|The Email Newsletter of Citizens Union
and Citizens Union Foundation
April – May 2007
|Engaging New Yorkers to Reform Government||Vol. 2, Issue 1|
IN THIS ISSUE
About Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation
Citizens Union of the City of New York is an independent, non-partisan force dedicated to promoting good government and political reform in the city and state of New York. For more than a century, Citizens Union has served as a watchdog for the public interest and an advocate for the common good. We work to ensure fair elections, clean campaigns, and open, effective government that is accountable to the citizens of New York. We do so by informing the policy debate and influencing the policy outcomes that affect the lives of all New Yorkers. Believing that an informed citizenry is the cornerstone of a thriving local democracy, Citizens Union Foundation – the non profit research, education, and advocacy organization affiliated with CU – publishes Gotham Gazette, a front row seat to New York City policies and politics.
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Next month is our annual meeting of Citizens Union Members, and I hope you will join us on Tuesday, June 12 to hear Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff talk about the City’s thought provoking and visionary PlanNYC. Details are found further in the newsletter.
Reform issues take center stage in Albany now that the state’s budget has been decided. With our good government partners, Citizens Union last month held an historic statewide lobby day at the State Capitol. After several months of discussions and meetings with the Governor’s office on issues ranging from redistricting, campaign finance, elections, and judicial selection, the Governor has offered up a number of specific proposals on long sought reforms of state government creating an environment of hope and expectation that significant reform can and will be accomplished over the next few months and years.
As the length of this newsletter shows, the pace of activity is quickening both in NYC and Albany, and our hope is that this bodes well for significant improvements in the area of reform.
This newsletter also marks the one year anniversary since we started producing and sending to you the REFORMER, our monthly e-newsletter. We hope over the past year that you have enjoyed our updates and that this regular communication has provided an opportunity to learn more about CU, its work, and its connection to improving the civic life of our city and state.
We couldn’t do what we do in fighting for good government or advancing political reform without the support of so many of our CU members and CUF contributors. I thank our many loyal and valued members who have long supported CU and its work.
If your support has recently lapsed, I hope that you will take this opportunity to renew your important membership by going to our membership page. We really need your support to be able to respond effectively to the many opportunities to bring about reform. THANKS!
To learn about some of these issues, please read on.
CU Chair Richard J. Davis responds to a reporter’s question at our Candidate Accountability Project announcement. Looking on is Dick Dadey and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had just graded himself on his performance as Mayor.
On the occasion of Mayor Bloomberg’s most recent self-evaluation, Citizens Union’s Chair Richard J. Davis and Executive Director Dick Dadey announced a new initiative to increase accountability in the actions of our state and city elected officials. Citizens Union is calling upon these officials to provide voters periodic self-evaluations of how they have performed in office against the promises they made during their campaigns for office. As part of its Candidate Accountability Project, Citizens Union will ask these officials to provide evidence of the self-evaluation they conducted. We believe that these self evaluations will serve as an effective tool in bringing greater integrity to the actions of elected officials and go a long way toward building stronger public trust in the affairs of government. Click here for Citizens Union’s statement.
In the first week of May, the Mayor signed legislation passed by the Council amending the lobbying law to protect the privacy of registered lobbyists. The previous law required lobbyists to report the name, home and business address of their spouses or domestic partners and of their unemancipated children — only if that child made a campaign contribution — on their statement of registration or at the time of the child’s contribution. In order to strengthen lobbyists’ privacy, this information will now no longer be publicly disclosed. However, the information will be shared with the Campaign Finance Board solely to ensure compliance with the city’s campaign finance regulations that were passed last year to limit contributions from lobbyists and their immediate family to $250. Several advocacy organizations, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood raised concerns about the protection of privacy rights of lobbyists and the bill was strengthened along the way to partially address their understandable concerns. With the enactment of this new law, it will be imperative for the City Clerk and the Campaign Finance Board to ensure this new privacy through adequate internal safeguards.
One hundred twenty-five citizen reformers representing over a dozen good government and civic groups from across the state joined together in Albany on April 23rd to urge the Governor and the Legislature to pass a series of comprehensive reform legislation. The coalition groups participated in a “Sweep Albany Clean” rally outside the Capitol to demonstrate their support for campaign finance reform, independent redistricting, and reform of legislative rules before hearing from and questioning several of the state’s top leaders. Keynote speaker Governor Eliot Spitzer spoke to the crowd about his current efforts to advance a constitutional amendment reforming the redistricting process, and negotiate a deal on campaign finance reform. Other speakers included Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver, Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assemblymembers Mike Gianaris and Richard Brodsky.
