New York City

Will de Blasio's ballot proposals make a difference?

A Q&A with Brad Lander

New York City Council member Brad Lander during a General Welfare Preliminary Budget Hearing.

New York City Council member Brad Lander during a General Welfare Preliminary Budget Hearing. Photo by John McCarten for the New York City Council

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio created a Charter Revision Commission to review and recommend changes to the city charter, with the goal of addressing campaign financing and voter turnout. Soon after, the City Council announced its own dueling commission. This month, the mayor’s commission wrapped up, announcing it had adopted three relatively modest ballot proposals that New Yorkers will vote on in November: a limit on campaign contributions, term limits for community board members, and the creation of an Office of Civic Engagement.

That last bit was a victory for New York City Councilman Brad Lander, who had testified in support of an agency to increase civic engagement. He spoke with City & State recently about the results – and what he hopes to see on next year’s ballot from the council’s commission.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Are you happy with what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Charter Revision Commission decided to propose?

I strongly support all three ballot proposals headed to the ballot in November. And I hope that New Yorkers will support all of them. I understand big-picturewise, people are cynical about politics in general. I understand some of the cynicism about the way the commission was formed. There are some areas where – look, I was very strongly supportive of instant runoff voting and I’m sorry that this commission did not propose it for the ballot. But I still think you want to take a step back and look at what they did propose, that each of these three proposals I think is a really strong one.

The proposal to create an Office of Civic Engagement was one you put forward, correct?

I introduced a bill to create such an office last year. But when they launched the Charter Revision Commission, I brought the idea to them. By law, we could have established an office, but we could not have created this commission with multiple pointers in a way that you can do as part of charter revision. So it’s possible to make it stronger and more durable. It was not something that had been on their radar screen previously. It’s on the ballot together with citywide participatory budgeting.

Are there other things that you are disappointed didn’t make it onto the ballot, and are you hopeful they will be addressed in the next Charter Revision Commission?

For instant runoff voting, I really do hope that the City Council-established commission will pick it up. At least the report of the mayor’s commission said this is really worthy of consideration. I guess the other issue that I would have loved to have seen a proposal from the mayoral commission on was independent redistricting. That was a proposal that appeared to me to have broad support and I don’t know what quite happened there.

Do you think that the Charter Revision Commission provides the opportunity to implement reforms that could technically be done with legislation, but is having difficulty getting passed?

All the charter revision commissions we’ve had other than the one that’s getting started have just been appointed by mayors with a mayoral majority. And in several instances, they were appointed with the express purpose of blocking something from the ballot. So no, I don’t think the charter revision commission process as it functions is a way of empowering New Yorkers to pass legislation that doesn’t have support. If people want a vehicle for moving legislation for which there’s popular consensus, but not council support, technically you can do that through a ballot referendum. But every time that has been tried, mayors have appointed a charter revision commission to make up something to put something on the ballot in order to block the referendum.

So are you then hopeful that the City Council’s commission will be more independent?

What’s exciting about the council-established commission is, because of having multiple appointers and no one appointer having the majority, it leaves real room for a broad look at the charter. So I think that’s exciting and it holds the possibility of some broader change than, in general, mayoral commissions have done. That also makes it harder to get a majority of votes from people who have been appointed by stakeholders in diverse positions and present a challenge for getting strong majority support for proposals. I’m excited for it, but it’s hard to know what to expect.