Question Facing Beeps, Public Advocate: To Be Or Not To Be

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The New York City Charter Revision Commission meets Thursday night to hear testimony about whether borough presidents and the public advocate should vanish or get more power.

The hearing at 6 p.m. at Staten Island Technical High School, 485 Clawson Street, is the third in a series of five “issues forums” where the 15 commissioners are hearing from experts on topics where charter changes are possible. Forums on term limits and voter participation have already been held. Sessions on public integrity and land use remain.

Testimony on Thursday will be heard from Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio, Hofstra Law School’s Eric Lane, former chair of Manhattan Community Board 2Manha Brad Hoylman, former deputy mayor and current CUNY official Marc V. Shaw, and Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz. Public comments will be taken after the experts have testified. The hearing will be webcast.

The commission is considering whether to propose for voter approval changes to the city’s 400-page charter, which serves as its constitution. It is unclear whether the panel will place items on the ballot for November, wait until the 2011 or 2012 election, or deal with some questions this year and others later. The 2010 election – which will include contests for statewide offices, the legislature and Congress—offers the prospect of a higher turnout. But to place items on this year’s ballot, the commission would need to finalize language by early September, creating a narrow window for some of the complex issues in play.

Some of those issues involve the borough presidents and public advocate.

Two decades ago the borough presidents wielded significant power via their votes on the Board of Estimate, a kind of super-legislature that controlled the budget and land use. The predecessor of the public advocate, called the president of the City Council, also sat on the Board of Estimate. But in 1989, after the Supreme Court ruled that the Board violated the principle of “one man, one vote” by giving equal power to boroughs with starkly unequal populations, the city changed its charter to scrap the board. The borough presidents were left with limited, advisory land use powers. Since then there have been perennial calls to eliminate the office. As the Post editorialized in 2008: “Borough presidents were a useless annoyance back when times were flush. Now, wasting one more cent on them is a scandal.”

In 1989, the office of president of the City Council also lost its power over policy. It became a city ombudsman and in 1993 was renamed “public advocate.” There have been calls since at least 1975 to eliminate the post, and those have only grown since the name change.

During the charter revision hearings, the “beeps” themselves have countered calls for their elimination and pressed for more power, arguing that the boroughs need not just a voice in city affairs, but a hand in decisions on land use and budgeting.

Staten Island’s James Molinaro has asked for the modest power to convene multiagency meetings with commissioners from key agencies. Helen Marshall, the borough president in Queens, is seeking an independent budget (borough presidents, or “beeps,” currently have their budgets set by the mayor and Council, which means they can be punished for opposing other politicians), the right to chair a borough infrastructure committee and more authority in the land use process. BP Marty Markowitz in Brooklyn went further than that: In addition to more power over city planning decisions and independent funding, he wants authority to fund youth services and “advise and consent” authority over all the mayor’s appointments of borough commissioners in city agencies.

The Bronx’s Ruben Diaz, Jr. asked for independent budgeting, more land use power, a vote on the Board of Standards and Appeals and more muscular “borough service cabinets,” on which the borough chiefs of each city department are represented and aim to coordinate operations for each borough. If voters approve changes to the beeps’ role, they would apply to all borough presidents.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has put forward a detailed menu of proposed charter changes that would enhance the borough presidents’ powers but also create new city agencies.

For his part, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has called for his office to be given powers such as an independent budget, authority to serve as “coordinator of citywide civic engagement” and “subpoena power … to strengthen its oversight role and empowering the office to track compliance with Community Benefits Agreements.”

After the issues forums run their course, the commission will hold a final round of public hearings before issuing its proposals.