Commission releases city charter proposals

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Voters to weigh in on campaign finance reform measures, new civic engagement agency, community board term limits on Election Day


  • The mayoral Charter Revision Commission voted to present voters with potential changes to the city’s campaign finance laws, community board appointment process, and civic engagement activities. “This Commission set out to identify proposals designed to improve civic life in New York City and, through an extensive and thoughtful process, that is just what we have done,” Cesar Perales (second from right), the commission’s chair, said in a statement. Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office

Candidates for state and federal office won’t be the only items on New York City ballots this November. General election voters will also be asked to weigh in on government reform measures impacting New York City’s campaign finance system and community board membership.

After several months of public hearings and deliberation, the Charter Revision Commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio voted last week to send three ballot questions to voters. The proposals would tighten campaign contribution limits in city elections and expand the city’s public matching funds program; establish a new agency tasked with promoting civic engagement; and impose term limits on community board members.

“These reforms will go a long way toward strengthening our democracy and limiting the influence of big money in our elections,” de Blasio said in a statement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these measures will help us build a more fair and equitable city.”

Question # 1: Campaign Finance

This proposal would dramatically lower the maximum contribution amount candidates for city office may accept from campaign donors. Contribution limits would be reduced by more than 60 percent for candidates running for mayor, borough president and the City Council.

If approved, the measure would also expand the city’s public matching program, through which candidates are eligible to receive public funding based on the amount raised in small contributions from city residents. Currently, small contributions are matched by the city at a ratio of six-to-one. The ratio would be raised to eight-to-one if voters approve the ballot measure, meaning a $250 donation could be worth $2,250 to a campaign. The proposal would also make matching funds available to participating candidates earlier in the election cycle.

Question # 2: Civic Engagement Commission

This measure would amend the City Charter to create a new Civic Engagement Commission that would work to promote public participation in civic life. The commission would be responsible for providing language interpreters at poll sites and working with community organizations and city agencies to spread awareness of city services and increase engagement in public affairs.

The Civic Engagement Commission would consist of 15 members; each borough president would appoint one member, the City Council speaker would appoint two, and the remaining eight would be appointed by the mayor.

The proposal would also create a citywide participatory budgeting program under the direction of the mayor. The mayoral participatory budgeting initiative would be similar to the City Council program that allows residents as young as 11 years old to vote on which local projects should receive capital funding. The City Council’s program recently completed its seventh cycle and is active in 32 of 51 Council districts.

Question #3: Community Boards

The third and most controversial ballot question will ask voters whether they believe community board members should be subject to term limits. Currently, members of the neighborhood advisory councils may serve an unlimited number of two-year terms, subject to reappointment by the borough president. The Charter Revision Commission’s proposal would enact a limit of four consecutive two-year terms and would impose uniform citywide standards for the appointment process, which can currently vary widely by borough.

Advocates of term limits believe the increased turnover would result in more diverse and representative boards. Critics of the proposal, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, say that term limits would result in community boards that lack the experience and institutional memory necessary to function effectively, particularly in dealing with land use and zoning issues.

If both the second and third ballot measures are approved, the Civic Engagement Commission would be required to provide community boards with resources, assistance and training related to land use issues.

The mayoral panel is one of two charter revision commissions convened this year. The other, assembled by the City Council, is holding its first hearings this month and will submit any ballot measures to voters in Nov. 2019. The City Council commission’s first hearing in Manhattan will be held at City Hall on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m.

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