In the middle of a resolution adopted Monday morning by the city's Charter Revision Commission was a phrase that indicated the breadth of change the commissioners might countenance: Among other topics the panel will weigh this spring and summer, the resolution read, is "the structure of the city of New York."
Having held a series of public hearings in April, the commission now plans to hold "issues forums" in May and June at which "experts and practitioners" will testify about particular parts of the 400-page city charter that the commission is considering changing. Nine members of the 15-member commission met in lower Manhattan on Monday to approve a list of topic for those issue forums.
The five areas will be: "land use," including the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP; term limits; "voter participation," including nonpartisan elections; the "balance of powers," especially as it relates to community boards, borough presidents and the City Council; and "fiscal integrity," a category that includes ethics rules and the Conflict of Interests Board. "Fiscal integrity" also concerns whether community boards, the public advocate, the comptroller and borough presidents need independent budgets.
Those areas reflect most of the testimony that the commission collected in its visits to each of the boroughs last month. But a few issues mentioned at those sessions don't seem to fall naturally into one of the five areas.
One outlier is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's call for a city Department of Food and Markets. Another is Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's suggestion that the panel look at how the city's schools are governed (although, even in positing that topic, de Blasio acknowledges that state laws governing mayoral control of the schools might preclude the charter from addressing how schools are run).
Other issues raised by the public weren't explicitly mentioned on Monday, but might be on the commission's agenda. The charter's "fair share" mechanism, which is supposed to prevent any particular communities from being overburdened by waste and sewage facilities, was criticized during the hearings as lacking teeth. It wasn't mentioned on Monday. But New York City Environmental Justice Alliance executive director Eddie Bautista, who raised the topic at two of the public hearings, thinks "fair share" could be considered under the "land use" section. "If they had meant just ULURP, they would have been more circumspect," he told City Limits.
The panel plans to meet next week with members of past charter revision commissions. "Seeing their experiences … will educate us," said chairman Matthew Goldstein. After that meeting, the issues forums will commence. Once they are concluded at the end of June, the commission staff will prepare a report with "preliminary recommendations" on changes the commission might suggest. More hearings will follow in July.
The timeline of the commission's work remains a question mark, and an issue on which the commissioners differ.
A ballot proposal could be put to the voters this coming November, or in November 2011. Placing a ballot question this year would require a decision by September 2 in order to "satisfy legal requirements," Goldstein said. (Ironically, two years after Mayor Bloomberg said his bid to extend term limits couldn't go to referendum because the September deadline had already passed, that same deadline might serve to rush consideration of how to answer lingering questions about those same term limits.)
That possible September 2 deadline is accelerating the pace of hearings, requiring some to be held during the summer—prime vacation time.
"I have some concerns about our next round of hearings being in July," commissioner Hope Cohen said Monday. "The summer months are not a welcome time for public participation."
Goldstein acknowledged the summer was not an ideal time, but noted that the panel had only been appointed by Bloomberg in March; so they have little choice but to rush.
Stephen Fiala, another commissioner, dismissed the concerns about summer scheduling, arguing that citizens should be expected to participate in shaping their government regardless of the calendar. "Democracy is not a spectator sport," he said.
The commission on Monday did revise its resolution to specify that even at the "issues forums," the general public will be allowed to comment after experts have testified.