What you need to know about the NYC charter revision commissions

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a town hall with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a town hall with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
Ed Reed/Office of the Mayor
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a town hall with Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

What you need to know about the NYC charter revision commissions

What they're looking at, why there are two, and what key officials are saying.
July 24, 2018

Most New Yorkers don’t know much about the city charter. Even fewer know that commissions can be set up to review and revise New York City’s charter. And only the most die-hard political junkies know that the city’s charter is being revisited not once, but twice.

To get our readers up to speed, here are the basic details about the process – and what key officials are saying about how it’s playing out.  

The first commission was convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also appointed each commissioner. The second was created by the City Council, with members appointed by the council speaker, borough presidents, city public advocate, city comptroller and de Blasio. Although the mayor’s commission began its work first, the council has been working to create one since last year. However, the legislation to do so only passed in April.

A charter revision commission reviews the city charter, holds public hearings and can put initiatives on the ballot. If voters approve any of the proposed changes, the charter is amended.

De Blasio directed his commission to explore campaign finance reform and ways to improve democracy in the city. It intends to have initiatives on the ballot this fall. The council’s commission has no stated directive and will review the charter more broadly. It plans to have its ballot initiatives ready in 2019.

Cesar Perales

Chairman, New York City Mayor’s Charter Revision Commission

With the release of your commission’s preliminary staff report, how do you feel about the initial recommendations based on the first round of hearings?

I’m very pleased with the work that the staff has done. The report reflects very much our thinking. It reflects what we heard in many of the hearings and we’re certainly pleased with what we did is an accurate representation of the process so far.

How many of the recommendations that the staff made do you think might end up on the ballot in November?

I really don’t know. I’ve asked folks in the past how many recommendations end up as a ballot initiative and the number I’ve heard is three maybe less, maybe more, but certainly a handful. No more. That that is generally what happens.

Was there anything that surprised you in hearing testimony in terms of what people chose to bring up?

Probably the number of people that commented on community boards and their desire to see community boards improved as the arm of the community in terms of setting policy. We got an awful lot of comment from the public on that. And the other issue that came up that got a surprising amount of comment was the redistricting process for the City Council.

So were those both things that were perhaps not something that you would have expected to hear a lot about?

I think that that’s an accurate way of stating. I certainly expected to hear a great deal about the campaign finance reform. I know that the whole question of corruption in government is uppermost in people’s minds. And that the response to this perceived corruption, and sometimes it’s real, is campaign limits and getting more people engaged in the process that are not the rich, the well-to-do, the influential.

Do you think there’s any risk of overlap in terms of what gets addressed in your commission versus the City Council’s commission?

Well, the time frames are so different that I don’t think we will have either conflict or working in tandem. The reality is that we were set up to come up with proposals for this November. The City Council set up their own commission to work toward proposals for the following year. It seems to me that there’s a reason for it to be redundant. I think they will see what we do, and they will have a free hand to address other topics and other issues. I certainly don’t see a conflict.

Now that you have your preliminary staff report out, moving forward, what are the next steps in the process?

I think we want to get our report out, make sure that people will hear about it. And we’re going to go back out with borough hearings, listening to as many people as possible in terms of their reaction to this preliminary report. I think what we’ve done is we’ve narrowed the issues. There is hopefully going to be a greater focus on specific issues this time around, which I think will be very, very helpful to us. And staff will continue to figure out, for example, and when it comes to campaign finance reform, they’ll have time to do some modeling, to see how that would work. There’s lots of work to be done, very little time, and I’m just so glad that we’ve been able to so effectively focus on some of these issues.

Has the time crunch been stressful at all?

It’s certainly not stressful. I think we’re cognizant of the fact that we have a limited time to come to some conclusions. But in some ways, that’s very helpful. Having too much time, you can end up paying too much attention to the need for more housing in the city. A variety of the kinds of issues that came up, which I don’t think are particularly relevant to the city charter. That enabled us to say to folks, this is what we’re interested in hearing. It enabled us to identify the kinds of experts we wanted to hear from. So I think to some extent, it’s been helpful. We know what we want to do. We know how much time we’ve got to do it in, and I think we’re on schedule. I’m very confident that at the end of this process, we’re going to have some very important ballot initiatives.

Gail Benjamin

Chairwoman, New York City Council Charter Revision Commission

Did you ever expect that you would be tapped to be the chairwoman of a charter revision commission?

I can’t say that I did, or that I didn’t. I was delighted to get the call is what I would say, and I’m really happy and thrilled to be able to do it.

