2019 charter commission concludes initial public hearings



Council chamber at City Hall, Manhattan. Photo: Sophia Ahmadi.

Another important citywide charter revision is currently underway in New York, looking at ways to improve how the city spends tax dollars, makes neighborhood changes, and allows its elected officials to wield power. In late September the 2019 Charter Revision Commission held a public hearing in City Hall in Manhattan, having already heard testimony in the city’s four other boroughs.

This commission, appointed by the city council, is working toward putting initiatives on the November 2019 ballot. It is distinct from the mayor’s own charter revision commission, which has approved three ballot initiatives for this November, including one on the contentious issue of community board term limits.

New York city government has not looked at the entirety of the charter since 1989, when the Supreme Court mandated that the city do so. For this commission, there is “no specific mission other than to make things better for New Yorkers,” said city council speaker Corey Johnson, who opened the seven-hour round of testimonies.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer drafted the bill for the 2019 commission alongside public advocate Leticia James last year, months before Mayor Bill de Blasio had announced plans to appoint his own, in February. The 15-member panel will identify and address a range of issues within the city’s broader charter — New York’s 74-chapter version of a constitution.

Johnson proposed several broad topics for consideration, including the structure of city government — “the allocation of power and the system of checks and balances within the system” — the budget process and the heated issue of land use, which has generated both “fatigue and frustration,” he said.  

City Controller Scott Stringer called, in his testimony, for much needed reform. Over the past three decades New York has witnessed an “explosion of homelessness, a deterioration of our subway infrastructure, persistent inequality in our public schools and a continuing disappearance of affordable housing,” he said. “Without new ideas our charter is an outdated set of rules and regulations instead of the living, breathing document we need it to be.”

Stringer’s office filed a comprehensive report with the commission detailing 65 ideas on how to improve the charter, including a suggestion for a “deep dive” into the city’s capital budget — “a black hole, which emits almost no useful information,” he said. The capital budget in the current fiscal year (2018) is $16.2 billion, according to the office of management and budget (OMB), and is used to cover long‑term investments in facilities and infrastructure, such as public schools and street maintenance. Between the steam pipe explosion in the Flatiron and planned L train repairs, the city faces a vastly increased workload.

Term limits were a recurring and impassioned theme throughout the hearing.  Brewer remained steadfast in her opposition, urging that the commission reverse the policy should it pass on the ballot this fall. “Community Boards are our first line of offense in promoting neighborhood planning,” she said, “and our first line of defense in protecting neighborhoods from developers.” Brewer champions the knowledge and expertise of long-term board members, who, she argues, enable communities to “negotiate effectively with very seasoned developers.”

Several members from community boards across the borough echoed Brewer’s testimony, including CB3 executive committee first vice-chair David Ford, CB2 chair Terri Cude and CB8 Housing Committee co-chair Edward Hartzog, who argued that “the idea of term limits (was) a solution in search of a problem.” Many members instead suggested limits on ranking officials and increased turnover at the top.

City Council member Ben Kallos is a firm proponent of limits and asked the commission to respect any mayoral initiatives that are passed this November. The issue of term limits should “only be subject to change by those same people at another vote,” he said. This commission should “not weaken them in any way.”

Despite the sparring agendas of both the council and mayoral commissions, several separate issues arose during the hearing, from animal welfare to the lack of affordable housing to the demand for accountability in law enforcement. Several people testified in favor of overhauling the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent oversight agency charged with investigating and prosecuting complaints of police misconduct. Support for the idea was so great that Commission Chair Gale Benjamin was forced to instate “jazz hands” when members of the public wished to articulate their enthusiasm.

Members of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board raise photos of victims of police violence during Pamela Monroe’s testimony at City Hall. Photo: Sophia Ahmadi.

Pamela Monroe, a member of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, also gave voice to the idea of a “civilian empowered and elected” board. “The era of unchecked police misconduct must end,” she said as several members of the audience stood up in silence, raising enlarged photos of victims who had allegedly fallen subject to the system.

The commission is expected to continue with another round of public hearings in the spring before submitting their final recommendations in September 2019.