Opinion: A Stronger New York Does Not Need a Weaker Mayor

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Mayoral Photo Office/City Limits

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Come November, New Yorkers may have a chance to vote on the most significant revamping of city government since Ed Koch was mayor. In this third of four essays, author and professor Joseph P. Viteritti calls for caution in using the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to elevate the power of the City Council relative to the mayor. Read part 1 and part 2.
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It is difficult to fathom these days that until 1834, the City Council actually chose the mayor of New York. Ours was the first major city in the country to elect its mayor by popular vote. After that, the office grew in power as the functions of the city expanded and the municipality required a strong executive to run its complex network of services.

With reform Mayor Seth Low in office, it was the independent city of Brooklyn that became a national model for progressive government under a “strong mayor” plan. In 1880, Brooklyn’s mayor was granted power to appoint department heads without City Council approval. Two years later, Low, under what was dubbed the “single head’ rule, was authorized to replace agency heads within 20 days of his election, a power that was soon extended to include complete discretion over such appointments. According to the thinking of municipal reformers, that was the best way to hold the mayor responsible for the operation of city agencies. In 1901, the mayor of the consolidated city of New York was granted absolute power over the appointment and removal of agency heads. It has been that way ever since.

The strong mayor model was preserved in the ’89 charter, but not without provisions designed to ensure that the Council could serve as an effective check on the executive if it chose. Under the present charter, the Council can override a mayoral veto of local legislation with a two-thirds majority vote. It can reduce the mayor’s spending proposals at will, and with a two-thirds majority can override the mayor’s veto of any increases it makes to the budget. It routinely reviews land-use and zoning changes made by the mayor and city planning commission. No other body has as great an institutional capacity to serve as a check on the mayor as the legislature.

Apparently, the present Council does not believe its powers are sufficient. A review of the its recent recommendations regarding charter revision suggests the Council thinks the mayoralty enjoys too much power, and that some of its powers should be delegated to other offices, including itself. Since we do not have sufficient space to review the Council’s entire document, let me focus on a few proposals that are indicative of its overall direction. These considerations are intended to be illustrative and help set general guidelines, and do not pretend to be comprehensive.

Advise and relent

The Council’s first recommendation would require its advice and consent for certain mayoral appointments, including the police commissioner, corporation counsel, and several boards. Instead of having the mayor appoint all 11 members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), it would allow the mayor six appointees plus the chair, and grant five spots to the borough presidents and one to the public advocate.

It would shore up the oversight authority of the Council by enhancing its investigatory powers and enabling members to visit city facilities. It would also alter the composition of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), replacing one of the mayor’s five appointees with one by the public advocate, and having the chair jointly chosen by the mayor and Council. It would also strengthen the CCRB by granting it subpoena power and an independent budget measured against the police department budget.

In reviewing these proposals, I will return to my original proposition that the city needs a strong but accountable mayor, and that any attempt to modify the powers of any office should be informed by how the character of the offices have evolved over time. The investigatory role of the Council is inherent in its legislative function and is worthy of support. I would suggest that it is most enabled through the employment of capable professional staff to support the work of functioning committees – staff not only trained in law, but also with skills in finance, policy analysis, and urban planning.

To compromise the mayor’s authority to choose the head of a basic line agency like the NYPD, however, would violate long-standing practices and politicize the appointment process in a way that would not be constructive. That said, it is quite legitimate to strengthen an office, such as the CCRB, that may impose more accountability on the NYPD, its commissioner, and ultimately the mayor. Likewise, granting appointment powers to the CCRB to the Council, which is supposed to serve as a check on the mayor, and the public advocate, who has a monitoring role, also fits the character of these institutions.

While I am less enthusiastic about allowing the public advocate to make an appointment to the LPC, granting such power to the borough presidents would certainly be consistent with their historic role in the land use process. To further assure their independence, the borough presidents (along with the public advocate, comptroller and CCRB) should have independent budgets that are tamper proof from potential adversaries at city hall.

Money talk

The most important powers shared between the executive and the legislature are those involving the budget process; for it is the budget – both the expense and capital – that sets the priorities of the government. In this area of discretion, the present Council has several recommendations. It proposes that if the mayor does not provide legislators with a revenue budget by May 25, then the Independent Budget Office (IBO) should be asked for such an estimate. This is reasonable: The IBO has established itself as a respected source of objective analysis, and the Council cannot craft a spending budget without knowing what the revenue budget is.

The Council also seeks to create new mechanisms to ensure narrower units of appropriation and spending lines in the expense and the capital budgets respectively. The question here is, “How narrow?” In such matters, sound judgment must prevail. Transparency in the budget is a prerequisite for accountability. But, to have the legislature micromanage the budget – especially on the expense side – could deny the executive the kind of flexibility needed to manage the city on a daily basis. Better integration of performance indicators in the Mayor’s Management Report with budget items – also suggested by the council – could be a more productive way to proceed.

The Council has also recommended that the appointment of executive directors to the Campaign Finance Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board be made with its advice and consent. These boards currently choose their own executive directors, as they should. These boards perform regulatory functions designed to maintain ethical standards in the electoral and governmental processes. Institutional independence is essential for them to fulfill their duties properly. Any measure taken by the charter commission to enlarge the role of elected officials in the way these bodies conduct business would be counterproductive.

The City Council performs a crucial representative function within the municipal government. In reviewing the city charter, its leadership should focus less on expanding its institutional powers as a body, and more on strengthening the role that individual members can play as advocates of well-defined (coterminous) community interests in a city being torn by struggles over the equitable use of real estate.

Read part 4 here.

Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College and most recently author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (Oxford).

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