A New Charter to Confront New Challenges

To my fellow New Yorkers:

Change is the lifeblood of New York City. Our ability to adjust to new circumstances, confront new challenges, and reform the way we do business has been essential to the health and vitality of the nation’s largest city. It has been nearly 30 years since New York last reviewed and made significant changes to the City Charter that regulates local government, and given the extraordinary changes that have transformed the city during this period, we are due for an update. The Charter Review Commission, created by City Council Int. No. 241-B, provides an opportunity for just such a holistic review.

Over the past thirty years, New York has experienced diverse population growth and robust revitalization in neighborhoods across the five boroughs, along with a historic reduction in crime. But there has also been an explosion of homelessness, deterioration of our subway infrastructure, persistent inequality in our public schools, and a continuing disappearance of affordable housing. Meeting all of these challenges in the 21st century will require new ideas and bold reforms to City policy, including to the City Charter.

For much of the city’s history, changes to the Charter were rare events that occurred about once every generation, with gaps often spanning some thirty years between commissions.[1] Between 1898 and 1901, the City as we know it came into being through the adoption of a Charter that demarcated the City’s boundaries, in addition to creating and dividing power between the Mayor, the Board of Estimate, the Borough Presidents, and the Municipal Assembly. Almost 30 years later, in 1936, the Charter was reformed to create a City Council with proportional representation and a City Planning Commission. And again, three decades later, in 1963, the Charter was reformed to make important changes to the City budget process.[2]

The last significant overhaul of the City Charter came in 1989, when New York City voters agreed to abolish the outdated Board of Estimate and transfer many of its powers over land use, contracts, and the budget to an expanded City Council and the Office of the Mayor. Since then, there have been seven separate Charter Review Commissions established (eight counting the commission currently meeting). But these commissions have often had their own narrow, predetermined agendas—designed to stop particular proposals that the mayor wanted to keep off the ballot—and have not taken a comprehensive look at how our government has failed to keep up with changing times.

Four of these seven Charter Review Commissions since 1989 have resulted in ballot measures ultimately approved by voters, but while important, the reforms have been relatively modest. Specifically, in 1998, voters approved a Charter Review Commission recommendation designed to restrict corporate donations to candidates for City office.[3] Voters next approved recommendations made by the 2001 Charter Review Commission to codify a number of City organizations that had been created by executive order in the City Charter along with other reforms including enhanced gun restrictions.[4] The next year, voters adopted a recommendation requiring a mayoral vacancy to be filled by special election within 60 days, and in 2005, voters approved the creation of a code of conduct for administrative law judges and codified existing State balanced budget and audit requirements in the City Charter.[5]

In addition to these reforms, City officials and agencies have addressed many substantive issues over the years, often with laudable proposals. But all too often these initiatives have been reactive, launched on an issue-by-issue basis. They do not confront the larger question of whether our government’s current structure allows us to identify problems, implement needed changes and act with the urgency such issues often require. This is the principal challenge facing New York in 2018, as we embark on the charter revision process.

With this history in mind, I am pleased to present a set of 65 proposals to the 2019 Charter Review Commission for their consideration. These ideas are informed by my experience as New York City’s 44th Comptroller, responsible for rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in local government, overseeing the City’s finances, and recommending ways to make our city more efficient, effective, and equitable, as well as my previous tenure as Manhattan Borough President and a State Assemblymember.

I hope you will find these proposals a good starting point for discussion, and I look forward to robust engagement with the public and the Charter Review Commission in the months ahead.

Sincerely,

Scott M. Stringer
New York City Comptroller


[1]    John Avalon, “Change the Rules and You Change the Game: That’s Why Charter Revisions Matter in New York City,” 50 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 25 (2013-2014): https://nylssites.wpengine.com/nylslawreview/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/10/John-Avlon.pdf.

[2]    “Charter Change Would Be City’s 5th,” The New York Times, August 6, 1975: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/08/06/archives/charter-change-would-be-citys-5th.html.

[3]    “The 1998 Election: The Charter; After Giuliani’s Success With Campaign Finance Referendum, a New Battle Looms,” The New York Times, November 6, 1998: https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/06/nyregion/1998-election-charter-after-giuliani-s-success-with-campaign-finance-referendum.html.

[4]    New York City Council, Int. No. 241-B: http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3331869&GUID=693BF4E3-7810-4823-B0AB-6CC9AC1C98D9&Options=ID|Text|&Search=241-B.

[5]    New York City Council, Int. No. 241-B: http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3331869&GUID=693BF4E3-7810-4823-B0AB-6CC9AC1C98D9&Options=ID|Text|&Search=241-B.