Saturday, November 3, 2018

How To Vote On The Three City Charter Reform (Reform?- Really?) Proposals on The November 6, 2018 Ballot! (NO, NO. . . & MAYBE. .?)

The adviceon how to vote on three proposal to change the NYC Charter sent out by two activist coalitions (above) is pretty similar and largely negative about the proposals.
The short answer is—

Vote NO on #1
Vote NO on #2
On #3?: Think about it, only MAYBE? YES.

In other words on the three proposals to change the New York Cit Charter that are on Tuesday’s ballot (all that “flip the ballot” stuff you have been hearing about that sounds oddly, perhaps intentionally, reminiscent of “Flip the Congress”) here is how it is recommended that informed, community activist-minded voters vote:
1.    On “Campaign Finance Reform- Reducing the amount of contributions to politician’s campaigns and increasing the amount of matching funds.”  VOTE NO.

2.    On “Creation of New Community Engagement Agency.”   VOTE NO.

3.    On “Term Limits on Community Boards.”  MAYBE VOTE YES (but THINK ABOUT IT!!- see below)
We are shortcutting this process and not doing all our own thinking on it.  Instead, having reviewed them, we present here the consonant recommendations, with some very validly expressed reasoning of both MTOPP (The Movement To Protect The People) and The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance, two activist group coalitions vigorously fighting for more responsible, less destructive development (with less displacement) that will better reflect the wishes of New Yorkers.
First off, as you can glean from the title of this post, to call something a “reform” doesn’t mean that it actually is validly and unquestionably a “reform”; some changes labeled “reforms” actually make things worse for most of use while shifting more power, benefit and control to the powerful (think Trump’s “Tax Code Reform).  Next, the way that revisions to the City Charter get proposed and put before the voters makes it likely that proposed changes will benefit those already powerful and controlling the process and not those wanting to challenge power.  This will likely hold as the general reality of things unless and until strong, broad based populist efforts seize the initiative and coordinate for proposals that effect true reform.  That is not exactly true of the mostly below-the-radar way that the current proposals were cooked and served up.

Here is some background on what happened as described by The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance.
The Mayor created a Charter Review Commission last spring, shoved it through with little advertising or public debate, and that Commission came up with three ballot proposals that you will encounter when you go to vote next week.  Most voters had no idea it was happening.  We testified at one of their hearings about campaign finance and community board reform.

The City Council, not to be outdone, created its own Charter Review Commission, which, I am told, is preparing another round of hearings this winter. We testified at the first round of their hearings and will be testifying again this winter and spring.

The composition of both Commissions is not encouraging (too many people who reflect the views of Big Real Estate and the Mayor), but the presence of campaign finance reform advocate Sal Albanese on the Council's commission is a hopeful sign that the Council's Commission will continue to address that particular issue this winter and we could get better reform ideas out of them that with the bad ideas the Mayor's team has come up with.  Here is what is on the ballot (to see more detail, go to Ballotopedia here.)
Remember that every ballot proposal is worded by the people who want to see it enacted and is thus worded with the hope of enticing people to vote for it.

One thing that is highly discouraging is that, as City and State observes in its reporting: “The measures from de Blasio’s commission . . have drawn overwhelming approval from the city’s Democratic lawmakers.”  Proposals that please "Big Real Estate and the Mayor"?  This is another example of how the Democratic machine in New York City continues to work against the most fundamental interests of the public while nominally working for the public dressing up, without significant challenge from the press, in fauxmanteau progressivism.  That’s why, to get some genuine reforms, this city needs to institute instant run-off voting and start growing third party generated alternatives for the voters to vote for.

Below are the proposals worded as you will see them on Tuesday’s ballot followed, in each case respectively by the analysis and recommendations of MTOPP and The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance.  Interjected in brackets is some of my own Noticing New York thinking about the composition of community boards.
Question #1: Campaign Finance
This proposal would amend the City Charter to lower the amount a candidate for City elected office may accept from a contributor. It would also increase the public funding used to match a portion of the contributions received by a candidate who participates in the City’s public financing program.

In addition, the proposal would make public matching funds available earlier in the election year to participating candidates who can demonstrate need for the funds. It would also ease a requirement that candidates for Mayor, Comptroller, or Public Advocate must meet to qualify for matching funds.

