Gotham Gazette Wed, 26 Feb 2020 09:31:34 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus may b d blasio first ferry

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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

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Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus Wed, 24 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Seeks Expanded Power, Sweeping Change in Recommendations to Charter Revision Commission johnson council

(Photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The New York City Council wants a voice in picking the commissioner of the NYPD, more independence for ethics and oversight agencies, and greater power over the city budget.

Those are among the recommendations that the City Council made in a new report to the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, seeking amendments to the city’s governing document that would broadly strengthen the powers of non-mayoral elected officials and require changes to how the city budgets, decides land use changes, and plans for the future.

The 2019 commission was created last year through legislation passed by the Council and spearheaded by then-Public Advocate Letitia James and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. Its members are appointed by a variety of public officials, including the mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, and City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who also appointed the chair.

A separate commission, conducting its work in 2018, had previously been appointed by the mayor and put three questions on the November ballot that were overwhelmingly approved.

On Thursday evening, the Council-created commission finalized a list of focus areas that will be the subject of several public hearings in the next few months before its final report is due in September. Ultimately, its recommendations will be on the ballot for voters to approve or disapprove this November.

The City Council’s 37-page report to the commission details several recommendations in key areas on the balance of power in government, voting processes, police oversight, city budgeting and contracting, and land use and planning policy. The report is authored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who chairs the Council's government operations committee, and Brad Lander, the deputy leader for policy.

“It’s been almost 30 years since the last comprehensive Charter Commission and based on the public participation in the 2019 Commission’s process, it is clearly time for change,” Johnson said in a statement. “In formulating the Council’s proposals, we took into consideration all of the public testimony given as well as Council Member input, and we are confident that our recommendations will improve the way our City is governed and make life better for New Yorkers.”

Balance of Power
The report proposes requiring advice and consent powers for the City Council in appointing the city’s corporation counsel, the NYPD commissioner, City Planning Commission chair, the chief administrative law judge and the executive directors of the Campaign Finance Board and Conflicts of Interest Board (none of these positions are currently subject to Council approval). It also proposes implementing three-year terms for each of those positions.

It also proposes requiring the City Council’s approval before the mayor can remove the commissioner of the Department of Investigation, currently the one department commissioner the Council must approve after mayoral nomination. That proposal may be a response to the controversy involving the termination of former DOI Commissioner Mark Peters, who had been a thorn in the side of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Though Peters was removed for overstepping his authority, Council members at the time raised concerns about the agency head’s ability to stay independent and investigate the very mayor who appoints them without worrying about retaliation.

The Council also recommends giving the City Council, the public advocate, and the comptroller one appointment each on the Conflicts of Interest Board, which is currently made up entirely of members appointed by the mayor. “No single elected officer should be solely responsible for the appointment of COIB and by dividing the appointments between all the branches of City government, COIB can more effectively meet the goals of its mission,” the report reads.

Other recommendations include giving the Council a direct appointment to the city’s Art Commission and changing the structure of the Landmarks Preservation Commission

A few of the proposals would also increase the authority of other elected officials, including the public advocate, an office with a small budget and limited powers but a strong bully pulpit. The Council proposes allowing the public advocate to direct DOI to conduct investigations and giving the office an appointment at the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which probes NYPD officer misconduct. The report also recommends independent budgets for the public advocate and comptroller — the two offices would be able to submit their own budget proposals into the mayor’s executive budget — and guaranteed “non-negotiable” budgets for borough presidents and community boards based on a percentage of an existing, related budget.

Voting and Elections
The upcoming special election for public advocate on February 26, with 17 candidates on the ballot, illustrates cause for some of the issues that the Council’s report addresses, it says. It advocates for establishing ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, in all primary and special elections. Without ranked choice -- which allows voters to pick their preferences by ranking and distributes second-rank votes if no candidate initially meets the required vote threshold -- a candidate in a crowded special election could win with a small total vote and percentage of the ballots cast.

