Mayor Bloomberg’s Charter Revision Commission began public hearings this week—the start of a process that could shift the balance of power between the mayor, the City Council and other elected officials.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

Mayor Bloomberg’s Charter Revision Commission began public hearings this week—the start of a process that could shift the balance of power between the mayor, the City Council and other elected officials.

Mayor Bloomberg’s Charter Revision Commission holds its first public hearing on Tuesday evening in Manhattan—a chance for citizens to weigh in on how a panel with no specific mandate and no set timetable should alter the 400-page rulebook of government in the five boroughs.

Bloomberg appointed the 15-member panel last month, two years after he first set aside city money to review the charter, which determines how power is divided among city officeholders, how much municipal officials are paid, what happens when a city office becomes vacant, how city commissions and boards operate and how the city’s land use and budget processes work.

Announcing the commission last month, Bloomberg vowed that, “Every issue will be on the table, and every voice will be heard.” The commission’s chair, CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, has said he’s been given no specific to-do list from City Hall. But there are hints of what the review—the fourth during Bloomberg’s tenure—might focus on.

A City Hall statement says the commission is charged with “examining the changes made by the 1988 and 1989 Charter Revision Commissions, and other subsequent changes, in light of the lessons learned over the past two decades and the new challenges and opportunities that have since arisen. “

Those late 1980s revisions—among the 12 remakes to the charter since the city consolidated in 1898—significantly reduced the powers of the borough presidents and the public advocate. There are perennial calls by candidates, editorial boards and others to eliminate both offices. Bloomberg has consistently sought major cuts in the public advocate’s budget.

The charter review is also widely expected to examine term limits, which the City Council in late 2008 extended from two terms to three, overriding two public referenda.

In addition, the commission could reevaluate the city’s land use process. In a position paper released last month, the Pratt Center for Community Development said that, “The City Charter’s aspiration to community-based planning has not been fulfilled,” and called for the charter review to bolster the independence of community boards and the City Planning Commission. Other reformers want the commission to consider non-partisan elections, which the mayor tried to implement in a 2003 charter revision. Voters rejected that proposal, but passed charter changes that Bloomberg sought in 2002 and 2005.

At the commission’s initial meeting on March 18—at which no public testimony was heard—Goldstein laid out broad principles that will guide the review. It would aim, he said, to “improve the accountability and transparency of the workings of government,” to “make government more efficient and effective in the work that we do” and to “make our civil civic life more participatory and representative.”

Tuesday’s session, at 6 p.m. in the Proshansky Auditorium at the CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue), will be followed by hearings next Monday, April 12, in the Bronx (Hostos Community College, Repertory Theatre, 500 Grand Concourse, 6 p.m.); on Tuesday, April 13 in Staten Island (McKee High School, Auditorium, 290 Saint Marks Place, 6 p.m.); Monday, April 19 in Queens (LaGuardia Community College, Auditorium, 31-10 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City, 6 p.m.) and on Tuesday, April 20, in Brooklyn (St. Francis College, Founders Hall, 180 Remsen Street, 4 p.m.).

After the series of public hearings ends, the commission will meet to define the “priority areas” raised during the public sessions. In mid-May, Goldstein said he plans “a series of expert forums and public hearings on these issues,” after which the commission’s staff will “produce an analysis of the issues and present a menu of options.” That draft will be posted, and then a third round of hearings will be held, according to Goldstein.

Then the commission will decide whether to place a charter change referendum on the ballot for this November, the following November or both.

The contests for governor, U.S. Senate, Congress and the state legislature this fall are likely to draw higher turnout than in the fall of 2011, when no major races are planned. In order to appear on the 2010 ballot, Goldstein said, the commission must finalize language by September 3—hence the fast and furious pace of hearings over the spring and summer. “I know that this is very aggressive, but to do less I think the opportunity costs would be just too high and I don’t think that would be appropriate,” he said.

That schedule of hearings—released only last week—has come under criticism. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said last week that “scheduling a hearing with less than a week’s notice and during a time when many people are concerned with Passover and Easter sends the message that the Commission isn’t serious about receiving input from the public.”

At the commission’s first session, Goldstein said, “We ensure everybody’s input is taken into consideration. And we will constantly emphasize that.”

Video and transcripts from each hearing will be posted at the Charter Revision Commission’s website.