The amendments would apply to participating candidates who choose to have the amendments apply to their campaigns beginning with the 2021 primary election, and would then apply to all candidates beginning in 2022.
Shall this proposal be adopted?
MTOP’s Recommendation to vote NO:
Campaign Finance Reform- Reducing the amount of contributions to politician’s campaigns and increasing the amount of matching funds.
First you have to keep in mind that there are a lot of laws on the books that allow Politicians to get large sums of money from various sources.  For example, campaigning and collecting funds when you are not facing an opponent!  This allows existing elected officials to create large war chests that they can use later, if a challenger does come a few years down the line.

Thus the reducing of the contributions will only benefit the large, well machined candidates who have the real estate industry working behind them exercising all of those other loopholes.  Whereas the small candidates who truly must rely upon small contributions will be further hurt. 

For example, in the election campaign against Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, she had three campaigns working for her. Her own, the Mayor’s and the Hotel Industry!!!  So a reduction in contributions to her campaign would not have made much of a difference, but with Ede, who was running against her, it would have been large since she had only one campaign!

MTOPP's  Position:
MTOPP says no.  If real voting reform is wanted (and it is not) then all of these loopholes need to be eliminated not just campaign contributions.
The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance’s Recommendation to vote NO:
Proposal 1:  Vote No.  Lowers the maximum campaign contribution in the City's Campaign Finance Law (not the state law) from $5,000 to $2,000.
Vote NO.

Why vote no?  Think about it. Can you afford to give $2,000 to a politician?  This is a fake fix to the campaign finance system and all the politicians know it.  It won't stop the dependence of politicians on the wealthy or on big real estate, nor does it even address the issue we have been raising for a year about loopholes big as trucks that allow big real estate to get around the rules that are part of this law. This isn't a even an improvement - it's a pretend fix, an actual insult to good government groups and to the public. Don't let any politician get away with the claim that they "improved" the system with this one. It would be a shameful lie on their part.  Vote NO.
* * * *
Question #2: Civic Engagement Commission
This proposal would amend the City Charter to:

Create a Civic Engagement Commission that would implement, no later than the City Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 2020, a Citywide participatory budgeting program established by the Mayor to promote participation by City residents in making recommendations for projects in their communities;

Require the Commission to partner with community based organizations and civic leaders, as well as other City agencies, to support and encourage civic engagement efforts;

Require the Commission to establish a program to provide language interpreters at City poll sites, to be implemented for the general election in 2020;

Permit the Mayor to assign relevant powers and duties of certain other City agencies to the Commission;

Provide that the Civic Engagement Commission would have 15 members, with 8 members appointed by the Mayor, 2 members by the City Council Speaker and 1 member by each Borough President; and

Provide for one of the Mayor’s appointees to be Commission Chair and for the Chair to employ and direct Commission staff.

Shall this proposal be adopted?
MTOP’s Recommendation to vote NO:
Creation of New Community Engagement Agency.
This is suppose to be a government agency that will encourage more community engagement, foster more participation in elections and provide Community Boards with City Planners, (professionals who are suppose to know all about the rezoning laws etc..)

Now isn’t the community board suppose to be the place for community engagement? And why would you need a completely new government agency just to provide the community boards with planners?

The answer is simple.  If you empowered community boards to hire their own planners, then the planners would be beholden to the community board and have their best interest at heart.

However, if you allow another agency to do the hiring then those being hired would be beholden to that agency’s directives.  The Department of City Planning has such a bad reputation in communities all over the city that they are no longer trusted and in some community boards are told to get the hell out!   Now this new agency who’s leaders will be hired by the Mayor, will hire and then lend City Planners to community boards.

The rational is that the only reason community boards are saying no to all of these rezonings is because of ignorance. If they just understood all the benefits that would be gained from all the developments being proposed Community Boards would be more willing to agree to them.

For example, when the City Planning Commission was reviewing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden rezoning to increase the heights on land that was downzone to protect the garden, the Department of City Planning blamed the no vote that  Community Board 9 gave because CB9 didn’t have a planner! 

But we we did.  We had Richard Birack, Borough President Eric Adams's planner, at every meeting, “giving” his expert opinion, that sometimes amounted to pure lies and half truths. But the proof is in the pudding, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the devastating effects of rezoning, not when there are so many examples out in the world, including how the Department of City Planning will simply ignore all suggestions from the community despite all of those so called “community engagement” sessions!!!
The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance’s Recommendation to vote NO:
Proposal 2:  Vote No. Creates a Civic Engagement Commission dominated by Mayoral Appointees who then get to mess around with so-called participatory budgeting and community boards land-use work. 
Vote NO.

