Charter Revision: Whose Rules?

Frustration grew to a boil near the end of a March 5 public hearing by the NYS Assembly’s Standing Committee on Cities at 250 Broadway. The committee, chaired by Assemblyman James Brennan (44AD), was hearing comment on proposed bills to amend the State’s Municipal Home Rule Law, which governs how New York’s cities may revise their charters.

Just two days earlier, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had announced the creation of a 2010 charter revision commission for New York City. To the surprise of many, the Bloomberg announcement singled out the Citizens Union, a century-old independent “good-government” reform group, to partner with the charter commission to improve public outreach.

Now the Citizens Union was at the witness stand. Research & Policy Associate Rachael Fauss represented CU Executive Director Dick Dadey, who had agreed to testify but didn’t attend. After Fauss finished summarizing her prepared testimony, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (74AD) asked her whether the CU would support the Assembly’s bills, specifically A.4122a. If enacted, this would force Mayor Bloomberg to re-convene his 2010 commission with different members.

Fauss did a verbal dance. Kavanagh patiently rephrased his question to force her to respond: Should or should not the State have the right to determine how one of its cities selects the members of a charter revision commission? Fauss finally averred that it should not, supporting the position the Bloomberg administration had taken in written testimony. With remarkable restraint, Kavanagh calmly reminded Fauss that it was the State that had authorized city charter revisions in the first place, through its Municipal Home Rule Law. He then turned the witness over to his colleague, Assemblyman Rory Lancman (25AD), who had been carefully listening to the exchange.

Lancman immediately gave voice to what Kavanagh and audience members seemed to be feeling throughout Fauss’s testimony. “There’s just one thing I want to know,” he said, “what are the outer limits of the Citizens Union’s willingness to shill for the mayor?” Then, underlining his admiration for the decades of independent policy advice the Citizens Union had provided to New York, Lancman asked Fauss to bring one message back to CU President Dadey. Please tell him, Lancman said, “extraordinary damage is being done to the credibility of the Citizens Union.” Fauss heard him and silently left the witness stand. A video of this exchange was later posted here.

Most of the other testimony, including ours for Brooklyn Community Board 14, was less controversial. One pervasive theme: A 2010 ballot date would come too soon to permit adequate public vetting of proposed charter changes. After a brief wait for a scheduled witness who failed to appear, Chairman Brennan recessed the hearing to an unspecified date.

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