The panel that Mayor Bloomberg charged with updating the city's charter was expected to consider getting rid of the city's five borough presidents. But on Monday night at a standing-room-only hearing at Hostos College, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. pushed not only to survive the charter revision, but to come out with more power than he and his counterparts have now.
"Borough presidents play an extremely important role in the life of each of our boroughs by providing a human interface between our citizens and behemoth city agencies," Diaz said. "Our offices ought to be enhanced."
Borough presidents (BPs or "beeps" for short) used to wield considerable power when they sat on the Board of Estimate, a kind of super-legislature that oversaw all city budget and land use decisions. The Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that the Board was unconstitutional because it violated the principle of "one man, one vote," by giving Staten Island voting power that was equal to that of other, far more populous boroughs like Brooklyn. The city opted to scrap the board. Beeps now control a small budget and play an advisory role in the city's land use process.
Diaz argued that borough presidents should have the power to make binding recommendations on land use. Right now, if a borough president thinks a proposed project is a bad idea, the City Planning Commission can ignore the beep. Diaz wants the charter changed to require a super-majority of the City Planning Commission to override a negative recommendation by a borough president. He also wants beeps to have more power over the Board of Standards and Appeals, which handles land use applications denied by the planning commission.
But Charter Revision Commission member Stephen Fiala, a former Councilman from Staten Island, wanted to know who was going to give up the power that Diaz wanted for borough presidents.
"Power in city government is finite," he said. "In order to grant additional power to the borough presidents, you've got to take it from other players," like the City Council.
Most of the people who spoke at Monday's were concerned with one such player: the city's 59 community boards.
Some suspect the charter revision could eliminate or reduce the powers of the boards, which get the first—albeit nonbinding—vote on all land use proposals. Among the boards' supporters, recent episodes where community boards have been bypassed (as they were in Atlantic Yards) or purged after they defied pro-development pols (as occurred during the Yankee Stadium approval process) stoked calls to give the boards more power and independence.
"Unfortunately, community boards, day after day, are being passed over and not included in the decision-making process of government," said Roberto Garcia, the chair of Bronx Community Board 2.
Diaz proposed that the borough presidents, public advocate and community boards all have independent budget streams that insulate them from political payback by the mayor and Council—akin to the funding for the Independent Budget Office, which is pegged to 12.5 percent of the budget for the mayor's Office of Management and Budget.
Monday's hearing was the second in a series of five public hearings that represent the first round of the commission's work. Commission chairman Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, says the mayor has given his panel no specific to-do list. But much of the public testimony in the Bronx hewed to the areas of the 400-page charter that the commission is considered most likely to revise.
On one such issue, term limits, several speakers weighed in. All were opposed to the mayor and Council's 2008 revision of term limits to permit a third term, except one: Councilman Oliver Koppell, who represents the northwest Bronx. A long-term opponent of term limits, Koppell said his own reelection to a third term this fall (against Anthony Perez Cassino, who, awkwardly enough, sits on the Charter Review Commission) proved that the citizens of his district did not favor term limits.
"What term limits were supposed to accomplish they have not accomplished," Koppell argued.
J.C. Polanco, a Republican member of the New York City Board of Elections, was one of a handful of speakers to call for non-partisan elections. Supporters of non-partisan elections say the current system disenfranchises voters because in most races the meaningful decisions are made in primaries that are open only to members of one party.
One of Bloomberg's earlier charter revision efforts, in 2003, tried to impose non-partisan elections. Voters rejected it. But Polanco said a new day had dawned. "Obama wouldn’t be president today if it weren't for states with non-partisan primaries," he said.
Other issues that have gotten less press attention were also laid on the table. Diaz called for reform of the Conflict of Interest Board, the watchdog panel whose members are appointed by the mayor, which in recent years on several occasions has issued favorable rulings for Bloomberg. The Bronx Beep wants COIB members appointed by local administrative judges instead.
Environmental activist Eddie Bautista, meanwhile, called for the commission to look at the charter's "fair share" language, which was added to the charter in 1989 and intended to spare neighborhoods from having to accept an unfair burden of the city's garbage and sewage facilities. "Fair share was gutted by the regulatory rulemaking that followed the charter revision," Bautista said.
The hearings continue Tuesday night in Staten Island at McKee High School, 290 Saint Marks Place at 6 p.m.