Why vote no?  This is a blatant attempt to create even more power for a despotic Mayor who already has way too much power in our Charter. It also makes some of us laugh.  Our Mayor won't even take petitions or respond to petitions that neighborhood groups send him, and he wants a Civic Engagement Commission? Worse, those who came up with this idea seem to think civic engagement just means controlling community boards on land use and pretending to give us a say in budgeting. Ugh. This is an Orwellian proposal.  Vote no.
 * * * *

Question #3: Community Boards
This proposal would amend the City Charter to:

Impose term limits of a maximum of four consecutive full two-year terms for community board members with certain exceptions for the initial transition to the new term limits system;

Require Borough Presidents to seek out persons of diverse backgrounds in making appointments to community boards. The proposal would also add new application and reporting requirements related to these appointments; and

If Question 2, “Civic Engagement Commission,” is approved, require the proposed Civic Engagement Commission to provide resources, assistance, and training related to land use and other matters to community boards.

Shall this proposal be adopted?
[Noticing New York Thinking:

As can be seen from the analysis of MTOPP and The Human Scale New York coalition below, there are huge problems with the current composition of the city's local community boards, including that they are often rife with conflicts of interest and accountable on very short leashes to the Borough Presidents.  We have seen the composition of such boards punishingly changed by Borough Presidents when they represented the community in their votes.  We have also seen the calculated re-composition of the boards and their committees in advance to prepare for and ensure the vote results the real estate industry wants in instances such as the proposed sale of public libraries for real estate deals.  But does the institution of term limits ensure any improvement with respect to what needs to be fixed?: Only sometimes in some particular instances, and other times it can have the opposite result.

In general, the Noticing New York thinking is to favor term limits for powerful executive positions like the President of the United States or the Mayor of the City of New York because they wield such power of office that, together with the bully pulpit keeping them in the spotlight, the power of their incumbency undermines accountability.  In the case of others operating as part of communal bodies that need to be strengthened in standing up to those powerful executives, it is likely a different story.  Term limits mean that those who have increased their power and influence by becoming knowledgeable (and appropriately skeptical?) learning how to represent the public are turned out of office, their resources lost even when the public needs and wants them.  Term limits can make office holders think short term and in terms of their next office, not their current one, which may not mean representing their current constituents' priorities.   Term limits were introduced to New York City by big money interests and when offices change hands big money has an extra out-sized influence when voters need to familiarize themselves with entirely new faces and dig down below a public relations blitz veneer (case in point- Councilmember Laurie Cumbo who obtained office by virtue of REBNY money and proved to be outrageously opposite to her the promises of her innocuous, reassuring campaign platitudes.)

The question is how to make community boards more accountable to and representative of the community.  More transparency with stricter conflict of interest controls would help a lot.  Should community board members be elected directly by the public?:  The problems with that, as with electing school board members and judges, is that it is too much for the average voter to catch up with by the time they get into the voting booth.  That opens the door for other inside powers to have too much influence.

What community boards and other New York City boards of influence (the Landmarks Commission, City Planning Commission, boards of the three city public library systems) might benefit from is diffusing the appointments to those boards among more elected officials who the public is likely to be able to identify and hold accountable when their interests don't get represented.  One of the benefits of all the myriad appointments to boards and commissions now made by the New York City mayor is that the public knows who the mayor is and, as such, can more easily hold him or her accountable.  What the mayor does is more likely to be written about and covered by the press.  But one individual having all the power involves no checks and balances and sets up just one easy target for the powerful influencers like the real estate industry.  Others who could be making appointments include, as the case may be: The New York Public Advocate (giving that office more of the power it should have), The City (and perhaps sometimes State) Comptroller, local City Councilmen, perhaps in some cases the City Council as a body, Borough Presidents (offices that also currently have scant power).

If nothing else, more diffused power means that when moneyed interests want to put the fix in they have more elected officials to corral and buy off and it is harder for them to operate for long stretches in secret.  It is also likely to provoke a few more real open debates on a few more things before votes rather than discussions before votes being as scripted as they almost always are now.

Maybe, rather than succumbing to the eyewash and pretending that there is any worthwhile  "reform" here, all of three of these proposals should just be short down together.]      

MTOP’s Recommendation to vote (a “hard one”- That is not very clear) YES:
Term Limits on Community Boards
There are two points of view: The Upper White Middle Class Community Boards and the Community of Color Community Boards.