Hopes had run high that day that an historic agreement on campaign finance reform would be reached among the state’s leaders while reformers were still in Albany. When negotiations broke down and the deal never materialized, CU with its good government colleagues joined the Governor at his news conference to once again make the case that reform was long overdue in limiting the influence of money in politics.
In recent weeks, Governor Eliot Spitzer has stepped up his effort and thrown his weight behind a movement to overhaul the way campaigns are funded in the state. As mentioned above, in a speech at Reform NY Day, co-sponsored by Citizen Union, Spitzer outlined a proposal and called on both houses of the state legislature to pass it this legislative session to strengthen the state’s weak finance laws. Spitzer’s calls for consensus around several issues has not been met with enthusiasm by the State Senate, specifically Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who has stated his opposition to several elements of Spitzer’s plan. Most notable among Spitzer’s proposals are efforts to close the loopholes that allow wealthy donors to funnel an unlimited amount of campaign cash through corporate entities (subsidiaries or LLC’s) that are often formed solely to serve as vehicles to contribute to the coffers of candidates for office. Though the Assembly has argued historically that any limits in campaign contributions should be accompanied by public financing, it is close to supporting Spitzer’s interim step of reforming the current system before introducing a more comprehensive public financing package-a measure they have championed and good government advocates have long supported.
Spitzer’s proposal would:
a. Dramatically lower individual contribution limits to candidates, parties, and PACS;
b. Close the loopholes that allow corporations to donate large amounts through subsidiaries and LLCs;
c. Increase reporting and disclosure requirements, most importantly for lobbyists that “bundle” campaign contributions;
d. Provide the Board of Elections with the funding and authority necessary to investigate and punish violators;
e. Increase fines for those that violate campaign finance laws; and
f. Expand the State Board of Elections to include a fifth commissioner to offset the partisan gridlock that is a function of the two party structure of governance.
Citizens Union and its good government colleagues met with the Governor this week and attended a news conference in which a six week campaign was announced to press for passage of campaign finance reform legislation. CU is planning to get on the record the views of all state legislators on the specific issues of campaign finance as outlined in the statement it issued at the news conference.
Governor Spitzer announced his plans to introduce three major electoral reforms. Spitzer said of the proposals, “Legislation of this kind is long overdue and is a critical component of my larger reform agenda aimed at increasing government accountability and openness.” We couldn’t agree more.
The program bills reform three areas of the electoral process:
There are many elements that CU likes about the proposal, but they are too numerous to outline. The top three are:
a. A constitutional amendment would replace the current system where legislators propose new boundaries for legislative and congressional districts with an independent redistricting commission.
b. This new commission would have eleven members, eight of whom would be appointed by the legislative leaders and three of whom would be selected by the initial eight members and approved by the Governor.
c. The independent commission finalizes the redistricting plans, instead of the current system where the legislature approves its own district lines.
2. Voter Registration. A pair of bills would make it easier for New Yorkers to register to vote. The first would amend the state constitution to remove the requirement that registrations form be received 10 days prior to an election. The second would detail in legislation how the state would implement election day voter registration.
3. Election Administration and Ballot Access. A multi-faceted bill would:
a. Require all polling places across the state to be open from 6am to 9pm for election days.
b. Cut in half the sometimes onerous signature requirements for candidates trying to get on the ballot.
c. Set simpler requirements for petition forms.
d. Streamline ballot access for presidential candidates who qualify for federal matching funds under the Presidential Campaign Fund Act.
e. Eliminate the need for voters to disclose any details of vacation, illness or other reasons for requesting an absentee ballot.
f. Designate voter registration and votes cast as “confidential election information” and establish penalties for stealing, altering or destroying such information.
In the governor’s press release about these historic proposals, Citizens Union’s Dick Dadey was quoted as saying, “By seeking to expand access to the ballot and end gerrymandering, the Governor and Lt. Governor have wisely shown how New York State can encourage greater voter participation and more fair and competitive elections. For too long, New York’s election laws have systematically denied New Yorkers greater opportunity and choice when casting their votes and made it too difficult for candidates to gain access to the ballot. The citizens of New York deserve a more robust and open democratic process where the broader public interest trumps the narrow self interests that have guided past elections, and they get that with these important proposals.”
