New York City

No City Council power grab in NYC charter revision commission

Fears that the City Council Charter Revision Commission would produce a power grab for the Council seem overblown now that it has released a preliminary staff report that suggests a more modest approach.

New York City Council chambers at City Hall

New York City Council chambers at City Hall Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

When the New York City Council announced that it would create a commission to review and propose changes to the City Charter, some feared the City Council was attempting a power grab. The Daily News editorialized that weakening mayoral power and expanding that of the City Council, community boards and borough presidents would be disastrous for the city. It even suggested that Mayor Bill de Blasio should use his own revision commission to prevent the City Council from convening one. The City Council had never before initiated a charter revision commission, and mayoral ones tend to aggrandize mayoral power. Fears that the City Council would follow the same path and try to take control of more governmental functions were heightened when its proposals for the commission to consider were released in January. Retired city planner Eric Kober offered a similar dire assessment in the pages of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, calling the ideas an “audacious power grab” that would “radically change” city governance.

With the release of the commission’s preliminary staff report last month, those concerns seem overblown. The report “shies away from the all-out assault on the mayor’s authority proposed by the city council in January,” Kober wrote in an approving but cautious City Journal op-ed. It includes some of the City Council’s recommendations, but it does not propose to implement all of the changes. And while the report does recommend shifting some power away from the mayor, certainly more than past charter revisions have ever done, it also suggests the commission will ultimately take a more modest approach than some originally thought.

“The commissioners acted very responsibly, asked the right questions, argued when necessary,” Baruch political science professor Doug Muzzio said. “It seemed to be a very democratic with a small ‘d’ process.”

In the past, charter revision commissions assembled by mayors were largely beholden to the mayor’s interests, resulting in changes that mayor wanted. Just one notable example came from the 1999 commission, which came out with ballot proposals that served as a referendum on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s agenda, such as making it more difficult to raise taxes. Opponents like then-Public Advocate Mark Green opposed the measures, and voters rejected them at the polls.

But in this case, Muzzio said the staff report shows the commission “was not under the thumb” of the City Council. In several instances, the preliminary staff report harkened back to the 1989 charter revision, the last comprehensive set of changes to the document, filling in gaps or clarifying language. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled the old Board of Estimates unconstitutional, requiring a massive shakeup in city governance. It resulted in the government the city knows today – the 51-member City Council, empowered to be an actual legislative body and co-equal branch of government, while still maintaining and securing the strong executive power of the mayor. It also created the position of public advocate and City Council speaker.

The new report recommends giving subpoena power and a guaranteed budget to the public advocate since the 1989 charter revision did not provide the office with either. The commission staff reasoned that subpoena power would better enable the public advocate to carry out its watchdog role as prescribed in the charter. A guaranteed budget would also divorce the office’s funding from the whims of a mayor that the public advocate may investigate.

Similarly, the 1989 charter revision stripped much of the power from borough presidents, who used to serve on the powerful Board of Estimates, but decided to keep the positions because of their historical significance. The staff of the current commission proposed minor changes to better equip borough presidents to carry out their more limited role defined in the charter.

Even recommended changes to the budgeting process that would partially curtail the mayor’s powers – a prospect that was initially a large source of concern for those warning of City Council overreach – were largely proposed in response to what staff considered unfinished or unclear work of the the 1989 charter revision. In two cases, it referred to the 1998 budget process when Giuliani threatened to impound funds after the City Council approved its own budget rather than Giuliani’s. Commission staff felt Giuliani had misused the power for political gain in a way that went against the intent of the charter. The report recommended changes to prevent such an incident from happening again, by clarifying that the mayor can only impound funds for sound financial reasons. The incident also resulted in a recommendation to change the time when the mayor must submit his or her revenue estimate. Giuliani had used the estimate for political means during that contentious 1998 budget process, offering his lower-than-expected estimate to force the Council to cut spending or risk raising property taxes.

The other recommendations that directly limit the mayor’s power or expand those of other elected officials are not nearly as far reaching as the City Council had originally suggested. For example, the City Council proposed creating three-year terms for the corporation counsel, police commissioner, chair of the City Planning Commission, chief administrative law judge, and the executive directors of the Campaign Finance Board and Conflicts of Interest Board, while also requiring that the legislative body approve the mayor’s appointees to those positions. The staff report recommends City Council consent for only the corporation counsel, the city’s lawyer.

The land use proposals are also fairly conservative, effectively rejecting the City Council’s proposal for a comprehensive planning system while recommending that borough presidents and community boards be allowed more time to review projects both before and during the Uniform Land Use Review Process.

The preliminary staff report, as its name implies, is just a first step towards finalized ballot proposals. The commission has begun a new series of hearings in each borough to gain additional input, at the end of which the staff will issue its final report and ballot initiatives. If the commission continues on the course it appears to be on now, those initiatives will likely offer measured changes.