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Originally Published: October 27, 2010

Recommendations on ballot questions are part of historic Good Government Group’s 100th anniversary voters directory now available online along with candidate questionnaires

Opposes question #1 reducing the term limits of city elected officials to two terms

Supports a “yes” vote on question #2 requiring disclosure of independent campaign expenditures and easing access to the ballot for candidates

Citizens Union today announced that it opposes ballot question #1 reducing from three to two the number of consecutive terms city elected officials may serve and supports question #2 which would reform seven areas of city governance including campaign finance disclosure and ballot access, which Citizens Union believes are generally beneficial to the administration of the City. The ballot questions and Citizens Union’s recommendations related to them are in are in our 100th anniversary comprehensive Voters Directory now available online along with our evaluation of the candidates and access to their questionnaire responses.

In releasing its report on charter revision this past June, Increasing Avenues for Participation in Governing and Elections, Citizens Union ended its historic opposition to term limits and recommended that a limit of three, four-year consecutive terms be established for the city council and a limit of two, four-year consecutive terms be established for the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and borough presidents. Citizens Union believes this is the best approach for effective governance of the city, striking the appropriate balance of power between the executive branch and council. It also recognizes the benefits term limits has had in producing a more diverse council and injecting new energy and ideas, but believes a three-term limit offsets the loss of institutional memory and experience that comes with a two-term limit. Citizens Union believes that the negative effects of question #1 that come from limiting council members to two terms outweigh any benefits from limiting the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and borough presidents to two terms.

“Citizens Union recommends that voters retain the current limit of three terms on city elected officials by voting ‘No’ on question #1,” said Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union. “While Citizens Union and other New Yorkers were rightly opposed to the way in which term limits were changed in 2008 without the voters’ consent, reducing the limit on terms from three to two will harm city governance by limiting the power of the city council. Our position should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the Mayor and Council’s legislative end run around the voters in 2008 which Citizens Union opposed, but rather simply a preference for three terms.”

In explaining Citizens Union’s position, Dadey further said, “A council with members limited to two rather than three terms will have less experience with the budget process, less expertise with the myriad of issues they must address, and less familiarity with the committees they serve on and the legislative process they must navigate. As we saw during the period from 2002 to 2008, too many councilmembers were jockeying with one another for position and recognition as they set their sights on the next higher office instead of doing their day jobs. Consequently, we believe New Yorkers would be better served by councilmembers holding office for up to twelve years as opposed to just eight.”

Citizens Union also believes that council members limited to two terms will rely more on unelected staff and lobbyists to get up to speed on issues related to the budget or in deciding on how to vote on bills. A two-term limit also ensures the council speaker will be less seasoned, which will undermine the speaker’s ability to lead the legislative body. A two-term limit creates rapid turnover among members, thereby diminishing stability and continuity of the lawmaking body.

“Citizens Union believes that voters should consider the long-term impact of term limits on the institutions affected rather than cast their vote based on old political battles,” said Alex Camarda, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy. “It’s important for voters to know that the proposal on the ballot does not impact elected officials now in office who voted to extend term limits. All sitting members will be allowed to potentially serve up to three consecutive four-year terms even if New Yorkers vote yes on this question.”

In addition to term limits, voters will also weigh in on ballot question #2, with which they will likely be much less familiar. Question #2 would reform seven different matters ranging from streamlining government to eliminate unneeded government reports and advisory committees to consolidating adjudicatory tribunals. Other proposals will improve ethics training and increase fines for those violating ity conflict of interest laws, including the disgorgement of funds obtained from violations.

In its report on charter revision, Increasing Avenues for Participation in Governing and Elections, Citizens Union put forth several similar proposals to those that are included in ballot question #2. Therefore, Citizens Union recommends a “yes” vote on ballot question #2. Citizens Union’s proposals included the disclosure of independent campaign spending, enhancing ballot access by reducing the number of petition signatures needed by candidates to appear on the ballot, merging the Voter Assistance Commission into the Campaign Finance Board, and including all polluting/infrastructure facilities in the Atlas of City-Owned Property, not just those properties owned by the City.

“Question #2 is a catch-all proposal for voters to consider,” noted John Avlon, Chair of Citizens Union’s Charter Revision Task Force, “but it does contain some important reforms aligned with Citizens Union’s core principles of honest, open, and accountable government. The proposal requiring the disclosure of independent campaign expenditures will increase transparency, giving voters necessary information about who is behind advertisements and other campaign spending by third parties in support or opposition of candidates for office. Voters should know who is paying for information they receive about candidates so they can cast informed votes, and not be intimidated by negative special interest campaigns. The proposal halving the number of signatures needed for candidates to get on the ballot will responsibly reduce the barrier to entry, resulting in more candidates running for office, more choice for voters, and the increased competition will help to ensure accountability among elected officials.”

While we encourage a “yes” vote on question #2, Citizens Union believes the question should have been divided into separate ones to allow voters to make more distinct choices on the many proposals presented.

The questions on the ballot are the result of the work of the City Charter Revision Commission convened by Mayor Bloomberg on March 3, 2010 which was charged with evaluating and making recommendations for changing the City Charter. Citizens Union, named by the Mayor as a resource to the Commission, issued its report, Increasing Avenues for Participation in Governing and Elections, recommending 50 changes to city governance that while maintaining a strong mayoralty, would enhance citizens’ participation and engagement in government. Major proposals included ending party primaries and establishing a top-two election system, providing independent budgets for the public advocate, borough presidents, community boards, and conflicts of interest board, and changing the membership composition of city bodies to allow for more diversity of opinion. The report was the culmination of an extensive comprehensive review of the charter by Citizens Union led by Board member John Avlon, who oversaw the work of Citizens Union’s standing Municipal Affairs Committee and a special Charter Revision Task Force consisting of members steeped in city governance including members of previous City Charter Revision Commissions.

“Citizens Union engaged in a comprehensive review of the city’s charter in just a few months that framed its proposals around the central belief that a strong mayoralty had made the city better in the last two decades, but further reforms could improve checks and balances in our increasingly diverse city, resulting in more effective policy and constructive engagement of the citizenry,” said Avlon. “Citizens Union is disappointed the Commission did not complete a thorough review of the charter, even though we put forth some proposals worthy of implementation.”

The actual wording for charter revision ballot questions #1 and #2 is available on Citizens Union website, along with its endorsements for comptroller, attorney general, and 13 state legislative races in New York City in its 2010 General Election Voters Directory, available in both print pdf and online versions. Both versions of the 2010 General Election Voters Directory include an account of the interviews Citizens Union conducted with candidates running for office, written answers to Citizens Union’s candidate questionnaires regarding specific issues like redistricting and budget reforms, and a grid charting responses from all candidates on issues facing the state for easy comparison. The 100th year anniversary of the Voters Directory also features a look back at previous years’ covers and pages capturing the political flavor of the time.

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