In the closing days of April, Governor Spitzer announced several reforms to modernize the state’s court system, significantly limit the influence of money and closed-door politics in the selection of state court judges, and enact an overdue salary increase for state judges.
Constitutional Amendment to Restructure Court System
Governor Spitzer’s proposal stems from the work of the Special Commission on the Future of New York State Courts created in 2006 by Chief Judge Judith Kaye and supported by Citizens Union and other judicial reform advocates. Key elements of Governor Spitzer’s proposed court restructuring reforms include:
a. Consolidating the state’s numerous major trial courts into a simple two-tier structure of a Supreme Court and a state-wide network of District Courts, thus eliminating the multiplicity of cases and parallel proceedings in different courts, and making it easier and more cost effective for litigants to navigate the court system;
b. Dividing the newly merged Supreme Court into six divisions -Family, Probate, Criminal, State Claims, Commercial and General – to maintain the specialization of judges while ensuring flexibility for judges to move to or hear cases in other divisions.
c. Eliminating the constitutional limit on the number of Supreme Court Justices to allow the Supreme Court to keep in step with its caseload in a permanent and practical manner;
d. Creating a Fifth Judicial Department of the Appellate Division to reduce the appellate caseload in the state, and
e. Allowing the Legislature to adjust the number or boundaries of the judicial departments once every ten years to allow for flexibility in the appellate system.
Spitzer claims the proposed legislation is projected to save $59 million in the court system’s annual budget and $443 million annually for businesses, municipalities, state agencies and individuals involved with the state’s courts. Citizens Union issued a letter of support to the Commission in January of 2007. To view the letter contained in the appendix of the report, click here and go to page 38. To view the commission report in full (which includes several excerpts from Citizens Union in the margins) click here.
Constitutional Amendment on Judicial Selection
The current system for electing Supreme Court Justices has been declared unconstitutional in two federal court decisions and is awaiting review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Governor Spitzer has proposed a Constitutional amendment to reform the way in which justices of the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and judges of the Court of Claims, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and County Court are selected. The proposal would establish a system that mirrors the appointment process used to select Court of Appeals judges and to make interim appointments to various trial level courts. Under this proposal, various statewide and regional judicial nominating commissions would be established. These commissions will evaluate and screen judicial candidates based on their character, qualifications and professional experience, and will be mindful that the court should reasonably represent the diversity of people living in the jurisdiction.
Proposed Interim Legislation to Reform Judicial Selection
Until such time as the constitutional amendment on merit based appointment is passed, Governor Spitzer has proposed legislation to give all judicial candidates an opportunity to compete and to increase voter participation and choice by educating voters about the courts, the election process, and the candidates.
The Governor’s proposal has three main components:
a. Candidates for Supreme Court Justice would be required to submit their names for review by Independent Judicial Qualification Commissions, which would be established in each judicial district to evaluate candidates’ qualifications and provide a public list of those candidates they find to be qualified for the office of Supreme Court Justice.
b. Candidates seeking a party nomination will still be required to participate in that party’s judicial district designating convention. However, the law would be amended to make conventions more accessible by limiting the number of delegates and extending delegate terms, giving candidates notice of the conventions, and allowing candidates to speak at the conventions. Additionally, candidates for Supreme Court would have alternative means of seeking the party nomination. Specifically, they would be able to access the primary ballot by participating in a party convention and: (1) receiving 50% of the convention delegate vote; (2) receiving 25% of the convention delegate vote and requesting a place on the ballot; or (3) filing a designating petition.
c. A Clean Election Judicial Campaign Finance Fund would be created to provide a public financing option for Supreme Court candidates in order to address this perceived conflict of interest of candidates running on funds raised by attorneys that may appear before them on the bench.
