On November 6, New Yorkers will have the opportunity to vote on three ballot initiatives (on the second page of your ballot!). These initiatives are proposed changes to New York City’s Charter, a document that outlines core powers and responsibilities for the city’s elected and appointed officials, departments, and agencies. They were developed through a Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor de Blasio to improve civic engagement in the city.
New York City’s charter can be amended at any time through the regular legislative process and is amended frequently. Certain changes, however, require a public referendum (e.g., changes to create or eliminate an elected position) under New York State’s Municipal Home Rule Law. A Charter Revision Commission is one method to generate these ballot initiatives. None of the proposed amendments on the November 6 ballot require a public referendum – meaning they could be achieved (or undone) through local legislation.
We’ve outlined the pros and cons of each proposal.
Tweak the Public Campaign Finance Program: This initiative would lower the amount of money that a candidate can accept from an individual contributor, but increases the public matching ratio – meaning more bang for smaller bucks. The proposal also increases the total amount of public funding a candidate can use for her or his campaign from 55% to 75% of the expenditure limit.
PRO: Reduce the influence of deep pockets on the political process, reduce the barriers to entry to running, further reduce pay-to-play corruption in city government.
CON: The lowered financing limits might mean candidates have to spend more time fundraising. Constraining publicly funded campaigns to a capped amount could potentially reduce the competitiveness of a publicly funded candidate against a self-funded one. A greater matching amount increases the cost of the program; even the reimagined “small dollar contribution” is a lot of money to most New Yorkers.
Create a Civic Engagement Commission: The second initiative proposes to establish a Civic Engagement Commission of 15 members (8 appointed by the Mayor, 2 by the City Council speaker, and 1 each by the five Borough Presidents). The Commision would implement a citywide participatory budgeting program, ensure appropriate translating services are available at polling places, and work with city agencies to increase public’s awareness of and access to city services.
PRO: Civic engagement is not what it could be in New York City, and this could be away to address this problem; the Commission would address the sense that there is a lack of citywide coordination for civic engagement initiatives. Participatory budgeting is a great way to distribute power to communities, and this would bring it citywide.
CON: The Mayor would dominate the Commission as he/she would appoint the majority of its members; many of the Commission’s goals are already the responsibility of the Board of Election, the Campaign Finance Board, NYC Service and the outreach departments of each of city agency; adding a new bureaucratic layer is not necessarily the best way to address the fact that these entities are not doing the best job.
New requirements for community boards: The third initiative would impose term limits on community board members (four consecutive two-year terms); require Borough Presidents to appoint people of diverse backgrounds to the boards and report this data; and have the Civic Engagement Commission (if created, pursuant to the second initiative) provide technical assistance and resources to the community boards, particularly for land use reviews and initiatives.
PRO: Term limits would allow for membership turnover and prevent stagnation. It could increase diversity of perspectives on boards. Membership turnover on the community board doesn’t always diminish local expertise as some fear; active involvement on the community board doesn’t require full membership and term-limited members could still participate at the committee level.
CON: Terms limits would reduce the institutional knowledge that each community board has built up, which is particularly problematic in land use decisions as property developers already have the upper hand.
NKD’s Policy Committee reviewed the three proposals. We support the first and second proposals and abstained from considering the third.
Public Campaign Finance is not a panacea, but it has been a successful program; the proposed changes will likely expand its benefits. We agree that civic engagement is lacking in New York City and welcome a unified entity to try to improve it.
We lack sufficient familiarity with community boards to make an informed decision on the third proposal. Arguments for and against are both compelling.
Want more information? Follow this link for a more thorough explanation of each proposal.