If community boards and borough presidents get more land use power under a new charter, will the City Council have less?

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

If community boards and borough presidents get more land use power under a new charter, will the City Council have less?

When the city’s Charter Revision Commission scheduled a hearing at Hostos Community College in the Bronx earlier this month, the first plan was to hold it in the school’s large Repertory Theater. As the event approached the location was shifted to a smaller meeting hall. When commission chairman Matthew Goldstein gaveled the April 12 meeting to order, there were people in every seat and lined up along two walls. It turns out that they needed a bigger room.

With the first round of public hearings done, the commission faces another decision on getting the right fit. How much of New York City’s government does it want to consider changing? And is the time between now and November enough time to weigh those changes?

The 15 members of the commission, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in March, are now exchanging ideas on which topics to highlight during “issue forums” beginning in May, in which experts will testify on those aspects of the city’s charter—the 400-page city constitution—that the commission is considering amending.

After the hearings in each borough, “What I really felt from people is that they are looking to the charter revision commission to restore their faith in government,” says Anthony Perez Cassino, a commission member. “That’s the undercurrent.”

Cassino tells City Limits that some of the topics the commission is likely to take up—for example, term limits—won’t be a surprise. Once you move beyond those no-brainers, however, things get complicated. People might share a desire for a government they can believe in, but they’re all over the map on what that government should look like. Here are some of the ideas that emerged in public testimony so far:

  • More power for borough presidents: Manhattan’s Borough President Scott Stringer was alone in not asking for enhanced powers for his current office. Staten Island’s James Molinaro asked for the modest power to convene multiagency meetings with commissioners from key agencies. Helen Marshall, the borough president in Queens, said she seeks an independent budget (borough presidents, or “beeps,” currently are at the mercy of the mayor and Council), 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 overall the mayor’s appointments of borough commissioners in city agencies. Perhaps the most ambitious was the Bronx’s Ruben Diaz, Jr. who asked for independent budgeting, more land use power, a vote on the Board of Standards and Appeals and more muscular “borough service cabinets.” If the voters approved changes to the beeps’ role, they would apply to all borough presidents.
  • Nonpartisan elections Voted down in 2003 and a favorite of Bloomberg and the Independence Party, whom the mayor generously funds and on whose ballot line he has run, nonpartisan elections were a topic in each borough hearing. Advocates for them say party primaries, which are often decisive in Democrat-dominated New York, disenfranchise voters who aren’t Democrats.
  • School governance Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, in a brief outline of ideas he offered to the Manhattan hearing, raised this issue. “I understand the legal dynamics surrounding the Department of Education and the state’s role in the governance in the Department of Education,” he said. “But I also know … that parent participation, community participation in education is a huge area that needs to be addressed.”
  • More power for community boards: Summing up the most broadly expressed sentiment at the hearings, Patricia Dolan from the Queens Civic Congress said the charter commission should work at “insulating community boards from the whims of City Hall bean counters” and reject the “enthusiasm in some quarters for abbreviating the land use process” by weakening the role of community boards. Board supporters’ sought-after enhancements include more staff for each board, a budget independent from mayoral and Council influence, binding votes on land use items and even independence from borough presidents who, as of now, appoint and remove community board members.
  • More local control: “We don’t want to completely change city government,” said Council majority leader James Oddo of Staten Island—one of the few councilmembers to show up to a hearing. “We don’t want a revolution. We want administrative decentralization.” Oddo says such decentralization might include local control over closing schools and paving streets.
  • An independent planning agency: Stringer called for an Independent Planning Office “to provide comprehensive planning for our city neighborhoods and consolidate some of the 33 separate performance, planning and reporting documents currently required by the Charter.”
  • A more independent Conflicts of Interest Board: The city’s ethics monitor currently has five members, all appointed by the mayor with the Council’s oversight. Diaz has proposed that rather than having COIB members appointed by some of the very people they monitor, those members “would be selected by the criminal and civil administrative judges representing the four judicial districts that cover the five boroughs.”
  • Empower the public advocate or abolish it: While some want the city ombudsman’s office—whose funds have been cut considerably in recent years—to have independent budgeting, others (like Staten Island Councilman Vincent Ignizio) continue to seek the office’s abolition, saying it is unnecessary. For his part, de Blasio said his office and that of the city comptroller would benefit from having “more autonomy in the ability to do their watchdog roles in a better fashion.”
  • Changes to the Department of Buildings: After a slew of scandals concerning the validity of DOB inspections and amid continuing concern in the outer boroughs about overdevelopment, some speakers want to create a new Office of Inspection, while others want to consolidate the DOB with the City Planning Department.
  • City Department of Food and Markets: Stringer wants the city to have an agency that “holds the promise of making New Yorkers healthier, energizing our economy, and improving our environment.”
  • Proportional representation: This mechanism for determining representation on the City Council, employed in New York from 1937 to 1949, could change Council elections from the current winner-takes-all format to one that uses instant-runoff voting or some other method for reflecting the will of voters who do not support the lead vote-getter in each district.
  • Ballot access: Former Parks Commission Henry Stern raised this issue, a reference to the significant legal barriers that exist to running for office in New York. He noted that state election law complicates anything the charter might say.
  • Fair share: According to environmental advocates, the 1989 charter language that sought to protect communities from being overburdened by trash or sewage facilities has not proven effective and needs to strengthened.
  • Wage requirements: At least one union called for the charter to require that developments going through the city’s land use process promise to pay workers “living” or “prevailing” wages.
  • Strengthening the Civilian Complaint Review Board: De Blasio did not get into specifics, but said the board that investigates charges of police brutality and harassment “needs to be a more vibrant, independent, and meaningful agency.”
  • Empowering the comptroller: In his testimony, Comptroller John Liu called for his office to have more power over budget projections, an independent annual budget and more authority over bond issuance—and to be first in line to assume the mayoralty if City Hall is vacant (the current next-in-line is the public advocate).

    Lurking in the background is the question of whether the commission will prepare ballot questions for this November’s election, wait until the 2011 elections, or put different questions before the voters each year. The 2010 vote, featuring races for statewide offices and federal and state legislative seats, will likely get higher turnout than next year’s off-year election. But that means the commission has to finalize ballot language by early September, which some critics say would require a rushed process.

    “The commission wants to leave us at least the possibility—the option—of weighing in this year,” says Cassino. “We haven’t made a decision on that. But we have to move at a pace that gives you that option.”