|Engaging New Yorkers to Reform Government||Vol. 1, 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 and policies and politics.
Welcome to the launch of THE REFORMER, our new e-newsletter for Citizen Union members and Citizens Union Foundation contributors. Its aim is to better inform you about the activities and positions of our two interrelated organizations. We plan to send it out each month and hope it helps you learn more about our work and why we need your involvement and support. Feel free to share it with your friends and colleagues by using the ‘Email a Friend’ link. And if you are getting this newsletter and are not a Citizens Union member (or have lapsed in your support), please sign up to support the oldest, active good government organization in the City and help us bring greater political reform to New York. Enjoy our newest communication.
Earlier this year, Citizens Union released information that highlighted the growing trend of campaign consultants who also lobby and the lack of oversight by the City Clerk in the enforcement of the local lobbying law. Weeks after such information was made known, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced their intention to introduce into the Council a package of bills to address these problems. Citizens Union was then engaged actively in discussions with their respective offices and the City Council to assist in drafting the bills.
The City of New York is fortunate that no major lobbying scandal has recently beset city government, but then again, the registration and reporting of lobbying activity has been done strictly on an honor system. While the ability to educate and lobby legislators is an important part of our democratic system, it is imperative that we ensure that all New Yorkers have the same opportunity to have their voices heard and that public policy is not unduly influenced because of unscrupulous lobbying activity by some.
The three bills would:
- Require greater reporting of lobbyists’ activities – including the money they give, the money they raise, and the compensated campaign services they provide to elected officials – and put in place more stringent auditing and enforcement requirements than is currently prescribed under the law. Lobbyists who provide campaign services will be required to report that information as well. The City Clerk, who is appointed by the City Council, will have greater authority, but CU believes that an independent authority is still needed.
- Prohibit lobbyists from offering or making gifts to a public servant (the current law allows gifts of up to $50).
- Prohibit campaign contributions made by lobbyists from being matched with public funds as is currently allowed under the city’s campaign finance program; (all gifts under $250 are presently matched at a rate of $4 for every $1 contributed.)
To read Citizens Union’s full testimony before the City Council, please click here.
Though these bills represent a significant step forward, further strengthening in the oversight of local lobbying is necessary. It is expected that the bills will pass the Council later this month and be signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg.
Following on the heels of a series of reforms to the operations of the City Council (see Five Steps At the City Council) passed shortly after the swearing in of new City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a council reform working group formed by Quinn met for the first time on March 30th to discuss other potential measures the Council can take to make the body more transparent, responsive and accountable. Chaired by Councilmembers Daniel Garodnick and David Yassky, the working group extended an invitation to CU to address the first meeting of the group and discuss the findings of a council reform report CU issued in early January. (Click here to read the report.) Citizens Union shared with the group ideas – previously advanced by Councilmember Gale Brewer – on how the Council can continue to improve its operations, including ideas of how to upgrade its website to allow New Yorkers to access information more easily and interact with the City Council and other technology-related reforms that could make local government more accessible to the residents of the City. Stay tuned as we report on expected future reforms at the Council.
Citizens Union recently filed an amicus brief in support of the effort to place a ballot question before the voters of the City on the issue of class size. It asks that the Mayor allocate up to 25% of whatever state funds the city receives from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit for the purpose of reducing class size in city schools. CU did not address the substance of the issue itself, but rather the first amendment right of citizens to petition their government under the process presently allowed for by both the state constitution and city charter. To read the brief, click here .
Reflecting its returning interest in state affairs and how Albany actions affects much of what happens in the City, the Citizens Union’s board of directors has adopted a public policy agenda for state issues of reform in 2006.
Citizens Union Foundation and Citizens Union jointly submitted an amicus brief in the current lawsuit between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and New York State on the issue of compliance with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Our amicus concludes that the interim plan as submitted by the State Board of Elections to install ballot marking devices in a limited manner for the 2006 Primary Elections would not be in the best long term interest of voters in New York. As a way to remedy and effect compliance, the Court should appoint a special master to supervise, create and implement the state’s HAVA plan for 2006 and 2007. Essentially conceding that full forced compliance in 2006 would bring about the equivalent of an electoral train wreck, the DOJ essentially and reluctantly conceded that little could be done to force the state to do more than what it is minimally offering to do. The DOJ instead asked the Court to require the state to submit a detailed compliance plan for 2007 no later than July 15, 2006. A final decision is expected shortly.
It has been four years since the federal government enacted HAVA to modernize and standardize voting practices across the country. HAVA covers all aspects of elections ranging from the upgrading of voting machines to the creation of a voter registration database to the recruitment and training of poll workers. The Act also provides states with federal funding to offset the cost of implementation while providing additional optional funds for the replacement of lever or punch ballot voting machines. New York has received about $220 million of these federal funds to accomplish these goals.
