The New York City Charter Revision Commission’s Preliminary Staff Report, released last week, shies away from the all-out assault on the mayor’s authority proposed by the city council in January. The new report refers approvingly to the framework established by the 1989 Charter Revision Commission and generally adheres to the good-government standards established by that body. This conservatism of process is welcome and a credit to the commission’s leadership.
The report includes several proposals that could improve the effectiveness of city government. Ranked-choice voting, the headline proposal, might help avoid such expensive absurdities as a runoff election for the position of public advocate. Nevertheless, the staff report also includes proposals that would impede, not improve, governmental operations in New York City. Previously, the council proposed establishing three-year terms, along with its advice and consent for the appointment of the corporation counsel, police commissioner, chair of the City Planning Commission, and the chief administrative law judge. Currently, these officials are appointed by the mayor, and the proposal appeared to expand the council’s influence, even at the cost of blurring lines of accountability. The new report proposes only that the council approve the appointment of the corporation counsel—the city’s chief lawyer and head of the Law Department—who would also serve an unspecified term. This change, the report asserts, would insulate the corporation counsel from undue influence by the mayor, preserving the independence of the position. But really, the opposite is true, because the proposal will enable the city council to exert pressure on the corporation counsel, dismiss advice from Law Department staff, and potentially work against the city’s best interests.
The report recommends giving the public advocate some means to compel agencies and officials to provide information, “whether that mechanism be some form of subpoena power or otherwise.” Since the public advocate has no specific responsibilities or authority, his staff would be empowered to go on fishing investigations, drawing up an unlimited number of wide-ranging requests, making any subject fair game for investigation. One can imagine such a mechanism becoming a costly and time-consuming distraction for agencies that have real administrative responsibilities.
Regarding land use, the report recommends that community boards and borough presidents be permitted to comment on land-use applications before the start of the formal review process, known as ULURP, during which the community boards and borough presidents would have a second chance to comment. The report notes that ULURP applicants often brief these entities in advance, and that applicants find the feedback from such briefings helpful. However, formally instituting a process-before-the-process raises questions of purpose and transparency. What are the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission expected to do with these official pre-ULURP comments? Private applicants will still choose what to submit for Planning Commission approval—they are not obliged to make changes in response to comments. ULURP kicks off when the application is complete, not when the planners support it. The Planning Commission votes to approve, reject, or modify the application only after it hears from the community board and borough president again, during the designated review periods. The report implies that a pre-ULURP comment period, specified in the charter, would be more influential than the current practice of informal consultation, but it does not explain how.
The Charter Revision Commission has scheduled five borough hearings to solicit feedback on the staff report. These public hearings will lead to further deliberation by the Commission and the adoption of final proposals. While the public can be pleased, so far, by the 2019 charter revision process (it has not proved as threatening to good government as some observers feared), the staff report’s less well-considered proposals may remain in place for the final package submitted before November’s referendum. Moreover, the public must remain vigilant, since harmful proposals can still resurface.
Perhaps the best reform of all (though it would require state legislation) would be setting limits on the frequency of New York City Charter Revision Commissions. Making that change would mean that the city no longer faced continual danger of damaging its governmental functions, especially when so few voters are paying attention.