What you need to know about the NYC Charter Revision Commission

New York City Councilman Corey Johnson.
New York City Councilman Corey Johnson.
Photo by William Alatriste for the New York City Council
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

What you need to know about the NYC Charter Revision Commission

Yes, the city just had one of these last year. Here’s what the latest one is doing.
March 21, 2019

In November, New York City voters took to the polls and approved three ballot initiatives that changed the city charter. The changes came about as a result of a charter revision commission created by Mayor Bill de Blasio and were ultimately relatively minor.

But that was last year. This year, another charter revision commission created by the New York City Council is well under way and has big plans in store. Council Speaker Corey Johnson said last year that this commission would overhaul the charter. The last time such major changes went through was in 1989, when voters eliminated the Board of Estimates and the position of City Council president, and created the offices of council speaker and public advocate.

If the 2019 Charter Revision Commission is anything like the 1989 one, voters can expect some consequential proposals to decide on come November. So here’s what has been going on with the commission so far.

Who who will develop proposed changes to the city charter?

The commission is made up of 15 people, two more than the mayor’s commission last year. Johnson appointed four of them, de Blasio appointed another four and the city comptroller, the public advocate and each borough president appointed one apiece. This also differs from de Blasio’s commission, in which he appointed every member.

Does that mean that the commission this year will be more independent?

Technically, all charter revision commissions are independent entities that can review the entire document and have the ability to propose any change they deem necessary to the charter, no matter how small or how sweeping. Historically though, when a mayor has convened a commission, he has done so with a fairly narrow purpose in mind and his commission complies with that mandate. De Blasio’s commission focused primarily on campaign finance and voter participation. The City Council’s commission, created through legislation championed by then-Public Advocate Letitia James, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Johnson, does not have a specific mandate and has been tasked with reviewing the entire charter to make significant changes to city governance. Theoretically, including appointees from multiple offices across city government could minimize the influence any one interest could have on what the commission chooses to look at.

When will I know what these proposals are?

The City Council’s commission began its work in September with a series of public hearings across the five boroughs to allow members of the public to make recommendations and proposals about what they think the commission should look out. Those hearings came to a close in January, when the commission issued its list of focus areas based in part on public input. In February, a series of expert forums got underway to gain additional insight about the focus areas. So far, the commission has heard testimony on elections, police accountability, finance, governance/finance and governance. The final two forums will be on land use and governance/land use.

In April, the commission is scheduled to release its preliminary ballot proposals and begin another series of public hearings across the city for input on the specific proposals made. In June, the commission will draft final proposals based on the public feedback, and then submit them to the City Clerk in July. That gives the commission a few months to educate voters on what they will vote on ahead of the November general election.

What are the focus areas that the commission decided on?

The topics can be split into four broad categories: elections, governance, finance and land use. Each topic contains a variety of different areas of examination or potential proposal areas to consider.

On the topic of elections, the commission identified three specific aspects to follow up on: instant runoff or ranked choice voting, the redistricting process and campaign finance – including both public campaign financing and the structure of the city Board of Elections.

Governance has several more areas of interest. Perhaps one of the hottest topics under this category is the office of the public advocate. The commission will examine the office and consider proposals to modify its powers and responsibilities, whether that means scrapping the office or expanding its powers. Police accountability also falls under this category, including an examination of the Civilian Complaint Review Board and how police discipline is handled. Other issues in the governance category include corruption and conflicts of interest, a review of the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, the powers of borough presidents and exploring the creation of a chief diversity officer in the office of the mayor and within every city agency.

The city budget has several subsections within the finance category, including timing, structure and authority of the City Council in terms of appropriations. Other areas of interest within finance include the creation of independent budgets for certain offices, like the public advocate, policy relating to procurement and contracting and decision-making regarding investments in the city’s public pension.

Last but certainly not least is land use. The largest aspect of this section relates to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, a perennial issue for charter revision commissions. The mayor’s commission heard testimony on the process last year, but ultimately did create any proposals. Within the ULURP process, the commission will examine the creation of a “pre-ULURP” procedure to get more stakeholder input, allowing a borough president to submit his or her own application alongside those originating from the city, review the timeline and possibly modify how ULURP applications are changed by the City Council. Other potential proposals include the creation of citywide comprehensive planning for land use projects, reviewing franchising in the city in relation to the Franchise and Concession Review Committee and examining the Landmark Preservation Commission, including possibly paying members.

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