Bloomberg’s Wealth and Charter Revision

Adam Lisberg, Daily News City Hall Bureau Chief, reports that Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor of CUNY, could be Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s choice as chair of a 2010 charter revision commission. To us, the real meat of the DN story isn’t who might head the commission, it’s how the charter process could be affected by Michael Bloomberg’s personal wealth. Lisberg goes there in his last paragraph, where he comments on Bloomberg’s failed 2003 charter attempt to institute non-partisan elections:

In 2003…, Bloomberg spent $7 million of his own money – and $462,000 in city funds – on the nonpartisan election push. Voters rejected the plan 70% to 30%, which Bloomberg still fumes about.

Those of us who tried to influence the 1989 charter revision process remember how hard it was to counter the public relations juggernaut driven by the commission’s professional staff, which was headed by Hofstra University law professor Eric Lane. Lane was among the panelists at Tuesday’s Baruch College 2010 charter revision forum who stressed the importance of fully funding and staffing a 2010 commission, in large part to ensure that the public will be able to “fully participate” in the charter revision process.

When mayors convene charter revision commissions, public participation and dialogue are scripted. Commissioners patiently sit through Kabuki-like public hearings at which dozens of NYC “good government” groups and civic activists offer well-intentioned — and often thoughtful — comments. Meanwhile, the commission’s real work is done behind the scenes by its staff and consultants, headed by someone like Lane, and chosen with mayoral approval.

A big part of that behind-the-scenes work is about spinning the commission’s agenda to the press and the public. This is where Mike Bloomberg’s private wealth, along with donations from allies, could heavily influence how the public interprets what the commission proposes. In the past, a minimally-funded grass-roots opposition was at a tremendous disadvantage to publicize alternative viewpoints.

Fortunately, one societal change that has occurred since 1989 offers hope that a Bloomberg-funded propaganda machine won’t be able to completely overwhelm any opposition to his commission’s proposals: In the 21st Century, almost everyone has access to the Internet.

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