The report also notes that establishing ranked-choice voting would eliminate the need for costly primary and general elections that are held after a special election -- for instance, the winner of the public advocate special will have to defend their seat later this year. The report recommends doing away with those contests since ranked-choice would ensure that a candidate with deep support is elected to the seat and serves the remainder of a term.

Police Oversight
The Council recommends giving the public advocate the power to appoint one member of the CCRB, reducing one of the mayor’s appointments, and also proposes that the agency’s chair be chosen jointly by the mayor and the Council.

It also pushes for putting into law the CCRB’s Administrative Prosecution Unit, which conducts civil trials for officers accused of severe misconduct. The APU was created in 2012 through a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the CCRB, which the report points out could be revoked by the police commissioner, threatening the independence of the oversight agency.

The Council also proposed strengthening the CCRB in other ways, tying the agency’s budget to the NYPD’s, giving it subpoena power, and establishing a time-bound process for the NYPD to respond to the agency’s disciplinary recommendations.

Budgeting and Contracting
One of the more prominent roles of the City Council is its power to approve the city’s annual budget in negotiation with the mayor. For years, Council members have cried foul about the imbalance in those negotiations and the “budget dance” -- purposefully underfunding an item in initial proposals only to fully fund it later on, knowing all along the plan is to do so -- that mayors past and present have used as leverage.

In his first year as Council speaker, Johnson pointed to the imbalance and put forth a new focus on the city’s capital budget and made the level of rainy day funds put away each year a priority. The Council would put new related measures into the charter.

Among other things, the report proposes requiring the mayor to submit revenue estimates at a fixed date in the budget process, allowing the Council to estimate how much the city should be spending, and calls for increased transparency in the expense budget, particularly by tying spending to performance measures.

It also proposes limits on the mayor’s control over appropriated funds, and more efficiency and transparency in the long-term capital planning process.

Perhaps the biggest budgetary change the report recommends is the creation of an explicit Rainy Day Fund, which is currently prohibited by a law in place till 2033. The Council recommends establishing the fund in the charter as well as seeking state authorization for it.

On city contracting, the report recommends several improvements including setting time limits for specific processes, such as requiring that oversight agencies review contracts within 30 days (the same limit applied to the Comptroller’s office), and involving the comptroller’s office at an earlier stage.

Land Use and City Planning
The report advances several suggestions for making the city’s land use process “more equitable and rational,” chiefly by requiring a comprehensive plan for the city every ten years, created with community feedback, to inform policies on land use and infrastructure.

The Council also seeks to enhance the “fair share” system which determines how municipal facilities and infrastructure is sited across the city. The current “fair share” guidelines have often been criticized as inadequate and have not prevented the concentration of undesirable facilities, often in low-income communities of color. The Council’s report proposes changing those guidelines into binding rules to be followed and updated regularly along with other improvements to the siting process.

The Council is also attempting to wield more power over land use applications, giving them the ability to modify city-sponsored land use project during the approval process.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Seeks Expanded Power, Sweeping Change in Recommendations to Charter Revision Commission Thu, 31 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Votes to Create Final Ballot Proposals 29662531635 782845d55b z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Votes to Create Final Ballot Proposals Tue, 14 Aug 2018 22:45:06 +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

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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 Civic Engagement and Redistricting lander and hidalgo at crc

Council Member Lander and Noel Hidalgo testify

The charter revision commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio held its fourth and final issue-focused forum on Thursday afternoon at NYU, hearing testimony from experts on the city’s civic engagement efforts and hearing proposals for independent redistricting of City Council districts.

The central question before the commission on civic engagement was whether the city should create a new independent, nonpartisan Office of Civic Engagement. The proposal is the brainchild of New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, who was among those who testified Thursday. If the commission decides to take up that and other proposals heard at previous hearings, they would be presented to voters as ballot referenda in November. The three previous issue-focused expert hearings were on voting and elections; campaign finance reform; and community boards and land use.

