Manhattan Institute

Chartering Chaos

New York’s city council proposes changes to the governing framework that would erode accountability and hamper effectiveness.

At the end of January, with no fanfare, New York’s city council released recommended changes to the city charter. The council wants to use the Charter Revision Commission to strip the mayor and executive agencies of important powers, while taking more power for itself. It would be done through a ballot measure in an off-year election expected to have minimal turnout.

The low-key nature of the proposal obscures an audacious power grab. The council’s agenda for charter revision would radically change how the city handles land use, budgeting, and police oversight. The new charter would impose three-year terms on the police commissioner, corporation counsel, and city planning director, among others, and reserve a council right to veto the mayor’s appointment and reappointment of these officials. The veto alone would impede effective government. How could the city keep up with the needs of its growing population for housing and public facilities if its chief planner faces job termination when any of 51 council members objects to proposed development in their districts?

City government’s efficiency and responsiveness depend to a remarkable extent on the city charter, which lays out the structure and function of local government. The last major change to the charter was made in 1989, after a three-year process in which a highly regarded commission with more than 50 full-time staff held some 140 public meetings to create today’s system. By contrast, the present commission has done little to clarify the issues or educate the public; it operates on a breakneck schedule aimed at meeting its arbitrary deadline.

The 1989 charter prioritized accountability and clear executive and legislative roles. Consistent with good-government reforms nationwide, it consolidated executive authority in the highest-profile official—the mayor. It expanded the city council to make it more representative and gave it significant oversight powers. The charter also introduced campaign-finance reform, open-meetings laws, and other transparency measures.

Since 1989, New York City has prospered. The boom-bust fiscal cycles that frequently forced austerity on city services have been tamed; the high-level corruption scandals of the 1980s and earlier decades have not recurred. So why make big changes now? Every previous charter commission responded to some prominent public concern or external shock—cleanup of borough corruption and more effective administration in 1936 and 1961, community participation in 1975, or the landmark Supreme Court case striking down the Board of Estimate in 1987. No compelling reasons exist to upend the structure of city government today, and the council has not offered any.  

On the contrary, maintaining the current “strong mayor” system makes good sense. Consider the crime drop in New York City over the last 30 years.  While the causes of rising and falling crime are complex, mayoral accountability, beginning with the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program in the Dinkins administration and continuing through the three succeeding mayors, has served the city well. Removing the mayor’s power to name his own police commissioner, and making that appointment subject to council approval, could hamstring accountability, to the detriment of effective law enforcement.

Imagine for a moment that the city council succeeds in implementing its changes. Where would responsibility lie for unpopular and unsuccessful policies? The mayor would blame the council, which can’t be held collectively accountable—each member is elected by a tiny slice of the city’s electorate. Voters can hold accountable only their own local representative, who can in turn pass the buck and blame other members. And the entire council can blame the mayor.

The mayor of New York, hardly a dictator, is currently held in check not only by the council—which can veto legislation—but also, and more significantly, by Albany, which has the authority to impose and raise most taxes, reaffirm mayoral control of the schools, and provide a significant portion of the city’s operating revenue. If it succeeds, the council’s power play won’t yield good results. History tells us that these changes would diffuse accountability, hamper city government’s effectiveness, and threaten to turn back the clock to the days when major corruption scandals rocked New York.

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