The strongest push to hobble NYC’s community boards by forcing them to hire dedicated planners and revert to a narrower “planning board” role (an idea we strongly oppose) came not from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, but from the former chairman of Manhattan Community Board 2, Brad Hoylman, who was one of five invited “experts” who spoke at the Charter Revision Commission’s June 10 session on Government Structure in Staten Island. Why the commission chose Hoylman as a featured guest became evident upon examination of his credentials.
Hoylman’s official Charter Revision Commission bio shows him only as “a senior executive and general counsel at a New York City nonprofit organization.” But a Web search reveals that the nonprofit he works for is the Partnership for New York City, the pre-eminent policy and public relations arm of New York’s big business and real estate development community and its principal advocate for a strong-mayor, weak-community form of government.
Hoylman’s co-panelists also have credentials that raise serious issues about their ability to take a fresh look at City Hall’s structure: Eric Lane, who with F.A.O. Schwarz, Jr., shaped NYC’s current strong-mayor government; Gerald Benjamin, who helped Lane to do this; Doug Muzzio, a CUNY Baruch College political affairs professor who develops and delivers “cultural diversity training programs for the New York City Police Department;” and Marc V. Shaw, a member of the city and state permanent governments since 1981 who currently works for commission chair and CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein as Interim Senior Vice Chancellor for Budget, Finance and Financial Policy.
Given Lane’s and Benjamin’s charter revision commission history, and Hoylman’s, Muzzio’s, and Shaw’s current employment, it’s evident that the commission did not cast its net very far looking for dissenting views.
The panelists met expectations: Lane justified his 1989 charter revision decisions and, upon questioning, did not admit to error except to allow that certain ‘89 provisions might “need re-examination” twenty years later. But he also suggested that the 2010 commission should limit what it does this year.
Benjamin, comparing NYC with other cities, observed that “the fundamental principle in this city is that there’s no real local government,” and then gave the 2010 commission an excuse to avoid this issue by commenting that its time frame forces it to “trap the discourse” at the marginal level of deciding whether borough presidents’ budgets should be formulaic, instead of considering what their duties and powers should be.
Doug Muzzio offered a scholarly analysis of the arguments for and against continuing the offices of the public advocate and the borough presidents, eventually coming down on the “for” side, but stopped short of recommending any substantial changes in their duties and responsibilities.
Marc Shaw, looking at things from a budget bureaucrat’s perspective, came across to us as an unapologetic proponent for the city’s strong-mayor status quo.
Shaw provoked a moment of controversy when charter commission Secretary Angela Mariana Freyre queried him about whether the Conflicts of Interest Board, which rules on ethics issues, should warrant a guaranteed budget that would keep it outside of politics. With remarkable candor, Shaw responded that “the truth is that priorities change. You know that ethics is an issue this year and next year and so it becomes a hot issue. If it’s not a hot issue ten years from now, should it still have the resources that it got because there were a lot of ethical violations in one year or one decade?”
Not surprisingly, the overall agenda for the session at Staten Island Technical High School hewed to the familiar: a featured role for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a detailed presentation of the Council’s priorities by Gale Brewer; the carefully-scripted testimony by the five invited experts; their less well-scripted responses to measured comments and questions from several commission members (we were especially impressed by the thoughtfulness of Carlo Scissura, Angela Freyre, and Father Joseph McShane); an extended discourse by Staten Island’s charter commissioner Stephen J. Fiala; and a variety of speeches by 25 elected officials and members of the public.
To his credit — and in support of the commission’s obligation to portray itself as one that listens to the public, chairman Goldstein gave every one of the 25 elected officials and members of the public who approached the microphone a full chance to speak. By 10:35, when he adjourned the meeting, only a handful of persons were visible in webcast images of the auditorium.
It wasn’t until the 14th of the 25, Staten Island resident Charles Sorrentino, came to the microphone, that we realized that our prediction that the commission would use this session to look carefully at mayoral succession had been wrong. Unless we missed something, Sorrentino was the first speaker to mention it.
Next step: the commission’s forum on public Integrity, Wednesday, June 16, at City College, 160 Convent Avenue in Manhattan at 6:00 PM. Perhaps the charter revision commission will dare to address the charter’s most glaring conflict of interest: its requirement that the Conflicts of Interest Board, which must rule on ethical issues concerning all City employees, be entirely appointed by one of the employees it is obligated to oversee, the mayor.