Panellists who spoke before the commission on Thursday sought to define civic engagement, its limits and challenges, and the mechanisms by which it is currently carried out by city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community-based advocates, and comprehensive approaches to combining all those disparate elements.

Naomi Zauderer, chair of the NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, informed the commission about VAAC’s continuing voter engagement and registration efforts, acknowledging a fact that the commissioners were familiar with: the city’s abysmally low voter turnout in recent elections. “[T]he real challenge in New York City is getting people to turn out to the polls,” she said, noting that a lack of information about elections and candidates serves to discourage voters.

Paula Gavin, chief service officer of NYC Service, the city agency charged with encouraging volunteering efforts, said a big challenge is New York City’s low volunteering rate -- only 14 percent, compared with the national average of 25 percent. She said increasing the city’s volunteering and civic participation rate through a “continuum” of agencies and elected officials working together with community-based organizations would also lead to an uptick in turnout. “It is shown that those who volunteer more, vote more. Those who vote more, volunteer more. So the tide will rise,” she said.

But Zauderer and Amy Loprest, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, where VAAC operates, said voter engagement should continue to be housed under the CFB, which already has a well-established voter information and outreach operation that continues to be improved. They agreed that an Office of Civic Engagement is a laudable idea, but one that should coordinate with the VAAC’s existing efforts rather than subsume its role.

“I think we would support the idea that...any organization that’s called an Office of Civic Engagement be a nonpartisan and independent agency, because I think that insulates it from any kind of political pressures or the desire to follow any particular person’s priorities,” Loprest said.

She added, “There’s many, many aspects of civic engagement...and if we worked on the voter engagement and outreach work that we’re doing, we would work very closely with that office of service to collaborate.”Similarly, Gavin said it would be “unrealistic” to place all those agencies and initiatives at a lone, new agency but supported the idea of a coordinated umbrella of efforts. “I do feel strongly that a framework that brings together the various aspects of civic engagement would be very important,” she said. Citing her agency’s work across the city with other departments, in schools and communities, she said “I don’t know that it has to be everything working within the one framework. I think it’s more of a coordinating effort that would be valuable.”

Beyond the framework, panellists also pointed out blind spots in current civic engagement efforts that they said should be avoided under a newly empanelled agency. Underserved populations -- such as the disabled, low- and moderate-income communities of color, immigrants -- tend to be ignored by civic institutions, they said. Others stressed the need to inculcate a sense of civic duty in New Yorkers, particularly by starting at an early age in the city’s schools.

DeNora Getachew, New York executive director of Generation Citizen, a civics education provider, urged an emphasis on “action civics,” ensuring that young people can actually use the civic knowledge they’re given to enact change in their communities. “We know that too much emphasis is placed on voting as a way to be civically engaged and, rather, there is a spectrum of civic engagement opportunities that we need to be presenting to young people and also to adults,” she said. Getachew urged the commission to consider the OCE proposal, among other things, including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and providing more government jobs to young people in city employment programs.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney and member of OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, insisting that immigrant communities are eager to contribute to the city’s civic life but must see their efforts reciprocated by city government. “If you’re to encourage volunteerism in the immigrant community, it has to be a comprehensive strategy that also includes their involvement in democratic policy decision-making.” The city’s outreach, she said, should occur through existing networks of religious institutions and neighborhood groups that immigrants trust.

Ifeoma Ike, founding partner of Think Rubix, a civic-action oriented think tank, echoed a similar point of caution, stressing the need for equitable, culturally relevant and ongoing outreach to communities of color, and not a “transactional” approach centered around an election that arrives every four years. “We must not dismiss these communities as apathetic,” she said.

Another significant issue that has long been ignored, said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, is the city’s lack of disability access, which affects everything from voting and civic participation to employment and housing affordability.

“We find retrofitting efforts with accessibility concerns after the fact is a poor way of accomplishing inclusion,” she said of the city’s civic engagement efforts, emphasizing the need for disability literacy training and early phase consultation with disability advocates.

