The 2010 NYC Charter Revision Commission spent much of its July 12 meeting agonizing over ways to restore the public’s faith in government and increase voter participation. It did not acknowledge that voter apathy may stem from the public’s resignation that billionaires will continue to control the Mayor’s office, and that selection of City Council members may make little difference in shaping City Hall’s major decisions.
The webcast meeting had been convened to discuss the commission staff’s July 9 preliminary report. But as quickly as the staff’s proposal for instant run-off voting — IRV — appeared on the pages of that report, it got jettisoned when chairman Matthew Goldstein’s colleagues complained that they never had discussed it.
This came when commission member Carlo Scissura asked staff director Lorna B. Goodman why non-partisan elections, which the commission had extensively reviewed, was not one of the report’s recommendations, and why IRV, which never had been discussed, was. Goodman asserted that other commission members had shown some enthusiasm for IRV.
But when Scissura’s query drew support from colleagues Anthony Cassino, Betty Chen, Hope Cohen, Stephen Fiala, and Kenneth Moltner, Goldstein gave IRV up, commenting that “I’m getting a sense of consensus here.”
The ease with which the chairman discarded the IRV proposal spoke to his skill as a negotiator and to his understanding that IRV was not crucial to his commission’s agenda.
The charter panel’s key objectives — making good on Michael Bloomberg’s 2008 promise to billionaire Ron Lauder that voters would get a chance to restore the 2-term limits law that had been overturned by the City Council; changing election rules to give Republicans an edge over numerically-dominant Democrats; and making government more “efficient” for future mayors — survived the evening’s deliberations.
The commission did not decide the form that its term limits proposal — or proposals — will take. It will reserve this decision until it is well through the series of public meetings scheduled between July 19 and August 2.
After convincing their chair to retreat on the IRV proposal, commission members seemed to embrace most of the other staff recommendations: that the Campaign Finance Board and the Voter Assistance Commission be merged; that the newly-formed body assume oversight over lobbying disclosure; that the number of signatures required for city primary elections be reduced (this would enable newcomers to more easily compete against party loyalists); and that the charter would establish a Commission on Performance Reporting to review unneeded advisory panels and, more pointedly, to trim the reports mayoral agencies must file. We commented on this yesterday.
Another proposal, the consolidation of departmental administrative tribunals, drew a caveat from commission member Anthony Crowell, who said he wanted to await opinion from mayoral agencies.
The most eloquent proponent for the need to restore the public’s faith in government proved to be Anthony Cassino of The Bronx, who asked the commission to address the City Council’s use of member items and “lulus” (restrictions on this would weaken incentives that Council leadership uses to reward member loyalty), and to require that Council members work full-time or, minimally, reveal outside sources of income.
A repeated call at previous meetings to strengthen the Conflicts of Interest Board by giving it a guaranteed budget may get addressed on July 19 when the Citizen’s Union, designated earlier this year by Mayor Bloomberg as the charter commission’s public partner, plays a featured role at the commission’s next meeting.
Late in the session, Goldstein got called to task for the staff report’s scant mention of the roles of the borough presidents and the community boards, which, as Carlo Scissura pointed out, had featured prominently at the panel’s public hearings. Calling this treatment “utterly disrespectful,” Scissura threatened to withhold his vote on any proposal until the omission was corrected.
Without any visible change in demeanor or expression, Goldstein blandly attributed the report’s five-sentence deferral of government structure issues to a lack of “substantive suggestions” from the commissioners. He invited them to make some. The only one that came — from Hope Cohen — was to consider eliminating the borough presidents’ topographical bureaus, which Cohen believes are obsolete in the day of widely-available GIS mapping tools. She displayed a placard bearing one such URL.
One other theme pervaded the evening: Stephen Fiala’s repeated reminders that New York City, as modeled on the United States, does not function as a direct democracy, but as a republican governmental structure that vests decision-making power in elected representatives. Fiala’s words may have done little to reassure NYC voters that their views will affect municipal policy.
If the Goldstein commission is sincerely concerned about voter participation, it should look hard at changes that will convey to voters that individual voices can make a difference in government policy. The first place it can do that is in its own house, by aligning its charter proposals with what its commission members favor. This may have been what Carlo Scissura was saying to Matthew Goldstein.