Were there any issues that came to mind that you hope the commission will address once the hearings begin?

Over the course of (the) years, there have been lots of issues that have been brought up to me and that I have thought of. And whether the commission will ultimately decide that they are worthy issues, I don’t know. But I think every commissioner, and anybody who agrees to be on such a commission, has some thoughts.

You used to be involved with land use for the City Council and it’s a topic that has come up in the mayor’s commission as well. Is that something that you would want to look into with your commission?

I’m open to looking into anything. Obviously, if you have read the transcripts from the hearing on this legislation (to create the council commission), you will know that in adopting this legislation, much of the discussion was about land use and about governance. So I am expecting that those things will be some of the subjects that we look at.

Do you think there will be overlap between your commission that was created by the council and the mayor’s?

I wouldn’t expect there to be. The mayor’s commission will be finished or is expected to be finished with their work and to submit their final proposals by Sept. 7. So we’ll just be getting started then. We will know what they have done. We will know what they have left on the table. When the mayor originally announced his Charter Revision Commission, it was to deal with two issues, campaign finance and conflict of interest. And as these things happened, as they had their hearings, and people came to speak, they raised other issues. I’m not sure that they have enough time to really deal with all of the issues that may have been raised. So I think there will be lots leftover without stepping on each other’s feet.

Do you think something that the mayor’s commission addresses might get changed by your commission?

I would say that if the mayor’s commission has addressed a problem and completely addressed it, we would be silly to take it again. However, if the mayor has addressed a part of an issue, I don’t think that that would be off the table.

Given your background and expertise in the area of land use, could you explain why a change to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure might be something your commission addresses?

As I said, I believe that this commission has a broad mandate to look at all of the areas of the charter, which has not been done since 1989. I understand that land use is a sexy issue that people feel like they can wrap their hands around, and so it gets bandied about as if that was the sole mandate of this commission. I repeat, it is not the sole mandate, and I think the commission will be looking at many, many broader issues which may well also include land use. So I want to put it in that perspective, that this is not a commission whose job is land use and that’s it. This is a commission that received a broad mandate to overhaul the charter, which has not been done since 1989.

Why do you think this commission is necessary now? Or is it just that time has passed and the time has come?

I think it’s the latter. I think time has passed. I think the world has changed greatly. And government has changed since 1989. And I think every 30 years is a good time to take it out and kick the tires and see what’s changed and what we can do differently and better. We’ve now gotten a solid period of time when we’ve used this new charter and we can see where some things – just the fact that in 1989, there really wasn’t cellphones, or the usage of cellphones, the usage of the internet and the way that we do now. And that has changed how government functions and how governments can function. So I think it really was an issue of the time being right to overhaul.

Given the short time frame of the mayor’s commission, you would imagine that there will still be plenty that hasn’t even been touched on at all?

Absolutely.

Rafael Salamanca

Chairman, New York City Council Committee on Land Use

The mayor's commission just identified land use as a topic of interest maybe for future commissions to address. What is it about land use that you think makes it a popular topic among citizens?

The charter revision really offers a unique opportunity to revisit the land use process. And I plan on being very involved as the land use chair in exploring how we can improve and build upon the current land use process. I come in with a rather unique position or very unique experiences because I was a district manager my local community board in which I represent. So I experienced times where I felt that developers or the city was not really listening to the needs of the local community board. I'm looking forward to really talking to my colleague to get their input as to how they feel they can improve the process. I know that there's a number of recommendations and ideas that are out there. I just want to talk to my colleagues and to the stakeholders and really listen. I'm going to use this opportunity to really listen to what they have to say before I come out with a big public statement or agenda on what my recommendations are on the length.

Do you think that this is a topic that could be potentially one of the biggest topics to come out of maybe the Council's commission?

Yeah, it definitely will be one. Speaker Corey Johnson, the discussions that we've had as council members is that he is planning on looking at how government works in its entirety. They're going to look at the entire city charter. The mayor’s commission had key focus areas that he wanted to focus on, which the main one was campaign finance. But Corey Johnson in conversations with the leadership and just talking to to to our Council members, they want to focus on everything. The role that different city agencies play, the role that community boards play, whether or not their input is really taken into consideration in the land use process, the process from from the very beginning on how you apply to the way that you communicate with the community. So the way it goes before the borough board, the City Planning Commission and ultimately to the City Council. I know one of the main goals here is how we can get communities more involved and how can we get their voices heard more in this process.