“[P]eople with disabilities feel that they’re being made invisible, We want to go out and vote in a public space like our neighbors because we want to be seen,” she later said, noting that the disabled community faces particular obstacles in accessing polling sites. “It’s terrible to tell people they have a duty to do something that you then prevent them from doing,” she said.

Noel HIdalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology organization, said the OCE could be a “digital steward” for new government services initiatives that he said should be designed in consultation with the people they are serving. He pushed for digital literacy programs, improving the city’s technology infrastructure starting at the community board level, something BetaNYC has been doing with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and for an enhanced participatory budgeting system that employs technology that is broadly accessible.

Council Member Lander similarly pushed for a citywide participatory budgeting program that could be run by the OCE. “We’re really facing a crisis in our democracy in New York City,” he said of the city’s low turnout. “But it’s...part of this broader issue of decline in civic trust in all our institutions, in government especially but across the board. People just don’t think of reaching out to government as a way of getting issues resolved, even where those issues are government issues.”

Though most commissioners asked about how the OCE would work, only one commissioner, John Siegal, questioned why it was necessary. “I’m worried that if we do this...that it will atrophy,” he said, speculating that it would be left to the whims of each subsequent mayor. Siegal also struck a skeptical tone as he noted that none of the panellists had spoken to the role of the private sector in improving civic engagement.

Though civic engagement dominated most of the forum, the other focus issue, and one with a looming challenge, concluded its agenda: independent redistricting. The City Council’s 51 districts are redrawn every ten years after the federal census, which is due to take place in 2020. Currently, law stipulates that the mayor appoints seven members to a city districting commission and the City Council appoints eight members. The charter commission may propose changes to the system.

John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College and a New York City Board of Elections commissioner, made a slew of suggestions at Thursday’s forum. He said the city could create as many as 70 Council districts of smaller sizes and stressed the need for proportional representation for the five boroughs based on populations.

Flateau and other panellists cited California redistricting model as one the city could follow, which prohibits incumbent elected officials from sitting on a redistricting commission and invites applications that are independently screened.

“Think of redistricting...that could be one of those triggers, one of those mass civic engagement exercises, figuring out how to set up this process going forward so that individuals, communities, neighborhoods feel ownership for wanting to participate in this process and learn more about their government,” he said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, testified on a video call to the commission. Among other ideas, she said there could be a robust list of conflicts of interest to limit who could serve on a redistricting commission, that districting commission members should be diverse and could be picked based on a set of qualifications, with the goal of ensuring the maximum public confidence in how maps are drawn. An application process like California’s, she said, would ensure that a commission attracts participants who are willing to commit their time to a laborious process. And she emphasized several transparency measures a commission should follow.

Flateau and the others did warn that any efforts at independent and equitable redistricting would be predicated on an accurate count in the 2020 census, which is threatened by the Trump Administration’s decision to include a citizenship question that could depress the count in immigrant communities. He also said that previous commissions fell under the preclearance mechanism of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- where the federal government would first approve any changes to local voting districts -- which was struck down by the Supreme Court in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In its absence, Flateau said the city could possibly set up its own preclearance system for municipal districts under the corporation counsel’s office.

James Hong, the former co-director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, agreed that applicants should be screened and ideally, the commission would be made of “academics, demographers, people who are really into data and connected with their community, and community members,” and would prohibit past elected officials from serving.

“Redistricting from start to finish needs to be protected from partisan operatives,” he said.

Over the next month, the charter commission will hold another round of public hearings across the city. The commission’s proposals are due by September 7.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting Thu, 21 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

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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 Campaign Finance Reform charter comm rev2

The Charter Revision Commission

The Charter Revision Commission empaneled by Mayor Bill de Blasio met on Thursday at NYU for the second of four expert advisory issue forums, discussing what could be the marquee issue for this year’s commission: changing the city’s campaign finance system. The first meeting, held Tuesday, focused on voting and election reform.