Despite national momentum and federal support, New York failed to comply in a timely way with the election reforms mandated under HAVA. The lateness was compounded by ambiguities in the federal legislation, political gridlock on the state level and the inaction of the State Board of Elections. Such delay has earned New York the title of last in the country and first and only state to be sued by the DOJ.
As litigation progresses between New York and the Justice Department, city and county boards are left grappling with what could be a disastrous election this fall. Across the state, there will be federal elections for Senate and Congressional seats and statewide elections for Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller and all 212 state legislative offices. Local boards of elections, responsible for conducting elections, still do not know what options they have in the replacement of the current lever machines since the State Board has not certified any machines. The two main systems in contention are the ATM-style Direct Recording Electronic systems and precinct based optical scan voting systems where voters mark their ballots by filling in ovals. Even after machine selection and procurement, local boards still must make the transition to new machines, train election administrators and poll workers and conduct an extensive public education campaign.
As New York continues in its slow progress to implement HAVA, Citizens Union Foundation will continue working to ensure that the transition to new voting systems will be transparent, and voting machines are secure, accessible and easily operated by all poll workers and voters alike. Despite the pressure from the federal level, the objective at the state and county boards of elections must be to protect and enfranchise all eligible voters. After all, elections are the primary and most direct avenue for voters to participate in government, and their success serves to measure the strength of our democracy.
Drawing the Line: State Legislative Redistricting Campaign Begins and Candidates for Governor Sign On
On April 28th, Citizens Union Foundation with the School of Public Affairs, Baruch College, CUNY hosted Drawing the Line: Redistricting and Non-Competitive Elections in New York State, a half day symposium focused on reforming how the state draws legislative district lines.
The symposium brought together civic and business leaders, elected officials and experts in the area of voting reform and voting rights to explore how the current process of redistricting in New York State has impacted voter participation and representation, as well as the formulation and enactment of public policy. It was an opportunity for an open discussion of these issues and ways in which the current method of drawing legislative district lines can be reformed.The symposium was made possible by a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Citizens Union Foundation was able to obtain written commitments from each of the four major party candidates for Governor in support of overhauling the way in which state legislative lines are drawn. Each pledged in his own way to ensure that the legislature no longer carries the responsibility for drawing its line and choosing the voters before the voters choose them.
To read their expressions of support and individual positions as well as the materials that were presented at the Symposium, click here.
To read Citizens Union’s position on the issue, please click here
For close to 100 years, Citizens Union has evaluated and supported candidates for elected office. Those offices have been limited to any city office including Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, City Council, Borough President, District Attorney, Surrogate, Assembly, or State Senate. Never before has the organization become involved in statewide elections, but, just last month, the CU board of directors decided for the first time in the organization’s history to evaluate and support candidates for Governor, Comptroller, and Attorney General.
In addition, CU’s board of directors decided to change the way in which it names its support for candidates. In recent decades, CU would simply “prefer” one candidate over another. Now, CU will “prefer” a supported candidate in a party primary election and “endorse” a supported candidate in a general election. Since a party primary is not the final choice presented to the voters, we believe using the term “preference” to indicate that it is our preliminary choice. Endorsing in the general or “final” election will signal a stronger level of support.
Citizens Union Foundation’s Gotham Gazette, a Web site of New York City news and policy, is growing as fast as the Internet! When you “google” New York City politics, there are over 100 million results — more than double the number of a year ago — but this year and last year Gotham Gazette is the first result for this and many other searches. Our daily enews blast, The Eye-Opener, has recently enrolled its 10,000th subscriber. Have you subscribed? To sign up for this informative, valuable and timely resource click here.
Here are some recent highlights of our independent and user friendly coverage:
- Redistricting New York, reports on New York State’s partisan redistricting — or gerrymandering — and its impact.
- New York On Capital Hill A look at the 13 New York City congressional races and a companion article covering the open congressional seat in Brooklyn.
- Stadiumania: Snap Shots of Obsession is a photo essay on stadiums in New York City and the issues surrounding them.
- Recent Reports, offers quick summaries of the latest reports on everything about the City from school report cards to the Fresh Kills Park plan to subway pay phones.
Public Authority Reform Panel on May 24th at 5:30pm presented by Citizens Union with The Women’s City Club of New York and The League of Women Voters on the City of New York at Community Church, 40 East 35th Street. Click here for details.
Now is a great time to join Citizens Union as a member. Citizens Union was recently described as the conscience of government. This is an apt metaphor for our work and role. We hold government to the highest standards, pressing for both principles of good government and effective implementation of these principles. To be an effective force for reform, we need your support. Click here for details.
- May 3, “Mayor to Change Budget Process In Conciliatory Gesture to Council,” New York Sun
- May 1, “S.I. Pol MIA for half of the Council Roll Calls,” New York Daily News
- April 25, “Election Reform Negligence,” New York Sun
- April 6, “Groups call for Nonpartisanship in DrawingState’s District Lines,” New York Times
- February 26 “A Step Toward Lobby Reform” New York Times City, Editorial