Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2592 Thu, 22 Apr 2021 22:36:02 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) What's The [DATA] Point? 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8852-what-s-the-data-point-5-charter-revision-ballot-questions-2019 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8852-what-s-the-data-point-5-charter-revision-ballot-questions-2019 whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 82 -- 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot, with Gail Benjamin and Carl Weisbroad of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp 82There are 19 proposals to change city government and elections in five "yes" or "no" questions on this year's ballot in New York City. They were put on the ballot by a Charter Revision Commission. The chair of the commission, Gail Benjamin, and one of the commissioners, Carl Weisbrod, joined the podcast to discuss the commission's work and the proposals voters can approve or disapprove over the next few weeks.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [DATA] Point? 5, The 2019 Charter Revision Questions on Your Ballot Wed, 16 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8848-significant-nypd-oversight-reforms-fall-ballot-ccrb https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8848-significant-nypd-oversight-reforms-fall-ballot-ccrb police academ gra

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


New York City may soon take several steps toward strengthening the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, the agency responsible for investigating misconduct allegations against police officers.

Voters have the opportunity to approve or reject a package of CCRB-related measures on this fall’s ballot, just months after the Board played a consequential role in the high-profile trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, resulting in his firing by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission has placed five “yes” or “no” questions on this fall’s ballot, one of which includes five proposed CCRB reforms. Perhaps the most controversial of the five is expanding the jurisdiction of the Board to include investigating some instances of suspected lying by police officers. It is a step police reform advocates say is important but which has limitations that illustrate the city’s caution toward tightening the reins on police misconduct.

The ballot question, which will be the second of the five presented to voters during early voting or on Election Day, also includes expanding the size of the Board and changing certain appointment processes; giving the CCRB a budget large enough to hire staff of a certain size relative to that of the NYPD force; providing the CCRB executive director subpoena power; and requiring that the police commissioner provides written explanation to the CCRB when the commissioner “intends to depart or has departed from discipline recommended by the CCRB” or by one of the NYPD’s top internal trials officials.

The proposals, which will pass or fail together, could significantly impact the performance of the Board in its work to hold officers accountable in cases of alleged excessive force, abuse of authority, and other specifically-outlined examples of possible misconduct. They are being put before voters, along with other changes to city elections and governance, during what is expected to be a very low-turnout election and amid heightened attention, both in New York City and nationally, toward police misconduct, transparency, and consequences for officers who break their pledge to protect and serve the public.

In sum, the reforms amount to changes that CCRB officials and police accountability watchdogs believe would help the board operate more efficiently and independently.

“I think on the whole they are good for the agency and will help to advance civilian oversight of certain disciplinary aspects of the NYPD, those that fall within our jurisdiction,” said Fred Davie, the chair of the CCRB appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is a police oversight agency made up of civilians that falls outside the NYPD but is part of the disciplinary framework for officers accused of certain kinds of misconduct. Agency staff and the Board it reports to are empowered by the City Charter to investigate complaints of officers using unnecessary force or abusing their authority as police and recommend discipline to the police commissioner.

Davie said there has not necessarily been a proliferation of false statements made by officers during the course of the Board’s investigations, “but where there might be, we should be able to investigate that and then work out the appropriate discipline to recommend to the police commissioner.” That power is currently beyond the Board’s reach.

The false official statements provision is the only one that actually expands the Board’s jurisdiction. The rest have to do with CCRB operations, though they also have the potential for significant impact.

On the proposal related to guaranteeing a CCRB budget tied to NYPD headcount, Davie said it will provide a baseline in budget negotiations and “increase the agency’s stability and effectiveness.”

The proposed changes to the size of the Board and structure of appointments to it would limit the influence of the mayor -- who also appoints the police commissioner -- and give the City Council far more power in selecting appointees, including the chair. It would also add an appointee by the public advocate.

The Charter Revision Commission this year was chaired by an appointee of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and was balanced with other appointments made by the mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and borough presidents, with no one authority having a majority (though all but one are Democrats). It tackled a wider range of charter issues in its public hearings than previous commissions appointed by mayors, including some targets that have never before been touched.

