Until they are unlucky enough to get caught parking their cars illegally, setting up their pushcarts too close to curbs, or insufficiently ventilating their dry-cleaning businesses, most New Yorkers do not give much thought to administrative law tribunals.
This November, however, the mayor’s city charter revision commission is asking voters to turn their attention towards these quasi-judicial tribunals. Despite their low profile, these tribunals have a wide reach into the lives of New Yorkers. A total of 500 administrative judges and hearing officers hold hearings on minor violations to ease congestion on regular courts. The network of tribunals collects over $600 million in fines, fees and taxes annually, according to the city bar association, yet their judges are not bound by a common code of ethics.
Ballot Proposition Three (in .pdf format) asks New Yorkers to amend the city’s charter to require that the mayor create a code of ethics for administrative law judges and hearing officers. It says nothing about the actual content of the code itself.
There is not much debate over whether to have an ethics code; everyone seems to agree it is a good idea. The disagreement is whether the City Charter is the proper place to address the issue.
Supporters of the proposal say that an ethics code is important, though they acknowledge that Mayor Bloomberg already has the power to create one. All it would take is an executive order. But some believe a charter revision would be preferable to mayoral action because a charter revision carries more weight than an executive order.
Others, including the New York City Bar Association and Citizens Union, whose sister organization publishes Gotham Gazette, have concerns about using the charter for such an action, but believe the need for an ethics code is important enough to outweigh these concerns.
Critics of Proposal Three disagree and say the mayor is using a charter revision to weaken the power of his political rivals. State law says that in years when the mayor puts a proposed charter revision on the ballot other groups cannot do so. Assembly member Richard Gottfried criticizes both of the mayor’s ballot proposals this year because they block a petition for a referendum on class size in public schools. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a key supporter of the class size referendum, has argued that actual crises in the charter are the only reason to alter it â€“ and that the ethics code is not a crisis.
As it stands, the city council could pass a law creating an ethics code, which would hold the same weight as the proposed charter revision. So by creating an ethics code through a charter revision, critics say, the mayor is stripping the city council of its power to pass future laws on administrative tribunals.
Neither the mayor nor the council has shown much interest in using their existing powers to create an ethics code. Bloomberg’s charter revision commission put a similar measure on the ballot in 2003, but when it was defeated the mayor didn’t issue an executive order to create an ethics code. He didn’t urge the council to pass legislation to put a code into place, and the council didn’t pick up the issue of its own initiative, either.
Nor has either side in the lackluster debate over this year’s ballot initiative taken pains to forward their side of the argument. Mayor Bloomberg issued a statement in favor of the proposal for the Campaign Finance Board’s voter guide, but neglected to give a reason why people should vote for it. Even this, though, was more of an effort than that put forth by the public officials who oppose it. The board didn’t receive a single statement in opposition. Â