Admittedly, there may be hotter subjects this month than the City Charter Commission's ballot proposals. But an absurd state law nevertheless allows the New York City mayor to hand-pick a commission to deliberate city governance in the dog days of August and put profound changes on the ballot for November. So it's worth examining.
The risk of mayoral abuse here is high. In 1999, Mayor Giuliani was considering impaneling a Charter Commission to change the succession laws to ensure that a public advocate he apparently didn't like (me) wouldn't become mayor for a year if he won a U.S. Senate race and vacated office. I privately warned his aides that such a blatantly political move would backfire, but the famously bullheaded mayor charged ahead and hurriedly created a commission that put succession on the ballot, where it lost 76 percent to 24 percent.
By comparison, this year's City Charter Commission looks like an Athenian democracy. But only by comparison.
First, it was conceived in sin. Remember that billionaires-for-democracy lunch when Mayor Bloomberg got Ron Lauder, the father of term limits, to do a 180 and support his bid for a new law in 2008 so he could run again in 2009? The Mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn may do other wonderful things in their public lives, but their self-dealing City Council law to circumvent two city referenda was disgraceful.
On the other hand, unlike Mr. Giuliani's rubber-stamp group, this year's commission of 15 mayoral appointees is somewhat independent and chaired by the widely respected Matthew Goldstein, the head of CUNY.
So a week ago, 60 interested citizens sat in the spacious ninth-floor conference room of the new soaring glass tower at Baruch College to watch the commission, mirabile dictu, openly deliberate difficult issues at its last public session. Mr. Goldstein himself began by noting that some commissioners wouldn't be happy because "working on the charter for only six months is not nearly enough time to do due diligence, (but) we did the best we could."
Here's my view of what you will, and won't, see Nov. 2, if you vote.
Term limits. The Commission had to put this on the ballot given public dismay at the Bloomberg-Quinn legislative end run around the two public referenda.
There are plausible good-government arguments for no term limits in a city with such a strong campaign finance law leveling the playing field, as the Women's City Club believes ... or different limits for citywide and Council seats, as I believe: for example, there could be a three-term limit for legislators (so the Council doesn't become an extension of a speaker's office and of the permanent government of lobbyists) and a two-term maximum for executive offices (which is true federally since the 22th Constitutional Amendment).
But those options will not be on the ballot. Voters will only be able to choose either two terms for all (finally phased in by 2021) or the current three-term limit for all if the proposal fails.
How to vote? Based on T. S. Eliot's admonition that "the greatest treason [is] to do the right deed for the wrong reason," I'm voting against the proposal. While the 2008 Council three-term law was indefensibly self-serving, it happened to be the right policy. At the least, any theoretical future changes in term limits must be prospective so as not to benefit any sitting members or mayor.
Nonpartisan elections. Should NYC imitate California here? Because Mr. Bloomberg presumably couldn't rig this one-couldn't get the newspaper owners and editorial boards to sign on early, as he successfully did for the legislative extension of term limits-there won't be anything on the ballot about ending party primaries. And there shouldn't be, for several reasons: such a large and consequential change couldn't be adequately debated and digested by the public in only two months; it was already voted down 70 percent to 30 percent in 2003; and it's a canard to say that party primaries disenfranchise other voters since a voter can choose any party to vote in-language about "denying the franchise" resonates of Jim Crow laws but has nothing in common with them.
Public advocate. Though the New York Post and Daily News once a year routinely call for the abolition of this 179-year-old office (with periodic name changes)-and mayors, too, have predictably kvetched about an office that's mandated to be the watchdog over City Hall-there's no public support for ending something that keeps the bureaucracy on its toes. So it's not and shouldn't be on the fall ballot. (But because the office does institutionally annoy mayors, its size has shrunk by more than half in 20 years; so ideally its budget should be protected from political retaliation by fixing it as a percentage of some mayoral or council entity, like the Independent Budget Office is.)
Instant Runoff Elections. Although the Commission's staff wanted to, this won't be on the ballot, either. But it's a good idea that works in San Francisco and 10 other cities as well. Voters in a primary vote for her/his first choice, then her/his second, third, fourth ... and whoever gets to 50 percent that night in the final two-way or three-way matchup becomes the party's nominee. Having been in two city-wide primary runoffs this past decade, I think the IRV saves money by avoiding an extra day of voting, determines the winner when more people usually vote, makes sure that no one's vote is "wasted" on a beloved underdog and avoids what can turn into a racially fractious runoff. (FYI, Freddy Ferrer and I both support IRV.)
Small democracy. There will be several worthwhile procedural changes on the November ballot. The source of independent expenditures would have to be disclosed; ethics fines would be raised; the number of petition signatures to qualify for the ballot would be lowered; and an obscure and underfunded Voter Assistance Commission would be merged into the largely effective Campaign Finance Board-creating a sort of super-pro-democracy office. Obviously more has to be done to prod turnout, which fell in 2009 to a dismal, actually shocking, 8 percent in contested citywide primaries.
Stop annual Charter Commissions! Albany has other priorities now, but it should also repeal that state law provision which gives an already strong mayoralty the sole power to pick quickie annual commissions. At the least, there should be a rule against such frequent commissions, and other public officials should be able to appoint some members as well. Assemblyman Jim Brennan of Brooklyn has already held hearings to do just that.
So if you're keeping score, a big Bronx cheer for Mayor Bloomberg for getting us into this fine mess, but at least he has figured out a way to get the city out of it by choosing a quality commission, by not hurriedly forcing nonpartisan elections onto the ballot and by keeping mum on the new two-term proposal. This time, it'll be up to the rest of us.
This piece originally appeared in author's Inside/Out column in the New York Observer.