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The Ultimate 2019 Charter Revision Guide

The national news has been a scandal a minute barreling towards a potential impeachment, but here in New York there’s one story that’s also making history.


No, it’s not cigarette roach, it’s Early Voting. For the first time in history, New Yorkers can vote for 9 days before Election Day. That includes all day weekdays and weekends! Early Voting is taking place right now and will last until November 3; then it’s a two day break until Election Day on Nov. 5.


Find your Early Voting Pollsite (it’s not your regular location).


The ballot itself is also one for the history books. Beyond the weakly contested elections, New Yorkers are voting to amend the City Charter (basically our constitution) in five key areas.



THE 2019 PROPOSED CHARTER REVISIONS

The City Charter can be amended in two different ways - one by Commission appointed by the Mayor, another by a commission convened by the City Council.


You may recall that we voted on Charter changes just last year. That’s because Bill deBlasio wanted to investigate how the Charter could improve civic participation. That resulted in three proposals, all of which passed: Increasing matching funds for city elections, creating a Civic Engagement Commission and applying term-limits to Community Board members.


The City Council, however, thought the Charter could use a head-to-toe review, and so created its own Commission for the following year. Much of the goal was to review the relative power between the Mayor and the City Council, especially given the Mayor’s predominant authority in current city decision making.


In a year long process many ideas were proposed and rejected. Here’s the breakdown of what we got, including what the Charter currently says, what's proposed to change, why it matters and a verdict on each proposal as well as each category as a whole.



THE FIVE CATEGORIES

The proposed changes are grouped by category. Each category contains several changes, but voters must vote yes or no on entire groupings. That is, voters can vote on five questions; even though each question has multiple proposals within it. Pass a category, everything is enacted. Reject a category, everything fails. What are the categories?


  • Elections

  • The Civilian Complaint Review Board (NYPD oversight)

  • Ethics and Government

  • The City Budget

  • Land Use



ELECTIONS

The first category deals with how we hold elections in New York City and draw districts.


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Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for Primaries and Special Elections

This is one of the most impactful proposed changes and would fundamentally alter the way New Yorkers vote.


Currently: If you’ve taken a (Real) Politics 101 workshops, you know New York City holds “Winner Take All, First-Past-The-Post” elections. That means that, in an election, whoever gets the most votes wins. Critically, that doesn’t mean a majority; a majority is defined as more than half. Because of First-Past-The-Post or “plurality” voting, many of our elected officials eke out wins with 30% or 40% of the vote. This means that oftentimes a majority of voters are unhappy with the winner. It also means that highly organized minorities can win elections or be a critical factor in determining outcomes.


Proposed: Ranked Choice Voting would turn the current system on its head by allowing people to vote for multiple candidates. Instead of a single round of voting, in which whoever gets the most votes wins, RCV pretends that there are multiple rounds of voting. After each round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is removed from the election, but because voters ranked the candidates, their vote can be moved to their top-choice of whoever remains.


For example:

In the first round, your first choice candidate gets your vote. If somebody wins a majority, that person wins the entire election.


If nobody wins a majority in the first round, there is a second round of voting and the person with the lowest number of votes in the first round is removed. If your first choice was removed, your vote is transferred to your second choice. If your first wasn’t removed, your vote stays with your candidate.


This process is repeated until one candidate has over 50% of the votes (be they first, second, third, etc.)


This is mathematically the same as having multiple elections, but removing the lowest placing candidate in each one. That’s why this type of RCV is often called “Instant Runoff Voting” (there are other types, but no need to get into it).


Critical Details:

  • The proposal would allow voters to select up to five candidates. You would not be required to vote for five people. However, if your candidate is eliminated in an early round, you will be giving up your vote in any later round.

  • This proposal ONLY APPLIES to elections for NYC offices (City Council, Mayor, Comptroller Public Advocate, Borough President). NOT to State or Federal offices.

  • This proposal ONLY APPLIES to party primaries and special elections. NOT to general elections.

  • RCV has effectively been implemented in other States and cities including in California and Maine.

The purpose of RCV is to assure that elected officials have the broadest possible mandate and are at least a top five choice of a majority of their district. Some minority groups are concerned that it will dilute their ability to be consequential in elections.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. In my opinion the pros far outweigh the cons. In particular regard to the question of minority voters’ influence, any cohesive bloc vote will remain powerful through multiple rounds of voting. In addition, many minorities are not monolithic but have shared interests across smaller factions. With RCV, they will be able to partner with affiliated groups so a “second-best” ally wins if their first choice fails to be elected.


