New York has long been a city of constant reinvention and evolution. So it makes sense that there are several ways to refine our municipal democracy – including Charter Revision Commissions. By law, these commissions must review the entire charter, a document that sets out the way city government works. After months of engaging with New Yorkers, our commission voted to propose three ballot questions that address important issues relating to participation in the city’s democracy. New Yorkers told us that many of them feel disempowered and disconnected – but that they are looking for ways to become meaningfully involved in their communities.
The commission received many comments from members of the public, elected officials and representatives of good government groups about quid pro quo corruption in New York City, in New York state and around the country. Many of these New Yorkers told us that such corruption is an ongoing problem, that large campaign contributions increase the opportunity for and appearance of it, and that corruption and its appearance take a severe toll on public confidence in our democratic system.
To address these concerns, the first ballot question for voters to consider proposes to amend the city’s campaign finance system by boosting incentives for campaigns to reach out to small donors and creating more opportunities for candidates to run campaigns without the need to rely on large donors. If approved by the voters, this ballot question will lower limits on contributions to political campaigns and increase public matching funds for small contributions.
The second question proposes the creation of a new Civic Engagement Commission “to enhance civic trust and strengthen democracy in New York City.” The charter does not create a centralized or coordinated approach to civic engagement beyond voting, whether through establishment of a dedicated structure or otherwise.
New Yorkers told us that an engaged citizenry brings energy, creativity and a diversity of experience to solving problems; challenges entrenched biases and power structures; enhances democratic accountability; promotes a sense of stewardship over the political process; and builds trust and community. We also heard testimony that there is a relationship between how connected people feel to their government and voter participation.
If this ballot proposal is approved by the voters, the Civic Engagement Commission would perform certain functions. A poll site language assistance program at poll sites on the days of elections would facilitate voting by New Yorkers with limited English proficiency. Other responsibilities of the Civic Engagement Commission, such as implementing a citywide participatory budgeting program to promote participation by city residents in recommending projects in their communities, and supporting the important civic engagement work of community-based organizations, are intended to facilitate opportunities for New Yorkers to stay involved in their government and their communities the other days of the year.
The third ballot question proposes changes designed to help make community boards more reflective of the communities they represent and more effective.
Public testimony revealed that while neighborhood demographics have shifted over time, membership demographics among various Community Boards have not. Question 3 would generally limit community board members to four consecutive two-year terms – with an ability to re-apply for membership after sitting out one term. The intention is for institutional knowledge pertaining to land use, development and many other issues that community boards regularly consider to be maintained as new opportunities for community board service are offered to residents.
If adopted, the proposal would also require an application process promoting diversity in appointments to community boards, and provide additional resources to support community boards, including services related to land use review, language assistance and more.
Through our many public meetings in every borough, we had the opportunity to hear from everyday New Yorkers interested in changing city government for the better. It was a humbling and inspiring experience. And now those New Yorkers, along with every voter in the city, have the chance to weigh in. The questions that will be on November’s ballot address important issues relating to civic life in New York. I urge all New Yorkers to Flip Your Ballots and Vote on the Issues. For a full description of the proposals, go to flipyourballot.nyc.