The commission ultimately came up with 19 proposals in the form of five ballot questions dealing with elections, the CCRB, ethics, the city budget, and land use, all of which are expected to be approved by voters. There has been little public push for or against any of the five sets of reforms, other than a coalition organized to seek passage of ranked-choice voting for certain city elections, which will be question one on the ballot.

The potential changes to police oversight, many of which have long been supported by reformers, are modest enough to have avoided a concerted public effort to defeat the proposals, particularly from the labor unions representing NYPD officers. The Police Benevolent Association, the largest police officer union, did not return a request for comment for this article.

False Official Statements
“The proposed reform related to the CCRB obtaining authority to prosecute officers who lie during the investigation process is by far the most important charter amendment for voters to look for this [fall],” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, an attorney at Legal Aid Society with experience litigating police transparency matters.

The CCRB was established in its current all-civilian form (former NYPD officers are regularly appointed by the police commissioner) in 1993 to investigate complaints made against officers from outside the NYPD. Over the years its budget has increased and its authority expanded to allow it to prosecute substantiated cases in a police trial setting.

Its jurisdiction is restricted to “FADO” -- unnecessary force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language -- complaints, which must be made by civilians in order to be investigated. The charter amendments would, among other things, expand that jurisdiction to include lying to CCRB investigators.

But the reform does have significant limits. It applies only to the police officer(s) originally under investigation and not to any other officers who may provide false testimony related to the inquiry. Even if the CCRB has proof that an officer lied to its investigators, it has no ability to initiate a new case on the matter.

This means that police witnesses who lie to protect a colleague under investigation or to shield their own behavior, when not the subject of an ongoing investigation themselves, can do so without recourse from the CCRB.

Currently, when the CCRB has evidence of an officer lying, it refers the case to the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau where it gets dealt with out of public view. Because of a provision in the state’s Civil Rights Law known as Section 50-a, any discipline issued by the police department, including any action against dishonest officers, is sealed.

Limits of CCRB Proposals
Gail Benjamin, the chair of the Charter Revision Commission that created the ballot proposals, told Gotham Gazette the body was limited in how much it could expand the authority of the CCRB to investigate misconduct because of a catch-22 involving the complaint-initiated nature of the agency’s mandate.

“Because the CCRB can only investigate based on a complaint and a complainant, if there are other officers, somebody else would have to complain about them in order for the CCRB to have jurisdiction. Their jurisdiction, as I said, is only over FADO and other officers would be outside of that," she said in an interview.

A State Supreme Court ruling from February determined that the City Charter barred the CCRB from initiating an investigation or gathering evidence without first receiving a complaint. But because this is an issue of the City Charter and not state law, the Charter Revision Commission had the authority to deal with it.

“To the extent that that is a limitation of the Charter then the Charter Revision Commission could have looked at altering those provisions in order to expand the CCRB’s mandate, but didn’t in this case,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), in an interview. He said he is not aware of any state law that would prevent the CCRB from beginning an investigation without a civilian complaint.

“I can't say that that was an issue that came up. What came up was how to affect the greatest change. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had,” said Benjamin.

“I'm not sure we would even have the jurisdiction,” she added. “It's a very complicated question to change and pull out one thing."

“I think to me the emphasis was on materiality,” Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner appointed by de Blasio, told Gotham Gazette in a brief interview. “The person who is being looked at at the CCRB is the officer who is under investigation, and that I think was the rationale.”

‘We haven’t seen that willingness’
The commission’s relatively narrow expansion of the CCRB’s jurisdiction is in some ways characteristic of the history of resistance to bringing police oversight outside of the purview of the police department itself.

From the early days of investigating civilian complaints in the mid-1960s when the powerful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association fought to keep the function within the NYPD, to earlier this year when Gotham Gazette reported on the secret effort by de Blasio administration officials to lobby commissioners to scuttle the provision related to officer lying -- attempts to create a police accountability framework independent of the NYPD has met resistance. Only after a second vote and a change of heart this year did the commissioners move to place false official statements on the ballot in its circumscribed form.