Citizens Union has long called for a merit appointment process for the selection of Supreme Court justices, and other courts of record, to limit the influence of money on judicial elections, to protect the independence of the judiciary and to help ensure that the best qualified candidates are chosen. Last year, Citizens Union issued a statement of position on reforming how the state selects Supreme Court justices
Governor Spitzer also proposes increasing salaries for state judges and justices, because the New York judiciary has gone without a pay increase for more than eight years, longer than the judiciary of any other state or federal court system in the country. To more fairly compensate New York’s judges and justices and to bring judicial salaries into line with the rest of the country, the Governor’s proposal would grant salary increases retroactive to 2005. The increases would make salaries for Supreme Court Justices comparable to salaries received by Federal District Court Judges. As a result, effective April 1, 2005, Supreme Court Justices would receive an annual salary of $162,100, and effective April 1, 2006, Supreme Court Justices would receive an annual salary of $165,200. Salaries of all other judicial officers would be based on a percentage of the salary set for Supreme Court Justices. Citizens Union recently reiterated its support for judicial salary increases in a letter to Chief Justice Judith Kaye. (w e need to put this letter online see attachments).
While the Governor and legislative leaders are all claiming credit for a budget that satisfied their demands and was passed only hours after the April 1st deadline, rank-and-file legislators, reform organizations, and the public were dismayed by the behind-closed-doors approach to the process that Governor Spitzer promised to end. By many accounts, this year’s budget process was less transparent and provided the legislature with less opportunity for involvement than in previous years. While several pieces of the budget received public attention, such as the battle over healthcare cuts and revising the formula for school aid, most of the details of the record $122 billion state budget were not available to legislators or the public until hours, and in fact moments, before they were voted upon.
Using a well-worn provision of state law, the budget bills were submitted with a “message of necessity” allowing the bills to be voted upon without the three day review period that is required by law. As it turned out, the legislature was voting on pieces of the budget before all of the bills were even printed-on a Sunday.
In an attempt to ensure that legislators and the public had at least the small three day window to review the budget bills, Citizens Union sent a letter to Governor Spitzer and legislative leaders urging them not to use “messages of necessity” to pass this year’s budget bills. However, our calls went unheeded. After faxing elected leaders, Citizens Union issued a press release.
On March 27, as New Yorkers in three state assembly districts went to the polls for a special election, Citizens Union Foundation issued a policy briefing report, Circumventing Democracy: The Flawed System for Filling Vacancies in New York State. The report examines the ways in which vacancies for elected office are filled and the prevalence of special election winners in the State Legislature. Most startling was that the study found 31 percent of the current New York State Legislators were first elected to office through a special election and that two of the past three comptrollers were former state legislators appointed by the legislature to fill a vacancy.
The report outlines the processes for filling vacancies in legislative and statewide office and proposes several policy options for decision-makers to consider which would give voters a more meaningful role in filling vacant seats.
Specifically, Citizens Union Foundation listed a variety of policy options to improve the way New York fills vacancies:
For Statewide Office
— Allow the legislature to appoint a temporary rather than permanent comptroller or attorney general only until the next general election, enabling the public to vote on a replacement to fill the rest of the term.
For State Legislature
— Hold a primary election in addition to a traditional special election to give all party voters a voice in the process.
— Replace the current special election process with a non-partisan election, which is the process in New York City and would give voters a chance to weigh in on all candidates. If no candidate secures a substantial share of the vote, this reform could also include a runoff election between the top candidates or instant runoff voting to ensure that voters have a say in who wins.
— Modify signature requirements for independent candidates to help level the playing field.
For City Council
— Add a runoff election or instant runoff voting if no candidate in a non-partisan special election secures a substantial share of the vote.
— Create clear and enforceable residency requirements to correct the ambiguity in state law and prevent problems at special election time and the use of public financing funds by candidates who do not reside in the district.
Circumventing Democracy has received significant interest from the media, including coverage in the New York Times, New York Daily News, The Associated Press, WBAI, Albany Times Union and intensive buzz in the blogosphere.
When the report was released, The New York Sun also published an op-ed article by CU Chair Richard J. Davis and Executive Director Dick Dadey, “Overlooked but Important” on the topic.
After a costly special election failed to produce a new city council member in February when the winner, Mathieu Eugene, refused to certify that he was eligible to assume office, a second election was held on April 24. Eugene won the election with 51% of the vote. Harry Schiffman and CU backed Wellington Sharpe (of the original ten candidates in the first special election race) were also running to fill the vacancy. On May 9, Eugene was sworn in as a Council Member.
After his confirmation as the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Alexander “Pete” Grannis, widely known as a champion of reform, resigned from his Assembly seat. Grannis had served for over three decades in the Assembly and was at the forefront of many important policy debates and decisions. The special election will take place on June 5th and Citizens Union will evaluate the candidates in this special election. The district includes much of Manhattan’s east side and Roosevelt Island.
