Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Noticing New York’s Testimony at Tonight’s Charter Revision Commission Hearing on the Subject of Term Limits

This post has been updated as of May 26, 2010. See the concluding section.

Below is the Noticing New York testimony we delivered tonight at the New York City Charter Revision Commission’s hearing on the subject of the term limits issue (i.e. reinstating at least the mayoral term limits that were repealed to give Bloomberg his third term). We were the second member of the public to speak after the panel of three experts spoke. We were, we think, the only speaker who was cut off by the Commission’s chair, Matthew Goldstein. Chair Goldstein cut us off saying that testimony we were in the process of giving was not pertinent to term limits. Nevertheless, we steadfastly persevered through to completion even if we were thrown off our stride with that interruption plus consciousness of the three-minute time clock ticking down.

We will let our Noticing New York readers be the judge of whether our testimony is directly pertinent to the subject of term limits. We thought we were very careful to make it so. To be fair, after the hearing, we asked Chair Goldstein what we were saying that he thought didn’t pertain to topic of term limits. He said that it was when we had talked about how consideration of the issue of term limits should not be conjoined with the issues of so-called “nonpartisan elections” and the proposed abolition of the Public Advocates office, but when we pointed out that Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (whom he had not cut off) made the same points in his testimony directly following ours, Chair Goldstein acknowledged the relationship and that he had been learning by listening to all the presentations.

Here then is our Noticing New York testimony. (Does it sound pertinent?):

* * * *

May 25, 2010

New York City Charter Revision Commission
2 Lafayette Street, Rm 1414
New York, NY 10007

Re: May 25, 2010- Hearing on “TERM LIMITS ISSUE FORUM”

Dear New York City Charter Revision Commission:

This comment is being offered in the name of Noticing New York, an independent entity that pays close attention to the politics and governance issues associated with New York City development.
1. Don’t make the work of this commission the height of irony. The hallmark of the Bloomberg administration has been the accretion of unchecked power in Mayor Bloomberg as a single all-too-powerful individual. (One important unprecedented example: Unchecked by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, Mayor Bloomberg did personal Bloomberg L.P. business with almost all of the same companies the city does business with to become the city’s richest individual while in office, his wealth increasing more than ten times from the time he began pursuing politics openly in 1997.)

2. What do we mean by “irony”? We mean don’t take something the public definitely favors, reimplementation of the two term limit for mayoral office to reverse the mayor’s most infamous power grab, and attempt to couple it with the reverse, something the public definitely doesn’t want; new Bloomberg grabs at power.

3. The following are additional grabs at power by Bloomberg that should not be conjoined with the reimplementation of term limits:
a. So-called “nonpartisan elections.” This was previously proposed by Bloomberg and roundly rejected by the voters in 2003. So-called “nonpartisan elections” favor the wealthy and the personally powerful and could assist Bloomberg in his pursuit of presidential office in 2012.

b. Abolition of the Public Advocates office. The Public Advocates office is a sorely needed check upon the mayor.
4. Rather than using the public’s antagonism to Bloomberg’s overturn of term limits in a ruse to confer even greater power upon Bloomberg, we urge the commission to focus only on limiting the power of individuals who become mayor by restoring term limits for that office.

5. We suggest though that like the current federal system which limits the terms for president but not the members of the federal Congress, only the mayor should be term limited. Among other things this would help address the imbalance of power between the mayor and the City Council.

6. The only thing we think that would be fair to consider in conjunction with term limits is the further general check and balance on the power of incumbents, both the mayor and the members of the City Council included, that can be achieved through implementing what is known sometimes as “instant runoff elections” and sometimes as “alternative voting.” Such a change will generate challengers and assist them by making all their voices more important and will make it easier to depose incumbents. That system can be implemented while retaining party primaries and would be cheaper than Bloomberg’s idea for “nonpartisan elections” which involve multiple elections just for the purpose of runoffs which under alternative voting would become entirely unnecessary.

7. We note another reason not to term limit the City Council: Restoring two term limits to the City Council in the next (or a future) election could result in a further weakening of the City Council by forcing a one-time huge turnover in the City Council when the terms of nearly all members of the City Council thereby expire simultaneously.


Michael D. D. White

* * * *

May 26, 2010 Update:

The first public speaker, the one before us, read aloud the following Clyde Haberman column from yesterday’s New York Times, savaging the original “Bloomberg-Quinn maneuvering” that pushed term limits through and questioning the commission’s independence from Bloomberg: Like It or Not, the Issue of Term Limits Is Back, May 24, 2010. Some sample paragraphs are below:
Yes, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the issue of term limits for city officials is on the agenda again. It means that so, too, is the stain created when the mayor and the City Council subverted voters’ will to keep themselves in office for years more.