Other measures sought by police reformers never made it onto the ballot. Things like bringing school safety agents and other peace officers under the jurisdiction of the CCRB were proposed but never taken up. High on the list for reform advocates was codifying the CCRB’s administrative prosecutorial unit (APU), through which the CCRB prosecutes cases of misconduct when the Board is seeking the highest forms of discipline.

Currently governed by a memorandum of understanding, the CCRB’s APU provides a layer of oversight that can have large consequences. It was the APU that brought charges against Officer Pantaleo for Garner’s death, which led to a guilty verdict by the NYPD trial judge and Commissioner O’Neill to dismiss Pantaleo from the force this summer.

Only one provision in the APU agreement was picked up by the Charter Revision Commission to be codified in the Charter despite advocates pushing for more. Under the proposed amendments, the police commissioner will be required to explain in writing to the CCRB in any instance when deviating from a disciplinary recommendation, as is currently required under the memorandum of understanding.

“I think it’s disappointing on the one hand that we haven’t seen that willingness to take on expanding the CCRB’s mandate,” said Sisitzky, especially on the issue of peace officers and on strengthening the board’s “ability to actually make discipline stick.”

“But I don’t want that to take away from the fact that there are important changes being proposed to the CCRB as part of this ballot measure that we support and want to see enacted,” he said.

Layers of Accountability
To reform advocates, the changes made to give the CCRB greater sway in the Sity Charter are important but limited in their impact because state law gives the police commissioner the ultimate authority to discipline members of the force.

“The CCRB is ultimately not given more teeth in terms of being able to enforce penalties, but allowing an independent agency to conduct investigations into false statements made to that agency is still an important way for the agency to have increased authority to hold officers accountable,” said Sisitzky.

NYPD officials have expressed concerns about the package of amendments and said that the system of referring cases of misconduct to the department’s internal affairs team works well, especially in instances of false official statements. “Currently, the CCRB has been integrated into this framework and makes referrals to Internal Affairs when it suspects an officer has made a false statement during its investigation,” wrote Al Baker, the NYPD’s director of media relations, in an email.

“Going forward, it is imperative for the integrity of our criminal justice system that a uniform standard remain in place when assessing the serious issue of officer credibility," Baker added.

According to police reform advocates, however, the current system is not doing enough to curtail police lying to the CCRB. “The fact that false statements made it into the ballot is incredibly important because false statements are given in almost every police killing and misconduct case our members have worked on,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the advocacy coalition Communities United for Police Reform, in an interview.

Over 130 cases of police making false official statements to CCRB investigators were referred to the NYPD between 2014 and 2018 (nearly half of which occurred in 2015 alone), according to a report provided by the CCRB. That figure includes only the cases where the CCRB had enough evidence to prove an officer lied without initiating a separate investigation into the matter.

Officer credibility is also a concern for New York City prosecutors, who often rely on police testimony at trial. WNYC reported in April that district attorneys in all five boroughs kept files of police dishonesty and Bronx DA Darcel Clark recently released a large portion of her office’s files to Gothamist following a Freedom of Information request.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican representing parts of Staten Island and a candidate this fall for New York City Public Advocate, is opposed to expanding the authority of the CCRB in many ways, saying he’s voted against giving the agency the power to prosecute misconduct and supports limiting the scope of “what it can do unilaterally against police officers.” Borelli told Gotham Gazette he would be voting against the CCRB ballot proposals.

But he backs the measure to allow the CCRB to pursue cases of police lying, he said. “If that was a stand-alone bill I’d probably support that,” he said in an interview.

“Because what is the point of having a court if you can’t validate a statement people make while they are swearing...before it. That to me is not a problem,” he said.

Layers of Obfuscation
In the interview, Borelli ruminated on whether police witness testimony in CCRB investigations was that important. “With all the video evidence we have now of most incidents with body cameras, usually the fact pattern is pretty established,” he said.