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80 Day Window for Special Elections

When Special Elections come around, NYC is forced to hold non-partisan general elections without a Primary or Party candidate designated by County Committees.


Current: The Mayor has up to 45 days to hold a Special Election for any office except the Mayoralty. There is a 60 day window for the Mayoralty.


Proposed: All Special Elections would have an 80 day window for filling city office vacancies by Special Election.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Sure, why not.


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Shorten Redistricting Timeline for City Districts


Every 10 years the U.S. takes its census (make sure your community is counted!). This counting of residents decides billions in direct government funding for communities, as well as the shape of electoral districts.


Current: The current process for drawing NYC district lines for City Council requires a 14-month process of creating a panel, drawing lines and approving those lines. This is currently slated to begin in mid-2022 and finish in March 2023.


Proposed: The current timeline for drawing new lines would be reduced by shortening the panel creation period. This is important because, whenever new lines are approved, an EXTRA ELECTION is held that year to re-elect City Council members under those lines. That’s right, we’ll be voting for City Council in 2021 and AGAIN in 2023; even though normally it’s a 4 year term.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. It’s technically not necessary because appointments could just be made more quickly. On the other hand, politicians take forever to do things, so probably better off just making it the law.



CATEGORY VERDICT: PRO



CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD (CCRB)

The CCRB is the institution charged with oversight of the NYPD. While the category title is technically correct, it would probably get a lot more coverage if it were billed as NYPD Accountability reform. Either way, the CCRB receives, investigates and suggests punishment in all non-criminal cases brought against NYPD officers.


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Expand CCRB Membership

The appointed Board members are in charge of the CCRB and its staff.


Current: There are 13 members including a Chair, all appointed by the Mayor. Of those 13, 5 are “designated” by the City Council and 3 are “designated” by the Police Commissioner. This is effectively the same as saying “nominated”, leaving most of the power in the Mayor’s hands, especially given the Mayor chooses the Police Commissioner as well.


Proposed: Board membership would be increased by two, to 15. This is in order to accommodate an appointment by the Public Advocate and a Chair jointly selected by the Mayor and City Council speaker. This would also turn the “designations” into appointments, removing the possibility of a Mayor vetoing candidates. Finally, this change would require all vacancies be filled within 60 days, instead of no deadline.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. The preponderance of power wielded by the Mayor, particularly in matters pertaining to the NYPD is incredible. This is a half-step, but a half-step in the right direction. Remember, of 15 members, six are still in the purview of the Mayor who often supports the Police Commissioner, and a further three represent the Commissioner directly.


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Make the CCRB Budget Proportional to the NYPD Budget


Current: The CCRB budget is set by the normal NYC budget process which is a result of negotiation between the Mayor and City Council.


Proposed: The budget of the CCRB should be set at .65% of the NYPD’s personnel budget. This would make the CCRB’s funding proportional to the number of officers it’s charged with overseeing unless the Mayor declares a fiscal limitation.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Accountability of the police force should be completely independent from politics and political haggling.


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Require Explanations from NYPD to CCRB When Recommendations are Rejected


Current: Although the CCRB is charged with oversight of the NYPD, all determinations and punishments in CCRB cases are recommendations. The Police Commissioner holds ultimate authority and is under no obligation to tell the CCRB how the NYPD deviated from recommended disciplinary action. For several years, a Memorandum of Understanding between the NYPD and CCRB stated that, if the CCRB wins an administrative trial to enforce its recommendation, the Police Commissioner will be required to provide an explanation for why he/she deviated from CCRB recommendations and what punishment was ultimately employed.


Proposed: Require the Police Commissioner to inform the CCRB whenever the NYPD deviates from recommended disciplinary action and provide an explanation of why, as well as what action was taken, within 45 days of the recommendation being issued.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Although the CCRB has no actual disciplinary authority, this increased transparency is a vital step in the right direction. At the very least, an oversight institution is entitled to know when, why and how its oversight recommendations are rejected.


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Allow CCRB to Investigate False Statements Made to it by NYPD Officers


Current: When the CCRB believes an NYPD officer has made a false statement during an investigation, it reports it to the NYPD for follow-up. Something like two of 78 instances submitted have been addressed by the NYPD in the last year.


Proposed: The CCRB would be empowered to investigate suspected false statements made to it by NYPD officers.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. An absolute no-brainer when it comes to improving accountability.


