Political Action: Stop the Rush to Revision

Guest Commentary

Volume XCIX, No. 9October, 1999

Some of the most eloquent voices raised to challenge the anti-democratic nature of efforts to revise the New York City Charter have been those of the labor movement. Following are excerpts from statements by leaders of two of the city’s largest unions of public employees.

Let’s Start Over & Do It Right

As chair of the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents 300,000 city workers, and president of the 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten testified before the Charter Revision Commission on Aug. 26.

Our members are not opposed to Charter change. Indeed, while a document written over 100 years ago and revised many times since has served our city well, there is always room for improvement. Things that worked magnificently in 1898 do not have the same impact today. We understand that, so I want to make clear tonight what we bring to the discussion:

Charter change, yes. This charter process, unequivocally no.

As president of the UFT, I am pleased that you have seen the wisdom of eliminating the proposal to give the mayor unilateral control over one percent of the Board of Education budget. No one has a monopoly over education issues, but when it comes to our children there must be a check and balance that always ensures that their rights and interests predominate.

Some of the other ideas presented – involving immigration and human rights, and the gun-free zones around schools – have substance but can clearly be done through the legislative process without waiting for Charter change

Members of the MLC have concerns over your suggestion that a rigid cap be imposed on any spending increases. This is clearly an attempt to dilute the power of the City Council.

We also object to the other proposals that shift the carefully crafted checks and balances that the last Charter change so assiduously structured. One of those would require a super-majority, a two-thirds vote of the Council, to pass any local law or resolution “to impose a new tax or increase an existing tax.” The other is the proposal that a four-fifths majority of the Council be required to override a mayoral veto of any tax increase. The current system works well. Indeed, I don’t believe anyone will argue that the current system prevents a mayor from being strong and effective.

In addition, removing the City Comptroller from the procurement process, another example of the checks and balance of city government, would place far too much power in the hands of the mayor’s office.

As a social studies teacher, I would like Commission members to help me answer this question for our city’s one million student: How can we believe in the democratic system and the rule of law, when major changes in our city’s Constitution can be made with so little public input?

The attempt to remake city government, in the dog days of August, makes citizens more cynical about government, something we can ill afford. The best way to encourage students and their parents to have respect for the workings of city government is to show that fairness and truly democratic deliberations apply to its basic form and structure.

How can members of this commission be satisfied with the public’s input on these changes, when you look back to the 1989 Charter Revision Commission and discover that it held over 60 public hearings and meetings?

It is too late for you to change this process, so we urge you to do the next best thing: Take credit for opening the discussion on important issues. Consult with the residents of our neighborhoods. Hold at least three public hearings in each borough, days and evenings, weekdays and weekends. Convince TV and radio stations to broadcast your hearings live, thus giving New Yorkers, especially the home-bound, an opportunity to call in with their comments.

You have the power to spur a vigorous public debate on these issues, something that would be beneficial to the social fabric of our city and ultimately accrue to the benefit of our democracy that has been flourishing here long before the country adopted a formal Bill of Rights.

Basically, I am asking that you start over and do it right this time. I will join you over the course of the next year in building support for this debate. We can agree to disagree on the merits of any proposals – but we must work together to guarantee that, at the very least, they have been fully aired and are understood by the voters. Less than that does a grave disservice to our democracy.


Stop the Rush to Revision

From a statement by Lee Saunders, Administrator of District Council 37, at an Aug. 11 press conference:

On behalf of the 125,000 members of District Council 37, I have just one question. And that is, “What’s the rush?” The stakes are tremendous. The elements of the 1989 charter revisions are still taking root, and the courts are only beginning to interpret some of the changes.

The proposed charter revision timetable is simply undemocratic. Initiatives will be placed on the November ballot, which would require that the proposals be submitted to the City Clerk by Sept. 2, just three short weeks away. This abbreviated mid-summer schedule leaves no time for legitimate public outreach and debate, let alone a serious review of the issues. We believe that any charter revision process must be conducted in an honest, open forum by an independent commission that welcomes and encourages input from the city’s varied communities.

When considering any changes to the charter a commission must include an in-depth analysis of the issues by experts in each field of study. It must provide for consensus-building among government leaders, advocates, academics and opinion makers. And above all, it must implement an extensive public outreach and education campaign. What is being done today has none of these features.

This commission’s agenda lacks credibility, and it lacks accountability. Any revisions to the charter have the potential to affect the lives of every single New Yorker. A real and responsible process would seek out diverse viewpoints, test the strength of its proposals, and build support. Anything less will further erode the credibility of government to the detriment of all New Yorkers. Such a major step needs to be taken slowly and very carefully. This rush to revision must be stopped.