But establishing the facts through video evidence is a difficult task for the CCRB, Board representatives have said, and one that has led agency officials to push for other reforms on the ballot.

CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche testified before the Charter Revision Commission in March about the need for the agency’s highest ranking staff to have subpoena power. Currently, the CCRB chair can sign subpoenas after a vote of the Board, at times creating a period during which material evidence may be lost.

Many of the subpoenas the Board issues are to government agencies or businesses for evidence, especially video surveillance, which don’t necessarily have a system for preserving recordings, according to Davie, the Board’s chair. The Charter Revision Commission proposal will allow the CCRB to delegate its subpoena power to the executive director so the agency can more quickly respond to and acquire potential evidence.

The CCRB also has trouble obtaining body-worn camera footage from the police department, noted CCRB communications director Colleen Roache, despite the Charter-mandated duty to cooperate with the Board’s investigations. Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras to NYPD patrol officers in March, month-to-month between 29 and 37 percent of CCRB investigations have pending footage requests with the NYPD. Roughly 13 percent of cases are pending for more than 90 days. The NYPD has not put forth publicly any formal policy for releasing body camera footage to the CCRB or the public at large.

“The step that has been taken helps,” Davie told Gotham Gazette, referring to the false statements ballot proposal. “It’s a step in the right direction, and if expanding it makes our ability to do our job better then of course we would not be opposed to that.”

Another layer of obfuscation is Section 50-a, the part of state law that prevents public disclosure of police disciplinary records, which the Charter Revision Commission does not have the power to suggest changing via ballot referendum. Because of Section 50-a, the public has no ability to see the outcome of CCRB investigations, even when it substantiates complaints of misconduct.

“If we should ever be able to repeal 50-a, [the false official statements amendment] might even add a little more transparency,” said Davie. Davie has never taken a public position on Section 50-a “other than recognizing the challenges it poses to the agency,” according to a CCRB spokesperson, but he will be testifying at a State Senate hearing on a bill that would repeal the law taking place in Manhattan on Thursday.

Amending the City Charter to allow the CCRB to go after officers under investigation who lie, he believes, will enhance the agency’s abilities to serve its mandate. “I think that it adds integrity to the process. It adds another level of accountability,” he said of what the commission has proposed.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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There are NYPD Oversight Measures on the Ballot - How Significant are They? Mon, 14 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
2019 Charter Revision Commission Seeks to 'Tweak,' Not Upend City Balance of Power https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8815-2019-city-charter-commission-seeks-to-tweak-city-balance-of-power https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8815-2019-city-charter-commission-seeks-to-tweak-city-balance-of-power abny better

Carl Weisbrod, left, and Gail Benjamin


A series of proposals on the ballot before New Yorkers this fall is meant to revisit city political power dynamics established after the 1989 Charter Revision Commission, which 30 years ago reshaped New York City government into its current form. That is what Gail Benjamin and Carl Weisbrod, two leaders of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, said during a Wednesday morning discussion hosted by the Association for a Better New York and Citizens Union at the New School.

From the early voting period of October 26 through November 3 and on Election Day, November 5, New York City voters will be able to vote “yes” or “no” on five ballot questions that include 19 potential New York City Charter changes, such as instituting ranked-choice voting in some elections; sharpening the teeth of the city’s police oversight board; protecting the annual budgets of several elected officials; giving community boards more warning about land use changes; and more.

Benjamin and Weisbrod stressed that they want to educate the public on the new proposals and push people to go to the polls to vote in what most acknowledge will be a very low turnout election. There are few electoral races on the ballot this fall.

Most charter revision commissions have been created and appointed entirely by the mayor to examine and revise the powers, structures, and processes outlined in the city’s central governing document, often with the outcome of making narrow changes that conform to the mayor’s agenda.

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission is different. It is the first charter commission formed by the City Council, not the mayor, with the authority to select commissioners shared among the Council, mayor, public advocate, comptroller, and borough presidents, leaving no one entity with a majority of appointments.

