By Henry J. Stern
November 4, 2008
We waited a day before commenting on the Mayor’s hearing on the Term Limits Extension Act of 2008, in which the two public referenda that first established and then upheld an eight-year term limit for elected city officials were officially put to rest.
The matter now goes to the courts and the Justice Department, and there are valid grounds to challenge the law. There is a feeling, however, that the city may prevail. Just as the Federal government finds some companies too large to fail, the courts may find that some laws, although manifestly contrary to the will of the electors and the spirit of the Charter, are too important for them to upset.
If they believe that the prosperity and economic recovery of New York City depend on the availability of one talented individual, they may conclude pragmatically that the fate of the city is more important than the niceties of legislative intent, popular sentiment, or conflict of interest.
The bizarre hearing conducted yesterday in the Blue Room stood in stark contrast to the hundreds of public hearings held routinely over the years. After the council has passed a bill the mayor holds a hearing and either signs or vetoes it. The differences between this and other hearings were as much a part of the diminution of democracy as the legislation itself.
Monday, November 3
For one thing, although hundreds of people arrived at City Hall, as widely predicted, to testify or to listen to the proceedings, the hearing was held in the Blue Room, which seats about seventy people. The two front rows are reserved for journalists, as is customary at press conferences, and mayoral and councilmanic aides were present. That left very few seats for the public. We arrived at 8:05 a.m. for a hearing scheduled to begin at 9:30, and were not able to obtain seats in the Blue Room.
In an unprecedented procedure, the witnesses were called from a long line waiting in the hallway to the Blue Room in batches of three. Nobody could hear other speakers' testimony, which, to the best of our knowledge, has never happened before. After people spoke, they were requested to depart. The experience resembled giving testimony before a grand jury. No witness outside the room could hear what was said. The proceedings were, however, aired live on New York One, which was a distinct public service. If someone had placed a television set facing the line of people waiting to speak, that would have been helpful.
Thursday, October 16
It is clear to us, and probably clear to those who organized the hearings, that the hearings should have been held in a large room. The first choice would be the city council chamber on the second floor of City Hall. That was the site of the first hearing, held by Simcha Felder’s committee on October 16. At that hearing, the capacity of the room was deliberately diminished by the placement of about sixty people from Brooklyn who came early and sat down in a solid mass in the first five rows. They had no intention of testifying. When Post reporter David Seifman leaned over the crowd with a small microphone, and asked if anyone wanted to say anything about term limits, no one responded.
According to Tom Robbins of the Village Voice, these people, who seemed to have no interest in or familiarity with the subject of the hearing, were paid for their appearance. They certainly did not appear to have filled up all those rows, taking every seat like schoolchildren in a class, because of their concern with term limits. The effect of the massive presence of the silent was to exclude from the room people who wanted to testify, or to watch the proceedings. There was a Nixonian quality to the maneuver.
Friday, October 17
The arrangements for Friday’s hearing were even worse than those for Thursday. The Council chamber was occupied by a hearing on the proposed development of Willets Point, but that event should have been moved to another day or another place since the term limits hearing was scheduled weeks ago. The term limits hearing was held in the Council’s Committee Room, in the southeast corner of the second floor of City Hall. This room has even less seating for the public than the Blue Room. Most of the space is occupied by a horseshoe table behind which the Councilmembers sit, and there are a couple of dozen seats available for the press and public.
To hold a hearing on a matter of great public interest in such a small room is an utter travesty of fairness. The room was so tiny it was unnecessary to have the army of the silent occupy seats to exclude anyone. People who wanted to attend lined up on Park Row, outside the fencing that surround City Hall, unable to gain entry because there was no space. To call this a public hearing is pathetic. The words ‘banana republic’ and ‘third world’ have been applied to the proceedings by other writers and speakers. Those phrases may be too generous to describe what actually took place.
Of course, it would have made no difference in the result if the hearings had been held in Madison Square Garden, because the result was preordained. The mayor signed the bill at 2 p.m. yesterday, as soon as the last witness had been heard. There is nothing wrong with his promptness; since the bill was introduced at his request. It enables him to seek a third term in 2009 without the referendum that would be necessary under the existing charter. It also covers 51 hungry Councilmembers, who would receive a last minute reprieve from having to earn a living in the private sector.