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Allow CCRB to Delegate Subpoena Power to the Executive Director


Current: The Board members of the CCRB must vote to issue subpoenas pertaining to its investigations. The Board meets about twice a month, hindering operations.


Proposed: The Board members may empower the CCRB Executive Director, responsible for day-to-day operations, to issue subpoenas in their name to facilitate the timely advancement of cases.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. A good administrative improvement. The Board can retract the power at any time if it’s a problem; which it shouldn’t be since the Board selects the Executive Director.



CATEGORY VERDICT: PRO


ETHICS AND GOVERNMENT

Someone in a workshop suggested this was an oxymoron. Let’s find out.


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Expand Lobbying Waiting Period


Current: Elected officials and high ranking government staffers must wait 1 (one) year before appearing before their former employer on behalf of a particular policy (i.e. lobbying).


Proposed: The “Appearance” ban would be extended to 2 (two) years for elected officials, deputy mayors, agency heads, paid board/commission members and the highest paid staffer of any board or commission.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Albany has a two year ban and it’s super corrupt. A one year ban is a joke. Proposals that didn’t pass the commission are a lifetime ban, a 10 year ban and a 5 year ban. So two years it is.


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Change Appointments to Conflict of Interest Board (COIB)

The COIB adjudicates and sets standards for all potential conflicts of interest for elected officials and city employees.


Current: The Mayor appoints all 5 COIB members with advice and consent of the City Council. Members are appointed in staggered 6 year terms with two up every two years (except the last one in which the 5th member is up). Also, only two members are required to make any decision.


Proposed: The Comptroller and Public Advocate will each receive an appointee and will be empowered to fill the two vacancies coming up in 2022. Also, COIB decisions would now require a majority vote of the members.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. More distribution of power plus majority rule? Sign me up.


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Ban Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) Members from Campaigning for City Candidates


Current: COIB members can volunteer on city campaigns.


Proposed: COIB members can’t volunteer city campaigns.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Will this eliminate biases in the hearts of COIB members? Probably not. Is it a fine idea? Yes.


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Create Citywide M/WBE Director Which Reports Directly to Mayor

New York City has various programs among its agencies and departments to ensure the hiring of Minority and Women owned Businesses and Enterprises in city contracting. The Director would be responsible for coordinating and tracking those programs.


Current: This is what New York City currently does. But it’s not the law.


Proposed: Make this a required position in any Mayor’s cabinet.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Government is very bad at hitting its M/WBE goals, it makes sense to have someone dedicated to the task of figuring out how to do it.


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Require Advice And Consent for Appointing Corporation Counsel

The Corporation Counsel is New York City’s attorney. Sort of like an Attorney General, the Corporation Counsel is meant to be the lawyer for the government. However, unlike and Attorney General, the Corporation Counsel does not run law enforcement.


Current: You know how William Barr is acting like Trump’s personal attorney even though he’s the public’s Attorney General? That’s because Trump appointed him and a Republican Senate, which supports Trump, confirmed him. In New York it’s different, the Mayor exclusively appoints the the Corporation Counsel and doesn’t need to worry about the legislature at all. This leads to a situation where the City Council often does not trust the Corporation Counsel and spends resources on hiring external lawyers when its aims may run counter to the Executive.


Proposed: Require the Corporation Counsel to be confirmed by the City Council.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. While the change is unlikely to eliminate the need/desire of the City Council to hire its own attorneys in some cases, it will provide a new level of accountability for a position meant to serve all branches of government.



CATEGORY VERDICT: PRO


CITY BUDGET


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Enable “Rainy Day” Fund


Current: A rainy day fund is currently illegal under the City Charter and the State’s Financial Emergency Act (FEA). Why? Because in the 1970s New York City went bankrupt and nobody trusted it with money when it was bailed out. As a result, what little surplus the city does have gets tucked into programs where it can be recalled at a moment’s notice - like a program to pay down future debt. However, this money is not protected for a rainy day.


Proposed: Allow New York City to establish a proper and protected rainy day fund for its surplus which would only be accessible if the were a fiscal shortfall. This would still be illegal unless the State FEA is repealed, or allowed to expire in 2033.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Even though rainy day funds lead to all sorts of political fighting regarding surpluses and deficits, it’s still an objectively responsible thing to do. The alternative is surpluses that could, at any moment, become slush funds.


