NYC Charter Changes: Deciphering the Small Print of Very Large Issues

Benjamin Yee explains upcoming ballot choices at September’s CRDC general meeting. | Photo by Donathan Salkaln

BY DONATHAN SALKALN | In the upcoming November 5 general election, New York City voters will be asked to vote “Yes” or “No” to 19 proposals in amending the NYC Charter.

Because comprehending such an enormous sea of tiny print would be an exhaustive task—possibly taking some voters to use all the polling hours between 7am and 9pm—Ben Yee, Civic Educator and Democratic Committee Member (66th District), presented the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club (CRDC) a layman’s overview of the proposals, at the CRDC’s Sept. 17th general meeting. The event was moderated by CRDC President Judy Richheimer, organized by CRDC Program Director Mindy Rosier-Rayburn, and held at the Hudson Guild’s Elliott Center.

In 2018, the City Council empaneled a charter revision commission, which has since drawn up proposals in five categories: Elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board (the civilian oversight of the NYPD), Ethics and Government, City Budget, and Land Use.

Began Yee, “The City Charter is effectively the New York City’s constitution. So when you make changers to it, you really should be cognizant of the potential impacts. Voters will endorse or reject a slate of reforms per issue area. You will be able to vote for five different things, and within each one of those things are all the proposals to do with that subject. If you reject a category, all of those things are thrown out. If you accept it, all of them are enacted.”

—Establishing Rank Choice Voting in City Primaries and special elections starting in 2021: The change would allow NYC voters to rank their first preferred candidate to their fifth preferred candidate.

Yee clarified how the amendment would tally the votes: “The least popular candidate will be dropped, and everybody who put that person as their first choice will have their votes redistributed to their second choice… and so on, until someone emerges with 50 percent of the vote, plus one. This will end election run-offs.”

Yee related that rank voting would have eliminated an expensive runoff between Letitia James and Dan Squadron in the 2013 race for Public Advocate.

“It would have been cheaper if the city hired both of them than to have a second election,” he said. Another example: If the state of Michigan had rank voting for its 2016 presidential election, since Donald Trump didn’t get 50 percent of the vote + one, Hillary Clinton would most likely have gained the votes from Michigan’s least popular candidate, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and would have won Michigan’s 16 electoral votes instead of Trump.

—Increasing the time between an office vacancy and the special city election to fill it from 45 days (60 for mayor) to 80 days.

Said Lee, “The Board of Elections finds it very difficult to mail ballots overseas to people and get those ballots back.”

—Changing the timeline for City Council redistricting to complete it prior to city council nominating petition signature collection.

“The Census will be completed in 2020. We need 14 months for the redistricting process. The redistricting process would commence in mid 2022 and end in March 2023,” said Yee. “All 51 city council seats will be up for re-election in 2023, even though we have an election in 2021.” The City Council terms will be 2 years rather than 4, for election years 2021 and 2023.


BALLOT QUESTION 2: New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board Charter

While the NYPD has its own Internal Affairs Bureau, and the mayor has his Task Force on Police Corruption, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board reviews police conduct independent of the NYPD.
—Add two members to the 13-member Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)—one appointed by the Public Advocate and one jointly by the mayor and speaker of the council.

Yee explained that currently, there are 13 members on the CCR Board, all approved by the mayor, with the City Council designating five, and the police commissioner three and the mayor appointing five including the chairperson. The proposal would add a chairperson chosen jointly between the Council Speaker and the mayor, and another member by Public Advocate. “Vacancies on the CCRB would be filled within 60 days,” said Yee.

—Allow the City Council to appoint members directly without the mayor having final appointing authority.

“The mayor would no longer have the power to reject the city council’s 5 appointments to the board,” said Yee.

—Require the CCRB annual budget to be enough to hire employees for at least one CCRB for every 154 police officers (0.65% of the city’s police force), unless the mayor determines that fiscal necessity prevents it.

The NYPD’s 2019 budget is $5.6 billion, meaning the CCRB annual personnel budget would become $36.7 million for salaries alone, up from the CCRB’s current over-all budget of $16.7 million. Said Yee, “The Mayor could reduce that, but they would have to issue a statement of fiscal necessity.”

—Add to the city charter the requirement that the City Police Commissioner provide an explanation to the CCRB whenever the board’s disciplinary recommendations aren’t followed.

“The proposal would require the police commissioner to explain every single punishment meted out to officers that the CCRB recommended, and continue to provide explanations to their decisions when a case goes to administrative trial.”

—Authorize the CCRB to investigate the truthfulness of statements made during its investigation of complaints.

Yee said, “This would give the CCRB the power to investigate false claims that it feels were made to it by officers of the Police Department.”

—Allow the CCRB to delegate its authority to issue and enforce subpoenas.

“This proposal would allow the CCRB to vote to give subpoena power to the Executive Director, who operates when they are not in session,” Yee said. “It would allow the CCRB to move much more quickly, and without having to constantly check with the membership in order to further investigations.”


