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Originally Published: June 30, 2010

Calls for increasing avenues for participation in both elections and governing in a diverse and large city

Supports strong mayoralty while recommending expanded role for City Council and preserving offices of the public advocate and borough presidents

Supports opening up elections to all eligible voters by proposing “top two” election system similar to one recently approved in California

Calls for independent budgeting for the public advocate, borough presidents, community boards and the conflicts of interest board (COIB)

Citizens Union released its report for city charter revision today outlining 50 specific issues to improve the form and function of city government. The report essentially articulates that city charter changes made twenty years ago, in which a strong mayoralty was created, helped contribute to the city’s resurgence in the past twenty years, but suggests that additional reforms are needed to boost access to government decision making and participation in elections in what is an increasingly diverse city. The report, its findings, and recommendations have been provided to the current city charter commission. It is our hope the report will help guide the commission in its continued deliberations of what to consider changing in the charter.

“A more powerful Office of the Mayor as created by the 1989 Charter Commission, along with the good fortune of strong executive leadership, is responsible for making the city governable again,” said Dick Dadey, Citizens Union’s Executive Director. “However, reforms in both government structure and function are needed to help New Yorkers and their elected officials participate more fully in the elections and governmental decision-making in a city as large and diverse as New York.”

Peter Sherwin, Chair of Citizens Union, said “This report represents a six-month process of review, evaluation and decision-making by a broad array of Citizens Union members who are politically diverse in their views, but who came together in support of finding the common ground necessary to make thoughtful and meaningful recommendations to the city of New York on how we can improve our city charter. We were guided by five major objectives – 1) ensure checks & balances, 2) open elections, 3) strengthen accountability, 4) ensure integrity, and 5) increase transparency.”

In order to ensure all voices are heard on the many important issues facing the city, Citizens Union is calling for the preservation of, and expanded roles and independent budgeting for, the office of the public advocate, the borough presidents’ offices, and community boards. A funding formula removed from the budget negotiations of the City Council and the Mayor will allow these elected offices to have a more independent voice representing their communities and constituencies while providing greater stability in planning to fulfill their charter-mandated responsibilities.

Citizens Union also supports granting greater authority and responsibility to the City Council in the budget decision making process by requiring the city to more narrowly define a “program” and provide for smaller units of appropriation. It supports requiring the mayor to issue a final non-property revenue projection prior to the start of council hearings on the executive budget allowing for more integrity in the budget negotiating process.

Citizens Union is recommending that its election system be changed and opened up to all registered voters. It is proposing that New York adopt a Top-Two election system, like that recently approved by referendum in California, which will permit all party registrants and unaffiliated voters to vote in the first round for candidates of any party or none at all. The top two candidates would advance to the general election in November to determine the victor. This will allow for a greater number of New Yorkers to vote in the most determinative election and create greater competition and choice during for the November general election. It will provide that the voice of the 1.5 million voters, who are now effectively shut out from choosing many of the city’s elected officials because they are not affiliated with the Democratic party that effectively determines the vast majority of the city’s elected officials in a closed partisan primary, is heard.

“Non partisan elections exist in the vast majority of municipalities throughout the nation,” said John Avlon, Citizens Union’s Charter Task Force Chair. “Top-Two will allow for the retention of party affiliation at the discretion of candidates while opening up the process to all voters. Increasing voter eligibility is essential in a city that is effectively electing officials in closed partisan primaries where the proportion of registered voters is as low as 5 percent. This is a serious concern to Citizens Union, and should trouble anyone concerned about the vitality of our local democracy. Our remedy is this reform – we can increase voter participation and politicians’ accountability by opening up New York City’s election process.”

Citizens Union recognizes that other reforms which it has long supported may also enhance voter participation but Top-Two is the best available charter revision option to maximize voter participation given the legal ambiguity and operational complexity surrounding other reforms that would ideally be addressed by state government.

Citizens Union also supports reforms that will improve integrity and bolster the public’s faith in city government. Citizens Union is backing the continuation of term limits for council members of three four-year terms, and for citywide officials, two four-year terms. We also want to see the charter changed to require that any city council charter amendment that would alter or appeal a voter-initiated referenda be returned to the voters for approval or disapproval.

Citizens Union recommends codifying into the city charter the reforms to discretionary funding made by the Council in recent years, in addition to ensuring that member items are divided equally among its 51 members. The organization is calling for the banning of lulus for all council members except council leadership, greater disclosure for income outside the council, and a prospective effective date after the next election for changes in council salary.

Citizens Union also supports changing the composition of the Conflicts of Interest Board to include appointments from elected officials other than the mayor to foster greater confidence in the rulings it makes, and giving it an independent budget as well since its funding is subject to the decisions made by the same elected officials over whom they jurisdiction. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) should also gain the ability to prosecute substantiated cases of police misconduct while the Commission to Combat Police Corruption be made permanent.

Regarding land use, Citizens Union is suggesting the Charter Revision Commission take a longer look at this complex issue, and is requesting its reconvening to put forth proposals in 2012 that address the disconnect between entities charged with different forms of long-term planning. However, measures can be taken this year to address fair share provisions, enable community boards to hire urban planners so they can provide meaningful advice on land use issues, and add appointments to the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) and the Franchise and Concessions and Review Committee (FCRC) to ensure all voices are heard on the important issues these bodies weigh in on. Citizens Union also calls on the City Planning Commission to pay heed to 197-a plans submitted by community boards, and provide an explanation when development is in conflict with proposals put forth by city communities.

Citizens Union also feels there is a need to create different operational structures that should result in improved performance that will benefit New York City. To that end, lobbying reporting and enforcement should be moved to the Campaign Finance Board, as should the Voter Assistance Commission.

Alex Camarda, Citizens Union’s Director of Public Policy and Advocacy said “CU believes that a reconfigured and renamed Campaign Finance Board overseeing lobbying and campaign finance, as well as facilitating voter registration, education, and turnout, will serve the city better than the disparate division of these functions currently.”

The suggestions put before the Commission are many, and the decisions to be made by the Commission and the voters are important to the continued success of our city. Because these decisions are so important, Citizens Union believes that the Commission should not put all that it seeks to accomplish before the voters in 2010. Rather, it should focus on what is needed now and postpone other matters so that they can receive greater public review and consideration in time for their inclusion on the 2012 ballot. We feel that the off-cycle 2011 election, where only judgeships will be on the ballot, will have too low a turnout to present Charter proposals to a sufficiently large enough number of New Yorkers.

Citizens Union arrived at these and other recommendations included in its report through a deliberative process involving numerous meetings and discussions of its members, its Municipal Affairs Committee, a specially convened City Charter Task Force, and its Board of Directors. It heard from elected officials, former Charter Commission members and directors, agency heads, and advocacy groups while attending every public forum and nearly all issue forums of the Charter Revision Commission itself.

Read the Full Report

Read the Executive Summary

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