What was particularly sad in all three hearings was the treatment of the witnesses like cattle, and the consequent degradation of the hearing process. But that was almost appropriate, considering that the bill being considered was drafted to overrule the Charter, the referenda and the million votes that had been cast for an eight-year term limit. If the proceedings demonstrated , it was the need for strict term limits to control the hubris of incumbents. These limits should be adopted by the voters and made immune under the Charter to revocation by self-interested public officials.
It is absolutely ridiculous to have a law controlling certain behavior, while giving the very people whose behavior is supposed to be controlled carte blanche to repeal that law to suit their personal interests. No one could have intended that to be the result, certainly not the million who voted to establish and then defend the eight-year limit. That is the issue on which the Court of Appeals should make its judgment.
The Press Covers the Hearings, with Some Skepticism
The issue generated intense press coverage. It demonstrated that the reporters and columnists were not cowed by their publishers, who also deserve credit for not imposing their will on their perceptive and gifted employees.
The Times' news story by Michael Barbaro and Fernanda Santos began on A1 and jumped to A29. It was headed BLOOMBERG GETS HIS BILL, AND A PUBLIC EARFUL. The lede: "At times, he slouched in his chair, crossing his arms, then uncrossing them. His eyes darted around the room, sometimes settling on the clock. He fidgeted.
"The body language was not difficult to read: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was uncomfortable."
The Times also ran a column by master stylist Clyde Haberman on pA29 under the head, WITH A PEN STROKE, BLOOMBERG SIGNS A TERM LIMITS BILL AND GAINS A MONIKER.
The lede: "People are understandably worried about the possibility that many votes will effectively be nullified on Tuesday. The ballot process is so dysfunctional in so many places that they are unworthy of some third-world countries whose elections I've covered.
" New York has little to brag about. No less than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has hopped up and down about the state of preparedness at the city's Board of Elections. The other day he called it 'an outrage' and 'a joke', though some accuse the mayor of not having done nearly enough to jawbone (and finance) the board toward a hhigher road.
"But even if things go horribly wrong on Tuesday, it is worth bearing in mind that no one in New York has done more to nullify votes than Mr. Bloomberg himself. He may reasonably be called the Great Nullifier."
The Post ran David Seifman's story on p14. The head: HARSH 'TERMS' FOR MIKE AS HE INKS BID. The lede: "After four hours of intense public testimony during which he heard himself called more names than in his entire seven years at City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg yesterday signed a controversial bill extending term limits from eight to twelve years."
The Daily News devoted all of p9 to the story, written by Adam Lisberg. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT AND NOT: Mike Inks Bill After Hearing Out Fans, Foes.
The lede: Mayor Bloomberg signed the law yesterday allowing him to run for a third term in office, after listening to 137 New Yorkers give him a piece of their mind. For more than four hours, Bloomberg sat impassively as people alternately praised or pilloried him."
In another story, FOUR HOURS OF CHEERS AND JEERS, The News quoted six New Yorkers, including this blogger, on the subject. What he said was: "Even a good mayor and a noble mayor cannot supersede or contravene democracy, just because there may be a legal loophole in the City Charter. Democracy is more important than any person, and that's the thing we're here to try to maintain."
Newsday, on p18, headlined Michael Frazier's story BLOOMBERG SIGNS TERM LIMITS BILL. The lede quoted the mayor: "There's no easy answer and nobody is irreplaceable," Bloomberg said before moving his pen. "I just think three terms makes more sense than two."
The colossal irony in all this, and we have said it before, is that the current officials are only there because term limits excluded their predecessors from running in 2001. It is the very beneficiaries of this reform who are trying to kill it when in affects them adversely. It is no wonder that 89% of the public opposes what the Council is doing, while only 7% support it. (Quinnipiac poll)
There are, however, arguments to be made for the other side, and we will discuss them tomorrow. Despite the flight from fairness and due process, there are some who say that public necessity demands this bill be passed, and that we are fortunate to have public officials willing to make the sacrifice of serving a third term. That has an element of truth as regards the Mayor. As it applies to the City Council, however, it is an unfunny joke.