Like the first hearing, Thursday’s saw the commission hear from invited experts on the topic at hand, and was broken into two sections. For campaign finance, the first panel discussed context and perspective of the city’s system from politicians and experts, and the second provided recommendations.

The commission, consisting of 15 members appointed by 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.

Representatives from the city’s nonpartisan Campaign Finance Board provided five recommendations to the commission for improving the city’s public campaign finance system and its centerpiece, the public matching funds program. The board recommends:

  1. Lowering individual contribution limits from $5,100 to $2,250 for citywide offices, from $3,950 to $1,750 for boroughwide offices, and from $2,850 to $1,250 for City Council seats.

  2. Increase the matching funds rate from 6-to-1 (for every dollar under $175 raised via an individual contribution, the city disburses $6) to 8-to-1. This would be coupled with an increase of the maximum matchable amount, from $175 to $250.

  3. Increase the cap on public funds as a percentage of a campaign’s total spending limit from 55 percent to 65 percent.

  4. Lower the threshold to qualify for matching funds for citywide races, from $250,000 from 1,000 eligible contributors for mayor and $125,000 from 500 contributors for public advocate and comptroller, to $125,000 and $75,000 respectively with the same number of contributors.

  5. Lower the minimum individual contribution counted toward the public match threshold, from $10 to $5.

Others, including advocates, elected officials, and academics, also provided recommendations to the commission, with some differing from the CFB and others in line with it.

The city’s public election financing system, whereby donations to candidates of up to $175 are matched by public dollars at a rate of 6 to 1, has been cited as a model nationwide for placing more power in elections in the hands of the average voter. City Council Member Carlos Menchaca testified to the committee that he never would have been able to mount an insurgent campaign without the system, and that it also allowed him to spend more time with voters rather than donors from out of the district.

“What the system allowed me to do was to have a conversation with donors at $5, $10, and my branded experience of $38 for the 38th District, about the campaign finance,” Menchaca said. “That was my beginning part of my conversation with everyone, that their dollars would multiply by six. That allowed folks to feel empowered in a challenger, and for people that were not entrenched in the system, which is where I had to go build my political support, became possible.” Menchaca said his average contribution amount for his 2013 campaign, in which he pulled off the rare feat of unseating an incumbent, was “around $100.”

The public matching program came into being in 1989, after a wave of corruption scandals in city, state, and federal government led to the passage of Local Law 8, which established a 1:1 match. The match was increased to 4:1 through the 1998 Charter Revision Commission, and was increased again to the current 6:1 in 2007.

The system has significantly lowered candidate reliance on political action committee (PAC) money and other “big money” donations found at other levels of elected government, including state-level elections in New York. The CFB presented data comparing an unnamed City Council member’s finances with that of a member of Congress and of the state Senate. The member of Congress raised 77 percent of their money from PACs and 0.6 percent from small contributions of $200 or less. The state senator raised 89 percent from PACs and 7 percent from small contributions. The City Council member, on the other hand, raised 25 percent from PACs, and 62 percent from small contributions when matching fund allocations were taken into account.

However, for citywide offices, the contribution percentages can be a red herring. In 2017, while 73 percent of contributions to mayoral candidates participating in the public match program came from donors who contributed under $175, 45 percent of the actual dollar value of the total contributions came from 650 individuals who donated the maximum for the 2017 election, which was $4,950 (it has since risen automatically, per law, to $5,100). For the City Council, the distribution is more equal, and in fact, Council candidates as a whole received more money in 2017 from small donors than from contributors of the maximum amount allowed by the program.

Non-participants in the program can take the form of a rich self-funder like Michael Bloomberg, but can also take the form of an incumbent without serious competition not wanting to use taxpayer funds for a formality election or interested in looser restrictions on their spending. Non-participation in competitive races is fairly rare, though. According to the CFB’s Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs, Eric Friedman, 28 out of 64 non-participants in the public finance system in 2017 reported raising $0.

