Panel presents charter reform proposals


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Mayoral commission will review ballot measures targeting changes to campaign finance laws, community board appointments


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  • The mayoral charter revision commission is one of two panels concurrently reviewing the charter. In April, the City Council convened its own charter revision commission, which will send any ballot proposals in approves to voters in Nov. 2019. Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office




  • The mayoral charter revision commission has outlined potential changes to the city’s campaign finance laws, community board appointment process, and civic engagement activities. The commission also examined proposals to overhaul City Council’s redistricting process and implement ranked choice voting in city elections, but ultimately declined to pursue ballot measures on those topics in this election cycle, instead recommending that future charter revision commissions consider such measures. Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office




  • Mayor Bill de Blasio’s charter revision commission is one of two panels concurrently reviewing the charter. In April, the City Council convened its own charter revision commission, which will send any ballot proposals in approves to voters in Nov. 2019. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.



“The proposal on the Civic Engagement Commission is so vague and leaves so many unanswered questions.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer



The commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio to review the New York City Charter appears poised to send several ballot measures to voters this November, including proposals to enact term limits for community board members and expand the city’s public matching program for campaign funds.

The mayoral charter revision commission provided the public with a broad overview of policy proposals to alter several aspects of city government in a resolution approved Aug. 14. Commission staff will draft detailed ballot proposals in the weeks to come, using the resolution passed by the 15-member resolution as a template. By September 7, the commission will vote on the proposals drafted by the staff, and those approved will be appear before voters on the general election ballot Nov. 6.

The proposed amendments to the charter fit within three main categories: community boards, civic engagement and campaign finance.

COMMUNITY BOARDS

Commission staff will draft a proposal to enact term limits for community board members. If passed by voters, the ballot measure would limit appointees to a maximum of four consecutive two-year terms. Board members who reach the term limit could be reappointed after spending one full two-year term out of office. Commission staff will also draft a proposal to create a uniform citywide application for community board seats. The appointment process currently varies by borough.

Members of the city’s 59 community boards are appointed by the borough president representing each district, with input from local City Council representatives. Members can currently serve an unlimited number of two-year terms.

Proponents of term limits claim that mandated turnover in membership would promote increased diversity on the local advisory boards, producing board demographics that more closely reflect neighborhood makeup. Una Clarke, a former City Council member who sits on the charter revision commission, said that the reforms would allow community boards to better evolve alongside the neighborhoods they represent. “There are many communities in which there are new residents who don’t have a say in the community,” Clarke said at a recent panel discussion on the commission’s proposals hosted by CUNY Journalism School’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media.

Gale Brewer, who as Manhattan borough president is responsible for appointing members to the borough’s 12 community boards, has warned that increased turnover would rob community boards of valuable experience and institutional memory. “I think term limits will seriously weaken community boards, especially in the land use context,” Brewer said at the Aug. 16 meeting of Manhattan’s borough board.

Alida Camp, the chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 8, which serves the Upper East Side, also opposes term limits. “Term limits in themselves don’t promote diversity,” Camp said in a telephone interview. “A robust appointment process does.”

Camp noted that the process used by Brewer’s office has already proven effective in producing turnover. According to Brewer’s office, Manhattan community boards have seen a nearly 60 percent turnover in membership since she took office in 2014. The appointment standards used by Brewer’s office have been held up by many observers, including Cesar Perales, the charter revision commission’s chair, as a potential model for other boroughs to emulate.

CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

The commission’s resolution outlines a proposal to establish a new Civic Engagement Commission responsible for promoting public participation in civic life.

The Civic Engagement Commission that would engage in a variety of activities, including sponsoring voter registration efforts and providing language access services. But one aspect of the proposed commission’s responsibilities has already proven controversial with some stakeholders: providing land use resources to community boards.

Community boards have long requested additional resources and staff to evaluate local land use issues, ranging from zoning changes to the permissibility of proposed as-of-right developments. Many of the local bodies, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, submitted testimony to the charter revision commission calling for additional urban planning staff to be dedicated to community boards.

The request to provide expanded urban planning resources for community boards is reflected in the resolution, but the charter revision commission’s proposal would task the new Civic Engagement Commission with providing those services. Some observers have voiced concerns with that method of organization, noting that the new commission, a body potentially subject to mayoral influence, would be responsible for providing planning assistance to community boards, which often find themselves at odds with land use decisions made by mayoral agencies.

The resolution does not detail how the Civic Engagement Commission’s members would be appointed, simply stating that it would be comprised of “Mayoral and non-Mayoral appointments and other representation, which may include the heads of relevant city agencies.” But Marco Carrión, who serves on the charter revision commission and is also head of the mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, said that a majority of the Civic Engagement Commission’s members would be appointed by the mayor, with other appointments belonging the City Council and borough presidents.

Brewer expressed serious skepticism about the arrangement. “That will be a conflict of interest of the highest proportions, in my opinion,” she said.

“When you’re told you’re going to have an urban planner, I want the community board to pick it,” Brewer told the chairs of Manhattan’s community boards at the August borough board meeting. “I want it to be your planner and not from the mayor’s commission.”

“The proposal on the Civic Engagement Commission is so vague and leaves so many unanswered questions,” Brewer said, noting that the resolution provides little clarity regarding the process by which planners would be assigned to community boards and whether community boards would have any input on hiring.

Ben Kallos, who represents much of the Upper East Side in the City Council, echoed Brewer’s concerns at the borough board meeting and proposed an alternative. “Perhaps the thing to say is we want the urban planners to be hired by the individual community boards and overseen by the borough boards, or just hired by the borough boards,” he said.

Matt Gewolb, the executive director of the charter revision commission, said that the commission carefully considered organizational questions about the new planning staff, explaining that its goal is to provide community boards with land use resources that are separate from and do not overlap with the existing planning responsibilities and resources of the borough presidents’ offices and the Department of City Planning.

“I don’t think there’s an ideal location, necessarily, but we think that the kind of commission that we’ve created, which will have a mix of mayoral and non-mayoral appointees, is probably the right structure because it will have some level of independence or separation from those other bodies and can provide those kinds of services,” Gewolb said.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE

The charter revision commission directed staff to draft a proposal to reduce campaign contribution limits for candidates for city office by more than 60 percent and to expand the city’s public matching funds program. The matching program, which matches small contributions from city residents with public funding at a ratio of six-to-one, would be expanded to match donations at an eight-to-one rate under the proposal. The proposal would also increase the cap on public matching funds a campaign can receive in an election cycle.

“It’s a step towards taking big money out of politics,” Gewolb said.

Kallos advocated for the campaign finance reforms to be included on the ballot. “Democracy in New York City could finally get better by reducing contribution limits by more than half and making small dollars more valuable by matching more of them with a greater multiplier,” he said in a statement. “Though I advocated for a full public match of every small dollar, this will increase from matching a little more than half of small dollars to matching three-quarters of small dollars.”






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