* * *
Like the man who came to dinner, the term limits issue doesn’t go away. It is now in the hands of the Charter Revision Commission, which has several tasks, one of which is to convince skeptical New Yorkers that it is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Mr. Bloomberg.

* * *

Whatever the commissioners decide, they will act in the shadow of the 2008 Bloomberg-Quinn maneuvering. “How they’re going to look at it is influenced by what happened,” said Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., who in 1989 led a charter commission that brought about the most far-reaching revisions of modern times.
As already noted, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio took the same position that we did: That this Commission should focus only on the restoration of the term limits Bloomberg overrode and that consideration of any other possible changes should wait and be dealt with separately by another commission after 2012. John Keefe, a representative speaking on behalf of Assemblyman James Brennan’s office, went further: He said that because the commission had been convened to implement a pre-agreed-upon a “ cynical and opportunistic deal” between billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Ron Lauder (to repeal and then restore term limits after Bloomberg's election to a third term), that the commission should take no action at all as none could be considered legitimate. Assemblyman Brennan has introduced several pieces of legislation on the state level to regulate City Charter revision which would make it much less of a billionaire's plaything. (See: October 8, 2008, Lauder and Bloomberg Strike a Deal, By Michael Barbaro and Sewell Chan. )

A representative speaking for Citizens Union took a position in line with Noticing New York's, that the two-term limit should be restored only for the office of mayor not for the members of the City Council. That was in line with some of the testimony offered by the testifying experts at the beginning of the hearing, one of whom noted that the council (and legislators in general) are in balance-of-power terms faced with the problem of "collective action" which should probably be the distinction that governs who should be term limited and should not. We should note that in contradistinction to Citizens Union we would be happy if the City Council were not term limited at all, rather than the current three-term cap.

City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell was in line with us, expressing concern that the executive (the mayor) has been strengthened relative to the City Council and observed that term limits applying to both the mayor and the City Council served to accentuate relative strengthening. Speaking solicitously to the commission he ventured that he thought the "die had not been cast" in terms of what the commission would do and that the actions they would take were not "foreordained."

City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams sounded more skeptical, echoing one of the concerns we were expressing when we were cut off by Chair Goldstein, when he said that specter of "nonpartisan elections" was the "doppelganger in the room that nobody is talking about."

New York Civic's Henry Stern spoke in favor of term limits, equating them with practices in ancient Greece and Rome and also said that he didn't agree with previous speakers (presumable just Noticing New York's testimony) because he thought Bloomberg had done a good job. (Even we didn't actually say Bloomberg gad done a bad job- though that is certainly to be argued- we only spoke about Bloomberg's excessive power and the way that he has used it, among other things acquiring huge wealth while in office that has in turn been used to help keep him in office.)

We note that no speaker other than our Noticing New York-selves spoke about the possibility of “instant runoff elections” aka “alternative voting.” Nevertheless, the experts of the evening as well as others spoke extensively about the desirability of circumscribing the disproportionate power that incumbents have in elections and their associated lack of accountability. It was also discussed how term limits does not solve the accountability problem and may actually accentuate it some regard. Alternative voting addresses both these problems. It helps circumscribe the power of incumbents in elections and simultaneously works to make them more accountable.

Toward the end of the evening Chair Goldstien offered the observation for the record that he thought there had been the "most ubiquitous outreach of any charter commission" and that the outreach had even been "statewide." This was contrary to other characterizations that the commission has been operating under the radar and anecdotes during the evening, much of it from the commissioners themselves, that people were confusing the commission's work with bus rentals and the issue of charter schools in the New York City school system.

We found ourselves unsettled by the technology associated with the evening in two ways. The evening was supposedly occurring simultaneously over the internet and through Facebook and Twitter. Facebook and Twitter? Really? At one point Chair Goldstein read three comments submitted via the commission's website. It seemed that this was a perfect opportunity for cherrypicking and the comments read did not disabuse us of this suspicion. The second thing was this. One of the commissioners suggested that material provided by the evening's experts should be posted on the commission's website. Chairman Goldstein said this could be done, commenting that the commission's website was "organic," that "it sheds as well as gains." That sounds like a warning to the wise: If you find anything interesting on the website you better download it today because it might not be there tomorrow!

For other takes on the evening see:

The City Pragmatist: Charter Revision Focuses on Term Limits, May 26, 2010

The Daily News: May 26, 2010, Term Limits Will Be On November Ballot; Maybe Nonpartisan Elections? By Adam Lisberg. Here is the Daily News on the subject of whether the commission will conjoin “nonpartisan elections” with a restoration term limits by putting “nonpartisan elections” on the November’s ballot together with term limits:
As the commission met last night, the DN City Hall Bureau's Erin Einhorn followed Bloomberg to a reception for the city Independence Party, where he said again he's not going to tell the commission what to do -- but he hopes they'll put it on the ballot.

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