The NY Daily News confirmed yesterday that Mayor Michael Bloomberg “is expected to appoint a charter revision panel in the coming weeks. Among other issues, the panel will examine and possibly reduce or eliminate the roles of borough presidents and community boards.”
Genuine threat, or feint? Those who remember the 1989 charter revision know that the media can be used to divert attention from a charter panel’s true agenda. A threat to eliminate the BPs and the CBs is just one possible tactic a 2010 commission could use. Others are even more Machiavellian.
One threat already floated in the New York Post is to eliminate the Public Advocate’s position, whose brand-new incumbent, Bill DiBlasio, was heavily backed in November by the Working Families Party and some good government groups. After DiBlasio and his supporters mobilize to oppose this, the charter commission could offer them to withdraw its attack in return for their support for the commission’s overall charter package.
In a second scenario, sources close to the charter commission may talk to the media about restoring 2-term limits for the mayor and the Council. This will make the front page of every New York paper. By November, voters would jump at the chance to retaliate against the mayor and the Council for overthrowing term limits in 2008. But the only way they would be able to do this would be to vote for a unified charter proposal that contains provisions to increase the powers of the mayoralty.
In a third scenario, the charter revision commission may propose tightening up the internal operations of the City Council to improve Council “transparency.” In actuality, any restrictions on the Council really would be aimed at limiting the power of the Speaker, who, under the current charter, remains the mayor’s sole counterbalance. With a hobbled Speaker, future mayors will have an easier time getting their way.
Finally, and perhaps least likely, a 2010 charter revision commission could resurrect an unpopular 2003 proposal to make city elections nonpartisan. One reason this is worth mentioning is that Frank Macchiarola, who led the 2003 charter effort, is rumored to be Mayor Bloomberg’s top choice to chair this year’s charter commission.
With the exception of term limits restoration, these tactics would not necessarily require bundling all of the charter initiatives into a single proposal on November’s ballot. If Bloomberg’s 2010 commission floats alternative ballot proposals instead of just one, all of them should be expected to increase mayoral power. Whether this strategy succeeds will depend on whether voters recognize that charter revision is hard-ball politics – and scrutinize the commission’s proposals accordingly.