an agreed plan on which to base the expeditious adoption of regulations such as zoning. It would make it easier to base actions on the intention, and not just the words, of a regulation, such as zoning.

It would promote coordination among agencies at neighborhood, community, borough, city, and regional levels. It would allow for more rapid approval of projects and proposals consistent with the plan.

Is the Zoning Resolution New York City’s comprehensive, well-considered plan?
Yes and No.  

New York State law requires New York City to base its land use regulations on a comprehensive plan. However, the law allows two versions of a comprehensive plan: statutory and common law.  (See Zoning and the Comprehensive Plan for a discussion of the distinction between the two approaches.)

The statutory approach calls for the adoption of a defined comprehensive plan on which zoning is based; the common law approach accepts the existing regulations and their history as the comprehensive plan. The latter approach allows the City to treat the zoning resolution as its comprehensive plan.

Using the Zoning Resolution as a comprehensive plan is, therefore, legally permissible but fundamentally wrong. Why?

First, zoning is but one tool in a regulatory regime intended to implement a common vision for our urban environment. Other tools include the City Map, the building code, the State Multiple Dwelling Law, street design standards, park design standards, landmark designations, development incentives such as J51 and 421a, inclusionary housing programs, industrial retention programs, measures to deal with residential displacement, the capital budget, and more.

Second, the Zoning Resolution addresses only a portion of our urban environment and is therefore not comprehensive. It deals only with land use and building density and form. It does not address matters outside of zoning, such as providing schools or parks or subways. A comprehensive plan would address much more than the Zoning Resolution does.  

What might a comprehensive plan for New York City look like?
In 1969, during the Lindsay administration, New York City’s Department of City Planning published Plan for New York City.

The plan was in six volumes: the first volume addressed the general vision for the city and the following five volumes spoke to what was happening in each of the five boroughs. The borough volumes had a chapter for each community district and additional chapters for special planning and urban design projects. The document was part vision and part inventory. (See CityLand for a discussion of the creation of the plan with former CPC chair Don Elliott.)

More recently the Bloomberg administration published PlaNYC and the de Blasio administration publishes OneNYC. Both offer a counterpart to the vision volume of the 1969 document without offering counterparts for the community chapters.

A comprehensive plan for New York City should include both a city-wide vision and community-centric plans. The city-wide vision rightly comes from the administration after consultation with all. The community-centric plans are provided for by section 197a of the City Charter, which encourages local groups, including community boards and borough presidents, to offer plans.

A comprehensive plan needs to comprise at least three dimensions:

One, it needs to address the full range of issues that concern a location.

Two, it needs to address the issues at the appropriate geographical levels – community, county, city, region.

And three, it needs to address the issues as they evolve over time.

(See Planning One Great City for All.)

For example?
Supertall residential towers, using gerrymandered zoning lots, mechanical voids, and stilts to increase their heights (see San Gimignano), have raised questions about the intention of our zoning regulations.

Currently one looks to the Zoning Resolution and reads that mechanical space does not count as zoning floor area. This suggests that a mechanical space in a building, no matter the height of the space, does not count as zoning floor area; which allows even tower-on-a-base buildings to loft the expensive apartments to extraordinary heights. However, if one reads the City Planning Commission reports on tower-on-a-base development or the Special Lincoln Square District one sees that the buildings were intended to be no more than approximately 33 floors and approximately 330 feet tall.

If one were to treat these City Planning Commission reports, rather than the text of the Zoning Resolution, as the comprehensive plan there would be a basis to disapprove a building under tower-on-a-base or Special Lincoln Square District rules taller than approximately 330 feet.

Therefore, a well-considered comprehensive plan would be a better basis than the text of an actual regulation to understand what the regulation was intended to accomplish.

Is a comprehensive plan too difficult for New York City?

The 1969 Plan for New York City was not submitted to the Board of Estimate or City Council for approval and neither PlaNYC nor OneNYC were submitted to the City Council for approval, as required by the statutory approach to establishing a comprehensive plan.

One anticipates that preparing and adopting such a plan would be contentious and procedurally difficult. However, one hopes that the process would be constructive for all involved, fostering democratic deliberation and giving citizens, municipal employees, and elected officials experience with better governance. One also hopes that achieving a shared vision for the future of our city would facilitate the implementation of the plan and expedite the review of projects consistent with it.

Should New York City’s Charter be amended to require a real comprehensive plan?

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission should recommend to voters this November that the City Charter be amended to create and maintain a living comprehensive plan. This should include provisions that:

The city-wide parts of the plan be prepared by the mayoral administration in consultation with all interested parties and that the community-centric parts of the plan be prepared jointly by the applicable community board, borough president, and the city administration.

The plan should be revised frequently to keep it current with evolving conditions and goals.

Zoning and other regulations be amended to be consistent with the plan.

Agency actions be consistent with the plan.

Actions that are consistent with the plan qualify for expedited approval including abbreviated land use review (ULURP) and community/environmental impact (CEQR).

John P. West III has 49 years of professional experience in urban design, city planning, and real estate development, mostly in New York City, and is head of the City Club's Urban Design Committee, a consultant to BFJ Planning, and a member of the MAS Planning Committee and the AIANY Urban Design and Planning Committee, among other roles. In the past, he was on the Zoning Committee of REBNY, chair of the Development Committee of the Long Island City Development Corporation, now the LIC Partnership, and a member of Manhattan Community Board Six for 40 years, among other roles.

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New York City Should Have a Comprehensive Plan Mon, 15 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000