City Is Shamed by Commission On the Revision of Its Charter
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Once again, we take pen in hand to criticize the actions and inactions of the Charter Revision Commission. We do that not because there is overwhelming public interest in the subject at this time, but because there is an issue of trust and credibility here which should be discussed openly.
Today, the Post joined the Daily News in sharp editorial criticism of the Commission. We quote extensively from these hard-hitting editorials. If you wish, you can click on News and Post for the full text.
Under the headlline CHARTER CHANGE CHOKE, The Post laments: “The New York City Charter Revision Commission concluded its work last week, delivering a final product that amounts to a sadly missed opportunity.
“When the commission formed last spring … headed by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, the sky was the limit on what might be brought before voters in November. But the big issues were term limits and governmental structure — i.e., whether the city might run more effectively without such offices as borough president and public advocate.
“What will be on the ballot this fall?
“An opportunity to endorse “term limits” again — which won’t be fully functional until 2021, because current elected officials are grandfathered in.
“And nothing at all to do with structural reform; that’s been punted to the next charter commission, whenever that might be convened.
“Even though voters have twice called for a two-term limit for elected municipal offices, some incumbents could remain in place for a decade…”
The Daily News has published three editorials on the subject, trying vainly to persuade the Charter Commission before the 15-member group made its final decision. On August 26, the newspaper was scathing in its criticism.
“New Yorkers have twice previously voted for the two-term option. They’d surely do so again if given the opportunity.
“But the panel, chaired by CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, chose instead to give the public the back of its hand. It voted to put on the November ballot a proposition that would set two terms for everyone – except, incredibly, for incumbent officeholders.
“They alone would be permitted to run three times; never mind that some of these same Council members supported the 2009 overthrow of the voters’ will.
“How this misbegotten result came about is a study in the misapplication of power.
“The panel’s 15 members included lawyers, religious leaders, educators, city planners and former Council members, among others.
“Some, like the Rev. Joseph McShane, Fordham University’s president, understood what they were assigned to do: Give voters a two-term option.
“But others, like Staten Island County Clerk Stephen Fiala, denied voters the choice they deserve based on his own opposition to term limits. He called them “antithetical to our way of life.”
“Still others brought extraneous considerations to bear: Commission Vice Chairman John Banks, a vice president at Con Ed, asserted that requiring incumbents to abide by a two-term maximum would somehow discriminate against minorities. That, too, should have been an issue for voters.
“Outrageously, three commission members – David Chen, Betty Chen and Carlo Scissura – failed even to show up for the meeting. They are said to have been on vacation. That’s no excuse. After accepting the responsibility of shaping the very future of democracy in New York, they damn well should have cast votes.
“Finally, Angela Freyre, a vice president at Nielsen who also serves on the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, lacked the courage to vote for or against a measure backed by Goldstein that would have limited the number of Council members who were granted the favor of three terms.
“After expressing wrongheaded qualms about the legality of the compromise, she abstained, dooming the halfway measure.
“Every single commissioner should have to vote, as all had sworn to do in accepting the post. That’s the most fundamental responsibility of the job. They should reconvene when, gee, they find it convenient and do it right.
“No absences, no abstentions, no excuses.”
The Commission, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg on March 3, produced its final report on August 27, just in time for its recommendations to be placed on the ballot for the November 2 election.
The issue which generated the most controversy was term limits for city elected officials. Although two referenda (in 1993 and 1996) had supported a limit of two four-year terms for the three city-wide offices, five borough presidents and 51 councilmembers, the Council, in October 2008 at the Mayor’s insistence, overruled the Charter adopted in referenda to allow all 59 elected officials to seek a third term.
Mayor Bloomberg promised at the time to appoint a Charter Revision Commission in 2010 to put term limits on the ballot for the public to decide the issue. The Commission did that, but in an effort to please incumbents at the expense of allowing the public to decide the issue promptly, postponed the effective date (the first year in which a second-termer would be unable to seek a third term) to 2021, which is somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, far away as politics is concerned.
The Mayor persuaded CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein to chair the fractious commission. He is a Ph.D. in mathematics and a highly capable administrator, who in eleven years has enormously strengthened the City University. He is not a politician, and it was John Banks of Con Edison, the vice-chair, whose views prevailed in the end.
The panel was laced with enemies of term limits, who would just as soon have done away with them entirely if they had the nerve. They had no particular sense that the public will had been tampered with in 2008, and were pleased to reward those who had over-ruled the two public referenda by giving them an extra term for themselves. To add to the deal, they took Councilmembers who had not even been elected in 2008 and gave them a third term as well. Bonanza.
There was an existential rationale for extending Mayor Bloomberg’s eligibility: he had done a competent job, was regarded as more qualified than his putative opponents, and the public could make a rational choice as to whether they wanted to keep him as mayor. They narrowly retained him, and the opposition was heavily fueled by his unpopular extension of term limits. On the other hand, the Councilmembers are largely lightly known, are elected from districts gerrymandered for their protection, and until 2009, had almost always been re-elected handily. The class elected in 2005 would in no way have been missed if they were required to seek other employment opportunities in 2013, if the public voted for two terms.
After eight years on the Council, an able (or a more limited) member can run for higher city office, or the state legislature (which has no term limits, which is one reason it is regarded as the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States). He can also be appointed to a job. David Yassky, for one, was appointed to chair the Taxi and Limousine Commission after losing a race for Comptroller. He cast a key vote in favor of extending term limits, although he was not personally seeking a third term on the Council.
There is more to be said about the maneuvering that led to the unfortunate attempt to postpone reality by eleven years. The leaders of the Commission did not understand what the struggle was really about: the popular will and the necessity to resist retrograde attempts to subvert it or postpone it into oblivion.
The issue was not two terms or three; that is a question that people can properly dispute and to which there is no easy answer. The issue was whether the public should be given a chance to overrule the 2008 loophole coup d’etat. The voterse should have been given the opportunity to make that decision; instead the insiders, know-nothings and absentees, amajority of the Commission, nine out of fifteen, denied them that right.
It is a shame to reject the work of honest, decent and industrious people who gave their time, without salary, to work on important public business. However, the attempt by some to set themselves up as masters of the universe cannot go unnoticed. Most of the nine are politically unsophisticated and did not fully understand what the issues were. They are not experts in government. The few that did know should be ashamed of themselves.
They should stick to their day jobs, and leave the Charter to people who appreciate and respect democracy.
Mr. Stern, president of New York Civic, is a frequent contributor to The New York Sun.