Way back in August of 2021, in the basement of a beautiful Bed-Stuy church, I stood in an orderly queue and waited my turn to testify before members of a rare legal creature in New York: a charter revision commission, which is empowered to change the City Charter by designing ballot questions that will be voted on by our city’s residents.
This iteration was called the Racial Justice Commission (RJC), and possessed a mandate from then-mayor Bill de Blasio to root out structural racism in the Charter and, with the help of voters, eliminate it, thus making our city just a little fairer. The RJC had been on a five-borough tour, holding open mics for everyday New Yorkers to make suggestions about how to improve our city’s primary governing document.
That night, I spoke of the Charter’s woefully inadequate provisions concerning the discipline of violent, abusive, and corrupt NYPD officers. Others testified about mental health, housing costs, school funding, and the terrible toll of the pandemic on communities of color. The night had great vibes—we were all just New Yorkers trying to get our voices heard. I met City Comptroller Brad Lander, the cheapest of thrills, and had a long chat with a friendly local who tried to pill me on lefty YouTuber Jimmy Dore. It was fun!
Part of the positive feel came from the commissioners, who were not only respectful but fully engaged. I answered some of their questions about the city’s broken police discipline system, which allows cops to escape punishment even for hideous acts of misconduct (see, for example, Eric Garner’s murderer, Daniel Pantaleo, who stayed on the force for five years after Garner died). Afterward, Ana Bermúdez, RJC member by night and commissioner of the Department of Probation by day, pulled me aside to express her personal concerns about over-policing in city schools. I left thinking that maybe some good could come from this—that maybe it wasn’t just another Democrats-in-kente-cloth messaging exercise.
The RJC listening tour continued, and I pushed the commission from my mind, distracted by the ongoing nightmare-cum-Hype-House that is Eric Adams’s mayoralty. Then, this past August, triggered by the primaries, I realized the election was coming up and the RJC had probably finished its work and released the ballot questions. What had it decided? Was real change afoot in New York City?
No. In fact, all three of the proposed Charter revisions could pass with flying colors and it won’t make a whit of difference in the life of a single New Yorker. The Racial Justice Commission was an embarrassing failure, an empty gesture, and I (and all those people in the church basement that night) should have stayed home and watched TV, Brad Lander included.
It didn’t have to be this way. When Bill de Blasio announced the creation of the RJC in his 2021 State of the City speech, he certainly made it sound like something that could accomplish great things, promising that it would identify structural racism and “lead the way in our nation by speaking openly of the wrongs of the past, naming them, denouncing them, turning away from them, creating new approaches and making them the law.” The RJC itself had promised to “propose structural changes and significant policy reforms” with the goal of “rooting out structural racism.” Big words! Lofty ambitions!
Previous charter commissions have indeed fundamentally remade our city’s laws. The 1988 commission introduced tough conflict-of-interest standards for lawmakers. The 1989 commission increased the size of the City Council from 35 to 51 seats. The 2018 commission made serious changes to city campaign finance law. And, of course, the 2019 commission brought ranked-choice voting to the City of New York.
But this commission punted, and declined to give voters the chance to make real, substantive changes to our city’s laws. Let’s look at the ballot questions, one by insipid one.
First, the RJC proposes to add a “preamble” to the Charter. A preamble, as the RJC admits in its final report, has no legal effect. It does not create any right of action under which a party could sue, or create or modify any other laws. It is a “statement of values”—effectively, a press release and nothing more. As for the content of the proposed preamble, it is the sort of harmless pablum that centrist Democrats love to recite, heavy on social justice buzzwords (“equity” fans, take note) while also being careful not to accidentally create any actual legal rights. For example, it’s wonderful for New York to “endeavor” to provide its residents with “safe, secure, and affordable housing”—but if I can’t sue anyone to make sure it happens, this means nothing. And if you think our city’s terrible racial injustices will be resolved by adding a land acknowledgment to the Charter, do I have a ballot proposal for you.
Second, the RJC proposes to create a new government agency, called the “Office of Racial Equity” (there’s that word again). What would this Office do? Well, after reading the RJC’s report several times, I am still not entirely sure. The report says that it would “create the framework and foundation to allow the City’s equity work to evolve, adapt, and grow out over time,” a daisy chain of verbs saying nothing much. We are told the Office will help city agencies develop “racial equity plans” and gather data (the endless gathering of data at taxpayer expense is huge here), to unclear ends. In a sort of soft-liberal parody of Soviet bureaucracy, the Office of Racial Equity would coordinate with a Commission on Racial Equity (a separate thing) to craft a “Citywide Racial Equity Plan” that, again, does nothing specific. The report spends 17 pages describing a complicated morass of bureaucracy—led by a “CEO,” increasing the corporate feel of all this—whose entire goal, so far as I can tell, is to gather data. Data is good. We love data. But data is not housing people, or stopping police violence, or offering mental health services. And, frankly—we already know the statistics. Why do we need more?
Third, the RJC proposes to mandate that the City measure a so-called “True Cost of Living” as an alternative to the very broken Federal Poverty Line, which has next to no relation to what it actually costs to live in New York City. Here, the RJC is correct that the Federal Poverty Line is effectively useless in such an expensive place to live (according to that threshold, a family of four is not technically impoverished if they make $26,501 a year, the entirety of which would not even pay the rent for a one-bedroom apartment in much of the city). But again, the Commission’s proposal doesn’t actually do anything with this new measure. It’s just another data point, so people can furrow their brows and ponder.
This third proposal is particularly frustrating because the Commission could easily have tied the True Cost of Living measure to City benefits or programs eligibility. To take one example, Chapter 13 of the City’s Administrative Code allows for free lawyers in eviction proceedings … for people who make twice the Federal Poverty Guidelines, and no more. (NYC laws also use the federal guidelines to determine things ranging from legal support for small businesses to fees for people on probation to, somewhat strangely, the distribution of reusable grocery bags.) Why not modify the Charter to require that all references to the Federal Poverty Guidelines instead reference this new True Cost of Living measure? Why not actually do something that helps people?
The Commission’s final ballot questions made me wonder—was I naïve to think that a bunch of de Blasio flunkies with deep and close personal relationships with their appointer/benefactor (the guy who officiated his wedding? Really?), ossified lifetime bureaucrats, and heads of establishment-aligned nonprofits would truly be willing to shake up the status quo? (One example: Commission chair Jennifer Jones Austin also runs the FPWA nonprofit, which enjoyed $440,000 in government funding in 2020, as per their latest financial disclosure. I’d call that a conflict of interest.) So, in retrospect, yes. The chips were stacked against the Commission from the beginning, as nearly all of its members depend on the city’s largesse in one form or another. If Eric Adams didn’t like the Commission’s final product, the commissioners could easily have found themselves shut out of future city employment or grants. From inception, this Commission was designed to fail.
I’m not going to vote for any of the ballot questions. “But they can’t hurt!” Maybe not, but I’m sick of quarter-measures, and I won’t lend any legitimacy to a process designed to mimic the appearance of progress. I don’t want scraps, especially scraps that suck up more taxpayer money without appreciably helping anyone. The people in that basement last August treated this Commission seriously. If only the Commission had done the same for us. ❖
John Teufel is an attorney and freelance writer. His work has been featured in StreetsBlog, The Indypendent, City & State NY, City Limits, and other publications. He successfully sued the City of New York over police disciplinary records, resulting in those records being made public for the first time. He is on Twitter at @JohnTeufelNYC.
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