BALLOT QUESTION 3:  New York City Ethics and Government Charter Amendment
—Increase the amount of time after leaving service before elected city officials and senior appointed officials can appear before the city agencies in which they served from one year to two years.

“When you leave office, you’re forbidden to become a lobbyist for “x” number of years. In NY State’s legislature it’s two years, in the city it’s one year,” explained Yee. “This would expand it to two years for elected officials, deputy mayors, agency heads, anybody who is on a paid board of commission, and the highest ranking staffer of any board of commission.”

—Replace two of five members of the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) appointed by the mayor with a member appointed by the comptroller and a member appointed by the public advocate.

“It would require that quorum would be the majority and require that decisions be made by a majority vote,” Yee pointed out. “So not only would you have to have three people in the room, but all three of them would have to agree.

—Prohibit members of the COIB from involvement with city office campaigns, and restrict contributions from COIB members to campaigns to between $250 and $400 depending on the office.

“COIB members will be barred from participating in any level in a city election and their contributions will be capped at much lower levels,” said Yee.

—Add to the city charter a requirement that the Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (M/WBE) to report directly to the mayor and to require a mayoral office for the M/WBE.

Said Yee, “Nothing currently exists. This would write into the Charter that we now get a city-wide director of M/WBE.”

—Require City Council confirmation of the city’s corporation counsel appointed by the mayor.

The city’s corporation council is kind of like New York’s Attorney General. It is the chief attorney of the city,” explained Yee. “One of the big issues, because that person is uniquely beholden to the mayor, the City Council often feels it has to engage private attorneys for the work it does, and in the instances when the City Council sues the mayor, they have zero faith in this person.”


BALLOT QUESTION 4:  New York City Budget Charter Amendment: Revenue Stabilization Fund, Public Advocate and Borough President Budgets, and Reporting by Mayor
—Authorize a rainy day fund to go into effect with required state law changes.

“Both the city charter and the State Law prohibit use of saved revenue from one year being used to fill a budget shortfall in another year,” said Yee. “This would amend the charter. However, the rainy day fund would still be barred by state law under the financial emergency law that won’t expire till 2033.”

—Set minimum Public Advocate and Borough President budgets based on the 2020 fiscal year adjusted based on inflation or the total change in the city’s total budget.

“The Public Advocate and Borough President budgets are set by the mayor and City Council,” explained Yee. “The proposal would take the 2020 budget of each office as a baseline, and then it would adjust it each year by inflation or city budget, which ever is lower.” Current budgets for the office of Public Advocate office is $3.6 million and the offices of Borough Presidents total $25 million ($5.8 million Brooklyn, $5.65 million Bronx, $5.16 million for Queens, $4.7million for Manhattan, $4.3 million for Staten Island).

—Move the deadline for the mayor’s revenue report (excluding property taxes) to the City Council from June 5 to April 26.

“When the mayor submits the budget plan in April they are not required to submit the estimates for next years revenue. Instead that’s due on June 5. The budget is due on July 1,” Yee said, explaining to the group that the City Council gets the budget not knowing whether it is fundable. If it is not fundable, they have to raise real estate taxes. Said Yee,

“This would force the mayor to issue those revenue

estimates with the budget in April.”

—Set a deadline of 30 days for the mayor to submit changes to the city’s financial plan requiring budget changes to the City Council.

“When the mayor issues a financial plan and there is a shortfall, they have to issue a budget modification request within 30 days of the issuance of the financial plan,” said Yee. He explained that the current system requires scrambling for money at the end each fiscal year.


BALLOT QUESTION 5:  New York City Land Use Charter Amendment: Uniform Land Use Review Procedure Requirements
—Require the Department of City Planning (DCP) to provide a summary of Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) projects to the Borough President, Board and Community Board affected by the project 30 days prior to when the project application is certified for review by the public.

“Community Boards are comprised of volunteers and can’t devote the amount of time that a paid elected official can, and don’t have staff that the elected officials do,” said Yee, adding “There was a lot of requests for an extended time frame.” According to Yee, this proposal would add an additional 30 days, to give community boards and borough boards to review ULURP applications.

—Increase the amount of time allowed for review of the ULURP projects by the affected Community Boards from 60 days to either 75 days or 90 days, depending on timing.

“There’s a complaint that community board members and members of the community cannot show up during the summer months, because people go away. This would change the timeline for ULURP in only certain months. You would get 90 days for projects which were certified by DECP in June, and you would get 75 days for projects certified between July 1 and  July 15,” Yee  pointed out.

In summary Yee said, “I am particularly annoyed at the land use proposals, because even though I will vote for it, it doesn’t do anything about shifting power. A lot of people complain about the time frame of ULURP, but the real problem with ULURP is the fact that communities have zero power—and the Charter Revision Commission did nothing to address the disparity of power between communities and the mayor and developers. Community Boards still only have the capacity to make recommendations.


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