UNDER DISCUSSION

  • Better Government Or Power Grab: How Will You Vote On Question 2?

Vote 'No' On A Mayoral Power Grab

New York City's 17-year term limits saga continues with a ballot question in Tuesday's election. But the more obscure Question 2 might be more important—and perilous.

Like Mike Bloomberg's bicycle lanes? Vote "No" on ballot Question 2. Dislike his bike lanes? Vote "No" on ballot Question 2. Huh?

If you're wondering what bicycle lanes have to do with ballot Question 2—a collection of unrelated charter proposals—and why you should bother to vote "No" on Q2, a little history will explain.

The bike lane program—whatever you think of it—was made possible because of advocacy by organized transportation advocates and because a major charter revision in 1989 created a strong-mayor, weak-council form of government. Today, even if the City Council or borough presidents disagree with the mayor, they usually can't do anything about it. Only Bloomberg or a successor could reverse the bike lane expansion.

The NYC mayor's leverage over other city officials is broad: He can stop a commissioner from returning an official's phone call (something Rudy Giuliani did); he can choose which elected officials to invite to photo ops; and he can reward supporters on the Council by giving them credit when he sends mayoral discretionary funds to their districts.

Not surprisingly, only once during the Bloomberg administration did the City Council rally to reject a major mayoral development: the Kingsbridge Armory Mall in 2009. Voter approval of ballot Question 2 would sharpen the mayor's edge a little more.

The same tools that give Mike Bloomberg so much control also will enable his successors to continue or reverse his initiatives. If the public starts to object, a wealthy mayor could use personal philanthropy to cadge support out of cash-hungry "civic organizations" and other not-for-profits, creating an illusion of broad support for his policies.

What New Yorkers lost in the 1989 charter revision was not only checks and balances. We lost compromise. Mercifully, most New Yorkers consider Bloomberg a moderate. But some of his successors may not be.

Now, under the guise of "reform" and "efficiency," Bloomberg's 2010 charter revision commission wants to increase the mayor's edge a little more. This could be dangerous for the future.

The commission has set modest but meaningful goals. Chairman Matthew Goldstein made a pragmatic judgment that 2010 was the wrong time to try to streamline the land use review procedure, as real estate developers desire. He settled for a few less-controversial "process improvements"—and confected them with a couple of "reforms" that seem appealing but could weaken the Democratic Party and its ability to resist wealthy self-funded candidates. All of these are lumped together as ballot Question 2.

Question 2 would require disclosure of independent campaign spending. Sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but it wouldn't constrain billionaires who don't have to depend on outside financial support.

Q2 also would halve the number of signatures needed to get on a ballot. "Independents" like this idea because it could make it easier for them to challenge the dominant Democrats. But it could increase the "kook factor" in government, and would erode the ability of major political parties—however imperfect they are—to bring ordinary people together to fight candidates who can fund expensive advertising campaigns.

Question 2 would merge the Voter Assistance Commission into the Campaign Finance Board: an innocuous measure, but one that would do nothing to change who gets elected. The VAC-CFB merger has been included in Q2 to give the New York Times and the Citizens Union something to praise.

Likewise for Q2's conflicts of interest enhancements. Like the VAC-CFB merger, these would have minimal effect, but help to "sweeten" the Q2 package for voters and editorial writers.

Question 2 would authorize the mayor to consolidate administrative tribunals, which currently fall under his various agencies. This "one size fits all" approach to selecting and training administrative law judges could make it easier for a mayor to interfere in the ALJ hiring process.

Q2 would create a commission to trim the number of reports required of the mayor and his agencies and the number of advisory bodies in city government (excluding community boards). But the fine print (§1113.g) says that this new commission, dominated by mayoral appointees, could block the City Council from enhancing or extending the mayor's current reporting requirements.

And Q2 would broaden the kinds of facilities to be included in the "fair share" maps that the city uses when determining sites for waste transfer stations, jails, and other "NIMBY" services—an appealing "reform." But this information already is widely available. More crucially, Q2 would do nothing to change the way the city decides where to put such facilities or when to reveal their intended locations. Right now, despite an annual planning requirement in the charter, site information routinely is withheld from the community until the last minute. Q2 doesn't change this.

Finally, voters should object to Question 2 simply because it robs us of choice. Goldstein argues that the new paper ballots just are too small to accommodate the proposals as separate questions. The Board of Elections has denied this. And common sense says a solution could have been found.

Question 2 contains a few provisions—the VAC-CFB merger, the conflicts of interest enhancements, the site map requirement—that could marginally "reform" the way government works.

But its core proposals are intended to help those who want mayors to be even more controlling than Mike Bloomberg, and even more resistant to compromise. This is not what New York City needs.




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