As has been the case since the inception of Community Boards and their empowerment in 1974, community boards have fared a lot better in white upper middle class neighborhoods than in communities of color.

White Upper Middle Class Community Boards

Community Board members in white upper class community boards are knowledgeable, know their stuff, have been around the block and have been a thorn in the real estate industry side, because of their unwillingness to let anything slide by them.

These board members are very strong and Borough Presidents have been unwilling to let them go because of the political consequences.  However, if term limits are introduced, then the Borough Presidents can not be blamed and then they will get to put who they want in, who will be beholden to their goals and not necessarily the goals of the community.

Thus term limits in White middle class communities may weaken these boards!

Communities of Color
What about communities of color, who’s boards are already weakened?  There have been countless complaints against these community boards and their members.  Serious violations of the law are done openly and no one does anything about it.  For the most part the board behaves like a private club with a few people running the whole thing for years, at the expense of the rest of the community.

These open violations are tolerated by the City and Borough Presidents, to enable the political structure to get what they want from the board when they need it, i.e. rezoning requests.

In these communities people see term limits as a great opportunity to get rid of these long standing board members and to attempt to integrate and to diversify.  However based upon the experience of a Community Board (CB9) who had a major change in their members over the past four years ago, this may not be the answer, especially if the Borough President has his eyes on that community for rezonings.

An Example of Changing the Guard at a Community Board

In Community Board 9, (CB9)  Borough President Eric Adams, in 2014,  removed the long standing (30 years or more) board members (Jewish and White men),  and replaced them with Black folks who had the same agenda and motive - to rezone the community. However, not all of the new board members were apart of that intention and thus we have been successful at least of not having another rezoning request materialize at CB9, despite certain members of CB9 working all kinds of tricks to do so.

But our struggle hasn’t been easy, we have had to file at least seven lawsuits, we have demonstrated, we have filed complaints, we have been arrested and have decided to dedicate our entire lives to protecting this community against certain Community Board members who’s intention it is to fulfill Borough Hall’s mandate of rezoning for the real estate industry.

In fact, we lost one of our strongest allies, who was the first vice-chair of CB9 because she was a strong opponent against a massive rezoning.  She was removed off the board despite being an officer of the board, after only two years of service, whereas there were other board members who had been on the board for over 30 years, still there.

That means that even if community boards members are replaced, a lot of how that board will function will be determined by the Borough President and his/her agenda,

MTOPP Position

MTOPP Says Yes. This was a hard one, because we don't want to see community boards weaken, but  if this city wanted true diversity then they would diversify who can place members on the Board. Right now all of the board members are placed there by the Borough President with only the City Council members making recommendations. Having City Council people make those appointments as well as the Borough President could go a long way to diversifying and ensuring that it is not just the Borough President’s agenda that will be followed.

What we know however is that true diversity can not happen when only one person is allowed to appoint and remove board members off of community boards and this is not going to change unless people really fight and demand it.

In the case of CB9 we do believe that having representatives that are on the board who reflect the majority of the residents in the community has empowered us to at least prevent a massive rezoning, where as if the board was still in the hands of those few we might be writing a different story.
The New Yorkers For A Human-Scale City Alliance’s Recommendation to vote YES:
Proposal 3:  Vote Yes. Term Limits for Community Boards
Vote YES!

Why vote this way?  Well, to start with, Community Boards are, in the words of Councilmember Reynoso, "political cesspools", meaning that since they are unelected, they get filled with an even worse stew of unregulated conflicts of interest, lobbyists, political sycophancy, and executive teams of Democratic Party Political Clubs. They are the fiefdoms of Borough Presidents who appoint them and who control them tightly (ex: warning people who speak in ways they don't like to be quiet or get lost or just mass firing them as has happened in the Bronx).  The Community Board system desperately needs four reforms:

1.    term limits (and hey, if we need the institutional memory of the old-timers, they can always serve as non-voting public members);
2.    to be elected by neighborhood voters, we don't need a Borough President choosing who represents us, like a one-person Electoral College - we know how not to vote for lobbyists or real estate developers.
3.    much stricter conflict-of-interest rules to rid the boards of lobbyists;
4.    and a new mission and mandate to actually do something relevant to neighborhoods.

We see term limits as a good start and we can have them without the creepy civic engagement commission the Mayor wants.  We need more reforms as well, but this is one of them. We demand term limits from our elected politicians, why not term limits for our unelected neighbors who pretend to be looking after our interests? Vote YES!