**


Independent Budgets for Public Advocate and Borough Presidents


Current: The budgets of these independently elected officials are set by other elected officials the normal budget process controlled by the Mayor and City Council. In particular, the Public Advocate has had its budget slashed in the past when occupants of the office challenged the Mayor.


Proposed: The budgets of these offices would be set at the levels in the 2020 City Budget and increase every year at the rate of the city budget, or at the rate of inflation; whichever is less.


Proposal Verdict: Against. Budgets for boroughs tied to 2020 makes no sense. We could argue that the Borough Presidents shouldn’t exist, but we can’t argue that the boroughs are the same size and have an unchanging ratio of the city’s population or needs. Better for their budgets to be at the whim of politicians who are allotted proportional to the population of New York than to an arbitrary date whose allocations may be wildly outmoded in 20 years.


**


Mandate Earlier City Budget Revenue Estimates


Current: The Mayor submits the proposed City Budget in April but the forecast for the revenue to fund that budget is due months later by June 5. An approved budget, voted on by the City Council, is due on July 1. This leaves little time for the Council to work through costs and revenues assuming the estimates are submitted by the Mayor on-time, which they often aren’t. Usually, the Council is forced to approve a budget with revenues not fully understood, and then make up for any losses by adjusting property taxes to balance the budget as required by law.


Proposed: Revenue estimates would be due at the time of the budget submission in April. Modifications to estimates could be submitted until May 25.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Tying budgets proposals to revenue proposals, great idea. I wonder why no one thought of that before.


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Require Budget Modifications Be Submitted Within 30 Days of Financial Plan Updates


Current: Life is messy, sometimes budgets/revenues don’t go exactly as planned and money needs to be shuffled around to keep things running. That’s why every quarter the Mayor submits a Financial Plan Update to the City Council. That update tells the Council what’s changed, and prepares them to vote on those changes. Except the vote is triggered by a Budget Modification Request which may not come for months. In fact, they often come at the end of the Fiscal Year so that the money is all spent and City Council input on budget changes are virtually impossible.


Proposed: Budget Modification Requests must be submitted within 30 days of a Financial Plan Update detailing its need.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. This allows the elected legislature to prevent the Executive from moving approved tax dollars from one program to another without authorization between budgets. We kind of had a revolution for less.



CATEGORY VERDICT: PRO

Yes, one of the ideas is bad. But ultimately the importance of Borough Presidents’ relative funding pales in comparison to the larger budget fixes. Sorry BPs, you know I love you and also think you are an artifact of a New York governmental structure that doesn’t exist anymore.


LAND USE

The hottest issue in New York, determining where and when giant luxury towers displace plebs. Also how big jails are, where homeless shelters go, who gets parks and, sort of, the availability of affordable housing.


When these questions roll through a community, it’s handled by the Uniform Land Use Review Process or ULURP. ULURP has a set timeline for each step which goes from Department of City Planning (DCP), to Community Board (CB), to Borough President (BP), to City Planning Commission (CPC) to (maybe) City Council.


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Add a 30 Day Pre-Approval Notice to New Projects


Current: Development plans must be submitted to the Department of City Planning (DCP) for approval. Once DCP approves a plan, they are sent to Community Boards for review. Community Boards then have 60 days to deliberate, question and vote.


Proposed: This proposal would require DCP to alert Community Boards and Borough Boards (run by the Borough Presidents) of any plan which will be approved 30 days in advance. This is will give communities 30 extra days to consider plans.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. The problem with land use is not the ULURP timeline, but that Community Boards and Borough Presidents are merely “advisory”. This does nothing to alter the balance of power weighted almost entirely in the Mayor’s favor. But it makes a few people’s lives a little bit easier, so why not.


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Extend ULURP Timeline for Projects Certified in the Summer


Current: Community Boards have 60 days to review any plan approved by the Department of City Planning. This is hard in the summer because, as volunteer institutions, Community Boards often cannot perform work when people are away.


Proposed: Community Boards will have 90 days to review project certified in June and 75 days for projects certified between July 1 and July 15.


Proposal Verdict: Pro. Again, it makes a few peoples’ lives a little easier, even if it does nothing to correct an egregious power imbalance.



CATEGORY VERDICT: PRO

The most important thing to understand is that these proposals do almost nothing. They should be passed, but my biggest concern is that people will think New York has done something to solve the Land Use problem. It hasn’t, this is a political dodge. Neither of these proposals shift any power away from Mayors, developers and big money. At best, they make it slightly easier for active communities to organize given longer time horizons.

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© 2016 Ben Yee for State Committee

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