Charter Revision: How to Reduce Conflicts of Interest

Patricia E. Harris

Writing in The NY Times City Room Blog, Michael Barbaro calls attention to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s announcement naming “Patricia E. Harris, the second-most powerful official at City Hall, to be the chief executive and chairwoman of the multibillion-dollar Bloomberg Family Foundation.”

Barbaro notes that “in 2008, Ms. Harris and a City Hall aide, Allison Jaffin, obtained a waiver from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to work at the foundation while keeping her job at City Hall, arguing that her work was voluntary and involved minimal use of public resources. At the time, however, she held the title of president.”

Barbaro’s story has drawn dozens of comments from readers, most of them critical of Mayor Bloomberg’s use of his vast personal wealth to influence city policy.

But to us, the problem is more structural than personal. It resides in the composition of the Conflicts of Interest Board itself, whose five members are appointed to staggered fixed terms by the mayor, with the advice and consent of the City Council.

As evidenced by the Harris situation, and by earlier COIB decisions affecting senior mayoral aides such as Giuliani deputy mayor Randy Levine, the COIB’s current composition doesn’t guarantee that it will provide an effective brake on mayoral actions. The Council is easily influenced by the mayor.

The Conflicts of Interest Board deserves to be truly independent of any single elected official. One way to achieve this would be through a recommendation by the 2010 NYC Charter Revision Commission restricting the number of mayoral appointees on the panel to a minority, and assigning a majority of the appointments to be shared by independently-elected officials such as the borough presidents, the Council, and the public advocate.

We believe reform of the Conflicts of Interest Board should be high on the charter commission’s agenda. But we are not optimistic about its prospects. The Charter Revision Commission itself is appointed by the mayor.

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