The result, Benjamin and Weisbrod believe, is a set of proposals that, if approved by voters, will helpfully refine -- but not significantly upend -- the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of city government, and give the City Council and other city offices like the public advocate more authority, especially in the areas of budgeting and appointments.

“The fundamental question before the commission was, ‘Fundamentally, is the balance of power between the executive branch and legislative branch correct,’” Weisbrod said.

Considering the proposals that came before the commission this year, “a lot of them would have radically altered that balance of power” in the city, Weisbrod said. “I think the proposals you see before you are in some respects a tweaking of that balance of power, but not really a fundamental change in that balance of power.”

The commission did not, for example, propose to voters that community boards get veto power in the land use review process, that the City Council get more say in designing the annual municipal budget, or that members of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) become popularly-elected.

“I think that what we’ve done will redound to the credit of each one of the citizens of the city, and will help organize and stabilize the city going forward for the next 30 years until there is another major charter commission,” Benjamin, who chaired the 2019 commission, told the audience.

Charter revision commissions modify the City Charter by putting proposed amendments on the ballot in the form of referenda for voters to approve (or not). According to the law, charter commissions are supposed to be independent of the officials who appoint them, and are mandated to examine every chapter of the Charter, soliciting input from the public and experts.

The 15 commissioners of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, including Benjamin and Weisbrod, heard over a thousand proposals before staff whittled the list down to 45, of which the commission took up 19. Those 19 proposed charter amendments will appear on the ballot in the form of five questions covering: elections; the Civilian Complaint Review Board; ethics and governance; city budget; and land use.

The 1989 commission was empanelled to deal with the redistribution of power necessitated by the abolition of the Board of Estimate, which the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional for violating the principle of one-person-one-vote. The 1989 commission established a strong executive branch, while the City Council gained powers over land use and some budget authority, and the mayor controlled most of the other powers that had been held by the Board of Estimate, including a great deal of influence over the size and details of the city budget, according to Benjamin.

“We wanted to look at how that was working after 30 years and after changes that were not foreseen,” Benjamin said. Chief among those unforeseen changes were term limits for city elected officials, especially members of the City Council.

In 1993 and again in 1996, voters approved two-term limits on the mayor, City Council, and other elected offices. In 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and collaborators in the Council passed a law extending term limits to three terms, which was later reversed in a subsequent referendum in 2010.

“I believe that, having worked at the Council in particular, the term limits of the Council led to a body that could not easily be an effective balance against the mayor,” said Benjamin, who was appointed chair of the commission by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Because “we already have a strong mayoral system,” she added, “it is important and significant, therefore, to spread power out overall so that other voices are heard.”

Two guiding principles of the 2019 commission, the two commissioners told the audience Wednesday morning, was not to take up issues that could be addressed through Council legislation or the mayor’s rulemaking, and not to take up charter amendments recently addressed by voters. The body left term limits aside and went after more granular adjustments to empower the Council.

Some of these ‘tweaks’ deal with the city budget, addressing concerns about a mayor using budget power to target political opponents rather than advance a fiduciary cause. The 2019 commission is proposing guaranteed budgets for the public advocate and borough presidents, two categories of elected office that often serve as a foil to the mayoralty. Another 'tweak' would require the mayor to submit revenue estimates to the City Council earlier in the fiscal year and budget modifications within 30 days of updating the city’s financial plan.

The budget proposals “are an effort to redress that possibility without fundamentally damaging the power of the executive to determine what the overall size of the budget should be -- what the revenue estimates are -- without changing the Council’s role in appropriations,” Weisbrod said.

The 2019 Charter Revision Commission also adjusted the method for appointing the Corporation Counsel, the city’s lawyer, to give the City Council advice and consent power. “The Corporation Counsel doesn’t represent the mayor; the Corporation Counsel represents the city,” said Weisbrod, explaining why the proposal makes sense, though he expressed reservations about it.

Expanding the powers of the CCRB proved to be one of the most contentious issues, unfolding before the 2019 commission against the backdrop of high-profile disciplinary proceedings for Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who in 2014 used the forbidden chokehold that led to Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island.

