Testimony to the New York City Charter Review Commission
Testimony of City Councilmember Brad Lander
To the New York City Charter Review Commission
April 20, 2010
Chairman Goldstein, members of the Commission, thank you for this opportunity to present testimony on potential changes to the New York City Charter.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote more than 180 years ago, democratic practice in our cities is the foundation of American democracy. I urge you to keep that spirit in mind as you deliberate changes to our city’s constitution.
At its best, deliberative changes to the New York City Charter can contribute to this centuries-old tradition of grassroots municipal democracy – of engaged citizens committed to promoting equality, inclusion and participation in government, thoughtful debate, and democratic practices that balance the extraordinary range of interests that make up both New York City and the United States. This happened twenty years ago, against the odds, when the Charter Review Commission led by Fritz Schwarz included thousands of people, and helped our city move toward more democratic, more diverse, one-person-one-vote practices.
But the opposite is also true. An inadequate process risks real harm to our local democracy – through a cycle in which the people of this city lose faith in their government, become more cynical and less likely to participate, as less democratic and more managerial processes are adopted, and core democratic values are eroded.
To be blunt: While I have deep respect for the individuals on this panel and your service to our city, this Commission poses real risk of falling into that negative cycle, and doing concrete harm to our local democracy.
The public perception is that this Commission was created in a cynical backroom deal by the mayor to win a third term around the twice-expressed will of the people, that its timing has been manipulated, and that it will primarily consider changes that are pet projects of the mayor. While I believe Mayor Bloomberg has done many good things for our city and serves with honorable intention, he has not increased the quality of participation and engagement in local democracy. As you are all his appointees, I believe it is appropriate to ask you to be mindful of the challenges this presents. The fact that we are led by our richest individual, who opted out of campaign finance practices designed to promote a level playing field and outspent his opponent 14 to 1, who led the effort to change the term limits law around the will of the people, and now wishes to see changes that would take our democracy further in a direction that would make it more managerial and potentially friendlier to candidates of enormous wealth is a profound and unfortunate barrier to your goals of a Charter revision process that represents the best in democratic practice. And again, while I deeply respect the individuals on the panel, I do not believe that the Commission sufficiently represents the breadth of interests which must be represented.
This set of problems has been made worse by a rushed timetable, which has resulted in public hearings with too little advance notice, in one case scheduled on a religious holiday, all of them just barely outside of Manhattan, with extremely poor attendance and public participation.
I do not set out these concerns to score political points, but simply to urge you – as citizens who I know care deeply about the quality of our local democracy – to be mindful of the profound challenges and very real risks that you face in this process. I do not believe that you can overcome them simply with the good will, personal integrity, and intelligence that I know you bring to your efforts. I believe you will need to explicitly consider and address these risks in the scope of issues you choose to address, the process you use, and the alternatives you propose.
Now, to my more substantive testimony:
In part for the reasons outlined above, I believe that the only appropriate issue for you to place on the ballot this fall would be changes to the City’s term limits law. It would be deeply inappropriate for you to present a term limits change together with some of the alternatives that have been discussed as priorities of the mayor – for example, non-partisan local elections, or diminishing the power of the public advocate or community boards. Instead, you should place a public review of the previous term limits change on the November 2010 ballot, and then prepare the way for a full and broad review of the entire Charter, a process for which there is simply neither time nor democratic good will at this moment, and set that process in motion for consideration in 2012.
Only Consider Review of Term Limits Law for 2009
Because the term limits law was changed by the Mayor and the City Council in 2008 in a manner that overrode the twice-expressed will of the voters and that raised significant citizen outcry, I believe it is appropriate to review these changes to the law at this time.
I am not going to express an opinion on the substance of the issue at this time. Any position I take would – for understandable reasons – be viewed by many in the current context as primarily self-interested, and I believe that is the wrong message for our elected officials to send. You have heard, and will hear, substantial testimony on this point from a wide range of interests.
I would, however, urge you to place any proposed change to the term limits law on the ballot, by itself, as the sole issue this fall. Since 2011 will be an extremely low-turnout election, the only choice is between this year and 2012. Waiting until 2012 would upend another election cycle and is unfair both to potential candidates and the public. Moreover, people have had plenty of time and debate on this issue, and voters could go to the polls well-informed this November.
Other Issues Should Not be Considered This Fall
Other major issues should not be considered this fall, for several reasons. There is insufficient time for a full and considered review of the entire Charter. As noted above, I believe you risk real harm to democratic process if you select for consideration several issues that have been identified as of particular interest to the Mayor.
In particular, it would be the height of cynicism to place items on the ballot with the likelihood – intended or otherwise – that populist anger about the term limits change would spill over to diminish the power of offices other than the Mayor’s (e.g. the public advocate, community boards), or further increase the power of future wealthy candidates by proposing non-partisan elections. These two changes in particular should not be presented by your Commission.
While non-partisan elections perhaps sound appealing, they are in fact an anti-democratic process. While our current Mayor seems to find partisan affiliation personally confusing, something to change like a wardrobe, political parties have been part of the DNA of American democracy from the very beginning. They provide the opportunities for citizens to come together in broad coalitions that represent not simply interest groups, but governing philosophies. Non-partisan elections would replace the 225+ year democratic political tradition of this country with one that gives significant advantage to wealth, since it is candidates with the ability to spend excessively who would most be able to make their voices heard.
On a more mundane level, I believe that my own election last year shows that the process we have in place works very well to represent diverse interests. I was one of five candidates in the Democratic primary, and then one of five candidates on the ballot in the general election (Democrat/Working Families, Republican, Libertarian, Conservative, and Green Parties). Both elections were amongst the highest-turnout races in the city. There was plenty of choice in both elections, and to deny Democrats in my district the opportunity to select their candidate in a robust primary would have disenfranchised them.
A Comprehensive and Democratic Charter Review for 2012
I strongly urge the commission to propose changes for the 2012 ballot in these areas that need real examination:
Require Real Community Planning and Involvement
•Require a proactive and comprehensive planning process for the city that goes beyond zoning to look at community needs, requires upfront community participation, mandates a real examination of the fair share criteria in ULURP, and increases the ability of Charter-defined bodies outside the administration to begin proactive planning initiatives.
•Update “fair share” provisions in the charter to improve the current standards for public facilities, clarify that publicly-funded facilities are included, and to force the City to address the benefits and burdens of growth for communities.
•Update the land use process to allow for negotiations around ancillary issues that would allow the community to address the benefits and burdens of proposals.
•Strengthen community boards, by giving them sufficient numbers of capable planning staff and centralized technical assistance, while also requiring that appointees are representative of local stakeholders and comply with conflicts of interest and transparency rules.
Reestablish the Balance of Power Between Branches of Government
•Increase the budgetary powers of the Council, including revenue estimates & consideration of the budget in segments, to allow real review.
•Expansion of Council legislative powers that unfairly put great powers in the Mayor’s control beyond Council oversight.
•Advice and consent on all major mayoral appointments, including the Chancellor and all commissioner-level positions.
•Limit the proliferation of agencies controlled by the Mayor outside of legislative scrutiny.
•Fix budgets for independent offices as a static fraction of the total City budget so the public advocate, comptroller, community boards and others
What does your neighborhood need? An improved park? Safer streets? New school technology? In participatory budgeting, you give your ideas and City Councilmember Brad Lander has set aside $1 million to fund them. And your votes will decide which projects get funded.