Theodore Lynn, a senior partner in the law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, has been a member of Citizens Union and its Local Candidates Committee since 1976.
“I joined Citizens Union because of my interest in politics and holding government accountable. I am enthusiastic about the role CU plays in advancing good government. CU’s work is more important than ever.”
Prior to joining the corporate department of Stroock, Lynn was a partner in Webster & Sheffield and chair of their tax department. Mr. Lynn was also a Teaching Fellow in law at George Washington University; Law Clerk to Honorable Bruce M. Forrester, U.S. Tax Court; and a Consultant to the Administrative Conference of the United States.
Mr. Lynn is co-author of Real Estate Investment Trusts and has lectured at or chaired seminars sponsored by the Practicing Law Institute, the American Law Institute/American Bar Association, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the New York State Bar Association and the Investment Program Association.
In addition to his service on the board of Citizens Union, Ted Lynn is a member of Manhattan Community Board 6; director of Jewish Home and Hospital Lifecare and an officer or director of several charitable entities. He has served as vice president and trustee of Central Synagogue, trustee and vice-chair of the Birch-Wathen Lenox School, secretary of the Manhattan School of Dance and director of the Dungannon Foundation. He is a member of the University and Harvard Clubs, The Federal Bar Council and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
Civic Conversation “Grading NYC Public Schools:
Will the New Accountability Measures Help Our Kids?”
This forum, previously scheduled for April 26th, has been postponed. Look for an invitation and more information in your inbox later this month.
The annual meeting of Citizens Union Members is scheduled for June 12th at 5:30 p.m. As in the past, we will meet to elect the 2007 Class of the Citizens Union Board of Directors and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff will speak about PlanNYC. Please save the date for this important meeting.
Following up on CU’s successful 2006 event for emerging civic leaders, Citizens Union will hold a second Gotham Reformers Reception at the NYU Kimmel Center on Thursday June 28th from 6:30-8pm. Save the date!
Citizens Union is proud to announce four of its honorees for the 2007 Annual Awards Dinner:
Alexandra Lebenthal, Civic Leadership Award
Patricia Hynes and Roy Reardon, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Award
Diana Taylor, Public Service Award
The dinner will be held on Tuesday, October 23rd at the Waldorf=Astoria.
Gotham Gazette has launched a new online initiative, Sustainability Watch, in partnership with the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development. This coverage will try to keep alive the debates about the Mayor’s 2030 Plan, looking at what’s good and not, what’s missing, how the plan is working and monitoring the gaps between plan and practice. We urge readers to comment on these articles and the mayor’s plan through our message boards (attached to every article) or by emailing us at [email protected].
In order to make reform a reality, Citizens Union needs to recruit new members and add more voices to our call for good government. Please encourage your friends and colleagues to join. Click here to forward this newsletter, and click here to join Citizens Union or renew your membership.
• May 10, 2007, “Mayor Gives Self High Marks,” Times Ledger
• May 10, 2007, “Spitzer Allies With Activists,” Times Union
• May 10, 2007, “Mayor Evaluates Himself, the Media, and His Political Future,” Brooklyn Downtown Star
• May 08, 2007, “Mike Keeping Track of Wife-Beaters,” New York Post
• May 2, 2007, “City Lawmaker Misused Office, Ethics Board Says,” The New York Sun
• May 1, 2007, “A Simple Need, All Too Often Unmet ,” The New York Times
• April 13, 2007, “Campaign Finance Bills Sought,” Newsday
• April 12, 2007, “Quinn Wielding Her Clout in Contest Over Pedicabs,” The New York Sun
• April 06, 2007, “Quinn Urges More Money for Libraries in Budget,” The New York Times
• March 31, 2007, “Ideal Politics An Illusion,” Associated Press
• March 31, 2007, “Not So Special Elections Often Start Assembly And Senate Careers,” Associated Press
• March 29, 2007, “Critics Attack Budget Plan’s Large Hike In State Spending,” Ithica Journal
• March 29, 2007, “Gov. Steamrolled Into A Big Softee,” The New York Post
• March 28, 2007, “Staten Island Elects Its First Openly Gay Public Official,” The New York Times
• March 27, 2007, “Overlooked But Important,” The New York Sun