Do you think that as it stands the way that ULURP works that there is not enough input input from the communities?

I don't want to speak ahead of myself. I can just speak about my experience and and I tell this to developers when they come and they want to build in my district. I think that when you have a good developer and they go to the community board months before they certify their application, they are viewed differently in front of a community board, because they know that, hey, they really want to get input from the community. And then you have your other developers who do not visit the community board and they come see you right when the time starts, right when that community for process starts when when their application issent. So that's always up for debate, how to get more community input on at the beginning of the process.

What is it that you kind of hope will be the outcome of the Council’s commission?

I, as a former district manager, I'm a community guy, very grassroots and it was very frustrating for me when you had communities making recommendations, whether it's land use applications, whether it's the amount of shelters that they're putting in. They're just building a district without proper community input. There's a wide range of issues as to how government works in our communities. I was there, I was at that side of the table and it's it's frustrating and it's degrading and it really brings your morale down. And I think that we have an opportunity here, or at least myself sitting in the City Council, to really sit down with my colleagues and look at different levels of government different city agencies and really have detailed conversation as to how we can improve community input and as part of the process of the way the city agencies operate.

Ben Kallos

Chairman, New York City Council Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions

What are the parts of the city charter that you think are in most dire need of attention?

I would say the Uniform Land Use Review (Procedure), or ULURP as it goes. The way the city has made land use decisions under this charter’s ULURP process has resulted in a process that favors developers over communities, and has allowed real estate to buy out government and get what they want. And it is a rare occasion that you see a community win a rezoning.

Do you think that there is going to be overlap between the two commissions?

I’m concerned that the mayor’s charter commission might put something out that is later revisited by the council Charter Revision Commission and subsequently undone. That is a real concern for me. I’m a big nerd and I’m hoping that the City Council Charter Revision Commission actually takes the entire charter, reads through all of, it removes all the dead weight and comes back with a document that is slimmer, written in plain language that anyone can pick up and understand.

Does another level of bureaucracy or review further complicate the already complex land use process, or do you think that getting the community involved more can only make it better?

The problem with real estate development is those that benefit the most and are bought out and profit end up leaving the community with those profits and they aren’t able to benefit the community which they were a part of. So when you see a rezoning that is increasing the value of property, you are losing the part of the community that was going to profit. That money doesn’t get reinvested into the local community. And prices gentrify and displace anyone in the surrounding area that didn’t personally benefit. So we need to work together on a community rezoning that actually benefit the people who live there and the people continue to live there.

Would more community involvement just make it harder to create necessary facilities like supportive housing and homeless shelters if, in general, communities tend to oppose their construction?

Leadership can sometimes mean following and supporting the community. Other times it means actually leading the community to do the right thing. In my district, we are building supportive housing. When I got elected, I saw that there was a homeless crisis and it wasn’t being dealt with at the time. I put together a coalition of the faith leaders on (the Upper) East Side, the nonprofits, the homeless service providers, the community groups. And I got everyone at a table called the Eastside Taskforce for Homeless Outreach and Services. And I said to everyone, if you’re sitting at this table, you support providing services for the homeless and you want to build supportive housing on your block, in your backyard. And (state) Sen. (Liz) Krueger said, I want to be a part of that. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she wanted to be a part of it, and we founded it. We worked with the community, we lay the groundwork and when we got supportive housing in the community on 91st Street, across the street from three public schools – a public school, a middle school and a school for children with developmental disabilities – we actually brought the students, the principals, the parents, every elected official and faith leaders and people who live on that block and across the street to gather to do a welcoming ceremony with (former City Council Speaker) Christine Quinn. So that was a very long answer to say when we empower the community, it means elected officials who want to do the right thing need to put in the work and build the coalition and build the community support necessary to move forward and do the right thing.

What sorts of changes do you think should be made to the charter to better empower community boards and give them more influence?

I am requesting that the community boards have binding power. What that means is that if a community board requests rezoning, the city should be on the hook to pay for it. So what I’m suggesting is the community board plus their council member or community board plus their borough president should be able to initiate land use matters. On the same note, I would like if the community board votes “no,” a borough board votes “no” and the borough president votes “no,” and creates a triple “no,” that would actually be binding. So if all three bodies vote “no,” that it should stop there.

If this idea doesn’t come to fruition with the mayor’s commission, will you testify again before the City Council commission as well with the same ideas?

The same ideas or better. I’m committed to getting this done.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is an editorial assistant at City & State.
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