Others who testified were largely in line with the CFB on raising the match rate and reducing the maximum allowable contribution by about half. Advocates broke with the CFB on the issue of the match cap: while the CFB recommended that the cap be lifted to 65 percent, Alex Camarda of Reinvent Albany and Michael Malbin of SUNY Albany’s Campaign Finance Institute recommended that the cap be eliminated entirely, which would have the city provide more public funds relative to the spending limit.

“I don’t see what purpose that serves,” Malbin said of the matching cap. Camarda and Malbin both endorsed raising the rate of matching funds rate above 6-to-1, but did not recommend a specific rate.

For the 2021 election, the spending limit for a City Council candidate is set at $190,000, and the maximum public funds disbursement is $104,500, or 55 percent of the spending limit. Eliminating the cap would mean that a candidate could spend up to 85 percent of the spending limit using public funds. City Council Member Ben Kallos recently re-introduced a bill that would eliminate the matching funds cap.

CFB representatives were asked by Commissioner Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center, why the board is endorsing a 65 percent cap instead of elimination. CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said that raising it to 85 percent would be impractical.

“We make public funds payments to candidates who are on the ballot and who are opposed on the ballot, therefore we can only make those payments once the ballot has been set,” said Loprest. She noted that according to state election law, ballots could only be set after the end of petitioning. “The ballot is set roughly at the end of July, beginning of August. Which means that we make our first public funds payments at the beginning of August, which leaves about five weeks before the primary.” She noted that this would cause campaigns to be constrained to spending most of their money in the five weeks before the primary.

Camarda agreed in part.

“I think that in citywide races, 65 percent is plenty because citywide candidates don’t often hit the cap,” he said. “Our concern would be for City Council, because as I mentioned, 30 percent of the candidates in 2013 actually hit the cap.” The CFB stated that it wouldn’t oppose eliminating the cap, but that it was not its first preference.

The commissioners, including Chair Perales, a former Secretary of State under Governor Andrew Cuomo, appeared receptive to the changes proposed by the CFB and the other testifiers, for the most part. Most lines of questioning were of an inquisitive rather than adversarial tone. The commissioner who was most skeptical and critical of the proposed changes was John Siegal, an attorney and a de Blasio appointee to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

“The reason, clearly, that mayoral candidates rely more on big contributions is because it takes a lot of money to run an effective mayoral campaign,” said Siegal, who donated $4,500 to de Blasio’s 2013 mayoral campaign. “And while it sounds good and feels good to say ‘let’s lower the contribution limit,’ that is going to have consequences. Candidates are going to have to work way harder to raise money. They’re going to have to spend a lot more time raising money.” He noted that there is an “efficiency to getting on the phone and getting 500 people to give $4,500 or $5,100 that is going to be lost here.”

The CFB’s Chair, Frederick Schaffer, said that he would agree with Siegal if the only recommendation made by the Board was to lower the contribution limit.

“That’s why we want to increase the match for citywide officials from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, and increase the actual amount from $175 to $250,” Schaffer said. “We crunched those numbers precisely with this problem in mind, and we think that the overall effect of those three things together meets the concern that you have just expressed.”

Siegal was also critical of a proposed “geographical requirement” for citywide candidates, which would force them to fundraise around the city. Malbin’s presentation to the commission noted that most money raised for citywide contests comes from only five City Council districts, representing Manhattan around Central Park and Brownstone Brooklyn. For citywide candidates, Malbin recommended that they must show a minimum number of contributors in 20 of 51 Council districts to qualify for public matching funds. The CFB suggested that citywide candidates raise 50 contributions from each borough.

Siegal called this a “fundamentally different requirement than we’ve ever had in the system,” saying that previous campaign finance law was limiting the money candidates can raise rather than explicitly saying who it must be raised from, which he said would set a bad precedent, “engineering campaign fundraising.”

