Gotham Gazette Fri, 18 Oct 2019 04:26:27 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report de Blasio McCray voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Releases Preliminary Report Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Announces Preliminary Agenda img 5961

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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

Charter Revision Commission (photo: Samar Khurshid)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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