The CCRB is an independent oversight agency charged with investigating and prosecuting certain cases of police misconduct. Among the charter commission’s proposals are one that would give the CCRB the authority to investigate false official statements made by an officer under investigation. Currently, the agency can only refer their suspicions that an officer is lying to the police department to be dealt with internally.

That proposal was the only ones recommended by the commission’s staff that was not initially taken up by the commission, in part because of a clandestine effort by de Blasio administration officials to lobby commissioners. After a change of heart, the commissioners reversed their decision and voted to place it on the ballot.

“I think that was by far the most heated issue we’ve dealt with,” Weisbrod, an appointee of de Blasio, said Wednesday. “I guess land use, which we felt was too complicated and inappropriate in many ways to deal with in the charter was another,” he added.

“I think that’s the only life and death issue that we’re dealing with here,” Commissioner Sateesh Nori told Gotham Gazette in June. Nori, an appointee of then-Public Advocate Letitia James, was not part of Wednesday’s panel.

For Weisbrod, the most impactful proposal before voters is not related to police, but to city elections. “At least in my view, the most consequential recommendation that the [charter commission] has come up with is ranked-choice voting,” he said Wednesday.

The method, which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, rather than selecting just one, “will fundamentally, in my view, change the way we go about electing our local representatives,” said Weisbrod. Supporters of ranked choice voting, like Weisbrod and Benjamin, believe it will change the way campaigns are run in the city by forcing candidates to reach constituents beyond their base of support and eliminate the need for costly runoff elections in primaries.

The five questions containing the 19 proposed Charter amendments will appear on one page of the ballot in 7.5 point font, according to Benjamin. Voters will have the opportunity to vote on the ballot proposals on Election Day, November 5, and at their designated early voting site between October 26 and November 3.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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2019 Charter Revision Commission Seeks to 'Tweak,' Not Upend City Balance of Power Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The 2019 City Charter Commission Narrows Its Focus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8471-max-murphy-podcast-the-2019-city-charter-commission-narrows-its-focus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8471-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 wbai.org

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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 Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7795-city-council-charter-revision-commission-takes-shape https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7795-city-council-charter-revision-commission-takes-shape gg city council hearing committee

(Sofie Hecht/Gotham Gazette)


The New York City Council’s commission to review the city charter -- a separate effort from an existing commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- has been fully appointed and is set to begin its work next Monday, July 16.

The City Council passed a bill in April, spearheaded by Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to create a commission to analyze the city’s governing document and recommend potentially significant changes to the structure and functions of city government. Although any such commission is allowed to consider the entire composition of the city charter, Brewer, James, and Johnson have pointed to a few broad priority areas including improving the city’s land use policies, strengthening the City Council’s ‘advise and consent’ role in approving mayoral appointees to city agencies and commissions, enhancing the Council’s power over city budgeting, and implementing stronger oversight of the mayoral administration.

At a March 17 hearing on the bill, James emphasized that the commission could achieve groundbreaking improvements similar to the 1989 charter commission that upended the entire structure of city government. She contrasted it with the mayor’s approach, which she said suffers from “predetermined conclusions, a narrow focus on issues within Council authority, and a timeline far too tight to do the job right.”

The Council’s commission, composed of 15 members, is meant to carry out its work over the next 16 months, presenting ballot referenda to voters during the November 2019 general election. The mayor’s commission, created by de Blasio through an executive order, has a shorter timeline and a narrower brief, and will be proposing its own recommendations on Election Day this year.

The Council commission’s members include four appointees of the speaker, including the chair, four mayoral appointees, and one each chosen by the public advocate, the comptroller, and the five borough presidents.

Johnson picked Gail Benjamin, the former director of the Council’s land use division, to serve as commission chair. His other appointees include Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former de Blasio deputy mayor and the former chair of NYC Health+Hospitals, the city’s municipal hospital system; Rev. Clinton Miller, pastor at Brown Memorial Baptist Church; and Merryl Tisch, the former chancellor of the state Board of Regents and current vice chair of the SUNY board of trustees.