“Have you actually looked at how many Republicans raise 50 matching contributions in [the] Bronx? Or how many Democrats actually raise 50 contributions in Staten Island? And do we really want to tell candidates that they have to go out and introduce themselves to communities where they have no background and no ties, and the first thing they have to do is go ask for money. That doesn’t seem to me that it’s getting money out of politics, it seems to me like it’s pushing the fundraising race into places for other reasons,” he added.

Schaffer dismissed the notion that 50 contributions per borough was unattainable for a seeker of citywide office.

“We’re trying to identify people who are reasonably likely to be real candidates, and so we thought the number 50 was really quite minimal, even for a Democrat in Staten Island or a Republican in the Bronx,” Schaffer said. There are currently three citywide elected offices: Mayor, Public Advocate, and Comptroller.

Other commissioners also had questions and concerns. Dale Ho, of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, questioned whether it was appropriate to put such specific numbers, limits, and thresholds into the city charter, which he characterized as difficult to change and rarely brought up for debate, versus the easier-to-change city code.

“As you can see from all this machinery here, [the charter] is quite difficult to amend,” Ho said. “If it turns out that the number should change over time, maybe the limits need to be reduced even more, maybe the match numbers need to go up even higher, maybe we miscalibrate something and we need to adjust something. If these changes are in the city charter, that kind of ties the hands of the city in a way that if they’re in the code, maybe they’re a little easier to adjust.”

Schaffer, a former top appointee in the office of the city’s Corporation Counsel, its top lawyer, said he believed that the City Council can amend the charter “just like ordinary legislation,” which Perales agreed with.

Other issues beyond those encompassed by the CFB’s recommendations also arose.

Government reform group Citizens Union remained neutral on increasing public funds disbursement to candidates, but gave suggestions for transparency measures if the commission decided to increase the disbursement. Rachel Bloom, Citizens Union’s director of public policy, called on the commission to prohibit public funds disbursed to candidates to be used to pay consultants that also lobby the city, subject candidate coordination with union members to campaign finance regulations, tighten Local Law 181, which regulates the nonprofits of elected officials, restrict the transfer of campaign funds running for one office to another office, and to transfer lobbying reporting and enforcement to the CFB.

When asked by Siegal if the CFB was interested in regulating lobbying, Loprest was ambivalent on whether the organization’s independence lent itself to being a watchdog on lobbying.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for eliminating money from politics entirely and moving to a 100 percent publicly funded system. Adams said that candidacies receiving public funding could be gauged by petition signatures, or by reaching a threshold through $1 donations that would end up in the public finance system. He also suggested that the members of the commission, none of whom have held elected office, were not fully equipped to know what raising money as a politician is like, and that they should hold a “mock election” to gain fuller experience.

“I think a good mock exercise is for everyone at CFB, everyone who’s making these decisions, to run a mock election,” Adams said. “Those who have never felt what what you go through to run an election can never really understand. I think to run a mock election, give them the task of calling people and giving them $500, if ever you want people to lose your number, try to raise that $500.”

Adams has already made his own appointee to the charter revision commission empaneled through City Council legislation, which will begin its business soon and put forth recommendations next year. Adams has chosen former City Council Member Sal Albanese, who has been a proponent for campaign finance reform, organizing much of his 2017 mayoral run around the “democracy vouchers” program that has been implemented in Seattle.

“Money is the enemy,” Adams said. “It is always going to be the enemy. We are always going to have a problem with corruption until we get money out of campaigns.”

The mayoral charter revision commission will meet twice more next week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to hear expert testimony on community boards and land use, then civic engagement and independent redistricting.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Campaign Finance Reform Fri, 15 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing mayor cityhall march

(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

New York City’s modern campaign finance system is undoubtedly a model program -- it’s being emulated in other municipalities -- that has diversified and democratized the city’s quadrennial local elections since it was created 30 years ago. Among its strengths is that the public-matching program is consistently tweaked and updated with the times, and the Campaign Finance Board is taking the opportunity afforded by a mayoral charter revision commission to propose further reforms to the system.

