NOTE: This begins our coverage of the Charter Revision Commission. The CRC could be an important group whose work will benefit the city. Or it could be a washout.
We will approach the Charter with the intention of making the hearings reasonably interesting for you to read about. The subject lacks the corruption endemic to the state Legislature, and the hypocrisy that often accompanies political campaigns. Ultimately, whatever the Commission recommends must be approved by the voters to take effect, although the City Council has had no compunction in overruling the electorate to suit its own political purposes.
Nonetheless, like the Spring, the new Commission represents a bright hope. It contains bright, talented and public spirited New Yorkers, and a highly competent and nonpolitical professional staff. We hope that partisan politics and minor disputes do not defeat a serious effort at reform.
We start by a partial snapshot of yesterdays meeting. Extraneous details have been added in an effort to provide atmosphere, which is often lacking at public meetings held to discuss a variety of subjects.
One specific piece of advice: Rule 29-E: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." In this case, don't put all your proposals into a single question for the voters to decide.
To Study City Charter,
To Go To Referendum
By Henry J. Stern
April 7, 2010
Last night the newly-appointed Charter Revision Commission held its first public hearing of the year, in the CUNY graduate center located in the old B. Altman department store, which closed in 1989. The building, which occupies the full block from 34th to 35th Street and from Fifth to Madison Avenue, is also home to the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1985, twenty-five years ago.
The hearing was held in the Proshansky Auditorium, a large public space which is located one to two floors below street level. It was named not for a donor but for Dr. Harold M. Proshansky, president of the Graduate Center for eighteen years, who died in 1990. The sloping meeting hall and performance space has 389 seats. The building itself is catty-corner from the Empire State Building, opened in 1931 on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which was demolished before the city's Landmarks Law was adopted in 1965, after the unfortunate demolition of the classical Pennsylvania Station.
So much for the venue and its history. Last night's hearing was chaired by Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University. Goldstein was appointed Chancellor in 1999 and had previously been president of Baruch and Adelphi Colleges. He is highly regarded for raising academic standards and securing private and public funding for CUNY. Mayor Bloomberg appointed him to chair the Charter Revision Commission on March 3, although the story had leaked weeks before.
The Commission itself consists of fifteen members. In naming a group of citizens for a task like this, there is generally a conscious effort to secure geographic, gender, racial and religious balance. There is a premium placed on twofers or threefers, individuals who provide diversity in several categories at once. The men and women at the table come from a variety of backgrounds, and all appear to be people of ability. The necessary diversity is intended to show fairness and to build support for whatever recommendations the Commission may make. In a city of immigrants, it is a matter of common sense.
The members of the Commission are Matthew Goldstein, John H. Banks, Angela Mariana Freyre, Anthony Perez Cassino, Betty Y. Chen, David Chen, Hope Cohen, Anthony Crowell, Stephen Fiala, Ernest Hart, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., Kenneth M. Moltner, Kathryn Patterson, Carlo Scissura, and Mitchell G. Taylor. You can read brief biographies of the chair and the members here, taken from the mayors announcement of their appointment.
The key staff members will be Lorna Goodman (Executive Director), Rick Schaffer (Counsel), Joseph Viteritti (Research Coordinator), Jeffrey Friedlander (Special Advisor), Lisa Grumet (Liaison for the Law Department), and Lisa Opal Jones (Administrator). Ms. Goodman was County Attorney for Nassau during the administration of County Executive Tom Suozzi. She previously worked 25 years in the Corporation Counsel's office. Mr. Schaffer is Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs and General Counsel of the City University of New York. He will not receive compensation for his service to the Commission.
In his opening statement, Chancellor Goldstein said he wanted to encourage broad public participation in the process of charter revision. He promised that every speaker who appeared at the public hearing would be heard, although speakers other than public officials were limited to three minutes. They were invited to submit written statements if they wished to extend their remarks.
Technology will be used that was not yet universal at the time of the most recent Charter Revision Commission, which was chaired by Columbia University Professor Ester Fuchs in 2005. Meeting notices will be posted on the Commission's website, www.nyc.gov/charter in five languages: Chinese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and English. Transcripts of the Commission's hearings may be read, in English, on its website, or linked to on Facebook and Twitter.
Two elected officials attended, and were invited to speak first. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio expressed hope for the success of the commission, and mentioned issues he wanted them to consider. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer took a more critical view, saying that the meeting had not been sufficiently publicized and there were empty seats in the auditorium. Both de Blasio and Stringer are considered mayoral candidates in 2013. This year is the first leg of a four-lap race to City Hall. Others, including Congressman Anthony Weiner, are expected to enter the race, which it is too early to handicap..
It is also premature to comment on the Commission's entire agenda, but one issue that generated enormous attention last year was term limits. A referendum in 1993 established an eight-year limit for elected city officials, and that section survived a 1996 referendum in which an extension to twelve years was proposed. It was generally assumed that the referenda established the law, but in the fall of 2008, Mayor Bloomberg proposed and the City Council adopted, 29-22, a charter amendment extending term limits.
The Charter provides that most sections dealing with election of city officials cannot be amended by local law, but require a referendum. The term-limit section, added by referendum, did not carry that particular provision (or poison pill). As a result, the courts upheld the Council law, and the council members voted themselves eligibility for a third term, to which most were elected although five were defeated, an unusually high number.
Whatever term limit is agreed upon by the Commission and the voters, it is a matter of simple fairness that such limit should only be changed by a referendum, not by local law adopted by the people directly affected by the change.
For example, the Council is specifically prohibited from lengthening the terms of its members. The extension of eligibility, clearly contrary to the wishes of the voters as expressed in referendum, escaped the barrier that was part of similar limitations in the Charter. This was an oversight by Ronald Lauder's lawyers. It shows how a relatively small mistake can change the course of history.
This point is believed by many to have been made by King Richard III, who cried out in battle at Bosworth field, in 1485, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." That quote comes from Act V Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's 1591 docudrama about the monarch's life (although it was not referred to as a docudrama at the time). We have in mind a longer proverb that expresses the same idea. The late Plantaganet monarch did not utter it, perhaps he had no time to do so during the furious battle.
The saying, of which variants trace back to the fourteenth century, has been recounted as:
"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."
I predict that considerable blogging will be involved with the ideas which will be presented to and discussed by the Commission. This will be the first Commission to operate in the world of cyberspace, and New Yorkers will want to express their feelings in a medium where others can read what they have to say.
The first post today came in at 2:35 p.m. It appears in the New York Times City Room blog, and was written by David W. Chen. He is not the David Chen who is a member of the Commission. We note that David, usually a Jewish Christian name (as compared with a surname) is now being more widely used in this great city. You can link to the Chen blog here.
The City Charter is an important document. We intend to follow the Commission. At the very least, it will take us temporarily out of the sewers of Albany.
Cum spiro, spero.
StarQuest #659 04.07.2010 1535wds