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Assembly Testimony on Charter Revision Legislation 03-05-10 FINAL (2)

Assembly Testimony on Charter Revision Legislation 03-05-10 FINAL (2)

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03/05/2010

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NYS Assembly Committee on Cities hearing on City Charter RevisionsHon. James F. Brennan, ChairFriday, March 5, 2010Submitted by Micah Lasher, Director of State Legislative Affairs, City of New York
Through public hearings and meetings, and ultimately a referendum by the voters, the charterrevision process empowers the citizenry to determine and improve the structure of itsgovernment. Much interest has been generated with respect to the formation, this week, of acharter revision commission in New York City, and the City is grateful for the opportunity tosubmit testimony to the New York State Assembly Cities Committee on this important subject.The Municipal Home RuleLaw (MHRL) permits the mayor of any city in New York State tocreate a charter commission.
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Other subdivisions of the MHRL authorize the creation of chartercommissions by act of the local legislative body—locally, the New York City Council—orthrough a petition process.
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Any charter commission may then review the municipal charter andmake recommendations to be voted on by the electorate, typically at anelection held not earlierthan 60 days after the filing of the proposed new charter or amendments.
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If such a commissiondoes not submit amendments bythe date of the second general election following itsorganization, it dissolves at that time.
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 The system currently prescribed by state law maintains an important role for municipal mayorsand it has served New York City effectively. It was a charter commission initiated by the mayorin 1989 that remedied the problem posed by the Board of Estimate’s unconstitutionality andcreated the present-day structure of New York City government. Most recently, in 2005, cityvoters approved two measures placed on the ballot by a mayoral charter revision commission:one that provided for an ethical code of conduct for administrative law judges and another thatmade permanent in the Charter certain restrictions in the New York State Financial EmergencyAct for the City of New York that were originally imposed by the state after the city’s fiscalcrisis in the 1970s. It is important to note, however, that proposals put forth by a mayor-initiatedcharter commission are not guaranteed to pass. The voters, and not the mayor, retain theultimate power—indeed, over the past dozen years, proposals made by two separatecommissions have been rejected by the electorate.Given that the current charter revision commission was appointed just this week and has yet tomeet, the City of New York is in no position to comment on its plans, as the committee’s chair
1
 
MHRL §36(4)
 
2
 
MHRL §36(2), (3)
 
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MHRL §36(5)
 
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MHRL §36(6)(e)
 
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has requested. Legislation currently introduced in the State Assembly concerning city charterrevisions—Assembly bills 4122-A, 6109, and 10055—would, however, diminish the role of themayor in amending the City Charter, now and in the future. While the legislation does not touchon other vehicles to initiate referenda—via the City Council and through public petitioning—each proposal would, without benefit to city government or the people it serves, reduce the NewYork City mayor’s independent ability to effect change, with the voters’ support, through thecharter revision process. The City of New York, therefore, opposes the proposed pieces of legislation.Assembly bill No. 4122-BAssembly bill No. 4122-B enacts special provisions relating to charter commissions in cities of one million or more inhabitants, and therefore would apply only to New York City. Under thelegislation, New York City’s mayor would be required to select nominees of various otherelected officials, including the public advocate and borough delegations of the City Council.These nominees would constitute a significant proportion of the resulting commission. Further, acommission appointed after May 15
 
in any year would be prohibited from placing proposals onthe ballot until the subsequent calendar year following its creation, unless it receives approvalfrom the City Council. Finally, the bill’s new restrictions would be retroactive to January 1,2010.With no obvious rationale, A4122-B would create an entirely different charter revision processfor New York City than for any other city in the state. Only in New York City would the mayorbe prohibited from appointing a charter revision commission that consists of individuals chosenat her or his sole discretion. Beyond this separate standard for New York City, there is anadditional, separate standard for the mayor: a more onerous timetable for mayoral chartercommissions than for charter commissions appointed by the City Council or for ballot questionsput forth through the petition process, tying the hands of the City’s mayor in the event that she orhe needs to address an urgent matter. In addition, limiting the appointment powers of the mayorcould potentially create a
de facto
veto for other elected officials over the mayor’s power tocreate charter commissions. With authority to appoint only up to nine members withoutnomination by others, a mayor could be prevented from appointing a full complement of commissioners by the refusal of non-mayoral officials to nominate members.Additionally, a commission appointed by the mayor may at times be the only viable way to makechanges to city government that would weaken and/or face opposition from the City Council orother elected officials. By requiring any charter commission to include a large number of members nominated by non-mayoral officials, this legislation would remove an important toolfrom the arsenal of reform: such commissions would be unlikely to support even the mostmeritorious solutions to the City’s problems if those solutions might weaken the non-mayoralnominating officials.With regard to the elongated process created exclusively for charter commissions appointed bythe mayor of the City of New York, there is no evidence to suggest that voters need as many astwenty months to contemplate municipal charter revisions. Further, requiring the locallegislature to affirm ballot placement when a commission is formed after May 15 once again2
 
provides a negotiating platform and an effective veto to the local legislature that couldpotentially rob voters of their voice.Assembly bill No. 6019Assembly bill No. 6019 repeals provisions of the MHRL that generally ensure that other localballot questions are not submitted to the voters at the same election as questions submitted by acharter commission, and that questions submitted by a mayoral charter commission takeprecedence over, and not compete with, other local ballot questions.
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The provisions alsorequire that a local legislative body not submit questions to the voters while a chartercommission isin existence except at a general election, and contain special protection for certainvoter petitions.
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Under current law, those petitions, if displaced under these provisions, must beplaced on the general election ballot in the following year.There is real value in enabling mayoral charter commissions—given the charge that they reviewthe “entire charter” and their history of engaging in extensive public comment processes andcareful study of governmental structure and operations—to place their proposals before thevoters without a cacophony of conflicting or competing proposals. It is, therefore, reasonablethat the proposals of charter commissions take precedence over proposals originating throughother mechanisms.It is critical to note that the existing law includes a “safety valve” for voters, by providing thatany valid petition proposal under section 37 of the MHRL that is displaced by a mayoral chartercommission must be placed on the following year’s general election ballot. This provisionappropriately balances the adequate consideration of what may be carefully designed andcomplex proposals put forth by a mayoral charter commission with the rights of sections of theelectorate to initiate their own changes to the governing document of their city. By contrast, theproposed legislation strikes no such careful balance and is more likely to impair efforts toimprove municipal administration by local mayors statewide.Assembly bill No. 10055Assembly bill No. 10055, introduced just this week, amends the MHRL to allow the CityCouncil, by a two-thirds vote, to prevent proposals put forth by a charter revision commissionfrom being placed on the ballot for voter consideration. This bill has key deficiencies that aresimilar to and extend beyond the deficiencies of the legislation discussed above.First, this bill once again creates a separate standard for New York City, suggesting that onlyNew York City’s voters need the local legislature to essentially “vet” the recommendations of acharter commission before voters can have their say. (It is worth noting that every household inNew York City receives an impartial voter guide with statements favoring and opposing charterrevision proposals prior to Election Day.)
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MHRL §
36(5)(e)
 
6
MHRL §36(5)(g)
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