How to Restructure City Government

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio

Does it really make sense to cast separate ballots for a mayor and the official who succeeds him in event of mayoral disability (right now, the public advocate)? Or should the charter be revised so voters can cast a single ballot for a team, as they do for President and Vice-President, or for New York State’s governor and lieutenant governor?

One female Democratic district leader in Brooklyn who asked to remain unidentified thinks the team idea makes sense: “Two peas in a pod works fine for 60 days. Right now, it’s the public advocate until the special election, and if he doesn’t know what’s going on with the mayor, you have chaos.”

Shortly after taking office in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed an executive order specifying which deputy would run City Hall in his absence. But in event of a mayor’s permanent disability or death, it will be the public advocate who takes over until a new mayor is elected in 60 days.

The 2010 charter revision commission could seek to change this. If voters agree that the public advocate should no longer fill this role, it would be a short step to eliminate the office entirely, and divide the public advocate’s ombudsman functions among the borough presidents.

Presumably, this would please Mayor Bloomberg, who, like Rudolph Giuliani before him, has expressed annoyance about having a taxpayer-funded city-wide institutional critic nearby. Last year, Mr. Bloomberg told the editorial board of the Staten Island Advance, “‘You should get rid of the public advocate. It’s a total waste of everybody’s money. Nobody needs another gadfly and we have an aggressive enough press.’”

John Liu

Comptroller John Liu, a potential mayoral candidate in2013, proposes another solution. In written testimony submitted on April 20, Liu argued that the charter should put the comptroller, not the public advocate, in charge in event of mayoral disability.

Public Advocate Bill De Blasio immediately fired back in a press release: “The Public Advocate has a broad mandate to provide independent oversight on City Government and for that reason was rightly placed next in the line of succession.  However, there are too many other issues that matter to New Yorkers for us to make charter revision just about expanding the authority of political offices.”

Liu, who has been so ubiquitous since taking office that one Brooklyn political observer calls him “another Marty Markowitz,” also argued that the comptroller should take over one of the mayor’s most cherished prerogatives: setting the official estimates for the city’s annual revenues. Whoever possesses this power determines how much cash the City Council gets to dispense each year. Any revenue beyond these estimates can be distributed outside of the normal budgeting process — to the advantage of the mayor’s priorities.

When others argued that the revenue estimating power should go to the Independent Budget Office, Liu demurred and said that the IBO should be eliminated entirely.

We’ll be surprised if the Bloomberg-appointed 2010 charter revision commission ultimately recommends any structural changes that diminish the power of the mayoralty. But starting Thursday, when the commission holds its issues forum on “Government Structure,” and until Labor Day, when it must submit its 2010 ballot proposals, discussions of structural changes will grab the attention of the media and of every elected official whose responsibilities — and office — may be affected.

Meanwhile, we expect that the commission’s staff will work in the background with the mayor’s attorneys to develop smaller, less glamorous, changes: to ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Procedure; to CEQR, the City Environmental Quality Review process; to CAPA, which determines how agencies make rules; and, possibly, to the way the city grants contracts, franchises, and concessions. The common thread in all such changes is that they would seek to make it easier for future mayors to rule New York City.

It will be up to voters to decide whether the commission’s procedural initiatives would erode public review, increase the mayor’s powers excessively, and undermine the ability of communities to influence government decision-making.

According to the Staten Island Advance, the experts scheduled to speak on Thursday are: “Brad Hoylman, a former chairman of Manhattan’s Community Board 2, who is now a general counsel at a city non-profit organization; Doug Muzzio, the oft-quoted professor from the Baruch College School of Public Affairs; Gerald Benjamin, the director of the Center for Research at SUNY, New Paltz; Marc Shaw, former first deputy mayor to Bloomberg and budget director for Rudolph Giuliani; and Eric Lane, the executive director of the 1989 city Charter Revision Commission who is now a distinguished professor at Hofstra University Law School.”

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