No one wants to read about the city charter. It’s too important.
Yet, every couple of decades a mayor decides that the city’s constitution requires a top-to-bottom rewriting. That’s what Mike Bloomberg did in March. He’s appointed a 15-member commission and told it to do anything it wants with the charter, which may turn out to be anything he wants. What the commission decides will shape the lives of New Yorkers for decades to come.
All we can really tell is that Mike’s commission appears primed to do something about term limits. Bloomberg apparently wants to make sure he’s the last third-term mayor, a sort of better-late-than-never idea. The commission will probably try to restore the two-term limit that voters already approved in two referendums, but that Bloomberg and his council allies overturned in 2008 because they believed we couldn’t get along without them.
Having satisfied his own self-interest, Mayor Mike is no doubt willing to go back to two terms. But the council, no surprise, would love to stick with three. The council, however, has nothing to say about a charter commission or the amendments it puts on the ballot. That’s why Council Speaker Christine Quinn, normally the smiling face to the mayor’s right nodding approval at press conferences, scowled at a recent assembly hearing that charter commissions are “electorate[s] of one.” Even Quinn, though, isn’t too mad about the prospect of reducing the three-term limit to two again, because she’s already in her third term.
The surprise is that the state legislature is threatening to do something for the council members who covet a third term.
Two bills introduced by Cities Committee chair and Brooklyn assemblyman Jim Brennan just passed the assembly by votes of 141 to 1 and 121 to 20 that would combine to greatly enhance the council’s powers over charter change, and even though one of the bills was also just voted out of a key senate committee, the legislation has strangely remained under the radar.
One bill would give the council the power, by a two-thirds vote, to kill any charter commission proposal, starting with a term-limit reduction. The mayor unsurprisingly submitted testimony opposing this bill, and yet almost every Republican and Democrat in the assembly who voted on the bill supported it. The senate just sent that bill back to the assembly for a second vote because of a technical flaw in the language.
The other, and far more reasonable bill, tries to attack the flaws and fears about the ongoing commission process.
The flaws — other than the fact that the mayor hand-picks the entire commission — revolve mostly around the rapid pace of this mysterious change, which has even drawn the ire of the New York Times editorial board.
As is his wont, Mayor Mike announced in his State of the City speech in January, 2008, that he was going to appoint a charter commission. Then he forgot to do it for two years, busying himself instead with overturning charter amendments without a commission, trips to Bermuda, running for re-election, lunching with Lloyd Blankfein, and getting a presidential campaign off the ground.
When he finally got around to it in March, someone decided that his new commission should make up for lost time. Fast.
The first meeting of this new commission was on March 19. Before anyone knew it existed, two scant weeks of public hearings were scheduled. Soon the commission will invite its own selective experts in to comment, and then it will issue proposals, and voters will get a second chance to comment, but this time only on the amendments the commission puts before us. Not only does this contrast sharply with the years of hearings in 1989, when last the charter was redrawn, the two-week public window is less time than it takes to get approval for a block party. Only one hundred people showed up in Manhattan. A homeless shelter opening could draw twice the crowd.
The loudest and most frequent voices at the hearings were from the Independence Party, which sold its ballot line to the mayor last year and wants now one final reward besides the $750,000 the mayor contributed to it a day or two before the election. The party wants nonpartisan elections, presumably because it has never won a partisan election on its own. The only words the leaders of the city’s Independence Party have ever been known to utter are nonpartisan elections: good, and Jews: bad. Since Bloomberg has been willing to chant the party’s first mantra with them, and dump godzillions into its clutching palm, they have been willing to overlook his obvious defects on its second obsession.
The fear about the commission, which Brennan’s second bill is designed to counter, is that it will revive the failed 2003 Bloomberg charter change of nonpartisan elections and put it back on the ballot again, somewhat altered. Howard Wolfson, who is the first mayoral spokesman to actually be almost as well known as Bloomberg is himself (he’s the guy in the sweater spinning for Hillary throughout 2008), went on NY1 recently, on the very night that the commission was holding one of its blink-of-the-eye hearings, and announced the results of the commission before they’d ever so much as taken a vote. After telling us several possible proposals that would not appear on the ballot, he told us that term limits would, and something related to nonpartisan elections.
Wolfson’s words were memorable. The mayor, he said, doesn’t believe in partisan primaries. It was hardly news. Bloomberg changed his registration so he didn’t have to run in a Democratic primary in 2001. Like the Independence Party, he doesn’t like partisan elections because he can’t win them. Of course, he won’t be running in one again in New York, so this is more of nostalgia hate for him than a plan to stack the deck. It’s worth noting — although in the whitest City Hall in modern memory no one may have noticed it — that blacks and Latinos have won every Democratic primary for mayor since 1985 but for one, in 1997, when Al Sharpton, the mayor’s favorite “civil rights leader,” narrowly lost to Ruth Messinger. So eliminating primaries might have a hard time passing muster at the Justice Department, which must pre-clear changes like this.
What is really driving the second Brennan bill is a concern that Bloomberg’s commission might try to package a term limit reduction, which would almost undoubtedly pass, with the abolition of partisan primaries, which might not pass if separated. So the bill, and this is the one that just got out of the senate committee, requires that charter proposals appear on the ballot “as separate proposals to the extent practicable.”
This bill also gives the council new powers. If this commission wants to put anything on the ballot this year, it has to get the majority consent of the council. And if it wants to put anything on the ballot next year (the commission life extends into 2011), it has to abide by a much more publicly accountable hearing schedule and review process, though it won’t require the consent of the council.
I asked Wolfson and Stu Loeser, the mayor’s press secretary, how the administration felt about this bill. All Wolfson did was e-mail back and inaccurately quibble about my minority impact argument involving the elimination of primaries, which suggests how carefully they may be considering it. Though I pressed again about how the administration felt about lumping together proposals like term limits and partisan elections, or how they felt about Brennan’s efforts to require separation, I got no answers.
When Wolfson jumped the gun and predicted what the commission would do, one unidentified member called him a “f—— a——“ (in Daily News parlance).
This thesis will, I predict, be disproved when the commission does precisely what Wolfson anticipated. The commission chair, Matthew Goldstein, who also runs the City University of New York, issued a post-Wolfson-declaration press release that I am sure he genuinely means. He said the independence of the commission is “inviolate.”
Since the mayor’s counsel, Tony Crowell, is a commission member, as well as several others who are mayoral appointees elsewhere, Goldstein, who is a state appointee, may have been projecting. His independence may well be inviolate.
But Mike Bloomberg, the supposed anti-politician, has proven that he can count heads, especially the ones he lines up himself.