NYC Charter Revision Proposals: A Hobson’s Choice

The proposals being placed on November’s ballot by the New York City Charter Revision Commission don’t offer voters real choice. The commission has restricted options by lumping the changes into just two ballot questions, putatively because this year’s new paper voting forms are too small to show the proposals individually. Following each proposal are our preliminary comments and recommendations.

City Question 1. Term Limits: The proposal would amend the City Charter to:

  • Reduce from three to two the maximum number of consecutive full terms that can be served by elected city officials; and
  • Make this change in term limits applicable only to those city officials who were first elected at or after the 2010 general election; and
  • Prohibit the City Council from altering the term limits of elected city officials then serving in office.

Shall this proposal be adopted?

If it’s adopted, all of today’s first- and second-term incumbents will be entitled to run for a third term, while third-termers will be able to finish their terms. The two-term limit won’t take full effect until 2021. If the proposal is rejected, the current three-term limit enacted by the Council and the mayor in 2008 stays in effect.

A lot can happen between now and 2021. We don’t think Question 1 deserves your vote.

City Question 2.  Elections and Government Administration: The proposal would amend the City Charter to:

  • Disclosure of Independent Campaign Spending: Require public disclosure of expenditures made by entities and individuals independent from candidates to influence the outcome of a city election or referendum;

Sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but it doesn’t affect candidates who are wealthy enough to fund their own campaigns.

  • Ballot Access: Generally reduce the number of petition signatures needed by candidates for city elective office to appear on a ballot;

This would make it easier for newcomers to challenge party regulars, and for third-party candidates to unseat Democrats and Republicans. Several critics, including Jim Brennan, who heads up the State Assembly committee that oversees municipal charter revisions, have cautioned against it. Yes, he’s a Democrat.

  • Voter Assistance and Campaign Finance Board: Merge voter assistance functions, including a reconstituted Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, into the Campaign Finance Board, and change when Campaign Finance Board  member terms begin;

This makes sense, but ultimately it won’t affect who gets elected.

  • Conflicts of Interest Law: Require all public servants to receive conflicts of interest training, raise the maximum fine for a public servant who violates the City’s conflicts of interest law, and  allow the City to recover any benefits obtained from such violations;

This proposal is intended to get voters to vote “yes” for the two proposals that follow it, which voters might not do without a “good-government” sweetener. Mandatory Conflicts of Interest training and increased fines would have minimal effect on how well our government works. The third provision — recovery of benefits —  never was discussed by the charter commission members; we don’t know how it would work.

  • City Administrative Tribunals: Authorize the Mayor to direct the merger of administrative tribunals and adjudications into the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and permit the Department of Consumer Affairs to adjudicate all violations issued by that department;

This is about more centralization of mayoral control, and about applying a “one size fits all” approach to diverse agencies through the unified selection and training of Administrative Law Judges. It may violate collective bargaining agreements. It also could make it easier for future mayors to use their political influence to control ALJ selection or assignment. Not a good idea.

  • City Reporting Requirements and Advisory Bodies: Create a commission to review requirements for reports and advisory bodies and waive the requirements, subject to City Council review, where the commission finds they are not of continuing value;

The devil is in the details. The way the rules are written, the City Council could enhance or expand reports required of the mayor only if such enhancement or expansion was first approved by a commission controlled by the mayor. Not a good idea.

  • Map for Facility Siting: Include in the City’s facilities siting map those transportation and waste management facilities operated by or for governmental entities, or by private entities that provide comparable services.

Sounds good, but this information already is publicly available. Doesn’t get at the real Fair Share problems, especially City Hall’s ability to withhold siting information from the public until the last minute, thereby squelching effective public opposition.

Shall this proposal be adopted?

Lumped together like this, absolutely not.

We welcome your comments.

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4 responses to “NYC Charter Revision Proposals: A Hobson’s Choice

  1. Carol Ann Rinzler

    I thoroughly endorse your pragmatic view of these absurd proposals. They deserve to be voted down. As quickly as possible.

  2. Daniel Goldstein

    Mr. Berk, this may be silly question, but do you know if omnibus proposals are actually allowed under the charter and charter revision rules?

    • Dan:
      I’m not a lawyer, but the NYS Municipal Home Rule Law, §36.5(a), says with respect to a charter revision commission created by a mayor, “If the commission shall decide to leave a part of the existing charter unchanged, it may propose in one or more amendments a revision of the remaining parts.”

  3. Hi !!!

    What I want to know is the history of Terms Limits in the first place. In respect to Question 1, the Charter Revision Barter Commission seems to want to let current first term politicians to be eligible to run for office for a total of 3 consecutive times. Thus, if Question 1 is approved, it won’t fully go into effect into 2021. What I want to know is how were first term politicians treated when voters first approved two-term limits? Were they allowed to run for sequential terms in infinity ? No, once the law changes, everybody must change along with it. Why do we have to create exempted classes of politicians, to whom the laws don’t apply? Are some politicians more above the law than others? Is that the real message that the Charter Revision Barter Commission wants to send to voters?

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