“The appointment of these members of the Charter Revision Commission is the first step towards bringing the City Charter into the 21st century,” said Johnson in a statement announcing the full commission. “All of these individuals represent civic engagement at its best, and I am so grateful for the time they are giving to make our city a better place…The City Charter is in good hands.”

In a phone interview, Benjamin said she was "excited" about leading the commission. "This is kind of the culmination of my career as a government official,” she said. Benjamin drew a distinction between the work she will oversee and that of the mayor's commission, which is expected to release its preliminary report soon. “This commission has a much broader mandate than the mayor gave to his commission and I think that all of the 15 members who have been appointed are excited about the broadness of the mandate and the ability to really examine how this city functions governmentally and what we can do to move it into the future," she said.   

Though the two commissions will not overlap substantially, Benjamin said the Council's commission will review the testimony presented to the mayor's commission, as well as the reports and testimony from every commission convened since 1989. "There are lots of issues that [the mayor's] commission, I don’t think, has had the time to really flesh out," she said, citing city procurement practices, non-citizen voting and instant run-off voting as a few examples. "I would think that we would want to look at those kinds of issues also and that we’ll have the time to do that because we’ve got over a year and not just a few months," Benjamin said. 

Mayor de Blasio mostly plucked his Council commission appointees from his own administration. Among them are Lisette Camilo, the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services; Paula Gavin, the city’s Chief Service Officer who heads up NYC Service, the agency tasked with promoting volunteering efforts; Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen; and former City Planning chief Carl Weisbrod, currently a de Blasio appointee to the MTA board.

Most other elected officials had already announced their selections to the commission or had quietly appointed members with little publicity.   

In late May, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams chose former City Council Member and repeat mayoral contender Sal Albanese to represent him, citing Albanese’s outspoken positions on campaign finance reform. “I have called for, and am reiterating again now, for 100 percent publicly-financed campaigns where every candidate has an equal footing to express their ideas,” Adams had written in testimony at the March hearing before the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, which was considering the charter commission bill. “Fully publicly-financed elections will see more women running for office at a time when representation in the City Council has decreased since our last election. Fully publicly-financed campaigns have shown to increase minority participation in elected politics. A fully-funded system also takes away the quid pro quo corruption and will help restore faith in our electoral system.”

Albanese, in a statement accompanying his appointment, said, “Charter revision is an opportunity to make our government more democratic and responsive to its citizens.” During his 2017 primary challenge to de Blasio, Albanese’s top policy plank was the “democracy vouchers” program that would drastically reduce the influence of private money in municipal elections.

Last month, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. appointed former City Council Member James Vacca to the commission. “Jimmy has a wealth of experience in government and cares deeply about our borough and our city,” Diaz Jr. tweeted at the time.

More recently, Public Advocate Letitia James tapped Sateesh Nori, a Legal Aid Society attorney, as her representative on the commission. “Mr. Nori brings with him the wisdom and expertise necessary for the role, as well as a lifelong commitment to public service and to his City,” James said in a statement. Comptroller Scott Stringer’s pick was Alison Hirsh, the vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the prominent property services workers union.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer chose her general counsel and director of land use, James Caras, to serve as her representative. “After three decades, it’s time for a thorough, expert review of how our City Charter is serving New Yorkers and how to make our government work better,” Brewer said in Monday’s announcement.

Queens Borough President Melinda Katz picked Eduardo Cordero Sr. And Staten Island Borough President James Oddo’s choice is Richmond County Clerk Stephen Fiala, who was previously a City Council member.

While the Council-created commission is about to begin its work and will take an extended timeline before its ballot proposals are announced next year, the mayoral charter revision commission is in the final two months before it makes its recommendations public by early September, in time to be included on the November ballot. That commission recently made clear its areas of focus -- voting and election reform, campaign finance reform, land use decision-making, community boards, civic engagement, and independent redistricting -- and held relevant expert hearings.

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Charter Revision Commission Takes Shape Mon, 09 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000