CFB officials are set to present five proposals to the charter revision commission, empaneled in April by Mayor Bill de Blasio, on Thursday afternoon, at an issue forum at NYU focused on campaign finance reform, which was one of the mayor’s stated goals in creating the commission. The commission has been holding public hearings for the last few months and is now digging deeper into a few core subject areas including election administration, voter access and participation, land use, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting.

The CFB’s proposals are meant to enhance its voluntary public matching funds system, which encourages candidates to seek small-dollar donations that are matched at a 6-to-1 ratio for contributions up to $175, or the first $175 of larger donations. The program aids those seeking public office without the help of wealthy donors or support from political party machinery, and gives everyday New Yorkers a greater voice by boosting the impact of their contributions.

Perhaps the CFB’s most significant proposal involves significantly lowering contribution limits for all offices. Currently, individual donors can give candidates for citywide office up to $5,100; candidates for borough president can receive up to $3,950, and City Council candidates can get $2,850 at maximum. The CFB proposes reducing those limits by more than half to $2,250, $1,750, and $1,250 respectively.   

There’s a clear rationale for these changes. In the 2017 election, the CFB noted, contributions to mayoral candidates larger than $2,250 accounted for only 5 percent of all contributions but 59 percent of the total funds raised by those candidates. Similarly, donations of $1,250 and more made up only 2 percent of contributions to City Council candidates but 32 percent of the money raised.

A few of the proposals are directly targeted at citywide positions -- mayor, comptroller and public advocate -- where large donors tend to play a greater role. The CFB suggests increasing the matching fund ratio for citywides from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1 and increasing the matchable donations from $175 to $250. In essence, candidates would be further incentivized to seek small-dollar donations, which would carry a bigger reward. For instance, a donation of $175 to a participating candidate would currently get them another $1,050 in public funds. The changed formula would mean that a $250 donation would net candidates an additional $2,000 in public funds.

Reforms along the lines of the CFB’s proposals have been advanced in the City Council but members have waited to act as the charter commission carries out its work. The CFB, an independently-operating body whose members are chosen by the mayor and the City Council speaker, releases a mandated post-election report every four years with a series of recommendations that typically leads to City Council legislation and at least some tweaks to the system that are passed into law. Such a report is expected by September, and is likely to include proposals similar to those being presented to the mayor’s charter revision commission. When de Blasio announced his charter revision commission and said he intended it to focus in part on campaign finance reform, some questioned why he wouldn’t allow the usual process to unfold.

The mayoral charter revision commission’s proposals will be announced in early September and placed on the ballot in the November general election, with city voters approving or rejecting them.

A second charter revision commission is being formed after legislation passed the City Council earlier this year. Its work will culminate with ballot proposals in 2019.

One bill currently at the City Council, proposed by Council Member Ben Kallos, would increase the cap on public campaign matching funds from the current 55 percent of the spending limit for a particular seat to 85 percent. The CFB is now proposing a more moderate increase to 65 percent of the spending limit, reasoning that it nonetheless boosts small donations while giving candidates the flexibility to raise and spend funds from private sources since public funds payments are usually doled out in the closing stretches of each election cycle.

Two other new CFB proposals would alter the thresholds for candidates to qualify for public funds. As it stands now, citywide candidates have to raise a minimum amount from a minimum number of donations. As an example, mayoral candidates have to raise at least $250,000 from at least 1,000 donors who gave a minimum of $10, while comptroller and public advocate candidates have to raise $125,000 from 500 donors giving at least $10. The CFB is proposing reducing these thresholds to $125,000 for mayor and $75,000 for the other citywide seats, while also pitching a new “geographic requirement” that each candidate receive at least 50 contributions from each of the five boroughs. They are also proposing lowering the minimum qualifying contribution to $5 for all elected positions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Campaign Finance Board to Propose Reforms at Charter Commission Hearing Wed, 13 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