Major changes may be coming to the New York City Charter

New York City Hall
New York City Hall
Alon Adika/Shutterstock
New York City Hall.

Major changes may be coming to the New York City Charter

The City Council Charter Revision Commission’s preliminary staff report includes some big ideas.
April 24, 2019

The 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission has released its preliminary staff report.

The report, which is nonbinding and serves to inform and guide the commissioners, comes after months of public input and expert testimony. The commission received over 300 proposals during public hearings, which it whittled down to 23 areas of focus.

The new report offers more specific recommendations made by the commission’s staff on potential charter amendments and information which the commission can refer to in the next round of hearings.

Those recommendations have been split into 10 wide-ranging categories, addressing topics from elections to land use. Here are the major proposals it makes:

Elections and redistricting

One of the most significant recommendations is switching city elections to ranked-choice voting, or instant runoff voting, although which elections may be subject to the change remains to be determined. Currently, a candidate wins with a plurality of the vote, or through a runoff election if no citywide candidates in a primary received more than 40%. If a general election has a large number of candidates, as in the recent public advocate special election, a plurality of votes could wind up being only a small percentage. Runoff elections for primaries often see a far lower turnout than the original election.

Through ranked-choice voting, rather than simply casting a ballot for one candidate, voters rank multiple candidates. A candidate wins if he or she is ranked first by a majority of voters. If no one gets a majority, the candidate ranked first on the fewest ballots would have their votes transferred to the second choice candidates on each individual ballot until there is a winner. Advocates say this system assures the winner is acceptable to most voters.

Ranked-choice voting does not come without its own challenges: implementation would be a highly involved process, from voting machine software updates to voter education.

The elections section also includes a recommendation to further consider changing the timeline of special elections to ease the burden the short timeframe places on the Board of Elections and amending the timing of redistricting to align with the new primary election dates set by state law. That change would allow City Council candidates a sufficient amount of time to gather petitions in newly drawn districts.

Civilian Complaint Review Board

Although the report notes that major changes to police disciplinary actions would require action by the state Legislature, it still offered recommendations on how CCRB, the body that reviews complaints made against police, is structured and conducts its business. It proposes that the board should not be entirely appointed by the mayor and suggests the commission look into giving the City Council the power to appoint its own members, rather than simply make a designation the mayor can ignore, as well as allow the public advocate to appoint or designate members. Given that disciplinary actions recommended by the CCRB are nonbinding, the report proposes that the police commissioner be required to offer an explanation for all instances he or she decides to depart from the recommended punishment. In in another effort to increase transparency and accountability, it also recommends the commission consider implementing a nonbinding disciplinary matrix to create a set of factors used to determine disciplinary actions. The report also recommends considering an expansion of the body’s purview to include false statements given by police officers to investigators. To reduce delays, the commission also recommends allowing the highest-ranking member of CCRB to issue subpoenas, rather than requiring all 13 members meet and review every one.

Public advocate

The report recommended expanding the power of the public advocate, giving the office subpoena power. Right now, the charter states that the public advocate must have “timely access” to the documents it needs for investigations, enables him or her to hold public hearings and may apply in court for an order to conduct a summary inquiry. Each of these avenues have shortcomings that may impede the public advocate from conducting investigations and the report concludes that the public advocate should be able to subpoena in order to give the job more clout and require the city to provide meaningful answers.

Land use

Although past charter revision commissions have received testimony about making changes to city land use procedures, they have by and large avoided the controversial topic. This time around, the commission appears to be largely punting the issues again. The report makes two specific, but minor, recommendations on changes to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, the process through which the city makes land use and zoning decisions. The first would establish a pre-ULURP process to increase community engagement. Right now, the process begins when an applicant files an application and the Department of City Planning certifies it. The report argues that permitting community boards and borough presidents time to review the application before it is certified would allow local input to have greater impact and effectively require applicants to engage with local interests before their application is finalized. Similarly, the report also recommends increasing the amount of time community boards have to comment on an application once the ULURP process formally begins.

The other major land use issue the report addresses is the idea of implementing comprehensive planning in the city. The intent is to ensure that new developments are part of a broader plan that takes into account the best interests of the city, rather than just piecemeal changes that spring from the whims of specific communities or developers. The report details 12 established plans or similar documents, such the city strategic policy statement and community development plans, that it argues could constitute a comprehensive plan and proposed making it clear how the plans relate to each other and fit together. Further, it essentially recommends that the issues that might be addressed through comprehensive planning be addressed through the current framework of already established plans, once again avoiding major changes.

City budget

The report makes a series of nitty-gritty recommendations regarding changes to the city budget process. One report proposes adding language to the 1989 charter revision to clarify that the mayor may only impound budgetary funds to ensure a balanced budget, not in relation to disagreements with the City Council.

The next recommendation suggests imposing an earlier revenue estimate deadline, and setting up a fail-safe, such as using the Independent Budget Office’s estimate, if the mayor doesn’t meet it. Currently, after a budget is passed, the mayor is able to shift some of the money around, with City Council approval, but the charter does not give a time frame for when the mayor must notify the Council of changes. Therefore, the report recommends clarifying the time frame for when modifications must be submitted. The report supports setting up a so-called rainy day fund, and recommends the charter be updated to allow the money to be used toward decreasing the deficit.

Lastly, the report proposes implementing some protections for agencies and entities whose budgets may be at risk of being slashed during budget season for retaliatory purposes of those other than fiscal responsibility.

Other recommendations

The report also included a number of other recommendations for the commission to consider. One proposes expanding the power of the borough presidents in regard to obtaining documents relevant to their jurisdiction and clarifying the agencies involved with borough service cabinets. Other recommendations involve changes to how the corporation counsel is appointed and resolving inherent conflict of interests when he or she must represent just one side of a lawsuit when one city entity sues another. The report also recommends making structural and appointment changes to the Conflicts of Interest Board to give the city comptroller and public advocate representation on the body, as well as amending existing post-employment restrictions for public employees. Lastly, it proposes that the citywide minority- and women-owned business enterprises director be a deputy mayor, or someone who reports directly to the mayor, that is supported by an Office of Women and Minority-Owned Business Enterprises to ensure the program and the corresponding office remain in place despite no law stating they must exist.

The report explicitly stated the commission is unable to take action on a number of proposals that came up during the hearings, often because the issue can only be addressed through legislation. These include democracy vouchers, procurement for the city pension fund and animal welfare.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
20190722