City Bar’s New York City Charter Revision Task Force Comments on Ballot Measures

The New York City Bar Association’s New York City Charter Revision Task Force, which was created to monitor and report on the work of New York City’s Charter Revision Commission, has issued comments on questions that the Commission has added to the ballot for the general election of November 5, 2019. Those questions cover land use, elections, ethics, city budgeting and police accountability. 

The greatest concern of the Task Force, which is chaired by Jerry H. Goldfeder, is with the Commission’s choice to compose ballot questions that contain multiple proposed changes to the City Charter. “A voter can be in favor of one or more of these changes, or against one or more. Yet all…are combined into one Question, compelling the voter to approve all or none of them,” the Task Force states, adding that this method of combining various issues into one question “will no doubt confuse some voters, and may provoke public cynicism, perhaps causing them either to refrain from voting or to reluctantly embrace changes they do not support.” While the Task Force states that “had the Commission separated each proposal, this Task Force may not have supported all of the proposals,” it notes that it is, “on balance, supportive of each Question” that has been added to the general-election ballot. 

On the ballot question concerning elections, the Task Force commends the Commission for proposing Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) as a “significant reform” that allows a victorious candidate to have support of a majority of voters, and to eliminate the rare but costly runoff primary elections for city-wide offices. However, the Task Force questions the Commission’s decision to apply RCV to primary elections and special elections, but not to general elections. “This seems like a missed opportunity,” states the Task Force. “The stated rationale for omitting RCV from general elections is that New York’s general election ballot permits fusion voting, in which a single candidate’s name may appear on the ballot multiple times on different party lines. Thus, the Commission believes, RCV in a general election might prove too confusing. This rationale makes little to no sense because fusion voting exists in special elections as well. Indeed, employing RCV for primaries and special elections but not for general elections could itself confuse voters as to how to cast their ballots in different elections.” 

The Task Force also expresses a wish that “the Commission would have addressed the overarching issue of whether special elections, with their historically low turnout rates, are necessary, or whether winning candidates in special elections should be able to serve the remainder of a term rather than immediately having to run in a primary and general election.” It calls on the City Council to address the issue if the measure passes. 

On the question regarding the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Task Force notes an “absence of any rationale or indication that the current appointment process is flawed or any meaningful public demand to make this change.” This does not stop it, however, from concluding that “none of these proposals seem overly objectionable.” 

The Task Force raises a similar point for the question pertaining to ethics and governance: “The Commission provides only the thinnest of justifications for these two [Conflict of Interest Board] proposals – just a paragraph for each in its Final Report,” and that the proposals may be viewed as “motivated simply by a desire to increase the power of the City Council.” It does not object to any of the proposals under the assumption that, in the event of their passage, they “will be implemented in good faith.” 

The city budget question contains three proposals that the Task Force deems will “provide greater government transparency and more efficient operations.” 

The Land Use question meets with similar unqualified approval, as the Task Force believes “these modest proposals will facilitate a more effective and collegial [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] process.” 

In conclusion, the Task Force reiterates that “if the Commission had separated the proposals rather than combine multiple disparate proposals under five Ballot Questions, New York City voters would be able to cast their ballots more intelligently,” before reaffirming that “despite certain stated misgivings, the Task Force is, on balance, supportive of each Question.” 

Read the full set of comments here: 

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The mission of the New York City Bar Association, which was founded in 1870 and has 24,000 members, is to equip and mobilize the legal profession to practice with excellence, promote reform of the law, and uphold the rule of law and access to justice in support of a fair society and the public interest in our community, our nation, and throughout the world.